When Paul and his companions visited Thessalonica in 49 or 50 AD, it was already a well established city with a long history. It had been founded in the fourth century BC by Cassander, one of Alexander the Great’s army officers. He named it after his wife, Thessalonica, who was Alexander’s half-sister. It occupied a strategic position, for it boasted a good natural harbour at the head of the Thermaic Gulf, and it was situated on the *Via Egnatia* which was the main route between Rome and the East. Thessalonica became the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia. Lightfoot described it as ‘the key to the whole of Macedonia’, and added that ‘it narrowly escaped being made the capital of the world’. Today as Thessaloniki it is the second most important city of Greece.
Luke tells us in Acts 17 how Thessalonica came to be evangelized. It happened during Paul’s second missionary journey, which followed soon after the Council of Jerusalem. Silas was his chief missionary partner from the beginning (Acts 15:40). In Lystra he invited the young man Timothy to join them (Acts 16:1-3), and in Troas Luke was added to the team (Acts 16:11, where Luke begins to use the pronoun ‘we’). So Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke were the four missionaries who sailed across the Northern Aegean Sea into Europe. After a remarkably successful mission in Philippi, Paul, Silas and Timothy moved on in a south-western direction to Thessalonica (Acts 17:1), while Luke stayed behind.
The Jewish population of Thessalonica was large enough to justify a synagogue, and here Paul preached on three successive sabbaths. Luke describes his approach (Acts 17:2-3). First, he argued from the Old Testament Scriptures that the expected Christ
(i.e., the Messiah) had to suffer and rise from the dead. Next, he proclaimed Jesus of Nazareth to them, doubtless telling the story of his life, death and resurrection. And thirdly, he put his first and second points together, and declared that this Jesus was that Christ. In other words, Old Testament prophecy had been fulfilled in Jesus, so that the Jesus of history and the Christ of the Scripture were the same person, Some of his Jewish listeners were convinced, and joined the missionaries. So did ‘a large number of God-fearing Greeks’, Gentiles on the fringe of the synagogue, ‘and not a few prominent women’ (Acts 17:4). This may mean (as is implied by the reference to idolatry in 1 Thess. 1:9) that the Jewish mission was followed by a Gentile mission and that Paul stayed in Thessalonica several months, rather than just three weeks.
It was not long before opposition arose. Jealous of Paul’s influence in the city, the Jews recruited a gang of thugs and started a riot. Not finding Paul or Silas in Jason’s house, where they were staying, the ringleaders dragged Jason and some other believers before the city magistrates (whom Luke correctly calls ‘politarchs’) and lodged a serious accusation against them: ‘These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus’ (Acts 17:6-7). This allegation threw the city into an uproar. Jason and his friends were put on bail, and that night under cover of darkness Paul and Silas had to be smuggled out of town (Acts 17:5-10).
They went south to Berea for a short mission. But the Jews followed them there, so that Paul had to continue his southward journey to Athens, where his escort left him. Soon after, at his request, Silas and Timothy rejoined him. But so anxious was he about the situation in Macedonia that he sent them north again in order to find out what was happening, even though it meant that he was again left in Athens alone. Timothy went to Thessalonica, and Silas probably to Philippi. By the time they were ready to return south with news, Paul had moved on once more. So it was in Corinth that their reunion took place (Acts 18:5; cf. 2 Cor.1:19), and that Paul wrote his first letter to the Thessalonian church (1 Thess.3:6). It was one of his earliest letters – his second, in fact, on the assumption that Galatians was written just before the Jerusalem Council.
The apostle responded in this letter to the information he had received from Timothy. On the one hand, Timothy had brought good news of the Thessalonians’ ‘faith and love’, their loyalty and steadfastness under persecution (1 Thess.3:6-8). On the other, he had reported that Paul was being criticized for insincerity and ulterior motives (2:2-6), and for his failure to return to Thessalonica (2:17 – 3:5). In addition, the Thessalonians needed correction and instruction in the areas of sexual morality, earning their own living, preparing for the second coming (*parousia*) of Jesus, and tensions in the fellowship.
In the light of this background, it would be possible to divide 1 Thessalonians into two, naming the first half ‘Narrative’ (looking back to the missionaries’ visit) and the second ‘Exhortation’ (addressing the Thessalonians problems)