Before diving into any study in our bibles, no matter how excited we are to jump in, we always need to begin with the historical context in which the particular book, in this case an Epistle, was written. We want to be very careful in our study of God’s Word not to practice eisegesis (reading into the text our own subjective ideas), but instead, prayerfully apply exegesis (taking out of the text what the original author meant to convey).
Understanding the moment in history, the particular circumstances in which the original author wrote his words, is tantamount to whether or not we rightly understand today, why he wrote what he wrote to the people he wrote in the way he wrote.
This is where most of us let out a deep sigh of woe! It sounds like hard, boring, exhaustive work and all we want to do is read a couple of lines, pull out a quick application, and move on with our day. Sadly, this is how we have been trained in the past generation or two. Two minute devotions are growing more and more popular as many Christians seem to be losing a desire for spending quality time with God in His Word.
But if we don’t take the time to understand what was going on at that particular time in history, we will miss out on the needed insights that will inform us of what the writers purpose was, and how it applies to us today. Those details are interwoven within each line of the text we are studying, and if we utilize that information correctly, we will gain much deeper insights into the purpose of the writer, but not only that, we also gain a better understanding how these truth’s come across the “historical bridge” between then and now!
If we allow the historical context to set the scene for us, the words on the page will become much more real and meaningful to us because we will know why it was significant to its original audience. Understanding the historical context will allow us to garner new insights within our text and therefore enable us to grasp a deeper understanding of the Word of God!
So, with that being said, Grab your cup of coffee and let me lay out some of the historical circumstances behind Paul’s writing of this letter to the Thessalonians.
Paul founded this church during his second missionary journey, shortly after the council at Jerusalem debated and resolved the issues which arose from some professing Jews, who followed Paul, that were teaching that no one could be saved apart from the law, especially without circumcision (Acts 15:1-32). Paul taught that a person is saved by grace through faith alone, definitely without circumcision (15:11). With the council in agreement, Paul traveled to Antioch and delivered the letter from the council that stated their decision. The people in Antioch rejoiced and were comforted with the good news (15:30-31). But what does this have to do with the church in Thessalonica? Hold on, you’ll see as we progress.
Paul and Barnabas parted ways after a serious disagreement in regards to a man named Mark and his ministry among them (Acts 15:36-40). Paul and Silas traveled to Derbe and Lystra where he added a young man named Timothy to his party (Acts 16:1-3). You will notice in the greeting to the Thessalonians (vs.1) that Timothy is mentioned! As this group of men traveled they continued to deliver the “decrees” determined by the Apostles to the churches along the way.
Paul then travels to Macedonia, Phrygia, and Galatia. After being forbidden to preach the Word in Asia, he continues to travel until he reached Neapolis. From there he walked to to a city known as Philippi (16:11-12). In Philippi, Paul’s first convert was a woman from Thyatira named Lydia (16:14-15). After this wonderful event: Lydia’s family trusting in Christ, Paul and Silas began being harassed by a demon possessed girl who was used by some local idol makers to make a profit (16:16-18). After Paul commanded the spirit to come out of her, and her owners saw their hope of profit was gone, they took Paul and Silas before the magistrates with some accusations and false charges, which led to their arrest and imprisonment (16:19-24).
During their time in prison the mighty power of God was manifested, by way of an earthquake, to lead the jailer and his family to “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” for their salvation (16:31-34)! Here is where we are told of the circumstances Paul and Silas faced in prison and how those circumstances led them to Thessalonica, and to the founding of this church (16:36-40).
After the magistrates (city officials) learned that they had shamelessly beaten and wrongfully imprisoned two Roman citizens, they send people to release them. But Paul refused and wanted these leaders to come themselves to release them. In fear they came to Paul and Silas in jail, and released them (Acts 16:35-40). After a short visit at Lydia’s house where they comforted the believers, Paul and Silas, free men, now journey westward along the great military road known as the Via Egnatia. We are not told why they passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, but they did, and arrived in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1).
Here Paul, as was his custom, seeks out the local synagogue and spends three weeks there “reasoning with them from the scriptures” (17:2). Most likely he stayed at a Jasons house for those three weeks and saw many people come to faith in Christ, even many “leading women” (17:4). Because of Paul’s ministry and the resulting salvation of many people, some Jews who did not believe Paul’s gospel, gathered a mob unto themselves and made a great uproar within the city. They attacked the house of Jason, where Paul had stayed, seeking to take him and Silas by force out into the marketplace (17:5-6). When they did not find them, they drug Jason and some others to the rulers of the city shouting out their accusations before them. Jason was forced to give a “security,” a pledge or bond that would be forfeited if Paul and his companions caused more trouble (17:9). The new believers in Thessalonica then immediately send Paul and Silas away by night to a place called Berea, where their ministry continues.
There it is, the background information that will help us gain a better understanding of Pauls letter to the Thessalonians. But take notice to one fact that can be easily overlooked in all the above mentioned history. It is this: Paul was not able to spend a lot of time in Thessalonica. Because of the turmoil and uproar that was caused, Paul and Silas had to leave prematurely and so were not able to spend as much time in teaching and ministering as they would have liked. It is because of this that much of the letter seeks to comfort them amid the persecution they are facing and remind them of previous truth’s taught. Paul also wants to correct misunderstandings of prophetic events while exhorting them to live a godly life as they await the expected return of their Savior.
Next week, Lord willing, we will begin studying this letter. We will be focused on verses 1-5. Please take the time to read through this short letter in preparation for our study. See you next week!