For this Advent season, I thought it would be good to study a lesser-known book of the Bible that relates to Advent. This letter didn’t originally relate to Advent. Advent was a season of the year that Christians created many years after this letter was written. But because Advent mean “arrival,” I think you’ll see how this book is fitting. The book is one of the short letters in the New Testament, 2nd Thessalonians.
You might wonder, “Why 2nd Thessalonians? Why not start with 1st Thessalonians?” Well, it’s simply a matter of space. Advent lasts for the four weeks before Christmas, and four weeks is not enough to cover 1st Thessalonians. But it’s perfect for 2nd Thessalonians which is much shorter, and basically has the same theme as 1st Thessalonians. So let’s dive in to 2 Thessalonians chapter 1.
In verse 1 we read “Paul, Silvanus and Timothy.” Ancient letter writing started the opposite of how we start our letters or emails. We always start by addressing the person we are writing to. In the ancient world, the writer began by identifying himself.
Who are Paul, Silvanus and Timothy? Paul is the leader, the apostle, the missionary, the man who took the wonderful story of Jesus and spread it like no other in the first century, starting numerous churches across the Roman Empire. Silvanus is another name for Silas, one of Paul’s traveling companions. Timothy was an apprentice of Paul who would go on to be a pastor of the churches in the city of Ephesus. Many years later Paul would write 1 & 2 Timothy as letters to help Timothy in his pastoral ministry in Ephesus. For now, these three men are mentioned as contributing to this letter, but Paul is likely the primary author. If you glance ahead to chapter 3, verse 17, you can see that he picks up the pen and writes the ending. As a result, for the remainder of the posts in this series, I will refer to Paul as the author.
He is writing to the Thessalonians. Who or what are the Thessalonians? Keep your finger in 2 Thessalonians chapter 1, and turn to Acts 17. There we read about the beginning of this specific church. In Acts 17, Paul is on his second of three missionary journeys recorded in the book of Acts. We read that he arrives in Thessalonica, which today is the city of Thessaloniki in Greece. In the first century this was a major city of 200,000 people, the capital of its province. You can visit the ruins of the old city in Thessaloniki still today.
There Paul shares the Gospel with the Jews and Greeks, and numerous people come to Christ. We don’t know how long Paul, Silas and Timothy were there, but even if it was a very short time, Paul started the church. The Jews in town were jealous of Paul’s success, and almost certainly considered the Christians to be traitors who were starting a cult. So they incite a riot, accusing Paul of being a government insurrectionist, and Paul and Silas have to leave Thessalonica under cover of night, and they head to nearby Berea. But the Jews from Thessalonica find out that Paul has escaped to Berea, so they follow him there and agitate the Bereans against Paul.
I tell you that to give you a sense of the kind of people that lived in Thessalonica. The Jews, at least, not only disagreed with the Christians, they also aggressively pursued Paul, trying to stop him. Imagine you are one of the Christians living in Thessalonica after Paul has been run out of town. You are part of this new church that has just started. In Acts 17:4, we learn who the people in the church actually were. When Paul and Silas were initially preaching there in Thessalonica, “some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, so did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.” That was the church. How many people? Maybe 50? Maybe 100? It was a small group of brand new Christians.
The church was multi-ethnic, comprised of Jews and Greeks. It also had socio-economic diversity, and it had gender diversity. It was new, and likely most everyone in the church, if not all of them, were immature in their faith. The Jewish members of the church would have had a background in their Jewish faith, which would have been immensely helpful. Those new Christian Jews though, would have been considered apostate by the other aggressive Jews in town. To what degree Paul was able to disciple the new Christians and build up leaders, we don’t know. My guess is that he wasn’t there long. That fact, and the fact that there were Thessalonian Jews so aggressively opposed to Christianity, probably had Paul very concerned that this new church was going to fall apart.
So how does the letter of 2nd Thessalonians come to be? Let’s continue the story by remembering Paul’s itinerary. In Acts 17:1-9, he is in Thessalonica. In verse 10 he travels to Berea, about 45 miles to the west. As we heard above, in verses 10-15 we learn that it doesn’t seem he is in Berea all that long before the Thessalonican Jews track him down. At least in Berea Silas and Timothy can stay to build up the believers, unlike the Christians in Thessalonica who were on their own. If you are Paul, you’re thinking, “Okay…the Berean Christians are cared for, but I still need to do something about the group back in Thessalonica.” Paul is a wanted man there, though, so he can’t go back. Yet, as he writes in 1 Thessalonians 2:17, he longed to go back and visit them.
As we continue following his itinerary in Acts 17, Paul next travels 200 miles south to Athens. After what seems to be a relatively short stay in Athens, in Acts 18:1 we read that he travels to nearby Corinth, 50 miles to the west of Athens. As we skim through Acts 18, we learn that Paul is finally able to settle down a bit, staying in Corinth at least 18 months, but likely longer. Silas and Timothy eventually join him there. But Paul has not forgotten the Thessalonian Christian. It really bothered him being apart from them, so at some point he sent Timothy, we read in 1 Thessalonians 3:1, to deliver the letter we know as 1 Thessalonians. Timothy eventually returns with news from Thessalonica.
Will Timothy bring good news? Or bad news?
We’ll find out in the next post!