Ancient Thessalonica still exists today, as the city of Salonika in modern Greece. It lies about 100 miles to the west of Philippi, and possesses a good natural harbor, which caused the ancient city to grow rapidly in size and wealth. In Roman times it was the capitol of the province of Macedonia; situated on the Via Egnatia, the empire’s main eastwest highway, it helped to unite the Roman Empire. Thessalonica became one of the important commercial centers of the empire. Although dominated by Rome, the city retained its essential Greek character, which meant that it was characterized by all the vices and evils of Greek civilization, as well as the advantages of learning and independent, analytical thought. The population was cosmopolitan, comprised of Romans and Jews as well as Greeks, and the fact that there was a synagogue there (unlike at Philippi, Acts 16:13) indicates that the Jewish population was both sizable and settled.
The church in Thessalonica was established through the teaching and preaching of Paul and Silas in that synagogue, as recorded in Acts 17. They may have stayed as little as one month in the city, and they spent three Sabbaths in the synagogue, trying to show the Jewish congregation that their knowledge and faith in the old testament should lead them to faith in Christ (verse 3). The words of 1 Thessalonians 2:9, however, seem to indicate a somewhat longer stay, as Paul worked (no doubt in his trade as a tent-maker) while he was there in order to spare the newborn congregation the burden of supporting him. Some in the synagogue were converted (both prominent women and many of the “devout Greeks” or Gentile proselytes, verse 4), but the Jewish leadership resisted the gospel and finally resorted to “rabble-rousing” among the lowest segment of the community (verse 5) to stir up public opposition. Despite this, it appears that the church was strongly established and well-grounded, and that it also included converted heathens (verse 9) as well as the “God-fearers” mentioned previously.
The Thessalonian congregation suffered great affliction for their faith (chapter 1:6), which continued after Paul and Silas moved on to Berea (chapter 3:3-4). Some of the trouble-makers in Thessalonica followed Paul and Silas to Berea, again forcing Paul to leave town to keep the peace (Paul sailed immediately to Athens, while Silas and Timothy were able to remain behind for a time, and, no doubt, consolidate the work Paul had done).
Paul’s first letter was written in response to a good report from Timothy about the Thessalonians’ faith and love. It was penned sometime in A.D. 52, and is characterized by “simplicity, gentleness, and affection.”1 It is composed almost totally of words of encouragement, plainly intended to comfort the disciples in their trials. Although he does warn them to be on guard against the sins of the flesh, there is no indication of any problem with such issues among the Thessalonians. Paul’s purpose of comforting those whose loved ones had died “in the Lord” is plain, as is the encouragement to patiently busy in the kingdom while they awaited the Lord’s return. The letter was evidently written from Corinth, during the second missionary journey, and the mention of Gallio (Acts 18:12) establishes the date very firmly.