Thessalonica is an ancient city in Macedonia (northern Greece today), founded in 316 b.c. by one of Alexander the Great's generals. In 146 b.c. it became the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia, situated as it was centrally on the Via Egnatia, the great Roman road linking Rome with the East. In Paul's day it was thus a very Roman city, with many religions practiced there and all the Roman deities worshipped as well. Paul underscores how important it was that the Christians there had “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1.9). The “much contention” (2.2) Paul says the Thessalonian Christians experienced may well have been the result of this “turning.” This city also had a sizeable Jewish community and Paul initially spoke at the synagogue.
Paul first visited Thessalonica with his co-worker Silas on Paul's second mission journey. How long they were there is unknown. Paul's First Epistle to the Thessalonians is believed to be the earliest letter of Paul to be preserved, making it the oldest document collected in the New Testament. In this letter, Paul expresses his thanks that the Thessalonian Christians have remained faithful to Christ. That Paul was on good terms with this congregation is obvious throughout the letter: he offers many words of encouragement and praise, and few admonishments. He also addresses a question that had been troubling some of the believers concerning the return of Christ. In these earliest decades of the Christian movement there was expectation that the return would occur soon, and some people were anguishing about whether a Christian who had died before the return would still share in the eternal life Christ's return would usher in. Paul says that death is no obstacle because both the dead and the living will inherit eternal life with God. He counsels the people to continue living normally, to continue at work, and to “watch and be sober” (5.6) because that day will come as a thief in the night. Those best prepared for the return, he says, are those who continue to live in trust of God and whose faith is active in love and compassion.
The Resolute Faith of the Thessalonians and Paul's Work (1.1—3.13)
Right Living for Christians and Teaching about Christ's Return (4.1—5.22)
Final Greetings (5.23-28)