“We work hard, so you don’t have to.” That’s the advertising line for a modern bathroom cleaner, but—with a little adjustment—it might have fit well as a slogan for some Christians in the ancient city of Thessalonica. “Jesus worked hard so I don’t have to.” Many believed the new way of living offered by Jesus was cause to abandon the old way of living that involved hard work, and so they became idle. As we will see, it is difficult to know exactly why some Thessalonians were not working. Perhaps they mistakenly thought that the promise of eternal life meant that this life no longer mattered. But these idlers were living off the largesse of the more responsible members of the church. They were consuming the resources intended to meet the needs of those genuinely unable to support themselves. And they were becoming troublesome and argumentative.
In his letters to the Thessalonians, Paul would have none of this. He made it clear that Christians need to keep at their labors, for the way of Christ is not idleness but service and excellence in work.
Thessalonica and Its Church
The capital of the Roman province of Macedonia and a major Mediterranean seaport, Thessalonica had a population of over 100,000. Not only did it have a natural harbor, it was also located on key north-south trade routes and on the busy east-west Ignatian Way, the road that linked Italy to the eastern provinces. People were drawn from nearby villages to this great city, which was a bustling center of trade and philosophy. Thessalonica’s natural resources included timber, grain, continental fruits, and gold and silver (although it is questionable if the gold and silver mines were operational in the first century AD). Thessalonica was also notably pro-Roman and self-governing, and it enjoyed the status of a free city. As its citizens were Roman citizens, it was exempt from paying tribute to Rome.
The church at Thessalonica was founded by Paul and his co-workers Timothy and Silas during the so-called Second Missionary Journey in AD 50. God worked mightily through the missionaries and many became Christians. While some Jews believed (Acts 17:4), the majority of the church was Gentile (1 Thess. 1:9–10). Although it did have some relatively wealthy members—such as Jason, Aristarchus, and a number of “the leading women” (Acts 17:4, 6–7; 20:4)—it seems to have consisted largely of manual laborers (1 Thess. 4:11) and presumably some slaves. In 2 Corinthians, Paul states that the “churches of Macedonia” were marked by “extreme poverty” (2 Cor. 8:2), and the Thessalonian church would have been included in their ranks.
The precise situations that prompted Paul to write these two letters have been much debated. For our purposes, it is sufficient to say that Paul wanted to encourage believers who were trying to live faithful Christian lives in a hostile pagan environment. In addition to the typical struggles against things such as idolatry and sexual immorality, they were also confused about the end times, the role of everyday work, and the life of faith.
From a U.S. television commercial for a bathroom cleaning product with “Scrubbing Bubbles.”
Rainer Riesner, Die Frühzeit des Apostels Paulus: Stüdien zur Chronologie, Missionsstrategie, und Theologie, in Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament (Tübingen: Mohr, 1994), 301.
For further information on Thessalonica, see Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 1–47.
Paul’s authorship of 2 Thessalonians is taken at face value here (2 Thess. 1:1; 3:17), although the question of authorship has been debated at length, as is discussed in the general-purpose commentaries. (By comparison, Paul’s authorship of 1 Thessalonians is not significantly disputed.) In any case, the question of authorship has little or no bearing on the contribution of either letter to understanding work in the Christian perspective.