The church at Thessalonica was founded by Paul on his second missionary journey in about 49 AD. He most likely wrote this letter in about 50 or 51 AD, meaning the church (the newly converted believers) was relatively young. Their background was mainly pagan Gentiles (although there were some believing Jews included in the original reader). There were several religious cults in the region that practiced sexual perversion in their worship, which might have left these believers weak in the area of sexual morality.
Paul addresses this issue when he exhorted them to abstain from sexual immorality:
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; that each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God…
1 Thess 4:3
If you yourself were faced with a bunch of believers having sex outside of marriage, or persistent in some kind of obvious sin, how would you respond?
After studying Paul’s epistles and his ministry in Acts, I’ve noticed that he really knows how to address his audience’s struggles with sin. Sometimes he responds with a harsh rebuke (like when the church in Galatia had started following a different gospel):
As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
Paul is serious about false teaching concerning the gospel of grace through faith. But Paul wasn’t harsh with the Thessalonians, and I think that’s for several reasons.
First of all, they were newly-converted Christians still trying to develop renewed thinking toward sexual morality within a culture that had no reverence to God and His way for mankind’s sexuality. Second, Paul probably saw the genuineness of their faith proven through their perseverance in spite of persecution. Third, though they were struggling with sin, their hearts were sold out for the Lord, and so Paul wasn’t as concerned about coming down on a behavioral issue, understanding that the Spirit was still taking them through the process of sanctification.
In another words, they were young Christians trying their best. Paul probably acknowledged that, leading him to react with graciousness. He didn’t let them off the hook, but wrapped his rebuke between so much encouragement and love, which, I can only imagine, led to a favorable and effective response from the Thessalonians:
We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Thess 1:2,3
For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God…
1 Thess 1:9
So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us…
1 Thess 2:8
So even though the Thessalonians weren’t perfect in every area of their lives (like sexual immorality), Paul called out their strengths and wasn’t afraid of their struggle. I think that if Paul had allowed his human nature to take over, he might have come down on them harshly in judgment, reacting fearfully to their sin, which might have actually done the Thessalonians more harm than good.
Paul also probably knew how to best react to the Thessalonians through the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. If God had wanted him to speak more harshly, I think that God would have led Paul do that, just like when Paul spoke boldly to the Galatians in the above example or the Roman believers below:
Nevertheless on some points I have written to you rather boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God.
God gave grace to Paul when speaking to people boldly and harshly, showing me that God also probably led Paul in his graciousness toward the Thessalonians. In other words, Paul responded to the Thessalonians in fear of the Lord.
I love that, because I know that God also wants to gives us guidance, grace, wisdom and strength in confronting people with hard truth as well, not systematically, but in His grace by His Spirit.
In Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, he mainly addresses their belief that Jesus is coming back soon and their idleness that resulted:
Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
2 Thess 3:11,12
The Thessalonians were unwilling to work, meaning they had become lazy. Paul attempted to correct this mentality by showing them that the willingness to work was actually what was right and pleasing in God’s eyes. This was true even if Jesus’ return was imminent.
2 Thessalonians also refers to end time events. The “lawless one” is mentioned in 2 Thess 2 but in no other book of the Bible. The “lawless one” could also mean “son of destruction” or “man of sin.”
Some view the “lawless one” as a future Antichrist linked to the prophecies given in the Book of Daniel regarding the nation of Israel. Some have viewed the lawless one as the Roman Catholic Church. Some say that this was the Roman military commander Titus who ordered the destruction of the temple in 70 AD after the Jews rebelled in 66 AD. This view, to me, makes the most immediate sense, although I haven’t studied enough to come to any conclusion.