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Bible Study Helps: Thessalonians and Philemon

Dec 10, 2018

Three more of Paul’s 13 epistles are covered here. Of interest, they give us what may well be the first and last of his writings. His first epistle to the Thessalonians was likely his first canonical letter (penned in the late 40s or early 50s – but Galatians could also have been penned around this time). His second letter to the believers in Thessalonica was likely written very close in time to the first.

Philemon was probably among his last canonical letters (perhaps penned along with Colossians and Ephesians in the early 60s). So together these three epistles give us a view of the early Paul and the latter Paul. Let me look at each in turn.

1&2 Thessalonians

We read about the founding of the church in Thessalonica in Acts 17:1-9. As already mentioned, this might be his earliest letter, and some even offer a mid-40’s date of authorship. Charles Wanamaker says this about it:

First Thessalonians holds a unique place among the writings of the NT in the view of many contemporary scholars because it is widely believed that 1 Thessalonians is not only Paul’s first extant letter, but also the earliest extant writing of Christianity. If this is correct then 1 Thessalonians gives us our earliest window on the theology of nascent Christianity.

Although penned 2000 years ago, these two letters have much relevance for us today. The times today are not all that different from back then. As Michael Holmes puts it in his commentary, the Thessalonians

were for the most part new converts to Christianity who had grown up in, and hence were thoroughly socialized in, a Greek cultural environment. One of Paul’s major challenges was that of resocialization – helping these believers to learn, understand, and live by the very different social and ethical code of early Christianity.

What made this task particularly challenging was that these people were also facing intense persecution from the surrounding culture. As a result of their commitment to Jesus, they were experiencing social ostracism and isolation as well as physical attacks from society around them. As if this were not enough, Paul’s task was further complicated by a high degree of apprehension, misunderstanding, and speculation about the return of Jesus.

Here is a list of some of the better scholarly commentaries on these two books, mainly from a conservative and evangelical point of view:

Beale, Gregory, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (IVPNTC, 2003)
Bruce, F. F., 1 & 2 Thessalonians (WBC, 1982)
Fee, Gordon, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians (NICNT, 2009)
Green, Gene, The Letters to the Thessalonians (PNTC, 2002)
Holmes, Michael, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (NIVAC, 1998)
Martin, D. Michael, 1, 2 Thessalonians (NAC, 1995)
Morris, Leon, The Epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians (TNTC, 1957)
Morris, Leon, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians (NICNT, 1959)
Shogren, Gary, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (ZECNT, 2012)
Stott, John, The Message of Thessalonians (BST, 1991)
Wanamaker, Charles, Commentary on 1 & 2 Thessalonians (NIGTC, 1990)
Weima, Jeffrey, 1-2 Thessalonians (BECNT, 2014)
Williams, David, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (NIBC, 1992)
Witherington, Ben, First and Second Thessalonians (Eerdmans, 2006)
Wright, N. T., Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (WJK, 2002, 2004)

Once again, some may prefer that I narrow my lists down a bit. So if I have to just recommend a few commentaries for the Thessalonian letters, I would probably run with these: Beale, Fee, Green and Shogren. But all of these featured here offer much of value.


Philemon is the shortest of Paul’s letters (just 25 verses) and is very personal in nature. As mentioned, this letter and the letter to the Colossians were penned around the same time and were likely delivered together to the church at Colossae.

Although the most brief and most personal of his canonical letters, we learn much from it. Obviously the issue of slavery is a major theme here, and how the early Christians would understand and relate to this longstanding institution. The issue is somewhat complex, with acceptance of this and other social ills of the day combined with theological beliefs that eventually led to their abolition.

In his various household codes Paul speaks of the servant respecting his master, and the master showing consideration for the servants. The dignity and worth of all persons – especially made clear in the teachings of Christ – laid the foundations for the eventual downfall of slavery in the West. Says Donald Hagner:

Although the book of Philemon is hardly a clarion call for the emancipation of all Christian slaves, it seems to indicate where Paul’s heart is on the subject. When he urges Philemon to receive Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother” (v. 16), he implies that Onesimus is to be freed from being a slave and hence free to return to Paul as his assistant. At the same time, however, it must be admitted that Paul does not – here or anywhere – launch any clear attack against the institution of slavery itself.

All the better and longer commentaries spend a good amount of time on this very issue in their introductions and throughout, and are well worth consulting for more information on all this. Speaking of commentaries, I once again offer here a good sampling of scholarly and critical commentaries, mainly from a conservative theological perspective.

Bruce, F. F., The Epistle to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (NICNT, 1984)
Carson, Herbert, The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and Philemon (TNTC, 1960)
Dunn, James, The Epistles to Colossians and to Philemon (NIGTC, 1996)
Garland, David, Colossians/Philemon (NIVAC, 1998)
Lucas, Dick, The Message of Colossians and Philemon (BST, 1980)
McKnight, Scot, The Letter to Philemon (NICNT, 2018)
Moo, Douglas, The Letters to Colossians and to Philemon (PCNT, 2008)
O’Brien, Peter, Colossians, Philemon (WBC, 1982)
Pao, David, Colossians & Philemon (ZECNT, 2012)
Thompson, Marianne Meye, Colossians & Philemon (THNTC, 2005)
Wall, Robert, Colossians and Philemon (IVPNTC, 1993)
Witherington, Ben, The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians (Eerdmans, 2007)
Wright, N. T., Colossians and Philemon (TNTC, 1986)
Wright, N. T., Paul for Everyone: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon (WJK, 2002, 2004)

For those wanting a somewhat shorter list on Philemon, perhaps run with Garland, McKnight and Moo. My review of McKnight’s new commentary on Philemon is found here:

Happy study and happy reading.

(Australians will find many of these books at Koorong: )

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2 Responses to Bible Study Helps: Thessalonians and Philemon

  • We should not forget that Philemon was written from prison and Paul knew well his position was tenuous and we know he disappeared, many say beheaded by Nero, very shortly after writing Philemon. For anyone to openly oppose the institution of slavery, which was a foundation of Roman society, would of course be considered subversive by Rome which had already suffered huge and massively costly slave uprisings such as the famous one by Spartacus. For people to read actual support for slavery from this letter when clearly Paul was opposing slavery but in hugely guarded terms, is really missing the point. Paul was clearly shaming Philemon into releasing Onesimus but not openly opposing Roman authority and the Roman legality of slavery which, if his opposition was found out, would have given a basis for his immediate execution. I don’t believe Paul was just offering to pay for Onesimus’s debt from simply running away but to pay his debt completely and thereby gain his freedom. He does specifically say “if he owes you in anything” (Phm 18) and then speaks later of Philemon’s obedience and doing “beyond what I say” (Phm 21). You really don’t need to do a huge amount of reading between the lines to see what he was actually saying. Compare his writing here to his private letter to Timothy, that was written in less restricted circumstances, where he lists slave traders among murders and the like (1 Tim 1:10).

  • “helping these believers to learn, understand, and live by the very different social and ethical code of early Christianity.”

    Same issues in the 21st century. Many Christians are simply illiterate and have no apologetic for their faith. I blame the leadership that comes out of the seminaries. Most seminaries can`t even define conversion to begin with and they shun eschatology.

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