We tend to think of the Apostle Paul as a rugged individualist—a pioneering loner. He’s a man on the road, doing the hard work of ministry in the face of formidable circumstances that include imprisonment, snakes and shipwrecks. It’s the stuff of Westerns and modern action movies. But if we read Paul’s letters closely, we will find he isn’t ministering on his own.
For years, if you had asked me who sent 1 Thessalonians, I would have confidently—and incorrectly—answered, “the Apostle Paul.” That answer is partially correct. The letter names Paul as a sender, but it also mentions two other senders. First Thessalonians 1:1 reads, “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Together, these three men wrote to the young church in Macedonia.
Who were these men? Silvanus (the Latinized form of Silas) was a prophet and leader in the Jerusalem church and one of Paul’s close co-workers (Acts 15:22, 32). Together in prison, Paul and Silas participated in the most famous hymn sing in history (Acts 16:25). Silas also worked alongside Paul to found the church in Thessalonica (Acts 17:4). Timothy, a close associate of Paul, helped establish the church in Corinth with Silas (2 Cor 1:19). He frequently served as Paul’s representative to various churches (e.g., 1 Cor 4:17; 16:10). We learn in 1 Thessalonians that Paul had already sent Timothy to the church in Thessalonica, and Timothy had returned with a good report (1 Thess 3:2, 6).
Context is important: When we consider these three co-senders in light of typical Hellenistic letter-writing of the time and Paul’s other letters, we notice a striking distinction.
Greek letters of Paul’s day very rarely name a co-sender. In The Secretary in the Letters of Paul, E. Randolph Richards considers 645 papyrus letters and finds only six cases in which a co-sender is named in the opening. Yet naming a co-sender was normal practice for Paul. He mentions co-senders in the openings of eight of his 12 letters (1–2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, 1–2 Thessalonians and Philemon).
Does the reference to Timothy and Silas indicate that they co-authored the letter with Paul? The consistent use of the first person plural throughout the letter (e.g., “we give thanks to God” in 1 Thess 1:2; “we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus” in 1 Thess 4:1) could be taken as evidence for joint authorship, but some believe Paul might instead be using “we” as a literary or authorial plural to lend a “warm tone” to the letter. In other places, Timothy is referred to in the third person (1 Thess 3:2, 6), and in the few places where the first person singular is used, it is clearly Paul speaking (1 Thess 2:18; 3:5; 5:27). In any case, the naming of co-senders in Thessalonians 1:1 reminds us that Paul’s letters were written from within a circle of associates who had some influence on the content of these letters (compare Rom 16:22).
But perhaps more intriguing is the sense of community we gather from Paul’s letters. The naming of Timothy and Silas reflects Paul’s keen sense that he proclaimed the gospel as part of a team. His close companions were Barnabas, Timothy, Silas and Titus, but his circle of associates went well beyond these four. According to Wayne Meeks, Paul’s letters (excluding the Pastoral Epistles) include 65 individuals “named or otherwise identified as persons active in local congregations, as traveling companions or agents of Paul, or as both.”
Paul was not on a one-man mission. He always worked within a team—a network of close colleagues. We, like Paul, need to pursue close partnerships in ministry today—for the purposes of accountability, fellowship and discipleship. Paul stands as the example of how partnership in ministry can lead faith communities to “increase and abound in love for one another and for all” (1 Thess 3:12).