I Thessalonians 2
I Thessalonians 2:1-16: Paul has given thanks that the Thessalonians received their preaching and God’s Spirit and are now living lives of faith, hope and love. Here he recounts something about his ministry there. It required courage, for Paul had encountered difficulty and opposition in his ministry. The courage Paul displayed he uses as an indication of his integrity. His work did not come from deceit, trickery, or impure motives. Paul and his companions worked to please God. Whereas in some of Paul’s letters, such assertions of his integrity are to be seen as a response to criticism, here there is no indication that he has encountered such opposition. Other Hellenistic writings from the time include defense of one’s work as a usual part of the rhetoric of a teacher. Here Paul may simply be using that form to assert the genuineness of his work and ministry.
The manner of life consistent with pleasing God was a gentle one. Paul worked among them “like a nurse caring for her own children.” This is a surprisingly tender image, maternal and nurturing. It certainly goes against many of the caricatures of Paul. Paul shared not only a teaching, as many traveling teachers of the time may have, but he gave his very being to the Thessalonians “because you have become very dear to us.” Such care and affection should be an important part of Christian community in any time and place.
As teachers and apostles, Paul and his companions may “have made demands,” that is, they could have asked for financial support. They chose not to so as not to burden the church. Paul assets that their conduct was “pure, upright and blameless.” It was like a father with a child – another warm and caring image. Paul encouraged them to “lead a life worthy of God.” This is a phrase we have encountered a few times. “Be who you are as God’s people.” These are encouraging words for us as well. Like the Thessalonians, we are people of God’s kingdom, invited to live by “kingdom values.”
Paul now adds another word of thanks. He is grateful for the Thessalonians faith, hope and love, for the way they are leading lives worthy of God as a response to Paul’s own example and his tender care for them. Now Paul gives thanks that when they heard his preaching they received it as more than human words, but could hear to word of God in the preaching of Paul. They received that word, and it was continuing to work in their lives. I once heard a pastor say, after reading a Scripture, “May these words be for you the word of God.” I have always been fond of that. Scripture is read, and our hope is that the words there become word of God for us, words that make a difference in our lives, that draw us closer to God. When we hear a sermon or are a part of Christian conversation, we hope that in the words shared, we will also hear God’s word for our lives.
The response of the Thessalonians to the gospel has not led them into an easier life. Instead, like the first Christians in Judea, they have suffered persecution for their faith. The illustration used is problematic, and some doubt that verses 15-16 are from Paul’s own hand. Here Paul issues a criticism issued by other first-century Jews, that some of his own were responsible for killing the prophets. Now Paul includes Jesus among the righteous who have been killed by their own people. Nowhere else does Paul, however, accuse the Jews of killing Jesus, so the language seems un-Pauline. The idea that God’s wrath has overtaken the Jews may reflect a theological interpretation of the fall of the Temple in 70 CE, and if that is that case, then this is certainly a post-Pauline addition. However, Paul could simply be expressing frustration with some of the ways his ministry may have been opposed by some synagogue Jews, and using dramatic language in doing that. Given the tragic history of Christian anti-Semitism, these are deeply unfortunate words.
I Thessalonians 2:17-20: This chapter ends with more tender words from Paul. He calls his separation from the Thessalonians an experience akin to being orphaned, though not in heart. He longed to return but was prevented from doing so. Whatever prevented that return visit, Paul interpreted it as the work of Satan, that is, as something that was opposed to the work Paul was doing. Paul calls the Thessalonian Christians the source of his joy and his reason for boasting – not a personal boast but a shared rejoicing in the work of God in their lives.
Just as at the end of the first chapter, Paul alludes to the coming of Jesus at the end of this chapter. In chapter one Paul talked about how the Thessalonians were waiting for God’s Son from heaven. Here he uses the phrase, “the Lord Jesus at his coming.” The Greek word for coming is parousia which is a Greek term meaning “presence,” used as a technical term to describe the visit of an official, including an emperor, to a city (New Interpreters Study Bible). “Paul looked forward to presenting his churches to the returning Lord Jesus in the near future” (People’s New Testament Commentary). As the letter will deal with this subject in much greater detail later, I will reserve further comments until then. Suffice it to note here, that at this point in his ministry, Paul seemed to expect an imminent return of Jesus as Lord in some way or another. In other words, he expected God to complete the reconciling and transforming work that he had already begun in Jesus. Years later, that work is not yet complete and the Christian church is filled with persons who spend a great deal of time and effort in discussing timetables for a “second coming” of Jesus (which is a term that Paul never uses).
I Thessalonians 3
I Thessalonians 3:1-5: Paul had longed to see the Thessalonians, but could not go. Yet he could not bear the thought of not knowing how they were doing or of their being without some encouragement in their new faith. So Paul sent Timothy to Thessalonica to find out how they were doing, and to encourage them in the midst of their persecution. Paul reminds them that they were aware that the road may not be easy. Paul had never promised them a rose garden! Nor are we promised that all will go well with our faith.
I Thessalonians 3:6-13: Timothy returned to Paul with good news about their “faith and love.” Paul has taken encouragement from that. His work has not been in vain. He is grateful to God for their continued faith. He deeply desires to see them again. Then his words become rather odd, given the context – “to restore whatever is lacking in your faith.” He celebrates their faith, but also implies that there may be points at which it is lacking. Perhaps that is not so strange after all. In our own lives, we can celebrate our faith, yet know we can grow more into it. Paul ends this lengthy section of thanksgiving with a hope that he might, by God’s grace return to Thessalonica. He asks Christ to help their love abound and to strengthen their hearts in holiness. Again, Paul’s words for these early Christians might be words for our lives – that we may abound in love and have our hearts strengthened in holiness. Holiness is a God-like quality of life. It implies wholeness and well-being. Paul hopes that love and holiness will abound until “the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” Again, we have that theme, and the word “coming.”
I Thessalonians 4
I Thessalonians 4:1-12: Again, Paul invites them to continue to follow the Jesus way of life as they were taught. God desires their sanctification. This is another way to speak of holiness, whole life in relationship to God. The theologian Paul Tillich once wrote about sanctification as increasing awareness, increasing freedom, increasing relatedness and increasing transcendence. While this language may not appeal to everyone, I find it helpful in describing the kind of life God calls us to live. The other definition of sanctification I really appreciate is John Wesley’s idea of Christian perfection. “By perfection I mean the humble, gentle, patient love of God and our neighbor, ruling our habits, attitudes, words and actions.” Paul goes on to write that holiness of life involves having control over ones body and desires. Paul’s language makes one wonder what sorts of sexual expression he encountered in Thessalonica and other places in the Roman empire. Paul here follows the stereotypical image Jews tended to have of Gentiles, regarding them as dominated by lust and sexual immorality and perversions. There were of course immortal Gentiles, just as there were immoral Jews, but there were also many Gentiles who had a high standard of sexual morality (People’s New Testament Commentary). However, there was often a divide between religion and morality in the Greco-Roman world. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, religious commitment, relationship to God, is reflected in one’s treatment of others and in one’s self-discipline. God has called them to holiness, and to think otherwise is to misunderstand God, and the Spirit of God at work in the lives of Christians.
Love remains central, and the Thessalonians did not need anyone to teach them more about this. They had been taught by God about loving! Though they know it and live it, there is always more room to grow in love. In love, they are too live quietly – that need not preclude working for change in the world, but should be a quality of work for such change. For the Thessalonians, though, their focus would not have been on social change, except as that happened in Christian community. They had virtually no power base within the empire from which to effect change. In addition, most expected a dramatic change in the near future, an overturning of the existing social order with the coming of Jesus Christ as Lord. Some had taken this expectation to extremes, shunning necessary work. Paul admonishes them to work.
I Thessalonians 4:13-18: Apparently a question had arisen about those who had died. The expectation of the coming of Jesus as Lord was so high, that many believed no Christian would die before it occurred. But some have died, perhaps even as part of persecution of some kind. As this passage has been used in some interesting ways by certain groups within the Christian church, it would be good to look more closely at them.
Some members of the new congregation in Thessalonica had died. The church had apparently understood that Jesus would return while all believers were still alive. Paul expected to be alive at the Parousia (verse 15), and his new converts were shocked that some of their members had died before the return of Jesus. Did this mean they were not true believers, or that they would miss out on the salvation bestowed by Christ’s triumphal return? (People’s New Testament Commentary)
Paul was concerned because some of the Thessalonians were grieving over the death of some of their fellow Christians, perhaps resulting from mistreatment on the part of non-Christians. For believers who were expecting an imminent return of the Lord Jesus, this was difficult to accept. To alleviate their grief, Paul cites a Christian creed: Jesus died and rose again. He then affirms that what God has done for Jesus, God will also do for those who die in Christ. They will live with Jesus. Paul cites the authority of tradition to support his message and uses the imagery of the entry (Greek –“ parousia”) of a victorious king into a city, together with Jewish apocalyptic motifs, to present an imaginative “idea” of how the future resurrection will take place. (New Interpreters Study Bible)
Paul’s intention is pastoral, to assure the Thessalonians that the death of members of the community did not in any way mitigate against the hope that was an integral part of their Christian faith. He wanted to encourage them, and wanted them to encourage each other (verse 18). He may also have been subtly reinforcing the anti-imperial side of Christian faith, Christian faith as a counter culture to the imperial culture.
Any important visitor coming along the major road to an ancient city would first meet the dead before they greeted the living…. The “parousia” metaphor means that Christians do not ascend to stay with Christ in heaven, but to return with him to this transformed world…. The metaphor of “parousia” as state visit would presume that those going out to greet the approaching ruler would return with him for festive rejoicing within their city. So also with Christ…. The “parousia” of the Lord was not about destruction of earth and relocation to heaven, but about a world in which violence and injustice are transformed into purity and holiness. (John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed, In Search of Paul, 170)
Paul – like Jesus before him – believed that God’s great Cosmic Cleanup had already begun. He also believed – quite incorrectly – that it would be consummated within his own generation. But just as a visiting emperor is greeted first by the dead and only then by the living as his entourage approaches an imperial city, and just as the citizens go out to meet him and escort him “back into” their city for festivity and celebration, so also will it be with Christ on his return. First the dead Christians and then the living Christians will be taken up to meet Christ not “in heaven” but “in the clouds” or “in the air.” And they will meet Christ to return to an earth totally transformed, utterly transfigured, and fully completed in nonviolence and holiness, justice, and peace. That is Paul’s vision…. What the Left Behind series has actually left behind is Jesus’ faith in the Kingdom of God, Paul’s hope for the Lordship of Christ, and God’s love for the future of the earth. (Crossan, God and Empire, 208)
Too many have taken this pastoral and metaphoric passage and tried to turn it into a full “rapture” scenario. Often such rapture theology mirrors imperial order. Christ comes, takes Christians away and seven years later war ensues. Paul is assuring Christians to keep on in faith, telling them that the Jesus way will triumph in the end, will overcome the ways of empire.
I Thessalonians 5
I Thessalonians 5:1-11: While Paul probably thought a final consummation of God’s purposes would happen in his lifetime, he is also concerned about persons setting dates and timetables. That can be a distraction. Instead, focus on being who you are, Paul writes, “children of light and children of the day.” “Although the final Day had not yet come, Christians have already oriented their lives to the fulfillment of God’s kingdom at the end of history” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Such people live lives that are awake and sober. They live lives of faith and love and hope (again!) Such lives are to be lived together so that we can encourage one another. Paul’s words, written to a Christian community so many years ago can be translated pretty directly into our lives. We do well to avoid getting caught up in end day speculation and focus on living in faith, hope and love, encouraging each other along the way.
I Thessalonians 5:12-28: Paul brings this letter to a close with a series of short exhortations to the Jesus community at Thessalonica. He encourages the community to respect their leaders in love. He tells them to be at peace with each other. Some may have taken the idea of Jesus immanent return to mean that they could coast until then. The community is to encourage those who are idlers. They are to encourage the faint hearted and help the weak, all with patience. Echoing the words of Jesus, Paul tells them to avoid paying evil for evil, but instead do good. Rejoice, pray, be thankful. Be open to the Spirit and be discerning. Avoid evil do good. Paul prays that the God of peace will sanctify their lives, and trusts that God will do this. Again, Paul’s words need little embellishment to become a part of our own way of living the Christian faith, the Jesus way.
Here are verses 12b-19 from The Message: Get along among yourselves, each of you doing your part. Our counsel is that you warn the freeloaders to get a move on. Gently encourage the stragglers, and reach out for the exhausted, pulling them to their feet. Be patient with each person, attentive to individual needs. And be careful that when you get on each other’s nerves you don’t snap at each other. Look for the best in each other, and always do your best to bring it out. Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live. Don’t suppress the Spirit.