Paul’s First Letter to the Christian Community at Thessalonica
Written in about 50 CE, some 20 years after the death of resurrection of Jesus and 20 years before the Gospel of Mark, Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is the oldest extant piece of Christian literature. This letter is the first proclamation of the gospel, the good news, in written form (New Interpreters Study Bible). There is strong scholarly consensus that this is a genuine letter of Paul’s. There is less consensus about Second Thessalonians. Thessalonica was the capitol of the Roman province of Macedonia, and is today known as the Greek city of Thessaloniki. It was named for the sister of Alexander the Great. Macedonia became a Roman province in 146 BCE, with Thessalonica as its capital. It was a prosperous and diverse community with a population of about 40,000 at the time of Paul’s ministry there. The diversity included religious diversity. There was a temple for the Egyptian god Osiris. There was a synagogue. The imperial dynasty was worshipped here as well.
While Paul’s stay in Thessalonica was brief, he developed a deep affection for this Jesus community, as will be seen by some of the language he uses in his letter. The community was comprised of both Jews and Gentiles, though predominantly the latter. Paul wanted to return to visit, but had been unable to do so. He sent Timothy instead to support and encourage this developing faith community. Timothy has returned to Paul with a report about the community. It was generally a positive report, but Timothy also seemed to find some things of concern. So Paul wrote this letter. The letter follows the general form of Hellenistic letters with opening and closing salutations and expressions of thanks for the recipients.
As with most of the letters Paul writes, there are some issues to be dealt with in this Jesus community. There was also some trouble for the community itself. Paul’s stay had been brief because he had been seen as an agitator. Luke attributes this to opposition from some of the synagogue Jews. Others argue that Paul had run afoul of Roman authorities (Crossan and Reed, In Search of Paul). The Christian community Paul leaves behind also experiences opposition. Beyond the troubles they were experiencing, the community also had some questions and issues. Some of the people in the community had died, and this caused concern. Wasn’t Jesus supposed to return soon? How is it that some have died? Some of the community leaders may have been setting themselves apart, and that may have been creating troubles. Some in the community may have wanted to withdraw from the life of the world, and the life of work, and that, too, presented a problem. While addressing issues, Paul also asserts positive community values and tries to describe important features of the Jesus way of life.
I Thessalonians 1
I Thessalonians 1:1: This is adopted from a typical Hellenistic salutation, with Christian content. While the words used seem commonplace to us, in the context of Thessalonica, they are rather remarkable. Paul’s letter comes from Paul, Silvanus and Timothy to the “church of the Thessalonians.” The Greek word translated “church” is ekklesia. The word, while usually translated “church,” originally meant the citizens of a free Greek city officially gathered to make self-governing decisions. Is Paul hinting that the church is an alternative community with an alternative citizenship? Paul pushes the point further by calling Jesus “lord.” “Kyrios was also the Greek term used to refer to the deified Roman emperor. By using this term to refer to Jesus, Paul was making a revolutionary political and religious statement.” (New Interpreters Study Bible). In referring to the church also as in “God the Father” could be seen as counter-imperial. Deity was associated in the Roman theology with the emperor and the emperor’s family. Perhaps the trouble the Thessalonian church was experiencing had something to do with some of these counter-cultural, counter-imperial emphases.
I Thessalonians 1:2-10: As is typical of Roman letters and of Paul’s letters, the initial salutation is followed by a thanksgiving. Paul has transformed the traditional form by expanding it considerably. Here the thanksgiving section really doesn’t end until 3:13. In verse 2, Paul already links faith, hope and love, a link he will make again and again, most famously in I Corinthians 13. Paul tells them that they are loved by God and that he knows they have been chosen by God because they received the message that Paul brought. Because of their openness to God’s grace, the word had power, and because of their openness, God’s Spirit touched their lives. The initiative is God’s, but the response was theirs. Paul is thankful to God for God’s initiative and for their response.
The Thessalonians had not only been open to Paul’s message, but also to Paul and those who worked with him. They observed the behavior of Paul and Paul’s co-workers, and imitated it. In imitating Paul, the Thessalonians were also imitating Christ. It was typical of the time that teachers of wisdom offered their lives as examples of what it meant to follow their teaching. We are often uncomfortable with making our lives part of our message. We know our own fallibilities and failures. Yet we need to strive for some compatibility between our teaching and our lives. If we proclaim good news of hope, joy, and love, but live angry, bitter lives, our words will not ring true. If we proclaim good news of justice and a different world, but do nothing to try and make a difference, our words will seem hollow. The Thessalonians received Paul’s preaching with joy (inspired by the Holy Spirit). They lived in a way they learned from Paul and Paul’s associates, and they, in turn, became examples of the Jesus way of life to others. In living the Jesus way of life, they had turned from idols “so serve a true and living God.” This is an indication that the primary audience for Paul’s letter were Gentile Christians. To be Christian is to be transformed. In our day, we don’t often move from “idol worship” to the worship of another God, but from lives centered on something less than God (the very definition of an idol), less than a sense of comprehensive good, to lives centered in God as the comprehensive good.
In serving God, the Thessalonians are also waiting for a more comprehensive fulfillment of God’s dream for the world. The language used to talk about the fulfillment of God’s dream is language about the coming of God’s Son from heaven. This figure is Jesus who was crucified and whom God raised from the dead. In following this Jesus the Thessalonians are saved from living lives that in the end would come to little, that would not have contributed significantly to God’s dream for the world. The sense that in the end, God would set the world right was a powerfully attractive feature of early Christian proclamation, especially for those for whom the peace of Rome offered little hope for their lives. When God sets things right, there would be a judgment of what had been truly good and evil in history. Does such judgment necessarily entail some kind of punishment? Some Christians would say that it does, and the traditional answer to this question is that the punishment is eternity in hell. Others argue that judgment need not entail such a punishment. Perhaps the punishment is the realization that one wasted the precious gift of life on things that did not contribute to the good. In Jesus our lives can turn toward the good, and in Jesus we understand that we can be forgiven for those times when we have failed the good.