The First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians Online Commentary (10)

The study of 1 Thessalonians offered here is in the form of a traditional commentary, although secondary scholarship is engaged more intermittently than would be the case in a commentary published in a regular print series. This is the eighth entry in the online commentary on 1 Thessalonians. In the first entryI began by looking at introductory matters, comprised of comments on the nature of a Greco-Roman letter and the background of Paul’s activity in Thessalonica, which we know primarily from Acts of the Apostles and partially from Paul’s letters. In the second entry, I gave a basic overview of the content found in the whole letter and then discussed the very short salutation. In the third entry, I discussed the Thanksgiving for the letter. In the fourth post, I started to discuss the Body of the Letter, particularly the parental affection Paul, Silvanus and Timothy have for the church in Thessalonica, which was continued in the fifth post in the series. The sixth entry in the online commentaryexamined the love Paul, Silvanus and Timothy have for the community, which is expressed to some degree as anxiety for the Thessalonian Christians they had to leave behind when they were forced to leave the city. In the seventh blog post, I examined Paul and his co-workers’ exhortations to the Thessalonians to behave ethically in sexual matters, though we have had no previous information that there have been sexual indiscretions in the community. In the eighth entry, I began to study Paul’s teaching for the Thessalonians regarding the coming of the Lord and how those who have died will still participate in the resurrection. In the ninth blog post, we looked at the second part of the teaching on the coming of the Lord, that is, when will it take place?  As we come to the end of the letter, we are examining Paul, Silvanus and Timothy’s ethical exhortation to the Thessalonian church. Please do follow the links above to see my definition of a Greco-Roman letter, how I have divided this letter in particular and to catch up on the previous entries in general.

3. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians:

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c) Body of the Letter: ii) Ethical Exhortation: 3) A List of Moral Maxims (5:12-22)

12 But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; 13 esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 15 See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil. (NRSV)

As we come to the end of the letter, Paul, Silvanus and Timothy leave behind distinct theological instruction for more general ethical exhortation. In what I see as one of the most intriguing aspects of the letters, these missionaries “appeal” to the Thessalonians “to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves” (5:12-13). I say it is intriguing because although Paul and his co-workers clearly represent the authority of the Church at large, they have left behind some sort of leadership structure even at this early point and even if it is informal and without title. No titles or functions are mentioned, and perhaps none exist at this point, which is my suspicion, but a clear role of authority is noted. Every institution or corporate body must have some delineated lines of responsibility and while we cannot determine what they are in Thessalonica, their existence points to the development of the Church at this early stage of its life in a Gentile city.

The letter is, however, delivered to the whole Church and so the exhortation to “esteem” those who labor for the Church is delivered to the whole of the people. So, too, do Paul, Silvanus and Timothy “urge” the whole Church “to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them” (5:14). Again, we do not know if the idleness referenced here is due to a lack of urgency in life since the Thessalonian Christians are waiting for the coming end – if Jesus is coming soon, why work so hard? – or if there is just a level of idleness in the community as could be found in any group. In this case, due to the reference to the idlers among those who are “fainthearted” and weak, both attributions which are hard to define, it seems that the issue might be a kind of paralysis in the community as how to proceed without their “outside” leaders. That is, they may be stuck without a clear sense of how to move forward in the Christian life, which is why this letter would be so valuable as a testament precisely of how to live the Christian life.

The ethical exhortations which follow seem to bear out this possibility as they echo some of Jesus’ own teaching which would be found later in the Gospels. Many scholars have noted that Paul rarely cites Jesus, but there are clear echoes of Jesus’ voice and teaching in 5:15: “See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.” Could this be an unattributed reference to Jesus’ oral teaching? I think it is likely. And this teaching, found in the Sermon on the Mount, resonates as one of the key themes in Jesus’ teaching.

The final exhortations turn to a theme we will see again in Paul’s letters and that is the need to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (5:16-18). The need to rejoice in all circumstances will mark out Paul’s life in many letters, especially Philippians, and it is not borne of an easy life, but a life lived for God regardless of the sufferings he endures. These are not empty words for the early Christians, as the Thessalonians have already experienced, but this focus on eternal joy will allow them to endure all situations.

In the same way, they are told to “pray without ceasing,” an appeal which Christians since Paul have tried to figure out how to put into practice. Some Christians of the east have interpreted this as a literal imperative and in constructing “The Jesus Prayer” have attempted to put ceaseless prayer into practice. They will pray, over and over, with each breath, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner,” or some version of this, in an attempt to live out the apostolic decree. Others have understood this as a way of life, of always orienting one’s life and mind to the things of God in whatever they do.  

Finally, we are given general imperatives for the life of the Church. I noted earlier that the early Church was already installing some forms of leadership, but we should not doubt that it remained very open and free at this point to promptings of the Spirit and insights regarding the ecclesial life. Paul, Silvanus and Timothy stress that we should “not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil” (5:19-22). The early Church has a healthy sense of the ongoing function and role of the Spirit and the gifts of prophecy were accepted and understood throughout the many churches of the Mediterranean basin. This did not mean that every prophecy was seen as from God and this is why “testing” was essential. For concrete examples of what “testing” might look like, please see the early Christian document the Didache, in which Christians are instructed that if a prophet is asking for money or staying too long relying on the hospitality of others, they might not be a genuine prophet!

As for holding “fast to what is good” and abstaining “from every form of evil”? It is the most general of exhortations, always valuable, but only applicable in light of what has been taught and what has been written. It is well worth, though, keeping it in mind because at the most general of levels it is indeed the core of the Christian life: do good; avoid evil.

Next entry, Paul, Silvanus and Timothy bring their letter to an end.

John W. Martens

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