The First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians Online Commentary (11)

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?  In the penultimate entry, I examined Paul, Silvanus and Timothy’s ethical exhortation to the Thessalonian church. In this, the ultimate entry, I study the closing to Paul’s first letter. 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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d) Closing (5:23-28)

23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. 25 Beloved, pray for us. 26 Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss. 27 I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them. 28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. (NRSV)

The closing of a Pauline letter can take many forms, though it tends to have some aspects which reappear regularly, such as general greetings, statement of travel plans, benediction, prayers, peace wish, offering of a holy kiss, and the grace. This closing has in particular a benediction (5:23-24), greetings with a holy kiss (5:26) and a grace (5:28) among its other elements.

In previous entries, we had discussed the stress that Paul, Silvanus and Timothy placed on living a holy life (see the seventh entry) and the discussions of the coming end and how to prepare for the end (hint: live a holy life). The benediction in this letter returns us to these themes, when Paul and his co-workers write, “may the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this” (5:23-24). Note the use of the verb hagiazô, “to be or to make holy.” In the body of the letter the focus has been on what each person can do to live a holy life, but in the benediction the emphasis is on what God will do. It is possible that the attention here is eschatological, the complete sanctification at the end of time, when Christ returns, since “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” is mentioned at the end of 5:23. This dimension is present, but I think Paul, Silvanus and Timothy do want to note that even now in this world it is God’s action in the life of the Christian that draws us to and transforms us in holiness. The eschatological dimension is present as well and I think 5:24 captures this: “the one who calls you is faithful (pistos), and he will do this.” This does indicate that this hope has a future dimension – “he will do this” – when holiness will be made complete at the eschaton, but it does not mean to me that God is not present and active in the lives of Christians even now, which is made apparent in the phrase “may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless” until Christ’s return. The future dimension attends to the reality that perfect transformative holiness takes place only through God and in the presence of God.

Paul, Silvanus and Timothy also use in this passage a phrase which is not used again in the Pauline corpus, namely, “spirit and soul and body.” We are used to all of these words in Paul’s letters, but the common contrast, or summation of the nature of the human person, in Paul’s letters is body and spirit, as in 1 Corinthians 7:34 (“and the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit”). Many scholars have tried to determine in this unique usage whether Paul and his friends are trying to say something distinctive about the “parts” of the human being, a tripartite division in which soul and spirit are differentiated, but I think, with the majority of scholars, that Paul is simply using a phrase which indicates the completeness of the human being, the whole person. Whether Paul thinks the person is comprised of spirit and soul and body, as three distinct parts, simply cannot be determined in this one usage since it is never discussed and never used again.

In 5:25, Paul, Silvanus and Timothy call upon the Church to pray for them. Prayer has always been seen as a two way street in the Church, something which leaders do on behalf of their congregations (here and here), but also which congregations perform on behalf of their leaders. They then ask the Thessalonians to greet each other with a “holy kiss” (5:26). Holiness is recommended in all situations, but it seems the “holy kiss” was especially a sign of Christian love for one another.

The final command is in the first person singular, in which Paul asserts his apostolic authority: “I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them” (5:27). The Greek is not “all of them,” however, but “all the brothers.” I do believe that this includes women, the sisters in the congregation, as well. The word for sister, adelphê is so similar to brother, adelphos, that I am convinced that the word, especially when used in plural (dative in this case) indicates the inclusive congregation. I would translate this as “all of the brothers and sisters.” The key point, of course, of this verse is that the letter be read to the whole Church. Paul’s letters were intended to be shared orally with the whole Church. This is surely connected to the fact that not everyone was literate, but probably even more to the facts that there would be only one copy and that the letter was intended not as interesting suggestions for the community, but as a shared religious experience and directive. Indeed, it ought to be our goal as 21st century Christians to recapture the sense of community and family that the earliest Christians felt when they would share letters together and determine how to live out the letters in their personal lives and in the Church.

Finally, the letter ends with grace (charis), a simple ending to Paul’s first letter: “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (5:28). It is simple and direct: The Church is the body of believers brought together by and through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. They remain a united body when they remain in the grace of Christ. In many ways, 1 Thessalonians is the simplest of Paul’s letters, since it is so clear and direct and early in the development of the Church. It is an outpouring of love for the family members of the Church, it is a call to live a life of holiness in Christ as they await Christ’s return, and it is a call for the Church to let itself be transformed by God as they struggle to live their lives of holiness.  Naturally, as the Church has found, simple does not mean easy, but it is good to be reminded by this letter that our call is not complicated and it will be brought to fulfillment not by our own doings but by God, who is “faithful, and he will do this.”

John W. Martens

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