The First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians Online Commentary (3)
In the first entry in the 1 Thessalonians Bible Junkies Commentary I began by looking at introductory matters, which were comprised of comments on the nature of a Greco-Roman letter, and the background of Paul’s activity in Thessalonica, that 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 this, the third entry, I will discuss the Thanksgiving for the letter.
As with Jude, the study of 1 Thessalonians will be in the form of a more traditional commentary, though the introductory questions of authorship, date and the location are not as difficult as with the letter of Jude. We know who wrote the letter, we know basically when it was written and we know to whom it was written. The introductory matters in this case will involve more a breaking down of the situation in Thessalonica, as we know it from Acts of the Apostles, and that of Paul and his companions. The basic Greco-Roman form of the letter will also be given, as with Jude, and then the bulk of the comments will center on the meaning and the purpose of this letter. Finally, comments at the end will concentrate on the message of the letter for the 21st century Church and Christians. Since there are no questions regarding the Pauline authorship of 1 Thessalonians, these issues will be dealt with when we come to letters in the Pauline corpus for which many scholars have raised issues of authorship. The problems concerning whether a letter is written by Paul are all best dealt with concretely and not abstractly. In the case of 1 Thessalonians, we can get right down to business.
3. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians:
2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 9 For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.(NRSV)
As mentioned in the first entry the Thanksgiving functions as sort of prayer for the recipients – a literal blessing - and often contains intentions for the entire letter. In this Thanksgiving, the senders all offer thanksgiving, since the verb is in the first person plural: “we give thanks” (eucharistoumen) (1:2). The initial thanks is simply for “all of you,” the whole church, and the notice that they are remembered in the prayers of Paul, Silvanus and Timothy. The second mention of “remembering” comes in 1:3, when the content of their prayers for the Thessalonian church are made clear as is the constancy of their prayers for the Thessalonians. They are “constantly” (the adverb adialeiptôs could also be translated as “unceasingly” or “continually”) remembering the Thessalonians in their prayers. In particular they remember “your (plural) work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
These three nouns, faith, hope and love, will become known to the Christian tradition as the theological virtues and even in this, the earliest extant document of Christianity, they form the core of the Christian life. Interestingly, Paul and his co-authors describe them as a “work” (ergon) of faith, “labor” (kopos) of love (agape) and “steadfastness” (hypomonês) of hope. That is, the clear implication is that these virtues are acquired through long struggle and effort not simply present in an instant. It is also important to see the theological context of these virtues: the Thessalonians’ virtues are remembered “before our God and Father,” but they are performed “in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul, Silvanus and Timothy then speak of them as “brothers and sisters beloved by God” (1:4). The word translated as “brothers and sisters” is adelphoi, which is in the masculine nominative plural and means “brothers.” The word for “sisters” in the feminine nominative plural is adelphai.It is clear that adelphoi refers to the whole congregation, including women, and that it would be redundant to speak of adelphoi and adelphai. The whole church, men and women, has been chosen by God – in fact the phrase in Greek simply speaks of “your (pl.) chosenness” (tên eklogên hymôn) – and this was clear “because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1:5).
The passage from 1:5 gives a sense, perhaps, of how the Gospel message at this early stage in Christianity found a foothold, namely, not through “word” (logos)only, which must be seen as proclamation and preaching, but through “power,” the “Holy Spirit” and “full conviction,” that is, religious experience. What were these experiences? Power is dynamis, but what sort of religious experience Paul associates with this word is unclear. Does it mean a sense of God’s power or presence? Does it mean miracles? Does it mean speaking in tongues, since the message came with power and the Holy Spirit? Certainly the activity of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12-14 is associated with speaking in tongues, but it is not limited to that. What is meant by “full conviction” (plêrophoria pollê)? Is this an assurance of the truth of the message preached among the Thessalonians?Is this assurance a kind of religious experience, going beyond an intellectual certainty to a kind of feeling? What sorts of experiences Paul means specifically is not able to be determined at this point, but it is important to keep in mind that Paul sees God’s presence as active in the Thessalonians from the point of receiving the message and, in fact, decisive in the fact that they did hear and receive the message.
The last part of 1:5 is interesting also, in that Paul and co-authors end this verse with “just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.” It seems that Paul, Silvanus and Timothy want the Thessalonians’ experience of them “for your sake” to be seen as undergirding and supporting the church’s experiences of God. It is an interesting connection that is made between the message and the messengers: the manner of life which Paul and his companions lived does indeed support the message the Thessalonians’ heard and verifies the experiences they had. The Church’s message is inextricably intertwined with those who carry the message.
This is so much the case that Paul and his co-workers state in 1:6-7 that “you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.” The word for “imitators,” mimêtai, will appear in other of Paul’s letters (and in 1 Thessalonians again), as will its verbal form. It is an important word, which we should spend some time understanding.
The language of imitation as used by Paul arises first in the Greek world. Imitation was generally not seen as negative. It usually indicated one of three things:
1) The act of emulating what someone else is doing, such as a parent or teacher;
2) The joy one takes in following another’s example;
3) “The representation of reality in artistic activities” (Anchor Bible Dictionary III, 392).
The sense of 3) is present in Platonic cosmology, in the understanding of the “original” and the “copy” (imitation), in which the visible world is a “copy” (mimēma) of the world of Ideas (ABD III, 392). In this sense, a person could “imitate” God through the cultivation of philosophy. Philo of Alexandria uses the word(s) in the Platonic sense of the “original” and the “copy,” in which one imitates a model, which can include God, but also other human beings. “(Moses) beheld what is hidden from the sight of mortal nature, and, in himself and his life displayed for all to see, he has set before us, like some well-wrought picture, a piece of work beautiful and godlike, a model (typon) for those who are willing to imitate it (mimeisthai)” (De Vita Mosis, I.158).
Paul’s language seems entirely in line with that of his Greek and Hellenistic antecedents, even in terms of what one offers as a model for imitation:
2) Parent or Superior;
3) Teacher or Wise Man.
Paul will differ from both the Greeks and Philo in what he sees as the essential content of imitation, which we can only grasp from a study of passages in Paul that deal with the concept. We will not, however, be able to examine all of those passages here, so I can say that imitation for Paul sometimes involves a simple comparison as in 1:6: just as we suffered persecution (Paul and his co-workers and the Lord) so, too, did you and you received the word “with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.” The Thessalonian Christians are imitators, because like Jesus, Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, they too suffered persecution on behalf of the word. While persecution and suffering is not the only meaning of imitation in Paul, it often is. The Thessalonians have emulated “what someone else is doing, such as a parent or teacher” and shown the “the joy one takes in following another’s example.” In so doing, they themselves have become the example or model (typon, as in the passage I cited from Philo above) for the Christians in their own region (Macedonia) and in other areas (Achaia, where Corinth is located).
This also marks a possible theme for the whole of the letter to the Thessalonians, as the word “imitation” will occur again in chapter 2 and because in the following verse, Paul Silvanus and Timothy note that their “faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it” (1:8). Indeed, 1:9 continues the theme of the widespread knowledge of their faith and the “kind of welcome we had among you.” More than that, though, the end of the Thanksgiving opens up another theme as it brings this one to a conclusion. The fame they had among other Christians is based upon “how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming” (1:9-10). We get a piece of interesting information here about the Church – that in “turning from idols” we can assume that they were mostly Gentiles not Jews – and a piece of theological data regarding the coming of Jesus. When Paul and his co-authors mention information such as Jesus’ expected return, his resurrection and the coming wrath, a basic Christian summation of the end times, we can be certain that this theme will be taken up later in the letter. After all, how much do newly converted Gentiles know about Jesus’ return, resurrection and the apocalyptic scenarios which emerged out of Judaism?
Next entry, we begin to study the body of the letter.
John W. Martens
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