The First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians Online Commentary (6)

"Christ our Pelican." Byzantine Museum, Thessaloniki, Greece. Photo taken by John W. Martens, January 2006.

 

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 sixth 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 commentary continues to examine 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. 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.

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3. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians:

c) Body of the Letter: Affection and Anxiety: “We could bear it no longer” (3:1-13): 

1 Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we decided to be left alone in Athens; 2 and we sent Timothy, our brother and co-worker for God in proclaiming the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you for the sake of your faith, 3 so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions. Indeed, you yourselves know that this is what we are destined for. 4 In fact, when we were with you, we told you beforehand that we were to suffer persecution; so it turned out, as you know. 5 For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith; I was afraid that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor had been in vain. 6 But Timothy has just now come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love. He has told us also that you always remember us kindly and long to see us—just as we long to see you. 7 For this reason, brothers and sisters, during all our distress and persecution we have been encouraged about you through your faith. 8 For we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord. 9 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith. 11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12 And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13 And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (NRSV)

 

If, for Paul, Timothy and Silvanus, the Thessalonian Christians are “our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming” (2:19) and “our glory and joy” (2:20), their spiritual children, how do they deal with separation from their children? In chapter three, we find them working out the emotional and spiritual implications of being torn from their family members, especially difficult since they are separated from their spiritual children, who need the guidance of their spiritual parents. We can speak of Paul, Silvanus and Timothy experiencing anxiety, since they describe the separation as creating unbearable feelings of loss. In 3:1-3, they write, “when we could bear it no longer, we decided to be left alone in Athens; and we sent Timothy, our brother and co-worker for God in proclaiming the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you for the sake of your faith, so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions.” Timothy was sent not only to strengthen the faith of the church, but to make certain that they could maintain their faith in light of persecution. Indeed, later in this chapter, Paul alone writes, rare in this letter to this point, saying, “For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith; I was afraid that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor had been in vain” (3:5).

The anxiety is centered on whether the spiritual children of Paul, who asserts himself in 3:5 as the main parental figure, Silvanus and Timothy, will remain faithful to the Christian teaching and life in the midst of persecution. As much as they stress that “you yourselves know that this {persecution} is what we are destined for” (3:3), and “when we were with you, we told you beforehand that we were to suffer persecution; so it turned out, as you know” (3:4), they are not convinced that these newly minted Christians can withstand the pressure. And they have good reason for concern: persecution is always easier to speak of in the abstract, to prepare for theoretically than to face it in the flesh. It is not that Paul, Silvanus and Timothy have not experienced persecution – they have – it is that they have grown and developed maturity in the faith. The Thessalonians have not had this opportunity to advance in the faith. As Paul himself says, placing the battles in the spiritual and apocalyptic realm, “I was afraid that somehow the tempter had tempted you” (3:5).

The second half of this chapter, however, shows a turn in the emotional state of Paul and Silvanus, since “Timothy has just now come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love. He has told us also that you always remember us kindly and long to see us—just as we long to see you” (3:6). One of the joys of Paul’s letters is the human reality they evoke of actual events, encounters, successes and problems that ordinary people in the ancient world experienced. These are not missives from the academy or the bureaucracy; these letters are examples of on the ground practical, pastoral theology, whose laboratory is the world and its joys and tribulations.

It is the pastors, the parents, who now speak of their encouragement in their own “distress and persecution” (3:7). My sense is that they did not want to mention their own travails until they had found out from Timothy, as they do in the course of the actual writing of this letter, that the Thessalonians were okay.  When they do find out that the Thessalonians have remained faithful, they take a figurative breath and return to the themes at the end of chapter two: “For we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord” (3:8). Paul, Silvanus and Timothy have as their goal the spiritual well-being of their children. The chapter comes to an end with a glorious prayer, which makes manifest how much their own joy is dependent upon the growth of their children. “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith” (3:10). Anyone who has a child, physical or spiritual, will understand the sentiment, a basic desire to see one’s children thrive and the need to be present with them whenever they face danger, spiritual, emotional or physical, to guide and guard them. They need to see their children!

Paul, Silvanus and Timothy end the chapter with what some scholars have suggested might initially have been intended as the end of the letter itself. This might be possible, and we will consider it in the context of the transition to chapter 4 next entry. For the time being, we ought to note that the end of the prayer, which entrusts them to the care of God, is the thankful outpouring of happy parents, now at ease. “Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (3:11-13).

Just like parents, however, a couple of new themes are introduced in these final verses. Now that they know their children are fine, the parents want to focus on their maturity and behavior. It is in this context that we ought to see the twofold use of holy in these verses, namely, “strengthen your hearts in holiness” and “with all his saints” (3:13). The words holy, holiness, sanctification, and saints in Greek all have the same root, hagios and cognates, and Paul and his co-workers are going to return to this theme in the rest of the letter. Related to this is the call to be “blameless” (amemptos), which is closely related to holiness and appears in a number of Paul’s letters.

Next entry, Paul, Silvanus and Timothy encourage the Thessalonians with respect to their behavior.

John W. Martens

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