My dear friend Beth is participating in a reading challenge from the Westar Institute called “30 Days of Paul Reading Challenge.” The exercise is to read the 7 uncontested letters of Paul in 30 days and then “write, draw, or record” a reflection with the hashtag #30daysofPaul. Beth asked others to join in and I took her up on the challenge. So, here’s my first reflection! As always, I’m quoting from the Common English Bible.
1 Thessalonians is a very personal letter! It seems it’s in response to Paul’s own anxiety about the Thessalonian followers of Jesus (chapters 2 and 3). When Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy visited Thessalonica previously, they fell in love with the little community that believed their message. Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy continually thanked G-d for the community (1.2) and remembered them because of their “work that comes from faith, [their] effort that comes from love, and [their] perseverance that comes from hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father” (1.3). The Thessalonian followers of Jesus became imitators of Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, Jesus, and the “churches of God in Judea,” because they were being persecuted by their own kin, like the Jews were persecuting the Jewish followers of The Way of Jesus in Judea (1.6; 2.14).
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy predicted that they themselves would face suffering and persecution because of God’s “good news” and told this to the Thessalonian followers of Jesus (3.4). When the prediction came true, Paul was worried about the Thessalonian followers and their faith in Jesus. When Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy tried again and again to go back to Thessalonica, they couldn’t; they were stopped by “Satan” (2.18). Finally, they decided to send Timothy alone (3.1-2). First Thessalonians is the result of Timothy’s return to Paul and Silvanus and his report of the followers of Jesus in Thessalonica (3.6).
Paul writes that Timothy gave the group “good news about [the Thessalonian followers] faithfulness and love” (3.6). Since the Thessalonian followers wanted to see Paul and his companions as much as they wanted to see the Thessalonian followers, Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy were “encouraged in all [their] distress and trouble” because of the Thessalonian followers’ “faithfulness” (3.7). Paul says that he and his companions were “alive” because of the strength they received in knowing the Thessalonian followers were “standing [their] ground in the Lord” (3.8). He goes on to state that they’re so encouraged they’ve started praying “more than ever” to see the Thessalonian followers again (3.10ff). Their prayer is specific: 1) That God will “guide [Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy]…back to [the Thessalonian followers]; 2) That Jesus will “cause [the Thessalonian followers] to increase and enrich [their] love for each other and for everyone; 3) and that this love will cause the Thessalonian followers’ hearts “to be strengthened” and “blameless in holiness before our God.”
There are a few things that stand out to me in these chapters. When Paul first mentions the faith of the Thessalonian followers, he states that it’s their “work that comes through faith” (1.3). How can we continually miss this? Do we have blinders on? The Bible seems quite clear, contrary to many Reformed teachers, that salvation is not “faith alone.” Over and over again it’s presented as “work that comes through faith.” Just a cursory look at the justice scenes of the New Testament (see Matthew 25, for example), show that people are held accountable for their actions. And here, as in James 2, those actions must come “through faith.” I’ve recently seen a quote attributed to Bishop Francis that sums all of this up. It states, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. This is how prayer works.”
The second thing that stands out, and tied directly to the first observation, is Paul’s work ethic. He stated that their motives for coming to the Thessalonians weren’t “greedy” and they didn’t ask for “special treatment” (2.5-6). Instead, he and his companions, “worked night and day so [they] wouldn’t be a burden on any of [the Thessalonian followers] (2.9). I remember coming up through the ranks at a “Full Gospel” church were the travelling evangelists were continually begging for money. Saying things like, “If you don’t give to our ministry, we won’t be able to go on.” And it was always prefaced the same way, “We never like to talk about money, but…” That’s one of the things I admire about the Lindisfarne Community; we’re about bi-vocational clergy. That is, one’s primary (and, in most cases, only) income comes from outside the church. I’ve been so far removed from that circle that I don’t know if this is still an issue, but recently there was a news story about a minister that wanted his congregation to buy him a private jet that cost several million dollars. It seems that some people have forgotten Paul’s example to the Thessalonian followers.
My third and final thought is the belief that Jesus would return soon and G-d’s “wrath” would soon be poured out. We see this in 1.10, 2.16, and 3.13. As I’ve already covered this before, I’ll just touch upon this here; these statements shouldn’t be thought of as “any time now” and be extrapolated “to infinity and beyond.” Paul clearly believed and taught others to believe that Jesus would return within their lifetime. In addition this his return, Jesus would bring G-d’s wrath, not just on anyone, but, in this context, specifically to the Jews of the first century. Paul wrote in chapter 2, that the Thessalonian followers of Jesus were imitators of their brothers and sisters in Judea because they “suffered the same things from [their] own people as they did from the Jews. [The Jews of Paul’s generation] killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove…out [the Judean followers of Jesus]. [The Jews of Paul’s generation didn’t] please God, and they [were] hostile to the entire human race when they [tried] to stop [Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy] from speaking to the Gentiles so they [could] be saved. Their sins [were] constantly pushing the limit” (2.14-16; adapted). Paul wrote that because of that, “God’s wrath…caught up with them in the end” (2.16). This is a clear reference to the war between the Jews and the Romans between 66 and 70 CE. Paul, then writing in the present tense, noted that this was a current event in their lives — not something to be stretched out indefinitely and certainly not for our own lifetime. No. Paul’s audience were the followers of The Way of Jesus in Thessalonica in the early 50’s CE. He wrote to them about things they were then experiencing and things they would soon experience. The eschatology of 1 Thessalonians finds it’s fulfillment in the War of the Jews and the Romans that started roughly 10 years after Paul wrote this letter.
So, what do we make of all this? Again, 1 Thessalonians is a very personal letter. I can sense Paul’s love for this little community of people as well as his joy and pride in their faith amidst persecution from their own people. When compared to some of his other letters, it seems that Paul had a special place in his heart for the followers of Jesus in Thessalonica.
What about us? Do we have a special group of people in our lives? Do we think about them every time we pray? What would happen to them (and us) if we did that? Are we encouraged and strengthened by them? And they by us? Perhaps we could take a few moments and pray for them and then, working through our faith, maybe we can contact them and let them know how much they mean to us.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC