In a nutshell: Anxious, embattled leader responds to a report he received while on the road that his community is still backing him.
When I could not stand to worry any longer, I sent Timothy to check on your faithfulness, for fear that you had been so shaken by these threats that our work had come to nothing. But now Timothy has returned to us with a glowing report of your confidence in God and your love for us. … We can cope if you remain committed to the Lord’s service.
—1 Thess 3:5–6a, 8 SV
Our opening reading, 1 Thessalonians 1–3, is sweet with an undercurrent of ominous. Here I was, thinking this first reading would be pretty easy. Not so. Right from the start we’re confronted by talk of “condemnation that is sure to come” (1:10). We’ve already hit one of those awkward future-of-Christianity moments, and we’ve only just begun.
Deep breath. I’m not reading this to prove the rightness or wrongness of Christianity today. I’m reading in Harvey Cox’s three layers: story, history, spirituality.
I retreat into history to rescue the moment. Paul is 100 percent pre-Christianity. As far as Paul is concerned, in his own words, his world-transforming message is not “we have a new religion,” but “the messiah now has a name, Jesus, and he came not only for the people of Israel but for all the nations of the world” (1:10, 2:16).
Paul still identifies with Israel: in future letters, as we’ll see, he uses the stories of Israel to define what he feels is an enormously important cosmic situation. He called upon the experiences of Israel’s renowned prophets to define his own role in it, decades before any movement formally known as “Christianity” emerged as a separate religion from Temple, rabbinic, or any other sort of Judaism.
Paul’s emotions stand out. His total enthusiasm for the Thessalonians exudes from this letter. As Gerd Lüdemann observed in The Earliest Christian Text, we get to see Paul’s pastoral approach in this letter, a rare glimpse of his personal relations. “The letter is somewhat gossipy,” Brandon Scott said of it in The Trouble with Resurrection. Here we see a Paul who is warm and embracing, but he’s also anxious to keep his people loyal. As his letter to the Galatians will make clear, Paul is a man capable of putting outrage to paper.
His anxiety has a clear source: he’s embattled, facing ridicule and threats. Not to put too fine a point on it, it sucks to be alone in situations like that. He’s relieved to find out the Thessalonians are still backing him.
That’s the historical, but what about the spiritual? What inner demons are stirred up by this letter to the Thessalonians? I’m imagining Paul and his communities as living at levels of tension somewhat like Ferguson and Baltimore this past year. Whatever is troubling Paul’s community, it goes beyond everyday harassment: someone has died, several someones (2:15, 3:3). Paul and his communities are facing intense pressure to sink back into the status quo, pretend nothing bad ever happened. Indeed they are able to sink back into the status quo to some extent, but only until the next blow wakes up their sense of injustice.
Paul urges exactly the sort of caution one would expect under such circumstances: “Live a quiet life, mind your own business, and support yourselves so that outsiders might respect you and you might be self-sufficient” (3:11–12). How often have I heard that same caution voiced by people who’ve been in that place? I remember a classmate at Yale Divinity School who, in explaining to a large group of (mostly white) friends what it was like for her to live as a black woman, put her hand on my arm and said, “It’s like this: I may be the only black woman Cassandra ever meets up close. I need to make a good impression, not for myself but for all black people.” She had learned that making a good impression protects not only herself in the moment but contributes to the protection of all black people. If I as a white woman have even one positive impression of a black person, it may prevent the sort of conscience-numbing fear that would lead me to lash out later. What enormous pressure to be facing as a member of a minority group!
Do I have the power to hurt a black man or black woman? Whether I like it or not, the answer is yes. All it takes is a complaint registered in a certain “sensible” tone of voice at the right time to the right official. I know exactly what that looks like. I hate that power, but I know people who don’t. They cling to it.
Another anecdote, this one from Harvey Cox on reading Jesus’ Last Supper with a community in a favela (slum) near Săo Paulo:
Suddenly a man with a weather-beaten face shook his head. “Why in the world,” he asked, “did the Lord talk so openly, when he suspected there was an informer at the table?” He added that he had had experience with police spies and he certainly would never have done that. (How to Read the Bible, 11)
These two modern stories both came from people trying to live their lives without the unpredictable intrusions of brutality from people who have more power than they do. Anyone who takes action to improve or overthrow the current state of affairs faces elevated threats and persecution. Is Paul’s group truly comparable?
If I just read this as a straight-out story without accounting for context, the bad guys appear to be fellow people of Israel (Jews?) who Paul tells us are harassing the Jesus crowd in far-off Judea. Even Paul isn’t all the way over there. He’s only in Athens. When I draw on the larger horizon of empire studies, though, there’s an argument to be made that Rome is the true enemy—and it would have been obvious to first-century readers.
Jesus, to the extent that his intentions can be known, chafed against the randomized brutality of Roman rule. Can his Empire of God be any more obviously in competition with the Empire of Rome? But what about Paul’s own words? I think yes, anti-imperial language threads through them. Look at his Jesus, “God’s Anointed”—think of David and other kings of Israel, anointed with oil by prophets to usher them toward an illustrious if occasionally torturous reign. And here comes Paul, actively campaigning far beyond Judea for others to see Jesus as a divinely resurrected king.
I circle back to that phrase, “condemnation to come.” What makes the Thessalonians special and loved and protected is not their inherent worth as human beings but rather their allegiance to the specific God in the precise way Paul has laid out the situation for them. Their worthiness is conditional on loyalty to God. The question is, what does it mean to be loyal to God? Who or what precisely are we loyal to when we are loyal to God? Because Paul is speaking to people who have already heard his message, he doesn’t explain, but future readings will shed more light on this question.
Questions for the Road
- Have you ever felt concerned that coworkers or a community group are abandoning an important message or mission of yours? Did you, or would you, handle it as Paul does in this letter?
- Is it a deal-breaker to read a person who believes the end of the world is coming? What if, as in environmental circles today, we understood Paul to believe the world is ending in a thoroughly “real-world” sense, and we have to get ready for it?
Thanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.