In a nutshell: Paul offers a rallying cry for how this well-functioning army (so to speak) can excel in the command of love. He meditates on the end of Roman rule and onset of God’s rule.
Concerning your relationships with one another: I don’t need to add anything to the God-given precept that you should love one another. You are already practicing this precept in your dealings with your fellow believers in Macedonia, but we urge you, friends, to do this extravagantly.
—1 Thess 4:9–10
#30DaysofPaul around the Web:
- Glynn Cardy, minister at the Community of Saint Luke in New Zealand, is posting a daily response on the Community of Saint Luke Facebook page. He kicked off with a comparison of reading Paul to eating a bowl of junket. As he says, “Junket was a childhood desert in the ‘60s with an odd texture and taste that I was glad to leave behind when I had more of a choice about what I ate!”
- Many of us are likely to relate to the opening salvo on the Running Dirt Roads blog: “I, like a lot of progressive Christians I know and read, have had a difficult relationship with Paul and his writings. Letters genuinely written by him, and mistakenly attributed to him, make up a majority of the New Testament, and a good chunk of the Bible. Yet some of his theology can be quite dense, or downright troubling…”
Yesterday I asked whether it is possible to read Paul’s idea of the “condemnation to come” as a real-world thing rather than some sort of magical event that descends from the sky. I also mentioned that his language overtly responds to the Roman Empire when he talks about the “empire (kingdom) of God” and Jesus as “anointed” like David. If you’re not reading the Scholars Version translation, some of this language may be harder to spot, but even in the content it is clear that God’s rule is different from Roman rule. Sometimes it’s hard to see Jesus in these letters, but this teaching should be very familiar:
Make sure that you don’t retaliate against evil, but always seek the good for each other, even for outsiders. (1 Thess 5:15)
Pray for your enemies. For whoever is not against you is on your side. (GOxy 1224 6:1 & its more famous parallels in Matt 5:43–48 and Luke 6:27–28, 32–36)
When someone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other as well. If someone takes away your coat, don’t prevent him from taking your shirt along with it. Give to everyone who begs from you; and when someone takes your things, don’t ask for them back. (Luke 6:29–30 & parallels in Matt 5:38–42 and Thomas 95:1–2)
See also the many stories of Jesus dining with outsiders, touching the “untouchables,” and so on. This clearly was an important aspect of Jesus’ character. It shapes Paul’s vision of God’s Empire. As we will see in coming days, Paul often revisits this teaching of non-retaliation and hospitality for strangers in his letters. Even though Paul never knew Jesus personally, he was a student of Jesus in the most basic sense of relying on his teachings to guide his actions. Perhaps Paul was deeply touched by the call to love one’s enemies, for it describes him perfectly: Paul was a self-described enemy of those who belong to Jesus, an enemy who came to love and obey Jesus as his new hero.
We need to strip the vivid images from the book of Revelation and the Left Behind series from our minds. Paul is not thinking all that magically here. His language around Jesus is all about allegiance to one’s lord. We “belong” to Jesus (3:13, 4:13). He is envisioning an actual king who will return from a real place (heaven) and do battle with real armies (the Romans). It helps here to remember that people in the ancient world believed in an actual and not figurative three-tiered cosmos of heaven, earth, and the underworld. Jesus is the new David anointed by his very crucifixion. He is coming back to wage war not only to rescue Israel but also—and this is Paul’s world-transforming message—to rescue all the nations (in most translations, “gentiles”). Paul is Jesus’ emissary to the nations to alert them to the coming development, this radical overthrow in the name of love. Imagine Paul descending from the war room and making his way along like a town crier, delivering the pronouncement of the would-be king.
By the way, this touches on a language problem. I read and hear about this all the time in biblical and early Christian studies: what do we call the people who followed Jesus before “Christian” became a word for them? Paul and his communities are not yet “Christians” but rather those who, like a valiant army, are rallying now under the banner of their lord. They are to do it in an orderly way so they make a good impression on the wider population, but they are rallying nonetheless. This makes me think that the term “Christ followers” is appropriate as long as we can remember that it means “followers of the anointed [king].” It’s too clunky to say all the time, but it removes a pretty serious translation problem. Paul’s communities are basically backers of a contender for the empire, a contender who happens to love the poor and ragtag of the world. Maybe I should be more cynical about this. How many rebel kings have called upon the poor and the ragtag to join their army for bread and glory? Still, I like the call to love. It speaks of optimism and hope for the future, which truly can transform the world.
I recorded a reflection on the advice to love extravagently (1 Thess 4:9–10), in keeping with my promise to respond in many different ways, not only in essays. Enjoy!
Questions for the Road:
- If you’ve been burned by the church and Christianity before, how do you avoid cynicism in reading Paul’s letters? Cynicism is the opposite of naivete. Naivete is uncritical acceptance of an idea before considering it fully. Cynicism is uncritical rejection of an idea before considering it fully. Do you have any tips for walking the middle road between these two extremes?
- What holds you back from loving “extravagantly”? Is this still good advice even if it comes out of a worldview that isn’t aware of the universe as a vast expanse of which the earth is only the tiniest part? How does one love extravagantly in the modern world?
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.