Day 2: 1 Thessalonians 4–5

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.

640px-NTC_fighters_claim_Bani_Walid
Libyan rebels celebrate entry to the town of Bani Walid (2011). Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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?

Letters of Paul small squareThanks 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 FarrinCassandra 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.

9 thoughts on “Day 2: 1 Thessalonians 4–5

  1. I hope you don’t mind, Cassandra. My questioning of the authenticity of the Paulines is sincere, and has been going on for ten years. (Some who have contributed here know this.) I follow where the evidence leads me.

    Chapter four? All this attention to persecution, all this attention in coming, going and writing a letter and still the letter has a miniature “bad boy” list. Though these Thessalonians are “our glory and joy,” thought they “became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus,” though their conduct is “pure upright and blameless, and though their problem is persecution, which sounds serious, the author exhorts the reader to “abstain from fornication” and get rid of lustful passion. Then, he warns against exploiting brothers! The Thessalonians are “under siege,” but they are wonderful bundles of joy able to do no good and now this? Thess. 4.1-8 treats “holiness” or sanctification as being morally sound. (“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from…”) If one, however, compares that with Romans 6, “holiness” is a “free gift of God,” the gift of “grace” (favor of God). Similarly, 1 Cor. 1.30 gives Christ Jesus as the source of “righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” The miniature “bad boy list” attached to “holiness” has more in common with the “instructions” found in 1 Tim.1 and elsewhere. And, as Doughty noted, in the “authentic” Paulines, these exhortations are around to address a problem. This isn’t, however, a problem that is apparent in the letter. These guys are the wonderful but maligned Thessalonians!

    Then the author switches to the theme of resurrection and I’m thinking one of the only time in a “authentic” Pauline, that Jesus “died and rose” himself, as opposed to the Pauline biggie, that God raised Jesus. Indeed, this is the core of the Pauline gospel, that Jesus was raised because of his faith. Jesus raising himself is more in line with the predictions in Mark 8.31 and elsewhere, that he shall “rise ” from the dead. Chapter 5 according to Doughty “… is characterized by motifs otherwise unknown in Pauline writings: the day of the Lord coming as a thief in the night… the light-darkness and day-night dualism…” (p. 186).
    I didn’t have the time to get into some of the other factors for considering 1 Thessalonians deutero-Pauline. Doughty’s statements that the understanding of “gospel,” “faith” and “salvation” are different than those in “the other supposedly authentic writings of Paul” all garnered pink votes by the Paul Seminar. It is important that, when key terms are used differently, one be honest and wonder about whether the same person wrote the letter than others. I would say 1 Thessalonians is more in line with the so-called apostolic writings, Acts of the Apostles and the Pastorals, giving it a second century date.
    Help from “Forum” New Series, 5.2.

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    1. I don’t mind at all, Dennis! I wish you had a blog or were posting them as a public post on Facebook so that I could link across in “Around the Web” like I’m doing with the others. I can’t stress enough that my hope for this challenge is for people to read Paul on their own terms.

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  2. Should we read Paul religiously, socially, or politically? Consider an analogy with the President’s speech/sermon at Rev. Pinckney’s funeral. If we heard it religiously, we might think the main point was a Lutheran/Augustinian exposition of law and gospel, when the President broke into a chorus of Amazing Grace. If we heard it socially we might observe that the President is finally being a bit less guarded, coming out of the closet to be a little more authentically who he is at his core. If we heard it politically it could be taken as forceful commentary on where the country still has to move. Yes, yes, and YES.
    Whatever the President’s cosmological worldview, Amazing Grace was something else. A bit of religion maybe, more social commentary, and a heavy dose of political motivation. The three categories are intermixed in that speech – in a culture that insists religion and politics should never mix. The President’s cosmology, whatever it might exactly be, doesn’t amount to much in catching the drift of what he was saying. If you by default limit the speech to religious commentary only, you would be seriously missing the point.
    I don’t think Paul’s world would know what you were talking about with religion, society, and politics as separate entities. We run into problems if we get hung up on Paul’s 1st century cosmology. The fact that Paul’s greeting claims God is our Benefactor (and Caesar ain’t) should point to the meat of the matter just as Amazing Grace was pointing to something beyond hymn 32 in the red book.

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  3. A paraphrase of 1 Thess 4-5: Finally friends, do everything in your power to be even more consistent in doing God’s will. Avoid sexual immorality, go way beyond what is expected in loving actions, allow hope to overwhelm your mourning for a deceased brother and look forward to greeting the Lord in his descent through the skies. You know that moment will catch everyone by surprise, like the suddenness of birth pangs or the surprise of the thief. Let us be wide awake with alert senses, wearing the armor of trust and love, the helmet of hope. Look forward to liberation and release from condemnation. In the mean time show the greatest respect and love for the missionaries, caretakers, and teachers among you. Be especially helpful to the weak, do not retaliate against evil, and seek the good even for outsiders. Live with joy and thankfulness. Don’t be embarrassed in the presence of charisma and prophecy, but test their value with gratitude. We pray for your preparedness for the arrival of the Lord, the Anointed.

    What are we to make of such a raw expectation and expression of the second coming? Seems quite different from the other Paulines.

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    1. I’m enjoying these paraphrases, Gene. Leading up to this challenge I’ve been taking notes on each of the readings; on at least one occasion I’ve worked on a paraphrase as well, as a way to clarify for myself what I think Paul is saying. It’s a good exercise. The second coming language I tried filtering through the admittedly modern lens of climate change, where we see it as inevitable and something for which we must prepare. Maybe that is too tame, though.

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  4. Cassandra, as I’m currently looking at the matter, there are translations, there are paraphrases, there are interpretations, and there are applications. As I understand the matter, your filter of the second coming language through the lens of climate change was an appropriate and inspiring application, worthy of the finest of sermons.

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