Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 1-3

There is a lot in these three chapters, but I want to focus on three points in particular. First is Paul's desire to explain his actions and feelings to the congregation, at least as it pertains to them. Second, the way the letter concentrates on establishing a nexus of intimate personal relationship between Paul and his fellow missionaries on the one hand and the members of the congregation on the other. At the same time, it underlines the close relationship that now exists between the members of the congregation as well. And last, the role of suffering and persecution.

Considering that Paul's departure from Thessalonica was not planned or exactly voluntary, you would expect him to want to explain to them what happened and why. We'd certainly love to have Paul's account of his hasty departure from Thessalonica! All Acts tells us is that after Jason and others had given bail, "that very night the brothers and sisters sent Paul and Silas [the Silvanus of this letter] off to Beroea". Not very informative! Rumour must have been rife in the Thessalonian community. But that is not what he does here. Instead Paul concentrates on two things, how he behaved and the message he preached while he was there, and the love and concern he has felt since he left them.

So Paul's concern to explain is not a practical one -- here's what happened and why I had to go so suddenly. Instead it arises from a desire to recall to their minds the bond of fellowship and love that they and Paul had formed. Why? I think it has to do with another thing he emphasises all through this section -- the importance of Paul's example to them and their example to others.

This was an important component of the way philosophers taught at the time, and for reasons that we'll discuss a bit more later Jewish and early Christian religious teachers were often viewed by pagans as teaching a philosophy rather than a religion. Paul, adept as he says at presenting himself as all things to all people, often adapted the techniques of popular philosophers like the Stoics in his letters to work with his ex-pagan converts. And so it seems in Thessalonica, he and Silas and Timothy told the new Christians about Jesus and showed themselves to be imitators of Jesus. They encouraged the Thessalonian Christians in turn to imitate them, as they had imitated Jesus.

So why emphasise his conduct among them? Because Paul wants the Thessalonians to use the same technique to spread the good news even further. He says, "you have become imitators of us and of the Lord, receiving the word in great affliction with joy from the Holy Spirit, so that you have become an example to all those that believe in Macedonia and Achaia". Paul wants all Greece (comprised in those two Roman administrative districts) to learn to be Christ-like through the Thessalonians, as they have learned to be Christ-like from him and Silas and Timothy. It's sort of a first century 'each one teach one' scheme except that, instead of literacy, what is being spread is the good news of Christ by example.

How then did the missionaries act to provide this example? According to Paul's synopsis -- they were genuine, they were loving, they were not out to make a buck out of the gospel (a dig at the kind of pop philosophers who were only after the first-century equivalent of a six-figure book contract and an appearance on Oprah), they spoke with boldness no matter what. And most importantly they brought the good news in power and the Holy Spirit, that is, their preaching was backed up with signs of God's power and Spirit. This is the example that the Thessalonians are to follow.

What else? Paul also strongly emphasises the nexus of relationship. In fact he uses familial language frequently in this letter. He compares himself to a loving father and a mother nursing her babies and also refers to the Thessalonians as his brothers and sisters. And of course he also uses this familial language to talk about God and Jesus his Son.

Paul is teaching the Thessalonians to think of themselves not as having become members of a movement or an organisation like the trade guilds or religious clubs of their familiar world -- he is teaching them to think of themselves as part of a family, the Christian family in which their relationship with God and the Lord creates a new kinship group that owes nothing to the ties of blood and marriage but even defies them.

By leaving their previous religious worship, most of the Thessalonian Christians would have cut themselves off from a host of other connections as well. In the ancient world, members of the same trade often formed themselves into guilds under the sponsorship of a temple and the protection of a god, to whom they would regularly sacrifice as a group. So now the Christian tradesmen of Thessalonica can no longer belong to a trade guild because they can't sacrifice to its gods and, considering the hostility that Paul rouses in local Jewish communities wherever he goes, his converts can't very well join whatever parallel group Jewish practioners of their trade (if any) may have formed..

Family life too was affected by conversion. Many families had shrines or altars in the home where they too performed regular rituals of sacrifice to the gods. All these sorts of social and family networks were now closed to the Thessalonian Christians and Paul is showing them how to replace them with new networks based on their new kinship with their fellow Christians both in Thessalonica and elsewhere, and with the potential Christian communities they are helping to bring into being.

But all is not sweetness and light. Paul also emphasises in this section of the letter that the new life the Thessalonians have chosen involves suffering and affliction. Highlighting in another way the loss of so-called natural bonds of affection, he points out that they have been badly treated by their own fellow-Greeks in the same way that he and Silas and the Jerusalem church (and Jesus himself) have been mistreated by their fellow-Judaeans. This whole idea of suffering for the good news or to do the will of God would have been a hard sell in the pagan world.

The idea that the righteous suffer sometimes, even frequently, and yet remain righteous and beloved by God, is an important meme in Old Testament thought -- we find it in the Psalms and in some of the prophets, such as Isaiah. Both psalmist and prophet looked for an act of divine vindication, which perhaps would not come until the end times but would come in God's time, in which the suffering of the righteous would end and they would be rewarded by God for their faithfulness. In Jesus's life, death, and resurrection we see both the ultimate example of the undeserved suffering of the righteous and the ultimate example of God's vindication, not in some far-off time of apocalyptic reversal but in real-time in his resurrection.

But it is not a pagan meme, at least not in the thought world of Greco-Roman religion. A Greco-Roman pagan would find the whole idea absurd. If you did what was right and proper and still suffered then you were offering sacrifice and worship to the wrong god and you needed to find a better, stronger god or goddess that rewarded his or her followers properly. The Greco-Roman religious world was essentially transactional -- you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. So the pagan worshipper offered sacrifices of various kinds to his deity and in return he received the good things of this world, especially the goods that were the particular province of his chosen deity. Judaism broke this transactional model apart completely by an idea of sacrifice in which there was no tit for tat and no hint of bribery for future favours and by its ethical component -- right conduct by his worshippers matters more to Yahweh than any sacrifice. This is one of the main reasons why pagans so often saw Judaism and its Christian offshoot as moral philosophies more than as religions.

But it was a point that had to be emphasised by Christian missionaries again and again that Jesus had suffered and they themselves were suffering and would continue to suffer and that if their converts really accepted the good news of God in Jesus and became Christians they were going to suffer too. That was so that they would not become discouraged and assume, as their culture had taught them to assume, that they had picked the wrong deity. This is also why missionaries like Paul emphasise the manifestations of the Spirit -- the charismatic gifts like acts of healing and speaking in tongues -- as a proof of the truth of the gospel. They show God's power clearly and prevent pagans from taking the suffering of the righteous as a sign of weakness.

Paul doesn't develop this point much in this letter -- he alludes to it enough to show us that here (as we can see elsewhere from other letters) it was part of his teaching about the good news. But I think the emphasis on suffering in Paul's letters often seems strange to us modern readers, because we have absorbed the Old Testament background for this idea and don't perhaps need it to be highlighted as much as they did. We have other difficulties with the Good News!

Continue to the next section.