Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4-5
This section divides about equally into two parts. One part reflects Paul's concerns for the way of life of his new converts and how that way of life affects their relationships with one another and with the non-believers among whom they live. The other reflects the Thessalonians' own concerns, to which he is responding in several paragraphs. Perhaps the best known parts of the letter appear to be his responses to their questions, which were most likely brought to him by word of mouth from Timothy. Analysing the verbal clues in the original Greek of the letter points to the probability that three discussions in this section were prompted by the Thessalonians: about brotherly love, about those who have already died, and about the day of the Lord.
It's hard to know now why they were asking about brotherly love -- Paul doesn't seem to think they need any further instruction from him, saying that they have been taught by God to love one another and in fact are showing that love to the brothers and sisters all across Macedonia. He offers them some practical tips on living a quiet life and tells them to brace up and get on with the job.
It's easier to see why they might have been worried about the fate of those who had died, especially in light of what Paul had apparently told them about the day of Judgement and the Parousia (or Appearing) of Jesus -- what we call his Second Coming. Paul seems to have made a point of talking about the end of the age and the Lord's Coming in judgement in such a way that they became an integral part of his message. In this he has a lot in common with some of the Old Testament prophets and with Jesus himself, who also taught his disciples about the end times, than with many modern Christians, who are content to leave these matters to TV preachers and scare-mongers.
Judging from the images he uses here (a signal blast from a trumpet, an archangel's voice, a loud shout, the Lord descending in clouds), Paul taught them about the end times by drawing a dramatic picture of divine intervention and revelation based on the conventions of Jewish apocalyptic writing. Some of that is reflected in the later Old Testament prophets or in writings like Daniel, with his vision of one like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven. But to a former Pharisaic rabbi like Paul, the important point, the core underlying all this dramatic, Cecil B DeMille imagery, was that God would someday judge the people he had made, the world he had made. Further, the the Lord Jesus would be part of that day; the righteous would be vindicated and the Lord would gather his own to him in that day, so that they need not be afraid of it. But it is no wonder that these were difficult concepts for the Thessalonians!
Part of the difficulty lies with differing expectations. Just as pagan memes did not include the idea of the suffering of the righteous, so too they did not include the idea of a final divine judgement. Nor was the Christian idea of life after death an easy sell in a pagan world. Yes, Greco-Roman pagans believed in a sort of life after death, but it was a half-life of shadows, dimly-visible flitting ghosts making high-pitched twittering noises like the cries of birds in the realm of the dead. It wasn't exactly Hell, but it sure wasn't heaven either! So it would have been hard to grasp that those who died before the Lord's Day were not going to miss out on the cosmic vindication of the righteous and the gathering in of the Lord's people. Not at all, says Paul! In fact, those that have died in Christ will get pride of place when that Day comes -- they will join the Lord before those of us that are still alive! In an attempt to get his point across he even refers to the deceased members of the congregation as 'those that have fallen asleep' -- not to deny the reality that they have died, but to try to get it across that, for those who believe in God, dying is something quite different from what the Thessalonian Christians have been taught to imagine.
From there he goes on to remind them (answering another question) of what they already know about how the day of the Lord will come, and how they are already living appropriately, so as not to be taken by surprise. He uses the same, almost exasperated language that he used in the response about brotherly love -- you don't really need to be told any of this: you already know this stuff. And he tells them, you are not living in darkness, so as to be taken by surprise when the day breaks.
Paul tries to deal with these three concerns of the Thessalonians fairly expeditiously, keeping the focus on practical matters of daily life in the here and now and away from speculations about what is going to happen at the end of the age. In this he was not wholly successful, because we can see by reading his second letter to the Thessalonians, that he still needed to try to sort out their confusions about those who have died and the day of the Lord! Since less than a year has likely elapsed since Paul arrived in Thessalonica, it's hard to imagine that large numbers of the congregation had died, so it appears that the whole question may have largely been speculative. Someone has been overthinking this all a bit!
Paul is not a primarily speculative thinker -- he's interested in the practical question of how the Thessalonians are to live and be pleasing to God, a God who desires chiefly that they live lives of holiness. This, Paul tells them, is the will of God -- your sanctification. In this section Paul provides a lot of good advice about how to order good relations within the 'family' that has been created, by conversion, among the congregation. He is also concerned about the relations between this new 'family' and the larger, mostly pagan, community among whom they live, a community we've already learned in the earlier part of the letter was a hostile one. Hence I think his stress on living quiet lives, minding their own business, sticking to their work, respecting their leaders. A surprising amount of that advice still makes sense in a modern multi-cultural environment in which practising Christians are no longer a majority.
What I think we need to pay most attention to is very near the end: "Always rejoice", Paul tells the Thessalonian Christians, "pray uninterruptedly, give thanks in everything, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Don't extinguish the Spirit, don't reject prophecies, but test everything, hold on tight to what is good, avoid every appearance of wickedness." We live lives of constant change, beyond anything that Paul or the Thessalonians could have imagined, because of the incredible differences in technology and communications. We are being bombarded with new possibilities and new ideas about how to live as Christians in a new environment. This was good advice for a tiny community of first-century believers entering the new world of faith, and it's equally good advice for our communities of believers in our times. We've got a lot to learn from the Thessalonians, and from Paul! So let me say to you too, "Don't extinguish the Spirit, don't reject prophecies, but test everything, hold on tight to what is good"!
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