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The MOST Theological Collection: Commentary on the Pauline Epistles (The Thought of St. Paul)

"Chapter 2. First Letter to Thessalonika"


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This letter is apt to be the very first book to be written of the New Testament. The only possible competitor would be the Letter to the Galatians -- if we hold the view that Paul directed it to the communities he founded in South Galatia on his first missionary expedition, in 46-49 A.D. Then Galatians might have been written in 48 B.C. But it is more likely that Paul wrote to North Galatia, to communities he founded on his second expedition, and then the date would probably be about 54 A.D.

This first letter to Thessalonika was written from Corinth, probably early in 51 A.D. Paul had stayed in Thessalonika some time, to judge from the flourishing community there. He seems to have written this letter out of concern for how the Christians there would stand up under the attacks of the Jews. He says he wanted to return, but "Satan hindered us" (2:18). So he sent Timothy to check. Timothy brought a good report, with no mention of serious abuses, such as later developed at Corinth.

The city of Thessalonika had been founded by Cassander, one of the generals of Alexander the Great, in 316 B.C. It became the capital of the new Roman province of Macedonia in 146. In 42 B.C. it backed Octavius against Brutus and Cassius at the battle of Philippi. Since Octavius won, Thessalonika became a free city.

Although some doubt whether Paul wrote certain letters that now bear his name (such as Second Thessalonians, as we shall see), everyone agrees on the authenticity of First Thessalonians.

Summary of 1 Thessalonians, Chapter 1

Paul, and his companions Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy wish grace and peace to the Thessalonians. They constantly thank God for them, and remember them in their prayers -- especially they recall their faith, love, and firm hope. God's call to them did not depend just on Paul's unsupported words, but on the showing of the power of the Holy Spirit. Then the Thessalonians imitated Paul -- and hence, indirectly, imitated Jesus, even though this got them into trouble with the Jews. But the Holy Spirit gave them His joy in all of this, so that their faith became a model for believers elsewhere in Macedonia and Greece, where others tell how Paul came into Thessalonika, how they gave up their idols, and began to serve the true God, and to await the return of His Son, whom the Father raised from the dead. They are confident He will save them from the wrath of the Day of the Lord, the time of reckoning at the end.

Comments on Chapter 1

Paul speaks of Jesus as Lord, rather than using the word God for Him. He does not deny His divinity. The most sacred Hebrew word for God -- the only one not ambiguous -- was Yahweh. But in the late Old Testament period people came to feel it was too sacred to pronounce, even in prayer, even in reading the Scriptures. So instead they said Adonai, Lord. Hence the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, translated Yahweh by Greek Kyrios, Lord. In everyday Greek kyrios could be used even of a human master, but in a religious context, it meant a god. Acts 9:20 tells us that right after his conversion, Paul preached at once in the synagogues, and said of Jesus "This is the Son of God." All were astounded -- a devout Jew could be called a Son of God, but if Paul had meant it only in that broad sense, they would not have been astounded. So he did preach Jesus as God.

Early in the chapter we meet some key words -- chiefly, grace, peace, faith, love, call. Please do not forget to use the glossary for these. Grace is any gift from God to man. Peace means well-being in general; faith means total adherence of a person to God, so that if God speaks a truth, faith requires belief in the mind, if God makes a promise, faith calls for confidence, if God gives an order, faith calls for the "obedience of faith" (cf. Rom 1:5), all to be done in love (Gal 5:6).

Paul spoke of their call by God to be full members of the Church. (We speak of full membership, since as we shall see in connection with Romans 2:14-16, there can be lesser degrees). As 1 Timothy 2:4 will tell us: "God wills all men to be saved [to enter the Church formally] and to come to the knowledge of the truth." Yet, in the practical order, the Gospel could not reach everyone at once -- even centuries would be needed. So a decision was made by God as to where to send the missioners first. Hence we find that on his second missionary trip, Paul was told by the Holy Spirit not to go into the Roman province of Asia, or Bithynia (Acts 16:6-10). It is not that God did not want those people to hear the word -- no, but He judged there was more urgent need elsewhere. Full membership in the Church is a great help, but one can reach final salvation even without it, provided he has at least a minimum degree of membership1.

We note too that Paul speaks of the Father as raising Jesus from the dead. If we think of His humanity, this is of course correct. If we think of His divinity, we say He rose by His own power. Both ways of speaking appear in the New Testament, and both are correct. The first preaching often used the human mode, to introduce the hearers gradually to the full truth.

At the end of this chapter Paul speaks of the Day of the Lord. In the Old Testament this expression referred to any time of reckoning, when God would rescue His people, and humble their enemies. This could refer just to some great battle -- but it could also refer to the final Day of the Lord, the day of Judgment. Paul means that here.2

Summary of 1 Thessalonians, Chapter 2

Paul tells them he had not come to them without fruit. Just before coming he had been whipped and jailed at Philippi. But that did not stop Paul, for he trusted in God. He did not come like so many traveling charlatans, who worked with deception, uncleanness (even sexual) or guile. Nor did he flatter them, or seek glory. He did not even ask them for financial support for his work, though that would have been legitimate. He wanted them, not their money, he said. He wanted to share not only the Gospel, but his very life. He acted as a father to his children, and was happy they received the word as coming from God -- Who works (causes good will) in those who believe. His not taking a collection did not mean he had no authority: he stresses in 1 Corinthians 9 that he does have the right to take up collections. He does use authority when needed, e.g., 1 Corinthians 4:21, where he says in a playful but serious tone: "Do you want me to come to you with the rod" for punishment? In 2 Corinthians 14 he gives definite rules for the use of charisms. In Acts 14:23 he appoints presbyters in each church at the end of his very first mission. And there are more instances.

They imitated the churches in Judea, even in suffering from the Jews, as did their brethren elsewhere -- the Jews who killed Jesus and the prophets, and were against all men, forbidding the apostles to speak to the gentiles so they could be saved, enter the Church. These Jews were filling up the measure of their sins.

Paul had to leave them for a time, but was still with them in spirit. He wanted to return, but Satan prevented it.

Comments on Chapter 2

'Holy' basically means set aside for God; 'walk' means to live one's life.

Paul's words about filling up the measure of sins are frightening. We find such an expression already in Genesis l5:l6, where God tells Abraham He will give the land to him and his descendants, but not right away -- four time periods (Hebrew dor) must pass first, for "the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full." God, as absolute Master, could give any land to anyone He willed at any time. But He prefers to follow objective good order. He will even wait until the Amorites have gone the limit in sinning. In 2 Maccabees 6:13-16 the inspired writer is meditating on the fact that the Jews are so hard hit in the persecution of Antiochus IV of Syria. He says that even so, he is pleased that God punishes the Jews for their sins in this life, instead of the next life -- with some, He lets them fill up the measure of their sins. Now Paul says that the Jews who are persecuting Christianity are on the wrong side of that divide -- they are going the limit in sins. So the anger of God is upon them eis telos -- which could mean either "completely" or "finally, until the end." They are so hardened they will never repent.

In saying these things, Paul is not being antisemitic -- he is simply telling the really sad truth, of how the Jews persecuted him and other Christians too, very persistently, over and over again. Compare his emotional attachment to his kinsmen at the start of Romans 9, where he says he could even wish to be cursed, away from Christ, to bring them into the kingdom of the Messiah. Of course, he would not give up Christ, this is emotional. But it shows his deep feeling.


Summary of 1 Thessalonians, Chapter 3

Paul could not stand not knowing about the Thessalonians, so he stayed alone at Athens, sent Timothy to Thessalonika to strengthen them. He comments that trouble (thlipsis) is something that commonly comes to Christians, as he had already told them. He prays that the Father and Jesus Christ may direct his path to see them.

Comments on Chapter 3

When Paul says that trouble or persecution commonly comes to Christians, we think of 2 Timothy 3:12: "All who want to live religiously in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution." Behind it is the way Paul would sum up the whole of Christian life: a person is saved and is made holy if and to the extent that he/she is not only a member of Christ, but like Him. Now in the life of Christ there were of course two phases -- first, a hard life with suffering and death; second, eternal glory. We are now in phase one. The more we are like Christ in this first phase, the more shall we be like Him in the second. Hence Paul says in Romans 8:17: "We are heirs of God, fellow heirs with Christ, provided that we suffer with Him, so we may be glorified with Him." And in 8:28: "We know that God makes all things work together for good for those who love Him," and in 2 Corinthians 4:17: "That which at present is light and momentary in our troubles, is working (producing) for us beyond all measure, an eternal weight of glory." Now if even something light and momentary, endured for likeness to Jesus, does that -- what of things that are long lasting and very hard?

On this matter of likeness to Christ, St. Paul says we are members of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-27; Rom 12:4-5; Col 1:18; Rom 6:3; Eph 4:12-15). We do all with Christ, we suffer with Him, die with Him, are raised with Him, ascend with Him (Rom 6:3-8; Col 3:1-4; Eph 2:5-6). We must be like Christ in all things, including make-up for sins (Rom 8:9,13,17; Col 1:24; 1 Cor 11:1; 2 Cor 5:17). As a result of these texts, we see that Luther missed much in saying we need do nothing but take Christ as our Savior. Especially important is Romans 8:17, cited above.

There is something remarkable about the language in verse 11, in which Paul prays that the Father and Jesus Christ may direct his path to them. The special feature does not show in translation, but in Greek Paul uses two subjects, the Father and Jesus, which normally needs a plural verb, for two persons. Yet Paul uses a singular. We are reminded of the saying of Jesus Himself in John 10:30: "I and the Father are one."

Summary of 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12

Paul now urges them to live in the way in which they have been taught to live, so as to grow more spiritually. He asks them to recall the precepts he gave them, especially this: God wills their sanctification. He wants them to stay away from sexual immorality, and to control their vessel in sanctity and honor, not like the gentiles who give in to passions, for they do not know God. They should not sin against others in this matter, for the Lord will avenge such things as Paul had already told them. To live in uncleanness is to spurn not just man but God.

He compliments them that he need not teach them brotherly love -- God Himself has taught them. He wants them to grow still more, and to mind their own business, not being idle busybodies, but working, so outsiders may not criticize the faith.

Comments on 4:1-12

In urging them to live in the way he has taught them, Paul uses Greek paralamabano, which in his usage usually means receiving oral teaching. It had to be so -- when Paul wrote this letter, there was as yet no written Gospel, and this is probably the first of all the Epistles.

His words about controlling one's vessel in sanctity are ambiguous. They could mean either (1) self-control in sexual matters, or (2) keeping one's wife in control. We think definitely the first sense is what Paul intended.

When Paul says the gentiles do not know God what does he mean? In Romans 1 he will insist that people can know the existence of God by thinking on His works in nature. We might try to explain this by thinking of the sense of the Hebrew yada. As we saw in the glossary, it means not only know but love. Yet, since some gentiles do love God -- as we will see in Romans 2:14-16 -- we need something more. This is really an instance of what we will call "focusing" by Paul -- we will see more of it in Galatians 2:15, but now let us say Paul has two ways to look at many things: (1) the focused way, and (2) the factual way. In the focused way he considers what the thing naturally produces --leaving God's grace out of the picture. It is as if we were looking through a tube. Only what is within the circle of the tube will be visible. In the factual way, we remove that artificial limit and take into account that some at least will use the grace offered them. Then the outcome can be very good. For example, often when Paul speaks of the old law of Moses he speaks in the focused way with this result: the law makes heavy demands, it gives no strength, so one surely falls. But in the factual way, he adds that even though the law gives no strength, yet as a matter of fact (factually), divine help was offered even before Christ. Those who used it would have a different, a good outcome. We might also call the focused way the system as system way: then here, the system or setup of being a gentile, as such, produces nothing but sin, sexual and other. In the de facto way, we would note that actually God did offer grace to gentiles even before Christ. Those who used it, did well, could stay out of sin.

Summary of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Paul tells them strongly to pay attention. They should not fail to understand the situation of those who have already died. If they misunderstood, they would be like others who have no hope. Since they believe Jesus died and rose, they should also believe that God will bring with Jesus those who died believing in Jesus. Solemnly Paul tells them as a word of the Lord: we who are still alive when He returns will not get to see Jesus before those who have died. For the Lord Himself will come down from the sky, amid sounds of a cry of an archangel and a trumpet, and those who died in Christ will rise at once, and then we, who will have stayed alive, will be taken to meet Jesus in the air together with those newly risen. Then we will be with Him always. Let them console one another with these thoughts.

Comments on 4:13-18

We took these lines separately from the rest of the chapter because of their special importance. If we read between the lines, we see that some in Thessalonika were worrying about this: Suppose we die before Jesus returns -- then those who have not died will get to see Him before we do. We would say, a foolish worry, as long as they see Him.

But a remarkable implication is present, which so many readers do not notice, namely, those who are still alive at the end, when Jesus returns, will never die at all. Is it not true that all die? Yes, but any general principle has room for exceptions. This is one. Because this exception was keenly felt in the early Church, many were hoping for the end in their time, to escape death. The Didache, which may be very early, has a line of liturgical text (maranatha) which, if we divide the words in one way (marana tha) means: O Lord come. It is a prayer for the end.

These lines are of capital importance in another way: We notice that twice Paul speaks of "we the living." Does this imply he believed he would live to see the end? That deduction need not follow. Many teachers speak in the first person, singular or plural, as a way of making things concrete. For example, in explaining Philippians 2:13, I often say to a class: "When God sends an actual grace to me, that is, one to lead me and enable me to do a particular good thing at a certain time, the first thing the grace does is to put the good thought into my mind -- we gather this from 2 Corinthians 3:5. This almost automatically makes me favorably disposed to the idea -- though there is still no decision. At that point, what things are possible for me? . . ." And I go on to fill in the rest. I am not in such a case giving any information about myself -- just using myself as a means of making it concrete. Paul in l Corinthians 3 speaks much about himself and Apollo. But then in 4:6 he tells them explicitly that he has just used the names Paul and Apollo as an illustration. So also it could be here. Hence there is no proof at all that Paul believed he would be alive at the end. Sadly, many commentators think it is proved -- we admit such an implication is not entirely impossible -- then they make many deductions on that unsolid basis: they say, for instance, that Paul could not have written Second Thessalonians, because there, in chapter 2, it is quite clear he does not think the end is near. They want to use such an unsolid deduction to outweigh explicit testimony of early writers that Paul really did write Second Thessalonians. Again, they think they see other echoes of such a belief on the part of Paul in 1 Corinthians 7. We will see these as they come up. (In Galatians 3:23-4:3 Paul uses we several times in a similar way.)

Still another important point: many today, especially fundamentalists, claim that here Paul is teaching that there will be a "rapture" -- that some day, without warning, God will take all good people out of the world to reign with Christ. Only the bad people will be left. More than once I have seen bumper stickers: "In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned."

Those who hold this rapture idea point out that in the passage we are looking at, people are taken in the air to meet Christ -- but in the Gospel description of the Last Judgment, the things happen on the earth -- so, two different events, they claim.

But the Church does not teach such a thing, and with good reason. Those who make this mistake do not notice the genre of the two passages. Genre means the pattern of writing. For example, in English literature today we have such a thing as a historical novel, e.g., one about our Civil War. Such a novel is a mixture of history and fiction -- the main line of the story is historical, and so are the background descriptions. But fictional elements are added, e.g., word for word conversations of Lincoln with Grant.

The essential question is this: What does the writer mean to assert or claim? He asserts that the main line and background are historical -- he does not assert that the fictional elements are true. We do not charge him with error or deception for having those fictional elements -- no, this is the right way to write a historical novel.

We have in English many of these genres, almost all inherited from Greece and Rome, with rather little change. So as long as we read things in that large culture stream, our instinctive adjustments, as natives, serve well. We know how to take things. But if we start to read a writing from a very different culture stream, can we reasonably say: I am sure they write just like modern Americans? Of course not, it would be silly.

But Scripture belongs to a very different culture stream: ancient Semitic. They have rather different patterns, even though some overlap ours at times. Among the especially strange genres of Scripture is one called apocalyptic. It first appeared in full form about 2 centuries before Christ, and ran for about 4 centuries. In it the writer describes visions and revelations -- without necessarily asserting they really happened. This may be just a vehicle of expression. There is highly colored imagery, and secret things are revealed.

Of course, the original readers knew enough not to take all the highly colored images as if they were sober narrative. They knew they must reduce these things much to get at what the writer really meant to convey. (For a strong case of apocalyptic writing, read Daniel 7:7-14).

Now it is clear that the description of the Last Judgment, and the present lines 13-18, each contain apocalyptic elements -- without being full-blown apocalyptic. For example, all humans of all ages must come for judgment -- but the earth does not have enough space, even if they stood over the entire globe, for all people of all ages to appear. So we see that we must take it differently: there will be a judgment, but not precisely in that form.

Once we realize these things, we see how foolish it is to press a detail of the imagery, saying that one takes place on the earth, the other in the air. No, this is all part of the description of one and the same event, the return of Christ followed by the judgment. So there is simply no teaching here that there will be such a "rapture" as some like to imagine.

Summary of 1 Thessalonians Chapter 5

Paul tells them that the day of the Lord, the end, will come suddenly, as a thief does in the night, as they already know. When people speak of peace and security -- that is the time when sudden destruction will be over them, and they will not escape. Since they are not sons of darkness but of light, they should not be sluggish like others, but be awake. They should put on the armor of faith, love and hope. God has put them on the path of salvation. "So, whether we may be dead or alive when Jesus returns, we will live with Him."

He urges them to respect and love those in authority over them, and be at peace with them. He urges further that they correct the unruly, console those who need it, have care for the weak, avoid repaying evil with evil, being glad, giving thanks at all times. They should not disregard the charismatic gifts of the Spirit, but should check all seeming instances of them. Even the very appearance of evil is to be avoided.

Paul also prays that the God of peace may make them holy, and keep their spirit, soul and body without blame until the time of the return of Jesus. God who called them is faithful to his covenant and promises, and He will provide that grace for them.

Comments on Chapter 5

Paul seems to have told the Thessalonians more about the end than he has told us -- it seems implied in the first line of this chapter, shows up even more clearly in 2 Thessalonians 2:5. We surely wish he had written it down! But he does mention that the end will come when it is not expected, probably when people say everything is fine. Similarly, Jesus Himself said (Mt 24:37-39) that it would be as it was in the time of Noah -- then people were eating and drinking -- business as usual -- and all of a sudden the flood was upon them.3

He speaks of faith, hope and love as armor to defend them -- and he is right. The hope of a glorious eternity with Jesus, if one keeps it in mind and dwells on it, can sustain one in the worst trials. For God has "destined them to gain salvation." It does not mean they are assured of salvation, that they have it made -- Paul makes clear that is not the case. In 1 Corinthians 9:26-27, Paul says even he does not have it made -- he must mortify his body. Even after his great preaching, he could still be lost.4

We notice too that Paul says "whether we are alive or dead" when Jesus returns, we hope to live with Him. Here is another indication that Paul was not so sure he would live to the end.

He urges also love and respect for the authorities of the Church. We know from Acts 14:23 that on his very first missionary expedition, Paul installed "presbyters" in every church. The word "presbyters" is not yet a technical word (we often translate it as priest). It takes time for precise terminology to develop in any field. For example, in Acts 20:17 & 28 we find the same group referred to by the words presbyteroi and episcopoi (bishops). In 1 Corinthians 3:5 Paul can call himself a diakonos (deacon).5

When Paul tells them not to extinguish the Spirit (5:19) he probably refers to charismatic graces.6 In more than one place (e.g., 1 Cor 2:5) he says their faith rests not on human wisdom, but on the showing of the power of God.7 We know from 1 Corinthians 12-14 that miraculous charismatic gifts were common, routinely given in the first age, in Paul's day. If Paul had tried to sell Christianity by his own unsupported word, he would have had no success. So miracles were needed, and they were of the charismatic type.8 Yet here in 5:21 he tells them to examine all things -- presumably, to see if it really is the Holy Spirit at work. In 1 Corinthians 12:3 it becomes clear that some things that seemed like charismatic gifts were really the work of Satan.

It is important to notice too that Paul wants them to avoid even things that merely appear evil. Behind this is the teaching on scandal. To do something that is wrong or at least seems wrong, may lead another into sin. That is scandal, against which Paul speaks strongly in 1 Cor 8-10. But even if someone does not do something actually wrong, but only what seems to others to be sinful -- that can have the same effect. Hence Paul wants them to avoid even the appearance of sin.

Theologically very important are the words in which Paul prays that they may be kept without stain until the end, and then adds that God who called them is faithful, and He will keep them. Now, clearly this does not mean He will take away their free will -- no, but besides the graces needed for each individual temptation, something added is needed for sustained effort, for perseverance. This is what is called the grace of perseverance, or final perseverance. The Council of Trent taught (DS 1566) that we cannot be certain we will have that gift. Trent was striking at the foolish view of the Protestants that one can be infallibly and permanently sure of salvation by just one act: take Christ as one's personal savior.9 But Trent also said (DS 1541) that "God, unless they fail His grace, just as He has begun a good work, will complete it, giving both the will and the doing." Trent here is combining Philippians 1:6 and 2:13. It means in brief: We cannot be sure of having final perseverance -- God will surely offer that grace -- but we may not have it if we fail His grace, that is, reject it. Paul teaches this same truth, that that grace is offered to all, again in Philippians 1:6 and 1 Corinthians 1:5-8. Sadly some older theologians taught that God might withhold this grace -- a grace earned for us by Jesus -- without any grave fault on our part. This is to deny the love of God, which He has proved by sending Jesus to a terrible death (cf. Rom 5:8). To love is to will good to another for the other's sake. So when God says in 1 Timothy 2:4 that He wills all men to be saved, it is the same as saying He loves all).

In speaking of spirit, soul and body, Paul does not imply two souls.10


1 This will be more fully explained at Rom 2:14-16.
2 Cf. Zeph 1:l5; Amos 5:18-20; Is 2:10-22.
3 Cf. also 2 Pet 3:10.
4 Cf. also the warning in 1 Cor 10.
5 As to the historical reliability of Acts, cf. W. Most, Free From All Error, Prow, Libertyville, Il, 1985, chapter 18.
6 See the glossary on grace, and the comments on 1 Cor 12.
7 Cf. also Gal 3:2.
8 St. Augustine, in City of God 2.5, answers those who deny miracles by saying that if Paul and the other Apostles, uneducated men from a backwoods province of Rome, had converted so many peoples without miracles, that would have been a great miracle. Paul was trained as a rabbi, but Greeks and Romans would scorn that.
9 Cf. glossary: faith.
10 Cf. The new catechism, section 367.

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