Reflections on 1 Thessalonians
One of my favorite Pauline epistles is 1 Thessalonians. In fact, I see the entirety of Paul’s theology and spirituality rooted in the words of this short encomium to the church at Thessalonica. Whenever I read any letter from the Pauline corpus, I always keep 1 Thessalonians in mind, often employing it as an interpretive key for the difficult passages found in Paul’s in more complex, theological letters.
1 Thessalonians, perhaps more than any other New Testament letter, portrays the life and teachings of the earliest Christian communities. I say this for a number of reasons. First, virtually all Pauline scholars agree that 1 Thessalonians was the first letter written by Paul that has survived. I have seen it argued in scholarly books that 1 Thessalonians was written as early as 43 AD, though most likely it was written between 49-51 AD. In any case, this is a very early date, which supports the impression that the letter preserves and conveys the genuine Gospel message of the apostolic church. Second, 1 Thessalonians was not written by Paul to respond to a crisis or heresy in one of the local churches as was the Corinthian correspondence and Galatians. Nor is 1 Thessalonians a letter introducing Paul to a community that he did not establish as Romans and possibly Colossians were intended to do. 1 Thessalonians bespeaks of an intimate familiarity between Paul and the community at Thessalonica. Third, Paul is writing to the Thessalonians to praise and thank them for their firm witness to Jesus Christ, declaring their church to be a model for other churches to emulate. This suggests the picture given of the Thessalonian church is one that depicts the true essence of Christian faith, practice and structure.
So what sort of faith does 1 Thessalonians present?
God the Trinity – 1 Thessalonians does not have a highly developed trinitarian theology, yet Paul certainly has a firm grasp of the personal functions. For Paul, “God” is reserved only for speaking of the Father (1 Thess 1:1, 3, 9; 3:11), which is consonant with a Jewish paradigm for thinking God. To refer to Jesus, Paul uses “Lord” and “Christ” to differentiate and distinguish the Son and the Father (1 Thess 1:1, 3; 2:14; 3:24). Nevertheless, precisely as Father and Son, God and Jesus are inseparable in function and intention (1 Thess 1:1; 3:11; 5:9, 18, 23). Especially important in this regard is Paul’s juxtaposition of “gospel of God” and “gospel of Christ”, which not only associates the two in function, but in also in identity (1 Thess 2:8-9; 3:2). Finally, Paul has an early understanding of the function of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church, a function that is indeed associated with, yet different from, God and Christ. The Holy Spirit is responsible for the spreading of the gospel through the apostles (1 Thess 1:5-6) and inspiring prophesy (1 Thess 5:19-22), and is involved in the on-going sanctification of Christians (1 Thess 4:8).
Christ, Resurrection and Return – In his earliest epistle Paul is adamant over the real resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection of Christ is a key component of faith from the earliest times of Christianity (1 Thess 4:14), and all Christians should be prepared for the his return (1 Thess 4:15-18), for Christ shall “come like a thief in the night” (1 Thess 5:2).
Belief, Conduct and Action – 1 Thessalonians presents perhaps the most simple understanding of what the act of faith truly is. Leaving aside the frequent disagreements among Christians on the precise meaning and consequences of faith, which tend to focus on Romans, Galatians and Ephesians, 1 Thessalonians presents the truest meaning of faith. Paul makes no distinctions between faith, belief, and works. Rather, Paul presents the “work of faith” as inalienably tied to the “labor of love” and the “steadfastness of hope” (1 Thess 1:3). The will of God is our sanctification, says Paul, and this comes by means of living upright lives and pleasing God in our conduct, lest God avenge our immorality, lust and transgressions (1 Thess 4:1-8). Paul is quite clear that even a believing Christian may commit sins that God will avenge. The sober preparation for Christ’s return and for our salvation is not faith alone or works alone, but “the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thess 5:8-9).
Hierarchy – It is often said that the idea of an organized hierarchy in Christian churches is not found in the early Pauline epistles, but rather in the later Deutero-Pauline Pastoral Epistles. The story goes that the early Pauline communities were charismatic and, if anything, these communities were guided by a kind of loose-knit oligarchy. But I find this to be a forced reading with little textual support. Paul clearly makes reference to an organized leadership in 1 Thessalonians, the earliest of his letters: “But we beseech you brethren, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thess 5:12-13). These leaders are “over” the faithful of Thessalonica, and Paul appears to be comfortably “over” them. After all, Paul is writing his letter to the entire church at Thessalonica, which would include its local leaders. Let us be clear here: Paul says nothing explicit about clerical offices in 1 Thessalonians. However, he does describe a hierarchical structure composed of himself, those who are over the Thessalonian church, and the faithful of the Thessalonian church.