Donald Andrew Henson II

1 Thessalonians 3-4

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Society on May 28, 2012 at 12:11 am

Read 1 Thessalonians 3 here.

I’ve been distracted this week by events in the news and other ideas I’ve come across – so I’m happy today to get back to blogging the NT.

Many Christians have encouraged me to look at the Bible chapter by chapter, and to ignore the ‘crazies’ like those behind the events in North Carolina over the past few weeks. I’ll agree that the folks making all the news aren’t spending as much time reading their Bibles as they are listening to their leaders – or they are selecting a few favorite verses to support their own pet theories.

The third chapter of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians doesn’t have as much ‘spiritual’ content as the other chapters. Basically, it’s Paul talking about how they were unable to visit Thessaloniki due to persecution, and how they worried that the church might not continue in their absence. Timothy is somehow able to get back in touch, so Paul and Silas are incredibly happy to hear that the church is still thriving.

Paul seems to know what every local pastor today knows as well – faith will flounder if it isn’t talked up on a regular basis. You’d think that such phenomenal revelation of truth would stand up to almost anything. But it seems that if you are left to your own devices for a short time, without any other Christians around, you’ll tend to lose interest. Now I know this can be said of pretty much any group, from bowling leagues to Shriners; the difference is that the gospel is supposed to be powerful – powerful enough to at some point raise us up from the dead. Why does it require a pep talk twice on Sundays and at least once or twice the rest of the week to keep people even minimally engaged?

Paul closes the chapter with another reference to the impending return of Christ – more on this in the next chapter.

Chapter 4 seems to be the real thrust of the whole letter, containing the one or two doctrinal ideas that caused Paul to write the letter in the first place. Timothy must have reported at least an instance or two of sexual immorality between the Thessalonian church members, because Paul seems to be saying, “hey, I know we said that you were to love one another – but that’s not exactly what we had in mind.” He admonishes them to control their bodies when it comes to sexual practices, not to act like pagans. He lets them know that anyone who sleeps around is not disobeying Paul, but disobeying God.

The paralia (promenade) at Aristotelous Square...

Promenade at Aristotelous Square in Thessaloniki

Modern Christians have adopted the idea that your average non-believing Roman lead the life of Caligula – but this isn’t necessarily true. It does seem that citizens of the Roman empire had an obsession with sex, and that many did lead what we would consider immoral lives. However, there are also many Greek and Roman teachers who favored chastity outside of marriage as well – it is not an idea unique to the Judeo-Christian faith.

Believing in Jesus and morality do not necessarily go hand in hand, and Paul knows it. Many of the letters to the churches address the issue; apparently sexual immorality was a big problem – as it is in today’s churches. The power of the gospel doesn’t really seem to help people change to the extent that you would think it could. Adding to this dilemma is the fact that there are people who don’t even believe in God who live lives of higher morality than many Christians.

Some of you will say something about Christians not being perfect or about not judging the church by its worst members or something of the like. But I would respond that if the results are little different from what might be found in any other creed, than the teachings themselves are little if any better.

Paul moves on to encourage his flock to lead a quiet life and work with their hands. Apparently, because they expected Jesus to appear in the clouds at any time, some believers had simply quit working. Why break your back putting away food for next winter if Jesus was going to come back before then? Paul lets them know that they should continue about their daily lives and not become a financial burden to others. This stance might be evidence of the growing suspicion that Jesus wasn’t going to come back as soon as everyone thought.

Bible scholars believe that verse 13 is further evidence of this pivotal shift in early Christian thinking. For two decades, the apostles had been preaching that Jesus was coming soon – and by soon, there’s no doubt they all felt that it was definitely in their own lifetimes. As I said earlier, this is one reason nothing was written about Christ’s life immediately after his death. Now, however, enough time had passed that some believers were beginning to die off – before Christ’s return. This seemed to contradict what they had believed, that Jesus was coming back to set up a new order, and that they would all be part of the Kingdom of God here on earth.

So Paul tells them that he does not want them to be ignorant of what God’s plan is, nor to grieve without hope of the God’s kingdom. He tells them that, upon Christ’s return, the dead believers will rise first, then those who are still alive will rise to meet them. They don’t have to worry that those who died since becoming believers would miss out on anything at all.

Paul’s choice of words in verse 17 make me a bit sad for him – and for the countless others like him as the centuries have rolled by. Notice he doesn’t say that after the dead in Christ rise, “those” who are still alive will be taken up; he says “we” who are still alive will be taken up. There’s no question that Paul was 100 percent sure that Jesus would come back in his lifetime.

I can’t help but wonder how heavily this misplaced faith hung upon him just before the Romans lopped his head off. Or how many others have died in astonishment that Jesus had not come for them.

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  1. kind of sad, but also shows the subtle ways that religion appeals to a person’s pride. “ofcourse he’s coming back in ‘our’ time…..it’s all been building up to ‘us/me’. and as usual, exposes human fear. “he’ll be back in time for me to avoid the experience of death”.

  2. Paul says he wants to bring news about his trials in Athens. Did he mean actual trials, or just day to day setbacks?

    This passage also makes me wonder how big the Christian community was. Was Thessaloniki a hamlet of hundreds, and the Christians twenty or thirty, or was it a small city, and there were hundreds of Christians?

    And I’ve got to ask, why does God need Paul? Why can’t he just talk directly to all people? And of course, Paul here reminds me of the pastor in North Carolina you’ve been writing about, by being concerned with people’s sexual activities.

    This story seems like it’s about one man, Paul, trying to spread his philosophy and being very concerned about his success or failure.

  3. Good comments James. Best estimate I can find for the population of Thessaloniki at the time seems to be in the tens of thousands – 50-60 thousand seems to be a common estimate for Paul’s time. Hard to say how big the church was, but I’m guessing it couldn’t have been more than a few hundred, at most.

    You bring up an excellent point. God supposedly blinded Paul on the road to Damascus, and charged him with this mission of spreading the gospel. Why use just this one guy? Why not pick a man of letters in every major city and reveal yourself to him the same way. I mean, imagine today that you had to wait for Billy Graham to visit your city before you could really hear what’s on God’s mind.

    Paul never met Jesus ‘in the flesh’, so his only authority is ‘revelation’. Some modern scholars feel that Paul’s religion is just a collage of the numerous influences that existed in Palestine at the time,

  4. […] 1 Thessalonians 3-4 (americansecularist.com) […]

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