Donald Andrew Henson II

Posts Tagged ‘Paul the Apostle’

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.

1 Thessalonians 2

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament on May 18, 2012 at 12:02 am

Read 1 Thessalonians 2 here.

OK, I’ll admit that it didn’t take me too long to get worked up about something while reading the Bible; a scant ten verses in, and I’ve already found a popular Christian belief that I feel damages American society. Living your life as if Jesus were coming back in your lifetime leaves very little incentive for improving things for the next generation.

I think this kind of thinking really took off in the 1960s. With all the social change, students fighting policemen in the streets, the Vietnam War, the drug culture – many felt the ‘end of days’ had arrived. Folks like my parents got into a church and dug in hard, preparing for what would surely be the ‘coming calamity’ they had heard about when they were children. You can’t really blame people who live in difficult times of change to believe the worst might happen; it’s just that, contrary to what my parents thought back then, contrary to what Paul believed nearly two thousand years earlier – Jesus just didn’t come back. My take is that we need to operate our civic institutions under the assumption that he never will.

Paul begins the second chapter of his letter to the Thessalonians by talking about his prior ministry there – his good results, how he was mistreated by the authorities there, how he preached to please God and not men. Then he seems to insinuate that – even though neither he nor Silas nor Timothy availed themselves of financial support from the Thessalonians – as apostles, they had every right to do so. I admire the fact that they worked to support themselves; I’m a little concerned that they seem to be saying it would be acceptable for ministers to live off of the good will of the people they are nurturing.

Now I know this is the way of things, and always has been – that preachers, prophets, and priests make a living from preaching, prophesying, and – what is it priests do? (Insert punchline here.) But I can’t help but think of all the fat-cat church leaders out there, making their fortunes off of the donations of grandmas on fixed incomes, and desperate, jobless folks trying to send in ‘seed money’ or hoping they can ‘cast their bread upon the water’. (Those of you attending an American church know what these phrases mean – I’ll explain in a later post to the rest of you – apologies for now.)

If you follow the American Secularist Facebook page (and you should if you want to know about my posts the minute they are posted, plus enjoy links to other articles I’m reading on a daily basis), you’ll already know about the latest of a long line of stories of financial abuse within the church, the TBN scandal. It seems to me that Paul didn’t really know what he was starting here by justifying the idea of ministers making a living from their flocks. The enormous wealth these shysters take in is completely tax-free; is it time for a change? Comments on a previous blog of mine seem to indicate that at least some people think so.

TBN World Headquarters, offers a variety of ac...

TBN World Headquarters

But this isn’t the only problematic teaching I find in this chapter; verses 14-16 give a glimpse into what would become full-blown anti-Semitism by the 4th century, and would last for centuries more. Notice it isn’t the Roman government that killed Jesus, nor is it the Devil, or, in this verse at least, part of God’s great plan. It was the Jews. And their actions are deserving of God’s wrath – pretty strong words.

A final disconcerting idea in this chapter isn’t nearly as troubling as anti-Semitism, but it is troubling, nonetheless. In verses 17-18, Paul writes “out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way.” Ok, what bothers me here might be hard to see; it’s subtle, but bear with me. Paul says that he wanted to do something – not God wanted him to do something or the Holy Spirit prompted him to do something – but Satan blocked it. This is an interesting way of talking, if you think about it. Why not say, “I wanted to come, but I wasn’t able to,” or “circumstances prevented me,” or my favorite, “I was detained by a subsequent engagement.”

No, Satan opposed MY will – a very developed sense of ego on the part of Paul, don’t you think? This strain of thinking so permeates the day-to-day talk of Christian folk, that it’s easy to dismiss the audacious pride contained therein. Satan made me lose my house. The Devil tried to take away my job. Or, even more mundane, Satan created a traffic jam to make me late; the Devil made it rain during my beach vacation. It’s nonsense – but a very ‘me’ generation sort of nonsense, that seems to say whatever I want must be the will of God, and if you want something different, you are obviously in league with Beelzebub.

My problem with this kind of thinking – whether I’m criticizing it from a Christian point of view or a secular one – is that it makes a demi-god out of the individual believer. Ross Douthat, author of Bad Religion, spoke of this on Dylan Ratigan’s show a day or two ago. He said that a popular but polarizing concept in American churches today is that “whatever is coming out of my own soul must be the voice of God.” I don’t have to tell you how this is playing out in American politics. The GOP (God’s Own Party, apparently) want to run the country a certain way and, by golly, Satan (the Democrats) are blocking the way.

So, 1 Thessalonians 2 is a troubling little chapter – justification for fleecing the flock, good old-fashioned anti-Semitism, and a little bit of self-aggrandizement thrown in for good measure. God bless help us.

1 Thessalonians 1

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Government on May 16, 2012 at 12:12 am
Olympion Cinema. Thessaloniki, Greece. Site of...

Olympion Cinema. Thessaloniki, Greece.

Read 1 Thessalonians and follow along.

Most Bible scholars believe this to be the oldest of the New Testament books (although James has its supporters as well). It was written to the people of Thessaloniki, a city that exists to this day in northern Greece. In Paul’s day, it was a key trading city that lay on an important overland route from Rome to the gateway of Asia. Paul, Silas, and Timothy started a church here around 50 CE, but were forced leave in a hurry, as their lives were in danger. Later, Timothy returned to find the church doing well, and Paul writes his first letter to the Thessalonians upon hearing the good news. So, this letter would have been written 54-56 CE, making it the very first Christian writing that we know of today.

Now you might ask why the earliest known Christian writing occurs a full 25 years or so after the death of Christ. Well, this dating is not the work of some liberal scholar trying to convince us that the whole of Christianity is a myth created long after Jesus’ death. In fact, conservative scholars pretty much agree with this date as well. There are a couple of reasons why the early church leaders waited so long to write anything down.

We have to remember that Jesus and his disciples were pretty much a rough and tumble bunch of carpenters, fishermen, tax collectors, and the like, which means they may not have known how to write – we do have the story of Jesus writing something in the sand, but we don’t have any information other than that. Remember that Palestine at the time of Christ was the backwater of the Roman empire, not a bastion of learning and education – sort of the Alabama of the empire. Paul of Tarsus, on the other hand, was educated in both the Hebrew and Classical forms of education, according to tradition, which made him well-qualified to present the ideas of a religion steeped in Jewish history to the masses of the Roman state. But why wait so long?

The consensus seems to be that the original followers of Jesus were so sure that he was coming back any day, that they didn’t see any need to make any written records of their ideas. All of Jesus’ followers were fervently preaching the ‘good news’ as hard and fast as they could – before Jesus returned. If Jesus was coming back within their lifetimes, there wasn’t much time to worry about all the intricacies of doctrine – they simply wanted as many converts as possible. Only after time had passed – and the prospect that Jesus may not return as soon as they hoped began to loom large in their minds – only then did his followers began to feel the need to write down a few important ideas for the faithful who might outlive them. We’ll see the writers of the NT address some of these concerns as we move through the different letters and gospels.

Looking at 1 Thessalonians 1, there isn’t anything that will surprise you if you’ve ever attended a church service. Believers already refer to each other as brothers and sisters, even at this early date. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead by is also mentioned in this chapter; from a Christian point of view, I think it’s critical to see this belief as evident from the very first Christian writing in existence.

In verse 10, however, there is an idea that causes me some real concern – waiting for Jesus to return from heaven and save believers from some sort of ‘coming wrath’. I can try to understand why Paul and others living in the first century might expect Jesus to come back from heaven; nearly 2000 years later, I don’t understand why many folks are still waiting. Why can’t we admit, after all these years and hundreds of calamities from which Christians have not been spared, that perhaps Paul was mistaken? He never met Jesus face to face, having only encountered him in a powerful vision. Is it possible – just for the sake of argument – that the church is incorrect in this aspect?

I remember listening to sermons about the rapture when I was a teenager, and feeling a little bit guilty that I seemed to be the only one who didn’t want it to happen right away. I wanted to go to heaven, for sure, and missing out on any future calamity seemed pretty good too. I just wanted God to wait and let me enjoy life here for at least a little while first. I wanted to fall in love, get married, see some of the world, maybe enjoy a few earthly luxuries – then it would be alright for him to come back. The fear of the ‘coming calamity’ certainly kept me on my toes, but inside, I hoped it wasn’t true.

Whether or not you believe in the imminent return of Christ, the rapture of the church, or other related pre-determined futures, take a minute to at least see the dangers these ideas present to our current society. Many churches preach that the world is going to get worse and worse until Jesus comes back to fix everything himself. Don’t worry if you’re a Christian – you won’t be subjected to the worst of it. In fact, you’ll live a happy, healthy and wealthy life until just before all hell breaks loose (literally), at which time you’ll be snatched away to heaven.

I’d say this ideology does a lot of damage to our democracy. If Jesus is coming back any day now, what need do we have to try to make sure American society continues to progress 20-30 years into the future? No need to cooperate with anyone else to make the world a better place – Jesus is coming back to fix all that anyway. Peak oil? Not a problem – Jesus will come back before we run out of oil; in fact, maybe a global war for oil is just what is needed to hasten his appearance! The world’s political systems have to be broken so that Jesus can reign as king on Earth. Scary stuff, unless you think you’re going to be raptured – what’s to worry about?

Here’s where a strong dose of secularism is needed. I’m not going to ask you to surrender your faith, but as an American, it is your civic duty prepare for our future as if Jesus were not coming back, soon or otherwise. It is your duty to elect officials that will strive to improve our lives – not morally, that’s the work of the pastor, teacher, or philosopher – but in real, measurable and observable ways.

We Americans must stop pretending there will be no tomorrow, or that someone or something other than our own intellect can make a better tomorrow – or start preparing to be servants to those not hindered by such ideas.