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Paul to the Thessalonians

At the outset, we note that 1 Thessalonians reveals a great deal about Paul as a person and as pastor for his people from whom he was now separated. The letter illustrates the ways in which Paul kept in touch with and supervised his congregations: by sending one of his associates, in this case Timothy, to re-visit Thessalonica and report on the state of affairs; by a letter, which responds to the points mentioned by Timothy, and which offers instruction, exhortation, and prayers for their welfare; and by a return visit of the apostle, which is planned for in the letter (1 Thessalonians 3:10), and which actually did take place, even if after some years’ delay. Paul’s intense desire to re-visit Thessalonica is unmistakable (2:17 – 3:11), even though he has no definite travel plans to announce.
     

     

     

For a more detailed study of events leading up to the composition of 1 Thessalonians, click on Paul and Thessalonica (1).

Paul as Letter Writer

At this point it may be useful to indicate how Paul arranged his material in this and other letters. In many respects he follows the conventions of ancient letter writing. His letters begin with the name of the author, together with the names of those who join him in sending the letter; these are followed by the addressees and by a shorter or longer blessing or benediction (1 Thessalonians 1:1). Then comes a thanksgiving section (in 1 Thessalonians there are two such sections, 1:2-10 and 3:9-13), and a transition sentence to the body of the letter, usually in the form of a disclosure statement (1 Thessalonians 2:1). Paul has no standard form for the letter body. Concluding matters often include travel plans, personal greetings, and a final blessing. Paul dictated his letters to an amanuensis or secretary, and he sometimes added a few lines in his own hand (e.g., 1 Corinthians 16:21-24), though not in 1 Thessalonians.
 

   

   

   

   

 

What the Letter Offers

As we explore the contents of this slim letter, we will look in vain for the rich theological discussions which later letters offer; on the other hand:
      

A good recent translation such as NRSV will facilitate a quick “read” of the letter.
   • We find Paul the pastor and friend, brimming with expressions of affection and appreciation;

   • We find Paul the proclaimer of a monotheistic faith to a pluralistic religious world, whose gods were empty remnants of a mythic past and whose traveling philosophers offered little to take their place (1:9);
     

   • We find Paul, the as yet unchastened announcer of the imminent end of the age, reinforcing expectations of a sudden appearance of the Lord which he believed would surely come within the lifetime of himself and most of his readers (4:15-17; 5:1-2);

In this his earliest letter to have come down to us, Paul reassures his readers concerning their members who have died before the return of the Lord: they will be at no disadvantage, but will at the Lord’s coming rise from the dead; only then will those still alive be caught up into the air with them, to be with the Lord. (Further discussion of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, below.)

     

Click on Expectation for end-of-time hopes during the founding visit. In his later letters Paul would be obliged to revise this expectation, as the people in his churches continued to die, and as he faced his own impending death, his own personal end-of-time. Click on 1 Corinthians 15,
Philippians, and 2 Corinthians 1-9.

   • We find an indispensable reminder, in the midst of this end-of-time enthusiasm, of what is of prime and perennial importance, “. . . And so we shall always be with the Lord!” (4:17, RSV);

   • We find suggestions of the existence already of a mission network throughout the Christian world, rejoicing in the faith and steadfastness of the Thessalonians (1:7-9);

   • We find a Pauline spirituality with its pervasive mood of ecstatic thanksgiving (1:2-10; 3:9-13); and

   • We find some terse moral teachings, rehearsing what he had already taught them during the founding mission, with only a hint of his later more formal statements about the centrality of the love principle (3:12; 4:9). 

     

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Though this text is by no means Paul’s last word on end-of-time matters, it is an important bench mark, representing an early stage of his thinking and arguably also an early stage of New Testament expectation.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18  13But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died [in Greek, fallen asleep], so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.
     

 

 

 

 

NRSV, regrettably, reduces the powerful metaphor fallen asleep to its interpretation. There is a fine line between translation and interpretation, and the translators here seem to have transgressed. Fallen asleep is Paul’s way of relativizing death and rendering it insignificant, and is thus a means of consolation for the grieving.

 

For those who have fallen asleep in Christ, is there a way of participating in the Christian hope of triumph over evil and death? As we read, we are not expecting Paul to introduce the notion of the resurrection of believers, and perhaps the Thessalonians were not expecting this proposal either. But Paul is already updating his end-of-time teaching: If not everyone would still be alive at the Lord’s coming, those who had died could participate by resurrection! They would indeed lead the procession of those who would meet the Lord, and thus suffer no disadvantage by their having died.

 

 

The opening we do not want you to be uninformed (verse 13) seems to be more of a disclosure statement of something new rather than a reminder of something he had earlier told them. It is less certain whether this “something new” is (a) the resurrection of believers, or (b) the precedence which the dead will enjoy, or both (a) and (b).

The apocalyptic scenario in verses 16 and 17 is relatively restrained (contrast 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10; 2:1-12), and stands alone in the authentic letters of Paul which have survived:

   •  The archangel’s call and the sound of God’s trumpet

   •  The Lord’s descent from heaven with a cry of command

   •  The resurrection of the dead in Christ

   •  The meeting with the Lord in the air, as the living are caught up in the clouds with the resurrected dead

   •  Existence in the presence of the Lord forever

     

     
One may compare this with the scenario of 1 Corinthians 15:22-28, which however turns out to be more Christological than apocalyptic.

   

Undoubtedly Paul’s readers were consoled with this proclamation, delivered on the authority of the Lord himself (whether by a tradition circulating in the early church, or by a direct revelation to Paul from the Lord). For readers at the turn of the second millenium it is more complicated. Whatever nostalgia one may feel for the cozy confines of the ancient three story universe, one will need to exercise a certain discrimination in detecting what is of permanent religious value in the midst of an obsolete cosmology and an end-of-time theory refuted by the death of Paul and his readers, by the subsequent passing of countless generations to their graves, and by the persistence of human history, stubbornly bumping and blundering its way along.
     
“For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord . . . .” (1 Thessalonians 4:15)

 

 

Rudolf Bultmann in some of his writings undertook this project of demythologizing the New Testament. 

But Paul was already moving away from apocalyptic schemes, finally recognizing that he could not date end-of-time events during his own lifetime. At the end, as at the beginning, he could say that the important thing was to be with the Lord.

    

   

. . . with the Lord:
1 Thessalonians 4:17; Philippians 1:23; 2 Corinthians 5:8-9.

Meanwhile, in Corinth . . .

I do not think we are taking liberties if we connect 1 Thessalonians with Corinth, the city where it was probably written, and the congregation where Paul was laboring: We should be surprised if some of these themes in 1 Thessalonians did not appear about the same time in his discourses to the Corinthian church, themes which would later be elaborated in his letters to Corinth.

. . . and Back to Jerusalem

Paul’s stay in Corinth, as with his other mission foundations, is probably to be reckoned in years rather than months, especially if we allow for his working to support himself. When he departed, his destination was probably Jerusalem, where he would take part in the Apostolic Conference, the occasion of the second Jerusalem visit.

In his absence, a certain Apollos taught in Corinth, “watering” where Paul had “planted.” Apollos’ leadership would in time generate a certain rivalry with Paul’s among the Corinthians.

Galatians 2:1   Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me.
1 Corinthians 3:4-6   4For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? 5What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 

     

   

   

The work of Prof. John C. Hurd, Jr. (1965/1983), is especially useful here.

Revised June 18, 2003

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