2 Thessalonians 1:3-12, our Scripture for this week, is the thanksgiving section of the letter. In ancient letters, the thanksgiving section was generally very brief. It usually followed the letter opening and the greetings and went like this: “I thank the gods for your good health,” or “I make remembrance of you all before my gods.”
Again we are grateful for Dr. Paulien's crisp, literary pen as he digs out the salient features of Paul's remarkable letters to the Thessalonians. He rights with one eye on Paul and the other on us today--we who must understand Paul through twenty-first century eyes.
Even these eleven verses in 1 Thess. 5 give us plenty to thank Paul for, and plenty to digest and adjust our thinking to.
In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church, Paul responds in 4:13-17 to their deep concern about those in their midst who had died. Just as Jesus died and was resurrected, Paul argues, so also would believers from their community who had died be resurrected. In fact, Paul asserts that at Jesus’ second coming, first the dead in Christ would rise to meet Jesus (4:16), and then those who were still alive would be “caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air,” with the joyous result that all believers
Paul of Tarsus was not only a malleable instrument in the hands of God, but was most admirable because of the richness of his personality. On the one hand, he was a well educated member of both the Hebrew and the Hellenistic cultures. He was able to build cogent arguments and to analyze what others argue with critical acumen (2 Cor. 3: 4 – 18); Gal. 3: 15; 4: 21 – 31; Rom. 5: 10, 15, 17). He trusted the intelligence of his audience and their capacity to evaluate what he said or wrote.
The summer after I graduated from college (now more than 35 years ago), I volunteered at an Adventist Hospital as a chaplain while auditing the chaplaincy training course. I became good friends with two young Roman Catholics who were preparing for the priesthood and in the program. It was my first opportunity to discuss theological issues with one of “them” and I enjoyed it very much. I quickly took on the role of protector assuming they would face a hostile Adventist environment.
It might be easy to skip past the first several verses of 1 Thessalonians. Paul often begins his letters with grateful praise to the people to whom he’s writing. (The one notable exception being the Galatians, proving that, if necessary, he can take a more confrontational approach. In Galatians, Paul demonstrates that he won’t use an introduction of thankfulness if it is not deserved.)
Two weeks ago I “promised” my wife, “this won’t take long.” This is more in-depth than planned, with generous endnotes for the source-hungry. Take time to read and think, look some things up. If what follows is disconcerting, welcome to reading the New Testament in the world of its initial audience, instead of ours. In doing so, we gain a deeper, multi-dimensional and more complete picture of the context of Paul’s messages.