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A Strong Finish


One of the three major lessons I learned from four years of doctoral study on the New Testament was to stay away from commentaries until you have read and re-read the assigned biblical passage yourself.   Don’t start by reading what others have to say about the text. Instead, begin by listening carefully, even sympathetically to the text as if it were a beloved friend.  Since what follows in this essay is yet another commentary, I am constrained to ask you to stop reading what I have written until you read the biblical selection for yourself, preferably out loud.  Then I invite you to read what follows here

The original recipients of Paul’s two letters in Thessalonica encountered them by hearing them read aloud.  Then, following Paul’s instructions (1 Thess. 5:27), the letters were shared orally with other audiences and eventually copied for still others to read aloud.  Since the letters were from the founder of the fledging church in Thessalonica, they would be read again and again, with perhaps major portions memorized for future review by those not able to own their own copies.  As a skilled letter writer, Paul anticipated these multiple auditory encounters with his spoken letters even as he composed them.  No surprisingly, he employs cadence, alliteration, and repetition, all especially suitable for live performances.   

Let’s keep our ears open to see how Paul prepared a compelling conclusion to this letter for his Christian friends.  The beginning of a speech is important because the speaker has to catch and focus the audience’s attention.  But speech endings are also important.  As a good speaker approaches the end she provides cues that signal that the speech is winding up.  Now it is a matter of keeping the audience’s attention even as they anticipate the end.  Winding down with stock phrases and stereotypical bromides invites the hearers’ minds to wander.  But on the positive side, consider that, if a speaker manages to keep your attention, what is said at the end has the best opportunity to be remembered of all that you heard.  So speech writers like Paul put special care into the crafting the final words.

Paul’s declaration in 5:9, 10 provides the foundation with its hope of life and community with Jesus:            

            “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or   asleep, we may live together with him.”

Paul continues with a summary command : “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” (v. 11)

What follows from 5:12 onward is an unpacking of how this encouraging and building up is to take place within the Thessalonians’ churches. 

First, he takes up attitudes towards the spiritual leaders, those unnamed persons who have the often thankless job of leading out in this mutual work of encouraging and building up:

            Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you.  Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. (5:12-13)

Earlier in the letter Paul had dealt with and the need to live holy lives (4:3-8) and get along as best as possible with hostile neighbors (4:11, 12), and the painful reality of death (4:13-18).  Now he points out the vital function of leaders who have been placed in authority “over” the others, but only “in the Lord”.  Presumably these leaders were not self-appointed but recognized and set apart either by Paul or by the believers themselves. Their hard work consisted of directing and assisting the members towards the building up of communal holiness in view of the coming of the Lord.  Paul’s earlier description of how he labored among them like a gentle nurse who set aside his own rights will serve as the standard for these appointed leaders (2:7).

His appeal (5: 13b), to “live in peace with each other,” provides the common horizon for all, leaders and those being led. 

Surely his fourfold admonition to the “brothers” in v. 14 is primarily directed towards the leaders: 

            “And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone.”

However Paul addresses these leaders as “brothers”, which qualifies their leadership role.  In these four short staccato sentences Paul catches the heart and spirit of leadership “in the Lord”. 

The next command  against retaliation (v. 15) comes from the core of Jesus’ teaching that several New Testament authors repeat:

            “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.”

Kindness and forgiveness are not to be limited to the inner circle but characterize all dealings with all persons regardless of their behavior.  Surely these heroic words go beyond standard human practice and describe the highest insignia of Christian nobility.

Intent on keeping the attention of his hearers, Paul uses a stair like construction of eight short sentences running from v. 16 through v. 22.  If you could glance at the Greek text of 5:16-22 and even beyond you would see a pattern of alliteration around the sound of “p”, stringing together like pearls the short sentences that each end with a verb.  It seems impossible to convey the punching alliteration into English that would allow a hearer to remember these memorable lines.

For Paul being patient and kind is not enough. The Thessalonians are called to “always rejoice”, “pray constantly”, and “in everything give thanks” (vv. 16-18).  Notice the assertive character of the orders regarding these vital Christian disciplines.  Paul does not say “give thanks for everything”, but “in everything give thanks.”  Keeping an eye on Who and what is worthy of thanksgiving, while going through an undeserved ordeal, is an accomplishment worthy of ones’ best efforts.  More importantly for the believer, this call to thanksgiving, in spite of circumstances, is “God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”  Could the act of thanksgiving actually overcome less noble feelings?   Humans are designed so that willed actions can change feelings and create attitudes.

In the second half of the staircase (vv. 19-21), Paul turns his listeners’ attention to the delicate tasks of distinguishing the work of the Spirit from close counterfeits: 

            The Spirit, don’t quench.

            Prophecy, don’t despise.

            But everything, test.

            The good, keep.

The scattered Thessalonian companies must navigate between suspicion and gullibility, open to the sometimes unpredictable manifestations of the Spirit of prophecy.  The task of discernment will require skill and time.  The plural voice of all the verbs implies that this testing will be a communal wide effort, not the task of the individual believer in isolation.

The final line in Paul’s staircase ends with a somewhat longer sentence literally rendered in English as; “From every kind of evil abstain” (v. 22).   

Prayer dominates the final section. Characteristically Paul baths his hearers’ ears with a warm, wish like  prayer (v. 23) that catches up the theme found elsewhere in the letter, namely the coming encounter of the matured believers with the returning Christ.  The wish of the prayer is answered confidently—God Himself can be trusted: 

            May the God of peace, Himself, sanctify you thoroughly, and blameless may your whole spirit, soul and body at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ be kept.  Faithful the One calling you, Who also will do [it] (v. 24)         

The vital work of mutual encouragement and building up each other can easily degenerate into divisions and self-righteous judging. Paul describes God as “the God of peace,” reminding the sometimes fractious hearers for the third time of the importance of maintaining peace with each other. 

Now Paul calls for the practice of the “holy kiss” to reinforce the bonds of community among the believers (v. 23).  The cultural practice of greeting one’s friends and family with a kiss is extended as a visible sign of unity among the “brothers” in the new fictive Christian family.  Designated as “holy” or “sanctified”, the kiss is a reminder of the sanctifying work of God in their midst.

Paul appeals for prayer for himself, Timothy and Silas (5:26).  It is not hard to imagine the dangers they face.  Requesting his “brothers’” prayers on his behalf puts Paul on the same level for those whom he also prayed.  Characteristically, the letter ends with a benediction. The letter began with the blessing of “grace and peace” (1:1) and now closes with “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ [be] with you” (5:28), thus binding Paul and the Thessalonians as brothers together in the embrace of Christ. 

We have walked slowly through the finale in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Now, have a go at it yourself. Imagine that you are the designated reader of Paul’s letter to one of the small groups of blue collar workers in Thessalonica, who have gathered and are eagerly waiting to hear the words from Paul.  Take your favorite version of the Bible and read out loud, at least, the letter’s finale, starting with chapter 5, verse 9.   Put your body, soul and spirit into it!   

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