1 Thessalonians 4-5: Examining Paul’s Preoccupations #30daysofPaul

We have a little more theological meat to work with in today’s reading, as contrasted with yesterday. Chapters 4 and 5 of 1 Thessalonians provide some really great early examples of the various preoccupations Paul will hit again and again in his later letters: sexual immorality and purity, holiness, expectation of an imminent eschatological event. It also has two passages I especially like, containing almost formulaic lists of exhortations that give some insight, I believe, into the practices and traditions of early Christianity. Let’s move through these two chapters be focusing on a few passages.

4:1-8 Holiness and Sexual Ethics in a Pagan World

Paul moves from thanksgiving and prayerful joy in chapters 1-3 to a message of exhortation in chapter 4. Specifically, for the first time, we hear a couple of Paul’s chief preoccupations: sexual immorality and holiness. Writing to a church situated in primarily pagan Greece, Paul feels the need to remind the Thessalonians of the sexual ethics he taught them. He does this even though he just spent three chapters praising them for how good they’ve been doing; this shows both how important this topic is to Paul, and how much influence pagan culture still had on the early church as it attempted to forge an identity.

Paul uses the word “control” and “abstain”, warns of the “lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God.” Throughout his letters, we will see Paul preach an ethic of controlled emotion and passion, an ethic that rejects the prevailing sexual openness and licentiousness of the Roman world. Paul wanted the followers of Christ to liberate themselves from worldly passions, from the chains of their unconstrained emotions, so that they might live an orderly, controlled life in which the “small, still voice” of God would be audible to them. Amid the wild Greco-Roman culture, he wanted them to stand aware of their own beings, especially as they were in relation to one another.

4:11-12 The First Formula of Reverence

I really adore both this passage, and one we will explore later. Paul instructs the church at Thessaloniki “to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.”

This passage doesn’t quite have the formulaic character of 5:12-22 (more on that soon), but it does have the specificity of repeated directions of how to live life as a Christian community. I like this so much because I think passages such as this from Paul give us deep insight into how the earliest Christians lived and organized their lives. I believe we can learn much from the early church about how to live a life following Christ, and these kind of specific instructions help us do just that.

Following on the exhortation of holiness and ethical living, these instructions give the Thessalonians a reminder of the way they are to live in contrast to those around them. The triple instructions of “live quietly,” “mind your own affairs,” and “work with your hands,” so that they might be “dependent on no one,” shows that the early church was well aware of it’s role as an outsider in the ancient world. Being self-sufficient allowed them to live the type of life they felt called to, without the demands of society, while still being responsive to the call to serve God’s people and bring a message of liberation and love to those classified as the “least of these” in the eyes of empire.

4:13-5:11 Paul’s Expectation of an Eschatological Event

The end of chapter 4 introduces another of Paul’s preoccupations: the imminent coming of God’s Kingdom on Earth, and exhortations to live in preparation for it.

John Dominic Crossan describes two types of eschatology common to Christianity: apocalyptic eschatology, or the belief that the coming of God’s Kingdom and the remaking of the world is God’s duty, that we must only be concerned with preparing our spiritual selves for it, and trying to discern it’s shape; and sapiential eschatology, the belief that we must work to bring God’s Kingdom here on earth, and must liberate the physical and spiritual bodies of all beings in order to experience it. As Crossan says in Who Killed Jesus?,

“Apocalyptic eschatology is world-negation stressing future and imminent divine intervention; sapiential eschatology is world-negation emphasizing present and immanent divine intervention. In apocalyptic eschatology, we are waiting for God to act. In sapiential eschatology, God is waiting for us to act.”

(I really love that term: “world-negation.” So cool.)

Crossan claims John the Baptist preached apocalyptic eschatology, and in response to his death, Jesus in contrast preached sapiential eschatology. So what about Paul’s eschatology: apocalyptic or sapiential?

I honestly don’t know Pauline theology well enough to know which camp he falls in. My preconceived biases tell me he is apocalyptic, and that the communities he left behind had to grapple with the failure of Christ to come again in their lives, leading to much of the later writings that wrongly bear Paul’s name that tries to answer this problem.

But I could be entirely wrong about that. That’s why I’m doing 30 days of Paul, so that I might learn these things. For the record, I subscribe strongly to sapiential eschatology; I think we have a duty to bring about God’s Kingdom here on earth through our imitation of Christ’s example, rather than passively waiting on God.

One final note here: in 5:3, Paul references those who say, “There is peace and security.” Peace and security were an unofficial slogan of the Roman empire, printed on much of the Roman currency of the day. By dismissing those who say this, Paul is reminding the Thessalonians to not put their hope in the empire, but to remember that it too will one day fall, but the Universal Church will endure.

5:12-22 The Second Formula of Reference

The last thing I want to touch on is the second formulaic passage in 1 Thessalonians. As I mentioned above, this on is much more formulaic than that of chapter 4, and I think reflects an early form of liturgy that leaders like Paul or Silvanus may have used to remind the church of it’s duties as followers of Christ. I just want you to read this passage, cherish it, take it to heart, and reflect on it as, again, one of the earliest examples of liturgy for the Christian church.There is much to be learned here, and much to emulate on our own journeys:

12 But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; 13 esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 15 See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing,18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.

So good.

Tomorrow: Galatians 1-2

For a PDF of the 30 Days of Paul reading plan, click here.

For more info on 30 Days of Paul, click here for my intro, or here for Cassandra Farrin’s explanation.

Click Here for Cassandra Farrin’s take on today’s reading.

2 thoughts on “1 Thessalonians 4-5: Examining Paul’s Preoccupations #30daysofPaul

  1. I wrote my thoughts on these chapters before I read your post. I, too, am a proponent of sapiential eschatology. “Pray then do” is a great motto to live by.

    I have often wondered what it must have been like for the churches Paul left behind…no pun intended…when Jesus did not come. As you well note, later writers struggle with this and put Paul’s name as a stamp of authority. How much damage and confusion has been done in the name of apostolic attestation I wonder?


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