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.


1 Thessalonians 1-3: An Inauspicious Start to #30daysofPaul

I, like a lot of progressive Christians I know and read, have had a difficult relationship with Paul and his writings. Letters genuinely written by him, and mistakenly attributed to him, make up a majority of the New Testament, and a good chunk of the Bible. Yet some of his theology can be quite dense, or downright troubling. Some of the ideas I believe to be the most destructive and hurtful to come from Scripture-condemnation of homosexuality, the subjection of women just to name a couple-have rationales drawn from Paul’s writings.

Yet so much Christian thought and theology is drawn from Paul. Ideas we take for granted-the universal church, justification by faith-aren’t teachings of Jesus, but in fact were first articulated, as far as we can tell, by Paul in his letters to the various churches he pastored. Yet, as I alluded to, we progressives have such a tendency to marginalize Paul, in order that we might not have to grapple with the difficult and sometimes uncomfortable things he wrote. This is a grave mistake, and we are missing out on a vital part of Christian tradition if we aren’t intimately familiar with the writings of Paul.

This is why I am so excited to be taking part in the “30 Days of Paul” reading challenge being hosted over at the Westar Institute. Blogger Cassandra Farrin is guiding us through a day-by-day reading of the seven authentic letters of Paul (1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, and Romans) through the month of July. She will be writing daily reflections over at the Westar Institute, and I aim to do the same here. I encourage you to join in the reading at least, and the reflection if you feel led to. (Be sure to use the hashtag #30daysofPaul to promote your stuff!)

You can find a PDF of the reading guide for easy printing by clicking here.

So without further adieu, here is the first entry: 1 Thessalonians 1-3.

What a selection to start with. We are engaging in 30 days of reading some of the deepest, most interesting theology in Scripture….and this is what we get on day one. Greetings, some stuff about how cool the Thessalonians are, a little timeline of what Paul has been doing, and a prayer that the Thessalonians stay cool.

Way to hook you, huh?

I know I’m being a little flippant. Basically, what’s happening here is, Paul has gotten word that the church in Thessaloniki has been freaked out because they haven’t seen or heard from Paul since he planted the church, and they really just a little TLC from Paul. Paul sends Timothy to check on things, who reports back that the Thessalonians are doing a great job at being the Church. So Paul writes to tell them he thinks of them often, and more good is coming their way, but things will also be tough at times. He references his own difficulties and struggles, and the difficulties the church in Judea is having. Then he offers a prayer for them, that they will keep the faith and keep growing.

So not the most exciting stuff. But still important, none the less. First, we are setting up the drama of Paul’s final years across these seven letters. A lot will happen to Paul before we get to the end of Romans, things that will be alluded to, and things won’t often be this cheery and upbeat. But it’s a good starting place, to hear Paul’s voice being so positive and uplifting and encouraging. We all need that encouragement from time to time; we all feel forgotten from time to time, like we need a little acknowledgement of the things we are doing in our lives, and a reminder that others are thinking of us.

Exciting? Not so much.

Necessary? Absolutely.

Don’t give up on Paul this easily. Let’s do this 29 more times.