mosaic painting of Saint Paul writing

Study Notes – 1 Thessalonians 1 2-10

We are studying 1 Thessalonians 1:2-10 for Sunday, November 10. The text opens Paul’s first letter to the early Christian house-church at Thessaloniki, and focuses on the good example the Thessalonians are giving to their world (and to ours, for that matter). Here are my notes on the text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Things everyone seems to know about 1 Thessalonians and its context:

  • it was Paul’s first letter to an early Christian church, from 50 or 51 CE;
  • there’s an account of the founding of the church in Acts (Acts 17:1-9), which is one of the episodes in Paul’s and Silas’s missionary journey to Macedonia (see Acts 16:6-10), and which attests to there being a Jewish community in Thessaloniki but also to the largely Gentile composition of the early church; the story in Acts also describes an episode of mob violence that afflicted the church almost immediately;
  • Thessaloniki itself was a Roman provincial capital – the province of Macedonia – and a “free city,” which meant that it had local autonomy and had retained its indigenous law;
  • as a port city with a favorable location on a major eastern imperial trade route, it would have been a prosperous city;
  • all in all, it was a city with a legacy of a beneficial relationship with the Roman Empire.

Thessaloniki’s beneficial relationship with the Empire likely serves as background for the persecution or “trouble” that the Thessalonian Christians seem to have been having, based on the account in Acts and also references in Paul’s letters. Assuming the Thessalonian Christians had turned away from participating in the cult of the Emperor, that wouldn’t have gone over well with their neighbors, and there would at least have been pressure on them to act more normal for the sake of [larger] community solidarity and everyone’s best interests. What precise form that pressure took is less clear.

[The map at Bible Odyssey from last week also shows Thessaloniki. For more background on the city’s history and way of life, there’s a short article in Ancient History Encyclopedia with lots of pictures, and a longer, really interesting one by Ben Holdsworth in Spectrum, an Adventist publication.]

Our text shows up in the lectionary in year A, on the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, but it probably doesn’t get much “air time.” The gospel reading for that day is the ever-popular Matthew 22:15-22. Odds are we haven’t heard many sermons on this text, if we’ve heard any.

Our text opens the letter, after the formal greeting to the church in v1. It’s followed by the rest of the letter, which continues in a similar friendly, approving, encouraging tone. This makes it a far cry from the letters to the Corinthians or the Galatians, which are addressing doctrinal or behavioral deviations, and from Romans, with its long theological discussion. This letter is almost chatty! The recitation of Paul’s history with the Thessalonians and what he’s been doing since they parted (chapters 2-3) leads up to his pastorally sensitive discussion of what to think about the community members who have died without having seen the second coming (4:13-5:3), and the closing instructions for conducting the life of the community (5:4-5:22). The tone of the whole letter is warm and affectionate. A different side of Paul, some of us will think.

CLOSER READING: Verses 2-3 paint an interesting picture of Paul’s prayer life: “we always give thanks to God for all of you”, and specifically for work of faith and labor or bothersome, toilsome effort of love and steadfastness or constancy of hope. We might notice the trio of faith, hope and love that shows up elsewhere in Paul’s letters.

That Paul “remembers” all this “before God” gives us an image of prayer as sitting down with a co-worker or partner at the end of the day and going over everything that happened … as in “Oh, and you know what the Thessalonians did? They were so sweet, they …”

Just think about that for a minute. Something to try, maybe.

The “labor” in that “labor of love” does not have the same double meaning it has in English; it’s less like “travail” and more like “toil” or “hard work” or “going to a good deal of trouble.”

This remembering is done “knowing” their “chosenness” or “election,” based on the evidence listed in v5: power, signs of the Holy Spirit, and “full conviction” or “full assurance.”

The word translated “full conviction” is a curious word. [plērophoria] One source says it only shows up in church texts – kind of an ancient example of “Christianese.” That should lead us to wonder what, specifically, it refers to. But another source says it’s an old word that is used by the philosophers and is now used all the time to mean “information,” which complicates matters. I guessed it refers to a specific quality of experience, but then I found James S. Baumlin, Theologies of Language in English Renaissance Literature, on Google books, who quotes Calvin, in the Institutes (2.2.15), as saying the word means “that feeling of full assurance which the Scriptures uniformly attribute to faith – an assurance which leaves no doubt that the goodness of God is clearly offered to us.” Now I wonder whether my guess is a just a Calvinist reflex. So, there’s more research to be done on this.

There’s a significant run of “becomings” in vv5-8: Paul and Silas “became” something to the Thessalonians in v5, which the Thessalonians “become” imitators of in v6, which makes them “become” an example [literally a “type”] to other believers. This then has the effect of making a loud, clear sound, sending [a message] (v8) to the whole region. Literally, what sounds is “the word of the Lord”, or maybe “the idea” of the Lord.

In effect, the Thessalonians have gone viral.

Their behavior has made news. Everyone is talking about it. What specifically are they talking about? Paul lists the elements in vv9-10: the welcome given to Paul and Silas, the turning to God from idols, serving a living and true God, and waiting for God’s Son from heaven. So, acceptance of the resurrection, and hoping and taking refuge in the resurrected Jesus, who “rescues” us from [literally, “pulls us out” of] the “coming wrath.”

The word translated “imitators” in v6 is the mimesis word. When Paul used it a couple of thousand years of Western literary and philosophical reflection on its characteristic qualities and massive significance hadn’t yet happened, so it’s possible that Paul didn’t hear the same [DRAMATIC MUSIC] when he wrote it that we might hear when we read it. On the other hand, Plato had already developed a theory of art as imitation that could be resonating in Paul’s writing: imitators are, in a way, artists, producing their own performance or work based on some true original. Paul and Silas themselves would be artists in this sense, too, as an imitators of Christ.

There seems to me to be a connection between the Thessalonians being “types” of the Lord, which brings to mind the image of a pattern or even of a mold, and their having turned away from idols (which have to be made according to a pattern, or cast in a mold) to serve “the living and true God.”

If you imitate something living and true, do you become more and more alive and true, real? As opposed to becoming more and more lifeless, by imitating something that is itself lifeless and false?

This would imply that the Thessalonians’ example is itself both lively and life-giving. Because Christ is a source of life, and because their new life together broadcasts and amplifies the “word” of Christ, their “imitation” of Christ fully and truly communicates that “word” or “idea” of Christ. They have really learned, by imitation, what it means to serve the living and true God. Now their life as a community embodies that lesson, making it a vivid example, or model, of what it means to live “in Christ,” which others can learn from in turn.

There is more on the topic of imitation in Charles A. Gieschen, “Christian Identity in Pagan Thessalonica,” in Concordia Theological Quarterly 72 (2008) 3-18.

On an ironic note, in contemporary Thessaloniki there stands a rotunda and arch, built in the very late 3rd century by Roman Emperor (tetrarch) Galerius. Galerius is known for his virulent hatred of Christianity and Christians; reportedly, he was the real advocate for the “persecution under Diocletian” that caused Christians in the early 4th century so much trouble, that gave rise to the Donatists, and so on.

Here’s the ironic part: Galerius died in 311, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan a couple of years later, and then, the Emperor Theodosius I turned the rotunda into a church. It was used for services for about 1200 years, until the Byzantines gave way to the Ottomans, at which time it was used as a mosque. In 1912, when the Ottomans lost the territory to the Greeks, it went back to being a church. Now, it is arguably the oldest surviving Christian church in the world. So, thanks for that, Galerius.

Thessaloniki Rotunda

mosaic painting of Saint Paul writing

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