< October 30, 2011 >

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13


These verses are a continuation of the 'diary' begun in 2:1, and further develop the story of how Paul, Silvanus and Timothy conducted themselves among the Thessalonians.

Having dealt with 'being bearers of the word' in the previous sermon, I am choosing here to focus on verse 13: "when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God's word, which is also at work in you believers." What, exactly, is this 'word' that we receive, and that we carry to others? This is a question not so much about content as about the nature of the 'word'.

A Human Word

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy write that the Thessalonians accepted what they heard not as a 'human word' but as 'God's word'. What exactly is the distinction being drawn here? On the one hand, it can be argued that what the Thessalonians heard and received is precisely a human word: that is, a 'word' that is both proclaimed and interpreted by humans, much as we experience the 'word' in preaching today.

This is borne out by the fact that when Paul uses the language of 'word' (i.e., logos) he is always referring to something that is spoken. The phrase 'word of God' in 1 Thessalonians 2:13, then, refers to the message that Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy proclaim about Jesus Christ.

This 'human word' is what I think of as the incarnational dimension of the 'word'. It is a 'word' that comes to us where we live. That is to say, it is proclaimed by one person to another within the context of and in relation to human culture and experience. How could we possibly understand it otherwise?

It is 'incarnational' also, because as a spoken word it is shaped by the intersection of the speaker, audience, and context. The 'word' may revolve around a fixed point -- in this case, Jesus Christ -- but the 'word' will be new each time it is spoken, because it is spoken response to the point in time, the social circumstances, the physical space in which the speaker and the audience meet. It becomes in that moment God with us.

Not a Human Word

On the other hand, Paul, Silvanus and Timothy say that the Thessalonians did not hear these words as a 'human word' but as 'God's word'. I don't think that what they mean here is that the Thessalonians in some way took Paul, Silvanus and Timothy to be 'gods' (such as is reported in an incident in Acts --), nor that they believed the words spoken were not those of Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, but the voice of God speaking through them (as an oracle).

I believe that what the Thessalonians recognized was that the words spoken by Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy witnessed to the nature and activity of God, revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To put it another way, they recognized the very presence of God in the act of proclamation. God is made known and becomes visible at the very point in time, the social circumstances, the physical space in which the speaker and the audience meet. In that moment, we become alert to God with us.

God's Word

The message that is proclaimed may be, in one sense, a human word, but it is a word that has its origin in the life-generating nature and activity of God. 1 Thessalonians, unlike Romans, offers no grand exposition of 'God's word'. Rather, the primary Christological theme in the letter is 'the coming of the Lord Jesus' (1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:14; 5:9, 23). This single focus underscores the 'contextual' nature of proclamation: in this letter the focus is on a particular concern that has arisen within the community of faith.

This is also the way in which God becomes truly known -- not in the abstract, but on the ground, in the midst of people's lives. What Paul, Silvanus and Timothy affirm, in addition, is that the whole of our lives are lived in the presence of God (4:1-2), a cause for thanksgiving, whatever our circumstances (5:18), because the power of God is at work, in life-giving ways.

A word at work

I am struck that the Thessalonians are praised for not only hearing and receiving the 'word', but most especially because the word is at work (ergazomai) in them. Two different words (verbs and their cognates) for 'work' are used in the letter, but they are closely related: in 1:3 the Thessalonians are commended for their "work of faith (ergon) and labor (kopos) of love" and in 5:12-13, they are urged to "respect those who labor (kopiaō) among you . . . esteem them very highly in love because of their work (ergon)." Paul, Silvanus and Timothy also use the word kopos to refer to their own labor among the Thessalonians: both their physical labor (2:9) so as not to be a burden, and the labor represented by their witness to God's word (3:5).

How do we know if the 'word' is at work within us? Write Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, it will be manifested by works that are expressions of our faith: a labor of love. Just as God's power is manifested in life-giving ways (see notes on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10) so, too, the 'word' generates in us both the desire and willingness to engage in life-giving activity. This activity includes not only proclamation of the word, but pulling our weight so as not to be a burden (literally engaging in labor that produces sweat), the sharing of ourselves (see notes on 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8) and working on behalf of and for the good of the community so that it, too, might incarnate the word of God with us, in power.