< November 16, 2008 >

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

 

The twenty-seventh Sunday after Pentecost marks the last Sunday in five weeks of consecutive reading through Paul's letter to the Thessalonians.

In many respects, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 is one unit as Paul unpacks the life of the believer who has hope in the coming of Jesus Christ. There are several important connections between last week's reading (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) and this week's reading from chapter five before Paul moves into his final exhortations, greetings, and benediction (5:12-28). Chapter five begins with a similar claim to what is known, much like Paul's words in 4:13. It is not the case that the Thessalonians are in need of new information regarding their faith. Rather, Paul reminds them of what they already know. In doing so, Paul provides further encouragement and consolation in the fact that the Thessalonians can rely on their knowledge in the faith. This is a central theme of the letter, set out already in 1:1-10 and repeated throughout (cf., 2:1, 2, 5, 11; 3:3, 4; 4:2). Not only is knowledge that which ensures a secure faith, it is also that which unites Paul and his co-workers with the Thessalonian community (1:4-5). The image in this pericope builds on the coming of the Lord. While the day of the Lord is not known, the Thessalonians do know that it will come when least expected and vigilance is required.

This section of chapter five ends with three claims that tie the unit back to 4:13-18. First, Paul reasserts that the Lord Jesus Christ died for us (5:9-10). The restatement of the confessional claim stated in 4:14 adds the assurance "for us" (hyper hēmōn). Once again, Paul is able to communicate the union between the Lord, the Thessalonians (those who have died and those who remain), and himself with a direct claim about unity. As a result, the union between believers and Paul and the Lord is constantly present in the letter.  Second, "we may live with him," which closes 5:10, echoes 4:17, "together with them." The ending of 5:10 is better translated "together with him we might live." The grammatical construction is identical to 4:17 (hama syn) with the exception of the pronoun switch from "them" to "him."

Finally, Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to encourage one another (parakaleite allēlous) just as he did in 4:18. The verb parakaleō is used eight times in the letter (2:12; 3:2, 7; 4:1, 10, 18, 5:11, 14) as the encouragement that Paul and Timothy offer to the Thessalonians and therefore and that the Thessalonians can give to one another. The links between last week's text and this week's pericope underscore the fact that the coming of the Lord is for all believers−for the ones who have died and the ones who remain. Those left behind await the parousia, however, not with fear and trepidation but with hope. While hope was identified in 4:13-18 as the union of those who have died with those who remain, here hope is spelled out in the assurance of being children of the light, hope is lived out in behavior that exemplifies belief, and hope is worked out in the promise of salvation and ongoing life with Christ, whether we are awake or asleep (5:10).

Like 4:13-18, the images Paul uses in 5:1-10 are apocalyptic, which begs that our task for interpreting them is not to decode their meaning but to reflect on how the visions affect, change, and influence the present situation. These are not future revelations but divine revelation that our future is secure because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The visions make the claim that the future coming of the Lord has impinged on our present and that we should live as if the eschaton has shattered time and space so Christ's presence might be fully known now. The in-breaking of God's future for us in the present, because of Jesus' death and resurrection, means that the life we live is not toward an anticipated reward but in response to an unanticipated gift. At the very least, this passage suggests that Christian ethics are not simply moral obligations, behavioral modifications, or a set of established values. Rather, the Christian lives as if Christ will be here any minute, not in fear, but in peace, security, and promise.

As Paul nears the end of the letter he returns to the triad with which he started -- faith, love, and hope. The triad recast in the imagery of armor suggests that possessing faith, love, and hope is not without its challenges. Indeed, this is how they are introduced at the beginning of the letter -- work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope. Faith, love, and hope need to be lifted up and built up as marks of the community. As such, Paul's exhortation to mutual encouragement, comfort, and consolation is not a command to new action. Remarkably, Paul encourages the encouragement they are already offering each other, "as indeed you are doing" (5:11). In other words, Paul not only recognizes that encouraging one another actually needs encouragement but also shows the Thessalonians what this looks like.

We are called to many worthy and worthwhile endeavors in our lives of faith for the sake of living out God's love for us and for our neighbor. However, it is not often that we issue a call for encouragement and building each other up. Paul's letter to the Thessalonians suggests that as much as faith, love, and hope are observable characteristics of a Christian community, so is encouragement. The verb oikodomeō can also be translated "strengthen," "edify," "benefit," "restore." In what sense is the work of faith the strengthening of the faith of one another? In what sense is the labor of love to benefit those whom we love?  In what sense is steadfastness of hope realized in restoration and edification?