Lectionary Commentaries for October 18, 2020
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 22:15-22

Raj Nadella

No one would have expected the Pharisees and the Herodians to come together on the issue of taxation.

The former opposed the Roman empire and the latter actively worked with it but their shared disdain for Jesus brought the two ideologically and politically opposed groups together.

They offered false praise of Jesus before posing a question—Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?—aimed at entrapment. The Greek word pagideusosin has the connotation of ensnaring someone in their own words. The question was meant to offer Jesus no alternative but to either defy Caesar or offend those who are resisting Rome, which likely included most of his supporters. The attempted entrapment is typical of controversy stories, where the challenge is meant to confuse or confound Jesus, thereby demonstrating power over him.1

It was a loaded question. The Greek word egsestin literally means “legal” or “lawful” and refers to what was permitted (or not permitted) under the Roman law. Taxes were both a source of revenue for the empire but also Rome’s mechanism for subjugating people.2 However, considering the extreme consequences of refusing to pay taxes, the question should have been, “Is it legal not to pay taxes to Caesar? The answer was a big no, at least from a Roman perspective.

The Herodians and Pharisees knew fully well the consequences of defying the Roman empire and have been negotiating with it for decades. The Pharisees have been making deals with Rome even as they were opposed to its rule. While the Herodians did not oppose the Roman rule, they did not always share its political agenda. Nevertheless, they were often in bed with Rome in order to pursue their political and economic interests. Hence, it was hypocrisy on the part of the two groups to suggest that Jesus explicitly commit to collaborating with or defying the empire. The choice for him and his followers was more complicated than simply condoning the empire or engaging in outright sedition.

Religious leaders in Matthew have a long history of testing Jesus in the hope of getting him to say something incriminating (16:1; 19:3). This instance is no exception. In response, he asks for a coin they typically used to pay taxes. The emperor’s image and inscription on the coin were reminders that the Roman empire was present in every realm of their lives. The image and the inscription also identify who controls the economy. The fact that they produced the coin so quickly also exposes the extent to which everyone, including (or especially) the Pharisees and the Herodians, have been participating in Caesar’s economy willingly or because they have no other choice. They are all trading in Caesar’s economy, so they are legally obligated to pay the tax. And Jesus is not about to encourage those at the margins to defy the empire and jeopardize their lives.

The question of paying taxes had surfaced previously in a conversation with Peter (Matthew 17:24-27). Within that literary context, the conversation calls attention to the oppressive nature of earthly rulers who spare the children (other members of the ruling class) and impose heavy financial burden on “others” (ordinary people). Having made his point deftly, but not so subtly, about the exploitative nature of taxation, Jesus nevertheless encouraged Peter to pay taxes so as to not offend the empire, although he himself will challenge it later.

The question in Matthew 22 about paying taxes was not just a political question. It was also a moral and theological question. Egsestin has both political and theological connotations. What is legal is not necessarily moral. What is lawful from Rome’s perspective might not be acceptable to God. Hence, even as one pays taxes due to Caesar, one should also pay what is due to God.

But what is the relationship between the political and theological aspects of “paying?” Paying to both Caesar and God was not so much about checking off both boxes or keeping both of them equally happy but about carefully considering the complexity of the issue at hand. While people pay taxes to Rome out of obligation, they “pay” to God because of their calling and their commitment to promote an alternative kingdom.

As Warren Carter has noted, an imperial tax can be paid without the payment being a vote of support for Rome or its ethos. Paying taxes acknowledges Rome’s political power but not its moral authority to rule. That moral authority belongs to God. Which is why Jesus quickly adds that one must pay to God the things that are due to God.

But the “coinage” of God’s kingdom is of a radically different nature than that of Caesar. God does not trade in Caesar’s currency. The whole nature and trajectory of God’s kingdom that Jesus has inaugurated, and is inviting people to participate in, is fundamentally at odds with Caesar’s. Which is why while people must pay to both Caesar and God, they must pay them not only for different reasons but in entirely different currencies. Paying to God and participating in the divine kingdom entails repenting of the ways they have been complicit in the Roman empire and its agenda. Paradoxically, then, people should pay taxes empire has imposed upon them while actively resisting it and working to promote the alternative kingdom.

Jesus is complicating his listeners’ paradigm for engaging to the empire. For communities that are dealing with oppressive and violent regimes, the choices are never as clear cut as paying taxes or flatly refusing to pay—literally or metaphorically. Challenging the empire and undermining its oppressive powers requires lot of negotiation, tact and imagination. Not paying taxes will not necessarily bring the empire down. The questions is—what will? Within the context of Matthew’s Gospel, the Beatitudes suggests that whatever brings wholeness, transformation and healing to communities is a form of resistance to imperial worldview and ethos, and thus perhaps the form of coinage required of disciples especially in divisive times.

If we explicate the issue of paying taxes metaphorically in our times, some questions for us are: How do we as Christians negotiate political spaces tactfully with oppressive regimes without legitimating them? How do we remain hopeful and committed to God’s kingdom and its worldview in the face of persistent evil? What are the mechanisms—the coinage—we need to put in place in order to transform the current reality and bring about a different reality that would be more acceptable to God?


  1. Stanley Saunders, Preaching The Gospel of Matthew (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 227.
  2. Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Socio-Political Reading, 439.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 45:1-7

Christopher B. Hays

Can a community of faith benefit from a champion who does not even know God?

What happens when all the certainties that seemed to hold life together are shattered? When the divine promises that we thought were our birthright no longer hold true? Isaiah 45:1-7 wrestles with those questions in surprising ways.

In its background lies Judah’s half-century of exile after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. Readers encounter the devastation of that period in texts like Lamentations, which describes burning, starvation, slaughter, and rape, and asks God, “Why have you forgotten us completely?” (Lamentations 5:20). The heirs of the Davidic dynasty, who had ruled for nearly four centuries, were snuffed out (2 Kings 25:7) or kept under close watch in the Babylonian court (2 Kings 25:27-30). The end of the third book of the Psalter reflects on the seeming failure of the dynastic promises: “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” (Psalm 89:49).

As Christian readers well know, hopes for the line of David did not cease with the Exile. To many people, the restoration of Judah meant a return to the ways things had been. Postexilic prophets such as Haggai and Zechariah promoted the restoration of Davidic rule.

The authors of Isaiah 40-66 had a number of countercultural ideas, however, and one of them concerned God’s chosen king. “Thus says the LORD to his anointed,” begins the present passage. The Hebrew word for “anointed” is mashiach—“messiah.” Various figures were anointed in ancient Judah, not only kings but also high priests, and occasionally prophets—but all of them had crucial religious roles. Anointing implicitly reflected a close relationship with God and special divine blessing. So for the author to proclaim the messiahship of Cyrus, a foreign conqueror, would have been a shock. The divine election is reinforced by the image of taking Cyrus by the right hand (45:1). It was an echo of the Akitu festival, in which the Babylonian king took Marduk by the hand to affirm that he had the gods’ blessing. Here, the Lord replaces Marduk, who “bows down” in 46:1 (there he is called “Bel”), and the gods of Babylon are overturned in these chapters in general.

Cyrus was extraordinarily good at public relations; he had figured out that it was easier to rule people when they embraced you. The Isaianic prophet was not the only foreigner who advocated for him. The Babylonian priests of Marduk, the chief god of Babylon, are thought to have played a role in turning their own mighty city over to Cyrus without even a battle. The Cyrus Cylinder, written by those same priests, also says that Cyrus was divinely called—but by Marduk. They were infuriated by the Babylonian king Nabonidus. He is said to have favored the moon god Sin, and to have neglected Marduk’s historically important cult and temple. This seems to have played a role in motivating them to betray Nabonidus in favor of Cyrus. The Cylinder says that Marduk “surveyed and looked throughout all the lands, searching for a righteous king whom he would support. He called out his name: Cyrus, king of Anshan; he pronounced his name to be king over all (the world).”This is strikingly similar to the Lord’s calling Cyrus “by name” in Isaiah 45:3-4. In return for this support, Cyrus supported foreign temples (Ezra 1).

As miraculous as Cyrus’ help would have felt to the Judeans, it was carried out through traditional means—much as the Lord sent the Assyrian king on a destructive mission in Isaiah 10:5-6, now Cyrus is to subjugate nations and their kings, to batter down the barriers that stand in his way. He is given the “treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places” (verse 3). These phrases have been evocative for later authors; in context, they mean that he will receive the wealth of foreign nations. (Darkness and hiddenness are used to describe foreign religions in later chapters of Isaiah, so this might be a more specific reference to temple treasuries.) The image of the nations bringing spoil and tribute to the emperor was a common one; it was portrayed by the Persian kings in the Apadana reliefs from Persepolis, and even applied to Jerusalem in Isaiah 60:5.

There are three reasons given for the Lord’s extravagance towards Cyrus. First, it is “so that [he] may know” that the Lord is the agent of his success (45:3b). Second, in a parallel construction, it is also “for the sake of my servant Jacob” (45:4a). Third, it is “so that they (meaning, people everywhere) may know that there is none besides me” (verse 6). The merisms formed by the pairings east-west, light-darkness, and weal-woe (verses 6-7) emphasize the completeness of the Lord’s power.

Hopes always run high for a leader who is on one’s side. Cyrus’ victories are said to be just in the eyes of God. He is elsewhere called “a victor from the east” (41:2), but the word translated as “victor” (Hebrew: tsedeq) means something closer to “justice” or “righteous judgment.” And because the Lord has created everything, from the prophet’s standpoint, it is natural that it should produce righteousness, leading to salvation (verse 8).

But those lofty hopes do not always pan out in the long run. In a bit of ominous foreshadowing, however, the author immediately adds twice that Cyrus does not know the Lord (verses 4-5), despite the divine intention in honoring and arming him. The Lord’s relationship with his people and the nations similarly becomes more complicated as these later chapters of Isaiah wear on. Cyrus fulfills his mission by conquering Babylon and sending the exiles home, but he disappears from the text shortly after this passage. In the prophet’s view, sending the people home from Babylon and underwriting the Temple changed very little for most of its people. They had been oppressed in Babylonia; now they were oppressed in Judah. The postexilic situation condemned in Isaiah 58 (and see Nehemiah 5) looks almost identical to those that the eighth-century prophets inveighed against (Isaiah 3, 5:7-24; Micah 3; Amos 4-5). In biblical tradition, an anointed king was not supposed to aggrandize himself at the people’s expense (Deuteronomy 17:14-20), but rather to ensure justice for the powerless (Psalm 72). By those standards, Cyrus was a failed messiah.

As a Google search can confirm, Isaiah’s blessing of Cyrus has recently been adopted by (mostly white, mostly Christian) advocates of a president who does not share their religious values, but who claims to be on their side and is willing to destroy things. There are various problems with this appropriation of Isaiah’s Cyrus texts. Cyrus was a competent administrator who expanded Persian power greatly during his reign. But most of all, the Babylonian Jews who benefited from Cyrus’ conquest were a disempowered ethnic minority with no ability to control their own fate or that of the nation in which they resided. By contrast, white Christians in the U.S. are highly privileged by their identity—part of the founding demographic of the nation. They have had and continue to have myriad opportunities to govern well.

Trump’s Christian supporters have nothing in common with the Jewish exiles in Babylonia. Instead, they are like the priests of Marduk who betrayed Babylonia and opened the gates to Cyrus. They said a lot of the same things about him as the Isaianic prophets did, but they were a center of traditional Babylonian power. They may have lost something tangible through Nabonidus’ neglect, but they had not in any way suffered like the exiles. They were motivated by the fragility of privilege—by a selfish pique and a feeling of being disrespected.

Cyrus did a job, but so did the Assyrian kings before him (Isaiah 10:5-6). They did what they wanted to do anyway, seeking their own power (Isaiah 10:7; 45:4-5). It was the news of a suffering servant that “startled many nations” (Isaiah 52:15). Cyrus looked good by the imperial standards of his time, but the Jewish movement that became Christianity continued to redefine what a messiah was in important ways. That, and not the embrace of an authoritarian emperor, is the gospel worthy of the world’s attention.


  1. Fragment A, l. 12; The Context of Scripture, eds. William H. Hallo and Younger (Brill, 2003). Vol. 2, 124.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 33:12-23

Vanessa Lovelace

Can one bargain with God? According to the narrative in Exodus 33:12-23, the answer is yes!

In a two-act dialogue between Moses and God, Moses barters with God to secure the assurance from God that God will lead Israel on their journey to the Promised Land.

Exodus 33:12-23 is generally divided between verses 12-17 and 18-23 but is perhaps better divided by Moses’ three prayers in verses 12-14, 15-17, and 18-23. Exodus 33:12 opens with a complaint of Moses against God. Moses’ objection is that God commissioned him to bring the people from the house of slavery in Egypt and promised to go before them. Yet, after committing to remain faithful to the statutes and ordinances in the covenant that they entered into with God at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19:5), the people grew impatient after Moses was with God on the mountain for forty days and nights. They ask Aaron to make gods for them to replace Moses as their leader and Aaron complies by fashioning a golden calf as an image of God (Exodus 32:1). Aaron builds an altar before the calf and the people worship and sacrifice there. God’s anger is kindled against the people and God sets out to consume them with fire. However, Moses intercedes on their behalf and God’s wrath is abated.

Nonetheless, the relationship between God and Israel was forever changed. For one, when Moses descends the mountain to see about the revelry that the people were engaged in as part their worship of the calf, his anger also burns against the people and he destroys the tablets with the commandments in them. God renews the covenant but the commandments that replace the former ones are not duplicates of the original (Exodus 34:10-28). For another, God abruptly orders Moses to tell the people to pick up and leave Sinai (now called Horeb) to resume the journey to the Promised Land. However, God informs Moses that God will not accompany them. Instead, God will send an angel (Hebrew: malak) or messenger ahead of them (33:1-3; see also 32:34). This is the source of Moses’ objection.

Moses balks and once again appeals to God on the people’s behalf (see 32:11-14). This time it is a plea for God’s guarantee to accompany them along the journey. Exodus 33:12b is puzzling because Moses is aware that God has previously declared that God would not continue to be present with the people once they departed but would instead send an angel before them. Yet, Moses declares that God has commanded him to lead the people without having “let me know whom you will send with me” (33:12a). Next, Moses appeals to his relationship with God as one who has found favor in God’s sight (33:12b). Thus far, God has never referred to Moses in Exodus as having “found favor in [God’s] sight” (in contrast to Noah in Genesis 6:8), but the reader is expected to accept it in good faith. Moses appeals to God three times using this expression (33:12-13). As such, we should accept that Moses is speaking rhetorically each time he asks if he has found favor in God’s sight; if that is the case, then God must do as Moses has asked. In this instance, God must not only accompany them but must also acknowledge the Israelites as God’s people. God concedes and agrees to remain with Moses and the people (33:14).

Still, Moses does not relent and entreats God once more for reassurance that if God will not go with them, then the people should not depart from that place. But Moses also ups the ante. He contends a fourth time that not only Moses but also the people will have found favor in God’s sight if God accompanies them. This will distinguish Moses and the Israelites as God’s people. God agrees to Moses’ plea as evidence that God knows Moses by name and that Moses has secured God’s favor, using the same language as Moses in verse 12 (Exodus 33:17).

Moses is not content with having achieved what he set out to do but rather raises the stakes. Moses entreats God a final time, asking to see God’s glory. In essence, Moses is asking to see God in person. God agrees to pass before him revealing all God’s goodness (Exodus 33:19) and offers to proclaim the divine name once more (see also 3:13-15), but God has a limit. God declines to allow Moses to encounter God face to face, although the narrator reports in Exodus that God spoke to Moses “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (33:11). The reason given is that no one can see God’s face and live. Nevertheless, God instructs Moses to stand on a rock and as God’s glory passes by, God will place Moses in the cleft of a rock protected by the hand of God. Once God has passed by, God allows Moses to glimpse the back of God but not God’s face (33:21-23). God is portrayed as having human characteristics, but this should not take away from God’s divine nature.

Exodus 33:12-23 demonstrates that there are many facets of God’s character. Through God’s relationship with Moses, who enjoys a favored status with God, we see a God who can be angered and mollified. God is also characterized as being open to having God’s mind changed more than once. God’s willingness to assent to Moses’ demands also has limits. Moses does not get everything that he asks for. Moses’ entreaties towards God can seem to push the boundaries between deference that humans should have for the divine and defiance. Yet, it is good that we can intercede on the behalf of others and know that God hears and responds.


Commentary on Psalm 96:1-9 [10-13]

Nancy Koester

Psalm 96 is for royalty. It should start with timpani and end with a trumpet. (If you don’t have a drummer or trumpeter handy, read on.)1

This enthronement psalms (93; 95-99) calls the people to praise God (verses 1-3, 7-10a, 11-12a) and gives reasons why God is worthy of praise (verses 4-6, 10b, 12b-13). Taken together these moves “describe the nature and consequences of God’s rule.”2

God’s reign gets spectators involved and awakens sleepers. No wonder the Psalm brims with imperatives: three times we are told to sing, and after that to bless, tell, declare, ascribe and worship. This Psalm is motivational. It moves people to proclaim God’s mercy and might.

In Part 1 (verses 1-3) God’s people get their marching orders. First we are to “sing a new song” (verse 1). But what exactly is that new song? The preacher can well ask what song his or her congregation is given to sing. The Psalm leaves that pretty open ended. It could be Psalm 96 itself, or some brand new composition. It might be a response to some event in the story of God’s people, such as “the return of the exiles from Babylonian captivity” or something that has happened in your congregation or community. It could be a song looking toward the future, or one that combines past, present and future.3

After three calls to sing, the Psalm moves to another imperative: the call to bless God’s name (verse 2). Of course God does not need our blessing. But in worship, to bless God is to tell of God’s saving deeds…to extol God’s mercy, might and compassion. Ancient worshipers in the Temple used Psalm 96 (and others like it) to bless God, and they may also have knelt and lifted up their hands. Worship is between the worshiper and God, yet it moves outward with another imperative: we are to tell others of God’s salvation. This is not just preaching to the choir, but to all the world. The Psalmist says we are to declare God’s glory “among the nations” God’s marvelous works “to all the people.” So Psalm 96 has been called a “missionary psalm.”

Part 2 (verses 4-6) tells why God is to be praised. God is great above the heavens. But down here on earth where there are many gods, the one true God outshines them all. The Psalmist dismisses those other gods-with-a-small-‘g’- as mere idols. They are things we made up, in contrast to the creator who made us, and the heavens (verse 5). We praise God as Creator, and we also praise God’s character.

Perhaps the most famous description of God’s character appears in Psalm 103:8 (and elsewhere): God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” The description of God’s character found in Psalm 96: 6 has a different emphasis: God’s “honor and majesty are before him, his strength and beauty fill the sanctuary.” This points to God’s sovereignty and holiness, an important theme in scripture though often neglected today.

Part 3 (verses 7-10) returns to the imperative mood once more, in a worship setting. Three times we are told to ascribe to glory to God. To “ascribe” is to name a quality that belongs to a person or thing. To a deer we ascribe speed and grace and to an artist or composer we ascribe creative genius. To God we ascribe glory and strength — especially when looking at creation. To express our gratitude and dependence on God, we are told to bring an offering, come into God’s courts (verse 8) worship the Lord, and tremble before God (verse 9). In verse 10 (not included in the lectionary) we are to say to the nations that the Lord is King.

Part 4 (verses 11-13) is not included in the lectionary, perhaps because of the judgment theme. These verses proclaim that God comes to judge the nations in righteousness. Yet this judgment evokes more joy than dread, for the whole world, both nations and nature, will rejoice — even the trees will sing.

The other texts appointed for this day emphasize God’s power among the nations. The first lesson (Isaiah 45:1-7) is a hymn to the Persian King Cyrus who sent the exiles back to their homeland; yet Cyrus, however great, was only a man. To God alone, the return of the people from their exile is ascribed.

In the second lesson, from 1 Thessalonians, Paul gives thanks for Christian believers who spread the Gospel message to all nations (Psalm 96:3,7 and 10 tell us proclaim God’s reign to all peoples and nations). And in today’s Gospel, Jesus makes a clear distinction between what we owe to Caesar, the human king, and we owe to God. We have to pay taxes to Caesar, but only God is to be worshiped. This is reminiscent of Psalm 96 with its clear distinction between the gods humans make and the one true God, who alone is to be worshiped.

Psalm 96 presents an excellent opportunity to preach a sermon on worship, especially when used together with 1 Thessalonians 1. In a time when worship attendance is falling off in a great many churches, it is a good thing to work with the congregation on why and how we worship. The church is more than a social network or a cultural artifact. So why worship? Because we are created to be in relationship with God. And because God calls us to worship.

To preach on this Psalm, you can ask and answer three basic questions: First, whom we do worship? (see 1 Thessalonians 1: 3,10 and Psalm 96: 4-6). Second, why do we worship? (Because God our creator calls us to be in relationship. That is what Psalm 96 does.) And finally how we do we worship (Psalm 96: 1-3 and 7-9). There is great variety in how we worship, but proclamation is at the heart of it.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 19, 2014
  2. New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IV (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 1064.
  3. New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IV (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 1065.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Michael Joseph Brown

If anything, this letter is about relationship and imitation. Paul makes this clear from the beginning.1

He says, “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit” (1:6). The apostle reminds us indirectly that human beings can only experience the fullness of their humanity when they are in deep, trusting relationship with one another. Even more, this relationship has more depth when it is experienced along with God. In addition, imitation becomes an outgrowth of this strong relationship.

“And you became imitators of us and of the Lord,” signals to use that this relationship engenders a strong resemblance. How do the Thessalonians know (and how does the apostle know) that they have become imitators of the Lord? They were persecuted, yet they “received the word with joy.” In short, their experience of persecution resembles that of Jesus’ crucifixion. Later, the apostle elaborates on this imitation.

He says, “For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots, as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; for they displease God and oppose everyone by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved” (2:14-16a). (Cautionary note: We are not certain where this idea that the Jews killed the prophets actually comes from, but it is sprinkled through several New Testament documents.)

Some scholars believe that this idea derives from the extra-biblical work called the Martyrdom of Isaiah, which narrates the death of several prophets. I would caution, however, that there is no real historical evidence for this conclusion. This volatile statement must be treated with care.) The apostle never goes into great detail about what these “same things” (auta in Greek) are, but we can conclude that they are death-like experiences considering his invocation of the experiences of himself, the churches of Judea, Jesus Christ, and the prophets. In short, entering into this special relationship with God and the church involves death-like experiences on the part of believers.

Persecution and death are not the only way we, as believers, imitate Paul, the other churches, and the Lord. Consequent to these crucifixion-like experiences are resurrection-like experiences. Paul indicates this when he notes that the Thessalonians “received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit” (emphasis mine). The inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer is an indication that she has transcended persecution, just like Jesus’ resurrection transcended death (i.e., “whom [God] raised from the dead;” 1:10).

This experience of the Holy Spirit is important to Paul. It is the prime indicator—the down payment—God makes in our lives to let us know that we are in this remarkable relationship with the Almighty. Living in the Spirit, in fact, is the main rule of conduct the apostle outlines throughout his letters: “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Romans 8:9). Thus, this relationship is one in which we experience the fullness of our lives by imitating the life experiences of our fellow believers and of the Lord.

Far too often we find ourselves, because of our own hardness of heart, seeking to find excuses—seeking to find loopholes—to avoid the vulnerability that such a relationship demands. We far too often are looking for ways to be offended so that we can justify the severing of a relationship, or at the very least distance ourselves from other believers. Maybe we do not want to do the work—desiring to avoid particularly these death-like experiences. Maybe we are tired of doing the work, but each of us has experienced—probably more often than we care to admit—that we look for ways to get out when we find a relationship too burdensome.

The apostle alludes to this possibility when he says he cared for the Thessalonians “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” and that he “worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:7, 9). In fact, the emphasis the apostle places upon his own behavior is so vigorous that it raises the question of how fragile this relationship can be. Again, Paul highlights God’s success among the Thessalonians by saying, “[W]hen you received the word of God 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” (2:13).

In other words, when it comes to human-human and human-divine relationships, which are already so fragile, we are misdirected when we pour our energies into figuring out how to justify ending them. The Thessalonians could have attributed the persecution they experienced to entering into a bad relationship with God through the apostle, but because they were open to the Holy Spirit, they realized that the persecution was not a sign of a bad relationship. It was a sign of an imitative relationship.

This imitative relationship is important in the advancement of the gospel. Paul says, “[Y]ou became an example [typon] to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia” (2:7). The use of the adjectival form of typos indicates that the Thessalonians were a “type” or “paradigm” for other believers to understand and imitate. In other words, the experience of the Thessalonians further progresses the line of imitation this relationship engenders stretching back to that of the Lord. The Thessalonians have entered in a imitative pattern—a history of gospel reception and advancement—that solidifies their place in the salvation history of the entire world.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 19, 2014