Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

The opening of any letter sets the tone for the remainder of the letter.

October 19, 2008

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

The opening of any letter sets the tone for the remainder of the letter.

When we write a letter of complaint, we generally do not begin with warm, fuzzy greetings. Likewise, a letter making a formal request will not generally begin with informal salutations. Such practices were also the case in antiquity, where the form and tone of the opening of a letter sets the stage for what follows, while reflecting the current relationship between the writer and the recipient.

Shortly after leaving Thessalonica to go south, Paul became worried about the community he left behind. Having dispatched Timothy and hearing his subsequent report, Paul penned what has been determined to be the earliest letter in the New Testament — 1 Thessalonians. Timothy reported that many people at Thessalonica still had great affection for Paul, so Paul writes them to provide assurance, comfort, gentle admonition and conciliation, encouragement, and pastoral care. Overall, he writes to encourage the Jesus-believers to persevere in their Christian life — they are doing alright (unlike the Corinthians or the Galatians) but he wants them to “do so more and more” (4:1, 10).

Paul uses the standard ancient letter format of initial greetings (1:1) followed by a thanksgiving or blessing (1:2-10). As with many of his subsequent letters, Paul plays with the formulations used in Greco-Roman letters by changing the usual use of “greeting” (chairein) to “grace” (charis) and adding the Jewish greeting “peace” (shalom).

The thanksgiving section serves as an opportunity for Paul to remind the Thessalonians about their relationship, primarily as it was developed through his bringing the gospel to them and their reception of it. This is no simple narration of the events, however, as Paul constructs his recap in such a way as to highlight the enduring results of the Gospel in their lives.

Result of the Gospel (vv. 2-3)
As a result of the coming of the gospel to Thessalonica, the Jesus-believers there can now be noted for their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3). This is Paul’s first of two uses of the triad of faith, hope, and love in this letter (see also 5:8), a triad that also shows up as the climax of his poem to love in 1 Corinthians 13. Here Paul prefaces each of the characteristics with references to the effort required to exercise them: work, labor, and steadfastness. Not only does this emphasize that such qualities do not arise naturally, it anticipates Paul’s return to the theme of manual labor later in the letter (2:9, 4:11), a theme that suggests that the Thessalonians themselves are such workers. Likewise the issue of their living out their faith in community (1:3) is raised but not elaborated upon until later in the letter (4:1-12).

Presentation of the Gospel (vv. 4-8)
Having begun with the results of the Gospel, Paul now returns to its beginning among the Thessalonians, recalling for them how he and his companions first preached the message with conviction in word, in power, and in the Holy Spirit. Here Paul anticipates possibly having to defend himself against accusations that he was a false preacher (2:1-12).

The Thessalonians, it seems, quickly accepted the message despite some opposition. It is striking that the Thessalonians are the only Jesus-group whom Paul notes are already imitating him (1:6) rather than are urged to imitate him. This underlines his close relationship with them. As a consequence of this acceptance, the Thessalonians themselves have become an example to other Jesus-believers, not only locally, but also in other places in the circum-Mediterranean.

Content of the Gospel (vv. 9-10)
Paul draws the thanksgiving to a close by giving some indication of the content of the gospel that he brought to Thessalonica. Paul makes it clear that the majority of the Thessalonians were not Jewish by noting that they “turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God” (1:9). As a Jew himself, Paul is not likely to refer to Jewish worship as idolatry, since the God of the Jews is the God of Jesus. His initial gospel message, then, must have included some persuasion that the gods typically worshiped by the Thessalonians, gods such as Dionysos or the Dioscuroi-Cabiroi, were not as powerful as the God of Jesus. This was important in more than an abstract sense. Paul’s brief reference to rescue “from the coming wrath” (1:10) suggests that the Thessalonians are aware of Paul’s eschatological scenario in which the Jewish “Day of the Lord” will bring a final reckoning upon the earth. Yet this only hints at the return of Jesus, a topic not elaborated upon until later in the letter (4:13-5:11).

From these opening words of Paul’s earliest letter we learn an important lesson about the nature of the Gospel message, which is as applicable today as it was in the first century. The content of the Gospel is grounded in faith and action–faith insofar as one must accept the message of the return of Jesus, and action insofar as one must turn away from the practices of idolatry. The presentation of the Gospel is found in words and action. Paul notes that he and his colleagues did not simply talk about the Gospel, they lived it. They lived it to the degree that when the new believers wanted to know how to live, they imitated the messengers. In like manner, the Thessalonians themselves became exemplars of action for others. Finally, the Gospel message results in belief and action. The belief is expressed in the triad of faith, hope, and love, but each of these demands exertion in order to be realized.