Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
In chapter 2 of 1 Thessalonians, Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy remind the community of the time they spent in their midst.
Building on the theme of God’s word, I will explore the phrase “being bearers of God’s word.” I think it is helpful to press the point that Paul is not working alone here; he has co-workers. Timothy and Silvanus also were with Paul in Corinth where, he says, they proclaimed the gospel alongside of him (2 Corinthians 1:19), and Timothy frequently visited communities that they had established together (1 Corinthians 4:17; Philippians 2:19). While each of us witnesses to the Gospel in the course of our individual lives, we also do so in community and as a community.
Courage to proclaim
It takes courage to proclaim the Gospel. Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy came to Thessalonica after being “shamefully mistreated” in Philippi. Elsewhere, Paul lists the many ways he has suffered on behalf of the Gospel (2 Corinthians 11:16b-27). Today, we read in the paper of Christians in countries around the world who face arrest and even death for daring to proclaim the Gospel. But what about us? It seems to me that a different kind of courage is required of those of us who live in countries that celebrate freedom of expression with respect to religion and honor that freedom for all the religions that are represented among our countries’ citizens. What kind of courage does it take in our context?
We often associate courage with bravery, or even bravado, but courage can take many forms. It strikes me that courage is related to confidence. It is a confidence, however, that is less about being right than being comfortable in our own skin. It is a confidence that allows us to remain non-defensive when challenged; to listen respectfully to others recognizing that God may be speaking to us through them; a confidence that is not smug, but generous.
This confidence translates into a courage that enables us to take a step outside our comfort zone, to risk more than we’ve been willing to risk before, to work alongside people who are new to us, and to trust that God, who has entrusted us with the Gospel, will help us to discern what it means to be a faithful witness in each new context and encounter.
These verses make much of pleasing God rather than humans. As a youngest child, I know a lot about pleasing those in authority. In fact, it gave me special delight when I was singled out as the good child in contrast to my siblings. Of course, my real interest was the praise I might garner for myself rather than pleasing my parents. This is a good reminder that there is always that slight danger, when we set out to please, that it is really all about us and not, in fact, about pleasing the other.
So, what does it mean to please God in our proclamation of the Gospel? It means being faithful to the Gospel, of course, but it is more than that. God witnesses our actions and tests our heart. For me, pleasing God means responding to others in the same way that God has responded to me: with generosity and grace. It also means recognizing that what I say and do either shines light or casts a shadow on God; I can be a path or an obstacle. It also means being humble enough to acknowledge that I do not have a corner on the Gospel and what it means; I must discern when to speak or act, and when to let another speak or act.
In contrast, what does it mean to please humans rather than God? Today, pleasing humans is often thought of in terms of allowing or even approving moral behavior that is viewed as contrary to the Gospel. This is a concern that is lifted up elsewhere in the letter (4:1-8), where the Thessalonians are reminded to exercise control over their passions (in contrast to the Gentiles, i.e., non-Jews) and not to exploit economically their brother or sister (pleonetein = cheat, get the better of).
However, in chapter 2 the concern is for how those carrying the word comport themselves in relation to those receiving the word. Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy say that, on the one hand, they did not flatter the Thessalonians in an attempt to get money out of them nor, on the other hand, did they seek to be flattered by the Thessalonians in order to gain the praise or privileges that an apostle might expect. The concern here is motive: not just what we hope to accomplish, but also (if we are honest) what it is that we hope to gain. There is nothing wrong with gaining satisfaction, or pleasure, but praise or privilege easily displaces the focus, drawing it to ourselves rather than God.
I am particularly struck that Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy share with the Thessalonians not only the Gospel of God, but their own selves. This suggests to me that sharing the word requires a willingness on our part to be vulnerable; to not only share what we know, but how we strive to live what we know and the failings and doubts we have encountered along the way. The images that Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy use are of a nurse tending to young children (2:7) and, later, a parent, who urges and encourages them — even pleads with them — to live a life worthy of God (2:11).
What have we learned on our own journeys of faith that would make us trustworthy guides to others? To what degree do we need to let others discover their own paths? As they do so, what gifts of knowledge, faith, and insight might they return to us if we are willing to receive them?