Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
For additional lectionary resources on the assigned texts for Reformation Sunday, please see the Craft of Preaching articles.
Paul emphasizes his own ministry among the Thessalonians, although his ministry to them is to be a paradigm for their ministry to one another. As he notes in the opening of the letter, “you became imitators of us and of the Lord” (1:6), and later he states, “as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more” (4:1). In this passage we learn what it is that the Thessalonian Christian community, and by extension we in our Christian community, should be doing. Although Paul speaks as the founder of the community, the characteristics he upholds are to be reflected in each and every one of the members of the community, not just their leaders. These are “characteristics of community builders,” and each one of us is such a community builder by our very participation in the Christian community.
The first characteristic of a community builder Paul describes is bold speech. In verses 1-2,Paul reminds the Thessalonians of their first contact with the gospel. He traces some history for the Thessalonians, reminding them that when he and his companions first arrived at Thessalonica they had recently spent a tumultuous time at Philippi (Acts 16). Nevertheless, while at Thessalonica, Paul and his companions “had courage … to declare to you the gospel of God” (v. 2). In making this claim, Paul uses the Greco-Roman philosophical concept of “bold speech.” This expression was used in antiquity to indicate freedom of speech and courage to speak in the face of opposition. It is used with political connotations of not allowing civic authorities to stem protests or the cries of the mob from preventing the proclamation of what is right.
Paul’s expression draws upon the tradition of a type of speech which is characteristic of ancient philosophers, particularly the Stoics and, even more so, the Cynics. The Cynics (“dogs”) were so named because they acted like mongrels, harassing the people. Like the Cynics, Paul was not afraid to go against the cultural norms of his day. Although what Paul declared was unpopular, he declared it boldly.
When we are community builders we need to speak boldly and “tell it like it is.” Often the easier route is to avoid conflict and allow things to carry on as always. Yet, to truly build community, the gospel message−the love of God and the love of neighbor−must be proclaimed boldly. To be fearless in speaking out, when one notes moral laxity or the abuse of power taking place within the Christian community, will lead to an environment of true community.
Paul next becomes quite defensive about his ministry (verses 3-7a), yet here he also includes a lesson about community building–it is marked by personal integrity. Paul begins by listing what was not characteristic of his preaching (v. 3), suggesting that God has “approved” him and his coworkers (v. 4). His image of testing has resonance in both the Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts of the first century.
In the Jewish scriptures God’s testing is a frequent theme. It is through the testing of the heart that God determines the fitness of Jeremiah to be God’s spokesperson, and through the testing of hearts that God determines that the people of Israel have strayed far. The Greco-Roman context is one of political office wherein a candidate for a civic position was tested as to whether he (for it was always a he in those days) was fit to serve the people. He was not to possess character flaws such as a propensity to deceitfulness, crookedness, selfishness, and the like. It was a moral aptitude test.
Paul goes on to claim that he and his companions were not flatterers, nor greedy, nor seeking honor, despite the fact that as leaders they might have claimed honor (vv. 6-7a). Charlatans and false preachers were quite common in antiquity. Under the guise of philosophers, they would often berate people and then extract funds from them, much the same as a modern TV evangelist might put on a great show and pass the hat amongst the faithful. And like the TV evangelists, the ancient preachers were seen by most people as hypocrites and “in it for the money.”
In the last two verses (7b-8), Paul uses a domestic image to convey his concern: his nurturing of the Thessalonian Christians. The image of a nurse was used frequently by philosophers of Paul’s day to show how the true philosopher would vary his style of speech, from harsh scolding to gentle encouragement and comfort, as the needs of the audience changed.
In antiquity a nurse, or “nanny,” was often used in elite households to bring up children. More than simply providing daycare, the nanny’s influence lasted a lifetime. Most major decisions about a child’s upbringing, clothing, food, and education were left to the nanny. So it was in the relationship between philosophers and their students.
Paul intensifies this image, suggesting that his actions were not as toward the children of someone else. He treats the Thessalonians as his own children. The care that Paul expresses for the Thessalonians is akin to the description of parents’ sad yearning for a dead child on ancient grave inscriptions–it expresses deep affection and great attraction. In fact, Paul states that he and his companions shared their very souls with the Thessalonians. Here we have the third characteristic of a community builder — a soul sharer. True community is built upon openness and sharing. To be a builder of Christian community we need to open up, to be vulnerable, and to share with those around us. Only then can true community be developed.
As Christians, we are all community builders, not just the pastor, or the choir leader, or the theology student. Paul calls each one of us to interact with one another in our present Christian community with bold speech, personal integrity, and soul-sharing.