Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
In the previous lectionary section from Thessalonians, Paul grants high praise for the Thessalonians’ stellar reputation.
The following chapter holds a great contrast. His reputation, as measured by many in the Greco-Roman world, counts for little, yet they can be utterly confident that in God’s court of honor and in the Thessalonians’ own experience Paul and his good news stand trustworthy and effective.
In the culture of the first century, traveling teachers would enter cities, display their oratorical skills through public speeches, and seek to attract students who might pay for their instruction. It seems to have been a rather widespread phenomenon, as it attracted the ire of several commentators of the day. Paul, here, seems to allude to this situation and seeks to differentiate himself from such a lot. As he tells the story of his coming to the Thessalonians, he notes that the encouragement offered by he and his fellow evangelists came not from error nor impurity nor deceit. He was not seeking to please people, but God. He implies that there are traveling teachers who do trade in error and impurity and deceit, which sounds very similar to a critique of these “sophists,” a term sometimes used to describe these teachers of wisdom, offered by first-century orator Dio of Prusa, who stated that sophists often had “‘deceitful’ motives, performing only for personal gain and ‘reputation.’”1
The trustworthiness of Paul
The first proof that Paul is different from these kinds of teachers comes in the story of his sufferings. Having left a situation of suffering and shame in Philippi, he and Silas (this is the identity of the “we,” according to Acts 16:25–17:9) came to the Thessalonians proclaiming the same message that had put him in the difficult situation in the first place. He spoke the gospel with boldness even though he was in a great struggle, literally in Greek a great agoni (from agon, struggle). It he had been a teacher primarily focused upon his own comfort and betterment, he was obviously preaching the wrong message.
The second proof comes from none other than God. He and his fellow evangelists have been tested by God and found to be trustworthy enough to be entrusted with the gospel. God, who knows all things about humans, not just the outward appearance, but also the heart, has found Paul and his companions honest. God is their witness (martus). God has testified to the truth of Paul’s message with power and the presence of the Holy Spirit (1:5). What better reference could Paul present?
For the final proof Paul writes compellingly and with heartfelt intensity about his feelings for this community. Paul states that they could have “thrown around their weight” as apostles, literally been able to be a burden to the Thessalonians because of their rank. The Pauline writings make strong statements about the apostles. Not only is this integral to Paul’s identity (note the introduction of himself in his letters), but Paul affords a particular priority to apostles (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 2:20). He, following the model of the One Lord he preaches (Phil 2:5–11), does not selfishly grasp the glory of his position but instead humbles himself to the point of being a babe (epioi). Other manuscripts have instead the closely-related word nepioi, gentle, and each reading has decent support. The manuscript support for the reading of “babe” is slightly stronger, so it seems that the stark comparison between the top leaders of the church and an infant gets the drastic nature of his point across. This term however, and its connotations, do not quite fit his larger argument. Were he and the other evangelists to conduct themselves like babies, then they would be dependent upon the Thessalonians, and therefore, a burden — precisely what he was so intent to avoid. The mention of a little baby leads him, however, to a more fitting picture. Instead of an apostle throwing around his authority, Paul became like a nurse who cares for her own children. Paul uses maternal language several times in his letters, where he is “concerned with the nurture and growth of believers.”2 Paul says that he and Silas cared so deeply for the Thessalonians that he gave to them, in addition to the wonderful news of Jesus Christ, their very souls. As a nurse gives of her own body to provide milk for a child, so Paul was willing to give of himself, because he loved the Thessalonians so. His final proof to assert his trustworthiness may not be as strong theologically as saying that God is his witness, but it carries immense pathos. How could they doubt him knowing how intensely he feels for them all?
And the point is…?
Paul’s defense of his ministry continues past verse 8 as he asserts that he worked hard among them (1 Thessalonians 2:9) bringing the message of God (2:13). Why might he spend so much space of this letter in an apologia of his ministry? Paul wants to remind them of his trustworthiness because he did bring the gospel, the Word of God that resulted in their redemption (1:10) and will result in their full salvation (4:17). To continue in the way of life to which they are called, they must trust the message, and so they must trust the messenger. His defense serves not himself, but his apostolic ministry of discipleship. As they remain confident in his selfless, divine, and loving work among them, they will be prepared to follow that message no matter the cost, for as long as they need until Christ returns.
1 Alexandrian Oration (Or 32.2) cited and discussed in Bruce W. Winter, Philo and Paul among the Sophists: Alexandrian and Corinthian Responses to the Julio-Claudian Movement (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 49.
2 Beverly Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians (Interpretation; Louisville, John Knox Press, 1998), 33.