Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Paul highlights two events in the experience of the Thessalonians that advanced the gospel: the apostles’ trust in the work of the gospel despite his poor treatment in Philippi and his tender care for the Thessalonians despite his “right” to support as an apostle.
These two events can only be understood by looking at other places were Paul raises such experiences.
Philippians is one of Paul’s prison letters. He makes this clear when he says, “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear … the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment” (Philippians 1:12-14, 17).
Is this the opposition and shameful mistreatment the apostle is referencing? The word “already suffered” does not imply by itself that the apostle’s treatment was unjust, but he adds, “and been shamefully mistreated” (1 Thessalonians 2:2). In addition to the apostle’s statements in Philippians, we are told in the Acts of the Apostles 16 that Paul and Silas were publicly beaten and cast into prison in Philippi. Being beaten with rods was regarded as a humiliating punishment, one that was forbidden to be inflicted on Roman citizens. Acts maintains that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens: “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison” (Acts 16:37). “[W]e had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition” (1 Thessalonians 2:2).
The word here translated as “courage” denotes boldness or freedom of speech. As the verb “to speak” follows, it may be better to render the clause, “we were confident in our God to speak” or “emboldened to speak.” This boldness or confidence was in our God; that is, on account of our fellowship or union with the Almighty. The “gospel of God,” which denotes the genitive of origin, tells us not only that God was the grammatical object, but that God was the author of the gospel. “[I]n spite of great opposition” alludes to the peril and danger with which Paul preached the gospel in Thessalonica. In other words, Paul is rehearsing the crucifixion-like experience he referenced in last week’s reading (1 Thessalonians 1:1-10).
As I pointed out then, these crucifixion-like experiences are important to Paul’s understanding of the gospel because they confirm in his own experience that he is following the Lord because he is participating in an imitative history of salvation that stretches back to the prophets. Thus, Paul’s imprisonment in Philippi advanced the gospel in the same way that Jesus’ crucifixion advanced the gospel. They are of the same type.
By contrast, Paul’s denial of his authority to demand remuneration as an apostolic emissary connotes a resurrection-like experience in the lives of the Thessalonians. To understand this we must look at Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:
This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to our food and drink? Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who at any time pays the expenses for doing military service? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not get any of its milk? Do I say this on human authority? Does not the law also say the same? For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Or does he not speak entirely for our sake?
It was indeed written for our sake, for whoever ploughs should plough in hope and whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share in the crop. If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we still more? Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is sacrificed on the altar? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this so that they may be applied in my case (1 Corinthians 9:3-15, emphasis mine).
The apostle tells the Corinthians that he abandoned his rightful claim to remuneration: “[T]he Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” Likewise, the apostle did not press his rightful claim with respect to his time in Thessalonica: “[W]e never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed … though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ” (1 Thessalonians 2:5, 7). Rather the apostle was “gentle” to the Thessalonians, “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” (2:7). In fact, like the Lord, he shared his own self with the congregation.
How is this a resurrection-like experience? Well, it served as an example to the Thessalonians. It encouraged their upright behavior and gave them the ability to lead a life worthy of God (2:12). This expression of love on the apostle’s part allowed the Thessalonians to enter into a relationship with God through Christ. Thus, today’s text follows a pattern similar to what we read last week: the experiences and behaviors of the “example” serve as a foundational experience in the lives of subsequent believers.