Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

They can trust what he writes because they have experienced firsthand what he claims

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October 29, 2023

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

1 Thessalonians 2:1–8 continues the extended thanksgiving that Paul begins in 1:2–10, and the lectionary fittingly identifies 2:1–8 as a pericope. The explanatory gar in the Greek text of verse 1 highlights the thematic continuity with the preceding verses while marking a shift to a new unit. Paul again uses an explanatory gar in 2:9 to appeal to the Thessalonians’ memory (“You remember…”), which parallels the similar appeal in 2:1 (“You yourselves know…”). Each pericope ends with parental metaphors (2:8, 11–12), which strengthens the sense that 2:1–12 contains two somewhat parallel units. Although one could reasonably claim that 2:1–12 forms a single pericope with two subsections (verses 1–8 and verses 9–12), the lectionary justifiably isolates 2:1–8.

Especially prominent here are Paul’s efforts to shape the Thessalonians’ perceptions of his relationship to them. He may feel the need to do so because some have tried to convince the Christ-believers in Thessalonica that Paul was wrong, dishonest, greedy, or merely seeking to build a reputation for himself (2:2–5). “At stake here,” then, “is not first of all the message per se, but the messenger.”1 Paul thus uses verses 1–8 for the presentation of his ministerial team’s goals and motives.

For this rhetorical self-presentation, one might say—borrowing language from an area of research called positioning theory—that Paul positions himself in certain ways vis-à-vis the Thessalonians.2 In so doing, he seeks to establish a cluster of identities in relation to one another. He positions his team as those “approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel” (2:4), which they shared with the Thessalonians amid “great opposition” (2:4). In verse 7, Paul notes, perhaps as a reminder of his authority (see also Philemon 8–9, 14), that as “apostles of Christ” they were able to make “demands” (literally “able to be in weight;” dunamenoi en barei einai) of the Thessalonians. Implicitly, then, Paul arranges the relationships of the three distinct parties involved in a hierarchy: (1) God has entrusted and empowered (2) Paul’s apostolic team to preach the Gospel to and lead (3) the Thessalonian community. Paul tacitly establishes a chain of command:

God  🡪  Paul’s apostolic team  🡪  the Thessalonians.

Yet, rather than wield authority like a tyrant by making demands of the Thessalonians, Paul ostensibly seeks to persuade them of the reliability of this relational framework. To do so, it is vital that he establish his apostolic team as trustworthy for such a relationship. His self-presentation includes at least two major features.

First, commentators agree that he implicitly contrasts himself with well-known itinerant orators, or “market-place preachers,” of his day—charlatans who flattered people for financial gain, reputation, or other self-indulgent purposes.3 He asserts negatively that his team’s “appeal” (paraklēsis) does not emerge from “deceit or impure motives or trickery” (2:3). Nor do they use “words of flattery” or minister with “a pretext for greed,” seeking “praise (doxa) from mortals” (2:5–6). More positively, Paul and his colleagues have been authorized by God (verse 4), and they speak “not to please mortals but to please God who tests [their] hearts” (verse 5; see also Galatians 1:10; Jeremiah 11:20). Paul’s point is straightforward: he and his apostolic team are not like sophist grifters who preach for self-gain; they are approved by God and sincere.

To support his claims, Paul twice reminds the Thessalonians that they know such to be true from their own experience of Paul and his companions (“as you know”/kathōs oidate in verses 2:2, 5; see also 1:5). He thus subtly reminds the Thessalonians that they need not merely take his word for it; they can trust what he writes because they have experienced firsthand what he claims about himself and his colleagues.

Second, Paul presents his team with a couple of striking metaphors. The first involves some text-critical challenges. According to the New Revised Standard Version, Paul writes in verse 7 that they were “gentle (ēpioi) among” the Thessalonians. Our earliest manuscripts, however, feature not the term “gentle” but the word “infants” (nēpioi). Based on the external manuscript evidence, the latter is, in my view, the stronger reading. The term “infants” creates tension—perhaps also making it the harder reading—with Paul’s second metaphor of “a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” (verse 8). In my translation, Paul writes, “But we were infants among you, as a nurse would care for her own children” (verse 7). Hence the tension: how can Paul’s team be both an infant and a mother (the one nursing cares for her own children), and later a father (verse 11) in relation to the Thessalonians? As suggested by Galatians 4:19, Paul is apparently unbothered by using mixed metaphors to convey his points. Here, the metaphor of infants seemingly conveys innocence (see also 1 Corinthians 14:20), alongside a sense of comforting care (thalpō) that the imagery of a nursing mother communicates.

To pull these threads together, Paul uses these verses largely for the rhetorical self-presentation of his ministerial team. Through assertions and metaphors, he positions himself as God’s trustworthy delegate, sent to preach to and care for the Thessalonians. At least at the level of rhetoric, this passage reveals some values that Paul believes he shares with his audience, namely, sincerity and gentleness, in contrast to greed or abuse of power.


  1. Gordon D. Fee, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 61.
  2. See The Self and Others: Positioning Individuals and Groups in Personal, Political, and Cultural Contexts, ed. Harré and Moghaddam (Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2003). For use of positioning theory in biblical studies, see Stephen E. Young, Our Beloved Brother: Purpose and Community in Paul’s Letter to Philemon (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2021).
  3. See Abraham J. Malherbe, “‘Gentle as a Nurse’: The Cynic Background of I Thess ii,” NovT 12 (1970): 15–23; Andy Johnson, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 43–45.
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