Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
For additional lectionary resources on the assigned texts for All Saints, please see the Craft of Preaching articles.
Throughout the second chapter of 1 Thessalonians, Paul seems somewhat defensive about his ministry in Thessalonica.
Some scholars have suggested that Paul is responding to criticism that he and the other missionaries preached for financial gain, a charge supported by their hasty departure from the city and their failure to return immediately (2:1-12; 2:17-20). Other scholars have argued this is a rhetorical strategy that Paul is using to fend off criticisms typically made against wandering preachers before such criticisms are made against him.
We have an example of a false preacher in the work of the second century satirist, Lucian of Samosata. He wrote an entire book about a philosopher, Perigrinus, whose quest for fame and honor led him to pretend he could hear the voice of a snake telling him the future. He ended up killing himself on a burning pyre, all so that he would be remembered by those that saw him. Perigrinus was convinced he was a great leader and philosopher. In Lucian’s analysis, he was a charlatan and a fool! Perhaps Paul fears such criticism of his character will come his way.
Overall, it is difficult to determine whether Paul was actually accused of being a false preacher by some of the Thessalonians or just anticipates being so accused. What is clear, however, is Paul’s great concern to maintain the relationship he has forged with the people who make up the Jesus-believing community. To this end, he marshals four proofs that demonstrate he and his companions came as God’s emissaries and were not seeking their own glory (2:4). In order to do so, he reflects back upon the time they spent in Thessalonica, giving concrete examples of evidence of integrity.
Paul’s first example is drawn from his everyday practice while in the city. As Paul makes clear in other letters, he did not have a single “missionary strategy” that was applied across the board in every city he visited (1 Corinthians 9:18-23). He varied his plan according to local situations. In the case of Thessalonica, it seems that he did not rely on patrons for his food and lodging, nor did he charge the listeners for his messages, as did some philosophers. Indeed, Paul is adamant that he and his companions did not receive any payment from the Thessalonians. In contrast, he reminds them that “we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God” (2:9). The particular combination of words Paul uses here — “labor” and “toil” — stresses the exhaustion involved and indicates Paul’s self-sufficiency through paid work.
According to Acts 18:3, Paul was an artisan, a “tent-maker,” and, as such, was part of an industry whose tools were portable and whose services were needed in just about every major city. The typical work day for an artisan began before dawn and went through to dusk. The wages, though meager, were sufficient to supply food and lodging for the night. The nature of the work is such that, in the case of Paul, it is difficult to imagine when he might have preached other than while working. Thus, those to whom he writes are most likely artisans such as he, for whom the promises of Jesus have proven most attractive. Paul is pointing out that, like them, he worked hard, and did not rely on their wages for his support, which sets him apart from any false philosophers they might have encountered before.
Paul’s actions went beyond mere self-sufficiency. In verse 10, he discusses his conduct among the Thessalonians as a group, and uses three adverbs here to indicate his typical way of behaving, rather than his character (which would necessitate adjectives). He regularly interacted with the Thessalonians in a pure and upright manner, two terms that could also be rendered “godliness” and “justice.” These two positive qualities result in negating any possibility for charges of deviance being brought against Paul, and he notes that he and his companions were blameless. Thus, they demonstrated a quality of action among the Thessalonian believers that make obvious their underlying integrity.
In the following verse Paul draws attention away from his actions among the entire group to the quality of instruction he provided to each and every one of the Thessalonians and uses the metaphor of fatherhood to demonstrate his point. In antiquity, the oldest living male in a family was considered the paterfamilias, or father of the household. As such, he was responsible for each and every person in that family, including slaves and any friends or workers living under his roof. While a nurse or mother might take care of the nurturing of children (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:7), the father was responsible for the children’s moral instruction. Paul points out that the instruction he provided replicates that of the paterfamilias in leading to, quite literally, “walking worthy of God.”
Paul’s fourth and final piece of evidence for integrity turns attention away from the way he and his companions acted while in Thessalonica to examine the way that they were received by the Thessalonians themselves. The response engendered by their actions among the Thessalonians was one of conviction that the message proclaimed came not from human minds but from God. Lest they now question whether they were duped, Paul points out that their initial response was not to proclaim him or his companions as forceful speakers but to recognize in their words that God was speaking through them.
Early in 1 Thessalonians, Paul notes that the Thessalonians have become imitators of him and his companions (1:6). For the Thessalonians to bring into question Paul’s integrity is to bring into question their own integrity. In order to curtail such a move, Paul provides evidence for their integrity by pointing to his self-sufficiency, the quality of his actions, the quality of his instruction, and the response that these engendered.