Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

“Paul … found a Jew named Aquila … with his wife Priscilla … Paul went to see them, and, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together — by trade they were tentmakers (Acts 18:1–3).”

Miner carrying sulphur
"A miner carrying sulphur at Kawah Ijen, Java," image by Matt Paish via Flickr licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

November 2, 2014

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13

“Paul … found a Jew named Aquila … with his wife Priscilla … Paul went to see them, and, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together — by trade they were tentmakers (Acts 18:1–3).”

Paul was not one to shy away from a hard day’s work. Numerous times throughout his letters he reminds his addressees that he worked while he was among them, not just with “preacherly” duties, but also in the “real world.” One of these expositions on hard work occurs in the second chapter of Thessalonians where Paul describes the exemplary conduct of a leader as he also reveals how the active God can transform normal work into something extraordinary.

Paul’s first word in this passage is “remember” which encourages a review of Paul’s past interactions with the Thessalonians. Previously adherents of the various Greco-Roman religions (1:9), the Thessalonians heard the good news from Paul, and when they did so, God met them with demonstrations of power through the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 1:5). This was especially encouraging for Paul who had arrived via Philippi where he had experienced persecution (1 Thessalonians 12:2) at the hands of the local magicians and magistrates (Acts 17:14-21).

Unfortunately trouble again followed close at his heels, this time from the leading Jews of the area, who Luke tells us are jealous because of Paul’s missionary success (Acts 17:5). After an uproar, Paul and Silas escaped under the cover of darkness and went to the city of Berea, about 50 miles to the southwest. Although he wanted to return to the Thessalonians, Paul was unable so he sent Timothy, whose report of their enduring faith and love prompted the writing of this letter (3:6).

Despite the good news from the community, the enemies of Paul still pose a real threat. Hence, the charge that Paul is a “man who has upset the world” (Acts 17:6) echoes in the background. Was he worried that the tempter might tempt them (3:5) to question Paul and therefore question the gospel he brought? To forestall this, he extolls his character. Beginning with the first main sentence in the letter, Paul reminds them of “what kind of men we proved to be among you” (1:5), and his character takes center stage in the verses preceding this passage. He eliminates any possible negative motivation — error, impurity, deceit, flattery, glory, or power — as he establishes his character in two particular ways.

First, he was not a burden to them. Possibly wanting to avoid a negative association with traveling sophists, those who taught morally ambivalent rhetoric and at times became rich from it, Paul asserts that he does not teach for a fee but provides for himself. A common theme for Paul throughout his writings, he notes that as an apostle he could accept a fee (1 Corinthians 9:12, 14, 18), but he has chosen not to do so (2 Thessalonians 3:7–10; 1 Corinthians 4:11-12, 14–15; 2 Corinthians 11:8–9).

This keeps Paul unbound to the symbiotic system of patronage so vital to the functioning of first century society. He can travel where he wants and say what needs to be said without upsetting the patron-client dynamic. Moreover, since it seems the Thessalonians have a tendency toward laziness (1 Thessalonians 4:11–12; 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12), Paul may have been particularly concerned to show them the example of continuing hard work even in light of the immanent eschaton.

Paul’s method is a good reminder for ministers today of the possible messy entailments of being paid for proclaiming the word of God. Nevertheless, his example certainly cannot be used as an excuse to demand that preachers teach for free. As Paul says with the Lord’s support, those who proclaim the gospel should be supported by it (1 Corinthians 9:14). He even encourages the Thessalonians to appreciate and esteem those who labor among them (1 Thessalonians 5:12), which surely has financial ramifications. His decision not to be a financial burden to his communities promotes the use of wisdom when accepting funds, but does not prohibit the reception of funds altogether.

Second, Paul defends his character with his assertions that he is not bringing his own message, but God’s. Paul proclaims his deep thanksgiving that when the Thessalonians heard him they perceived this truth (verse 13). Hence, his blameless conduct points to something greater. It provides evidence of the transformation the message he is bringing has affected in his own life. His greatest desire is that they never lose sight of the truth of what God was saying to them for which Paul only served as the messenger.

Paul has reminded the Thessalonians of his work. He was like a father to each of them, encouraging, exhorting, and testifying to them so that they might live worthy lives (2:11–12). Like a father would do, he was preaching the word of God and also laboring (presumably as a tent maker) so that he wouldn’t be a financial burden to them, his children in the faith. With this energetic lifestyle, he is embodying and demonstrating an analogous characteristic of God. While Paul has been at work among them, God has also been at work in them (2:13), calling them to be members of the kingdom and participants in his glory (2:12).

Because God has brought them from death to life (1:9), from inactivity to activity, they, too, have a work to perform. They have already demonstrated a working faith, a laboring love, and an enduring hope (1:2), and now Paul is calling them to be his imitators (2:14), persisting in both spiritual and mundane work. For once you have become a member of God’s kingdom, all of your life falls under his authority and contributes to his glory. Invigorated by the active God, everything from making tents to evangelism can serve the needs of the believing community and the kingdom of the God in whom the community members believe.