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Paul says that Peter’s actions are nothing less that hypocrisy. Peter has changed his attitude and behavior toward Gentile Christians after the visit from the “men from James.” The first verb (ὑποστέλλω) is a military term and has the sense of retreating to an “inconspicuous position” (Witherington, Galatians, 154). In Acts 20:27 Paul uses the verb to describe what he did not do – he did not “shrink back” from preaching the gospel in Ephesus in the face of persecution. The second verb (ἀφορίζω) has the separating into groups (the sheep and the goats in Matt 25:32, for example). Witherington takes this to mean that the word has a sense of ritual purity, and I might add it has an eschatological sense. At the end of the age, the Lord will separate those who will enter the kingdom from those who will not. If we are right that the political and religious situation in Judea was becoming increasingly apocalyptic, it is possible that these “men from James” were encouraging a separation of the Jews and the Gentiles in anticipation of a coming judgment.

The reason for Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship is fear from the circumcision party, those Jews who insisted on circumcising Gentiles. There is at least the possibility (based on Galatians 6:12) that some Jews, such as the Zealots, were willing to use force to ensure Jewish traditions were being observed. If this is the case, then perhaps Peter’s fear is a real fear of persecution by the more zealous wing of the Jerusalem church.  This is not a case of “the pastor is coming over, quick hide the beer bottles”! Peter and Barnabas may have withdrawn from fellowship to avoid a potentially violent reprisal from the “zealots” within Jewish Christianity.

Peter’s actions therefore are out of character and not in line with his beliefs nor the agreement which he reached with Paul in Galatians 2:1-10. Paul thinks Peter and Barnabas have “shrunk back” out of fear and are in need of correction. While Peter is a hypocrite, Paul describes Barnabas as “led astray.” The verb συναπάγω has the sense of “carried away,’ he was fooled by the rhetoric of the “men from James.”

Witherington suggests that Barnabas found himself in a bad place because he was originally sent to Antioch by Jerusalem, he could not go against the “orders” of the church who sent him to Antioch in the first place (Galatians, 157). His loyalty was to Jerusalem, the group with which he was associated from the earliest days (Acts 4), rather than to Paul and the Gentile mission. The Gentile mission is not Barnabas’ commission, it is Paul’s. All of the Jews in the Antioch church join with Peter and Barnabas in withdrawing from fellowship with the Gentile believers. This indicates that there is a church-wide split caused by the “men from James.”

Paul publically confronted Peter because his “conduct was not in line with the truth.” This confrontation was “before them all,” which may mean that Paul waited until the church assembled. Parallel to the private meeting in Jerusalem, Paul chose to bring this issue to the whole assembly. The accusation against Peter that he is not living in accordance to what he knows is the truth, the agreement of Gal 2:1-10, for example. The agitators in the Galatian church, on the other hand, were described with military terms. They are spies and agitators who are outside of the truth of the gospel to begin with. Peter knows the truth and is not acting in accordance with it, the agitators do not even know the gospel.

Paul’s point is that if Peter and the Jewish Christians withdraw from the Gentile Christians, then there is no unity in the body of Christ. As Paul will point out later in the later, there is no Jew or Greek in the Body of Christ, we are all members together “in Christ.” To separate into two bodies, a Jewish and a Gentile one, totally misses the point of a “joint-body” as Paul describes in Ephesians 2.

What is at stake here is the nature of the Gospel. If Paul loses this argument, then Gentiles will continue to be “second class believers” in the eyes of some conservative Jewish believers.

Although the issues are different, how does contemporary churches create boundaries which push some types of Christians out of fellowship, or consider them as second-class Christians? Perhaps some of the boundaries are important (the men from James thought circumcision was critical to being a follower of Jesus), but others may not be. How can we disagree on the boundaries without compromising the unity of the Body of Christ?

At the beginning of the letter to the Galatians, Paul must clarify his relationship with the Jerusalem church. If Paul is under the authority of Jerusalem, then it is at least possible that the “men from James” could claim that Paul has not been authorized to preach a gospel to the Gentiles which frees them from the Law.

Image result for ladder of divine acentAt issue here is not the Gospel that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and that he was raised on the third day, according to the scriptures (1 Cor 15:3-5). Paul clearly states this tradition was passed along to him as the primary core of the gospel. It is also clear the preaching of Christ Crucified can be found in the apostolic preaching from the beginning. What Paul is going to argue in the first two chapters of Galatians is that although his Gospel is Christ Crucified, when the death and resurrection of Christ is applied to the Gentiles, they are not “under the Law.” For Paul, Gentiles are not converts to Judaism by rather adopted children of God and therefore not required to keep the Law. As Ben Witherington puts it,

Paul is referring to his Law-free Gospel for the Gentiles which focuses on and is based on faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross which provides one with right standing before God. This distinctive Gospel message about Christ Paul admits is not the sort of thing human beings could have come up with on their own. It had to be revealed by God for it to be known at all. (Galatians, 92)

According to Galatians 1:11-12, Paul’s Gospel was revealed to him by Jesus Christ. At this point in the letter Paul begins to use the first person. He is not writing on behalf of a ministry team (as in 1 Thessalonians or 1 Corinthians), he is presenting his own testimony of how he encountered the grace of God.

First, Paul’s claim is that he was not evangelized by other apostles. We know from Acts that Paul was in fact a bitter opponent of the gospel in Acts. As I read Acts, Paul was came into contact with the gospel in the Synagogue of the Freedmen, where Stephen was preaching. His reaction to Stephen’s preaching was violent and led to his mission to Damascus to round up Christ-followers.

Second, Paul did not learn his gospel from the other apostles. After his encounter with Jesus, Paul did not have a period of discipleship in order to learn the basics of the gospel. He will state that he did not encounter the Apostles until well after he was given a revelation from Jesus. He does not claim to be “one of the Twelve” or even under the authority of the Twelve. He is an independent apostle commissioned directly by God.

Third, the noun apokalypsis (ἀποκάλυψις) is the key to understanding Paul’s point in Galatiansi 1:11-12. The noun appears in Paul’s letters thirteen times, and as might be expected, the word has the connotation of God’s decisive actions in history to bring salvation into the world. This is in fact the title of the final book of the New Testament, the “Revelation of Jesus Christ.” Paul is not saying he has discovered his gospel from careful exegesis of the Hebrew Bible or through crafty application of rabbinic rules of interpretation. He claims in Galatians 1:11-12 that God pulled back the curtains and revealed to him something which has not been known before, what he will call a mystery in Ephesians 3:1-6.

This revelation stands in contrast to receiving a gospel from other humans. Rather than being informed by others of a “Law-free Gospel” for the Gentiles, God revealed it to him through Jesus.

How do you think this claim would have been heard by the Twelve in Jerusalem and the community of Jewish Christian believers who had been following Jesus since his time in Galilee? What kind of resistance to Paul’s claim do we see in either in Galatians or in Acts?

As Thomas Schreiner points out in his recent commentary on Galatians, when he wrote this letter, Paul did not need to explain the situation and background to his readers (p.31). They knew what the situation since it concerned them. We are therefore at a great disadvantage when we pick up the letter to the Galatians because we have to infer the situation from what Paul says in the letter itself.

This process of inferring a background for a letter like Galatians is known as “mirror reading.” We only have access to one side of the story. It would be ideal if we were able to read documents written by the opponents of Paul, or a letter from the Galatian churches explaining what the problem was and asking Paul for advice. In the case of Galatians, we have only Paul’s side of the story as he describes it in Galatians.

I think that there are a few other “resources” for reading the situation in Galatia that resulted in the letter Paul wrote to his churches. The book of Acts is an obvious candidate for a source, although sometimes Luke’s theological agenda forces scholars to wonder about his accuracy. In the case of Galatians, for example, there are some chronological problems, but Luke and Paul generally agree on how the Galatian churches got there and what the opponents were teaching in Paul’s churches.

There are other resources that help us to accurately mirror read is the literature of the Second Temple period.  Some of these are Jewish, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Psalms of Solomon. There are hundreds of documents that collect Second Temple Jewish literature to help us understand the Jewish world view reflected by Paul’s letters.  While Josephus may not always be accurate (especially when talking about himself), his Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews are essential reading for understanding this period in history. I might recommend Paul Maier’s Josephus: The Essential Writings (Kregel, 1988) as a good entry point for students wanting to know more about Josephus.

Other resources are Greco-Roman. These might be less helpful, since they often reflect popular misconceptions of how Judaism was practiced in the first century.  There are several excellent collections of this kind of material that save the student from having to sift through the hundreds of Loeb volumes looking for good background material.  My favorite is Jewish Life and Thought among Greeks and Romans edited by Feldman and Reinhold (Fortress, 1996). Fortress also recently published Documents and Images for the Study of Paul edited by Elliott and Reasoner (2011). I have also enjoyed Robert Louis Wilken’s The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (Yale, 2003).

While it would be ideal for a reader of Galatians (or a student of Pauline theology) to have letters from the opponents, I think that there is sufficient data to support Paul’s description of the situation in Galatia as accurate.

Is it “fair” to include Acts as background to Galatians? Should we use other Jewish writings as supplementary materials for understanding this letter? What are the dangers of this approach?

 

The first major controversy the early church had to contend with strikes the modern reader a bit strange. Rather than debating the nature of Jesus or developing the doctrine of the Trinity, the first major theological problem was the status of the Gentile who has put their faith in Jesus. Before Acts 13, there were only a few Gentile believers (Cornelius and his household, for example). But after Paul’s mission to several cities in Galatia,

Are Gentiles converting to Judaism? If so, should they keep the Law? Or are they like the “God Fearers,” Gentiles who kept some of the Law but did not fully convert? For some Jewish Christians, there may have been an implied secondary status for the Gentile believer in Jesus who does not fully convert to Judaism and keep the Law.

But why was circumcision of Gentiles converts such a controversial issue? In Acts 13-14 Paul has success among Gentiles for the first time and establishes several churches with mixed congregations of Jews and Gentiles. That these churches included some Gentiles who were not previously “God Fearers” seems to be clear from the response Paul gets in Lystra.

Based on Galatians, it appears that Paul had taught the Gentiles that they do not have to keep the Jewish Law, especially circumcision. Undoubtedly this also included food laws and Sabbath worship, the other major boundary markers for Jews living in the Diaspora. After Paul established these churches and re-visited them once to appoint leaders (Acts 14:21-28), he returned to Antioch and reported that God had “opened a door of faith” among the Gentiles.

Sometime after Acts 14, some teachers arrived in Paul’s Gentile churches and told the Gentiles that they were required to fully convert to Judaism in order to be fully a part of the people of God in the present age. I think that this teaching focused on the boundary markers of food and Sabbath as well, but Galatians and Acts 15 is concern only the practice of circumcision. If Gentiles are going to be considered full participants in the people of God in the present age, they must be Jews; this requires conversion and obedience with the law.

This is no small controversy for several reasons. First, circumcision was a major factor in Jewish identity. For many in the Greco-Roman world, circumcision was the key practice which set the Jews apart from the rest of the world (usually for ridicule). Marital, for example, seems to find a great deal of humor in the Jewish practice (Epigrams 7.35.3-4; 7,82, 11.94. Some of Marital’s comments on circumcision are so crude the original Loeb translators did not translate them into English so as not to offend sensitive readers, choosing instead to translate them into Italian. A new edition of Marital has been produced for the Loeb series by D. R. Shackleton Baily which not only translates these epigrams, but seems to strive to offend!)

Second, Paul argues in Galatians and other letters that the church is neither Jew nor Gentile (Gal 3:28). If Gentiles convert to Judaism, then the church is Jewish; if a Jew rejects the Law and acts like a Gentile, then the church is “Gentile.” Paul’s point is that there is something different than Judaism happening in the present age, the “church” is not a form of Judaism, nor is it a Gentile mystery religion. The church in Paul’s view transcends ethnicity (neither Jew nor Gentile), gender (neither male nor female) and social boundaries (neither slave nor free).

For Paul, if the Gentiles are forced to keep the Jewish boundary markers, then they have converted to Judaism and they are not “in Christ.” This view would have been radical in the first century, and it still is difficult for Christians two thousand years later. One does not “act like a Christian” to be right with God, any more than one “acted like a Jew” in the first century to be right with God.

Based on a fair reading of Galatians, Paul met with serious resistance for his Law-free Gospel from some Jewish Christians. What might have motivated these opponents of Paul? What is it about Paul’s preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles which shocked them?

One of the basic assumptions most Christian have about Jews in the first century is that they kept separate from the Gentiles. Josephus said that Jews “did not come into contact with other people because of their separateness” (Antiq. 13:245-247). Any Gentile who chooses to live according to the Law of Moses may be admitted, but otherwise there is no real fellowship with Gentiles.  

Josephus, Against Apion 2.210 Accordingly our legislator [Moses] admits all those that have a mind to observe our laws, so to do; and this after a friendly manner, as esteeming that a true union, which not only extends to our own stock, but to those that would live after the same manner with us; yet does he not allow those that come to us by accident only to be admitted into communion with us.

But perhaps the situation was not as strict as Josephus would have us believe. Gentiles were not totally excluded from Jewish worship. There was a huge “court of the Gentiles” in the temple complex which gave Gentiles a place to worship in the Temple. On a number of occasions in the gospels Jesus speaks with Gentiles, although usually the faith of the Gentile is in contrast to the unfaithfulness of the Jews.

One factor bearing on this issue is the long standing Jewish belief that purity laws did not apply to Gentiles even when they lived in Israelite territory. The “sojourner laws” (Deut 5:14) define these Gentiles as resident aliens and require only a few general commands for them while they are living within the nation of Israel. These are the same commands given by James at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:24-29.

Did Jews of the first century consider Gentiles impure and therefore exclude them from the inner courts of the temple? In the Second Temple re-telling of the story of Joseph known as Joseph and Asenath we are told that “Joseph never ate with the Egyptians, for this was an abomination to him” (7:1). In fact, he refuses to even kiss the lovely Egyptian Asenath because her lips have touched unclean food.

Several Second Temple period texts indicate Jews did not mix at all with Gentiles:

Jubilees 22:16 And you also, my son, Jacob, remember my words, and keep the commandments of Abraham, your father. Separate yourself from the Gentiles, and do not eat with them, and do not perform deeds like theirs. And do not become associates of theirs. Because their deeds are defiled, and all their ways are contaminated, and despicable, and abominable.

Tobit 1:10-12 After I was carried away captive to Assyria and came as a captive to Nineveh, every one of my kindred and my people ate the food of the Gentiles, but I kept myself from eating the food of the Gentiles. Because I was mindful of God with all my heart . . .

Judith 12:1-4 Then he commanded them to bring her in where his silver dinnerware was kept, and ordered them to set a table for her with some of his own delicacies, and with some of his own wine to drink. But Judith said, “I cannot partake of them, or it will be an offense; but I will have enough with the things I brought with me.” Holofernes said to her, “If your supply runs out, where can we get you more of the same? For none of your people are here with us.” Judith replied, “As surely as you live, my lord, your servant will not use up the supplies I have with me before the Lord carries out by my hand what he has determined.”

In any case, it was certainly not normal for a missionary from Jerusalem to turn up in the home of a Gentile to preach the gospel, as did Peter in Acts 10. If a Gentile was worshiping in the Temple or synagogue, such as Cornelius, then that Gentile would be welcome to hear the gospel. But for the Jewish mission in Judea, the home of a Gentile is not really the normal venue for missionary activity!

Yet Paul plans to take the Gospel to places where it has not gone before. On the island of Crete he approaches a Roman governor, Sergius Paulus, and in Lystra and Iconium he tries to preach the Gospel to Gentiles outside of the Synagogue.

If the examples listed above are a fair reading of Judaism in the first century, then how radical was Paul’s Gentile mission strategy?

“So then” (Ἄρα οὖν) is a common Pauline way of drawing a logical conclusion to a section. Since his readers have been chosen by God as the first to share in the Gospel, they will be glorified at the time of Christ’s return (2:14). If this is true, then they ought to respond to this reality in the following two ways:

Image result for stand firmFirst, the Thessalonians are to “stand firm” (στήκω). This verb has the sense of being firmly committed to something (BDAG). This stands in contrast to Paul’s description of the church at the beginning of this chapter: they were unsettled and alarmed by a report that then Day of the Lord already come. Rather than be shaken by the teaching which contradicted what Paul had taught them, they ought to stand firm in what they know to be the truth.

Second, the readers are told to “hold on” (κρατέω) to the traditions Paul has passed along to them when he was with them or by his earlier letter. Once again, this is necessary since it is possible the disturbing report came to the church from a letter claiming to be in Paul’s name. In 1 Thessalonians Paul was very clear his appeal to the church was not motivated by greed nor was he using rhetoric to fool them into believing something which was not true.

It is very important to notice here that Paul says he passed along traditions (τὰς παραδόσεις). This implies there was a body of teaching Paul could “hand down” to his churches, some of which Paul says he had received from those who were before him. This includes teachings about the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:23) and the resurrection (1 Cor 15:3-5). Although there are some things Paul says he received from the Lord directly (1 Thess 4:15), others are part of a growing doctrinal and ethical tradition Paul delivers to his churches and expects them to hand down to the next generation of believers.

Third, Paul tells the Thessalonians to be encouraged and strengthened in both deed and word (2:16-17). This benediction is something of a conclusion to the first part of the letter. The benediction in 2:16-17 is a prayer to the Lord himself to give the readers strength to hold on to Paul’s teaching. There are two parts to Paul’s wish for the church. First, “Encourage your heart…” This is an inward action, although “encourage” might be a bit soft. In 3:12, Paul uses the same verb to strengthen a command (translated “we urge.”) What is in mind is the Lord prodding and urging the heart to keep the command to hold tight to the teachings Paul gave them.

Second, Paul prays that the Lord would strengthen his readers. This is an external action, an enablement to do the action commanded. Even if the Lord nudges you to do the right thing, it is still possible for you to ignore that urging. The point of this part of the prayer is to actually follow through and do what must be done.

The encouraging and strengthening is to be done “in deed and word.” There is a relationship here “between inward encouragement and outward behavior.” (Wanamaker, 1-2 Thessalonians, 272). Paul does not want his congregation to say one thing and do another.

This section of 2 Thessalonians has some very real application to the modern church. There are occasionally strange teachings which do not conform to the “traditions handed down” and cause some in the church to be unsettled or alarmed. The recent weirdness about the solar eclipse is a case in point. Even a few reasonable people I know were seriously considering this as a “sign of the end.” (Short answer: it was not a sign of the end). Sometimes a popular writer will publish a book with a new or radical reading of Scripture, the church ought to evaluate it in the light of the “traditions handed down.” But from a contemporary perspective, what are those traditions? Is this just Scripture? The Nicene Creed? Do denominational commitments matter? How does the church strengthen itself so that it can stand firm and hold fast to the “traditions handed down” yet still respond to a culture where traditions like this are meaningless?

The situation in Thessalonica has changed since Paul wrote his first letter to the church. In fact, the second letter is so different from the first that some scholars suggest it was actually the first letter Paul wrote to the church and the order was reversed as the early church gathered the Pauline letters into a collection. It is true the whole collection is not chronological, and the general order of the letters is from longest (Romans) to the shortest (Philemon). So it is possible the smaller 2 Thessalonians was placed after the first letter simply because it was shorter. In the absence of evidence, this reversal of the letters is too speculative, and it really does not take into account 1 Thessalonians fits well into the context of Acts.

As for the situation of the letter, the consensus view is that the church received a letter claiming to come from Paul has circulated to the church. This letter claimed the “Day of the Lord” has already occurred. Paul writes to calm their fears and to assure then that the Day of the Lord has not yet arrived since the “Man of Lawlessness” has not been revealed.

But there is more in the background than a false letter claiming the “end times” have begun. It is possible the persecution the church faced has caused some in the congregation to wonder if they are suffering because they have sinned (and are being punished) or perhaps have believed the wrong things about Jesus. Much of the Greco-Roman world was motivated by pursuit of honor and avoiding shame. The suffering the church is facing appears to be “shame” rather than an “honor.” Paul taught them Jesus would return soon and render judgment, yet he has not returned to rescue the Thessalonians from their troubles.

Why does Paul write 2 Thessalonians?

First, Paul writes this second letter to clarify that Christians might suffer before the return of the Lord. First, suffering cannot be taken as an indication that the Great Tribulation has begun because God has an appointed time when the restraining power of God is removed from the world, permitting the Lawless One to be revealed.

Second, suffering should not be taken as an indication of divine disfavor. Nor should the Christian think they are dishonored because they are being persecuted. This sort of suffering is the lot of the Christian and the endurance the church has already demonstrated is a worthy testimony of the Lord’s work in their church and is a source of boasting for Paul. Paul is pleased that they are steadfast as they endure persecution (1:4).

Third, the source of the suffering which the church is experiencing is not God, but rather Satan. God is not punishing them at all. Since they are a successful, growing church, Satan is attempting to distract them from their calling as a church. They are engaged in serious spiritual warfare, so they ought to “stand firm and hold fast to the teachings” Paul had already passed on to them (2:15).

Fourth, the central problem in 2 Thessalonians is the false report about the return of Christ (2:1-12). Paul first must remind the Thessalonians of what he has already taught them, that the Lord will not return until “the man of lawlessness” is revealed, and this person cannot be revealed until “the restraining force” is taken out of the way. The identity of the Restrainer is one of the more difficult issues in Pauline studies (here are a few comments on what Paul might be talking about). Setting aside the precise identity of the Restrainer, Paul main encouragement to the Thessalonican church is that they need to be afraid they have entered into the “last days” and ought to encourage one another and be “strengthened in every good deed and word” (2:16)

The verbs translated “ask” and “urge” (ἐρωτάω and παρακαλέω) in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-2 are commonly used to encourage a reader to a particular action.  They appear in personal letters between people of the same social status rather than a “superior” giving orders to his underlings. Paul’s view that the church is a family and that he is a “brother” within that family is implied by the use of these verbs (Green, Letters to the Thessalonians, 183).  Potentially Paul could have “pulled rank” and told the church what needs to change – but he offers these commands a social equal.

Image result for godly livingBut Paul includes a prepositional phrase, he asks them “in the Lord Jesus.”  The commands in this section are not from Paul, but rather from the true authority, Jesus.  Verse 8 will make this point again, if you reject this command you are rejecting the Holy Spirit!

“To please” can mean simply to make another happy, proud, etc.  But the word was used for citizens who had performed some civic duty and had “pleased” the government enough to inscribe their names on monuments. This is the nuance of meaning which would have been familiar to the original audience: live in a way that gets you a statue in the local park! Most contemporary Christians would not hear this meaning, but for a person living in the Roman world, this would be a clear image of what kind of virtuous life the Lord requires.

In the context of the “ask in the Lord Jesus,” Paul is saying that these moral guidelines are ways to please the Lord, who is Jesus. Any citizen of Thessalonica would like to please their government and be honored with an inscription, therefore Paul says you ought to live your life the way the ultimate authority wants you to!

The Thessalonian church is already living to please God, but they can improve, they can do this “all the more.” Anyone that thinks they cannot improve is in trouble, not only have they ceased to grow, but they are probably moving backwards.  Paul says keep moving ahead!  Keep on pleasing God all the more.

In this case Paul says that they ought to live, in order to please.  Living and pleasing God are coupled elsewhere in scripture, Enoch, for example, was said to have walked with God and pleased him. The verbs in this section are in the plural.  He is talking to the whole church, even though some of the issues that follow only concern some individuals within the church.  There is a corporate dimension in Paul’s ethical thinking.

Surprisingly, Paul’s commands here apply to whole church, not just a small part of it.  The rest of the church that is not immoral is responsible for holding everyone accountable to the same standard. Contemporary Christianity tends to individualize these sorts of commands so that they apply to a single person rather than a whole church.

If this is right, then Paul is saying to the whole congregation, “live out your faith in in a way that pleases God.” How would this change the way we think about moral and ethical problems in a church? If one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers; does this mean if one part of the body sins, the whole body sins?

In 1 Thessalonians 4:9–10 Paul encourages the church at Thessalonica to pursue “brotherly love.” What is brotherly love? The noun used here (φιλαδελφία) was only used for literal family relationships before the Christian community began to use it as a metaphor for members of their community (EDNT, 4:434). The only exception appears to be 2 Macc 15:14, the word appears to refer to a fraternal relationship of all Israel. In 4 Maccabees 13:23, 26, 14:1 the word refers to the mutual love between seven brothers who all suffer instead of reject their Jewish traditions.

The Greeks considered the relationship between brothers to be of primary importance, Plutarch used the term “brotherly love” to describe the proper relationship between brothers.

Plutarch, De fraterno amore 2 …where there is an unanimous accordance amongst brothers, the family thrives and flourishes, and friends and acquaintance, like a well furnished choir, in all their actions, words, and thoughts maintain a delightful harmony. “But jarring feuds advance the worst of men.”

Plutarch, De fraterno amore 15  Brothers should not be like the scales of a balance, the one rising upon the other’s sinking; but rather like numbers in arithmetic, the lesser and greater mutually helping and improving each other.

Plutarch, De fraterno amore 21   Again, it is highly commendable in him to have the highest esteem and honor for his brother’s wife, reputing and honoring her as the most sacred of all his brother’s sacred treasures, and thus to do honor to him

Based on the teaching of Jesus, the earliest believers referred to themselves as “brothers and sisters.” In Mark 3:3 Jesus indicates that his “brothers and sisters” are those who hear and obey his words.  If those who followed Jesus faced rejection from their families, it is possible that Jesus intended his followers to be a new “family.”  On the other hand, the family of Jesus may be an allusion to the larger theme of a New Israel among the followers of Jesus.  In Acts 2:29 Peter addresses a Jewish crowd as “brothers,” meaning “fellow Jews.”   So too Paul in Acts 22:1; 23:1.

Paul’s use of the term “brother” and “brotherly love” bears additional theological weight.  By accepting Christ, we are adopted into the family of God, God is our father.  This makes each person that has accepted Christ as their savior a brother or sister in Christ. This new family in Christ is the foundation for many of Paul’s commands (cf., Rom 12:10; other Christian ethical instruction begins the same way (Heb 13:1; 1 Pet 1:22; 2 Pet 1:7; 1 Clem 48:1).  He urges his readers to please God by treating each other like brothers and sisters.

If the church lives in brotherly love, then the father is pleased and honored.  For the Greek world, nothing dishonors the parent more that children who do not display proper affection for one another and feud. If Plutarch could say “jarring feuds advance the worst of men,” how might he describe the sort of angry disputes which plague most modern churches?

 

1 Thessalonians fits well into the book of Acts 17:1-9. Paul arrived in the city from Philippi, where he had been arrested illegally and released when he informed the Philippian magistrates he was a Roman citizen. As is typical for Paul he visits the local synagogue and “reasoned from the Scripture” that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer, die, and rise from the dead. Luke indicates some Jews were persuaded, but also a “large number of God-fearing Gentiles and quite a few prominent women” (Acts 17:4).

Because of this success, the Jews stir up a mob to “start a riot” and drive Paul out of the town. They seize Jason, a prominent Thessalonian who was hosting Paul and Silas in his home. The Jews bring Jason before the city officials and claim Paul has been “turning the world upside down,” defying Caesar’s decrees and claiming there is another king, Jesus. Paul is forced to leave the city and these opponents follow Paul to Berea (Acts 17:10-15). Paul is forced to travel alone to Athens (Acts 17:16-34) and eventually to Corinth (Acts 18). Silas and Timothy returned to Thessalonica and re-joined Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:5). In 1 Thessalonians 3:6, Paul says Timothy had just “just now come from you” and reported good news: the church has continued to grow in faith and love and has stood against the attacks made against it. Timothy may have delivered a letter from the Thessalonians to which Paul now responds in First Thessalonians.

First, Paul must defend himself against unnamed opponents who are slandering him. Based on his defense in chapter 2, these opponents acclaim Paul has no divine authority and may be using the local church to enrich himself. It is true Paul was forced to leave Thessalonica under the cover of darkness (Acts 17:10), leaving Jason with some legal and financial burdens (Acts 17:9, Jason posted bail for Paul). Paul says his appeal to his readers did not “spring up from error or impure motives” (2:3) nor did he use the slick rhetoric of the Sophists to trick his readers into believing the Gospel (2:5). The church itself is a witness to Paul’s behavior in Thessalonica, so the opponents have no basis for making these charges.

Second, although Timothy gave an “encouraging report” (1 Thess 3:6-10), he also seems to have reported on two or three problems for the church. In 4:3-8 Paul deals with sexual immorality, encouraging people to control themselves and live in an honorable way. In 4:9-12 Paul instructs the Thessalonican believers to live a “quiet life” and to work to provide for their own needs. It may be the case some members of the congregation were abusing the generosity of others, no longer working while they waiting for the soon arrival of the Lord Jesus. In both of these cases, Paul encourages the readers to live lives which “win the respect of outsiders” (4:12).

Third, Paul addresses some concerns about the return of the Lord (4:13-5:11). Since Paul’s time was cut short, he may not have had the time to answer all the questions the church may have had about the imminent return of Jesus. What is more, some members of the church have died prior to the expected return of the Lord. Paul first must comfort the community by explaining that those who have died in Christ will certainly participate in the resurrection from the dead prior to the return of the Lord. In fact, they will rise first and join those who are still living as they are caught up to meet the Lord in the air (4:15). In chapter 5 Paul points out that the day of the Lord will come unexpectedly, so the “children of light” ought to live their lives in sober anticipation of the return of the Lord. Both of these teachings conclude with “therefore encourage one another.” This is the main point of any teaching on the return of the Lord, encouragement to living godly lives which “win the respect of outsiders” (4:12).

Although 1 Thessalonians is remembered as the “Rapture book” in popular teaching, the main theme of the book is “encourage one another.” Since the Thessalonian church was small and had to endure some pressure from both secular authorities and their cousins in the Jewish synagogue, they may have felt as though their new faith in Jesus was not worth the trouble. The congregation must comfort one another and encourage each member of their small group to continue living out their faith in Jesus as children of God.

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Christian Theology

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