Satan Has Blocked Our Way (1 Thessalonians 2:17-20)

When Paul started the church at Thessalonica he was opposed by the Jewish community as well as the secular authorities (Acts 17:1-8). The Jews reacted to Paul’s message that Jesus was the messiah who was crucified and raised to life by God. The city officials in Thessalonica reacted against Paul’s rejection of Caesar as Lord. The idea that there is another king besides Caesar was politically dangerous. If Paul also taught Jesus was returning soon to judge the word (which 1 Thess 4:17-5:10 and 2 Thess 2 imply), the secular authorities may have interpreted this as a prophecy against the emperor and against Rome. As a result, he was forced to leave the city before he had fully prepared the church, and certainly before he wanted to leave. Acts 17:10 says the believer’s in Thessalonica sent Paul and Silas away at night, certainly not the way Paul would have liked to leave these new Christians.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:17 Paul describes this sudden departure as being “torn away” from the new Christians. The verb ἀπορφανίζω has the sense of a child that is orphaned, but also a parent who has lost a child. This is a separation under great emotional distress. Paul did not want to leave, he was forced to leave under threat from the local officials. Notice the verb is passive: Paul did not cause his own departure, he was the victim of circumstances beyond his control.

The letter was written after a short time after his forced departure and Paul thinks of the church often. The introduction to the letter says Paul prays for the church each day and in 2:17 he says he thinks of the church often. Even though Paul’s desire was to return it is possible his enemies were slandering him by saying he never intended to revisit the church. They accuse Paul of taking all the money he could could from the church and then left them on their own to face a black lash from the Thessalonian officials. The opponents are likely blaming Paul for any persecution the church faces.

Paul says he has a strong desire to return.The word for this desire is one of the strongest words for desire available to Paul, it means to “crave” something, usually in an especially inordinate way. In other places the word ἐπιθυμία is translated “lust.” This strong desire makes him make an effort to return. The verb σπουδάζω is not a light or a token effort, but rather doing “something with intense effort and motivation. Elsewhere the word is translated as “be eager to….” (Gal 2:10, Eph 4:3). His one burning desire was to return to the small community of new believers in Thessalonica and continue to build them up spiritually so they would continue the work of the Gospel in the whole region of Macedonia and Achaia (1 Thess 1:7).

Even though he has made every effort to return, Satan stopped him. The word“hinder” (ἐγκόπτω) has the sense of“tearing up the road.” If an army wanted to hinder another army from pursuing them they would tear up the road, burn the bridges, etc. Paul sees Satan’s operation as making any progress Paul might make very difficult. The book of Acts does not describe this Paul’s travels in Acts 17-18 as hindered by Satan, although it is possible Paul saw the ongoing threat of further persecution at the hands of the Jews and civil authorities in Thessalonica as a reason not to return. On the other hand, Paul does not usually avoid ministry because of the threat of persecution. He may have in mind his short time in Athens (Acts 17:16-34) where he was distressed at the idolatry of the city (17:16-17) and did not have much success (17:33, no church is formed). The important thing to observe here is that Paul sees any circumstances which kept him from returning to Thessalonica as spiritual warfare.

This hindrance may have been more subtle. Paul’s efforts to travel back to the city were slowed by what seemed to be coincidental problems or bureaucratic nonsense. It is easy for a Christian to read “Satan hindered me” in 1 Thessalonians 2:18 and assume there was some epic spiritual battle. Satan does not need to appear on the road in the form of a great red dragon breathing fire to destroy Paul and SIlas (in fact, does he ever really do that?) More often than not, Satan is in the details. Travel papers are lost, roads are closed, a minor bureaucrat refuses to sign a paper, luggage is lost, etc.

The important thing to see here is that the source of Paul inability to return is Satan. The church is not suffering because of the civil authorities in Thessalonica, nor are they suffering because of jealousy from the synagogue, they suffer because they are engaged in spiritual warfare. As he says in Ephesians 6:10, the struggle is not against  flesh and blood, but against the spiritual powers of darkness. And sometimes those spiritual powers of darkness take very subtle forms in order to hinder the Gospel.

Paul’s Motivation for Ministry (1 Thessalonians 2:1-6)

Snake OilIn the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians Paul tells the church they ought to imitate him as he imitates Christ. In fact, the church is doing just that: they have become a model for other congregations in Macedonia and Achaia. But the prayer does not really explain what Paul means by “imitate me,” he begins to outline some of the ways the church can follow his model in chapter 2. Paul reminds the church how he conducted himself when he was in the city, providing some details on what he sorts of things he models for them in imitate. Abraham Mahlrebe suggested that this description of Paul’s motivations for ministry are not really apologetic, but rather he intends to present himself as an example of moral behavior he expects out of his congregation. Although this might sound arrogant to the modern reader, Greco-Roman philosophers often set themselves as a moral examples for their students to follow.

But Paul is also trying to separate himself from the typical traveling teacher that plagued the ancient world. For Example, the sophist used their oration skills to gain popularity and wealth. Paul contrasts his motives with those of the sophists or other philosophical mountebanks. Like snake-oil salesmen in the American old west, the traveling teacher was a well-known character in the Greco-Roman world. Bruce Winter suggested that Paul was distancing himself “from the habits of the sophists, who entered the cities of the empire with great pomp in order to gain an audience and disciples for their teaching” (Cited by Green, 112). Gene Green cites Dio Chrysostom as an example of a philosopher who set himself up as a model to be followed (in contrast to other philosophers and sophists):

But to find a man who in plain terms and without guile speaks his mind with frankness, and neither for the sake of reputation nor for gain makes false pretensions, but out of good will and concern for his fellow- man stands ready, if need be, to submit to ridicule and to the disorder and the uproar of the mob—to find such a man as that is not easy, but rather the good fortune of a very lucky city, so great is the dearth of noble, independent souls and such the abundance of toadies [flatterers], mountebanks, and sophists. (Dio Chrysostom , 32.11)

In 1 Thessalonians 2:3 Paul claims he did not have “Impure motives” or a moral error (ἀκαθαρσία). When he preached the Gospel, Paul was not trying to get people to believe his message out of a desire to use them immorally. The noun is used for uncleanliness, for dirt and refuse, even the contents of a grave (which a Jew would have considered very unclean). Not surprisingly the word has a connotation of sexual sin, Paul uses the term elsewhere for “every kind of immorality” (Wannemaker, 95).

It is an unfortunate fact that people who attain power use it to sin sexually. This is quite evident that high government officials seem to use their power to be immoral, whether for sexual affairs or quasi-legal bribery. Unfortunately this is as true for religious leaders in our own day. There are people who take advantage of their position in the church to gain sexual favors; it was true in Paul’s day, and it is true in our day.

Paul also says he was “not trying to trick you” when he preached the Gospel in Thessalonica. A snake-oil salesman intends to trick the audience. This word (δόλος) is often translated as “deceit” or “treachery” (BAGD). In non-biblical Greek, the word is used for baiting a hook, a cunning plan to deceive. The most obvious example in the Greek world was the Trojan horse. Paul is not trying to trick people into accepting the Gospel so he can later hit them up for huge donations. Paul had no other motive that to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There was no trick involved, no catch, no hidden clause or fine print. What Paul taught was all there was, and he was successful in Thessalonica because of this.

It is possible Paul is responding to attacks against his character made by opponents either by Jews from the synagogue or the Thessalonicans themselves. It is even possible people in the congregation wonder about Paul’s motivation for preaching the Gospel in their city and founding the church. After all, Paul was only in the city for a short and he left under suspicion of “turning the world upside-down” (Acts 17:5-9). He left Thessalonica after Jason posted bond, possible giving credence to the rumor that Paul was preaching the gospel for the money and did not really care about the church.

One way to define yourself is to describe what you are not. For example, I might say I am a Christian, but not like those guys on TV or like those people who predict the end of the world. In saying this, my intention is to define accurately what I do believe by contrasting myself to more well known “characters” from our culture. Paul does not want to be seen as a sophist anymore than I want to be seen as goofy people claiming to be Christians.Paul’s point in these verses is to remind the readers he is different than the popular philosophers and hucksters they knew well, he genuinely cared for them as he preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, it is easy to dismiss the Gospel because people who claim to be Christians have used their power to to terrible things. People use religion to con people into giving them political power which they abuse to enrich themselves. But not every Christian is trying to manipulate people for money and power! How does the contemporary church convince the culture it is “not like those people?” If Paul is a model in this passage, how do we follow that model and avoid moral and intellectual error?

Main Themes of 2 Thessalonians

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.

The Apostle Paul with SwordAs 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)

Main Themes of 1 Thessalonians

Paul arrived in the Thessalonica after a short time in Philippi (Acts 17:1-9). In Philippi he was 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).

Encourage one anotherBecause 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 (1 Thess 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.

Is “Mirror Reading” Helpful for Reading Galatians?

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?

 

Stand Firm and Hold to the Faith – 2 Thessalonians 2:15

“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?

How Can We Live to Please God? (1 Thessalonians 4:1-2)

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?