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Persecution is therefore not a cause for fear, but rather an opportunity to honor Christ and revere him as Lord (as opposed to Caesar!) Peter is not commanding a completely passive acceptance of suffering. Rather, he tells the readers to be ready to give an answer when asked about their hope in Christ (v. 15b). Typically this verse is used to encourage people to know what they believe and why they believe it.

This is a good application (and it is true that you ought to know why you believe what you do), but Peter has in mind believers who are being unfairly harassed because of their faith in Jesus. Although it may not be the case than anyone has Suffering Churchbeen tried before a court on account of their faith in Jesus, the word Peter uses here is typically used for a legal defense (ἀπολογία, Acts 22:1, 25:16; 1 Cor 9:3). The believer is not to revile his opponent or repay insults with insults, but he is ready to give an honest answer when asked why he suffers for his faith.

The command is to be prepared, meaning that the believer has already knows why they are willing to put up with harassment for their faith.  To prepare something is to do the work ahead of time. The word “always” or “constantly” also implies that the reasons for one’s faith are prepared and always available. Peter does not envision a sudden rush of the Holy Spirit inspiring someone to give a good defense, rather the believer has ready an explanation for why they are humbly suffering for their faith.

By way of analogy, if someone is called into court on some charge, a lawyer “prepares a case.” this means there is some investigation of the evidence so that the lawyer can anticipate questions and give a good answer. A lawyer who comes into court without ever looking at the case ahead of time will fail and the person under arrest will be convicted.

This defense is to be “with gentleness and respect.” Since the Roman world was used to verbal abuse between philosophical schools, it would be very easy for the Christian to give his defense of his faith with the same sort of abuse the orator heaps on his opponents.

This is a very convicting verse since there are many Christians who have no idea what they believe, or if they do know what they believe, they are unable to give much of a reason for that belief. (The old hymn, I need no other argument, I need no other plea, it is enough that Jesus died, and that he died for me – that is a nice sentiment, but perhaps knowing a little bit of the “device or creed” will help confirm one’s faith when suffering does occur!)

The “hope we have” should be taken as eschatological. In the midst of suffering, the believer can know than Jesus is going to return at some point at render justice. For the believer, that means vindication (they were suffering unjustly) and reward, but for the persecutor, it means punishment.

The point of all of this is that the Christian ought to maintain a clear conscience so the outsider will be ashamed to slander the Christian faith (v. 16). This seems to me to be opposite of Christianity in recent years, or perhaps it only seems so because the media is able to broadcast a few particularly shameful examples of Christian hypocrisy. Think for a moment about presidential candidates claiming to be Christian yet giving hate-filled and vulgar speeches.

Rather than dwell on people who are shameful yet claim to be believers, what are some positive examples of Christians who are living out this “patient suffering” and have given outsiders no reason to slander them?

Since Peter’s audience is about to face persecution, he tells them how they are to respond to attacks on their faith. Most scholars think that the kind of persecution that Christians faced in Asia Minor in the middle first century was the sort of insult and malicious character attacks that typically occurred in the Roman world (Jobes, 1 Peter 216; Elliott, 1 Peter, 607).

In order to build one’s own honor, it was sometimes necessary to attack an opponent in order to reduce their honor (i.e., to shame them). This is not unlike modern politics, where an opponent is often attacked publicly in order to “hurt them politically,” but it went far beyond that. In modern political cartoons some characteristic of the politician is over-emphasized (think of cartoons featuring political figures).

HIllary TrumpThe typical response to an attack on one’s character in the Roman world would be an equally spiteful attack in revenge. This sort of verbal “eye for an eye” was common and accepted as a part of society. One did not suffer insults quietly!

Peter’s command to not reply to insults with insults is therefore socially disruptive. The Christian community does not retaliate with the sort of verbal assaults common in the society.  Just as Jesus was silent, Peter said in 2:23, so too ought the Christian is not to pay back evil for evil.

Rather than reviling opponents, Peter tells his readers they are to bless those who attack them. Followers of Jesus are to be like Jesus and do good toward those who attack them, rather than follow the culture and seek revenge.  This non-retaliation is exactly what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 6:27-26, Matt 5:43-47, “love your enemies,” Matt 5:38-42, “turn the other cheek,” etc.). Paul teaches virtually the same thing in Romans 12:14, 17-21.

The real challenge is actually doing what Jesus, Peter and Paul all say that we ought not do. Not retaliating when we are attacked is difficult, but to actually do something that blesses our accusers is culturally shocking.

Christians sometimes reduce this “blessing” to prayer.  When we face persecution we pray for our enemy so that we can “heap burning coals on their head.” If you are praying to harm your enemy, you are not at all catching the spirit of this command, and are engaging in some sort of curse-prayer that seems inappropriate to Christians.

War On Christmas“Blessings” are tangible in this context, not simply prayers for the salvation of the bad people who are hurting you. If you are suffering abuse from someone. Peter says that it is not only inappropriate for the Christian to attack, but they ought to do some real, tangible action that brings some blessing on the attacker.  Imagine a politician who did not respond to some slander, but rather offered his attacker an opportunity to make his claim on national TV, tells people to buy the guy’s book, etc. That would be a shocking response!

But Peter is not talking to political candidates, but the church. How should Christians respond to someone who is attacking their faith? In America, the some Christians immediately go on the offensive against their alleged persecutors, claiming a a “war of Christmas” or using the Martin Luther Insult Generator to vilify them. Setting aside the question of whether this is real persecution or not, is this a proper response?

How can we “bless those who persecute” in a tangible way?

Since they have suffered, the writer encourages his readers not to throw away what they have done thus far.   Compared to their suffering, their reward is great!  To continue the athletic metaphor, only the one who competes to the end of the race wins the prize.  There is no “participation” award for those who quit the race early.

There are  many examples of great endurance under extreme persecution. This is the point of chapter 11 – all of the individuals listed are examples of people who suffered for their faith in God.  Even though they did not fully understand at that point in history what God was doing in his overall plan, they understood that they possessed something that was greater than life.  In fact, most of the people listed in chapter 11 of Hebrews suffered greatly for their convictions and in some cases lost their lives.  They were looking forward to something greater and were willing to give their lives up for what they believed.

The readers have “great confidence.” This is the same word he used in the previous section to describe our access to the Throne of God.  If that is the level of confidence we have there is every reason to believe that we will overcome whatever suffering we may presently face.

Therefore, the readers ought not “shrink back and are destroyed.”  The noun  ὑποστολή only appears here in the New Testament and has the idea of being timid, shy, hesitant.  This is the opposite of the confidence which we have before God.  According to the argument of Hebrews, the salvation we have in Jesus is so great that we can “boldly enter the throne room of grace.” Imagine the boldness it would take to enter into the Holy of Holies in order to worship God!

If we have confidence before the throne of almighty God, why are we timid in a public trial? Why are we so timid even when we are not in a public trial?

After he is healed from his blindness, Paul immediately begins to do ministry in the same Damascus synagogue he intended to visit. His preaching “agitates” (συγχέω) the synagogues, a verb which has the sense of amazement and surprise. Sometimes Luke uses this verb to describe the confusion of a crowd about to riot (Acts 19:29, variant text, 21:27). What agitates the synagogues is Paul’s successful argument Jesus is the Christ. Paul teaches from Scripture and is empowered by the Holy Spirit in such a way that convinces people. This may not imply they believed, but it was hard to argue against Paul’s evidence.

Where did Paul get this evidence? On the one hand, boldness in preaching is one of Luke’s evidences that an individual is yielded to the Holy Spirit. Like Peter before the Sanhedrin, Paul is filled with the Holy Spirit and boldly speaks the message of Jesus. A second source for his preaching is likely the preaching of Peter, or better, Stephen in the Synagogue.

bible-thumping-26722Undoubtedly Paul has been arguing with Stephen and other Hellenists in the Synagogue for some time, Paul now accepts their arguments and begins to extend them to other scripture. A third source may be Paul’s own thinking about the Messiah and the Messianic age as a well-trained rabbi.

As observed in the last few posts, Paul does not go from totally ignorant of God to a faithful follower of Jesus. He was already aware of messianic texts and methods of argument in rabbinic discussions as well as how to present scripture in a synagogue context. Paul took what he already knew to be the truth and ran it through the filter of the resurrected Jesus and preached that Gospel in the synagogues in Damascus.

Once again, Luke presents powerful preaching and excellent scholarship working together to convince people of the truth of the Gospel. Paul is extremely confrontational – he goes right to the people who likely wanted the Jesus Community to be silent and announces that he is one of them! This is a boldness which is a direct result of the encounter with Jesus and the filling of the Holy Spirit.

There other elements of a “boldness” theme in Acts and clearly Luke is presenting the ministers of the Gospel as unusually bold in their confrontation with authority.  By way of application, should we use Paul’s boldness as a model for modern mission, and if so, what would that look like?  Does this sort of “boldness” work in a pluralistic society like modern America?

This persecution is directly related to the death of Stephen in chapter 7. Since Stephen’s sermon was a statement of judgment against the leadership of Israel for their resistance to the Holy Spirit. There is a progression of resistance in Acts 1-8.  First the apostles are warned, then they are arrested and beaten, then Stephen is tried before the Sanhedrin, and lynched.  Now the whole church of Jerusalem is being suppressed.

Saul is the ringleader of this persecution – he begins to “ravaging the church” (ESV). This verb (λυμαίνω) is only used here in the New Testament, but in the LXX it had the sense of a violent oppression (1 Chron16:10) or even rape (Judith 9:2, 4 Mac 18:8). Keener indicates the word can be applied to torture as well (2:1484). It seems odd from a modern, western perspective to employ violence to suppress sub-group within a religion, although there are plenty of examples of violent clashes between various Christian groups over the centuries. The fact Saul will use such violent measures against the Jesus movement indicates he thought it was a dangerous belief which had to be suppressed by any means. (Saul is just as zealous as those who persecuted Peter in Acts 5, see my comments on that passage).

DandelionBut who exactly is scattered? The apostles are not “scattered,” but remain in Jerusalem. Since Saul led the group which killed Stephen, it seems as though conservative Hellenistic Jews are continuing the persecution.  Since Stephen and Philip are examples in Luke of Hellenistic Jews who have accepted the apostolic message, it also seems likely that this persecution targeted Hellenistic Jewish believers.

Keener recognizes the Hellenists were the special targets of persecution, although Luke says Saul was attaching “all the church.” Keener sees this as another example of Luke’s hyperbolic use of “all” in both the Gospel and the book of Acts (2:1468). Some Hebrew Christians may have been effected even if Saul targeted the Hellenists.

The people persecuted are scattered “throughout Judea and Samaria.”  This may indicate that those who lived relatively nearby left Jerusalem and simply returned to their homes on account of the persecution.  We will find out later that these Hellenistic Jews went as far as Antioch and Damascus as well.

Why do the apostles stay in Jerusalem? It is quite possible that the apostles took Jesus’ final commission to them seriously and stayed in Jerusalem because they were to evangelize the world starting in Jerusalem. If the persecution that Luke describes in Acts 8:1-3 targeted Hellenistic Jews, then it is possible that the Apostles were not seen as a threat.  F. F. Bruce thought the apostles felt their duty remained in Jerusalem in spite of persecution (Acts, 162-3). There is no indication that Saul was hunting down people like Peter and John, but rather those who were associated with Stephen – Philip for example.

Is there enough evidence to decide Saul was targeting only Hellenistic Christians (like Stephen and Philip)? If he was targeting Hellenists, what was his motivation?

Peter’s response is more or less a summary of all of the speeches given previously in Acts (verses 29-32). First, Peter once again says he “must obey God rather than men.” Keener follows most commentators by hearing an allusion to the trial of Socrates (Keener, 2:1218). People throughout the Mediterranean world knew the trial of Socrates and these famous words, analogous to most Americans knowing the phrase “give me liberty or give me death.” Peter boldly states he will obey God before the human authority of the Sanhedrin.

ObeyThis is how Peter and the disciples responded to the original order to be silent and not “preach in that name.” Like the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, since they have been given the Word of God there is no way that they could be silent (Jer 20:9, for example). While there is no way to know for certain, these words remind me of the words of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3:16-18. When confronted with certain death, the young men expressed faith in God to save them, but even if God does not save them, they still are not going to worship the idols of Babylon. So too the brothers in 4 Maccabees who choose to die horrible deaths rather than compromise their Jewish faith and practice. In fact, there are quite a few examples in the literature of the Second Temple period where Jewish people choose death over disobeying God.

Second, Peter states bluntly states that this very group executed Jesus, but God has raised him from the dead. If these men killed an innocent man, then their lives would be required.  They did kill Jesus, there is no question of that.  But if God raised Jesus then he was not just innocent, he was God’s messiah!

Third, not only is Jesus raised from the dead, but he is exalted to the highest place possible. One again, the ascension is considered as an important part of the gospel story. He was not only crucified, but also raised from the dead, raised to the highest place possible.

Fourth, as a result of this glorification, Jesus can give “repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.” The repentance and forgiveness are offered to Israel.  While this is not to take away from the death of Jesus as forgiveness for our sins, Peter connects the death and resurrection to forgiveness of Israel’s sins. What sin? The immediate context is killing an innocent man, Jesus.  “They had indeed sinned in hanging Jesus on the cross, but there is forgiveness and salvation for Israel in him” (Polhill, Acts, 169).

Peter calls on two witnesses to his assertions: the apostles and the Holy Spirit. This is yet another example of the witness theme in the first part of the book of Acts. More important are Peter’s final words – the Holy Spirit has been given to those who obey God.  The implication is clear: The disciples are obeying God and therefore have the Holy Spirit promised to come in the “last days,” as evidence by miracles (healing and release from prison), and the Sanhedrin does not have the Holy Spirit.

The response of the Sanhedrin is anger – they want to put Peter to death! This is the same reaction which the Sanhedrin had toward Jesus when he claimed to be the fulfillment of Daniel 7:14.  The Greek here literally means “to be sawn in two,” a metaphor for extreme rage. The charge against Peter is therefore blasphemy – accusing the elders of the people of not being obedient to God and killing the Messiah!

Peter and the other disciples are willing to die rather than be silent about Jesus. They proclaim boldly the truth of the Gospel, and they make this proclamation in a way that is almost guaranteed to get the killed. The source of this boldness is the Holy Spirit empowering them to speak in a very powerful way to the very people who have the power to torture and kill them. This is a model of Christian suffering that challenges the reader to also be ready to stand firm for their faith even though it cost their life.

There is a clear application here, but I suspect it is not the one usually drawn from this verse. I usually see this applied to so-called Christian civil disobedience, protesting a perceived governmental intrusion into our (American) religious liberties. But Peter is not protesting government health care initiatives here, he is saying he is ready to die rather than be silent about Jesus. It seems to me most Christians, usually in the west, are silent about who Jesus is and what he really was about, especially when they misapply this verse to their favorite political issue.

Keener points out the people received the apostles’ teaching favorably, but the temple aristocracy is far more aggressive. The power of God on display in the apostles’ preaching invites more persecution (Keener, 2:1205).  In Acts 5:17 the High Priest is “filled with jealousy” and arrested the apostles. The High Priest and his associates were Sadducees, so preaching about the messiah or resurrection from the dead would have been troubling. But there is no indication they persecuted Pharisees or other groups for belief in a resurrection or the messiah, so there is more going on here than a simple doctrinal dispute.

This particular High Priest was responsible for killing Jesus in the first place. To claim a man was executed as a false teacher and revolutionary (as Jesus was) was raised form the dead by God is to declare the men behind that execution are not only wrong, but “fighting against God” as Gamaliel will say later in the passage.

jealousKeener discusses jealousy as a motivation for persecution in Acts. There are several other times in the book where enemies of the gospel become jealous and begin to persecute a preacher of the Gospel. In Acts 13:45 the synagogue reacts with jealousy after Paul’s sermon, and the Jews in Thessalonica who oppose Paul are described as jealous (Keener 2:1206). He goes on to examine envy in an honor-shame culture, where good fortune breeds jealousy. In fact, it is a Greco-Roman rhetorical strategy to claim your opponents are motivated by jealousy. Keener concludes by saying the aristocratic Sadducees may have been annoyed by the popular Pharisees, but for a group of uneducated Galileans claim divine author and grow in popularity was too much (1208).

zealousI disagree with using honor-shame as a background for the word jealousy in this context. The noun ζῆλος is often translated “zeal,” a positive characteristic. Paul himself will use the same word to describe his own advancement in Judaism prior to his encounter with the resurrected Jesus (Phil 3:4-6). Paul does not merely claim to be a Pharisee. He modifies this claim with the words “according to zeal, a persecutor of the church.” Paul as “zealous” to keep the law to the point that he was willing to persecute those that did not conform to the Law.

It is possible a Jewish reader would read “filled with jealousy” as a “a zealous keeper of the Law.” None other than Matthias the father of Judas Maccabees was described as zealous in defense of the core of Jewish faith at the beginning of the revolt against Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

1 Maccabees 2:24-29 When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal (ζηλόω) and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him on the altar.  At the same time he killed the king’s officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar.  Thus he burned with zeal for the law, just as Phinehas did against Zimri son of Salu. Then Mattathias cried out in the town with a loud voice, saying: “Let every one who is zealous (ὁ ζηλῶν) for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!”  Then he and his sons fled to the hills and left all that they had in the town. 29 At that time many who were seeking righteousness and justice went down to the wilderness to live there.

Along with Judas, Phineas (Num 25:1-18) and Elijah (1 Kings 19) were examples of Old Testament characters that burned with a zealous commitment to the Lord that expressed itself in a willingness to challenge the evil head on, killing those that practiced idolatry themselves if need be.

The High Priest in Acts 5:17 is not jealous that the apostles are gaining followers nor is he envious of the apostles. He believes the preaching of the apostles is a dangerous idea which could destabilize the core institutions of Judaism in the first century. Even though the apostles are not telling their followers to stop keeping the Law, the High Priest strongly objects to the idea of a suffering messiah who dies and is raised from the dead. He is therefore willing to physically punish those who are preaching the resurrection.

How does this understanding of “zeal” anticipate what happens in Acts 6-7?  Does this help understand Rabbi Saul’s passion in Acts 9?

[Audio for this study is available at Sermons.net, as is a PDF copy of the notes. You may right-click and “save as….”]

The reason for Jesus giving this warning is so that the disciples will not “fall away” when the persecution begins. The verb translated “fall away” in the ESV is σκανδαλίζω. The word can mean brought to a downfall, or “cause to sin.” For example, for a person on a diet, bringing a platter of their favorite dessert is likely going to cause them to sin by breaking their diet and eating the dessert. The food “trips them up” and the fall off the wagon, so to speak.

The word can also have the sense of being offended by someone or something, or to be shocked or angered by something. This may lead to sin as well, so it is sometimes difficult to decide how the word ought to be translated. But in either case, Jesus wants his disciples what they will have to face in the very near future, so that they are not shocked to the point of sin. If they were under the impression that the new few months would lead to a great deal of health and wealth for them personally, they are going to be in for a great shock!

Jesus once again predicts that the disciples will be subjected to persecution. It is clear in these verses that the Jews will be the source of this trouble.

The disciples will be put out of the synagogue. To be thrown out of a synagogue is an indication that the members of the synagogue consider you to be no longer permitted to worship God or study the scripture in that place. This may be the result of some sin, but also for a defection from the truth. We should resist the inclination to read this as “excommunication” in a medieval sense, but in a small Jewish community to be expelled from the synagogue was to be expelled from polite society!

The disciples will be killed. While execution for non-belief is not common in the Jewish world, there are some examples in the book of Acts, certainly Stephen (Acts 7) and James (Acts 12) are examples of this very things

The ones who are doing the persecution think that they are serving God. This is possibly a result of the type of zeal demonstrated by Phineas in Numbers, when he “burned with zeal” and attacked a man who was sinning with a Moabite prostitute at the tabernacle. So too did Elijah “burn with zeal” when he killed the priests of Baal in 1 Kings, or Judas Maccabees when he attached the Greeks after the desecration of the Temple.

Paul’s own persecution of Jewish believers in Jesus as messiah and savior is an illustration of this very persecution. Certainly he worked to silence those who claimed that Jesus had been the Messiah, that he had been raised from the dead and that he was coming back to judge. This is not a matter of a slight difference of opinion, for pre-Christian Paul this was an attack on the heart of Judaism and a completely false accusation against the high priest and the Sanhedrin. For Paul, his actions were exactly the right course to take in the service of God.

The sad truth is that this passage has been badly misunderstood and used as a justification for all kinds of attacks on the Jewish people for centuries at the hand of “good Christian people.” Fredrick Bruner has a stunning commentary on the abuse of Jews in World War II at the hands of people who were a part of the confessional church. It is a sad irony that while many thought they were killing Jews as part of their Christian duty, they were as guilty as those who persecuted the apostles in Acts.

This passage (nor any other in the Bible) advocates any sort of persecution of Jews (or anyone else) because they are “unbelievers.” We can disagree, slightly or completely, with another religion, but as Christians it is not our duty ro respond with hate or violent repression.

The majority of the early church assumed that the Book of Revelation was written when Domitian was persecuting the church. For example, Irenaues said that John wrote “nearly in our generation,” at the end of the reign of Domitian. In 1 Clement 1:1, written in A.D. 96, alludes to “the sudden and repeated calamities and reverses that have befallen us.” 1 Clement 4-7 contains several references which might be taken as either referring to the martyrdom of Peter and Paul or the present persecutions under Domitian.

S. R. F. Price argues the establishment of an imperial cult in Ephesus is the immediate background for Revelation 13 (Rituals and Power, 197-198). He draws parallels between Dan 3:12, 18 (LXX) and Rev 13:7-8, 14-15, 18 and concludes the writer of Revelation is drawing a connection between the refusal of the three young men to bow to the idol and the presence of an imperial cult in Asia Minor.  This is possible, but a serious allusion to Daniel 3 in Revelation 13 is less than obvious.

Since all of the sources which describe Domitian as a megalomaniac who demanded worship as a god date from after his reign, it can be argued the later sources are painting the old emperor in a negative light, and by contrast, ,making the current emperor Trajan appear as the better sovereign. DeSilva disagrees, arguing instead that “Domitian valued cultic language as an expression of social and political relationships.” This cultic language would have been imposed on the lower levels of society as a method of declaring loyalty to the state. (“The ‘Image Of The Beast,’” TrinJ 12 [Fall 1991]: 199).  DeSilva does not argue for a systematic, empire-wide persecution, however.

On the other hand, there are a number of recent scholars who challenge the assumption of Roman persecution as a background for the book. For example, A. Y. Collins (Crisis and Catharsis, 69-73) argues the book is more about problems within the church, especially with Christians being drawn into pagan worship, rather than an organized and systematic persecution of Christian by the Empire. This is view has the advantage of taking the letters to the seven churches seriously (Rev 2-3). In these letters, the problems arise from within the church and not from Rome. The problems revolve around how the churches in Asia Minor integrate Christianity and pagan culture. If there is a persecution theme in Rev 2-3, it is the same fraternal debated between Jews and Christians we see as early as Galatians.

But these two views may not be opposed to each other.  The church is in fact experiencing “growing pains” as it moves further from its Jewish roots into the pagan, Gentile world.  We know this was true during Paul’s lifetime, it is no surprise to find that the next generation of Gentile Christians continued to struggle with how their new Christian faith integrated (or did not integrate) with their Greco-Roman world view.  But as the church grew, the Roman world began to notice it and they considered it to be a strange superstition.  Any new philosophy or religion was suspect in the Roman world and Christianity was attacked as a strange and pernicious cult whenever it was successful.  The persecution which is in the background in Revelation may not be anything specific, rather, Christians everywhere faced pressure to conform to the Roman ideal and potentially loss of property or life if they did not.

John is therefore projecting into the very near future when he believed imperial worship would be required. Christians who reject imperial worship will be persecuted and eventually killed for their stand against Rome.  The book of Revelation provides encouragement to Christians facing a very real threat to their lives because of their faith in Jesus as the Messiah.

Paul normally opens his letters with a prayer of thanksgiving, conforming to the rhetorical style of the first century.  In this introductory section, an author would normally praise his readers and introduce to them something of the plan of the letter.   The “praise” section of the letter intends to put the readers in a positive frame of mind, more likely to accept the teaching that follows (see Wanamaker, 1-2 Thessalonians, 215). In this case, Paul praises his readers and then introduces the idea of the return of the Lord, the subject of the main section of the book

Paul begins by saying “we ought to always thank God for you….”  The use of the word “ought”  in this thanksgiving section is quite unique in Paul.  ὀφείλω means “to be indebted” and it appears here in the thanksgiving section and in again in 2:13, another prayer of thanksgiving,   This world therefore “frames” the first major section of the book.

Why would Paul say that he is obligated to praise the readers?  It sounds a bit cold and perfunctory, especially in contrast to the warm praise offered in the first letter. It is possible that the praise Paul gave them in the first letter embarrassed them, they did not feel they were worthy of the high praise that Paul used in 1 Thessalonians 1.

The debt owed is not to the congregation, but rather to God.  Since God is working in their church to develop fruit from the seeds he planted, it is his responsibility to praise God for the growth. Two specific areas are mentioned, faith and love.  The third part of the familiar Pauline “faith-hope-love” is present in the next section when Paul outlines the hope of the believer in the soon return of Christ.

Their faith is growing.  The verb for growing in this verse (ὑπεραυξάνω) is an intensive form of the normal word for growth.  The word has a nuance of exceeding or abundant growth.  The verb is in the present tense, indicating on-going growth.  The church did not think that they had arrived spiritually and were no longer in need of any further growth. What growth that has occurred has been abundant, beyond expectations perhaps, but not yet perfection.

Their love is increasing.   Like “growing,” increasing is a word which highlights the abundance of the growth (πλεονάζω). In 1 Thessalonians 3:12 Paul prays that the church experience an increase in their love “to the point of overflowing.”  To some extent Paul is thanking God for answering his prayer, the church has continued to grow in love to the point of abundance. They are increasing in love for one another.  The growth that is happening is drawing them closer together, the persecution that they are facing is making their congregation much more loving and supportive of the individual elements within the group.

The basis for this growth is that the church as endured trials (v. 4).   As in the first letter, Paul makes a point of telling the congregation that he boast of them to other churches.  Perhaps a church like Corinth did not prosper in faith and love because they had not experienced external persecution.

Paul’s boast, therefore, may be an instruction to churches which have not yet been persecuted.  When the difficult times come, be like the Thessalonians, whose faith grew stronger during times of persecution.  The fact that their faith grew stronger during persecution should not surprise us.  It is always the case that Christians in persecuted countries have a stronger faith that Christians in countries were Christianity is legal and popular.  The persecution serves to focus the attention on what is important rather than on petty differences and minor points.

How would the church in America be different if it was facing a serious persecution?  My guess is that it would be stronger, growing in love and faith.  I also doubt we would be renovating malls or sports arenas either.

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