Brotherly Love (1 Thessalonians 4:9-10)

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 Macc 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.”

SpongeBob Family FirstOn 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?

Living to Please God

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.

But 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.

Judge LoveSurprisingly, 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?

1 Thessalonians 1:9 – Turned from Idols

What was the ‘social setting” of the church at Thessalonica?  Pollhill has a good summary of the usual arguments for the church being primarily Gentile (P&HL, 185).  But this is problematic because Acts tells us that the congregation was formed after a period of time teaching in the Synagogue. In addition, Jews stirred up trouble for Paul out of jealousy – presumably because of his success in their synagogue.

The argument that the recipients of the letters are Gentiles rests on three observations.  First, they are said to have turned “to God from idols.”  Paul would not describe a Jewish convert as “turning from an idol.”   Second, 1 Thess 4:1-8 describes some sexual ethics problems in the church.  This would be more typical of a Gentile congregation than Jewish. Third, 1 Thessalonians does not quote from the Old Testament. The argument is that a primarily Gentile church would not be expected to respond to biblical quotations or subtle allusions to the Hebrew Bible.

If the church is primarily Gentile, where did they come from? If the Gentile converts were God-fearers from the synagogue, then it is also unlikely that they would have “turned from idols.”  In addition, a Gentile God-fearer might be expected to know as much of the Hebrew Bible as a Jewish person. The fact that the second letter is laced with allusions to the Hebrew Bible makes me think that there are other reasons for the lack in 1 Thessalonians.  Paul was only in the city for a short time and there is no reference to evangelism in the marketplace, but he may have made contacts there which Luke chose not to report.

Roma Coin

I think that the answer goes back to the persecution faced by the church.  If they are persecuted for “rejecting Rome,” perhaps some of the “prominent people” Luke mentions in Acts 17:4 left the Christian church and returned to the synagogue, or to secular life.  Those who remained “turned from idols,” specifically, imperial Roman cult. Oakes makes this point, “Christian failure to honour the gods would have included central Roman deities such as Jupiter, but also the deified Caesars” (p. 309).  Someone like Jason was able to use wealth and power to deal with the court system in the city, so there is at least an implication that he was wealthy and connected politically.  Perhaps Jason or other wealthy persons had left the church by the time Paul writes (suggested by Adolf Deissmann, c.f., Malherbe, 65).

Was there an Imperial Cult center at Thessalonica? Peter Oakes points out that no remains of an imperial cult site have been found at Thessalonica because very little of ancient Thessalonica has been excavated. But the city was a provincial capital, and the presence of an imperial cult can be seen in early coinage that called Caesar God (p. 308). Even if there was no cult temple, the city of Thessalonica was thoroughly Roman.

Luke reported the charges against Paul as “preaching another king besides Caesar.” If the church continued preaching Paul’s gospel, then the Gentile converts would have certainly found themselves in a difficult political and social position.
Bibliography: Peter Oakes, “Remapping the Universe: Paul and the Emperor in 1 Thessalonians and Philippians,” JSNT 27 (2005): 301-22.

1 Thessalonians 2:10-12 – Encouraging, Like a Father

[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 classic stereotype is that the mother is loving and caring, but the father is a stern disciplinarian. A father’s encouragement, however, can be one of the greatest motivations in a child’s life, just as is a mother’s love and compassion. Paul uses three participles to describe how he was like a father to the Thessalonian church.

First, Paul states that he exhorted the church. The differences between the meaning of “to exhort” (ESV), or “encourage” (NIV, παρακαλέω) and “to encourage” (ESV), or “to comfort” (παραμυθέομαι) are very close, the two Greek words can both be translated as encourage.  The verb “exhort”  means something like “to prod toward a particular action.” If I urge you to do something, that has a bit more punch than “I encourage you,” but the Greek word is the same. A similar word is used in Romans 12:1, where Paul “begs” his readers to present their bodies as living sacrifices.

Exhortation is something like a cheerleader, someone that builds another up and says “you can do it!” Think of the father who is trying to encourage his child to have confidence playing baseball for the first time – he builds the kid up and pushes just a bit so that there is confidence to “step up to the plate.”  Paul had to do that with his congregation:  He prodded them and pushed them to live  a life honoring to God, especially since some aspects of the Christian life are strange to the Greco-Roman world.

Second, Paul comforted the church. By comfort, Paul is looking more at cheering someone up, consoling, or helping someone who is experiencing a difficult time. The verb is used in the context of comforting someone who has suffered a loss, a death or other tragic event. For example, in John 11:19 people came to comfort Mary and Martha after the death of Lazarus.

Notice how closely related the concept of encouragement and comfort are related in Paul’s ministry. He could, as a father, encourage his congregation to excel in godliness, then comfort them in their weaknesses. Taking the baseball analogy from above, the father might “exhort” his child to step up to the plate, but when they strike out on three pitches without swinging the bat, he needs to comfort the child after a failure.

Third, Paul charged you to live lives worthy of God. Paul’s “urge” is “to be emphatic in stating an opinion or desire; to insist on” (L&N). When your father expressed his opinion on a topic, he often was not offering something for discussion, he was telling you what you ought to be doing, perhaps phrased in the form of an opinion. That is what Paul did as well. He showed from the Scripture how the new believers ought to believe and behave. This was not “his opinion” which was open for discussion, something to be accepted or rejected. Paul was telling his congregation how they ought to live.

The content of Paul’s insistence is that his readers live lives worthy of God. Imagine in your mind a scale, with God’s requirements on one side and our actions on the other. “Worthy” describes the balance of those scales, something that is impossible in our own power. Paul is urging his readers to set this lofty goal of spiritual growth for themselves, that they be worthy of the one that called us.

If God is your Father, then the goal of the Christian life ought to be living in a way which makes your Father in Heaven proud to call you his child.

Top Five 1-2 Thessalonians Commentaries

Introduction.  There are less special problems when approaching the letters to the Thessalonians than with other Pauline letters. Authorship of 1 Thess is rarely doubted, although 2 Thess is sometimes thought to be written by later writer with a decidedly apocalyptic world view. Another issue which is usually covered in the introductions to these letters is the possibility that the order ought to be reversed. It is well known that the Pauline letters collection is not chronological, but according to size (longest to shortest). Since 2 Thess is shorter and far more apocalyptic, it has been suggested that the order has been reversed when the letters were collected into a “Pauline canon.”

Unfortunately many evangelicals who study 1-2 Thessalonians move too quickly 4:13-5:11. This section concerns eschatology and is the primary text for the Rapture the relationship of this event to the Second coming. There is far more in this letters than “end times” and there is nothing in them that will help predict the end of the world or anything like that. Twice Paul says his purpose is to comfort the church and to encourage them to comfort one another. I believe that these books teach a “Rapture” of some kind, but I would like to find another word for it to separate my belief from the weirdness popular today.

There are two other books which will be very helpful for students of 1-2 Thessalonians.  Karl Donfried and Johannes Beutler edited a collection of essays on methodological issues produced by the SNTS Thessalonian Correspondence Seminar, The Thessalonians Debate (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000).  The main thrust of these essays is the current popularity of rhetorical analysis of Paul’s letters, a method which has been particularly fruitful for reading Thessalonians.  There are two articles in the collection by Frank Hughes, the scholar who should  be considered an early pioneer of this method.  Donfried’s Paul, Thessalonians, and Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002) is collection of essays from a variety of sources (journals and festschrifts) written as early as 1974. This is a very useful book since it covers many of the historical and “background” issues commentaries often treat only briefly.

Abraham J. Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians (New Jersey: Doubleday, 2000). Malherbe’s commentary is a detailed exegetical commentary that takes seriously forms of ancient letter writing. He presents Paul as a model letter-writer who follows the standard forms of letter writing in the Greco-Roman world. He illustrates this throughout the commentary by citing other letters that have similar rhetorical style or vocabulary to 1 Thess. His knowledge of this literature is encyclopedic, yet it is not too distracting to the reader interested in Paul’s meaning these letters. This is true even in discussion the “rapture” in 1 Thess 4:17, where he illustrates the use of the word harpazo in non-biblical Greek by Cicero and Seneca. I find his comments on this apocalyptic section excellent, since he works very hard to show how the Rapture (whatever it is) was intended as a consolation for the church, not a scare-tactic to keep the behaving properly. This is a very readable expert-level commentary, with Greek appearing in transliteration.

Charles A. Wanamaker, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (NIGTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1996). This was a textbook for a class on Exegesis of Pauline Epistles when I was in seminary. Like Malherbe, Wanamaker makes full use of rhetoric studies to unpack Paul’s argument in the letters. He is guided by Malherbe’s earlier work on rhetoric, Malherbe’s commentary then interacts with Wanamaker’s. His seven page essay on the rhetorical analysis of the letters is a good introduction for those who are new to this approach to Paul’s letters. The body of the commentary is based on the Greek text with no transliteration and all citations are in-text. This is true for the NIGTC in general and makes for a challenging read. Like Malherbe there are numerous comparisons to other Greco-Roman letters, although Wanamaker does not quote them at length.

F. F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (WBC; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982). It seems strange to say that this commentary is now thirty years old! Bruce is always worth reading, and this early entry in the Word series is an exceptional commentary on the Greek text of the Thessalonian letters. Bruce is an efficient exegete. He comments on the Greek text of these letters briefly yet there is always a depth of understanding. Since Bruce wrote before the explosion of rhetorical studies on Thessalonians, the commentary itself is not concerned with “forms” or style of argument. A particular highlight of this commentary is Bruce’s nine-page excursus on the Antichrist in the context of his commentary on 2 Thess 2:1-12.

Leon Morris, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Revised Edition (NICNT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: 1991); 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Revised Edition (Tyndale; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1984); 1 and 2 Thessalonians (Word Biblical Themes; Dallas: Word, 1989). I suppose this should count as cheating on my own rule of “only Five Commentaries,” but all three of these books are from Morris are worth reading. The Tyndale commentary is a revision of Morris’s 1956 commentary in the Tyndale series. Morris covers both books in a mere 152 pages, but does a good job highlighting what is important for reading and understanding the text of these letters. The commentary is based on the English text with Greek appearing in transliteration. The NICNT is also a revision of an earlier volume from the early 1960s. This is definitely the “first off the shelf” commentary. The newer commentary updates the bibliography and interacts with Ernest Best’s work on Thessalonians. The main body of the commentary is based on the English text, Greek and other details are in the notes. It is also worth seeking out Morris’s contribution to the Word Biblical Themes series written in 1989. This is little book is a biblical theology, drawing out several key themes of importance in the letters. I find his comments on the eschatology of 1-2 Thessalonians refreshing, and judging from the underlining in my copy of the book, I have stolen learned a great deal from Morris.

Greg Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2003). This commentary is in the IVP New Testament Commentary series and is intended for pastors and teachers. The body of the commentary is based on the English, with occasional key Greek words appearing in transliteration. All citations are in-text; he interacts with a range of scholarship although it is weighted towards evangelical commentators. Beale treats more technical details in a footnote-like section at the bottom of the page. With respect to eschatology, Beale has a chart summarizing his belief that Paul is commenting on the Olivet Discourse (Matt 24) in his eschatological section (p. 137).

Conclusion. I cheated a bit on this one by including three by Morris and adding the Donfried books in the introduction.  But I did leave off a few very handy commentaries to at appear to obey my own rules – what did I miss?  Let me know what you have found useful in your preaching and teaching.

Index for the Top Five Commentary Series

 

Introduction to Series on Commentaries

On Using Commentaries 

Matthew        Mark        Luke        John        Acts
Romans        1 Corinthians         2 Corinthians
Galatians         Ephesians        Philippians        Colossians
1-2 Thessalonians        Pastoral Epistles         Philemon
Hebrews        James         1 Peter         2 Peter & Jude 
Letters of John         Revelation

Conclusion:  Last Thoughts on New Testament Commentaries

Was Thessalonica a “Gentile” Church?

What was the ‘social setting” of the church at Thessalonica?  Pollhill has a good summary of the usual arguments for the church being primarily Gentile (P&HL, 185).  But this is problematic because Acts tells us that the congregation was formed after a period of time teaching in the Synagogue. In addition, Jews stirred up trouble for Paul out of jealousy – presumably because of his success in their synagogue.

The argument that the recipients of the letters are Gentiles rests on three observations.  First, they are said to have turned “to God from idols.”  Paul would not describe a Jewish convert as “turning from an idol.”   Secondly, 1 Thess 4:1-8 describes some sexual ethics problems in the church.  This would be more typical of a Gentile congregation than Jewish. Thirdly, 1 Thessalonians does not quote from the Old Testament,  although 2 Thess seems to allude to the Hebrew Bible.  If the church were written to a gentile audience with very little synagogue training and knowledge, we would expect few biblical quotations.

So where to these Gentiles come from? If the Gentile converts were God-fearers from the synagogue, then it is also unlikely that they would have “turned from idols” since they were worship God in the synagogue.  In addition, a Gentile God-fearer might be expected to know as much of the Hebrew Bible as a Jewish person.  The fact that the second letter is laced with allusions to the Hebrew Bible makes me think that there are other reasons for the lack in 1 Thessalonians.  Paul was only in the city for a short time and there is no reference to evangelism in the marketplace, but he may have made contacts there which Luke chose not to report.

I think that the answer goes back to the persecution faced by the church.  If they are persecuted for “rejecting Rome,” perhaps some of the “prominent people” Luke mentions in Acts 17:4 left the Christian church and returned to the synagogue, or to secular life.  Those who remained “turned from idols,” specifically the national Roman cult.  Someone like Jason was able to use wealth and power to deal with the court system in the city, so there is at lesat an implication that he was wealthy and connected politically.  Perhaps Jason or other wealthy persons had left  the church by the time Paul writes (suggested by Adolf Deissmann, c.f., Malherbe, 65).

The letter itself seems to praise the church for their strength in persecution, so maybe it is not wise to make too much of this alleged defection of some prominent converts, but it might explain the last of Jewish allusions in the letter.