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1 and 2 ThessaloniansZondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2012 Gary S. Shogren
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Chapter One1 Thessalonians 1:1–10
Letters have always followed conventional forms; such predictability allows the reader to grasp the message with less need for conscious interpretation. In this letter, Paul's opening address to the readers (1:1) resembles the standard Greco-Roman form. Nevertheless, one can also speak of a Pauline style—he amplifies the standard form with theological meaning, thus "Christianizing" it. The church exists "in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (1:1c). As in many letters of the day, the apostle gives them a greeting, but again, he expresses himself in familiar gospel terms, "grace" and "peace" (1:1d).
In the trove of ancient letters we now possess, the author might then give brief thanks to the gods before moving on. Here in 1:2–10, Paul shows gratitude to heaven precisely because of the Thessalonians' relationship to God and because of God's working in them through Christ. The thanksgiving ceases to be a formality and reveals itself at the very heart of the message.
This extended giving of thanks also functions as an exordium. In ancient rhetoric, the exordium was a section of short to moderate length in which an author called to mind the positive aspects of their mutual relationship. In an age when time and distance might have a chilling effect on a friendship, an author did well to reestablish the reality and the value of their attachment before going on to deal with new issues. In Paul's hands, this exordium not only sets the tone of the letter (in the case of 1 Thessalonians, gratitude and appreciativeness), it also foreshadows how the new disciples have abandoned their previous Gentile conduct and how they now hope in the Lord's return. Some debate exists over the extent of the exordium in this letter, whether it is 1:2–5 or 1:2–10.2 Nevertheless, what matters for today's reader is the content of this exordium, not its precise boundaries.
More so than in the typical Pauline letter, 1 Thessalonians should be read "from the inside out." That is, the modern reader may begin with 2:17–3:13 in order to discover the ground of the apostles' overwhelming gratitude: "But just now Timothy has come to us from you and has announced the good news of your faith and your love" (3:6). The original readers, of course, knew of Timothy's mission before they first broke the seal of this letter. First Thessalonians is all the more effective because Paul omits a detailed retelling of the events that had led to this deep joy until several paragraphs into the body of the letter. That is, in the written version, result (our joy) precedes cause (you have survived).
Paul's thanksgiving here is effusive: "all the time," "when," "without fail." He is repetitive, with the artlessness of true emotion, as he describes their eagerness to hurry into God's presence in order to give thanks. Why this passion? And why does their gratitude seem less breathless in the second letter (2 Thess 1:3–4)? It is because at the precise point of writing the first letter, communication with Thessalonica had just been reopened after weeks or months of silence. Their thankfulness is sharpened by the fear that things might have turned out "in vain" (1 Thess 3:5)—but thank God, they did not!
In other letters (e.g., 2 Thessalonians, Romans, Ephesians) Paul moves directly from thanksgiving to the main theme. And so in 1 Thessalonians, the exordium is a bridge to teaching about the apostolic team (2:1–12). But thanksgiving does not end after 1 Thess 1—a distinctive trait of this letter is that three times more Paul has recourse to grateful words (2:13; 2:19–20; 3:9–10; see also 5:16, 18).
Paul, Silas, and Timothy greet the Thessalonians and then declare that they regularly and fervently give thanks to God for them. The team's gratitude is based on their confidence that the new disciples are among the elect, a judgment that is based first on their own eyewitness testimony and second on the talk about their changed behavior that has spread to Macedonia, Achaia, and "everywhere."
The letter begins with a normal Greco-Roman introduction: name of the sender; name of the recipient; greeting (see also 2 Thess 1:1–2). Paul's style is at its most sparse in this letter; in other letters his introductions give more detail.
"We give thanks to God" (1:2) sets the emotional tone for the rest of chapter 1. Paul develops in 1:2–3a how they give thanks and pray. First is the adverb "all the time" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]); then "for every one of you"; then in 1:2d an adverbial participle "with gratitude we speak concerning you." Following the punctuation of NA, we attach the adverb ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) at the end of 1:2 to the participle in 1:3: "without fail remembering before God." The syntax is not tightly structured, with the result that the thoughts seem to come all in a rush. It is this very flood of words that reflects the high emotion of Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy.
Paul then moves on to the content of their prayers (1:3–5), doing so with participles that unpack the initial "we give thanks," as in Eph 1:16; Phlm 4. The first, "remembering" (1:3), leads to a description of the Thessalonians' three Christian activities in the now: work, hard labor, and endurance, which are inspired by the three divine graces of faith, love, and hope.
With the other participle Paul turns his attention to God and his work in the Thessalonian Christians: "we acknowledge" God's choice of them (1:4). They are able to perceive God's election for a reason, "because" (causal use [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of what they have seen in Thessalonica. Paul uses, as he does in 1 Cor 4:20 and elsewhere, the rhetorical device known as antithesis: the gospel came not ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in word only but ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) with miracles and (.a.) in the Holy Spirit and ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in a great sense of certainty. The final clause of this set uses reminder language ("and you know") to point to the behavior of the missionaries in Thessalonica. He thus foreshadows the truth that God will not work through people of whom he does not approve (1 Thess 2:4).
In 1:6 we highlight Paul's change of focus to the Thessalonians, "in your turn, you" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Verse 6 outlines the initial effects of the gospel in Thessalonica: they became "imitators" of Paul and of the Lord Jesus and received the message in tribulation and with the Spirit's joy. Then in 1:7–10 Paul shows how, having received the message, they have quickly become the caliber of Christian that others could imitate; they "became the pattern" for other believers in the region. It was natural for the Thessalonians to be examples of gospel life, once they had truly received it, and the clause is marked with "as a result" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]).
But Paul is not finished there, for the Thessalonians have also sent forth the gospel as evangelists. With the marker of clarification "for" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) he expands on what he said in 1:7. I will argue that the apostles expected their disciples to be evangelistic, and that that is precisely what the Thessalonians were doing. Paul begins to conclude the section with a result clause, "so that [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] we have no need to say anything."
Paul goes on to develop further why the apostles don't have to say anything, reinforced by a marker "for, because" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]): they are saying what kind of an entrance the apostles had and how the Thessalonians reacted. They turned to God—their conversion represented by two infinitives, "serve" God and "await" his Son from heaven. The apostle goes beyond the mere description of their conversion: he recounts the apostolic kerygma, emphasizing its christological and eschatological elements in a way that anticipates the teaching of the rest of the letters.
Explanation of the Text
1:1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians, which is in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: grace to you and peace ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Paul follows the common formula of naming the sender (in the nominative case), naming the recipient (dative case), and then offering a blessing or greeting. Paul and Silvanus were Roman citizens (Acts 16:37–38) and bore Latin names that served as the equivalents of their Hebrew names, Saul and Silas. Silvanus was a prophet and a leading member of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:27, 30, 32, 40). Timothy was a member of the church at Lystra and probably came to faith in Christ during Paul's first missionary journey. From the moment he joined Paul and Silas (Acts 16:1–3), Timothy became a regular fixture in Acts and the Pauline letters (though not in Galatians or Ephesians), not to mention in Heb 13:23: "I want you to know that our brother Timothy has been released."
It is not unusual for Paul to mention others as senders of a letter, without meaning to imply that they were coauthors. Nevertheless, the first person plural "we," "us," and "our" will be found in an unusually high frequency throughout this first letter (though note 2:18; 3:5; 5:27; in the first two, Paul is referring to his individual reaction to events). Paul oscillates between "we" and "I" in 2:17–3:6, "we" being he and Silas (not Timothy; see comments).
According to Malherbe, Paul is using an "editorial we," and Paul alone must be considered the author. But this theory does not satisfactorily explain how "I" can also mean Paul. He uses the "we" as he does in Colossians (1:3, 4, 9; 4:8), to speak concretely of himself and other associates. Silvanus and Timothy are present with him in Corinth and are true cosenders of the message. We cannot now determine to what extent Silas (or Timothy) has a hand in the letter's composition. The facts that Paul speaks of "I" and gives his signature in the second letter show that his voice is the dominant one in their composition.
Usually Paul refers to "the church/saints in such-and-such a city." Only here and in 2 Thess 1:1 does he speak of the people ("the church of the Thessalonians") rather than the city (those in Rome, those in Colossae). Paul remarks that they are "in [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ," which denotes the relationship in which the church dwells.
"Grace to you and peace" is the stereotypical Pauline greeting, the pair found in all his epistles except 1–2 Tim othy (which have "grace, mercy and peace," as does 2 John 3). Divine "grace" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is a Hellenistic concept, and Paul may have adopted the term from his pagan environment. For that reason many have suggested that he has combined a Greek term with the Hebrew alôm. But this explanation does not do justice to the evidence. The closer parallel to Paul's greeting is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew hesed ("kindness, loving-kindness"; see Exod 34:6, Yahweh abounds in "love and faithfulness"). That is, "grace" too has its roots in the OT. For Paul and the other Christian authors, a prayer for God's grace is typically found at the end of letters as well (all Pauline letters; Heb 13:25; 1 Clem. 65.2; also Rev 22:21).
The greeting "peace" comes from the Hebrew greeting (1 Sam 1:17; found in Greek Jewish literature, e.g., in Jdt 8:35, "go in peace"). The prophets had also announced the coming "good news ... [of] peace" (Isa 52:7; Nah 1:15). "Grace and peace" came to greater prominence as part of the stock vocabulary of the earliest Christian church (see, e.g., 1 Pet 1:2; 2 Pet 1:2; Rev 1:4; 1 Clement inscr.—"May grace and peace from almighty God through Jesus Christ be yours in abundance").
The Textus Receptus and hence the KJV add "from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ" after "peace." The clause has some manuscript support, but it is best explained as an addition by some early scribe who was thinking of 2 Thess 1:2.
1:2 We give thanks to God all the time for every one of you; [with gratitude] we speak concerning [you] when we pray ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Paul, Silas, and Timothy pray regularly for the Thessalonians and give God thanks for them. This prayer report is not polite religious jargon, such as Christians tend to fall into ("I'll be praying for you!"). Rather, it is a realistic and powerful description of how they speak when they enter the presence of God. The Christian's prayer is efficacious because there is a living God who hears prayers and responds. It is frequent because it is proper to offer him regular thanks for what he has done and to pray for his further intervention.
The language of 1:2 is similar to 2 Thess 1:3 (the latter does not have "every one," [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). This is the first of several thanksgivings in 1 Thessalonians that are based on "to give thanks" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), a verb common in Paul's letters.8 While the verb could mean "to pray," Paul's orientation here is thankfulness for God's past and present work in the Thessalonians. "All the time" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is the first of many references to time in the two letters. It expresses positively the same truth that is communicated by the litotes "without fail" at the end of 1:2. The prepositional phrase "for every one of you" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) goes with "we give thanks." Alternately it could be attached to what follows, yielding a meaning like "concerning every one of you we speak, whenever we pray." There are two reasons why the first option—"we give thanks for every one of you"—is the better. First, many manuscripts insert "you" after "remembering" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]); while it may not have been part of the original text, nevertheless "for every one of you" was thought by koine speakers to go more naturally with "we give thanks." Second, the parallel in 2 Thess 1:3 suggests that the former option is correct. The plural "you" does not indicate "you as a group" but "all of you individually." The thanksgiving in Rom 1:8 closely parallels our section: "First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world." That letter was addressed to a city where many of his Christians friends were known individually (Rom 16:3–15) and could be prayed for by name.
"We speak concerning you" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in our expanded translation is a well-attested use of the middle voice of the verb "to do, make" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). The reader might be tempted to translate this hyperliterally, rendering it something like "to make remembrance for oneself." Nevertheless, in this case usage determines meaning, and the phrase should be smoothed out as "to remember someone" to a third party; even better is "to mention someone" or "to speak to someone concerning another." The NT has several examples where this construction is used as prayer language (see Rom 1:9; Eph 1:16; Phlm 4). We supply "with gratitude" in the second clause, since the verbal participles (e.g., "we speak," [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) are connected with the "give thanks" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and further develop it. The Greek calls for stronger language than the "make mention" that is found in most translations, a rendering that might leave the reader with the idea that the apostles speak casually about them. As an example of how this phrase is appropriate for describing passionate prayer, 1 Clem. 56.1 says that the Corinthians are to pray fervently for the repentance of the rebellious Christian. "When" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in this context refers to the time(s) of their prayers.
1:[2e]–3a Without fail remembering [before God] ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Paul describes how he and his company pray concerning the Thessalonians; gratitude is an overarching theme of their ministry to the church. Some interpreters attach "without fail" (the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) to "we speak" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in 1:2 ("we speak concerning [you] without fail when we pray"). It is better to follow the NA text, which links it with "remembering" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in 1:3. First, the parallel in Rom 1:9 suggests that Paul favored placing the adverb before the verb. Second, the rhythm of the Greek is smoother if the adverb is attached to 1:3. This is the view we adopt in our translation.
In English, 1:3 and 5:17 are traditionally rendered "pray without ceasing." But can this really mean perpetual intercession, given the demands of daily life? Should prayer claim the sum total of one's waking hours? Fortunately there are some ancient Jewish and Christian parallels that help to unlock its specific meaning. In 3 Macc 6:33 there is a banquet during which there is uninterrupted thanksgiving to heaven. In this case, the author could be referring to long hours of prayer. This would lead to an understanding of 1:2e-3a as "we pray often and heedless of the time."
Paul's letters themselves hint at this meaning here. Especially noteworthy is 2 Cor 11:28, which many commentators take to be a reference to prayer: "I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches." Even more clear are Col 2:1 and 4:12, where Paul's prayer for the believers is a fight or struggle. How wonderfully this mirrors the prayers of our Lord, who was known to arise before dawn to pray (Mark 1:35) or to pray long into the night (Matt 14:23). He taught his followers to pray and never give up (Luke 18:1). Be sure also to study the example of Moses, who told Israel how "I lay prostrate before the Lord those forty days and forty nights because the Lord had said he would destroy you" (Deut 9:25).
Praying "night and day" also has a pedigree in the Psalms, where the phrase does not mean "evening and morning prayers" but desperate, unending intercession for God's help: "Lord, you are the God who saves me; day and night I cry out to you. May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry" (Ps 88:1–2). During the Maccabean revolt the people were summoned to call on the Lord day and night (2 Macc 13:10–12), which added up to three straight days of prayer, weeping and fasting "without ceasing."
Excerpted from 1 and 2 Thessalonians Copyright © 2012 by Gary S. Shogren . Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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