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1 Thessalonians 2-3comment (0)

January 13, 2000

By Timothy George

Related Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 2-3

Winter Bible Study: Love — Authentic Mark of Ministry

First Thessalonians 2 and 3 tell us a great deal about the circumstances which moved Paul to write this letter.

After planting the church in Thessalonica, Paul was hounded out of town by Jewish opponents and eventually made his way southward to Athens. Deeply burdened about the Thessalonians, Paul dispatched Timothy to encourage and strengthen them. Timothy returned with a good report indicating that, despite persecution, the church was still intact, though their faith needed to be strengthened (3:6-10).

Paul wrote the letter, which he expected to be read aloud in the church meeting (5:27), both to solidify his own relationship with the Thessalonians and to deal with several pastoral problems which had arisen in his absence.

When we read about Paul’s letters it sometimes seems as though we are listening to only one side of a two-way conversation. In these chapters Paul is evidently refuting certain slanderous charges that have been leveled against him in Thessalonica.

By “mirror reading” this text, we can reconstruct some of the rumors and lies Paul’s opponents were spreading about him.

Their attack might have gone something like this: “Paul’s whole visit was a failure. After all, he scurried out of town at night, which proves he had impure motives. Even while he was here he was greedy and insincere, always trying to trick us by his flattery and sneaky manipulation. He was always looking out for himself, concerned about his personal power and prestige.”

To refute these charges, Paul reminds the Thessalonians of what his stay among them was really like. Again and again Paul uses the expressions “you know” and “you remember.” He also resorts to the language of family referring to the Thessalonians as his “brothers” (Greek: adelphoi), a word used 19 times in 1 Thessalonians.

In Paul’s day, the marketplace was filled with Cynic sages and Stoic philosophers who peddled their wisdom with great rhetorical flourish and always for a profit. Paul wants it known that he has nothing in common with these hucksters!

To the Corinthians he would write, “Unlike so many, we do not peddle the Word of God for profit” (2 Cor. 2:17). IN order not to be confused with the phonies around him, Paul worked with his hands, making tenses, so as “not to be a burden to anyone” (2:9).

This is not a prohibition against ministers receiving remuneration, a principle Paul elsewhere affirms, but it is an urgent reminder to handle all financial matters with utmost integrity.

Paul intensifies the language of family as he describes his relationship with the Thessalonians in two metaphors of intimacy, the nursing mother and the loving father. The Greek word trophos (translated “nurse” in the KJV) refers to a mother wet-nursing her children. We are struck by this image of tender affection and self-giving care.

What is conveyed is the sense of unstinted affection and sacrificial love. Paul loved the Thessalonians “so much,” he says, he shared with them not only his message but his very life as well. Only this kind of love can enable a pastor to overcome disappointment, heartbreak and even rejection.

To the image of the nursing mother Paul adds a complementary word about the loving father. “With each of you we were like a father with his child, holding your hand, whispering encouragement, showing you step by step how to live well before God (Peterson).”

In Roman society the father had powerful legal and financial authority over his children, but Paul stresses fatherly guidance and nurture as a model for ministry. In our day fatherhood has gotten a bad rap both from radical feminists and from super-macho notions of contemporary culture. But Paul is surely drawing on Jesus’ own use of Abba as a term of endearment for God. It is the God who carried His people through the desert “as a father carries his son” (Deut. 1:31), the God who loved the world so much that He spared not His own Son, who is the model of all true fatherhood.

Paul expresses his desire to see the Thessalonians in a still more graphic term in 2:17: “We were torn away from you,” literally, “We were made orphans.” Spiritual warfare is going on, and Satan has managed to block Paul’s moves at several points (2:18). But Satan is a defeated enemy; Jesus is Victor. When He comes in glory (in the “presence” parousia, 2:19), Paul will go to meet Christ along with the Thessalonian believers whom he calls his crown, his glory and his joy.

What greater compliment could any pastor pay to his people than this? Until Jesus comes, Paul prays the Thessalonians will love one another more and more, and their love will overflow even to those who have yet to believe in Christ. In this way their hearts will be strengthened and they will appear before the Lord clothed in purity and holiness.

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