In my last blog I brought to completion my translation with commentary of Psalms 42-72, the second “book” of the Psalms. In this blog I return to the New Testament, perhaps with a sense of release, to translate and comment on Paul’s Letter to Thessalonians, which is both his first letter and the earliest written evidence of Christian faith, dating from 51AD.
Paul dictated his letters to a secretary who inscribed them on wax tablets or papyrus. I like to imagine this as an extempore process, although doubtless the secretary would have read sections back to him for approval or correction. My commentary will focus on this process, therfore, from the point of view of the author.
PAUL FIRST LETTER TO THE THESSALONIAN ASSEMBLY
Paul, Sylvanus and Timothy to the Thessalonian Assembly, which lives in Father God and the Lord Jesus Messiah: lovingkindness and peace to you.
We are always thanking God for you all, remembering you constantly in our prayers, recalling before our God and Father your working trust, your labouring love and your enduring hope in our Lord Jesus Messiah; for we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our joyful news did not arrive amongst you in word only, but also in the power of the Holy Spirit, and with complete conviction; just as you know how we behaved amongst you, for your benefit.
Indeed you modelled your lives on us and the Lord, accepting the message even under great distress, with the Holy Spirit’s happiness, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. It was from you that the Lord’s message sounded out, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also into every place your trust in God has gone out, so that there’s no need for us to speak about it. For others tell the story about us, of what sort of inroads we made amonst you, and how you turned towards God from idols, to belong to a God alive and real, and to expect his son from the heavens, whom he lifted from amongst the dead, Jesus, who snatches us away from the coming fury.
Paul is very conscious of the life shared by all people with God, which is known and celebrated only by those who trust God through Jesus, so he includes his fellow missionaries Sylvanus (Silas) and Timotheos, as co-correspondents with him, although he is writing the letter. He sends the letter to the “ekklesia” at Thessalonike, that is, to the public assembly of those summoned by God. The translation “church” which comes from the Greek “kyriakos” loses the origin of ekklesia in the civic life of the Greek polis. After all, these people have been assembled by God through Paul, who is writing this letter. The usual Greek greeting is chairein, meaning simply “Greetings” whereas Paul usually offers something connected to shared life in God, in this case lovingkindness and peace. The beautiful word grace which is the usual translation has become so over – defined by theologians as to become remote from experience, hence my translation which uses some of the other meanings of the Greek charis.
Paul hurries on to mention more directly the shared life of trust in God: he gives thanks to God for the Thessalonians, and remembers them in his prayers. Here is the beginning of a new “people” not based on ethnicity or conquest, but on their common belonging to God across all ethnic and geographical barriers. The distances may be huge but the concern is personal as Paul celebrates the qualities which Timothy, who recently visited Thessalonike has reported to Paul: their working trust, meaning a faith that issues in action, their labouring love, meaning a love ready to suffer, and their enduring hope, meaning hope which includes patience. These qualities are beautifully designated by Paul as the contribution made by the Thessalonians to the common life of God’s people.
Paul and his colleagues know that the Thessalonians have received their message in the power of the Spirit while they know that the missionaries have behaved amongst them as emissaries of Jesus Messiah. Again Paul emphasises the sharing of gifts. Then he departs into an even wider perspective. The new life of the Thesalonians, he says, is already well-known amongst other assemblies in Mecedonia and Achaia, who are encouraged by it. Paul may be exaggerating here; after all, how would the story of the Thessalonian assembly been circulated, if not by Paul and his colleagues? Still, he wants them to trust that their lives in Thessalonike are an important part of the shared life of God’s people in the world.
The shared trust of believers is summed up as:
1. Turning away from idols
2. Trust in a God who is alive and real
3. And in Jesus, God’s Son, who is expected to return soon from the heavens.
4. He will rescue believers from the “fury to come”, namely the anger of God towards evil people and powers.
This is quite a different expression of basic faith from that found say, in the Corinthian correspondence:
Paul is prioritising the “conversion” of the Thessalonians from idolatry, and celebrating an eschatological faith, according to which the returning Jesus will rescue believers from the just anger of God. He wants his converts to maintain their faith against all opposition in the hope of Jesus’ rescuing return to the world. The shared life of God’s people also offers this shared hope.