Today I proceed with my translation with commentary of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians
1 THESSALONIANS 2
Indeed you know, brothers and sisters, that we did not arrive amongst you empty-handed, but after we had already suffered and been spitefully abused in Philippi, we found confidence in God to speak the Joyful News to you, in the face of great public opposition. For our persuasive preaching does not arise from deception or unclean desire or guile, but just as we have been recognised by God as worthy to be entrusted with the Joyful News, so we speak, not to please men and women, but to please God who examines our hearts.
We did not come with smooth words, as you know, nor with hidden greed, as God is our witness, nor were we seeking popularity with men and women, neither with you nor with others.Though we might have made our weight felt as emissaries of Messiah, we were gentle amongst you, like a nurse cherishing the children in her care. Our affection for you was so strong that we wanted to share with you not only the Joyful News of God, but our very souls as well, because you had become so dear to us.
You will remember our work and hard labour, brothers and sisters; how we toiled night and day so as not to burden any of you, as we announced to you the Joyful News of God. You are witnesses along with God, of the holy, just and blameless way we treated you as believers. As you know, we were to each one of you as a father to his own children, counselling, encouraging and pressing you to walk in a way worthy of God, who calls you into his own splendid kingdom.
Paul wants to remind the Thessalonian Assembly of its history, especially of what it received from him and his colleagues. The emissaries of Messiah Jesus did not come “empty- handed” – I prefer this translation to the usual “in vain” because Paul is reminding them of what they received. He goes on to emphasise the sound motives of himself and his missionary colleagues who looked for no advantage from their mission. He wants to remind his converts of the process of God’s gift to them, through the hard work of his emissaries. Their present lives are a product of divine generosity. He emphasises this in contrast to the Greek ethic of mutuality which commends reciprocal advantage: you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. In this case he has gained nothing except the dignity of being God’s agent.
Nor is this agency simply a matter of duty: the emissaries have acted also out of affection towards their converts, like a nurse towards the children in her care. The role of wet nurse and childminder was crucial in Greek society, albeit often exercised by a slave. Paul’s comparison suggests genuine gooodwill without much reward. The claim that the emissaries worked night and day probably refers to Paul’s habit of exercising his trade as leather- worker, so as to earn a livelihood rather than demanding hospitality from converts.
His words characterise a missionary enterprise which has no ulterior motives other than the communication of the Joyful News and the formation of a community of believers. And yes, such an international and cross-cultural outreach was unique in the Roman Empire especially in its establishment of communities of common conviction and love across geographical and cultural boundaries, arousing opposition from ethnic communities like Jews and ultimately from the imperial authorities also.
Paul’s rhetoric of messianic distinctiveness is justified by what we know of imperial societies, although we may still feel uneasy about the way he takes the moral high ground over his converts.