Commentaries on 1 Thessalonians
In the year 50, Paul arrived in Thessalonica, a major city and the capital of the province of Macedonia (see Acts 17:1). Here, after being rejected by the Jews, he addressed his preaching to the pagans and succeeded in forming a community. After barely three months, a riot caused by the Jews forced him to leave.
What is going to happen to these recent converts to whom Paul taught the mere basics of Christian life?
Paul is quite concerned, so he sends Timothy to see them and to strengthen their church. Timothy comes back with an optimistic report and Paul, reassured, sends this letter at the beginning of 51.
This is the oldest writing of the New Testament.
• 1.1 Faith, endurance, love. For us, sometimes hope (or: endurance) goes unnoticed between faith and love. For Paul it has two important meanings:
– Those who hope bear trials and persecutions with patience and perseverance. That is why Paul speaks of faith, perseverance and love. As we know from the Gospel, hope is not an easy optimism; it is the capacity to endure when faced with trials.
y”>– The person with hope looks forward to the glorious coming of Christ who will judge this world and take us to the next one. He frees us from impending punishment. In those years, all believers were convinced that judgment was imminent and that they would witness Christ’s coming.
The Gospel we brought you was such not only in words (v. 5). There were many signs, miracles and other manifestations in Thessalonica. Perhaps God increased the signs in view of the coming persecution; since very soon there would not be many with adequate formation to orient the community. In fact the Gospel cannot be proclaimed without God doing something to confirm it (Mk 16:17). Jesus criticized those who came to him to see miracles, but he performed miracles throughout his ministry. Let us not say: “I do not need miracles to believe.” Human beings as we are, we will have quite a different enthusiasm if we see that God is beside us, doing the incredible to confirm his word.
• 2.1 As a nursing mother who feeds and cuddles her baby (v. 7): Paul’s tenderness. Paul recalls the work and energy he spent to convince, to call each one personally. The conversion of a single person demands perseverance, weariness and struggles for the
All the Christians of Paul’s time know that the mother Church in Jerusalem has been the first to suffer heavy persecution. For the Thessalonians, it was also an honor to have remained
Some people will find Paul’s words concerning the Jews harsh and exaggerated: It is obvious that verses 15-16 do not refer to all the Jews or to the Jewish people of future time. Paul means those Jews and Judeo-Christians who persecute him from city to city. The divine sentence condemning them has already been pronounced yet they reflect his experience, verified in Acts 15–28.
• 3.1 May the Lord increase more and more your love for each other and for all people (v. 12). Love manifests itself first within the community and then it must be expanded to all people.
Note also Paul’s constant preoccupation: his apostolic mission does not allow him to remain in any community. He is always moving, leaving his work unfinished, but he entrusts his converts to the grace of God that does not suppress the freedom of the recent converts nor the work of the Tempter in the world.
You know that such is our destiny (v. 3). There is no church, nor Christian life, without trials and persecutions.
• 4.1 If we have given ourselves to Christ, that should surely make our life different from what we lived before. The Jews who accepted baptism had a solid moral basis in the laws of the Old Testament. On the other hand, the pagans had only the moral laws observed in their society. Chastity, among others, was completely foreign to them. They considered occasional sexual relationships a necessity of nature, having nothing to do with moral values.
Paul reacts strongly: The will of God for you is to become holy and not to have unlawful sex. Facing what humans consider demands of nature, are other demands due simply to the fact that God has called us and put us on the path to divinization (Paul says: sanctification). Paul will take up the same argument in other words in 1 Cor 6:12-20. Here in verses 4-8, Paul is certainly thinking of adultery and relationships with prostitutes. If he were living in our social context, he would surely include sexual freedom among youth.
Paul never ceases telling us we are free. He passes over liturgical rules, customs proper to Jewish people—reminders of the past—all that kept believers in a religion of obedience to laws. He reaffirms fundamental moral rules that are valid at all times and in all places, especially when one has entered through the Gospel the age of spiritual maturity.
• 13. Lest you grieve as do those who have no hope. The Thessalonian community is made up of Christians who are all recent converts with little experience. For years they had accepted the fate of being born to die. Now, on the contrary, they awaken each day with the assurance of overcoming death: Christ will come soon and take them to the heavenly Kingdom. They are grieved nevertheless over their dead relatives whom Christ will not be able to save. This is what they thought because Greek culture had difficulties believing in a resurrection of the dead.
Those who are already asleep. Those who have died are not dead, but they are asleep, waiting for the time of the resurrection, the time of rising as new persons transformed by Christ: we will all be transformed. The word “cemetery” comes from a word meaning sleeping place.
God will bring them together with Jesus. Paul supposes that he and his readers will be alive when Christ returns and he describes the event according to the cultural expressions of the time. Let us not forget that up to the time of Galileo, everyone thought that heaven had its place in the universe, very high above and that God, although a spirit, was in some way present there.
We will be with the Lord forever. That is essential and always true even if it does not mean that Jesus will come on a beautiful cloud to the sound of heavenly trumpets. We already have some experience of the Lord’s presence in our earthly life, but then there will be nothing but this presence and this joy.
This brief message of hope leaves obscure essential questions concerning the resurrection of the dead. Paul will fully deal with this subject later on in 1 Cor 15. There he will show that resurrection is first a transformation of our whole being through the energies flowing from the resurrected Christ.
Comfort one another. The way of celebrating funerals in the Church must comfort the dead person’s relatives and strengthen their faith in the resurrection. There is no room for expressions of despair which Jesus himself scorned (see Mk 5:40): these are peculiar to people who consider the separation to be final. A funeral mass without any spectacular display, when the fervent prayer of the community is experienced, produces a great impact on people who are indifferent.
Paul then gives a warning he will repeat at the end of this letter (5:14): all should work. The community is disturbed by certain believers more inclined to attract attention with an enthusiastic show of faith rather than work; they discredit the Church in the eyes of pagans. Paul, the good Jew and Pharisee he was, could earn his own living by manual labor. He would not have understood how a believer could be without some qualification and unable to find an outlet, be it well or poorly considered and paid.
• 5.1 Christ comes at night and believers are people of the light. These words are rich in meaning. Those who follow their evil desires are people of darkness, hiding to do evil. While children of the light are beyond reproach, transparent before God and with nothing to hide from him. The unbeliever sleeps and is off-guard while the believer keeps watch and stays awake: he likes to pray all night long until dawn as if waiting for the day to welcome Christ. As for those who have died, they are not dead: they are only “asleep,” ready to rise when the Lord comes.
Encourage one another and build up one another (v. 11). In this the Church is seen as the true community needed by believers so they can grow in faith and overcome trials. In every difficulty, the help of the community will be the proof that we are surrounded by the love of God and of Christ, as was said in the first line of the letter.
According to verse 12, after only three months of evangelization this community already had leaders
• 19. Do not quench the Spirit (v. 19). A community such as this with few traditions and written instructions, depended on the intervention of the Spirit. Among these Christians there were some gifted with the charism of prophets: they would receive their communications during the Eucharistic assemblies. That is why Paul asks to profit by these spiritual messages, but not without first examining them as he will remind them in 1 Cor 14. This is a delicate situation: the community is subject to the Spirit who speaks through the prophet, but it must—and its leaders must—judge if it is truly the Spirit of God speaking.
May you be completely blameless in spirit, soul and body (v. 23). Neither the Jews nor the majority of Greeks would have agreed with our definition of the human: body and soul. They spoke at the same time of the soul that gives life to the body and deals with material activities, and of the spirit that is capable of truth and justice.
Paul’s way of speaking, like the great spiritual Christians, shares this conception. When Paul speaks of the deep life of believers, he does not use the word soul but spirit. We do not face God as we do in facing an interlocutor and look at each other from the exterior: to understand better our relationship with God, through the Spirit we must think of what unites beings who love each other and in some way live in one another.
According to the Bible, God’s Spirit can be omnipresent, insinuate itself, adapt itself, become our spirit without ceasing to be itself. Our spirit is not a part of ourselves, it is us, and it is at the same time our access to God. Our soul expresses itself in different ways, for example in dreams. We only discover our spirit in the measure of our experience of God. Only when we see God shall we truly know what and who we are.