Okay, continuing my sad analogy from yesterday: Like viewing a car for sale, we've looked at Paul's letter to the church in Thessalonica yesterday from the outside- just a brief history of the founding of that church from Acts 17 (one of my favorite chapters of the Bible, by the way) and some well-founded guesses by scholars marking I Thessalonians as the earliest book of the New Testament. She looks mighty fine from the outside. Now, lets open the door and see what's inside.
It's always a good idea to keep the following things in mind when reading one of the letters in the New Testament:
- We're reading someone else's mail.
- That doesn't make us voyeurs. It's just the way it is.
- Therefore, we only get one half of a conversation.
- Therefore, we may need to assume the other part of the conversation at times.
- Q: If a letter is answering a question, and we don't know the question, can we understand the answer? A: Sure, to some extent. THANK GOD, I say, Thank God that the biblical writers did not send text messages instead of real, authentic letters. Can you imagine trying to live as a faithful disciple while reading: hey, 'sup? nm,jc. OMG! dw,bh-Jcs. ttyl, PtA
(Rough Translation: Paul the Apostle to the church in Athens, Grace and Peace. We thank God for your faithfulness as we continue the work of sharing the gospel. Timothy has told us of your travails. Be strong in the Lord, for God is faithful and our Lord is coming soon. We hope to see you again, Paul the Apostle.)
- We can't assume that the letter writers were intentionally 'writing the Bible.'
- When one letter says, "Hey, would someone fetch my jacket from Troas?" (II Timothy 4:13), we can safely say that it is a personal note, and PLEASE don't try preaching a sermon from it! If you pastor preaches a sermon on coat-fetching, you are hereby commissioned to say, "Geez, whassammater for you?" A dope-slap is permitted as well.
- While some letters were clearly intended to be 'open letters,' read by more than one church, we STILL can't assume that the letter writers were intentionally 'writing the Bible.'
- It was a long and arduous process by which the early church deemed some of the many letters out there were Scripture-worthy and some were not. That is partly why Willi Marxen referred to the Bible as "the church's book."
- The personal nature of the letters, their highly individualized (or regionalized) context, the 'behind the scene' questions and issues that evoked them, and all of that other stuff makes the letters intensely interesting to me. (Okay, perhaps this doesn't qualify as a 'general rule' but it is something that I need to say. None of these general rules casts any negative light on the joyous work of reading these letters profitably.)
So, with all of that in view, we look at a letter that Paul wrote to a fledgling church that lived among Jews and idol-worshipping Gentiles and we look for what the Thessalonians were experiencing, what Paul was addressing, what they believed/understood/proclaimed in common, and what Paul felt he needed to tell them. The last part could be an explanation of things that they discussed before, it could be a fresh insight based on things they were experiencing now. It all depends.
Here is one thing that Paul held in common with the Thessalonians, that is assumed throughout this letter, as well as II Thessalonians: Jesus will return soon. That is, as we have noted in previous posts, a very common assumption throughout the New Testament.
Take a verse like Mark 9:1 for example: "And [Jesus] said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’"
In this verse, Jesus says that some people standing right there will see "that the kingdom of God has come with power." Now, if this phrase means the same as another phrase Mark uses (c.13) that people will "see the Son of Man coming in the clouds", and if this phrase refers to the 2nd coming of Jesus, then we have a problem here. Mark, we recall, is telling this story around 70ish CE. The people standing there are dead. And no matter how we slice it, the second coming did not happen before any of those folks died. We'll have to focus on this text some other time, because it deserves a longer and more complex hearing in itself. My point, however, is that many of the New Testament churches and writer expected a soon and decisive second coming of Jesus.
One of the primary questions that many New Testament letters address (as well as the gospels as you could see from my earlier comparisons of Mark 13, Matthew 24-25, and Luke 21) is what scholars call "the delay of the parousia," and the rest of us call "Jesus still hasn't come!" For the church in Thessalonica, this problem was especially acute because some of the saints there had died. And for a church so heavily invested in the immediate return of Jesus, this was a problem: "What about Uncle Matthias? Is he going to miss out on this great event because he got pleurisy and died? Does death prevent us from participating in the great event? Shall we, then, view death as an enemy?" Those are real questions.
Tomorrow, we'll look at how Paul answers that question in this first letter ... and beyond.