These are some of my notes for Sunday, Jan. 4, 2009 in the Lifeway Explore the Bible series.
Books referenced here include:
1. F.F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Word Bible Commentary, vol.45 (1982)
2. Charles Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (1990)
3. Ben Witherington III, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (2006)
4. Philip Comfort, New Testament Text and Translation Commentary, (2008)
5. Craig Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, (1994)
1 Th 4:1-12
The chief topic of these verses is adultery. Whether Paul knew of any instances of it among the Thessalonian church, or he was concerned about the commonness of it among Gentiles is unknown. As he likely wrote the Thessalonian letters from Corinth, it might well have been on his mind, as that city was so notorious that it was turned into a verb for hedonism and sexual excess, “to Corinthianize”, thanks in large part to its famous temple to Venus and the thousand female slaves kept there for “holy” sex. Unmarried Greek men, those typically under thirty years of age, were allowed by their culture and religions to engage in sex with prostitutes, slaves, and other men.(Fausset, BBCNT)
1 Th 4:1-2
brethren: Greek adelphoi. It’s use here is significant as it signals Paul’s view of the Church as an extended family. Paul doubtless got this from his Jewish background (Ex 2:11, Deu 3:18, 2 Macc 1:1). It suggests a family hierarchy, God the Father, Jesus the eldest son, apostles older children and most believers young children who should follow their elders.(Wanamaker)
we ask/beseech: Greek erotomen, used in classical Greek for a question, and then in Hellenistic/Biblical Greek also used for requests. (Bruce)
encourage/exhort: This Greek word parakalo is used by Paul as a turning point in arguments in his letters, especially when beginning the teaching portion of the letters.(Bruce)
in the Lord Jesus: Here Paul not only invokes Jesus’ authority, but also implies His involvement in the life of the Thessalonian church. (Bruce)
This verse borrows from a standard Greek convention for requesting or commanding something be done, with the added insertion of two clauses. It is a pattern Paul himself uses repeatedly (Rom 12:1, 15:30-32, 16:17; 1 Cor 1:10, 4:16, 16:15; 2 Cor 10:1; 1 Thes 4:10-12, 5:14) and most closely resembles a command given by a ruler to his subjects. (Wanamaker)
This verse uses the language of traditioning: passing on an earlier authority’s words. Paul and his fellow missionaries doubtless spent much time teaching the Thessalonian church Jesus’ sayings, which he will refer to later in this letter.(BBCNT). The Christian tradition here seems to have three points:
1. summary of the gospel story, in preaching or witness;
2. repetition of the words and deeds of Jesus
3. ethical and procedural guidelines for believers. The guidelines were likely taught in a catechetical form something like this:
a. put off old vices
b. put on new virtues
c. be subject to church leaders and each other
d. watch and pray (See Col 3:5-4:6) (Bruce)
Interestingly this sort of catechesis is largely preserved in the Didache, one of the earliest post- NT writings found in the collection of the Apostolic Fathers.
as you are doing/as also you walk: Greek kathos kai peripateite. This phrase is in the HCSB, but not the KJV. Though the shorter reading, here the omission, is commonly considered the more original, here the manuscript evidence for the inclusion of this phrase is vastly stronger: codices S, A, B, D*, F, G to name a few. The omission is testified in the second corrector of D, 044, and most tellingly, the Majority family. The suspicion is that it was deleted by scribes who found the phrase redundant.(Comfort)
do so even more: This is standard in this form of Greek letter, where the author assumes his audience is doing the right thing, but encourages them to continue practicing what they have learned.(Wanamaker)
1 Th 4:2
commands/commandments: Greek proangelia, a word used of military orders in earlier Greek writers like Xenophon and Herodotus. It only appears here in the seven undisputed Pauline letters, but the verb form appears several places ((1 Cor 7:10, 11:17; 1 Thes 4:11; 2 Thes 3:4, 6, 12). Whenever Paul uses either form of the word he is emphasizing his apostolic authority.
through/by the Lord Jesus: again emphasizing that Paul’s authority, and this command, derives from Jesus Himself.(Bruce, Wanamaker)
1 Th 4:3
For this is God’s will: This phrase modifies “sanctification”, and thus everything relevant after it, down through verse 8.
your sanctification: Greek hagiosmos humon. This is the earliest Christian use of the Greek hagiosmos. In earlier Greek the word was used of consecration for religious purpose. Not even in the Greek OT (LXX) does hagiosmos have the strong ethical sense it gains in the NT and later Christian literature. Sanctification here is not the finished work, but rather the process of becoming fit for eternal life, for God has made clear the need to avoid any sexual impurity (Ex 20:14; Lv 20:10-23, 26). (Bruce, Wanamaker)
that you abstain from sexual immorality: This language is close to that of the Jerusalem decree in Acts 15:20,29. Silas, one of 1 and 2 Thessalonians’ co-authors, was one of the two missionaries sent out from Jerusalem to deliver the Acts 15 decree to Antioch and surrounding churches. (Bruce)
Greek and Roman culture allowed for sex with prostitutes and slaves. Roman law only forbid premarital sex for men when an aristocrat slept with an upper-class woman. Judaism forbid premarital sex, and Paul condemns all forms of sexual immorality. Paul has the view, based on Deu 22:13-29, that sex is irrevocably bound up with marriage.(BBCNT)
Again, chastity is a strong part of sanctification, requiring repeated emphasis in the Greco-Roman world, which had temple prostitution, normal prostitution, mistresses for intellectual companionship, and female slave concubines were all readily available to men. Wives were for bearing children and managing households. There was no stigma attached to these various sexual outlets, though a conspicuous client of prostitutes in temples or the street risked public ridicule as a sexual glutton. It is true some Greco-Romans had a more elevated notion of sexual mores, and themselves often decried the standards among their fellows. It is also true that Jews traditionally felt that these “sexual excesses” were a direct result of Gentile idolatry(Bruce, Wanamaker)
1 Th 4:4
“Vessel” was a common metaphor for “body” in Greek and Jewish literature. In some Jewish literature and in one interpretation of 1 Pet 3:7 it refers to one’s wife. It is most commonly held to mean “body” here, though historic interpreters have used the “wife” interpretation and some even the ”vessel equals sexual organs” interpretation.(BBCNT)
to eatou skeuos ktasthai: Is it “gain mastery over your own body”, or “get a wife for yourself”? The wife interpretation has famous supporters like Theodore of Mopsuestia and Augustine, while the body interpretation has equally famous supporters like Tertullian and John Chrysostom. Bruce dismisses classic arguments for “wife” in 1 Pet 3:7, assuming “weaker vessel” refers simply to the wife’s own body. 1 Cor 7:2 is also dismissed on the grounds that the avoidance of porneia is mutual for husband and wife. Wanamaker notes the Jewish context argument for “wife” overlooks the fact that most of the Thessalonian church were likely Gentiles, and begs the obvious question why Paul would use the ambiguous “vessel” when a perfectly good word for wife was available, gyne?
The modern interpretation of vessel/skeuos is that it in fact refers to the sexual organs. There is evidence for this sort of slang use of skeuos in ancient writing and further the interesting use of skeuos to translate the Hebrew keli in the Greek OT of 1 Sam 21:5(Wanamaker, Bruce)
Whatever the solution, there is a definite point about monogamous, faithful marriage implied in these verses.
1 Th 4:5
There was a strain of ascetic Greco-Roman thought picked up by some Jewish writers, that felt sex was only permissible for the purpose of procreation, and that passion even toward one’s spouse was wrong. Paul sees marriage as the proper place to release passion (1 Cor 7:2-9) and thus likely only opposes adultery (1 Th 4:6), not sexual pleasure in marriage. Later Jewish writings enforce the Jewish notion of the sexual immorality of Gentiles by ruling that no Gentile female over three years and a day old can be assumed a virgin! The common use of slaves and prostitutes by Greek men meant they were sexually immoral by Jewish standards. (BBCNT)
Wanamaker has the interesting side thought here that Paul implies a new threefold division of mankind here. Whereas Jews had long divided the world into 1.Jews and 2.Gentiles, Paul now adds 3.Christians. This view of humanity is commonplace among the second century Christian authors like the Apostolic Fathers.(Wanamaker)
1 Th 4:6
Adultery, known in Roman law as “wife- stealing”, was punishable by banishment under Roman law; in fact in certain circumstances the couple, caught in the act, could be killed on the spot. Nevertheless, adultery was common in Roman society and went unpunished, though a husband who learned his wife was cheating was expected to divorce her or face the possibility of being prosecuted in public court for “pimping”. Even the Jews seldom punished adultery by execution at this point, but believed what Man failed to enforce God would punish, either in this world or on the Day of Judgment.(BBCNT)
There has long been an interpretation that Paul is beginning a new subject here regarding commercial dealings among Christians. This seems wrong because:
1. The transition is very abrupt, then
2. 4:7 is still speaking of uncleanness.
Some have opined that it might be discussing a matter of lawsuits, where a rich widow was legally required in some Greek cities to marry her next of kin to keep wealth in the family. Several men might go to court to claim the status as nearest relative, or even seek a enforced divorce to marry her. This is more clever than convincing, as their is no evidence of legal proceedings being referred to here.
Paul’s fears of adultery and sexual escapades in the church were grounded in two ideas:
1. Such acts would destroy the implicit behavioral division between Christians and the rest of society
2.It would destroy the fellowship within the church itself, something we still witness today among our churches over many kinds of issues. (Wanamaker)
1 Th 4:7
akartharsia “uncleanness” (see also 2 Cor 12:21, Gal 5:9, Romans 1:24, Col 3:5) Ancient cultures pretty universally felt sexual intercourse made people ritually impure for some standard period. Sexual sin, then, could extend this period of impurity. “Holiness” is not actually so much purity as being “set apart”; God’s people, Israel and later Christians, were expected to live as holy, set apart from the ways of the rest of mankind. Among the Jews this holiness had originally been expected mainly of priests, but around the first century AD the movement grew to expect all Jews to live like priests, under the notion of that Israel was to be “a nation of priests”. Christians are not bound to those same rules of holiness as Levitical priests, but are expected to live holier livs than the world around them. (BBCNT, Wanamaker)
Verse 6 hints at the possibility Christians might use their membership in the church for immoral purposes.
in sanctification/in holiness- Though usually translated something like “to”, the Greek en might actually mean more “into”, thus into holiness, into the realm of God, where impurity and uncleanness cannot be.(Wanamaker)
1 Th 4:8
The main clause here “the one who rejects does not reject humanity, but God” has predecessors in the OT, like 1 Sam 8:7. The closest Gospel parallel is Luk 10:16 NET. “The one who listens to you listens to me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” See also Mk 9:37, Mt 10:40, Jn 12:44, 13:20. The Jewish notion of an agent, the saliah, was of a person empowered to act with the full legal rights and authority of his sender. Thus to reject the saliah was to reject the sender.(Wanamaker)
Anthropos “man” is not just a contrast to God here, but also an indirect reference by Paul to himself, the apostle issuing these decisions in the name of Jesus.(Wanamaker)
The Spirit of God is only twice called “The Holy Spirit” in the OT, but His role included inspiring prophets and purifying the righteous, as in Ezek 36:25-27. However by the first century the “Spirit of Holiness” was a common title and easily understood even by Paul Gentile hearers in Thessalonica in reference to Paul’s repeated use of “holiness” in the preceding verses.(BBCNT)
Why does Paul describe God as the one giving the Holy Spirit?
1. To emphasize the seriousness of the approval of behavior being encouraged.
2. To imply rejection of Paul’s instruction is a rejection of the Spirit which indwells Christians.(Wanamaker)
1 Th 4:9-10
“On love of family” was a typical theme of ancient philosophers and moralists. Paul considered all Christians an extended family under God the Father and Christ the eldest brother, and thus expected the ethics of family love to apply among believers.(BBCNT)
V. 9-10a are a classic example of paralipsis, pretending to skip a subject you actually intend to address. It is a typical tool in ancient letters of instruction, usually commending people good conduct, as here, for purposes of encouragement.
In Greek and Jewish writings, philadelphia, “brotherly love”, is a term used almost exclusively of blood relatives. In Paul and later Christian writers, it becomes the model for how believers are to behave toward each other, like blood relatives. And interestingly, philadelphia is a Greek term used inclusively, of sisterly as well as brotherly love.
“Taught by God” theodidaktoi, is Greek term Paul seems to have coined, perhaps influenced by didaktos theou in the Greek OT: Isa 54:13 Complete Apostles’ Bible (13) And I will cause all your sons to be taught of God, and your children to be in great peace. This is among many traditional messianic texts in the OT, and Paul apparently connected its messianic theme to time after the Lord’s resurrection.
What is God teaching the Thessalonians? “To love one another”, a constant biblical theme (Lev. 19:18, Mk12:29-32). Paul takes his argument from both ends as it were here, suggesting God teaches Christians to love, thus to love must be something God commands of Christians.
Paul’s reasons for stressing the love are hinted at in verse 10 and were likely:
1. To strengthen local churches in face of adversity.
2. To provide hospitality and mutual support between churches in different cities
Verse 10b sort of straddles the previous v.9-10a and 11, encouraging the Thessalonians to love more but also to practice other virtues listed in v. 11(Wanamaker)
1 Th 4:11
Quietism- minding ones own affairs, and sticking to ones inner circle, was a central theme to the ancient philosophy of Epicureanism, and increasingly popular in the first century Roman empire. Remaining aloof from political or public life was no more popular among the broader public then than now, and was one reason both Jews and Christians faced public persecution, then and now, for being insular and different. It was however, also good advice for a religious group who could be (and later were) accused of being anti-Roman because they did not acknowledge certain commonly held authorities of the imperial government. All the fuss in the various cities Paul visited meant the churches he left behind needed to remain in the background, lest they suffer the legal harassment Paul and his companions often did.(BBCNT)
Verses 11 and 12 are likely linked, and they have two interpretations:
1. Based on 2 Thess 3:6-13, many commentators think the notion of the Second Coming had lead some Thessalonian believers to give up working and were thus sponging off other Christians. That Paul makes no connection with this here makes it an implausible explanation, but the basic premise is sound enough. Paul was doubtless making a point about all Christians being self-sufficient, whatever the cause for idleness might be.
2. Witherington, based on notions of other scholars, offers the intriguing suggestion that the talk of “aspiring/seeking”, which in the Greek often had public, political overtones, as well as “living quietly”, “minding your own business”, and “working with the hands”, all were designed to keep these early Christians out of the typical patron client system that so much of ancient society revolved around . The reasons to avoid this might be:
a. If working for a patron, the Christian might become more a witness for his patron than for Christ to outsiders
b. The patron/client cycle would necessarily pull Christians out of the Christian network of mutual support, on the assumption most patrons were non-Christian. The non-Christian patron could thus legitimately demand the time of his Christian client, limiting the Christian’s fellowship with others.
c. The patron might also demand the Christian do things no Christian should.
It is important to remember only the privileged few rich in ancient society could truly afford to disdain manual labor. For most it was the only means of a livelihood, and involved very long days of hard work indeed, for a fairly meager subsistence, there being virtually no middle class in ancient societies. While the early church had its rich patrons, famously rich widows expected to be involved in religion, most members would be of the working poor.(Witherington, Wanamaker)
1 Th 4:12 As for behaving properly to outsiders, one can only wonder if Paul had the Cynics in mind, who publicly begged in the streets for a living and famously insulted and ridiculed their donors. This was hardly the sort of Christian witness Paul hoped the church members to give others, nor is it the sort of holy separateness from the world he had previously recommended. (BBCNT, Wanamaker)