1 and 2 Thessalonians

In his first letter to the Christians at Thessalonica Paul stresses the need to "be holy." By this he means abstaining "from fornication" and "not giving way to lust like the pagans who know nothing of God." Again, it seems freedom from the law has been taken by the fledgling Christians to permit sexual license. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the apostles in Jerusalem thought it important to impose Jewish law on Gentile converts.

Paul also reminds the members of the church at Thessalonica "to work" with their own hands so that they may "command the respect" of others and "at the same time never be in want." This seems obvious to the contemporary reader, but we need to recall that according to the Acts of the Apostles Paul was collecting contributions for the church in Jerusalem because of the poverty of its members. It may be that the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were not doing much work with their hands to support themselves, but were simply praying, eating, and listening to the teaching of the apostles as they waited for the end of the world.

Paul tells the Thessalonians "as a word from the Lord" about the coming of Christ: "when the command is given, when the archangel's voice is heard, when God's trumpet sounds, then the Lord himself will descend from heaven; first the Christian dead will rise, then we who are still alive shall join them, caught up in clouds to meet the Lord in the air." Once more we see that Paul expects the kingdom to come within his own lifetime. Moreover, he warns that the day of the Lord will come "like a thief in the night." We find this image in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Did Jesus actually use it? Or have the authors of these gospels taken it from this letter of Paul? Might it have been a common image used by Jews in the first century to refer to the hoped for day of the LORD?

"Keep awake," Paul says, "and sober, armed with the breastplate of faith and love, and the hope of salvation for a helmet." Faith, hope and love: these three gifts of the Spirit will save us. Whether or not we are circumcised or have kept the other tenets of the law will be of no importance on the last day. Have we loved our neighbors? Have we kept faith and encouraged one another with hope? These, Paul asserts, are the fruits of the Spirit that lead to salvation.

In his second letter to the church at Thessalonica Paul expands on "the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, when he is to gather us to himself." He warns the Thessalonians against "any prophetic utterance, any pronouncement, or any letter purporting to come" from him "alleging that the day of the Lord is already here." The last day cannot come, he explains, "before the final rebellion against God, when wickedness will be revealed in human form." This "wicked one" will come only at the appointed time by the work of Satan, and will deceive all those who "did not open their minds to love of the truth and so find salvation." The wicked one, however, will be destroyed by "the Lord Jesus with the breath of his mouth" and "by the radiance of his presence.” The Thessalonians, Paul says, need not fear, if they "stand firm" and "hold fast to the traditions" they have received from him.

When we read Mark 13 we will discover an expanded version of this same vision of the day of the Lord, which in the gospel is presented as a teaching of Jesus. If the gospel of Mark had been available to Paul when he wrote his second letter to the Thessalonians, surely Paul would have referred to the gospel account. Common sense suggests, therefore, that the author of the gospel of Mark used Paul's description of the coming of the Lord as a basis for the gospel teaching. After all, Paul had experienced the risen Lord and claimed to understand "the mind of Christ." Moreover, Paul testifies that his vision of the time of judgment has come from the Lord.

 Bob@rtraer.com © Robert Traer 2016