Lesson 6: Letters Home

Get ready! Luke-Acts acted like a good public relations person who domesticated Paul. He portrayed him as a courageous missionary who suffered constantly in order to move the Church from a small Jewish sect to a large catholic church. We are now going to move back 30 years to see the real Paul as he revealed himself in his letters. We’ll find the same person, but now up close and human. For instance, at one point he gets so upset at those who insist all God’s people must be circumcised, he bursts out he hopes their enthusiasm causes the knife to slip while they are at it. (Galatians 5:12) Ouch! I tell this not to be clever or shocking, but to illustrate we shall be looking at Paul on a very human, unfiltered level.

But first let’s acknowledge how well the early Church utilized the written word. The most colorful example is John’s thwarting Rome’s attempt to silence him in 95 A.D.  As a New Testament prophet he was a channel for the Risen Jesus’ condemnation of the Empire. It tried to silence him with exile on an isolated island. He fixed them. He wrote his prophecy, Revelation, into a letter, sent it through the censors to his churches, who read it aloud to his seven congregations, and “bang”, instant long-distance prophecy.

Paul did somewhat the same. He exercised his apostolic authority in the written word, somewhat like the modern popes writing their encyclicals. When he heard of troubles, but could not return in person to straighten things out, he wrote letters. His churches read them aloud to the entire congregation as part of the worship service. We, who are used to the ease of instant electronic messaging should appreciate the effort involved in this. The postal service was only available for official business. Paul personally had to make  arrangements for his letters to be hand carried.

Although we usually speak of Paul’s theology, his letters were really more pastoral than theological. They offered counsel on the specific problems his churches experienced. And although we eventually came to regard them as canon, he often carefully differentiated between his own opinion and God’s Word.

We are going to read the letters, all from the 50s, in the order in which most scholars think they were written. Although we refer to them as Paul’s letters, five of the undisputed seven were coauthored. All seem to have been dictated to a secretary identified as Tertius in Romans 16:22. Michael J Gorman in his book, Apostle of the Crucified Lord, lists the following order. I inserted the date he estimates for the writing as well as his count of those scholars who dispute various letters. We’ll read them in this order, sometimes skipping the disputed ones.

  • I Thessalonians, 50 or 51A.D, undisputed.
  • II Thessalonians, 51 A.D., disputed by 50%.
  • Galatians, 50 or 51 A.D., undisputed.
  • I Corinthians. 54 A.D., undisputed.
  • II Corinthians, 54-57 A.D., undisputed.
  • Romans, 55-57 A.D., undisputed.
  • Philippians, somewhere between 52-62 A.D., undisputed.
  • Philemon, somewhere between 55-62 A.D., undisputed.
  • Colossians, somewhere between 55-63 A.D., disputed by 60%.
  • Ephesians, early 60s A.D., disputed by 70%.
  • II Timothy, anywhere between the end of first century and the early second A.D., disputed by 80%.
  • I Timothy, anywhere between the end of first century and the early second A.D., disputed by 90%.
  • Titus, anywhere between the end of first century and the early second A.D., disputed by 90%.

Just about everyone agrees I Thessalonians is the oldest book in the New Testament. It offers us the earliest picture we have of Christianity, less than 20 years after Jesus’ death. The earliest Gospel, Mark, is not written until 20 years later.

Thessalonica was the second largest Greek city, the site of many pagan temples. These includied some dedicated to the imperial cult that declared the emperor divine.  So when Paul praised his people for turning from idols, he is not only talking about refraining from adoring stone statues The rejection of idolatry always had politial dimensions. In this case, it was a refusal to place your life in the empeor’s hands.

Acts 17: 1-9 reports the city had a large Jewish synagogue where Paul preached the need for the Messiah or Christ to suffer and to be raised from the dead. If we read between the lines we find those same two convictions in Thessalonians. Perhaps the two most important questions confronting the early Christians were, “How can Jesus be the Messiah or Christ if he suffers and is executed by Rome rather than leading an army that overthrows the empire?” and “If Easter is the Day of the Lord, how come just Jesus and not the rest of the Dead are raised?”

I’ll examine what Paul says of the resurrection in the next lesson. Suffice it to say now that Paul wrote to Christians who believed they lived in the interim between Jesus’ resurrection and their own. They were discouraged, because they thought the time between the two would be “soon and very soon”. Paul is encouraging them to hang on, be patient. As one of my friends observes, Thessalonians is like a pep talk given at half time in a football game.

The Christian life could be characterized as waiting. Paul describes it as “imitation”, imitation of Christ, the early church in Jerusalem, Paul himself, and other exemplary brothers and sisters. It is soon apparent he means imitating the way they endure persecution. (I Thessalonians 1: 6,7I Thessalonians 2: 14-16) Because God’s will is still not being done on earth, God’s people live in the tension between what is and what ought to be.

“Imitation of Christ” follows Jesus’ example in confronting the evil of this world. He did not take up arms and engage it on its own terms. Instead he confronted evil with God’s ways. He loved friend and enemy. The most startlingly portrayal of this comes in the Prophet John’s apocalyptic vision when the hosts of heaven turn to see the worthy Lion of Judah or Messiah. They expect a military figure in armor and find instead a lamb, butchered and standing in its own blood. (Revelation 4 and 5)

Paul adopts what seems to be an early threefold formula in describing the Christian life: faith, hope, and love. In accord with what we have been saying, it is purely defensive armor in I Thessalonians 5:8. Christian life is faith in the past resurrection of Jesus, hope in future resurrection of his people, and love as way of life in the present.

Love characterizes the Christian life in the interval between Christ’s and our own resurrection. But as Paul will maintain in I Corinthians 13, it also describes the eternal life style of God and his People.  “Love never ends”. (I Corinthians 13:8-13)

He differentiates between love for those in the church and love for outsiders. Love for Christians always involves building up other people and the community. He can hardly mention this without acknowledging that it will always entail taking special care of the weak and faint- hearted. In later letters he characterizes this as “not insisting on your own way”. (I Corinthians 13: 4,5)

At the same time, he qualifies this with “Admonish the idle”. In the second letter the writer, whoever he is, goes further with the well-known, “those who do not work, do not eat”. Apparently the church is already running into trouble trying to practice the “from all according to ability, to all according to need” of the first Jerusalem community. As seems to happen in all communes, some do not carry their weight. At any rate, he emphasizes waiting involves living quietly, and working with your hands. (I Thessalonians 4:11, 12)

Love for those outside the Churh entails responding to evil with good, hatred with love. This is Paul’s reading of Jesus’ “Love your enemies”. Nonviolence remains the standard. Later even the  Prophet John in his combative Revelation offers the Christian only God’s Word and martyrdom for combating evil.

Paul, also, calls on Christians to reject all immorality, which scholars claim is a rejection of Greek-Roman understandings of love. We are to be faithful rather than lustful in sexual conduct, and he will get pretty specific about what that means in later letters. (I Thessalonians 4: 3-7)

His description of early worship has more to do with attitude than ritual: “rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances, and do not quench the Spirit” The last one refers to allowing the charismatic tongue- speaking and prophecy (think of it as tongue- speaking in the vernacular) common in the early church. At the same time, we can see the ability to fake these is already becoming a problem. He adds “but test everything”. (I Thessalonians 5:16-22)

I find Paul’s description of Christian life to be concise, clear, and challenging.        When it comes to brothers and sisters in the Church, do not insist on your own way; when it comesto outsiders, return good for evil. In the next lesson we have totrnslate firstcentury images about resurrection, such as Jesus returning on clouds surrounded by angels, into twenty-first century terms. I don’t think there is any need for that when speaking about Paul’s understanding of Christian love.

I’d really like to hear if you think it is still our standard for Christian living, and if so, what it should mean for the witness of the modern Church. That should start a “comments” conversation.

Read II Thessalonians before Friday. Although many scholars think it was written by someone other than Paul, they still think it falls within a year or so of the first letter. Lesson 7 will look at the picture of Resurrection in both of the Thessalonians letters.



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