Monday of Week 21 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5, 8-10

We have been reading from the Old Testament for the past nine weeks.  We began with the 12th chapter of the book of Genesis and went through selected passages from each of the first eight books of the Bible in order: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges and Ruth.

Today we go back to the New Testament and we begin with readings from the first letter of Paul to the Christians of Thessalonica, in Macedonia, northern Greece.  The letters of Paul (and those attributed to him) are not presented in our New Testament in the order in which they were written.  They have been listed according to their length, so the letter to the Romans, being the longest, is placed first and the short letter to Philemon is last.

The first letter to the Thessalonians, although well down the list, is actually the earliest letter of Paul’s that we have.  It seems to have been written from the city of Corinth, in Achaia, in southern Greece.  It was written about the year 51 AD, i.e. just a little over 20 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.  This makes it also the earliest of the 27 books of the whole New Testament.  It was written, as were all the Pauline letters, well before the first gospel.  This makes it a work of considerable significance. Twenty years, in many ways, was a much shorter period in those days than now because society changed much more slowly and, in a 20-year period, would hardly have changed at all. Nevertheless, as we read through this letter we see how well developed the Christian message already is. 

The ideas contained here were, for the Christians who read them, part of the Gospel message, i.e. the “Good News” about God which came to us through Jesus Christ. Note that Paul uses the word “gospel” (euangelion, meaning good news) in today’s passage, although Mark, Matthew, Luke and John – as we know them – would not begin to appear for another 20 years.

The New International Version Study Bible gives this introduction to the city of Thessalonica:

“Thessalonica was a bustling seaport city at the head of the Thermaic Gulf.  It was an important communication and trade centre, located at the junction of the great Egnatian Way and the road leading north to the Danube.  Its population numbered about 200,000, making it the largest city in Macedonia.  It was also the capital of its province.  The background of the Thessalonian church is found in Acts 17:1-9.  Since Paul began his ministry there in the Jewish synagogue, it is reasonable to assume that the new church included some Jews.  However, 1:9-10 and Acts 17:4 seem to indicate that the church was largely Gentile in membership…Paul’s purpose in writing this letter was to encourage the new converts in their trials (3:3-5), to give instruction concerning godly living (4:1-8), to urge some not to neglect daily work (4:11-12) and to give assurance concerning the future of believers who die before Christ returns…The subject of eschatology seems to be predominant in both Thessalonian letters.  Every chapter of 1 Thessalonians ends with a reference to the Second Coming of Christ, with chapter 4 giving it major consideration…The two letters are often designated as the eschatological letters of Paul.” (edited)

Today’s reading is summarised by the New American Bible as follows:

“Paul expresses his satisfaction that the three principal Christian characteristics – faith, hope and love – are at work in the Thessalonian community. Unhesitatingly, he places its members among those specially beloved and chosen by God.  He recalls that his preaching of the Gospel to them was not received as a mere intellectual exercise, but had made a strong actual impact on their lives which not even the opposition of unbelievers could dispel.  Their faith has been an inspiration to Christians elsewhere, who have been impressed especially by the Thessalonians’ complete abandonment of idolatry for the worship of the true God, and by their profound orientation toward the Second Coming of Jesus.”

The letter begins, as usual, with greetings from Paul – together with Silvanus and Timothy – to the local Christians for whom he is writing.  He assures the Thessalonians that they are constantly in his prayers and those of his companions. There then comes a typical Pauline blessing:

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

In today’s reading the very core of Christianity is expressed.  We see the centrality of the Trinitarian relationship between the Father and Christ and the Spirit, as well as the vital elements of faith, hope and love.  The previous verse describing the triad of faith, hope and love is found frequently throughout the New Testament. As such:

  • Real faith results in action:

    What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works?…faith without works is also dead. (James 2:14,26)

  • Christian hope is not mere wishful thinking but firm confidence in Jesus Christ and his promises of a life that never ends. 

    I am the way and the truth and the life.

  • Unsparing love imitates that of Jesus, who said that the greatest love anyone could show was to give one’s life for one’s friends.

    For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.

He addresses them as “brothers and sisters beloved by God”.  They are all united to each other as children of one Father and brothers and sisters of his Son. 

The term ‘brothers’ is used by Paul 28 times in the two Thessalonian letters. “Our gospel”, that is, the gospel proclaimed by Paul, Silas and Timothy, is a gospel they themselves had received by faith and passed on.  It ultimately comes from God the Father and then through Christ to his followers and beyond.  It is not mere hollow-sounding words.  It is filled with power and, once assimilated, can have a transforming effect on one’s whole life. 

This was its effect on the Thessalonian Christians. And anyone who proclaims the Christian message through the words of Scripture knows that there is a power there that goes far beyond any human eloquence.

…you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.

The example of Paul’s own life and that of his companions was a kind of living gospel, which also had its influence on them. 

They lived this life, not to draw attention to themselves, but to lead the Christians to the following of Jesus’ Way:

…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matt 5:16)

Paul then congratulates the Thessalonians on the quality of their faith whose reputation has spread far and wide not only to Macedonia, of which Thessalonica is the capital, and to Achaia in the south where Corinth was situated, but everywhere:

…For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you…

So effective has been their influence that Paul has hardly to speak about it himself.

One reason why the Thessalonian example became so widespread was because the city lay on the important Egnatian Way (Via Egnatiana).  Apart from that, it was a busy seaport and the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia.

People in other places are telling about how Paul began his work with the Thessalonians, how they turned away from false gods and came to serve the living and true God and are now waiting for the return of Jesus, his Son.

Here we have three marks of true conversion:

  1. turning from idols (of all kinds);
  2. serving God; and
  3. waiting for Christ to return.

In his two short letters to the Thessalonians, Paul speaks much of the second coming of Christ. In this early period of Christianity, this was a major preoccupation for Christians.  As the years passed and there was no sign of the Second Coming and people were dying off before it happened, the conviction of an imminent coming waned and the focus switched to spending a long life in the service of the Gospel.

Right now, though, they are waiting for the One who will save them from the Retribution, the Day of Reckoning, that is to come.  We have in these last two sentences of the reading two main elements of the Good News as preached by Paul: a vigorous emphasis on monotheism and a Christology stressing the coming of the Risen Lord.

We might ask ourselves, if Paul was writing to the Christian community in which we live – our diocese or our parish – what do we think he might want to say by way of praise or criticism?  What should we be developing further and what should we be correcting or abandoning?  And how much of what he might say could apply to me personally?

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