In the year 50, Paul arrived in Thessalonica, a major city and the capital of the province of Macedonia (see Acts 17:1). Here, after being rejected by the Jews, he addressed his preaching to the pagans and succeeded in forming a community. After barely three months, a riot caused by the Jews forced him to leave.
What is going to happen to these new Christians who have only received the basics of Christian life from Paul? Because of his concern, Paul asks Timothy to go and to strengthen this young church. Upon his return, Timothy is optimistic and being reassured, Paul sends this letter at the beginning of 51. This is the oldest text of the New Testament.
We do not always find this letter very inspiring. We might say that Paul’s style is still quite “green.” We sense both a missionary’s attachment to the converts for whom he had spared no effort, his concern about them and the remnants of Paul’s early training as fanatic as it was generous.
Christian faith was going against reason in the first communities of the Greco–Roman world, just as it does in our own communities. Sexual freedom seemed just as legitimate to them as it does to our contemporaries. The resurrection of the dead and the afterlife did not readily enter into their perspectives even if, from time to time, some “mystery-prone” philosophers or some religions were trying to revive such hopes.
In chapter 4, Paul re-asserts the biblical doctrine concerning these matters. There, we will find the clear and sound affirmation of the moral demands to form an integral part of Christ’s followers: be holy, alert and be people who are waiting for something else.
We will also find the first affirmation of the resurrection of the dead expressed in apocalyptic language and images.
From its beginnings, the community is invited to live in constant prayer and to give priority to the care of its weakest members.
•1From Paul, Sylvanus and Timothy to the church of Thessalonica which is in God the Father and in Christ Jesus, the Lord.
May the peace and grace of God be with you.
2We give thanks to God at all times for you and remember you in our prayers. 3We constantly recall before God our Father the work of your faith, the labors of your love and your endurance in waiting for Christ Jesus our Lord.
4We remember, brothers and sisters, the circumstances of your being called. 5The gospel we brought you was such not only in words. Miracles, Holy Spirit and plenty of everything were given to you. You also know how we dealt with you for your sake.
6In return, you became followers of us and of the Lord when, on receiving the word, you experienced the joy of the Holy Spirit in the midst of great opposition. 7And you became a model for the faithful of Macedonia and Achaia, 8since from you the word of the Lord spread to Macedonia and Achaia, and still farther. The faith you have in God has become news in so many places that we need say no more about it. 9Others tell of how you welcome us and turned from idols to the Lord. For you serve the living and true God, 10and you wait for his Son from heaven whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who frees us from impending trial.
The beginning of the Church of Thessalonica
•1You well know, brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not in vain. 2We had been ill-treated and insulted in Philippi but, trusting in our God, we dared announce to you the message of God, and face fresh opposition. 3Our warnings did not conceal any error or impure motive, nor did we deceive anyone. 4But as God had entrusted his Gospel to us as to faithful ministers, we were anxious to please God who sees the heart, rather than human beings. 5We never pleased you with flattery, as you know, nor did we try to earn money, as God knows. 6We did not try to make a name for ourselves among people, either with you or anybody else, although we were messengers of Christ and could have made our weight felt.
7On the contrary, we were gentle with you, as a nursing mother who feeds and cuddles her baby. 8And so great is our concern that we are ready to give you, as well as the Gospel, even our very lives, for you have become very dear to us.
9Remember our labor and toil; when we preached the Gospel, we worked day and night so as not to be a burden to you. 10You are witnesses with God that we were holy, just and blameless toward all of you who now believe. 11We warned each of you as a father warns his children; 12we encouraged you and urged you to adopt a way of life worthy of God who calls you to share his own glory and kingdom.
13This is why we never cease giving thanks to God for, on receiving our message, you accepted it, not as human teaching, but as the word of God. That is what it really is, and as such it is at work in you who believe.
•14Brothers and sisters, you followed the example of the churches of God in Judea, churches of Christ Jesus. For you suffered from your compatriots the same trials they suffered from the Jews, 15who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and who persecute us. They displease God and harm all people 16when they prevent us from speaking to the pagans and trying to save them. By doing so they are heaping up their sins, but now Judgment is coming upon them.
17We are for a time deprived of your presence, but not in our heart, and we eagerly long to see you. 18For we have wanted to visit you, and I, Paul, more than once; but Satan prevented us. 19In fact, who but you are our hope and our joy? Who but you will be our glorious crown before Jesus, our Lord, when he returns? 20Yes, indeed, you are our glory and our joy.
•1As I could no longer bear it, I decided to go alone to Athens, 2and send you Timothy, our brother and co-worker of God in the Gospel of Christ. I wanted him to encourage you in the faith and strengthen you 3so that none of you might turn back because of the trials you are now enduring. You know that such is our destiny. 4I warned you of this when I was there: “We shall have to face persecution”; and so it was, as you have seen. 5Therefore I could not stand it any longer and sent Timothy to appraise your faith and see if the Tempter had tempted you and made our work useless.
6But now Timothy has just returned with good news of your faith and love. He told us that you remember us kindly and that you long to see us as much as we long to see you. 7What a consolation for us, brothers and sisters, in the midst of our troubles and trials, this faith of yours! 8It is a breath of life for us when you stand firm in the Lord. 9How can we thank God enough for all the joy that we feel before God because of you? 10Day and night we beg of him to let us see you again, that we may complete the instruction of the believers.
11May God our Father and Jesus our Lord prepare the way for us to visit you. 12May the Lord increase more and more your love for each other and for all people, as he increases our love for you. 13May he strengthen you internally to be holy and blameless before God, our Father, on the day that Jesus, our Lord, will come with all his saints.
A call to a life of purity and work
•1For the rest, brothers, we ask you in the name of Jesus, the Lord, and we urge you to live in a way that pleases God, just as you have learned from us. This you do, but try to do still more. 2You know the instructions we gave you on behalf of the Lord Jesus: 3the will of God for you is to become holy and not to have unlawful sex.
4Let each of you behave towards his wife as a holy and respectful husband, 5rather than being led by lust, as are pagans who do not know God. 6In this matter, let no one offend or wrong a brother. The Lord will do justice in all these things, as we have warned and shown you. 7God has called us to live, not in impurity but in holiness, 8and those who do not heed this instruction disobey, not a human, but God himself who gives you his Holy Spirit.
9Regarding mutual love, you do not need anyone to write to you, because God himself taught you how to love one another. 10You already practice it with all the brothers and sisters of Macedonia, but I invite you to do more. 11Consider how important it is to live quietly without bothering others, to mind your own business, and work with your hands, as we have charged you. 12In obeying these rules you will win the respect of outsiders and be dependent on no one.
Do not grieve as others do
•13Brothers and sisters, we want you not to be mistaken about those who are already asleep, lest you grieve as do those who have no hope. 14We believe that Jesus died and rose; it will be the same for those who have died in Jesus. God will bring them together with Jesus and for his sake.
15By the same word of the Lord we assert this: those of us who are to be alive at the Lord’s coming will not go ahead of those who are already asleep. 16When the command by the archangel’s voice is given, the Lord himself will come down from heaven, while the divine trumpet call is sounding. Then those who have died in the Lord will rise first; 17as for us who are still alive, we will be brought along with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the celestial world. And we will be with the Lord forever.
18So, then comfort one another with these words.
You are citizens of the light
•1You do not need anyone to write to you about the delay and the appointed time for these events. 2You know that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3When people feel secure and at peace, the disaster will suddenly come upon them as the birth pangs of a woman in labor, and they will not escape.
4But you, beloved, are not in darkness; so that day will not surprise you like a thief. 5All of you are citizens of the light and the day; we do not belong to night and darkness. 6Let us not, therefore, sleep as others do, but remain alert and sober.
7Those who sleep, go to sleep at night, and those who drink, get drunk at night. 8Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, let us put on the breastplate of faith and love, and let the hope of salvation be our helmet. 9For God has not willed us to be condemned but to win salvation through Christ Jesus our Lord. 10He died for us so that we might enter into life with him, whether we are still awake or already asleep. 11Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, as you are doing now.
12Brothers and sisters, I want you to be thankful to those who labor among you, who lead you in the way of the Lord and also reprimand you. 13Esteem them highly and love them for what they are doing. Live at peace among yourselves.
14We urge you to warn the idle, encourage those who feel discouraged, sustain the weak, have patience with everyone. 15See that no one repays evil for evil, but try to do good, whether among yourselves or towards others.
16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing 18and give thanks to God at every moment. This is the will of God, your vocation as Christians.
•19Do not quench the Spirit, 20do not despise the prophets’ warnings. 21Put everything to the test and hold fast to what is good. 22Avoid evil, wherever it may be.
23May the God of Peace make you holy and bring you to perfection. May you be completely blameless, in spirit, soul and body, till the coming of Christ Jesus, our Lord; 24he who called you is faithful and will do it.
25Brothers and sisters, pray for us. 26Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss. 27I order you in the name of the Lord that this letter be read to all of them.
28May the grace of Christ Jesus our Lord be with you.
• 1.1 Faith, endurance, love. For us, sometimes hope (or: endurance) goes unnoticed between faith and love. For Paul it has two important meanings:
– Those who hope bear trials and persecutions with patience and perseverance. That is why Paul speaks of faith, perseverance and love. As we know from the Gospel, hope is not an easy optimism; it is the capacity to endure when faced with trials.
– The person with hope looks forward to the glorious coming of Christ who will judge this world and take us to the next one. He frees us from impending trial (v. 10). In those years, all believers were convinced that judgment was imminent and that they would witness Christ’s coming.
The Gospel we brought you was such not only in words (v. 5). There were many signs, miracles and other manifestations in Thessalonica. Perhaps God increased the signs in view of the coming persecution; since very soon there would not be many with adequate formation to orient the community. In fact the Gospel cannot be proclaimed without God doing something to confirm it (Mk 16:17). Jesus criticized those who came to him to see miracles, but he performed miracles throughout his ministry. Let us not say: “I do not need miracles to believe.” Human beings as we are, we will have quite a different enthusiasm if we see that God is beside us, doing the incredible to confirm his word.
• 2.1 As a nursing mother who feeds and cuddles her baby (v. 7): Paul’s tenderness. Paul recalls the work and energy he spent to convince, to call each one personally. The conversion of a single person demands perseverance, weariness and struggles for the apostle.
All the Christians of Paul’s time know that the mother Church in Jerusalem has been the first to suffer heavy persecution. For the Thessalonians, it was also an honor to have remained steadfast in the face of persecution.
• 14. Some people will find Paul’s words concerning the Jews harsh and exaggerated: It is obvious that verses 15-16 do not refer to all the Jews or to the Jewish people of future time. Paul means those Jews and Judeo-Christians who persecute him from city to city. The divine sentence condemning them has already been pronounced yet they reflect his experience, verified in Acts 15–28.
The anger that Paul mentions in verse 16, means a decision of divine justice that is preparing punishment. It does not concern the Jewish people as a whole or the Jewish people of the future, as some fundamentalists believe but rather, it deals with those Jews and Judeo-Christians who persecute Paul and constantly thwart his preaching to the pagans. The judgment of God is soon coming upon them.
• 3.1 May the Lord increase more and more your love for each other and for all people (v. 12). Love manifests itself first within the community and then it must be expanded to all people.
Note also Paul’s constant preoccupation: his apostolic mission does not allow him to remain in any community. He is always moving, leaving his work unfinished, but he entrusts his converts to the grace of God that does not suppress the freedom of the recent converts nor the work of the Tempter in the world.
You know that such is our destiny (v. 3). There is no church, nor Christian life, without trials and persecutions.
• 4.1 If we have given ourselves to Christ, that should surely make our life different from what we lived before. The Jews who accepted baptism had a solid moral basis in the laws of the Old Testament. On the other hand, the pagans had only the moral laws observed in their society. Chastity, among others, was completely foreign to them. They considered occasional sexual relationships a necessity of nature, having nothing to do with moral values.
Paul reacts strongly: The will of God for you is to become holy and not to have unlawful sex (v. 3). Facing what humans consider demands of nature, are other demands due simply to the fact that God has called us and put us on the path to divinization (Paul says: sanctification). Paul will take up the same argument in other words in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. Here in verses 4-8, Paul is certainly thinking of adultery and relationships with prostitutes. If he were living in our social context, he would surely include sexual freedom among youth.
Paul never ceases telling us we are free. He passes over liturgical rules, customs proper to Jewish people—reminders of the past—all that kept believers in a religion of obedience to laws. He reaffirms fundamental moral rules that are valid at all times and in all places, especially when one has entered through the Gospel the age of spiritual maturity.
• 13. Lest you grieve as do those who have no hope. The Thessalonian community is made up of Christians who are all recent converts with little experience. For years they had accepted the fate of being born to die. Now, on the contrary, they awaken each day with the assurance of overcoming death: Christ will come soon and take them to the heavenly kingdom. They are grieved nevertheless over their dead relatives whom Christ will not be able to save. This is what they thought because Greek culture had difficulties believing in a resurrection of the dead.
Those who are already asleep. Those who have died are not dead, but they are asleep, waiting for the time of the resurrection, the time of rising as new persons transformed by Christ: we will all be transformed. The word “cemetery” comes from a word meaning sleeping place.
God will bring them together with Jesus (v. 14). Paul supposes that he and his readers will be alive when Christ returns and he describes the event according to the cultural expressions of the time. Let us not forget that up to the time of Galileo, everyone thought that heaven had its place in the universe, very high above and that God, although a spirit, was in some way present there.
We will be with the Lord forever (v. 17). That is essential and always true even if it does not mean that Jesus will come on a beautiful cloud to the sound of heavenly trumpets. We already have some experience of the Lord’s presence in our earthly life, but then there will be nothing but this presence and this joy.
This brief message of hope leaves obscure essential questions concerning the resurrection of the dead. Paul will fully deal with this subject later on in 1 Corinthians 15. There he will show that resurrection is first a transformation of our whole being through the energies flowing from the resurrected Christ.
Comfort one another (v. 18). The way of celebrating funerals in the Church must comfort the dead person’s relatives and strengthen their faith in the resurrection. There is no room for expressions of despair which Jesus himself scorned (see Mk 5:40): these are peculiar to people who consider the separation to be final. A funeral mass without any spectacular display, when the fervent prayer of the community is experienced, produces a great impact on people who are indifferent.
Paul then gives a warning he will repeat at the end of this letter (5:14): all should work. The community is disturbed by certain believers more inclined to attract attention with an enthusiastic show of faith rather than work; they discredit the Church in the eyes of pagans. Paul, the good Jew and Pharisee he was, could earn his own living by manual labor. He would not have understood how a believer could be without some qualification and unable to find an outlet, be it well or poorly considered and paid.
• 5.1 Christ comes at night and believers are people of the light. These words are rich in meaning. Those who follow their evil desires are people of darkness, hiding to do evil. While children of the light are beyond reproach, transparent before God and with nothing to hide from him. The unbeliever sleeps and is off-guard while the believer keeps watch and stays awake: he likes to pray all night long until dawn as if waiting for the day to welcome Christ. As for those who have died, they are not dead: they are only “asleep,” ready to rise when the Lord comes.
Encourage one another and build up one another (v. 11). In this the Church is seen as the true community needed by believers so they can grow in faith and overcome trials. In every difficulty, the help of the community will be the proof that we are surrounded by the love of God and of Christ, as was said in the first line of the letter.
According to verse 12, after only three months of evangelization this community already had leaders in charge.
• 19. Do not quench the Spirit (v. 19). A community such as this with few traditions and written instructions, depended on the intervention of the Spirit. Among these Christians there were some gifted with the charism of prophets: they would receive their communications during the Eucharistic assemblies. That is why Paul asks to profit by these spiritual messages, but not without first examining them as he will remind them in 1 Corinthians 14. This is a delicate situation: the community is subject to the Spirit who speaks through the prophet, but it must—and its leaders must—judge if it is truly the Spirit of God speaking.
May you be completely blameless in spirit, soul and body (v. 23). Neither the Jews nor the majority of Greeks would have agreed with our definition of the human: body and soul. They spoke at the same time of the soul that gives life to the body and deals with material activities, and of the spirit that is capable of truth and justice.
Paul’s way of speaking, like the great spiritual Christians, shares this conception. When Paul speaks of the deep life of believers, he does not use the word soul but spirit. We do not face God as we do in facing an interlocutor and look at each other from the exterior: to understand better our relationship with God, through the Spirit we must think of what unites beings who love each other and in some way live in one another.
According to the Bible, God’s Spirit can be omnipresent, insinuate itself, adapt itself, become our spirit without ceasing to be itself. Our spirit is not a part of ourselves, it is us, and it is at the same time our access to God. Our soul expresses itself in different ways, for example in dreams. We only discover our spirit in the measure of our experience of God. Only when we see God shall we truly know what and who we are.