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Summary of Paul and The Thessalonians

Paul and the Thessalonians: A Tradition of Pastoral Care by Abraham J. Malherbe traces how the apostle Paul was influenced by and adapted the philosophic tradition of soul care for this first of his epistles.

One of the reasons Paul wrote his letter to the Thessalonians was his worry for their spiritual well-being. When he was with them he had taught them to emulate him and to form bonds with him, like any teacher of philosophy would do. Paul knew that conversion was a traumatic experience that dislocated people; it caused confusion as well as joy. He gave of himself by being present, by teaching, by being economically self-sufficient, so that they would have a direct experience of the love that he had come to know in Christ.

He became their friend so that they could enter into friendship with Christ. This intense relationship with a spirit friend allowed people to put down roots in their faith. Paul likely first taught the Thessalonians in an 'insula', a workshop-like apartment where a series of shops would face the street and living quarters of owners and their families would be in the rear. This was an ideal setting to spend time with people, while he worked his trade during the day, and over meals in the evening. Paul would remind them of the gospel, encourage them when they were distracted and gently guide them towards the mind of Christ. He was forming community, a new kinship model to help them solidify the gospel in their lives. He was asking them to emulate himself as he was drawing on the Roman teaching principle of parenesis that claimed imitation was the way to integrate new philosophy. But more, he believed in the power of Christ in his own life, and that the spirit was able to teach his students through his life.

Longing To Be With You

So what happens to the neophytes when the teacher is suddenly forced to leave? Precisely because of the nature of his relationship with them, Paul was worried that in his absence they would become disoriented and start to lose their faith. We don’t know how long he lived with the Thessalonians, but scholars think that it was about 18 months from when he left them that he wrote his letter. Philosophers taught their students to think of the teachings of the master in his absence, to call to mind things the master had said. But what if there wasn’t time enough to seal this bond? What if the master had to leave earlier than would have been preferred?

I feel like we in Watershed Community have gone through an experience like the Thessalonians. Arthur Paul Patterson, a.k.a. 'Bishop Heavy P' has in many ways embodied the gospel for us. His gift of teaching has allowed us receive the gospel more deeply. His love and acceptance has taught us much about the accompaniment of Christ. His admonishments are always surgically precise, with just enough pain to break through defenses mixed with grace that invites us to a deeper relationship with Christ. He reminds us of what we already know, applies it to our individual contexts, laboring hard to make sure we are being formed by sound teaching. And of course where would we be without his bawdy humor? Because of his friendship, we have been able to deepen our friendship with Christ.

Because of his neurological disorder, Arthur Paul Patterson has gone away for an indefinite time. While still physically with us, he is not able to be in our midst as much as he was before. We still relate to Paul as our friend and sometimes even mentor. But his illness has taken him to a far-away place and his absence is still being felt. This situation forces the question: will we lose our faith in the absence of Anam Cara (Paul as our spirit friend)? Will we remain connected to our friendship with Christ in the way Paul was connected with us? Or will we relate to our Friend less and less, and become more distracted by the worries that surround us.

These are the concerns that the apostle Paul had in mind when writing to the Thessalonians. You can imagine that he might have wished he had the time to prepare them in person for his inevitable departure to other cities. As we read and discuss this letter, try to juxtapose our situation with that of those early Christians. What would Timothy report back to Paul? Where are the gaps in our faith that need to be filled? The letter the apostle Paul writes is rich with examples of his care for them and for guidelines on living together as Christians. Its a perfect primer in preparation for a study of discipleship.

Imitators of Us

Imagine Paul’s relief when Timothy reports back that the Thessalonians still hold him the gospel affectionately in their hearts. True, there were some issues, some gaps in their faith that needed filling, but the foundation was in place. What a relief. Adopting principles of spiritual care of the day, he crafts a letter that includes pastoral counseling as well as spiritual instruction.

Paul knew that the Thessalonians had matured because their faith had survived the first real test of faith: his absence. But from living with them, and likely from Timothy’s report, he knew the issues they faced. He knew they needed to become for each other what he was for them. This was a tall order, especially for a group of new converts. They are facing social persecution as well as inner confusion and tension. So one of the first things Paul does is encourage them in their faith. He reminds them how they had received the gospel not just as words but as from the Lord, as evidenced by their turning from idols. He tells them they are a model to other churches. And that God has chosen them for this purpose. He does all this with warm affectionate language, as one who had lived and worked with them. As was the tradition in letter-writing at the time, he would have taken the same tone in the letter as he had with them, so that it was almost as if he really was there.

A Trusted Pattern

Then he reminds them of how he had lived among them. This is another aspect of the parenetic teaching approach: showing how Paul can be trusted by showing what he is not:
  • we are not trying to trick you...we speak as those approved by God
  • we did not use flattery or look for praise...instead we were like children with you
  • like a gentle nurse
  • we toiled in your midst so we wouldn’t be a burden to you
  • you are witnesses...we treated each of you as a father with his children, encouraging, comforting, urging you

Paul reminds them that he is still a model to be emulated. He is encouraging them to remember his presence with them as a way to strengthen their bond with Christ. He encourages them in their suffering by stressing the parallels with the Judean church. He identifies with their sense of abandonment, saying he also felt like an orphan when separated from them. And he goes further, saying he sent Timothy to alleviate his own sense of anxiety, that the visit was as much for him as for them.

These words must have been a balm and comfort to the Thessalonians. As new converts one of their main causes of anxiety would have been their social and inter-familial dislocation, which would have exacerbated the sense of being abandoned. Add to that the new converts' frustration with slow progress in the new life. Paul’s letter lets them know they haven’t been forgotten, and are being given the power in the spirit. They might have had their own sense of this, but to have it affirmed by their teacher would have been a boost. It is at this point, at the end of chapter 3 that Paul includes what is almost a benediction (verses 11 - 13):

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

Instructions for Care

With this prayer, Paul makes the transition to spiritual instruction in his letter. With the pastoral care of the first two chapters, the Thessalonians are now prepared to have the lack in their faith supplied. Spiritual instruction was a third aspect of parenetic principles of the Philosophic schools. He starts off by affirming that they are already living in a way that pleases God, and he encourages them to become better at it. It's interesting that he frames his instructions in terms of relationships within community. Sexual immorality is seen as a defrauding of a Christian brother. Social responsibility is an expression of brotherly love. The consolation on the delayed parousia is for bereaved community members. Paul is saying that members of community that God has created do not live solitary lives.

Finally, Paul stresses the readers' responsibility for their community’s pastoral care; they are to care for each other literally one on one, like he cared for each of them. He uses a military metaphor in urging them to don faith and love as a breastplate and hope of salvation as a helmet. He encourages them to build each other up.

He gives specific instructions on how to give and receive guidance. Receive guidance as loving service, live in peace. Don’t retaliate, be patient with everyone. Warn the idle, encourage the timid, help the weak.

Paul’s earlier reminders of how he was with them would have echoed in their minds as they read this part of the letter; he was asking them to be like he had been. He was not referring to an early hierarchy, but to situations that needed to be addressed. The implication is not that certain people were care-givers, but that the community should mutually give and receive care from each other, according to their gifts and the contexts.

With this letter Paul models skillfully the very words he is teaching. He takes great care to build up the Thessalonians, stressing where they have grown. He is patient with their struggles with promiscuity, comforting them in their affliction, encourages them in how their faith is shown in their love, and urges them to admonish those who are being divisive in the community. And he does all this in the rubric of relationship (“be imitators of us and the Lord”) to prepare them to be in relationship to Christ. As he knew from personal experience, Christ desires relationship with us, and this relationship is mediated through the community. As Jesus had the disciples, so the early church had communities of believers.

Through his skillful adaptation of the philosophic traditions of soul care, the apostle Paul has left us with a brilliant template for the care of our own Christian communities. This letter invites us to listen to it as if it were addressed to us. What word does 1 Thessalonians have for you? How is Christ attempting to supply the lack in our faith? What does Timothy write back about your community life? What can we learn from the Thessalonians?

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

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