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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

Reading through 1 Thessalonians

The Address and Thanksgiving ( 1, 1–10 )

The address contains a short greeting ( 1, 1 ) and an extended thanksgiving ( 1, 2–10 ). A distinctive feature of Paul's letters is that the thanksgiving focuses on what God has done for Paul's addressees. In other correspondence of the time, the thanksgiving normally centers on the health and benefits enjoyed by the sender and a wish for the prosperity of the recipient. Paul's co‐authors are Silvanus and Timothy. Following his custom, Paul writes not only in his own name but as a member of a team of Christian missionaries. Unlike many others of his letters that begin with several names, here the second person plural is maintained throughout the letter, Paul's “I” breaking through only at 2, 18 and 5, 27 . In what we believe is the first extant letter from Paul, there is a greeting that will become Paul's trademark: “To the church of —, grace and peace to you in (or from) God the Father and the Lord Jesus.” This greeting is seen in its simplest form here; in later letters Paul will elaborate on this basic form.

A function of the thanksgiving in the address is often to anticipate the themes of a letter. In the case of 1 Thessalonians, thanksgiving itself is a major theme. Paul is grateful for the reception of the word of God by the Thessalonians and for the impact that their faith has had on other communities. Paul claims that he himself does not even have to testify to the fruitfulness of the Thessalonian mission—word of it has spread throughout the Greek world (Macedonia and Achaia include the whole of Greece, 1, 8 ). Besides the initial thanksgiving of 1, 2–10 that properly belongs to the address, two other thanksgivings appear in 2, 13–16; 3, 9–13 . In all three places, Paul speaks of the relationship between faith and charity and of the expectation of the Parousia or second coming of Jesus Christ. These are the major themes of 1 Thessalonians.

The Body of the Letter ( 2, 1–5, 25 )

The body contains Paul's main message in two parts; Paul's account and defense ( 2, 1–3, 13 ) followed by teachings and exhortation ( 4, 1–5, 25 ).

Paul's Account and Defense of his Ministry ( 2, 1–3, 13 )

Paul states clearly that his motives are without guile in his work with them. If we can read between the lines, we can surmise the accusations of unworthy motives on his part against which he defends himself. He stresses his gratitude to God for the success of this community and presents a defense of his ministry among them.

Thanksgiving is a persistent thread that runs throughout 1 Thessalonians. Yet Paul is not a naive optimist. He is aware that this community is experiencing several problems. Although he will return to the theme of gratitude, he launches into a defense of his own ministry with the Thessalonians, thereby implying that some have questioned his authority or actions. Throughout Paul's ministry career, he insists that he is an apostle, called by God to preach the gospel message. Paul's defense of himself and his authority are linked to the call he has from God. He is under a divine compulsion to preach the gospel, and his confidence derives from this vocation. His defense of his ministry is also prompted by some of the dangers represented by false teachers agitating the Thessalonians in Paul's absence. Although this is a painful and threatening problem, Paul interrupts this defense with thanksgivings, as if to say that he is confident in the Thessalonians' perseverance despite the interference of the agitators.

One of the most difficult yet persistent problems that faced the early church was that of false prophets or false teachers. In the ancient world, where travel was difficult and communications took time, often philosophers or religious teachers joined others who traveled for business or personal reasons. News was gathered and disseminated by such traveling groups; new converts were often made along the way. First Thessalonians reflects this kind of mobility where Paul speaks about his own past visits with the Thessalonians as well as his thwarted plans to return. He promises to visit again soon. He warns the Thessalonians about other types of ministers—those who are greedy or who flatter ( 2, 5 ) or who rely on the community for support ( 2, 9 ). Paul's own example stands out in contrast to these, for he has been “gentle as a nursing mother” among them ( 2, 7 ).

Despite his grateful recognition of the sturdy faith of the Thessalonians, Paul found it necessary to remind them of the sacrifices and dedication they saw in him and his companions. Among his characteristic practices, Paul repeatedly notes that he is self‐supporting. He “toiled day and night” among them and in so doing, he gave them an example that they ought to imitate. This practice of working with his hands and supporting himself was unusual. The Corinthians misinterpreted it, and he did accept gifts of support from the Philippians (Phil 4, 10–20 ).

Specific Exhortations and Instructions ( 4, 1–5, 22 )

Concrete ethical applications or “imperatives” follow from Paul's grateful description of the Christian community at Thessalonica. This parenetic or exhortatory section may be considered a specific example of Paul's concern that faith be exercised in practical living, particularly as expressed in charity.

Sexual Conduct ( 4, 3–8 ). These verses refer to sexual morality, but it is not clear how. The text may refer to a man being faithful to his wife (the usual translation), or to the need for his own sexual control, with no wife mentioned, and verse 6 may refer again to marital fidelity against adultery, or to cheating in business matters. In any case, the text raises a variety of ethical concerns including sexual conduct and business ethics.

For their part, the Jews considered the obligations of marriage and the family to be linked to the covenant relationship with God. This link was an important one Paul wished to adopt for the Gentile Christians. Paul therefore stresses the obligation of believers to develop relationships worthy of them, reflecting respect for one another and for their call to holiness. Charity among believers, in turn, has an effect even on those outside the community who will be impressed with the example of high moral conduct of the Christians.

Death and the Need for Vigilance ( 4, 13–5, 11 ). Paul and other early Christians seem to have believed that the Parousia or return of Jesus was very near. Now members of the Thessalonian community are dying before this event, which was a problem for their faith that Jesus would truly return. They wondered how the dead would participate in the triumphant day of Christ's return. Paul encourages the Thessalonians to persevere in faith and joins to this a warning about continued vigilance. Enthusiastic faith can often wane at the onslaught of opposition, suffering, and frustrated expectations. Paul fears that the death of fellow Christians will so shake the Thessalonians' faith that their grief will give way to doubt, discouragement, and even apostasy.

Paul's view of the second coming is influenced by his apocalyptic perspective. God is perceived as living in heaven, which is “above,” beyond the clouds. An archangel and trumpets are standard apocalyptic images accompanying the end of the world and a call to judgment. The second coming of Christ, unlike the first, will be a show of power. It will be cosmic in effect, changing the entire order of creation, not only human existence.

Paul promises that the Christian dead have not been lost or forgotten. They, like us, will be gathered by Christ and judged. The righteous will be restored to God. Paul's emphasis is on the certainty of this event, not on times or manner. The exact manner of the resurrection and of judgment, Paul finally admits in 1 Corinthians 15 , is unknown to us (see 1 Thes 5, 1; 1 Cor 15, 35–57 ).

The death of loved ones may pose painful faith questions for believers in any age. The death of beloved members of the community seems to have challenged the faith of the Christians at Thessalonica. Because the death of fellow Christians was so threatening, Paul admonished: “console one another with these words” ( 4, 18; 5, 11 ). He reinforced his warning to persevere by speaking again about the certainty of Christ's coming. The images of the pregnant woman and of the thief in the night are ones that appear in Jesus' own preaching, according to the Gospel accounts (see Mt 24, 43; Lk 21, 23 ). They stress at once the need for preparedness and vigilance, the certainty of the occurrence, and the threatening aspect of suffering. Continuing his use of stock apocalyptic imagery, Paul envisions a cosmic struggle that differentiates between those who are the children of light and those who remain in darkness.

Spirit and Order ( 5, 12–22 ). Paul enjoins respect for those who minister among the faithful, an unusual reference to local leaders (see also Phil 1, 1 ). But the more important points are about the way in which believers are to exercise mutual love, not returning evil for evil but consistently seeking the good of all. Joy, prayer, and gratitude characterize their lives as they live according to the Spirit, discerning between good and evil.

Conclusion ( 5, 23–28 )

The concluding prayer ( 5, 23–25 ) and final greetings ( 5, 26–28 ) suggest that this letter was intended for reading in a liturgical setting. Paul says that the Thessalonians will be kept holy and spotless as they wait for the Lord's return. The “holy kiss” with which they are to greet one another was probably the ritual exchange of peace done during the liturgical assembly.

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