January 27, 2012

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical readings: Letters to the Thessalonians

John F. FinkBoth St. Paul’s First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians are read in the Office of Readings next week for the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time. Both letters are short. First Thessalonians is five chapters, and Second Thessalonians is three.

First Thessalonians is likely the oldest book in the New Testament. It was probably written in 51 or 52 A.D., perhaps as many as 20 years before the first Gospel was composed.

Paul, Timothy and Silas (or Silvanus) were in Athens in the year 50 A.D. They had established a Christian community in Thessalonica—the modern Greek city of Thessaloniki—but antagonized some of the Jews and had to be spirited out of the city at night. (See Acts 17:1-10.)

Paul worried about the community and tried to return but, as he says in this letter, “Satan thwarted us” (1 Thes 2:18). Finally, he sent Timothy back to see what was happening.

Paul then moved on to the more important city of Corinth. It was there that Timothy caught up with him with a good report about what was happening in Thessalonica. That is when he decided to write this letter.

After a greeting, Paul reminds the Thessalonians of his ministry among them. “Working night and day in order not to burden any of you, we proclaimed to you the Gospel of God” (1 Thes 1:9). He then makes some exhortations, specifically regarding sexual conduct and the importance of mutual charity.

He then writes about Christ’s second coming, also known as the parousia. “The Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thes 4:16-17).

Although Paul may have expected that to happen in his lifetime, he went on to say that the time or season is unknown. Therefore, the Thessalonians must be vigilant at all times.

Second Thessalonians writes more about the parousia. Apparently, the Thessalonians had received another letter, allegedly from Paul, warning that the day of the coming of the Lord was near. He writes that certain things must happen first.

Biblical experts are divided over when this second letter was written or even if Paul wrote it. Some believe that it was written shortly after the first one, but others say that there is good evidence that it was written as much as a decade after Paul’s death.

Whoever wrote it went to pains to make it seem like a letter from Paul, copying the greeting and ending with, “This greeting is in my own hand, Paul’s.” Writing in Paul’s name assured that the letter would be taken seriously, and Paul’s disciples were determined to give continuity to his message.

Many of the early Christians were preoccupied by the times and circumstances accompanying the return of Christ. Indeed, the problem is addressed in the Synoptic Gospels and the Book of Revelation. The message in Second Thessalonians, though, is one of consolation and hope for Christians who were suffering persecution and confusion. †

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