These words are very old. Ancient. Scholars differ on most everything, of course, but it is possible that 1 Thessalonians was the first of Paul’s epistles. And since we are quite certain that the writing of the epistles pre-dates the writing down of the Gospels by a good bit of time, it is fully possible that 1 Thessalonians constitutes the earliest document ever written in this world following the ministry of Jesus Christ. In other words, this may be the first bit of Christian writing and theological reflection ever. If so, then these words in the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians are not only very old but very, very remarkable.
Critics of Christianity have often alleged that the theology of the church in the subsequent decades and centuries after the life of Jesus moved ever farther away from the Jesus of history. Theology got Hellenized, infected with Greek concepts and philosophy. The simple carpenter from Nazareth got blown way out of proportion to the point that writers to this day like to contrast the Jesus of history with the Christ of theology. Current writers like Bart Ehrman pen books with provocative titles like Misquoting Jesus and How Jesus Became God. The claims are that scribes much later in church history so altered the real Jesus that the Jesus of history may no longer even be accessible to us. For sure, Ehrman and others claim, the Christ of faith who gets preached about, sung to, prayed to, and confessed in the creeds is a fiction.
I have all kinds of reasons to believe that all is just wrong but one thing that for sure ought to give one pause is 1 Thessalonians 1. Contained in these ten verses is a breathtaking look at what Christians professed, believed, and proclaimed already in the earliest years after the ministry of Jesus. Let’s just make a list of what is overtly or tacitly asserted or claimed in these verses:
— The Trinity: There are clear references here to God the Father, Jesus Christ the Lord, and the Holy Spirit.
— The idea that the gathering of God’s people form the church and that this church is founded upon the Good News that just is the Gospel.
— A theology of the Holy Spirit who is the active agent in the era of the church, the one who inspires faith through the preaching of the Word and who then promotes joy in the hearts of believers.
— Some notion of divine election, of God’s choosing those who will be the ones most receptive to receiving the Word of God.
— The doctrine of the resurrection and how it was the power of God the Father that raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
— Thoughts on the parousia, the second coming of Christ (which will figure prominently later in this epistle as well). Jesus is coming again in power, and Paul assures the Thessalonians of this.
If this is one of the—if not THEE—most ancient of first century Christian writings, then how remarkable to see how much had developed theologically already in those early days. True, critics might claim I am teasing more out of these verses than is warranted (even as they may dispute Pauline authorship of Thessalonians, the date claimed for its writing, etc.). But when you read these verses today, it is not hard to see how they square very well with the church’s creedal tradition and most all that has gone on to become hallmarks of orthodox Christian belief. This is what people in the very earliest days of the church believed. It was so dear to them, in fact, that they suffered for it, were persecuted for it, died for it.
And people don’t put up with all that for nothing!
You don’t stake your life to a passel of vague claims about ultimate matters of life, death, salvation, the future. What the Thessalonians endured was remarkable. It became famous even back then throughout the known world. That is quite amazing when you consider how little they had to go on compared to the resources the church has available to it today.
In the end it was all so simple: someone like Paul came to a city for the first time. He met people. He spoke words of hope anchored in someone named Jesus. Paul claimed this Jesus is the Messiah, the true Lord of the world, the one who died to set us free from sin, who rose again to show us that life and not death will have the last word, and who will come again one day to make all things new. That’s all Paul had: words. The Word. But if there really is such a being as the Holy Spirit, then those words were not just noises vibrating in the air. They had power. They had oomph. By the Spirit, those words changed lives. Hearts melted, people fell in love with this Jesus who was no concept, no shadowy figure from recent history. He was personally present to the Thessalonians in a way that was so undeniable, they staked their lives on his truth.
It was all so simple really. And it is a reminder to us all these centuries and millennia later that it need be no more complicated than this even now. The church is involved in so many things now. Scan the weekly church bulletin of any congregation and you will see a bevy of clubs, meetings, youth groups, mission efforts, charitable events, soup suppers, and more. The global church is huge. The Roman Catholic Church alone is mammoth with a giant bureaucracy that is mirrored on smaller scales in most every major denomination there is.
Yet when it comes right down to it, what we need to know to live joyful, hope-filled lives even in the face of tough times and suffering is what the Thessalonians knew almost two centuries ago before there were printed Bibles, hymnals, catechisms, or formal Sunday School curricula: that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ raised him from the dead to deliver us from sin and evil and by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, we patiently await Christ’s return and we do so with joy.
That is the Gospel. Then. And now.
Some years ago a major denomination in Canada was faced with some devastating, potentially bankrupting lawsuits that tied in with some things the church had done in years past. It looked like the church was going to lose everything: its buildings, cathedrals, property, retirement accounts, investments. In the face of all this a reporter asked one of the church’s highest officials what it would do if the worst happened. He replied, “In the end all we need is the Word of God, a little water, a little bread, a little wine and we will be fine to continue our work.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 22, 2017
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 Commentary