Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 29, 2023
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 Commentary
Though the sheer volume of sermons on them seem to belie the claim, preaching on the epistles can and perhaps even should be rather challenging. Reading Epistolary Lessons is, after all, as one colleague has pointed out, a bit like reading someone else’s mail.
Preaching on this Sunday’s particular Epistolary Lesson is perhaps even more challenging than it is on most such Lessons. In it, after all, Paul isn’t just writing a letter to Thessalonica’s Christians on behalf of Silas and Timothy. He’s also writing about the apostles’ personal experiences in Thessalonica and with its Christians.
1 Thessalonians 2’s extensive use of second person plural verbs makes it tempting for preachers to offer the apostles as examples for Christians to imitate. That’s, of course, not a necessarily improper temptation. Paul himself, after all, often invited his readers to imitate his life, faith and him. But there remains a real danger in any kind of “be like Paul … or David … or Ruth” kind of preaching. After all, any biblical character but Jesus is an imperfect model for God’s dearly beloved people.
So preachers might, in prayerful reliance on the guidance of the Spirit, consider highlighting the role God plays in equipping Paul to do the things about which he writes in 1 Thessalonians 2. This, after all, offers a way to offer up Paul as a Spirit-filled model for ministry while still rightly focusing on the God who empowers him to be such an example.
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8’s theme may be Paul’s insistence to Thessalonica’s Christians that “Our visit to you was not a failure [kene]*.” It wasn’t, he maintains, worthless. The apostle insists that the apostles’ visit to Thessalonica and its Christians wasn’t what The Message paraphrases as a “waste of time.”
They, after all, dared to proclaim to the Thessalonians God’s gospel “in spite of strong opposition [en pollo agoni].” However, Paul admits that Silas, Timothy and he were able to do this only “with the help [eparresiasametha] of God [en to Theo].”
They had such complete confidence in God’s power to protect them that they felt free to speak the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. Only because they knew they could rely on God for help could Paul and the others share the gospel in the face and midst of much conflict.
Biblical scholar Michael Joseph Brown (https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30/commentary-on-1-thessalonians-21-8-5) notes that the word eparresiasametha that the NIV translates as “help” can also be translated as “courage” or “boldness of speech.” So he suggests that verse 2a might better be translated as “emboldened to speak.” The apostles could boldly share the gospel because of their fellowship with God.
The apostles weren’t, as they continue in verses 3 and following, sharing something they’d made up. Nor were they proclaiming the gospel out of impure motives. God’s approval [dedokimasmetha] alone motivated them. In verse 4 Paul adds a similar claim: “We were not trying to please [areskontes] men, but god.”
The biblical scholar Amy L.B. Peeler (https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30/commentary-on-1-thessalonians-21-8-4) suggests that Paul writes this in a time and place when and where travelling teachers’ motives were less honorable. Some “apostles” did trade in what Peeler calls “error and impurity and deceit.”
By contrast, God motivated Paul and the other apostles to share the gospel in Thessalonica. God, after all, cared enough about God’s Thessalonian people to equip Paul, Silas and Timothy to endure the rigors of sharing the great news God’s saving work with them.
God has found Paul and his fellow evangelists, continues Peeler, “trustworthy enough to be entrusted with the gospel. God, who knows all things about humans, not just the outward appearance, but also the heart, has found Paul and his companions honest. God is their witness. God has testified to the truth of Paul’s message with power and the presence of the Holy Spirit (5). What better reference could Paul present?”
In verse 5, Paul returns to a defense of the apostles’ presentation: “We never used flattery [kolokeisas], nor did we put on a mask to cover up [prophasei] greed [pleonexias] – God is our witness [martys].” Here he envisions God as offering corroborating testimony to the purity of the apostles’ motives and proclamation.
Paul realizes that God has carefully observed the apostles’ words and actions. The apostle is so confident that God is willing to stand behind what Silas, Timothy and he have said and done that it’s as if he almost says to the Thessalonians, “You can even ask God about our motives if you wish. God would back us up on this.”
These men who call themselves in verse 6b “apostles of Christ” were “gentle [epioi] among the Thessalonians as they shared with” them “the gospel of God [euangelion tou Theou].” While Paul, Silas and Timothy could have burdened those Christians by their presence, they were “gentle” [epioi] with them. God cared deeply enough about the Christians to whom Paul wrote to empower the apostles to care for them the way a mother cares for her child as they shared the best news they’d ever hear.
Verse 8 contains Paul’s last reference to God in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. There he writes, “We loved you so much that we were delighted [eudokomen] to share with [metadounai] you not only the gospel of God [euangelion tou Theou], but our lives as well, because you had become so dear [agapetoi] to us.”
The subtlety of God’s role in the apostles’ sharing of the gospel shouldn’t mask its grace. Humanity has been in full scale rebellion against God and God’s purposes ever since our first parents disobeyed God. But God didn’t simply abandon us to our rebellion.
The great news of the gospel of God is that God rescued us from our rebellion by sending Jesus to live, die and rise again from the dead for us. Yet that gospel also includes a guide to the kind of life in which we find our joy, purpose and meaning. God cared so much about God’s dearly beloved people that God helped us to know how to live in the ways for which God creates us, in ways that honor God and bless our neighbor. That, too, is gospel.
*I have here and elsewhere bracketed the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.
Illustration (reprinted from October 19, 2020 Epistolary Lesson sermon commentary)
In his book, Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home, Gary Wills tells a remarkable story about American president Jimmy Carter’s apparent “failure” (cf. 1 Thess. 2:1). Carter was already politically dead in his last year as president. Inflation, Afghanistan, Iran, etc. had defeated him.
Wills writes of how Paul Volker of the Federal Reserve summed up the Carter presidency as follows: “As Jerry Ford left the White House, he handed Jimmy Carter three envelopes, instructing him to open them one at a time as problems became overwhelming.
“After a year, Carter opened the first envelope. It said, ‘Attack Jerry Ford.’ He did. A year later, Carter opened the second envelope. It said, ‘Attack the Federal Reserve.’ He did. Three years into his term, and even more overwhelmed by the economy, Iran, Afghanistan, and so forth, Carter opened the third envelope. It said, ‘Prepare three envelopes.’”
Of course, Carter went on after his presidency to become not a failure, but a beloved and appreciated humanitarian. Though he now seems to be walking through death’s dark valley, he has remained very successful at lovingly serving God and his neighbor.
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