The Bible in a Year – 11 October

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

11 October. 2 Thessalonians chapters 1-3

I wrote yesterday that Paul’s message to the believers in Thessalonica was essentially one of encouragement – to continue living in the good ways that they had already established, and to remain faithful to the gospel in difficult times.

This time, the overall theme as expressed at the beginning and end is much the same.  But there is a darker and more urgent theme in the middle section.  In the first letter, the difficulties mentioned were local persecution, opposition from Jews, and the normal temptations of worldliness.  In chapter 2 of the second letter, Paul appears to be setting out an apocalyptic vision of an imminent time just before the second coming of Jesus when a mysterious figure described as the “man of lawlessness” sent by Satan would set himself up as a god, by implication persecuting those who believe in the true God, and deceiving people with false teaching and false miracles.

Following that time of general persecution, Jesus would return.  This is definitely not the Jesus of the Gospels, not even where he tells his disciples that he would return again. The vision of Jesus here is of one all-powerful, coming “with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel” (1:7-8). This Christ figure is probably derived from Paul’s own vision on the Damascus road when Jesus appeared in a blaze of glory, blinding Saul (as he then was) and condemning Saul’s persecution of Christians, before then appointing him as an apostle.

As with all such apocalyptic, it is pointless to try to identify the “man of lawlessness” with any one historic person, although there was certainly a general persecution of Christians by various Roman emperors in the following few centuries. What matters is the effect this would have had on the readers.  If you believe that life will go on more or less the same into the future, there is no pressure to spread the faith or to repent personally.  But if you believe that some time very soon (for the early Christians believed this would happen in their lifetimes) society would be turned upside down by the presence of evil, leading to a final judgement for heaven or hell, then you will be highly motivated to be on the right side by repenting and joining in the fight against evil, and to do so now.

That is also why Paul warns in chapter 3 against the sin of idleness.  If everything is about to fall apart, there is no place for slackers, just as if a ship is in distress every able-bodied person is expected to help save it.  “Comfortable Christianity” has no place in Paul’s theology – you are either fighting against evil and heresy, or you will be overcome by them.

The Bible in a Year – 10 October

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

10 October. 1 Thessalonians chapters 1-5

The first of St Paul’s letters to the Christians in Thessalonica is perhaps the most positive of all his writings.  There is little of criticism here, but rather encouragement and thankfulness. He wants them to know that he is pleased with not only their conversion to the faith, but the way they stick to it.  Towards the end of the letter he reminds them of the need to remain faithful to the gospel message, even (or especially) as difficult times come upon them.

The language that Paul uses, not only here but in some of his other letters, when he describes his feelings towards those he has pastored, are quite astonishing – in Galatians he compares his prayers for them to the pains of a woman in childbirth (Paul was probably unmarried, so perhaps he can be excused for this exaggeration). In this letter he reminds the Thessalonians of his approach in teaching them: “We speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others” (2:4-6).

The work of an evangelist or priest is not easy.  Even as a Reader – a part-time, voluntary assistant minister in the Church of England – I find the challenge of “presenting the Gospel afresh in this generation”, and of being a pastoral friend to the congregation, demands more of my time and effort than I can easily give.  Even in our small church fellowship there are many needy people; more come with their children to be baptised; many more than they attend activities that take place in the church buildings (children’s groups, drama groups, exercise classes, parenting classes and son on). And that is without considering the thousands in our parish who never have any connection with the church.

Where is the reward in this?  Paul focuses on the few who have responded to the Gospel and become believers.  “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!” (2:19-20).  We need not worry too much about those we never meet, or those who ignore the opportunities to engage with the Church.  If I have the privilege of helping even a small number of people to become, not merely members of our parish church but members of the Body of Christ, it will have been worth it.