Today we read the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Again the text contains tantalizing clues that Paul will develop later in his longer more theological letters. But let’s see what we can glean now…
First, notice how Paul views himself and his mission:
4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please men, but to please God who tests our hearts.
Paul does not go to the Thessalonians on his own authority! Paul has been APPROVED by God and ENTRUSTED with the gospel. How? When? Recall our discussions about the laying on of hands. It is the Apostles who were commissioned by Jesus to preach the gospel. It is the Apostles who ordain helpers by the laying on of hands. Recall that Paul after his conversion had hands laid on him and then travels to Jerusalem to consult with Peter and confirm his preaching. Of course, everyone has a role to play in sharing the gospel but to be a true teacher, a true pastor, a true leader or a true Bishop you must “approved” and “entrusted.”
Then there is this:
5 For we never used either words of flattery, as you know, or a cloak for greed, as God is witness; 6 nor did we seek glory from men, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. 7 But we were gentle among you, like a nurse taking care of her children. …
11 for you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you 12 to lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
Paul compares himself to a father of the Thessalonians. Didn’t Jesus say to “call no man Father”? But when Paul declares himself a father to the Thessalonians wouldn’t it be natural for the Thessalonians to subsequently call Paul “Father”? This passage helps show that when Jesus says “call no man father” he was not putting a blanket prohibition on the use of the word. In fact, Jesus was saying the Apostles should not raise themselves up and seek praise like the Pharisees did. Notice the verses preceding Paul’s use of the term “father”. Isn’t that exactly what Paul is saying here? That he did not seek glory among the Thessalonians. Compare the above passage w/ Matthew 23: 1-11 (which I have included for reference below).
13* And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. 14* For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus which are in Judea; for you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, …
Paul’s statement seems very natural and if don’t focus on the parts we could miss the implications. First, notice that is says the Thessalonians received the word of God which they “accepted”. Accepting is an act, it implies free will. The word of God comes to people and some people accept it and some people don’t.
Next, notice that after accepting the word of God it is AT WORK in the believers. Thus we can see that is one sense conversion (or salvation / justification) is a past completed act. At one moment you were an unsaved pagan and in the next you are a Christian. But in another sense Paul is saying that salvation (or sanctification) is also a process that works to change the believer over time. Both are true.
Next, notice that the Thessalonians “became imitators of the churches of God”. Imitators imply actions / works. It means they live their lives differently. But how does one become the “imitators of the churches…”? This implies that while on a personal level we of course should imitate the Lord and the Saints (indeed elsewhere Paul will say “become imitators of me even as I am an imitator of Christ), it also suggest that as a group we should imitate other holy churches. Paul is telling the Thessalonians that as a group they should imitate the structure and work of other churches. This is similar to what he said in yesterday’s reading.
Finally, notice that this process of sanctification and imitation is linked to suffering because the beliefs of the Thessalonians have separated them out of the old world and opens them to persecution by the Jews and the pagans just like Paul and the previous converts.
Paul continues and says
19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 For you are our glory and joy.
So the good Thessalonians, they will be what Paul can be proud of at the second coming of Jesus. This work that Paul has done will in some way survive into the next world. Certainly, no one would argue that the Thessalonians weren’t converted by the Holy Spirit (Paul says as much). But Paul cooperates with the Holy Spirit, he is His instrument. Paul’s cooperation genuinely adds to the work of the Holy Spirit such that Paul will be able to “boast” of it to the Lord. Here boast does not mean that Paul will merit salvation but does mean that Paul can be properly proud of the Thessalonians.
It is like a mother baking a cake. She has all the ingredients, utensils and skill she needs to bake the cake. She is completely sufficient and capable of baking the cake on her own. But her young child comes to her and asks to help. The mother lets the child add the eggs and stir the batter. The mother’s capability to bake the cake on her own is not diminished and yet the child has genuinely added to the cake. In the process of doing so the child has become more like the mother. Afterwards, the mother tells all the guests that the child “helped” bake the cake. This is the same as our relationship to Father, through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are being allowed to participate in the divine life so that gradually we are transformed into beings worthy of full participation in the divine.
For Reference – Matthew: Chapter 23
1 Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. 4* They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, * and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger. 5* They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, 6* and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men. 8* But you [the Apostles] are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. 9 And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. 11* He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; 12* whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.