1 & 2 Thessalonians Part Two Deep Dive
THE DEEP DIVE INTO THESSALONIANS CONTINUES | DR ADAM WHITE
A few years ago, my young cousin was kidnapped for several days and eventually murdered by drug dealers with whom he had fallen in. It was a very dark time for our family, made worse by the fact that my own dad had been killed in a plane crash only two weeks prior. In those sorts of times, you really reflect on what could have been, should have been, and all the rest. But one of the prominent feelings is regret. Regret for all the things you never said, you never did; that if you only had the time back you would do it all very differently. For the parents of my cousin, they still, to this day, have one all-consuming thought: we should have been there for him.
A few days prior to his disappearance, they had told him to leave home. His drug habit had become quite bad and he was becoming dangerous to his two younger brothers. The family was threatened whilst ever he was living at home, so the hardest decision was made: he had to go. That was the last time they saw him. I won’t detail the nature of the murder, but if you were watching the news at the time, it was a nightly feature for several weeks. It is an event that still haunts my cousins for the simple fact that they weren’t there to protect him. There is no doubt they made the right decision to ask him to leave, but they never could have dreamt what would happen next. So, to this day, they live with the regret that they weren’t there to protect their son in the worst possible experience. I know this is a terribly dreary way to begin a discussion, but I share the story as I think it gives a glimmer of insight into Paul’s own emotional experience after he left Thessalonica.
I said last time that the local Jewish community banded together and attempted to have Paul (ideally) executed for treason. In the end, they got the next best thing: he and Silas were forced to leave Thessalonica. Being driven out of a place was a familiar experience for Paul in his ministry (2 Cor 11:26, 32–33), but this was different. Paul had only been in the city for a few months, meaning that the new Christian community was very young and had no real solid foundation in the faith. Worse still, the same Jews who had persecuted Paul would now turn on the Christians — and Paul was not there to protect them.
In the previous Deep Dive, I also mentioned that in any ancient community, a person who was deemed a threat to the community stability was promptly removed, usually through exile, but sometimes through death. This was the fate for many early Christians in their communities. For the Gentile converts, to proclaim that Jesus was the one true God was, at the same time, to reject the gods of the family and the community. This meant that when a disaster happened as a result of the gods being angry, the blame was laid on the Christians. It was a similar story for the Jews. For a Jew to become a follower of the Way was an act of blasphemy. For such a crime against the community, the only recourse was excommunication from the synagogue and even their family (see e.g. John 9:22). This was effectively a death sentence, since the community and the family were the only source of one’s livelihood. Offenders were dealt with harshly, which is exactly what we find in Thessalonica.
After Paul and Silas left the city, they went to a nearby place named Berea (Acts 17:13–15). Here, Paul received a much warmer welcome and was able to preach in relative freedom to a receptive audience. That is, until the Jews from Thessalonica arrived and continued the persecution. They decided it was the safest course for Paul to go to Athens, a much larger city with (we assume) a less hostile Jewish community. In the meantime, Silas and Timothy would wrap up affairs in Macedonia and then join him. Paul stayed in Athens for a short time and then moved on to Corinth, where he eventually stayed and began another Christian community.
Now, I don’t know what was going through Paul’s mind during all this, but I have to assume he was not in a good headspace. As was becoming par for the course, Paul received a hostile welcome from the Jewish community in Corinth, which caused him to change his whole ministry approach. Rather than use the synagogue, he would use local houses instead (see my last blog for how this went). Eventually, however, Timothy and Silas found him in Corinth (Acts 18:5) with some good news from Macedonia. Despite the persecution they faced on a daily basis, the young Thessalonian community was standing strong in the faith. Needless to say, Paul was overjoyed — I’ll let you read it for yourself in 1 Thessalonians 1–3. What is left to say other than, ‘Remember how we lived amongst you, follow our example, and keep going!’ There is a lot of relief in Paul’s first three chapters, for obvious reasons.
But — and there’s always a ‘but’ — this was a very young group of believers who had not been established in the Word. You can easily imagine then that there were some issues to clear up. This will be the topic for our next discussion.