Lenten Reading Challenge: 1 Thessalonians 1 to 5 (whole letter)
• When and Where
Marcus Borg writes: “The first document in this chronological reading of the New Testament is Paul’s letter to a Christ-community in Thessalonica, the capital city of Macedonia, a province of northern Greece. It was written around the year 50, possibly a year or two earlier.”
According to Acts, Paul had visited this city after a vision of “a man of Macedonia” urged his visit (16:9). Paul stopped at Philippi (which we’ll read about later) and then Thessalonica. According to Acts, Paul made many converts here, and some weeks later, riots broke out. Paul left and went south to Athens and Corinth. He soon sent Timothy back to find out how the community was doing. Consider that Timothy’s trip likely took about a week each way by boat, 2 or 3 times that by foot, the distance being some 300 miles.
• Key Insights
This letter is Paul’s response to the news Timothy returned with. He is overflowing with thanksgiving at their faithfulness in the face of difficulty. Note the family images (and that the original Greek is appropriately read brothers and sisters, siblings). This new family of Christianity is inclusive, mutually supportive. Paul speaks to this new family of faith, hope and love.
We also see early Christians, including Paul, expected Jesus to return in their lifetimes, but Paul here is not focused so much on the details of that return as the transformation they are already undergoing. He seeks to convey an assurance that God will find this community blameless and that those who have already passed are still included.
• Big Picture
This letter invites us to consider how we read scripture. In recent times, some have seen it as a puzzle to solve, so as to predict the future. United Methodists take scripture seriously, not merely literally, nor as a puzzle to be solved. Reading scripture is about relationship and our own encounter with the divine. We can recognize that Paul was incorrect about his timeline while claiming the hope and assurance he speaks with. We can hold that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…” (2nd Timothy 3:16) while recognizing the limitations of its inspired human authors.
Remember the suggestion of a notebook where you can jot down “Things I notice” and “Questions I have.” I’m confident you’ll start seeing all sorts of interesting connections.
Blessings on your reading. Let the journey begin!