For the remainder of 2022, the Monday Notes on Prayer studies will focus on references to prayer in the letters of Paul. I have decided to treat these reference in something like a chronological order, based on when the letters were likely (or plausibly) written. Most scholars would place 1 and 2 Thessalonians as the earliest of Paul’s letters that have come down to us. It should be noted, however, that a fair number of critical commentators regard 2 Thessalonians as pseudonymous, and as such, it would probably have to be dated somewhat later than other genuine Pauline letters. I do not personally find such claims for 2 Thessalonians to be very convincing, and, for the purpose of these studies, I will be including it among the authentic letters.
Assuming that 2 Thessalonians was actually written by Paul, the two letters were likely written at around the same time. Most commentators would hold that 1 Thessalonians came first, but a reasonably strong argument can be made that 2 Thessalonians is the earlier letter (cf. Wanamaker, pp. 37-44ff). Without making any determination regarding the sequence, I will begin our studies here with the references in 1 Thessalonians.
1 Thessalonians 1:2; 3:9-10; 5:17, 25
“We give (thanks) to God for (His) good favor, always, over you all, making mention (of it) upon [i.e. at/during] our speaking out to (God), without leaving off…”
This initial reference demonstrates a number of aspects of prayer as it was viewed (and practiced) by Paul, and, we may assume, his fellow missionaries. Indeed, the importance of prayer for the early mission-work is brought into focus here rather clearly. Two specific aspects of prayer are highlighted in verse 2:
- That prayer involves giving thanks to God, and
- That prayer is to be a continual act (and process) in the life of believers—and no less so for those appointed/called as ministers.
The verb eu)xariste/w is commonly used for expressing the idea of giving thanks (to God). It occurs rather frequently in the Pauline letters (24 of the 38 NT occurrences), concentrated in the openings and closings of the letters. Implicit in the religious (and Christian) use of the verb is the idea that we, as believers, are giving thanks to God specifically for the good (eu)) favor (xa/ri$) that He has shown to us. The noun xa/ri$ is commonly translated “grace”, and, even though it more properly denotes “favor”, it can be understood here (as throughout Paul’s letters) in the specific theological sense of the salvation brought about (by God) through the person and work of Christ.
Thus, when Paul says that he gives thanks to God “over you all”, he means this in the full context of his missionary work among the Thessalonians, proclaiming the Gospel to them—with the conversions to faith that result from it—and the founding of seminal Christian communities in their cities, etc. The fruit of this mission-work is indicated in verse 3, emphasizing the Thessalonians’ trust (pi/sti$) in the Gospel message, but also the transformative character of their lives and hearts that was produced by such trust:
“…remembering your work of trust, and (also) the labor of love, and remaining under [i.e. waiting with patience/obedience] for the hope of our Lord Yeshua…”
Their lives are characterized by faith and love, and also a commitment to remaining faithful (lit. “remaining under”, u(pomonh/) until the return of Jesus (“the hope of our Lord”). Paul mentions (“making mention [mnei/a]”) all of this specifically, bringing it to mind (related vb mnhmoneu/w) in his thanksgiving to God during his prayers. The implication is that Paul, in his thanksgiving, focuses on what God has done for others, rather than for himself.
The second aspect of prayer illustrated here is that it occurs, and should occur, continually. This is indicated by the use of the adverb pa/ntote (“every [time] when, [at] all time[s],” i.e., “always”). While this could be related to his giving thanks for the Thessalonians—that is, he always makes mention of them when he prays—it also alludes to the frequency and regularity of Paul’s praying. The subsequent adverb at the end of v. 2 brings this out more clearly: a)dialei/ptw$, “without leaving off”, or “without leaving (anything) out”. The prefixed a)– is privative (“without”), while the root verb dialei/pw refers to leaving a gap or interval within something.
At the close of the letter (5:17f), Paul makes clear that, in his mind, a life that essentially involves continual prayer is vital and important for every believer. It is significant that he uses the same wording (for the Thessalonian believers) as he does for himself here in 1:2:
“speak out to (God) [i.e., pray, vb proseu/xomai] without leaving off [a)dialei/ptw$], in all (thing)s [e)n panti/] give (thanks to God) for (His) good favor [vb eu)xariste/w]…”
Between the beginning and end of the letter, the situation has been reversed—Paul begins with his prayers for the Thessalonians, and concludes with his expectation that the Thessalonians will similarly pray for him:
“Brothers, speak out to (God) [i.e. pray] [also] over us” (5:25)
The importance of prayer is indicated as much by its position at the close of the letter as by its reference at the very beginning. References to prayer frame 2 Thessalonians in a similar way (1:11; 3:1), which we will discuss in the next study. However, before concluding here, I would like to highlight one further key reference to prayer in 1 Thessalonians, occurring at the end of the first main section of the letter (the narratio, 2:1-3:10).
This narration portion, dealing with Paul’s relationship to the newly formed Thessalonian congregations—an autobiographical and historical survey of Paul’s mission-work among them up to that point—takes up a significant portion of the letter, primarily because he is not seeking to persuade the Thessalonians on major issues where a decision (or change of behavior) needs to be made. Rather, he is inclined, on the whole, to praise their exemplary behavior, and to exhort them to continue in that path.
Indeed, while certain issues are addressed in chapters 4 and 5, they do not involve points of divisive controversy such as we see in Galatians, 1-2 Corinthians, and Romans. Rather, the exhortation tends to be more general in orientation, focused on the continued faithfulness of the Thessalonians, and what that means for the ministry of Paul and his fellow missionaries. He emphasizes how he is comforted, even during the moments of distress and suffering he might face, by the Thessalonians’ faith (“through your trust”, 3:7), stating even more dramatically:
“…(it is) that now we live, if you stand (firm) in (the) Lord” (3:8)
In 3:9-10, the focus on prayer shifts to the actual mission-work itself, and on Paul’s wish to return to the Thessalonian congregations and to be reunited with them:
“For what thanks to God are we able to give back in exchange over you, upon [i.e. for] all the joy with which we rejoice through [i.e. because of] you in front of our God, night and day, requests being made overabundantly th(at we might be able) to see your face…?”
These focus of these verses will be discussed further in the next study, along with a brief examination of the references to prayer in 2 Thessalonians (cf. above).
References above marked “Wanamaker” are to Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians, The New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC] (Eerdmans / Paternoster Press: 1990).