June 17: 1 Thessalonians 1:5-6; 4:8, etc

1 Thessalonians 1:5-6; 4:8, etc

By all accounts, 1 and 2 Thessalonians are the earliest of Paul’s surviving letters (though some commentators would question his authorship of 2 Thessalonians), probably written sometime around 49-50 A.D. It is thus appropriate to begin an examination of Paul’s references to the Spirit in his letters at this point. For those interested in a comparative study with the Pauline speeches and statements in the book of Acts, it is to be noted that references to the Spirit are extremely rare in those contexts. The Spirit is more frequent as a subject in the speeches in the first half of the book, whereas the references in the second half (dominated by narratives of Paul’s mission journeys) tend to focus on the Spirit’s role in guiding the missionaries. Indeed, there are just three passages in Acts where Paul speaks of the (Holy) Spirit. In the last of these, at the close of the book (28:25), Paul is simply affirming the traditional view of the inspiration of the (Prophetic) Scriptures, though, by implication, a parallel would be drawn between the Prophets of old and Christian missionaries (apostles) as Spirit-inspired spokespersons for God.

The two remaining references in Acts are more substantial:

    • 19:2-7—The encounter with some believers who had only experienced water-baptism by John the Baptist; Paul makes clear to them that true baptism, in the Christian sense, also involves being “baptized” by the Spirit (i.e. receiving the Spirit). For more on the close association between baptism and the Spirit in the book of Acts, cf. the prior note.
    • In his “farewell” speech to the elders of the Ephesian congregation(s) (chap. 20), Paul reaffirms the guiding role of the Spirit (vv. 22-23, cf. above) in his missionary travels. However, in passing, he also states that it was the Holy Spirit who “set” those elders as overseers of the congregation(s) (v. 28). Most likely this means that the selection and installation of persons in these roles was made through Spirit-inspired (i.e. prophetic) guidance among the believers as a whole. Occasionally, we find similar indications of this dynamic at work in the life of the early congregations (13:2; 15:28; 21:4).

When we turn to the Thessalonian letters, these aspects of the Spirit’s role, evident in the book of Acts, can also be found. In the introduction (exordium) and thanksgiving of 1 Thessalonians, Paul expresses, together, two sides of the Spirit’s presence and activity in the early Christian mission (cf. Acts 1:7-8, etc):

    • The proclamation by the Spirit-inspired minister (i.e. prophet):
      “…our good message did not come unto in a (spoken) account only, but in power and in (the) holy Spirit [e)n pneu/mati a(gi/w|]…” (v. 5)
    • The reception by the (new) believers, who also receive the Spirit:
      “and you came to be imitators of us, and of the Lord, having received the account, in much distress, (but also) with delight of (the) holy Spirit…” (v. 6)

The remaining references in 1 and 2 Thessalonians have a rather different emphasis, and one that is not so much to be found in the book of Acts, though it clearly relates to the earliest Christian understanding of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s emphasis is on what we would call sanctification—that is, of believers being made holy (a%gio$). This draws upon the Old Testament line of tradition that associates God’s (holy) Spirit with the cleansing of His people.

The use of water-imagery to express the idea of cleansing obviously relates to the practice of baptism, going back to John’s ministry. Early Christians largely followed the same water-ritual, both in terms of form and essential symbolism, but giving unique emphasis to the role of the Spirit. The Qumran Community, in its own way, did the same thing, using the symbolism of a water-ritual (for entrants into the Community, along with subsequent ablutions) to express the idea of a special holiness, established and maintained by God’s own holy Spirit (cf. my earlier article on the subject). Through the work of God’s Spirit, the individual’s spirit is made completely pure and holy, allowing him to join as part of the “Community of holiness”.

Paul expresses much the same idea in 1 Thess 4:1-8, in which he exhorts believers to live in a holy and upright manner that reflects the holy Spirit of God, given to them at baptism. Though baptism is not specifically mentioned here, there is every reason to think that the sort of ethical instruction Paul gives here reflects, at least in part, the instruction given to believers at the time of their baptism (a point to be discussed further in upcoming notes). The wording in verses 7-8 is clear enough:

“For God did not call us upon uncleanness, but in holiness [a(giasmo/$]. For this (reason) then, the (one) setting (it) aside, does not set aside (the will of a) man, but God, the (One) giving His holy Spirit unto us.”

To act in an immoral manner essentially means to “set aside” (vb a)qete/w) the holiness given to believers by God, through His own Holy Spirit. Since this holiness comes through the presence of the Spirit in and among believers, to set aside the holiness is to set aside God’s own Spirit, which means setting aside God Himself. The same message of holiness and sanctification is given at the close of the letter (5:23-24), only this time in terms of an eschatological promise:

“And may the God of peace keep you complete(ly) holy to the end, and whole (in every) part—spirit and soul and body—(and) without fault may he keep you, in our Lord’s (com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a] (us). Trust(worthy is) the (One) calling you, the (One) who also will do (this).”

The Greek syntax is a bit difficult to translate, with the main verbs (in v. 23) being in the optative mood, expressing a wish or desire. The principal phrase is a(gia/sai u(ma/$ o(lotelei=$—three concise words, which cannot be translated so simply. The optative form of the verb a(gia/zw (“make holy”), which would normally mean “may He make (you) holy”, is better understood in this context as “keep holy”. The adjective o(lotelh/$ has the basic meaning “completely whole”; a relatively simple translation of the phrase might then be “may He keep you holy (and) completely whole”. However, the eschatological context suggests that there is an allusion to te/lo$ as the “completion” of the Age. In other words, Paul’s wish is that God would keep the believers completely holy to the end—that is, until the return of Jesus (cf. 4:13-5:11), expected to occur very soon.

The earlier reference to the Spirit in verse 19—the exhortation “you must not extinguish the Spirit” (to\ pneu=ma mh\ sbe/nnute)—presumably reflects the same sort of general ethical-religious instruction found in 4:1-8 (cf. above). Probably there is the added dimension of preserving the inspired character of the Community, involving all aspects of the work and activity of the Spirit. This would explain the command that immediately follows in verse 20: “you must not make prophecies out as nothing”. The implication is that the Spirit-inspired teaching and instruction within the Community (i.e. “prophecy”) should not be ignored or devalued. By contrast, all things in the Community (including “prophecy”) must be given a thorough and fair consideration (vb dokima/zw), holding firm to those things which pass the test (v. 21).

Finally, we should mention Paul’s words in 2 Thessalonians 2:13, which, in some ways, summarize all of the earlier references to the Spirit we have looked at here. It parallels most closely the prayer in 1 Thess 5:23, and the corresponding eschatological context of 2 Thessalonians is clear enough and hardly requires comment. Here the eschatological promise blends together with a fervent exhortation to believers, in a manner that is typical of early Christian writing:

“But we owe (it) to give (thanks) to God (for His) good favor, always about you, (as) brothers having been loved under [i.e. by] the Lord, (in) that God took you (for) himself, (as fruit) from the beginning (of the harvest), unto salvation, in holiness of (the) Spirit and trust of [i.e. in] (the) truth”

The expression e)n a(giasmw| pneu/mato$ could also mean “in holiness of spirit”, which would be just as valid in context; however, the adjoining expression “trust of (the) truth” suggests a parallel Truth of God / Spirit of God.

In these Thessalonian passages we are offered a glimpse of the way that the early Christian understanding of the Spirit was being further developed through Paul’s unique (and specially inspired) manner of expression. In his subsequent letters, as we shall see, the role of the Spirit was given a profound new theological (and Christological) dimension as well. This will be discussed over the next few daily notes.


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