This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Bible: On holy ground with the Thessalonians

My friend Robin loves mystery stories, as do I. But when she starts one, she always reads the ending first so she won’t worry about things ending badly. Me, I like the suspense!

Reta Halteman Finger

Our text for Nov. 3 reminds me of Robin. It comes at the end of a tumultuous love story between the Apostle Paul and his converts in Corinth, a major city in Greece (then under Roman domination). We can sketch the outline of this relationship in 1 and 2 Corinthians, though things get blurred in 2 Corinthians. It seems to be a composite of several non-consecutive letters Paul wrote, in between sending his co-workers Timothy and Titus to Corinth at different times to try to calm things down.

Paul arrived in Corinth in 50 CE, planted several mixed Jewish-gentile house churches in 18 months, then left for more mission work in Ephesus and beyond. Fortunately, the Roman Empire’s postal service enabled Paul to keep tabs on his far-flung churches. It has also provided us a written record of early church growth and the Spirit’s fire that led Paul and his companions to evangelize throughout the Mediterranean world.

(Although Bible students thirst to read what the letters’ recipients wrote back to Paul, we at least have the Book of Acts to provide a chronology.)

Both 1 and 2 Corinthians highlight the conflicts troubling these house churches in the city. The structure of Greco-Roman society caused many church fights related to believers pulling rank over those socially beneath them, such as mealtime in 1 Cor. 11:17-34 or spiritual gifts in 1 Cor. 12-14).

Mennonites have also experienced recurring conflicts through four centuries of our existence. Our tendency has been to split along conservative-liberal lines, perhaps exaggerated today by political polarization.

Read 2 Corinthians 13 and practice self-examination. If you’re experiencing conflict in your congregation, conference or denomination, I recommend delving into the entire Corinthian correspondence for consolation and wisdom. You’re not alone!

Whoever chose the texts for these consecutive weeks either had no sense of chronology or a keen sense of irony. Not only does 1 Thessalonians precede 1 and 2 Corinthians in time, but we move from the conclusion of the later letter to the opening of the earlier letter! To add to this upside-down story, Paul, Silas and Timothy are writing  to the Thessalonians while church-planting in Corinth.

Watching Sesame Street with my sons in the 1970s, I saw Grover, the philosophical blue muppet, dancing around the stage announcing that “a story has a beginning, a middle and an end” — and you need all three in the right order, or it’s not a story. (Sorry, Grover. These texts were not chosen to weave a narrative but to show how “faith leads to holy living.” Or it should.)

Here we are among the Thessalonians — standing on holy ground. Did you know that our text — 1 Thess. 1:2-10 — is the opening of the earliest written record we have about Jesus? As far as we know, there was nothing until 20 years after his resurrection. Until some archaeologist digs up an earlier papyrus, this is it! Read with reverence.

You will find the background of this story in Acts 17:1-9. After Paul, Silas and Timothy preached in Thessalonica in northern Greece, the Jews rioted because so many gentiles became believers. The missionaries had to flee, and eventually they ended up in Corinth, where they lovingly wrote back to their Thessalonian converts.

In ancient Roman letters, the salutation names the recipients (as in 1 Thess. 1:1), followed by a thanksgiving for them. Paul, Silvanus and Timothy are deeply grateful for these idol-forsaking believers who have become an example to others throughout the Greek provinces of Macedonia and Achaia. Beyond Acts’ abbreviated account, these co-workers must have spent many weeks with the fledgling church in Thessalonica before being forced to leave.

The thanksgiving section also introduces major themes that are picked up in the body of the letter. The dominant note is one of joy. Verse 3 praises the Thessalonians’ “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope.”

Notice how these words look to the past (faith), the present (love) and the future (hope). Each is paired with down-to-earth concepts of work and endurance, and each in turn will be dealt with throughout this letter.

Read through 1 Thessalonians and notice how Paul develops these three themes of faith, love and hope.

Reta Halteman Finger co-wrote, with George McClain, Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation (Herald Press). For personal or group study, it includes an extended role-play of the squabbling Corinthian house churches.

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