Leading Question: How can Paul write a personal letter to believers he scarcely knows?
As reported in Acts 17:1-10, Paul had spent only three Sabbaths preaching in the Jewish synagogue when turmoil erupted and the believers sent Paul and Silas to Berea. The Thessalonian correspondence has to be seen against the backdrop of that very brief visit.
1. A prayer of thanks (1 Thess. 1:1-3). In his opening greeting, Paul gives thanks for the Thessalonian believers, commending them for the three traits that come at the end of the celebrated chapter, 1 Corinthians 13: Work produced by faith, labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope. What is significant about the fact that hope, not love, is in the final, and most powerful position in Paul’s prayer. When and why would hope be more important than love?
2. Chosen (1 Thess. 1:4). As Paul continues his prayer, he notes that God has “chosen” them. In other words, he emphasizes divine initiative rather than human choice. John 15:16 is quite emphatic in that respect: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” How can we reconcile those two points? Can we be so strong on one that we lose sight of the other? Why would Paul not even mention human choice here? Does Philippians 2:12-13 give us any help? “Work out your own salvation – because it is God who is at work within you? Note the C. S. Lewis comment on the relationship between the two. Here he uses ancient labels to distinguish the two, Pelagianism (free will) and Augustinianism (divine initiative):
Now I am going to suggest that strictly causal thinking is even more inadequate when applied to the relation between God and man. I don’t mean only when we are thinking of prayer, but whenever we are thinking about what happens at the Frontier, at the mysterious point of junction and separation where absolute being utters derivative being.
One attempt to define causally what happens there has led to the whole puzzle about Grace and free will. You will notice that Scripture just sails over the problem. “Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling” – pure Pelagianism. But why? “For it is God who worketh in you” – pure Augustinianism. It is presumably only our presuppositions that make this appear nonsensical. We profanely assume that divine and human action exclude one another like the actions of two fellow-creatures so that “God did this” and “I did this” cannot both be true of the same act except in the sense that each contributed a share. – C. S. Lewis in Letters to Malcolm, p. 49-50.
3. Assurance in Christ (1 Thess. 1:5). Paul says that he is confident that the one who began this good work in them will carry it on to completion. Do we have the right to express such bold confidence? Or would that be arrogant of us?
4. Imitation theology (1 Thess. 1:6-7). The idea of imitation throbs through these verses. The believers are imitating not just Christ, but Paul. And then they become an example to the believers through Greece. How can one have such a strong emphasis on “imitation” without the risking the potentially dangerous side-effects of arrogance and/or discouragement?
5. Evidences of faith (1 Thess. 1:8-10. Paul’s reference to turning from idols suggests that the congregation is composed largely of new Gentile converts. What has happened to the Jews to whom Paul preached in the synagogue? Have they fallen by the way?
6. Wrath to come. Paul doesn’t define “wrath.” Can we qualify it as “wrath of God”? Can it be depersonalized to some kind of wrath not directly linked with God. The text does not say that it is the wrath “of God?” Is this an important distinction? In Letters to Malcolm, pp. 96-97, C. S. Lewis argues with his correspondent in favor of keeping the personal reference:
I fully grant you that “wrath” can be attributed to God only by an analogy. The situation of the penitent before God isn’t, but is somehow like, that of one appearing before a justly angered sovereign, lover, father, master, or teacher. But what more can we know about it than just this likeness? Trying to get in behind the analogy, you go further and fare worse. You suggest that what is traditionally regarded as our experience of God’s anger would be more helpfully regarded as what inevitably happens to us if we behave inappropriately towards a reality of immense power. As you say, “the live wire doesn’t feel angry with us, but if we blunder against it we get a shock.”
My dear Malcolm, what do you suppose you have gained by substituting the image of a live wire for that of angered majesty? You have shut us all up in despair; for the angry can forgive, and electricity can’t.
And you give as your reason that “even by analogy the sort of pardon which arises because a fit of temper is spent cannot worthily be attributed to God nor gratefully accepted by man.” But the belittling words “fit of temper” are your own choice. Think of the fullest reconciliation between mortals. Is cool disapproval coolly assuaged? Is the culprit let down lightly in view of “extenuating circumstances”? Was peace restored by a moral lecture? Was the offence said not to “matter”? Was it hushed up or passed over? Blake knew better:
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
You too know better. Anger – no peevish fit of temper, but just, generous scalding indignation – passes (not necessarily at once) into embracing, exultant, re-welcoming love. That is how friends and lovers are truly reconciled. Hot wrath, hot love. Such anger is the fluid that love bleeds when you cut it. The angers, not the measured remonstrances, of lovers are love’s renewal. Wrath and pardon are both, as applied to God, analogies; but they belong together to the same circle of analogy – the circle of life, and love, and deeply personal relationships. All the liberalizing and “civilizing” analogies only lead us astray. Turn God’s wrath into mere enlightened disapproval, and you also turn His love into mere humanitarianism. The “consuming fire” and the “perfect beauty” both vanish. We have, instead, a judicious headmistress or a conscientious magistrate. It comes of being high-minded.