Script for Amateur Exegesis – Season 2, Episode 10: “Closing the Letter”

INTRODUCTION

“Sincerely.” “Love.” Yours truly.” These are some of the ways in which we close letters and emails today. Often as we come to the end of a letter, we offer pleasantries and summarize the main point of our missive. During my evangelical days, I would sign letters with phrases like “in Christ” or “with you for the gospel” along with my name and what was my favorite passage from the Bible – Proverbs 3:5, 6. It was my way of trying to saturate what I had written with the good news of Jesus Christ and to point my addressee to God. 

In episode two, we looked at the anatomy of ancient letters. One of the three major sections of a letter is the letter closing which Jeffrey Weima referred to as “the ‘Rodney Daingerfield’ section” since it quite often “doesn’t get any respect.”[1] Today we will briefly consider the letter closing and what leads up to in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28. 

Welcome to the final episode of this season of Amateur Exegesis

1 THESSALONIANS 5:12-28 

Let’s begin with my translation of 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28.

[12] Now, we request of you, brothers and sisters, to recognize[2] those who labor among you and care for you in the Lord and instruct you, [13] and regard them with great respect in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. [14] Now, we exhort you, brothers and sisters, to instruct the undisciplined, encourage the faint of heart, help the weak, be patient with all. [15] See to it that no one renders to anyone evil for evil, but instead always pursue the good for one another and for all. 

[16] Always rejoice, [17] unceasingly pray, [18] in everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. [19] The spirit do not extinguish, [20] prophecies do not despise, [21] but everything evaluate: to the good hold fast, [22] from all instances of worthlessness keep away. 

[23] Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly, and may your entire spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

[24] The one who is faithful to you, he also will perform it.

[25] Brothers and sisters, pray for us.

[26] Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss.

[27] I urge you in the Lord to read this epistle to all the brothers and sisters.

[28] The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

Recognize Those Who Labor and Be Patient with All (5:12-15)

In modern churches, you’ll find an array of titles for leadership. In the Baptist church in which I grew up, we had the pastor, an assistant pastor, and numerous deacons. In Presbyterianism, you’ve got the lead elder, sometimes referred to as the pastor or teaching elder,” and various other elders that make up what’s called “the Session,” in addition to deacons. Christian communities have always had leadership. But have they always had titles? On the evidence of 1 Thessalonians, it would seem not. Nowhere in the letter do we read of “elders” or “deacons.” 

That there were leaders in Paul’s churches should almost go without saying. In the apostle’s absence, someone had to lead. But who? In other epistles, Paul mentions various leaders that make up his communities. For example, to the church in Corinth he wrote, 

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. (1 Corinthians 12:27-31, NRSV)

What is noteworthy here is that while there is some degree of formalization implied in this list of roles, it is God who does the appointing, not people. Moreover, as Wayne Meeks writes, these roles are conceived of as gifts from God.[3]“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good,” Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 12:7. 

Yet this is a far cry from the more formal hierarchy of leadership roles found in Christian churches of the late first and early second centuries CE. For example, in his letter to the church at Ephesus, Ignatius mentions Onesimus, describing him as “a man of inexpressible love who is also your earthly bishop” (Ephesians 1:3).[4] Similarly, in Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians, there is great concern for the qualifications of presbyters (Philippians 6.1). But Paul, writing in the 50s and 60s CE, isn’t worried at all about these things? Instead, he is content to allow leadership to be more organic and less structured. “Paul saw the life of new congregations as led by the Spirit,” Eugene Boring writes, “given to each member and active in the congregation as a whole.”[5] And while Paul isn’t exactly the paragon of gender equality, it is possible that within Pauline communities that women had prominent roles in leadership. Given the prominence of Thessalonica generally and references to women in Paul’s other letters, Florence Gillman suggests that there is the possibility that “some elite women were among the group’s leaders.”[6]

The leadership in Thessalonica, not characterized by titles, is instead described by what they do: they are “those who labor among [them] and care for [them] in the Lord and instruct [them].” These three actions are in the underlying Greek text a series of participles and there is some debate as to how they relate to one another. One option is that they are simply three different actions; another is that the second and third participles further qualify the first.[7] Whatever the case may be, we should not read this as three separate groups of leaders, some who labor, others who care, and still others who instruct. The leadership in Thessalonica does all three. 

It is these leaders that the Thessalonians are “to recognize,” or more literally, “to know” since the underlying Greek infinitive is from oida: “I know.” In a large congregation, such instructions would make sense: Paul would be saying, “Get acquainted with those who labor among you.” But the Thessalonica congregation was not large. How big was it? It is impossible know for certain, but it was no megachurch. By the 60s CE, there were hundreds of Jewish and gentile Jesus followers throughout the world.[8] But this was after a considerable amount of time had passed between the death of Jesus in the 30s and the era of Paul. And given that Paul is writing to the Thessalonians within months of the founding of the community,[9] there was likely not many converts to speak of. So, when Paul exhorts the Thessalonians “to know” their leaders, he doesn’t mean, “Get acquainted,” but rather, “Recognize them.” And how are they to do this? Per v. 13, they are to “regard them with great respect in love because of their work.” The goal is “peace among” the members of the community. 

In v. 14, Paul turns his attention away from leadership and on to those within the community that need some kind of assistance: “instruct the undisciplined, encourage the faint of heart, help the weak, be patient with all,” he tells them. By “undisciplined,” Paul may be referring to those within the community who, in the words of F.F. Bruce, are “playing truant” – they “neglect their daily duty and live in idleness, at the expense of others.”[10] While this is certainly possible, Abraham Malherbe notes that the apostle would have had at his disposal other words to describe idlers: instead of using ataktōs (“undisciplined”) he could have used argoi, (“those who do not work”) or aproktoi (“those who do nothing”). But the apostle does not use these terms because, Malherbe observes, ataktōs was a matter of the will and therefore by his use of the term Paul “alludes to the character trait that was responsible for their social conduct.”[11] In other words, it is not merely the unwillingness to work but an entire disposition to which Paul offers strong exhortation. This group in the Thessalonian community was unwilling to submit to the social norms that Paul had laid down for his ex-pagan churches and so he urges the entire congregation to take action. His warning was “one against ‘breaking faith with God’ and violating the state of peace which should exist between brothers and sisters and even toward those outside,” Earl Richard writes.[12]

The next group Paul addresses are the “faint of heart” which the community is exhorted to “encourage.” Paul doesn’t explain why there are those among them that are faint hearted, but it would be no difficult matter to speculate. In the previous episode we looked at 4:13-18 and saw that there were those in the Thessalonian church who were grieving over loved ones that they had recently lost. Additionally, since this community of faith would have faced socio-religious ostracism, this too could explain why some in the congregation were faint-hearted.[13] Whatever the cause, the solution is clear: encouragement from their family in Christ. 

The third and final group the apostle addresses is “the weak” which the Thessalonians are to “help.” But what kind of weakness is in view? It could certainly refer to physical weakness.[14] Malherbe thinks that Paul has in mind weakness of a religious, moral, and intellectual nature.[15] Again, given what Paul has said prior in this letter, it would not be unexpected that some in the community would begin to buckle under the weight of the “distresses” they faced. He doesn’t want to simply abandon them to the wolves, so to speak, but rather he urges the community to rally around them and offer aid. They are a family after all, and it is to all they are to exercise patience. 

In v. 15, Paul rejects the eye-for-an-eye principle of justice that was so common in antiquity and even today. “Whether human or rat or chimpanzee, when we suffer harm we feel a powerful desire to strike back,” writes philosopher Bruce Waller.[16] This desire, Waller goes on to note, doesn’t necessarily mean we strike back at the one who wronged us but virtually anyone will do. Violence begets violence, as it were, and given the Thessalonians’ social situation, the risk of damage to the community itself would only increase if Paul’s policy was one of revenge. “The whole community is summoned to guard against…individualistic quid pro quo behavior that disrupts community and forces people to take sides,” Eugene Boring notes.[17] The apostle rejects such an attitude in favor of something closer to the Golden Rule: “always pursue the good for one another and for all.” 

Rejoice, Pray, and Give Thanks (5:16-18)

In vv. 16-18, Paul issues three imperatives: “rejoice,” “pray,” and “give thanks.” These three separate imperatives are no doubt connected. The idea of rejoicing is nothing new: in 1:6 Paul reminded his readers that they had “received the word in great distress with joy from the holy spirit.” Joy, then, was foundational to the Thessalonians’ conversion from idolatry to the worship of the god of Israel. Here the verb “rejoice” is coupled with the word “always” or “at all times.” The Thessalonians, then, “are exhorted to have joy…as their demeanor and normal attitude,” Earl Richard suggests.[18] The command to “unceasingly pray” recalls Paul’s mention of prayer in 1:2 in which he mentioned them “unceasingly in [his] prayers.” Finally, telling them to “in everything give thanks” reminds the readers again of 1:2 where he tells the Thessalonians, “We give thanks to God always for all of you.” Thus, in many respects the closing of the letter is a reflection of the beginning. More specifically, Paul set the example in the letter’s proem and now essentially commands them to follow that example. 

But that isn’t all. Eugene Boring writes, 

To a congregation grieving over the deaths of some of its members and coming to terms with internal tensions, the call for constant joy, prayer, and thanksgiving regardless of the situation is in sharp contrast to the philosophical ataraxia (ataraxy), the cool resignation with which the Stoic instructed people to respond to tragedy.[19]

Just as they were to “not grieve as the rest who do not have hope” (4:13), so too they are to rejoice, pray, and give thanks even when things appeared to be at their worst. This is part of the preparation for the day of the Lord, the day upon which they would “obtain salvation through [their] Lord Jesus Christ” (5:9). Attached to the final imperative are the words “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” The apostle has rooted rejoicing, prayer, and thanksgiving in God’s will for the community’s life.[20]

The Spirit of Prophecy (5:19-22) 

Beginning with v. 19, Paul begins final instructions to the Thessalonians which specifically target prophetic speech in the community. In the last episode, in discussing the phrase “by word of the Lord” in 4:15, I mentioned the distinct possibility that this “word” is prophetic speech appropriated by Paul for use in his epistle. That prophesying was part of the Thessalonian community’s religious life is all but certain. “The Thessalonians were familiar with spiritual phenomena prior to their conversion,” writes Eugene Boring. “Glossolalia, oracles, and prophecies were well known in Greco-Roman religion.”[21] Here the focus is on prophetic speech as Paul uses parallelism to communicate its importance in the community: “The spirit do not extinguish, prophecies do not despise.” 

The spirit in this context is undoubtedly God’s spirit. Earlier in the letter, the apostle reminded the Thessalonians that it was “with joy from the holy spirit” that they had “received the word in great distress” (1:6). The spirit of God, then, served an important function in Pauline communities. The connection between God’s spirit and prophetic speech suggests that Paul believed that upon conversion the Thessalonians were given a portion of the spirit, enabling them to do the work of ministry including prophesying. Paula Fredriksen notes that had Paul witnessed this himself it would have convinced him that his beliefs were true: the End was right around the corner and the mission to the gentiles must continue. Consequently, he travelled to other cities in and around the Mediterranean to do what he had done in Thessalonica. “Through the god-congested cities of Roman antiquity, these assemblies of Christ were establishing beachheads of the Kingdom,” Fredriksen writes.[22]

Paul’s prohibition against extinguishing the spirit/despising prophecies comes with a command: “everything evaluate.” That is, evaluate all prophetic speech. To that which is “good,” they are to “hold fast”; from that which is “worthless,” they are to “keep away.” Boring lists a number of criteria used in both Israel’s history and the early church to determine the value of prophetic speech.[23] Was the prophetic speech validated by way of accompanying miracles? Was it accurate? Was it only good news? Was it from a trusted messenger? And so on. The central concern for Paul was its use in the community: if it builds it up then keep it; if it doesn’t then discard it.[24]

The Letter Closing (5:23-28) 

With v. 23, we come to the letter’s closing that includes a prayer in vv. 23-24, a request in v. 25, a greeting in v. 26, a command to read the letter before the entire congregation in v. 27, and a benediction in v. 28.[25] Some of these elements might seem strange to modern readers. For example, in v. 26 Paul writes, “Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss.” In the United States, this would seem bizarre, even if we weren’t in the era of COVID. But for Paul this was not an uncommon method of greeting, especially among family members.[26] And what were the Thessalonians if not a family? Paul has not only referred to them as “brothers and sisters” numerous times in the letter, but he has spoken of himself as a nursing mother and exhorting father. This “kiss” is the marker of inclusion, a visual and tactile reminder that this is an eschatological family. 

The letter’s closing also picks up on important themes found elsewhere in the letter. In his work Neglected Endings: The Significance of Pauline Letter Closings, Jeffrey Weima notes three links between the letter closing and the rest of the epistle. In v. 23 there is the theme of sanctification, a topic discussed in 4:3-8. Also in v. 23 is the recurring theme of the parousia. Third, there is concern to comfort the Thessalonians in their distresses found in v. 24.[27] Paul is therefore abbreviating all he has said before in this letter which, v. 27 tells us, he wanted to be read to everyone in the community. 

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF 1 THESSALONIANS

With the words “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” in v. 28, Paul’s letter to this Macedonian community comes to an end, and so does this season of Amateur Exegesis. But before we close, let’s reflect on what we’ve talked about in the previous nine episodes. In the first episode, we looked at letter writing in the ancient world. We considered not only how letters got from sender to receiver but also with what materials they were written. In episode two, we examined the prescript of the letter found in the very first verse. We briefly looked at the characters of Silvanus and Timothy and did some background research on Thessalonica. The apostle Paul himself we saved for episode three, thinking through the problems with understanding Paul as well as beginning an overview of Paul in the Acts of the Apostles. Episode four commenced a multi-part look at the proem, beginning with 1:2-10 and digging back into the Acts of the Apostles to look at its version of Paul’s career. In episode five, we turned our attention to 2:1-12 and its portrayal of the initial mission. We also thought through the problems with using the book of Acts in reconstructing Paul’s life and missionary service. When we got to episode six, we faced the problem of a possible interpolation in the letter – 2:13-16. We considered accusations of anti-Semitism as well as the way the Bible has sometimes been used to denigrate others. Episode seven saw the end of the proem in 2:17-3:12. We talked about Paul’s apocalyptic eschatology and the way it shaped how he saw his life’s work. In episode eight we looked at the first major section of the letter body, a discussion by Paul of porneia and his desire for the Thessalonians to live quiet lives devoted to God. In episode nine, we went in some depth on 1 Thessalonians 4:13 – 5:11 with its discussion of the return of Jesus and the day of the Lord. And that brings us to today’s episode with its discussion of the final verses of the letter. 

Why does any of this matter? Why should we care about the letter of 1 Thessalonians? For many people, the answer is that we shouldn’t. I’m an atheist and I know plenty of atheists who see little else in the Bible than something to mock and deride. For them, it seems like a waste of time to carefully parse out the text and read it with an eye to understand it in its own context. So, maybe a better question to ask in light of my own non-religious commitments is this: why do I care? Here are two reasons. 

The first is historical. As I’ve mentioned a few times this season, the consensus among scholars is that this letter from Paul is the earliest extant letter by the apostle in our possession. Consequently, it gives us a glimpse into Paul’s mind at a relatively early stage when compared to the other undisputed letters. In our examination of the letter this season, we saw how affectionately he spoke to his readers, expressing to them how he longed to see them, that he was concerned for their faith, and he was overjoyed at finding out they were okay. The letter of 1 Thessalonians bring some color to someone who is often otherwise viewed in black-and-white. Paul becomes more and more human the more we read him, and, in my opinion, no letter of Paul shows this like 1 Thessalonians does. Though pissed-off-Paul in the letter to the Galatians may give it a run for its money. 

The second reason is personal. Not only do many of the people I care about love the Bible but so do I. Though I no longer see it as an inspired and infallible word from a god, I nevertheless have a deep affection for it. Some it is easily explained: I grew up with it and it has always been a part of my life. Some of that affection isn’t so easily explained. I’ve read many books in my life, so why has the Bible stuck with me more than the rest? When I look at 1 Thessalonians, I feel a connection to it. Its deep-seated and will likely stay with me till the day I die. I’m glad. 

So listener, I hope that this season of the podcast has been enlightening and helpful. Some of the episodes were very long and all of them were longer than anything that appeared in the first season. I can be longwinded or, as my mother puts it, I like to hear myself talk. But I do hope that you found something to think about in these ten episodes. If you have, please leave a review on iTunes or shoot me an email to let me know. 

This is Ben, the Amateur Exegete. Thank you for joining me on this second season of Amateur Exegesis.


[1] Jeffrey A.D. Weima, “Sincerely, Paul: The Significance of the Pauline Letter Closings,” in Paul and the Ancient Letter Form, Stanley E. Porter and Sean A. Adams, editors (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 307. 

[2] The verb Paul uses, here translated as “to recognize,” is eidenai, an infinitival form of oida (“I know”). Literally, Paul is asking the Thessalonians “to know” those among them who labor, care, and instruct. But, as Eugene Boring points out (I & II Thessalonians, The New Testament Library [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015], 187), the Thessalonian congregation was in all likelihood small and so the issue cannot be one of acquaintance. Instead, Paul is asking that they give these leaders the recognition due them for their work of ministry among them. See also Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 310.

[3] Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, second edition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003),135.

[4] Translation taken from The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, third edition, Michael W. Holmes, translator (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007).

[5] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 192.

[6] Florence Gillman, Mary Ann Beavis, and HyeRan Kim-Cragg, 1-2 Thessalonians, Wisdom Commentary (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2016), 93. 

[7] See the discussion in Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 311.

[8] Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018), 289.

[9] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 72. Malherbe argues this on the basis of the timeline of the Acts of the Apostles. While I’ve already noted in previous episodes how problematic Acts is for reconstructing the history of the early Christian movement, I mention Malherbe’s work only to emphasize that there is a way to understand the epistle as being one written not long after the founding mission. Indeed, reading the letter itself, particularly ch. 3, lends itself well to such an understanding.

[10] F.F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville, TN: Word, Inc., 1982), 122.

[11] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 317.

[12] Earl J. Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2007), 277.

[13] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 193.

[14] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 193.

[15] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 318. 

[16] Bruce N. Waller, “Beyond the Retributive System,” in Free Will Skepticism in Law and Society: Challenging Retributive Justice, Elizabeth Shaw, Derk Pereboom, and Gregg D. Caruso, editors (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 73.

[17] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 194.

[18] Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 278. 

[19] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 194; cf. James P. Ware, “What No Other God Could Do: Life and Afterlife Among Paul and the Philosophers,” in Paul and the Giants of Philosophy: Reading the Apostle in Greco-Roman Context, Joseph R. Dodson and David E. Briones, editors (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 132.

[20] Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, 278.

[21] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 195.

[22] Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 165.

[23] Boring, I & II Thessalonians, 198-199.

[24] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 334. 

[25] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 336.

[26] Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 341.

[27] Jeffrey A.D. Weima, Neglected Endings: The Significance of the Pauline Letter Closings (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 176-184.

One Comment on “Script for Amateur Exegesis – Season 2, Episode 10: “Closing the Letter”

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