What Jesus Christ Meant to Paul and the Thessalonians

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by Neil Godfrey

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One might fault my previous post on the grounds that the problem Paul was addressing among the churches of the Galatians did not require him to address anything apart from the simple fact of the death and resurrection of Jesus. (Well, I at least faulted it for that reason.) This post attempts to demonstrate that the identical concept of Jesus as nothing more than a death and resurrection figure is found in 1 Thessalonians. This is generally considered the earliest or one of the earliest surviving letters of Paul.

Sometimes one hears the argument that Paul had no need to repeat details about Jesus’ teachings and life since he would have already established that when he first taught his converts face to face. This argument defies natural intuition and common experience: what has become established common experience or knowledge between parties is regularly drawn upon in later conversations for all sorts of reasons. The argument also runs up against Paul’s own explicit statements in this letter that he is consciously repeating things he taught them face to face — and one of these is that the command to love one another came from a source other than that of Jesus!

[Don’tcha just love this Noël Coypel painting of god completely starkers having to rise through the air in full public view, suspense killing everyone as the draft keeps the cloth strategically located, — though an angel has to be sent down to make sure the women at least keep looking at his eyes just in case!’  Reminds me of a kitsch cabaret show I once went to in Thailand (don’t ask), except for the angel.]

. . . . in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad; so that we need not to speak any thing. For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come. (1 Thess. 1:9-10)

Here the focus is on the letter recipients (let’s for convenience call them “Christians” though there is no such designation in the letter itself) worshiping God pretty much in the sense we would imagine Jews or God-fearers worshiping God, and Jesus is assigned to a past and future function without any current relationship significance to the Christians.

For yourselves, brethren, know our entrance in unto you, that it was not in vain: But even after that we had suffered before, and were shamefully entreated, as ye know, at Philippi, we were bold in our God to speak unto you the gospel of God with much contention. For our exhortation was not of deceit, nor of uncleanness, nor in guile: But as we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the gospel, even so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts. For neither at any time used we flattering words, as ye know, nor a cloke of covetousness; God is witness: Nor of men sought we glory, neither of you, nor yet of others, when we might have been burdensome, as the apostles of Christ. (1 Thess. 2:1-6)

Here again the entire focus is on God alone. Paul and his “Christian” readers see themselves not “in Christ” but “in God”. The gospel preached is the “gospel of God.” They live to please not “Christ” but “God”. Though they are “apostles of Christ”, their entire focus is on God, not Christ, here.

So being affectionately desirous of you, we were willing to have imparted unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were dear unto us. For ye remember, brethren, our labour and travail: for labouring night and day, because we would not be chargeable unto any of you, we preached unto you the gospel of God. Ye are witnesses, and God also, how holily and justly and unblameably we behaved ourselves among you that believe: As ye know how we exhorted and comforted and charged every one of you, as a father doth his children, That ye would walk worthy of God, who hath called you unto his kingdom and glory.

For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe. (1 Thess. 2:8-13)

Jesus Christ is simply not on the radar screen. They are preaching God’s gospel, and in doing this they are witnessed by God, and they devote their prayers to God, and it is God’s word in them that works fruitful lives. This comports well with what we read in other epistles that say the gospel is what was kept as a mystery for ages past and only revealed in Paul’s own day — usually through the scriptures or the spirit.

I separate verse 13 from the rest because this is very likely part of the interpolation that follows. The interpolator has attempted to blend his forgery into the whole by using the jargon of the original work. (Scholarship’s arguments for verses 13 to 16 being an interpolation have been outlined and discussed in part 2, part 3 and part 4 of a series of earlier posts.)

But we, brethren, being taken from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavoured the more abundantly to see your face with great desire. Wherefore we would have come unto you, even I Paul, once and again; but Satan hindered us. For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming? For ye are our glory and joy. (1 Thess. 2:17-20)

The glory and hope of Paul is not Jesus Christ, but his followers living their lives as God-worshipers and devotees and standing in the presence of Jesus Christ in the future, presumably before God.

[We] sent Timotheus, our brother, and minister of God, and our fellowlabourer in the gospel of Christ, to establish you, and to comfort you concerning your faith . . . . (1 Thess. 3:2)

Finally we hear of something different. The “gospel of Christ”. What is this gospel? The only indications we have had so far of Christ’s function are that he is to come in the future, and that in the past he rose from the dead and by doing so he delivered “Christians” from wrath. So it sounds like he died a vicarious death for them.

For now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord. For what thanks can we render to God again for you, for all the joy wherewith we joy for your sakes before our God; Night and day praying exceedingly that we might see your face, and might perfect that which is lacking in your faith? Now God himself and our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, direct our way unto you. And the Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we do toward you: To the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints. (1 Thess. 3:8-13)

The Lord, from the context here and within the context of the Jewish scriptures of which the author and readers were presumably aware, is God. Again the thought is on God, but this time Jesus Christ does get an accompanying role as one who can participate in God’s guiding Paul’s way. Finally, when the reference is made once again to the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ  (as distinct from “the Lord”) it sounds like an echo from 1 Enoch:

Chapter 1:5-8

All shall be afraid, and the Watchers be terrified.

Great fear and trembling shall seize them, even to the ends of the earth. The lofty mountains shall be troubled, and the exalted hills depressed, melting like a honeycomb in the flame. The earth shall be immerged, and all things which are in it perish; while judgment shall come upon all, even upon all the righteous:

But to them shall he give peace: he shall preserve the elect, and towards them exercise clemency.

Then shall all belong to God; be happy and blessed; and the splendour of the Godhead shall illuminate them.

Chapter 2

Behold, he comes with ten thousands of his saints, to execute judgment upon them, and destroy the wicked, and reprove all the carnal for everything which the sinful and ungodly have done, and committed against him.

If Paul has this passage from Enoch in mind, then it sounds as if he sees the coming of Christ as bringing the splendour of the Godhead with him to give joy to all who have been waiting for that day, such as the Thessalonians to whom Paul is writing.

Furthermore then we beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more. For ye know what commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour; Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God: That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter: because that the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified. For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness. He therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God, who hath also given unto us his holy Spirit.

But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another. (1 Thess. 4:1-9)

Paul exhorts his readers by the one who is to come and with whom they are to stand before God, saved from judgement by the (vicarious?) death of Jesus. But the Lord Jesus does enter more into the vision range now. Commandments have been delivered “by him” through Paul. And the commandments appear to be about sexual self-control. Even abstinence? Holiness seems to be equated with sexual “cleanness”. And the notion of defrauding also seems to be intricately linked to sexual “purity”. It is God, the Lord, who will punish all who are without sexual self-control.

It is noteworthy here, also, that Paul says he has already explained these (ascetic?) commandments to his readers. But he is repeating them for good measure. I am quite sure he did not think that his readers had forgotten them. But this is a classic case of using past shared experiences to cement a closer bond and authority, and to reinforce the message. One might also think that these commandments were the most important things he was teaching them if they deserved repeating here in this way.

Brotherly love is something that has been addressed before and in the context as part of one’s duty to God. Here Paul says he does not need to write about this commandment, because it is something they have been taught by God.

For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. (1 Thess. 4:14-17)

Here Paul offers come comforting words. He encourages Christians not to worry about those who have died believing in Jesus Christ, the one who is said to have died to save them from wrath, and who is to come again.

And once again we have echoes of the passage above from 1 Enoch. It is God himself, just as in the book of Enoch, who will come. He will come with Jesus Christ and with those Christians who had died before that time — the myriads of the saints of 1 Enoch.

What I find particularly interesting here is not only that it is God who comes with Jesus and the saints, but also the condition that will enable the saints to stand in that day, to be Paul’s joy and glory as he said earlier. As in the letter to the Galatians, the Christians will be saved if they believe Jesus died and rose again. Once again we are in the “technical function” that we found was the focus in Galatians. There is no “life”, only a death and resurrection that is past. Anything else is future.

For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness . . . (1 Thess. 5:2-4)

This appears to be taken from the Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah 6 — “Day of the Lord” prophecies, vain promises of peace, travail as a woman giving childbirth, day of darkness, no escape — all the nightmarish images from the major and minor prophets. And of course, in that context, the primary actor is God himself.

For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him. (1 Thess. 5:9-10)

So we return here to the earliest thoughts in this epistle: God is the focus of our lives; there is no distracting life and teaching of Jesus on earth; Jesus is only the means to reconciliation with God because of his (apparently vicarious) death for us.

And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; . . . . . .
In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. . . . . . .
And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . . . .
I charge you by the Lord that this epistle be read unto all the holy brethren. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen. (1 Thess. 5:12-28)

So Paul speaks here of an authoritarian priesthood or ministry or bishopric or whatever it might have been called at this time. This is supposed to be Paul’s earliest surviving epistle long before the Pastoral epistles that are supposed to be from the authoritarian era. But this epistle instructs the plebs to be submissive and accept “admonishment”.

Given what we know of the epistolary genre, we have no way of knowing for certain if this is a genuine letter from a “real Paul” to literal “Thessalonians”. If it is a general catholic epistle in original intent, the instruction here to the ordinary members to be submissive to the “admonitions” of those in authority over them makes a lot of sense.

Back to the focus of this post. The letter concludes with the author’s and readers’ focus on God alone, albeit the Lord Jesus Christ is to be anticipated as being sent by that God in the future. And since it is clear he has died for them, all believers can be hopeful if they believe he died and rose again, and thereby know that they can have grace or mercy when that day of judgment spoken of in the prophets and book of Enoch comes.

So my conclusion is that in two of the purportedly earliest letters written by Paul, Galatians and 1 Thessalonians, Jesus Christ is a strictly “functional entity” that is used by God as a means of saving believers from death at the last day of judgment. There is no interest in, nor even any hint of a concept of, an historical life or biography of Jesus. There is not even an interest in the “suffering” or “passion” of Jesus, which I understand was the point of a recent bloody film made about Jesus. The only hint of a teaching that had come “through” Jesus was something very important about asceticism, according to this letter. And even at his coming (note: NOT his “second” coming!) he plays second fiddle to the returning God himself! The notion of a bios or life of Jesus is actually antithetical to the fundamental message at the core of Galatians, and it would appear to be superfluous to the message of 1 Thessalonians if my above reading is valid.

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “What Jesus Christ Meant to Paul and the Thessalonians”

  1. I made a post a while back that lists places where Paul should have quoted Jesus, but didn’t. This silence about the teachings of Jesus is a staple of all of the early Christian epistles. Either the earliest Christians didn’t know that Jesus was a preacher or they didn’t care.

    The one time that Paul quotes Jesus he is quoting the “Lord’s supper”. But according to the usual historical Jesus model, Jesus and his disciples were supposed to be caught off guard by his crucifixion. How many real life preachers and/or otherwise cult leaders offer their followers a commemorative meal that will represent their body and blood because they know they are going to be executed soon? The last supper looks like something that a god does to give his adherents a means of conjuring up his spirit because he knows he’s going to leave earth soon, not something that you would expect of a 1st century peacnik itinerant Jewish preacher. The historical Jesus model makes absolutely no sense of the last supper.

    It’s also interesting to note that the word Paul uses at 1 Thess. 4:14 (παρουσιαν::parousian) is something that was used in antiquity to refer to the arrival of a dimplomat or royal person. The fact that Paul doesn’t qualify it numerically (i.e. second, third, etc) means that it must be the first time that Jesus will “arrive”.

    1. The canonical arrangement of the NT books has had masterful consequences at many levels, and one of them is that the “intuitive” reading of Paul’s references to the coming of Christ – after having read the gospels – is that it “must” refer to his second coming. Think of the possibilities if the books were arranged the other way around.

      Historical Jesus/Christian origin scholars admit the problems of the Last Supper and the “Easter experience” yet insist that their model is more plausible than the mythicist view that to my mind makes much more sense. I think some of them prefer to have their problems that cannot be fully explained in terms of plausible human experience: it opens doors for their other more personal interest, their faith in the supernatural basis of their religion.

      Thanks for the link: http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com/2010/08/why-does-paul-never-quote-jesus.html

  2. “As in the letter to the Galatians, the Christians will be saved if they believe Jesus died and rose again.”

    This is a very minor quibble, but that’s not what 1 Thess. 4:14 seems to say. Rather, it’s simply saying that Paul and his fellow Christians believe Jesus died and rose again, not that this is the criterion for salvation. The KJV seems quite clumsy to the modern reader here, but other translations use clearer phrasing.

  3. “If you’re going to the Resurrection,
    only One Way to go.
    Put on a rock and role selection.
    And just call me Joe.”

    In my award winning Thread at FRDB

    http://www.freeratio.org/showthread.php?t=242093 [ OutSourcing Paul, A Contract Labor of Love Another’s(Writings). Paul as Markan Source]

    I point out the many parallels between Paul and “Mark”. 1 Thessalonians looks like Paul’s first and even though Paul has a complete Gospel that he is selling, of special interest is that he never mentions here that Jesus was crucified. This is consistent with the DEVELOPMENT of Christianity. It starts at the end with the supposed resurrection and than works backwards (a sign of Satan?). What Paul adds next is HOW Jesus died, the supposed crucifixion. Note that “Mark” than provides the background for the Passion. “Matthew” and “Luke” make a career out of it and Fake “Matthew” and “Luke” go back to a supposed birth. “John” than goes all the way back (“That Baal is hit deep, it’s the way back, goying, goying gone. A homo run for the Catholic Church”). Starting with an Impossible event and working backwards is very bad for HJ (HJs ask how the evidence for HJ is different than the evidence for other ancients. Hello, is this blog on? Are they hearing this?).

    I note in the famous Thread that Paul uses the same ironically contrasting balancing style that is a base of “Mark”. Regarding parallels the most important parallel is theme, because it is rich in the critical criteria of Scope. The five Themes of Paul’s five paragraphs here:

    First paragraph:

    Theme = Delivery of the Gospel

    Second paragraph:

    Theme = Reception of the Gospel

    Third paragraph:

    Theme = Message of Enduring in Affliction

    Fourth paragraph:

    Theme = Reward of the Gospel

    Fifth paragraph:

    Theme = Timing of the Reward

    are all major themes in “Mark”.


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