Exegesis Paper on 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28

Last week I blogged about the New Testament Exegesis class I took here at Princeton Theological Seminary.  Here is the first of two papers I turned in.  Before reading it, please note that the biggest thing that is wrong with this paper is that I used secondary sources entirely too much.  It ended up being more a commentary on the commentaries I used instead of an exegesis paper.  For those that have read the post about the class, it was prior to my ‘ah-ha’ moment with the baptism story.  My use of footnotes is not very good either.  I met with the teaching fellow for the class (a Ph.D. student who is now working on her dissertation) and was able to work through some of this so my second paper, which I will post later, is (I believe) a bit better.  The paper is preceded by my translation which I did not edit although I did receive a bit of feedback on a few small points in the translation.  As with some of my other posts, this one if definitely very long.

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12We ask you, brothers and sisters[1], to appreciate those who labor among you and those who lead you in the Lord and admonish you 13and consider them with the greatest respect in love because of their work.  Live in peace with one another.  14We urge you, brothers and sisters, to admonish those who are disorderly, console those who are faint-hearted, be devoted to those who are weak, and be patient with all people.  15See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always pursue good for one another and for all people.
16Rejoice always,
17Pray incessantly,
18Give thanks in all things, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
19Do not quench the Spirit,
20Do not despise prophecies,
21But rather test all things, hold fast to that which is good,
22And keep away from every form of evil.
23May the God of peace make you completely holy and keep your whole being—spirit, soul, and body—blameless in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  24The one who calls you is faithful and he will do this.  25Brothers and sisters, pray for us.  26Greet all the brothers and sisters with holy kisses.  27I charge you in the Lord to read this letter to them!  28May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

1 Thessalonians 5:12-28

1 Thessalonians 5:12-28 is a highly organized conclusion to Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica.  The layout of the pericope summarizes what he has written to the Thessalonians so far in hopes of emphasizing his main points.  Paul uses the literary form of the letter to accomplish this as well as brevity, intentional linguistic shifts, and mnemonic devices.  Thus, in bringing all his points together in this conclusion, Paul provides the church in Thessalonica with a valuable resource for addressing current difficulties in the church at Thessalonica as well as a concise reflection on Christian living and worship.

Written in approximately 51 C.E., 1 Thessalonians is the oldest book of the New Testament canon.  Thessalonica, “capital of the province of Macedonia and thus the seat of the Roman administration,” was a politically significant place.[2] An “important port city of the Roman province of Macedonia” with “a long Greek history,” there was no lack of gods and goddesses to worship[3] in addition to the Imperial Cult.[4] The prevalence of cultic practices in addition to the internal evidence (cf. 1 Thess. 1:9) shows the church in Thessalonica consisted of converted pagans.  Unfortunately, shortly after Paul presents them with the gospel, he had to leave.  Bruce points out that as a result of this premature departure, “[Paul] believed that the new Christians in Thessalonica had received insufficient instruction to prepare them for the [Christian] life.”[5] As a result Paul writes “in lieu of a personal visit” since “several attempts which he made to return to them were thwarted (1 Thess. 2:18).”[6] Largely considered a paraenetic letter written by Paul as a “concerned missionary,”[7] other scholars argue that it is rhetorical while some say it is deliberative. Gaventa suggests that it is best understood as “consolidation or, to use Paul’s own language “upbuilding” (see, for example 1 Thess. 5:11)”[8] which “borrows elements from several of [these] positions.”[9] However this is parsed out, it is “not a letter of self-defense.”[10]

At first glance, it seems that the beginning of the pericope is not well defined.  The first two, maybe even three, verses could easily be included in the previous pericope covering the beginning of chapter 5.  However upon careful consideration, this pericope corresponds directly to the rest of the letter with the exception of chapter 1 which serves as an introduction to the letter as a whole.  Starting at 2:1 and continuing through 3:5, Paul addresses his ministry in Thessalonica.  This corresponds directly to 5:12-13a where Paul tells them to “appreciate those who labor among you and those who lead you in the Lord and admonish you and consider them with the greatest respect in love.”  Here the word “labor” (κοπιῶντας) is the word used to describe “apostolic labor” (see, for example, 1 Cor. 15:10, 16:16, Rom. 16:12, 6, Gal. 4:11).  This is an interesting parallel as Paul may ask this of the Thessalonian church because their leaders are serving them as he would if he were there.  Τhe word “lead” (προïσταμενος) seems to reflect back on this since it is understood to “combine the ideas of leading, protecting, and caring for.”[11] While some believe this could indicate a very early institution of ecclesiastical offices, since 1 Thessalonians is dated so early this is unlikely.  In addition, since it is here in its verb form, as opposed to the noun form (προστάτης), it “cannot be regarded as an official designation.”[12] Admonish the last part of this triplet of laboring, leading, and admonishing.  While the Greek (νουθετοῦντας) also has a sense of instructing or advising, admonish is preferred because of its clear use as such just a few verses later in 5:14.

Continuing on in 3:6-4:12, Paul vacillates between acknowledging their efforts “to live and to please God” (4:1) and encouraging them to continue doing so.  The parallel for this portion of the letter is found in 5:14-22.  In 5:14, Paul encourages not just the leaders, but rather the entire church to admonish the disorderly, console the faint-hearted, be devoted to the weak, and patient with all people.  Since Paul is encouraging them to reach out to these people, it is an indirect acknowledgment of their efforts to live a life pleasing to God.  They are not considered part of those groups but rather are asked to reach out to those who are.  The word “disorderly” comes from ἀτάκτους and requires a decision between English translations with significantly different connotations.  While one way to translate this word is “disorderly” another choice is “idlers” as it is interpreted in the New Revised Standard Version.  Since this word is related to τάσσω, which has a sense of bringing order to things, and “when used of a person,” as in this case, “the word generally refers to someone who is undisciplined or insubordinate, as when a soldier is found away from his post”[13] the interpretation of “disorderly” is likely what Paul intended.  After instructing the Thessalonians to admonish the disorderly, Paul tells them to console those who are “faint-hearted” or “small-souled” (ὀλιγοψύχος).  While Richard argues this term indicates some sort of “religious despondency,”[14] that seems to be something based on a 21st Century thought.  Considering Paul’s discussion of death in chapter 3, it is also possible a possible reference to those “who grieve over the loss of loved ones.”[15] As for “be[ing] devoted (ἀντέχεσθε) to those who are weak (ἀσθενῶν),” the phrase “be devoted” is fitting because the Greek has a sense of “having strong interest in” or “standing by” someone or something.  While “the term may generally apply to those who are vulnerable to pressures of various sorts,”[16] Gaventa believes this instruction could be a result of Paul’s “strong concern about the susceptibility of the Thessalonians to “the power of the tempter” (1 Thess. 3:5).[17] It is tempting to read the next injunction to “be patient with all people” as referring only to the disorderly, faint-hearted, and weak instead of acknowledging the possibility that Paul is instructing them to be patient with everyone. The later seems to be the case however since, as Bruce points out, when Paul writes his letter to the Galatians patience is “included in the ninefold fruit of the Spirit”[18] (Gal. 5:22) and as such should be exhibited towards all.

In 5:15-22, Paul returns to addressing the church in its entirety and encourages them with succinct instructions on Christian living and worship.  In verse 15 Paul instructs the Thessalonians, “see that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always pursue good for one another and for all people.”  A “classical imperative,” it is found “in almost identical terms in Rom. 12:17a” and has “OT antecedents (cf. Prov. 25:21).”[19] As Gaventa points out, “it is intriguing to see the freedom with which Paul employs traditional instruction to address a particular local situation.”[20] Continuing on Paul instructs the Christians in Thessalonica to “always pursue good for one another and for all people.”  As this is the second time in two verses Paul has used the παντα to indicate “all people” (v. 14 & 15), it seems as though Paul is encouraging a community that is “distinctive but not closed.”[21]

The editors have drawn verses 16-22 out of the text considerably by insetting the verses and allowing a separate line for each imperative phrase.  In addition, “each imperative phrase contains a word, usually the first word, that begins with a “p” sound (from the Greek letter pi).”[22] This alliterative technique gives this portion a rhyming effect and combined with the “content of these verses have provoked the suggestion that they represent an early form of church order, such as the one found in the Didache.”[23] While Paul uses similar language in Ephesians 5:20, since Thessalonians is widely believed to predate it, it is more likely that it is from another source.  As “Paul writes for the ear,”[24] it is also likely that he chose his words and kept his points brief to create a mnemonic devices that would assist those who heard this letter to retain his instructions.

The imperatives to rejoice, pray, and give thanks in verses 16-18 “clearly belong together.”[25] However “unlike those of the previous verse” Paul places the “focus on the adverbial constructions (implying attitude) rather than on the verbs.”[26] As Richard sees it, the terms “always,” in verse 16 “underscores Paul’s notion that joy is to be an attitude of Christian living.”  In this same way, “incessantly” is emphasized in verse 17 which “addresses the concept of prayer…as constituent of ecclesial inner life and attitudes.”  Lastly, placing the emphasis on “in all things” where once again “the adverb underscores the concept of attitude” rather than the action itself.[27] This linguistic shift seems intentional and could have easily served as a way for Paul to keep the attention of those who would hear his letter read aloud.  After these three imperatives, Paul states, “for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” in 18b.  Here Paul calls attention to what he has just said giving it power that goes beyond the words themselves, but rather rests on Paul’s assertion that it is God’s will that the people rejoice, pray, and give thanks.  These three items are inseparable and so important that they are “God’s will” for them.

Verses 19-22 shifts to what seem to be instructions for community worship, specifically the use of the spiritual gift of prophecy.  Still using short imperative phrases, “the first two are joined by their negative expression and the last three by their positive contrasts.”[28] In verse 19, one is left to determine what “Spirit” (πνεῦμα) Paul is referring to though the he seems to infer the Holy Spirit (hence the decision to use an uppercase “S”).  Even more confusing is Paul’s use of the word “σβέννυτε” which is translated “quench” in most English translations.  In all other cases where this word is used in the New Testament it is “related to figure of fire”[29] (cf. Matt. 12:20, Heb 11:34).  But how does one “quench” the Spirit?  Is it truly possible to snuff out the Spirit of God?  While this is the only place where “σβέννυτε” is used in reference to the Spirit, there are no other occurrences to compare Paul’s usage.  It seems however that verse 19 holds the key to answering these questions.  The word “προφητείας” in verse 20 seems to refer to the spiritual gift of prophecy, but does not say so explicitly and could also refer to “the words of the prophets” as it is translated in the NRSV.  The former seems the more likely translation since “προφητείας” is the same Greek work Paul uses in 1 Cor. 12:10, 13:2, and 14:22 when he is distinctly talking about the spiritual gift of prophecy.  He elaborates on the gifts of the Spirit extensively and specifically mentions that prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers (14:22) thus confirming that verses 19-22 are indeed intended as direction for worship.  With this in mind, it seems that “quenching the Spirit” occurs “when the prophet refuses to utter the message he has been given, or when others try to prevent him from uttering it”[30] as well as when the prophecy itself is “despised” or “rejected disdainfully” as stated in verse 20.  Paul’s inclusion of these verses is interesting considering he has not mentioned spiritual gifts in this letter.  As they are included in what seems to be an order of worship as mentioned above, it is possible that Paul rightly assumed his audience would infer the correct meanings to these simplified phrases.  Following these two negative imperatives, Paul encourages the Thessalonians how to avoid both “quenching the Spirit” and “despising prophecy” by encouraging them instead to “test all things, hold fast to that which is good” and “keep away from every form of evil.”  This is indicated with the inclusion of “but rather” in the translation above.[31]

The pericope ends with a closing prayer, or benediction, in verses 23-28 which simultaneously parallels and brings closure to Paul’s discussion about death and the coming of the Lord (παρουσίᾳ) found in 4:13-5:12.  Verse 23 presents the challenge of sorting through word order and deciding which phrases modify which verbs.  I believe Paul is saying, “May the God of peace make you completely holy and keep your whole being—spirit, soul, and body—blameless in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Paul usage of the image of the “body, soul, and spirit” is contested.  In Deut. 6:4-5, the shema emphasizes the oneness of God (Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one) in verse 4, and then in verse 5 the reader is presented with the human response to that oneness: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  With this in mind, it is possible that Paul would draw this image from his Jewish background and present the wholeness of a humans “being” in parallel fashion.[32] According to Richard, “Paul is not here speaking of holiness as an ethical process or as a social communal activity.”[33] Indeed verse 24 supports this idea in declaring rather absolutely that “the one who called you is faithful, and he will do this.”

At this point a rather significant and intentional shift is made grammatically.  Paul has been using imperatives extensively and in verse 23 shifts to optatives in the aorist tense.  This shifts his speech from injunctions to “prayer-wish.”[34] Paul is not instructing them to do anything at this point.  It seems rather clear in fact that Paul is indirectly communicating the human insufficiency to make ourselves completely holy.  In fact only “the one who calls you” is capable of “do[ing] this.”  Since Paul has been directing the church in Thessalonica to live a life that is pleasing to God, it seems to me that he used this dramatic literary shift to make sure those who read or heard his letter would be sure to pay attention and more likely to understand that complete holiness is only something God can bring about.  Similar use of the imperative-optative shift is found in Rom.15:1-6, 7-13.  Paul picks up in verse 25 with a request for prayer and tells them to “greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss.”  While “it is agreed that the kiss was a common custom in Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures to show affection towards family members and friends and honor towards those of superior rank,” some believe this may have “served as an introduction to the Lord’s supper.” [35] Before ending his letter with a benediction, Paul emphatically charges them to read this letter to everyone.  Since it is very likely that this is Paul’s first apostolic letter, it is possible that he is “instituting a new practice and so one requiring strong language.”[36] However Bruce argues that “the most probable explanation is that Paul took over the pen at this point and added the adjuration and concluding benediction with his own hand.”[37] Whatever the case may be, this undoubtedly got their attention and communicated how important it was to Paul that they read the letter aloud to all.

The literary forms, intentional linguistic shifts, mnemonic devices, as well as the brevity of the imperative phrases throughout, are used skillfully to summarize and emphasize what Paul hoped to communicate to the church in Thessalonica.  Thus, in bringing all his points together in this conclusion, Paul provides the church in Thessalonica with a valuable resource for addressing current difficulties in the church at Thessalonica as well as a concise reflection on Christian living and worship.  As a result, the Body of Christ in Thessalonica, as well as the body of Christ in all historical and cultural settings, has a succinct version of straight forward, practical guidance on Christian living.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bruce, F. F. 1 and 2 Thessalonians Word Biblical Commentary. Waco, Texas: Word, 1982.

Gaventa, Beverly. “Lecture: Translating 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28.” Princeton: Princeton Theological Seminary, 2009.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts. First and Second Thessalonians. CD-ROM ed. Interpretation. Loisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998.

Richard, Earl. First and Second Thessalonians Sacra Pagina 11. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1995.


[1] While the Greek word used here is “brothers,” as this letter is addressed to the church of Thessalonica as a whole I have chosen to make all references to “brothers” gender inclusive by using “brothers and sisters.”
[2] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians, CD-ROM ed., Interpretation (Loisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), Author and Audience. [Note: As the CD-ROM version does not provide page numbers, I will reference this work using section headings instead.]
[3] Earl Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, Sacra Pagina 11 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1995), 2.
[4] Gaventa, Author and Audience.
[5] F. F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, Texas: Word, 1982), xxv.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Richard, 292.
[8] Gaventa, Form and Purpose.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Bruce, 119.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Gaventa, Treatment of the Marginal.
[14] Richard, 270.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Gaventa, Treatment of the Marginal.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Bruce, 123.
[19] Ibid., 124.
[20] Gaventa, Conduct within the Community of Believers.
[21] Ibid., Form and Purpose.
[22] Ibid., Elements of Church Order.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Beverly Gaventa, “Lecture: Translating 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28,”  (Princeton: Princeton Theological Seminary, 2009).
[25] Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians, Elements of Church Order.
[26] Richard, 271.
[27] The use of adverbial construction to emphasize attitude rather than action used throughout this paragraph is taken from E.J. Richard’s commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians in the Sacra Pagina Series, 271.
[28] Richard, 272.
[29] Bruce, 125.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Bruce uses a similar convention in his translation.
[32] The discussion on the “body, soul, and spirit” imagery here is used extensively from Richard, 285.
[33] Ibid.
[34] Gaventa, “Lecture: Translating 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28.”
[35] Richard, 287.
[36] Ibid., 291.
[37] Bruce, 291.

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8 Responses to “Exegesis Paper on 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28”

  1. Edgar Figueroa Says:

    My only question is: What is the purpose of the exegesis?

    Following that question, what was the point of it? From what point of view were you looking that passage?

  2. Sara J. Green Says:

    The purpose of the exegesis…hmmm….well, it seems to me that a large part of exegesis is to examine our assumptions by first acknowledging we have them and then attempting to set them aside for the time being. I do not believe it is possible to see a passage (or really anything) objectively. This is an illusion modernism has made quite popular. That is why I use the visual of “setting aside” our assumptions. We know we have them but can try to set them aside or suspend them long enough to learn something new that will then change our point of view in one way or another.
    As for what point of view I was looking at the passage, I think the only completely honest answer is “mine.” I was looking at it from my point of view but my hope was to open myself up to an expanded understanding of what may be going on in the passage.
    Does that answer your questions or did I misunderstand what you were asking?

  3. Exegesis Paper on Luke 10:1-10 « Says:

    […] blogged on my NT Exegesis class here at Princeton Theological Seminary.  I then posted my paper on 1 Thessalonians 15:12-28 as well as a list of resources for 1 Thessalonians provided by my prof.  I will now do the same […]

  4. Exegesis Paper on Luke 19:1-10 « Says:

    […] blogged on my NT Exegesis class here at Princeton Theological Seminary.  I then posted my paper on 1 Thessalonians 15:12-28 as well as a list of resources for 1 Thessalonians provided by my prof.  I will now do the same […]

  5. Greek Exegesis « Says:

    […] to New Testament Exegesis class that I very much enjoyed.  I have previously posted a paper on 1 Thessalonians and Luke as well as a resource list for each ( 1 Thes. / Luke ).  Here I will post information […]

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