xbn .
Politics of Scripture

The Politics of the Communication of the Truth—1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 (Alastair Roberts)

The Apostle Paul’s discussion of the dynamics of his gospel ministry in relation to the Thessalonian Christians offers us arresting images for considering the reality of the truth and the bonds of trust by which societies are formed and held together.

You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, 2but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. 3For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, 4but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. 5As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; 6nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others,  7though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. 8So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

In the first couple of chapters of 1 Thessalonians, Paul recalls the minds of the Christians in Thessalonica to the events surrounding the initial arrival of the gospel to them and their region, to the founding events of their church. By reminding them of the manner of the gospel’s advent and of his behavior and that of his team, Paul demonstrates the soundness and genuineness of the origins of the Thessalonian church. This, in turn, assures the Thessalonians in their faith in the present and secures them against any overtures from false teachers.

At the beginning of chapter 2, Paul progresses from describing the powerful advent of the word of the gospel in Thessalonica and the Thessalonians’ response to it to describe the behavior of him and his team. Paul’s intent here is not to defend himself against charges that have been made against him, but by careful description to demonstrate the guileless and self-giving character of their ministry, a ministry faithful to the message it served. In such a way, Paul can distinguish himself from other teachers and philosophers.

Paul describes himself and his fellow missionaries as driven by a strength beyond their own. Despite fierce persecutions, they can have ‘courage in God’ to declare the gospel against great opposition, knowing that its effectiveness depends, not upon their own force of personality or rhetorical skill, but upon the power of the God who entrusted them with it. As Paul describes the situation elsewhere, as the emissary of the gospel message he is less the bearer of a message than one borne along by it, as God leads his marveling apostolic co-workers in triumphal procession through the world (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:12-17).

Paul proceeds to present the unfeigned and pure motives from which they acted in declaring the gospel to the Thessalonians. In his apostolic ministry, Paul was not driven by a desire for personal gain or public praise, but by a weighty responsibility to God, who had committed the gospel message to him. He declares himself to be a tried and true servant, one whose heart is tested by God and whose ministry is approved, presumably through the many trials and forms of persecution he endured. Unlike the charlatans who were characterized by the vices of deceit, impure motives, and trickery, Paul and his companions were the genuine article.

Summoning both the Thessalonians and God as his witnesses, Paul insists that he was unmotivated by a desire for human praise or material gain: his only intent was to acquit himself well as a servant pleasing to the God who sent him. Consequently, his message to the Thessalonians was not marked by the artful flattery typical of sham teachers, nor perverted by attempts to use his message as a means of personal gain.

Indeed, even though he was in a position that would have enabled him to make self-serving demands of them, Paul’s actual conduct was in the most startling contrast to such exploitative behavior. Rather than taking advantage of his power in relation to the Thessalonians, Paul and his team not only went to considerable lengths to avoid placing any demands upon them, but also gave of themselves in ways that invite the most arresting imagery.

There is a difficult textual issue at this juncture, as some Greek manuscripts have νήπιοι (infants), while others have  ̕ήπιοι (gentle), the weight of the arguments on both sides being quite finely balanced. The liveliness and fluidity of Paul’s imagery in the context—he moves from comparing himself and his team to nursing mothers (verse 7), to fathers (verse 11), to orphans (verse 17) in their relation to the Thessalonians, all in the span of only a few verses—makes the former more of a possibility than it might be elsewhere. If this were the meaning, it would powerfully illustrate the guilelessness and completeness of their self-bestowal to the Thessalonians.

I regard ‘gentle’ (̕ήπιοι) as the more likely reading, considering Paul’s more negative uses of the term elsewhere, in addition to its potential friction with the immediately succeeding image of the nursing mother. Whatever way the term is read, however, Paul underlines the meekness and openness of their ministry.

In a striking comparison, Paul likens his missionary team to nursing mothers. The apostle’s surprising use of such a maternal image for their ministry is not unique to this context: in Galatians 4:19, Paul speaks of himself as a mother struggling to give birth to her children again. The image is a fitting one, expressing the Thessalonians’ dependence upon Paul and his fellow workers, and the loving self-donation of the mission team to the infant believers. Paul was not merely conveying a message, but was like a mother begetting, nursing, and cherishing the children formed by that message, who had the most intimate of bonds with him.

The image also represents Paul’s longing for and intimate involvement in the Thessalonian’s well-being and growth. While the charlatan might value the self-serving praise of men or the wealth that might be deceitfully gained from them, Paul values the Thessalonians themselves, as a mother values her own children. As he expresses it in verse 19: ‘For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you?’

From the image of the maternal affection and bond, Paul later progresses to one of the father in his role of preparing the child for life in the wider world. Using both the maternal image and the paternal image that succeeds it in verse 11, Paul demonstrates the depths of his personal investment in the life, the health, and the growth of the Thessalonian Christians.

Paul’s representation of his ministry in these opening chapters of Thessalonians dramatically challenges many of the assumptions that we bring to acts of communication. While our understanding of communication is commonly shaped by a series of oppositions between sender and message, sender and messenger, messenger and message, message and recipient, and messenger and recipient, Paul systematically unworks each of these in relation to the gospel message.

Drawing the minds of the Thessalonian Christians back to the founding events of their church, Paul speaks of the gospel as God’s self-communication by the Holy Spirit, of God working through and in his messengers, of the emissary of the gospel as one borne along by the message he bears, of the message as something that is powerfully at work in its recipients, and of the recipients as children of the message, begotten and nourished by the messenger. At each point, Paul reveals that the oppositions that can serve as occasions for deceit, perverse motives, and distrust are destabilized by the very character of the gospel.

One of the most significant features of the current political situation in many Western countries is a serious breakdown of public trust in various authorities, in politicians, governments, experts, scientists, church leaders, journalists and the media, constitutional documents, national principles, governmental agencies, perhaps even in democracy itself. This loss of trust penetrates down to the very founding events and principles of our societies and nations, events and principles that are deemed fatally corrupted by white supremacy, patriarchy, and further structures of oppression, by the corrupt and self-serving motives of those who forged our peoplehood, and by the dishonesty and untruth of their feigned values. Scandals, revelations of abuse, and manifest corruption, incompetence, or self-interest in office have produced growing distrust, which has metastasized into a more general suspicion. As the healthy movement of truth in the body of society depends upon a circulatory system of trust, the breakdown of trust will produce the crisis of truth that we currently face.

Arresting the progress of this disease is an immense challenge, especially after the advent of online media. One of our problems is that reaction against dysfunction seldom straightforwardly yields healthy functioning, often producing new or exacerbated problems in the place of those it opposed. Without a clear vision and model of genuine, forthright, and trustworthy discourse and of the sort of robust and healthful social relations that can bear the weight of truth, it can be difficult to address such social sickness.

Yet such a vision of a society marked by the strength of truth and trust is what Paul presents us with in 1 Thessalonians. It is a society seen in God’s entrusting of his truth to human messengers, who entrust themselves in turn to the recipients of their announcement. It is a society seen in and revelatory of the power of the communication of truth itself as a social bond. The genuine communication of the truth requires the communication of ourselves, reinforcing the trust that allows it to circulate. Just as untruth and distrust can cause a society to disintegrate, so truth and the mutual trust and entrusting it produces are health to society’s flesh and marrow to its bones.

Alastair Roberts is the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture.

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!