NT Sunday School Lesson 31 (JF): Acts 15:36-18:22; 1 & 2 Thessalonians
Posted by Jim F. on July 25, 2011
Almost all of our lessons cover an incredible amount of material. However, this lesson covers even more material than usual: 3 and one-half chapters of Acts, 5 chapters of 1 Thessalonians, and 3 chapters of 2 Thessalonians. To try to make the material more manageable, I will focus on 1 Thessalonians 4-5. As you will see, however, even that has produced a long set of study materials.
1Thessalonians is the oldest New Testament document we have, written before any of the Gospels or other letters. Thessalonica was a Greek city, the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia. You can see its location on your Bible maps.
Acts 17:1-14 tells of Paul’s missionary work in Thessalonica. A review of those verses would be good background for reading this letter.
Some of Paul’s letter are letters of correction, responding to doctrinal and other problems in congregations that he has left behind. 1 Thessalonians, however, is a letter of exhortation. Paul wishes to strengthen the congregation by reminding them of his preaching. Because it is a letter of exhortation to an early branch of the Church, 1 Thessalonians is also a good example of how Paul taught the Gospel.
See the LDS Bible Dictionary for more information about and an outline of 1 Thessalonians. The outline shows that there are two major parts to Paul’s letter, a section in which he reminds them of his work among them and of his integrity in doing that work (chapters 1-3) and a section in which he exhorts them to live expecting Christ’s return at any moment (chapters 4-5).
Clearly the early Christian leaders taught their converts how to live: “as you have received of us how ye ought to walk and please God.” How do the behaviors on which Paul concentrates in what follows, sexual purity, living quiety, and minding one’s own business, serve God? Why do they please him?
Paul speaks of the Thessalonians receiving instruction for how to live in verse 1, and he reminds them in verse 2 that they know the things they have been taught. Being a Christian meant more than confessing belief that Jesus was the Messiah. It meant adopting certain rules and conventions of behavior, and the essence of those seems to have been “Live as
Jesus lived.” (See 1 John 2:6.) There is no way to separate true Christian belief from ethical behavior.
Verse 1 makes it clear that Paul has written to the Thessalonians at least once before: he refers to what they have received from him. What does this tell us about the New Testament documents we have?
In verse 1, what is Paul asking the Thessalonians to do? Paul uses a Hebraism: the word “walk.” In other words, he uses a Greek word in a way that reflects Hebrew usage. (This Hebraism is common in Paul. For examples of the Hebrew usage, see Genesis 17:1; Exodus 16:4; Leviticus 18:3 and 26:3; and Deuteronomy 8:6.) What do you think “walk” means here? Why is walking a good metaphor for behavior?
“To walk and to please God” is also probably what is called a hendiadys, two words used to mean the same thing. The usual example is Genesis 1:2: “The earth was without form and void.” “Without form” and “void” (i.e, empty) mean the same thing. What does it mean to say that the way we “walk” and the way we please God are the same?
What does it mean to “abound more and more”?
Italicized words in the King James translation (KJV) are words inserted by the editors, words they believed were required to make the English more readable. However, how does verse 3 read if you remove the word “even”?
For this is the will of God, your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication:
Now try also placing a colon after the word “sanctification.” (The Greek text had no punctuation, so the punctuation is all supplied by the editors.)
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that ye should abstain from fornication:
Does that change your understanding of the passage? Are there other possible ways to read the verse that make sense?
When the KJV was translated, the word “fornication” had a broader meaning than it has today; it referred to sexual impurity in general. It translates a Greek word that also often has that broader meaning of the King James English.
The word translated “sanctification” in verses 3 and 4 could also be translated “consecration.” Would doing so make a difference to the meaning?
Why does Paul associate sanctification, consecration, or holiness here with sexual purity rather than with religious rituals?
In verse 4, to what do you think the word “vessel” refers? The Greek word means “pot.” See Luke 8:16 and 2 Corinthians 4:7 to see the word used in that way. (The Greek word is one of the root words for our word “casserole”!) Obviously this is a metaphor, but the metaphor is ambiguous in Greek. It can be read in either of two ways: either it means “one’s own body” or it means “a wife.” Which do you think most likely? Why? Are there any scriptures that might provide evidence for one of these rather than the other?
Whatever the best translation of the word translated “vessel,” verses 3 and 4 are clearly about sexual behavior. What does it mean for sexual behavior to happen “in sanctification”? “In honor”?
Another translation has “lustful passion” instead of “lust of concupiscence” in verse 5.
Paul says that the will of God is that the Saints refrain from sexual impurity and that they not defraud their brothers (verse 6). Some understand verse 6 to refer to adultery rather than to business fraud. What do you think of that proposal? If you understand verse 6 to be about fraud in its usual sense, why do you think he singles out avoiding lust (verse 5) and honesty (verse 6) to summarize God’s expectations of those who accept him?
If he doesn’t mean business fraud, why does he describe sexual impurity as fraud?
What warning does Paul give in the last half of verse 6?
What motivation for obedience does Paul give in verse 7? How does that motivate obedience? What does it mean to be called to holiness?
What is the difference between preaching that we ought to live sexually pure lives because doing so is psychologically or socially healthy and preaching (as Paul does) that we ought to do so because that is what pleases God, because that is what God has called us to do?
Does Paul preach as he does because at his time the psychological and social aspects of sexual purity were not understood? Is one of these approaches more likely to be more effective, pragmatic, than the other? Do we have to choose between one teaching and the other, or are both important? If your answer is both, do you feel that way because you feel like you are supposed to or because you have good reasons for both? Is there any priority between of one over the other?
How do we effectively and meaningfully teach people that we have been called to be sexually pure?
What does having been called to sexual purity tell us about our relation to our bodies? Do they belong to us? (See 1 Corinthians 6:19 for a related scripture.) What would it mean to understand my body as not belonging to me?
Paul is preaching sexual purity to people who live in a society that had little regard for it (though Gentile philosophers also taught against sexual license). For a man, sexual relations outside of marriage were seldom frowned on. Sometimes they were encouraged. It was not unusual, for example, for wealthy men to marry in order to establish business and political ties and to provide an appropriate mother for their children and, at the same time, to have a mistress for intellectual companionship, friendship, and most of the other things we associate with a good marriage today. That kind of behavior was not usually considered scandalous.
Greek and Roman philosophers taught moderation, but moderation did not necessarily preclude marital infidelity. So preaching the gospel in this society required that one emphasize the completely different standard required of Christians (the same standard, by the way, for which nonChristian Jews were already known).
Notice, however, that even Jesus’ disciples found his teaching about marital fidelity hard, at least initially. In Matthew 19:9 he teaches his disciples that only adultery justifies divorce, and his disciples respond, “If that is how it is with a man and his wife [i.e., if those are the only grounds for divorce], then it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10).
In verse 8, what is the object of the first use of “despiseth”? Is it another person or is it Paul’s message in the preceding verses? How is it relevant that God has given us his Holy Spirit? Does it have something to do with being called to holiness?
When Paul says “ye need not that I write unto you,” he is doing what we do when we say “I don’t need to tell you” and then follow that by telling our audience whatever it is we wanted to say. This is a way of introducing something that he wants to talk about and underlining that it is something that ought to be common knowledge.
In what ways is it possible for the Thessalonians actually to have loved “all the brethren which are in all Macedonia,” in other words all of the saints of the region? In other words, how does a person actually love “everyone”? What does the word “love” mean when we are admonished to love everyone? What is Paul asking the Thessalonians to increase at the end of verse 10?
What does “study to be quiet” mean? What do you think he means by “do your own business”?
When he tells them that they should “work with [their] own hands,” why does he put it that way? Why not just advise them to work? Why is manual labor important to those to whom he preaches? There were certainly people who did not work with their hands in Roman society, so why focus on that particular kind of work? Might there have been those in the congregation thought themselves above doing manual labor? What does this admonition mean to someone whose work is not done with the hands?
In verse 12, who are those who are “without,” in other words outside? Outside of what?
How does loving those in the Church and living honestly toward those outside make it so that we lack for nothing (verse 12)? In practical terms, what does “lack for nothing” mean? What is the difference between “lack” and “want”? Is it related to the difference between “want” and “need”?
Why do you think Paul sent this particular message to those in Thessalonica? What might have prompted this part of his message? If Paul has, as he says, already taught them these things, why does he need to repeat them here (and again in chapter 5)?
Why might this message about the resurrection of the dead have been important to the Thessalonians? What kind of sorrow is Paul trying to deal with (verse 13)? What kind of people would have had no hope for the dead? How is that relevant to our own situation today? What connection does Paul assume between Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection of the dead?
Recall that this letter is the earliest New Testament writing we have. Some have suggested that early members of the Church believe that Jesus’ Second Coming was immanent and that no one would die before he came again. Do you think that is a reasonable explanation of what Paul may be responding to, that some in the community have died and the members didn’t think that was going to happen? How might people who had that expectation have responded to the death of someone in the Church?
The King James translation of verse 15 is slightly odd. It translates the Greek word phthanō as “prevent,” though it means “precede.” “Be ahead of” might be a good translation: “we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will not be ahead of those who are asleep.” Given that alternate translation, what is Paul’s point in this verse?
In verses 16-17 is Paul’s point that we know the specifics of what the events of the Second Coming will be like, or is he speaking of those particulars to make some other, more important point.
What words does Paul have in mind in verse 18? In other words, what is the comfort that he has spoken? Is it, for example, the last clause of 17, “so shall we ever be with the Lord”? Or is it more than that? If so, what more is it that he has offered as comfort?
How does the comfort that Paul describes here compare to the comfort that Alma says we agree to offer when we are baptized (Mosiah 18:9)?
Why does Paul feel it necessary to remind them that they do not know when the Second Coming will occur? “The Day of the Lord” is a phrase from the Old Testament. See Amos 5:18, Joel 2:31, and Malachi 4:5, for example. What does it mean in the Old Testament? Is that the same thing that it means here?
The phrase “like a thief in the night” is a frightening one. Who isn’t afraid of a thief breaking into the house at night? Verse 3 uses another image, a painful rather than a frightening one, but both are images of surprise and suggest foreboding. Why does Paul use these kinds of images to describe the Second Coming?
What does it mean to be the children of light (verse 5) if the Lord will return as a thief in the night?
Having said that the Lord will come like a thief, in verse 6 Paul draws his conclusion about how we should live if we don’t know when the Lord is coming: “watch and be sober.” How does what he says in verse 6 follow from what he said in verses 2-4?
“Sober” is a literal translation of the Greek word in verse 6. What does sobriety connote? How do verses 8-9 answer that question? (Compare what Peter has to say about sobriety: 1 Peter 1:13; 4:7-8; 5:8-9.) How is Peter’s advice in 1 Peter 4:7-8 related to Paul’s advice here?
The Greek of verse 8 suggests that believers already wear the armor of faith, love, and hope. One way to indicate that would be to translate “putting on” as “having put on.” Does that make any difference to the meaning of the verse for us?
What does verse 10 tell us about the purpose of the atonement? When we speak of the atonement, we often focus on Christ’s suffering in the Garden rather than on his death. Why might Paul and other early Christians have focused, instead, on his death?
How does verse 11 tie together the earlier discussion of love, the discussion of the resurrection, and this discussion of the Second Coming?
What does it mean to comfort another (verse 11)?
What problem do these verses suggest the Thessalonians have been having? Another translation of the word translated “know” (verse 12) is “recognize.” What does it mean to recognize those who labor over us?
Why does Paul describe church leaders as those who “labour among you, and are over you” rather than just those who “are over you”? What does it mean to be over someone “in the Lord”?
Why should we love those who lead us (verse 13)?
What does it mean to be at peace among ourselves? Does it just mean that members of the ward or branch don’t squabble?
Verses 16-22 (or, perhaps 16-24) are almost a psalm. Read them aloud and listen for their effect. The psalmic effect is heightened in Greek, where every admonition but one has a word that begins with “p,” usually the first one.
Verse 18 says “this is the will of God . . . concerning you.” To what does the word “this” refer?
What do verses 19-20 recommend?
Paul often refers to God as “the God of peace.” Why?
Why is it important to remind the saints in Thessalonica that God is faithful, in other words that he can be trusted (verse 24)? Does that answer the concern they appear to have? How is that reminder important to us?
Paul speaks of the members here as called. He uses similar language in Romans 1:6 and elsewhere. What does it mean to be called to be a member? Does the name of the contemporary church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, tell us anything about what we are called to?
What does Paul promise that God will do (verse 24)?
Verse 27 begins with what is, in Greek, a very strong admonition: “I put you under oath by the Lord to read this letter to all of the brothers and sisters” would be one way to translate that verse. Why do you think Paul makes such a strong charge to the person to whom this letter is written? We tend to read much of this letter as ordinary ethical advice, the kind that most ethical teachers, whether Christian or not, would give. Does Paul’s admonition suggest that we ought to read that advice differently? If so, what would the difference be?
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