Feast upon the Word Blog

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Sunday School Lesson #31

Posted by Jim F. on August 9, 2007

Lesson 31: Acts 15:36-18:22; 1 & 2 Thessalonians

Almost all of our lessons cover an incredible amount of material. However, this lesson covers even more material than usual: 3½ 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.

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 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).

1 Thessalonians 4

Verses 1-2

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.” 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 those seems to have been “Live as Jesus lived.” (See 1 John 2:6.) 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? What does it mean to “abound more and more”? To what authority does Paul appeal in both verses 1 and 2? Why does he state that authority explicitly and repeat it? (Compare 1 Thessalonians 2:13.)

Verses 3-8

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: 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? In verse 4, to what do you think the word “vessel” refers? (The Greek word means “pot” and is one of the root words for our word “casserole”!) The two most common interpretations are that it means (1) one’s own body or (2) 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? What does it mean to possess one’s “vessel in sanctification and 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? 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?

Paul is preaching sexual purity to people who live in a society that has little concept of it. For a man, sexual relations outside of marriage were seldom frowned on. Sometimes some 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. Greek and Roman philosophers taught moderation, but moderation did not preclude marital infidelity. 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 Jews were already known). Note, however, that even Jesus’ disciples found his teaching about marital fidelity hard. 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?

Verses 9-12

How does Paul know that God has taught the Thessalonians to love one another (verses 9-10)? What is Paul asking them to increase at the end of verse 10? What does “study to be quiet” mean? What is Paul advising them in verse 11? 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?

Verses 13-18

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?

1 Thessalonians 5

Verses 1-5

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?

Verses 6-11

In verses 2 and 4 he said that the saints know the Lord will come as a thief. Then in verse 6 he 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 and 4? “Sober” is a literal translation of the Greek word. 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? 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 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? Verse 11 says that we ought to edify one another (and it recognizes that the Thessalonians are doing so). How do we edify one another. (Compare 1 Corinthians 3:9-17 and Ephesians 2:20-23.)

Verses 12-13

What does it mean to comfort another? 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 say “labour among you, and are over you” rather than just “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?

Verses 14-22

Are verses 14-15 addressed to the leaders who were spoken of in verses 12-13 or to the members of the Thessalonica branch in general? How does the substance of verses 16-18 differ from that of verses 12-15? Verse 18 says “this is the will of God . . . concerning you.” To what does the word “this” refer? What do verses 19-20 recommend? How is verse 21 related to verses 19-20? Would it make sense to begin verse 21 with “nevertheless”? A better translation of the word “appearance” in verse 22 is probably “form,” making verse 22 a kind of synopsis of the previous verses.

Verses 23-24

Paul often refers to God as “the God of peace.” Why? Verses 22 and the first half of 23 (to the semi-colon) might be one sentence rather than two. If they are one sentence, what does it mean? Why is it important to remind the saints in Thessalonica that God is faithful (verse 24)? 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)?

5 Responses to “Sunday School Lesson #31”

  1. brianj said

    “1Thessalonians is the oldest New Testament document we have, written before any of the Gospels or other letters.” The NET notes and wikipedia discuss Galatians as the very first of Paul’s letters, suggesting that it was written in AD 49, before the Jerusalem Council. 1 Thess being written in AD 50. What am I missing?

  2. Karl D. said

    Brianj, it seems like there is quite a bit of variation in terms of the hypothesized date range for Galatians. For example, F.F Bruce in The Oxford Companion to the Bible. suggests a possible range of 48-55:

    The date of the letter has been fixed at various points between 48 and 55 CE. If it was sent to the churches of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe, a date around 48 CE is possible, even probable; if it was sent to churches in ethnic Galatia, its date would be later. The affinity between Galatians and Romans has been thought to point to a date not long before the writing of Romans (early in 57 CE). The affinity should not be exaggerated, however; Paul’s assessment of the Law, for example, was considerably modified between Galatians and Romans. Again, wherever Galatians may be dated within the limits mentioned, one’s appreciation of its argument is affected only slightly.

    Another example; G.N. Stanton in the Oxford Bible Commentary argues for a range between 49-58. I think the identification of 1 Thessalonians as the first Pauline epistle reflects this broader hypothesized date range and that many scholars believe (given the range) that the probability that Galatians is written post 51 is pretty high.

  3. Leslie McFall has an interesting way to deal with the so-called exception clause in Matthew 19:9 that appears to allow for divorce and remarriage for marriage unfaithfulness.
    He has written a 43 page paper that reviews the changes in the Greek made by Erasmus that effect the way Matthew 19:9 has been translated. I reviewed McFall’s paper at Except For Fornication Clause of Matthew 19:9. I would love to hear some feedback on this position.

  4. Jon said

    As I see it, the variations on the subject that we find in the original Greek, along with the subsequent efforts to harmonize these differences through the modifications you have noted document some of the realities of a morally complex issue. An issue, which at the time, involved intersecting and conflicting developments in and between three separate forces. First you had the increasingly legalistic regulation and formalization of marriage, along with the concomitant civil entanglements this wrought and the further consequences this had for divorcees. Second you had an element of the Jewish leadership that had been implementing its own increasingly legalistic and inhumane reading of Mosaic law to buttress its own power. Thirdly you had a group of Jews who were resisting that regressive element of their entrenched leadership and the hypocrisy that their practices engendered . While there may be a divine essence to the union of man and woman in marriage, the worldly manifestations of the practice, along with the contractual elements and the vagaries of custom and law will always be less than perfect, requiring for the resolution of problematic situations the wisdom of just and caring individuals rather than the simplistic application of hard rules.

    Our elders have chosen the King James Version, as our scripture of record. We have to accept it, as it stands, including each of the revisions, interpretations and translational choices it incorporates as the final word for us at this time. The BOM incorporates translational choices made in the KJV that scholars of either Hebrew or Ancient Greek might object to, but which we have to accept as ultimately appropriate for this time. (Imagine the problems inherent in subjecting the book of Abraham to translational analysis.) Personally, utilizing what little Greek I studied during college and my old lexicon, I find certain parts of the KJV translation of the New Testament a little troubling. I want to compare the work of various more accomplished translators to my own efforts in order to get at what was really meant. However, I have to accept that the only real scripture we have is one that is more than a simple static text. It is a living resource embodying and combining both the documentation of historical revelation and the ongoing prophesy of today as understood and communicated to us through our own leadership.

    The Church uses the King James Version of the Bible for English-speaking members. The First Presidency has stated: “Many versions of the Bible are available today. … The most reliable way to measure the accuracy of any biblical passage is not by comparing different texts, but by comparison with the Book of Mormon and modern-day revelations.”

  5. Robert C. said

    MCL #3, this looks fascinating—esp. since I’ve been reading about Erasmus as one of the “culprits” of the historical move toward exclusive (secular) humanism in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. I’m hoping to have some time to devote to this later this week, so I’ll try to give you some feedback then….

    (By the way, I think I understand our use of the KJV a bit differently than Jon. That is, I believe we use the KJV as more of a “coordinating” device that helps us understand the language and references of the Book of Mormon better, but I don’t think we are particularly bound to the text of the KJV, esp. when we find translation/transmission issues like the one you are discussing—in fact, might not this be a good example of where the phrase in the Articles of Faith, “as long as it is translated correctly,” has bite?!)

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