2 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians
Lesson 9 – 2 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians
Dr. Craig Blomberg
Understanding the New Testament
Second Thessalonians in many ways resembles the first letter that Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica, but there are certain features that have puzzled readers throughout the ages. The main issue, indeed, the thesis statement of this letter, appears to be 2 Thessalonians 2:2 in which Paul encourages the Thessalonians not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. In 1 Thessalonians it appeared that part of the audience’s concerns with respect to Christian teaching about Christ’s return had to deal with the fact that it had been now some twenty years since Christ’s death and resurrection, from A.D. 30 to A.D. 50, and one or more Thessalonian believers had passed away so that in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 he encourages them not to grieve like those who have no hope, which we might add does not mean not to grieve at all, but not to grieve in a hopeless way for deceased Christian brothers or sisters, and then goes on to explain that those who might be fearing that Christ’s return, seemingly delayed, was not going to happen at all were being reassured that it would indeed happen and the rest of chapter 4 and the first half of chapter 5 of 1 Thessalonians go on to itemize various details surrounding that event.
Now it would appear the opposite problem requires Paul’s response in 2 Thessalonians. How can this be? One plausible suggestion is that the first letter, so to speak, worked too well, that those fearing that Christ was not coming back at all or any time soon now were so reassured that they were afraid that perhaps they had somehow missed his return, but that would be a misinterpretation of his words. Another possibility is that someone has taught falsely in Paul’s name teaching contrary to what he himself teaches. One may ask how can anyone believe that the day of the Lord had already come when things continued seemingly uninterrupted by cosmic events. The answer would appear to emerge from within emerging Gnosticism, namely, that Christ’s return was reinterpreted as something invisible and spiritual perceivable only by the spiritually in-crowd or elite. It is also possible that some in Thessalonica did not go so far as to say that the day of the Lord had already come, but were sure that it was coming so soon that they were willing to stop working and simply wait for the end to arrive. This could account for the references, particularly in chapter 3, particularly with reference to verse 10, about those who are not willing to work not being allowed to eat, perhaps a reference to the communal meals of the worshipping Christian community there. But that feature of 2 Thessalonians can also be given a second interpretation. It is quite possible that in light of the common Greco-Roman practice of patronage in which wealthy Greeks and Romans were in their society considered responsible for gathering the poor people in their immediate vicinity and in their sphere of influence and providing seasonal jobs for them and other forms of aid so that they at least were able to live, in return for personal and political support for the patrons in various ways. It is possible that some of the newly converted Christians in Thessalonica are assuming they do not have to seek full-time work because there will be Christian patrons who will take care of them as well. On either interpretation 3:10 should not be taken to mean that care should not be given to those who want to work but can’t find jobs, rather the Greek here has two separate verbs best translated as “anyone who is not willing to work.” When we say in English translation “anyone who will not work,” it could be misunderstood as simply the future tense of the verb “to work,” which is not what the Greek text reflects here.
What 2 Thessalonians is probably best known for, however, we have yet to consider. Just as the major doctrinal topic of 1 Thessalonians involved Christ’s return, the major doctrinal topic of 2 Thessalonians comes in the response to the false report, outlined in 2 Thessalonians 2:2, in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12 and particularly verses 3 through 10. In defending the view that the end has not yet come Paul stresses that there are events which must yet take place, events that clearly are interpreted as sufficiently public that he can assume the Thessalonians will recognize that they have not yet taken place. The first one of these is a rebellion leading to the disclosure, or revelation, of an evil figure called the man of lawlessness doomed to destruction who opposes and exalts himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, and even sets himself up in God’s temple proclaiming himself to be God, 2:3-4. This is language used in other Jewish literature of the intertestamental period for what John in the letters of John will dub “the antichrist.” A key anti-god and anti-Christian figure who persecutes those who worship the true and living God in Jesus and who apparently is a powerful political as well as religious, or we might say anti-religious leader on the stage of world events. Some have inferred from the fact that Paul says he will set himself up in God’s temple, that there must be a rebuilt temple where today appears only the Islamic mosque, the Dome of the Rock in the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. But every other use of the word “temple” in Paul’s writings is a reference to the Christian church as the temple, or an individual Christian as the temple of the Holy Spirit. So it would seem more likely that what will also be depicted in symbolic form in the Book of Revelation is being described here, namely, that the antichrist will masquerade, at least for a time as a Christian, as someone who emerges out of at least professing Christian orbit. But we must admit that there has seldom been much agreement throughout Christian history on these finer matters of teaching about the end times and, therefore, not hold to any of the pictures dogmatically.
The other major sign that Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2 must still take place is that something and someone described both as a power and a person, from the Greek grammar employed, is a restraining force holding back the disclosure or the revelation of this man of lawlessness. When this power and person is removed, then he will be revealed in all of his ungodliness in the last days. Again there has been little agreement throughout church history, is this person or power an emperor or key world leader like the Roman emperors and the power, the power of the empire behind him? Is it the Spirit of Christ and is the church to be taken out of the way in the last days allowing evil to reign unchecked? The latter seems less likely since the two grammatical genders used for this restraining person and power are masculine and neuter whereas the Greek word for church, ekklesia, is grammatically feminine. It may simply be that it is God himself who is restraining, perhaps through his Spirit, though that need not be explicitly implied here, the antichrist until he withdraws his hand of restraint.
At any rate, if we combine 1 and 2 Thessalonians and sum up key theological teachings we may conclude first that despite apparent delays, Christ’s return is certain. It will come quickly, suddenly, and unexpectedly, like a thief in the night, 1 Thessalonians 5:1. Nevertheless, secondly, there are certain signs still to be fulfilled so that even today in the 21st century we do not have to worry that we have somehow missed this event. Key applications that flow from these two summary points of theology include the need for all believers to keep alert for the end, which could come at any time. And for that matter most of us are very much aware that our physical lives could come to an end at any time, either way bringing us directly before our Creator. Thus, we should neither assume or presume to know that we have a normal lifespan ahead of us in which to live and serve God and if there are things we are delaying making right with God, deal with them at some later time, just as we should not assume or presume to know that the end must come very soon, within a few days or months or years so that in an irresponsible way we do not properly plan for the future. Secondly, as an application we must not misjudge the direction of human history. All of the scientific and technological progress of recent centuries has not changed human nature one whit; we are morally as fallen as ever. Indeed, when the end finally comes and Christ’s return is visible throughout the world it will become clear that morally, if anything, the human race has gotten worse and that events in world history have made life more difficult for believers rather than more tolerable. Nevertheless, the good news is that God’s causes and his people will triumph and, therefore, we should take every step to ensure that we are trusting fully in Jesus and his gracious salvation for us, even while living out a life of gratitude of service to him in response, so that we are sure we are on the winning side in the final day.
In chronological order we turn now among the letters of Paul to 1 Corinthians. For historical background see the opening paragraphs of Acts 18 and our comments in our survey of Acts earlier in this lecture series. Corinth was still a very immoral and immature church even after Paul’s one and a half years there. He has received information both from personal messengers from an otherwise unknown woman in the Corinthian congregation and people from her household (see 1 Corinthians 1:10-12, the woman’s name is Chloe). And he has also received a letter from the Corinthian congregation with various questions (see 7:1). It also appears that Paul has written a now lost letter to the Corinthian church, which led to certain misunderstandings (see 5:9), those misunderstandings surrounding the practice of not associating with sexually immoral people. Paul meant those who refuse to repent within the church, not outsiders to the Christian church, and it appeared that the Corinthian church was reversing his commands. The date is approximately 54 or 55 A.D., since Paul is writing from Ephesus towards the end of his third missionary journey (see 1 Corinthians 16:8).
After the by now predictable opening greetings, which in fact were a conventional form of all Greco-Roman letters and a thanksgiving couched in the form of a prayer, which we saw in 1 and 2 Thessalonians but not in Galatians, that too was a typical form of Greco-Roman letter writing, which Paul avoided in Galatians to shock the readers into paying close attention to what he had to say because of the urgency of the problem with the Judaizers there, nevertheless here and in subsequent letters we will see that far more often than not Paul reverts to conventional form. After these two then reasonably predictable opening portions of the letter the body of 1 Corinthians begins in 1:10 and the first major topic spanning the rest of chapter 1 through the end of chapter 4 involves these divisions that Paul has heard about in the church. Divisions which may be traced to competing philosophies at Corinth, divisions which may be traced to an overly triumphal or victorious attitude toward the Christian life, key leaders believing that the church was more mature than it actually was, divisions that almost certainly can be traced to differences among the rich and the poor as we will see as we proceed at several junctures in the text, but which above all right here in chapter 1 apparently have to do with a kind of celebrity worship, following human Christian leaders inordinately, putting too much stock in those Christians who came to town through whose ministry various Corinthians were converted and baptized. This most likely explains the reference to the different Christian leaders in verse 12 and to Paul’s apparent playing down of baptism in verses 13 to 17 in partial tension to his teaching elsewhere where baptism is the consistent and appropriate ritual and outward sign of a converted heart and life, but when it leads to combativeness and competition among Christians, then it is being given too much importance. How does Paul respond to this problem of divisions in the church? We may understand the rest of the letter up through the end of chapter 4 in this first subsection as in essence a series of answers to this problem. From 1:18-2:5 he in essence replies by saying focus on the cross, focus on the humbling and humiliating event of Christ’s crucifixion on behalf of all peoples, which seems so foolish to an unconverted mind, but is the very wisdom of God and it is hard to be elevating oneself above others with that kind of focus and view.
Chapter 2:6-16, the end of that chapter give, as it were, a second answer pointing out that there is such a thing as true Christian wisdom, but it is spiritually discerned only by those who have God’s Spirit. Thirdly, there is a reminder that despite the varying contributions of different Christians, despite the varying responses on judgment day to what Christians have done with their lives compared to the role that God in Christ plays in human salvation and discipleship, the contribution of believers is comparatively equal and comparatively small (chapter 3).
And then finally summarizing 1 Corinthians 4, dealing with the right attitude toward apostles and other Christian leaders, the sign is not one of worldly wisdom or triumphant living, but rather one of weakness, of persecution, of pouring out ones life physically and spiritually for the Gospel in a way that leads Paul in a climactic exclamation in 4:13 to refer to such leaders, including himself, as the scum of the earth, the garbage, the refuse, the rubbish of the world, right up to this very moment.
Chapters 5 and 6 complete the first main subsection of Paul’s letter body in 1 Corinthians by turning to other topics that he apparently learned about from the representatives of Chloe’s household. They involve three main topics that move from sexual matters to the issue of lawsuits and back to sexual matters again. While today in many cultures these issues trouble a broad cross section of individuals and while certainly in the ancient world the practice of prostitution cut across all socioeconomic boundaries, a good case can be made here for a disproportionate amount of the problem occurring among the more well-to-do minority of Christian believers, including those most likely to be leaders of house churches. Only that seems to explain why the Corinthian church tolerated a man living with his father’s wife, probably a way of referring to his stepmother and perhaps a considerably younger woman than his father’s first wife, making sexual attraction between the son and the stepmother more understandable. Cicero agrees with 1 Corinthians 5:1, that great Roman orator and philosopher of the first century, that incest of this and related kinds was virtually unknown even among the very promiscuous pagan world. How could it be tolerated in the church in Corinth unless the perpetrator was a very well-to-do power broker, one used to being a patron and able to call the shots and pull strings and not be held accountable? Paul requires that this person, who apparently has not repented when given the chance repeatedly, now be disassociated from those activities that are of uniquely Christian nature for the sake of the church’s purity.
Lawsuits in the ancient world were almost exclusively carried out among the well-to-do, with only a tiny middle class there would be no point in the middle class or rich people suing poor people, because there would have been little to gain from them, rather it seems it was largely the rich who sued the rich and then not so much for material advantage, though they gained that, but for the honor that accrued to them in a culture obsessed with honor and shame and avoiding the shame that would come to the loser in such a situation. Paul says in essence, if there are disputes that would otherwise go to court among believers by analogy with what Jews had already developed in the synagogue, Christians should settle the matters in-house rather than airing their dirty laundry, as it were, in public and thus bringing the Gospel to disgrace. If that was not possible it was preferable for them to simply be wronged rather than retaliate in a pagan legal context, where much like in 21st century courts in many cultures of the world it appears that from a spiritual and emotional point of view no one comes out the winner.
Then, returning to sexual immorality more generally and prostitution in particular in the final part of chapter 6, Paul appeals to the unique one-flesh relationship designed by God from Genesis 2 onward between husband and wife to exclude the practice of prostitution altogether.
From chapter 7 to the beginning of chapter 16 we now have Paul responding to the issues the Corinthian church wrote him about. The translation of 7:1 is important; it is most likely, as we know from Origen’s commentary already around 200 A.D., a Corinthian slogan that Paul is quoting here, “it is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” There were those in the first century, and in the centuries ahead, this movement would grow larger, who believed that celibacy, a lifelong refraining from sexual relations was the Christian ideal based on certain Greek and Roman philosophies in which it was a moral ideal. All of chapter 7 makes sense if we understand each subsection as Paul’s response, in essence, saying “no,” this principle cannot be made an absolute but apart from heterosexual men and women, one of each, paired together after a public marriage ceremony, committing themselves to each other for life and being faithful to those promises, celibacy should be practiced. Paul can affirm the Corinthian slogan up to a point, but he has to qualify it in each specific category of people that he deals with in this chapter. He also adds one exception, just as Christ did in Matthew 5 and Matthew 19, divorce and therefore remarriage can be accepted in the case of sexual unfaithfulness, which therefore has already ruptured the marriage, or abandonment, particularly by an unbeliever with no intent to return or preserve the relationship. In other situations a believer should not divorce. If a believer has already initiated a divorce on other grounds, they should remain single or seek reconciliation if at all possible.
Chapters 8 through 10 deal with the issue of food sacrificed to idols and in essence enunciate three principles. This is an example of an area that falls outside of moral absolutes. This is an example of many grey areas in Christian ethics, grey in the sense that they are not black or white, there are no clear cut rules that apply in identical fashion to every situation, but there are broader principles that must come into play. First of all, when an issue is not inherently morally wrong, there is nothing wrong with eating meat or any particular kind of food that makes it sinful, one should ask if there are weaker brothers or sisters who might be led into sinning if they see fellow Christians engaging in this practice, or if they might be led into imitating their Christian brothers or sisters without having a clear conscience that such an action is acceptable for them. We cannot over emphasize how crucial it is to stress here that the weaker brother or sister is not merely someone who objects to a practice or who may be offended by a practice that is otherwise morally neutral, but who precisely because they object to or are offended by that practice are not in the least likely to imitate it. Let’s take an often-used example, drinking alcohol in moderation without drunkenness, clearly practiced in biblical times in both Testaments. There may be times to refrain from drinking alcohol if there are Christian brothers or sisters present who are alcoholics or recovering alcoholics who would be tempted to drink with a person but not be able to limit themselves to one or two drinks, or who might be able to so limit themselves but think that the practice is wrong and therefore sin against their consciences. In those situations Christians should refrain from drinking, even in moderation. But simply because there are Christians who object to the practice, but who are in no way likely to actually drink alcohol, does not qualify them for being a weaker brother or sister. This does not mean that we should not be concerned when it comes to offending them. There are other biblical passages about not causing unnecessary offense, but the language of stumbling in 1 Corinthians 8 to 10, in context (read chapter 8 particularly, and particularly carefully) makes it clear that in this setting the weaker brother or sister is one who will actually be led into sin or to sinning against their own conscience. In some situations, therefore, believers should voluntarily refrain.
The same principle is illustrated in chapter 9 by Paul’s willingness to refrain from accepting money for ministry from the community to which he is currently ministering in an era of patronage where those who gave large gifts to support traveling religious and philosophical teachers often assume that they had the right to call the shots in terms of what was taught and how it was taught. Paul will not be brought into bondage by this. But at the same time chapter 9 stresses the responsibility of Christians to take care of financially those who minister in a full-time way to their communities. He is not contradicting himself but simply applying the principle of not leading others into wrong, sinful behavior.
Chapter 10 stresses that there are times even in morally neutral areas for absolutes where behavior closely related to, but not identical to, the morally neutral issue is, in fact, absolutely wrong. In the case of food sacrifice to idols sold in the marketplace, the parallel experience would be food eaten in the context of a pagan worship service that had previously been sacrificed to idols. This is absolutely wrong, because a Christian participating in that which is actually worshipping a false god, not merely being an observer from the periphery to another religion’s worship, inherently includes that believer in the idolatrous practice. What is the unifying theme in Paul’s diverse strategies here? Chapter 9:19-23 puts it very clearly. He is not nearly as concerned for what certain in-house Christians may or may not think is right if they are unlikely to be involved in those practices themselves. He is desperately concerned with winning the outsider to Christ. If a morally neutral practice can be engaged in, in order to build bridges and friendships and pave the way for sharing the Gospel and leading people to the Lord, he will participate in a heartbeat, but if a practice is likely to lead someone away from the Lord, then he will do his best to avoid it (read verses 19-23 of 1 Corinthians 9 very carefully, please). These principles are simply summed up again in fashion applicable to the issue of food sacrificed to idols in 10:23-31.
Chapter 11 contains one of the more puzzling passages in the New Testament commanding men not to wear head coverings when they come before the Lord and women to wear head coverings. There are a whole host of meanings of such practices in the first century depending on whether one was Jewish or Greek or Roman, male or female, but all of them involve sending the proper, rather than improper, cultural signals to a watching audience that one was sexually faithful to one’s spouse, rather than not, and religiously faithful to God in Christ, rather than not. In cultures where head coverings or other forms of clothing or ways of adorning oneself do not communicate anything about one’s sexual or religious faithfulness, one obeys chapter 11 not through head coverings, but by asking what other manners of dress and outward appearance do or don’t convey such messages. The second half of chapter 11 turns to the use and the abuse of the Lord’s Supper. Here again the rich would have been able to come earlier to the original church meal, shared more food with one another and easily left too little for the poor who worked longer days, came later, and had less to bring themselves. Thus when verse 29 says – “those who eat and drink without discerning the body eat and drink judgment on themselves,” whatever else may be implied here, the context suggests that, first of all, these are people who are taking the Lord’s Supper without recognizing the body of Christ, without recognizing the church, without recognizing the fact that in Christ rich and poor are all equal in God’s eyes and all need equal access to the food and drink that symbolize that relationship with Jesus. It might revolutionize many of our churches if those we ask to refrain from taking the Lord’s Supper were those who had no regard for the poor in their midst in terms of sharing with them materially, but that is the context of 1 Corinthians 11.
Chapters 12 to 14 turn to the issue of spiritual gifts with chapter 12 teaching a variety of key principles such as every Christian from the moment of conversion on has at least one spiritual gift (v. 7). Not all have the same gift or should be encouraged to seek the same gift; the Spirit sovereignly decides who gets which (v. 11). All of the gifts are important, none should be minimized, none should be overly exalted, we are all interrelated, the beautiful metaphor of the body that dominates this chapter. Chapter 13 goes on to stress in a nutshell in context that the use of any gift without love is worthless.
And then chapter 14 narrows down the focus to the gifts of prophecy and tongues that appeared to be particularly troubling the church at Corinth and dividing them. Chapter 14 boils down to the claim that prophecy is to be preferred to tongues because it is more immediately intelligible; it is a word from the Lord in the language of the people to whom the prophet is speaking. A study of the concept of prophecy in both Testaments and in the relevant background literature suggests that it ranges all the way from prepared Spirit-filled preaching of what we today call sermons to the spontaneously-acquired, sudden, God-given burst of insight into his wisdom for a particular situation, which is then communicated to the congregation. Tongues, however, are never ruled out altogether even though they are said to be not nearly as significant as prophecy, but both gifts and by implication all the gifts must be monitored, there must be those who judge what is said, what ministry is performed, that it is in keeping with God’s word and in the spirit outlined in these chapters, mostly notably the spirit of love, and that an accountability mechanism be devised for at least temporarily silencing those claiming to use their gifts, but failing to meet these criteria. It is in this context very abruptly in verses 33 to 38 that women appear to be silenced. This cannot mean in every context in church life because back in 11:5 women were already praying or prophesying and Paul does not forbid that activity, but merely tells them to wear the proper head covering for the reasons we have already explained. Perhaps the best explanation, therefore, of the silencing of women in chapter 14 means that in the context of evaluating prophesy or tongues plus their interpretation, which together combine to form the equivalent of prophesy, eventually it will be the job of the highest levels of leadership of the church to determine the appropriateness of any such message and as will emerge as we continue through the epistles, it appears that this highest level of leadership in Paul’s day was reserved for men. In other contexts women are regularly seen as active and encouraged to be active participants and chapter 14 should not be viewed as silencing them in these contexts.
Finally, we turn to chapter 15 with its precious teaching on the factuality of the bodily resurrection of Jesus based on all of its eyewitnesses followed by its significance, namely, that we too can look forward to bodily resurrection, perfected sinless bodies with Christ and with fellow Christians forever. Chapter 16, much more briefly, anticipates a topic that Paul will turn to in much greater detail in 2 Corinthians, a collection for the impoverished believers in and around Judea and encourages planned, generous giving. He closes with his travel plans and final greetings.
As we attempt to summarize the teaching of 1 Corinthians theologically the center of the Christian message is the crucifixion, that is what Paul determined to know nothing but in 2:2, but given the span of topics the letter communicates it is clear that he does not mean he taught on no other topic, but that this was the unifying theme of his message. And, of course, crucifixion is meaningless without the resurrection, so it is not coincidence that the second to the last chapter has a detailed defense of that doctrine just as the second chapter centers on the necessary prelude or precursor to the resurrection, the crucifixion of Jesus. The governing principle of Christian behavior, therefore, is what promotes unity and true maturity in the church, a necessary prelude to successful evangelism as we saw in John 17 and perhaps the most significant way of distinguishing God’s people from the world’s, those who in true humility serve others above self rather than competing for honor and status. Already we see the massive potential for contemporary application and the massive need for contemporary application. 1 Corinthians is by far the most detailed and practical New Testament letter dealing with a huge array of problems in a very immature church that thought it was mature and it is perhaps the best illustration of a balanced Christian life. Over and over again Paul refuses to exclude behavior that was so often being abused, instead he walks a tightrope, seeks theological balance, refuses to exclude morally neutral behavior that, in fact, can be good and proper for up building the church. Such activity as close association with pagans, such activity as women in key positions of teaching and leadership and preaching, such activity as eating the food without question that is served to one in a pagan’s home, questions such as allowing and even encouraging within the right framework prophecy and tongues, and yet in every case guarding against the kind of abuse that the Corinthians were afflicted with by laying down the principles for the right use of each of these practices. One commentator has referred to this as Paul’s “Yes, but” logic. Unfortunately throughout the history of Christianity too many believers have missed out half of this summary. Either in their eagerness to affirm the culture and to relate to it they say nothing but “yes” without the appropriate restrictions or fearing the compromising influence of culture they say only “but,” they speak only of restrictions, or perhaps more subtly they say “but, yes,” that is, they do acknowledge some positive value, but the first and primary emphasis is the negative warning. It would appear Paul’s approach, again summed up in 9:19-23 is “yes, but.” The first thought is how to relate to culture – how to affirm anything possible in the beliefs and practices of those who are not yet Christians, “but” there will be some things that cannot be affirmed and those are warned against.