Monday, 3 February 2014

The Epistles Part 1

                                 Thoughts about Galatians and Thessalonians

Paul’s first two missionary journeys left behind a turbulent wake of activity in Galatia. Amongst the Jews who had settled in that area he and his companions had caused consternation and division, some of which mirrored the reaction of the Jewish authorities to Jesus. Then amongst those who accepted the new teaching there was further division, especially regarding the status of Gentiles who became believers, and about the ritual procedures by which they were to be integrated into the faith community.
                The way he introduces himself at the start hints at what is to come. The emphasis on the authority of Jesus Christ sets out his intent to refute accusations that he was compromising the Gospel simply to attract Gentile converts. After the greeting he denounces any attempt to water down the Gospel, calling it ‘no gospel at all’ (1:7). He then proceeds to give a ‘warts-and-all’ account of the manner in which he came to be called by God and the affirmations he received from other apostles. His account of his disagreement with Peter (2:11-14) sets the scene for his argument against the Judaisers, the people seeking to enforce Jewish customs upon the Gentile believers.
                The foundation for Paul’s argument in this letter is that blood lines and observance of the Law count for nothing. To emphasise this he goes back to the very beginnings of the nation of Israel and the relationship which Abraham had with God, a relationship which pre-dated the Law-giving and which was based upon Abraham’s faith. The promise given to Abraham is inherited through faith and not confined to one nation or one set of rituals (3:9). The promises of God cannot be overwritten and the Law, though necessary and important, was only ever temporary. Important to this is his emphasis of the seed of Abraham being singular and referring to Jesus (3:16).
                Through various means Paul tries to impress upon his readers that the real inheritance is through faith in Jesus; that this is the way to freedom. The Law is the way of enslavement. Freedom is characterised by life in the Spirit which benefits not only the individual believer but also all around.  The theme of the New Creation will appear in another later letter but this is where Paul introduces the idea. (6:15) Don’t perpetuate old practices. Start again.
                From the outset the letters to the people of Thessalonica carry a very different tone. Paul had only been able to make a brief visit to this the capital city of Macedonia. He had fled from there to Berea and then again fled from Berea to Athens and finally on to Corinth from which place he then wrote to encourage the new converts. It seems that there was great persecution in that area and so the fact that a church remained and grew in that region was remarkable. Concerned about the spiritual well-being of this young church, Paul wrote, probably responding to questions and concerns raised with Timothy who then returned to Paul. These letters were probably written about twenty years after the crucifixion of Jesus so perhaps it is not surprising that they centre mainly on the question of the Second Coming which many early Christians, including Paul himself, thought was already overdue.
                Although different in tone from the Galatian letter, it would seem that there had been some question over the legitimacy of Paul’s apostleship. So, as in Galatians but in a different way Paul seeks to explain himself and point out the manner in which he lived among the Thessalonians. (1Thess 2) Then he emphasises the need for living in a holy and honourable way (1 Thess 4:1-12) which has parallels with some of the teaching in Galatians 5.
                But what was to happen to all those who had died in those twenty years since Jesus had promised he would come again? Paul has wrestled with this on many occasions and will refer to it again in later letters. Here he affirmed that Jesus had promised that those who had already died would not miss out (1 Thess 4:15). Such reassurances are not recorded in the Gospels so Paul’s confidence is based either on direct revelation or on oral tradition at that time. The rest of the letter is concerned with instructing the believers to be watchful, cautious but active in the faith – and that does resonate with Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 & 25.

                The second letter, written about six months after the first (it is believed), continues the warnings and reassurances and prayers regarding the Second Coming. Perhaps Silas and Timothy returned from delivering the first letter with even more questions and worries which Paul felt needed to be addressed quickly. Paul spells out the signs to watch for (2 Thess 2:1-12) but then urges the readers to stand firm and remain active as well as prayerful.