Reading through the first letter of S. Paul to the Thessalonians

Looking through the Church calendars for tomorrow (August the fourth), there is an entry immediately after that of the great memorial for Saint Jean-Marie Vianney, the Curé of Ars, and it is for an early Christian Saint, a Macedonian called Aristarchus. This is the entry in English:

“Commemoration of Saint Aristarchus of Thessalonika, who was a disciple of the Apostle Saint Paul and a faithful companion to him on his journeys, being also a fellow-prisoner with him in Rome.”

Roman Martyrology, August the 4th

The church at Thessalonika was one of Saint Paul’s first, and we still have two letters he dictated for that church in our New Testaments. Thessalonika was then as now a natural port and harbour, and in a central position in the Greek mainland, as crucial today as it was in the days of Saint Paul. There was undoubtedly a large Jewish population there, with a synagogue and everything else. Paul was at this point part of a small missionary group with his tireless helper from Asia Minor, Timothy, who would later become bishop of Ephesus. It cannot be ascertained when Saint Aristarchus first met Paul, but we know that he suffered as Paul’s companion at the insurrection of the pagan craftsmen in Ephesus in the nineteenth chapter of the Acts, and we discover in the next chapter that he had followed Paul afterwards down to Caesarea and Jerusalem. Two years later, when Paul was led off to Rome to have his case examined by Caesar, Aristarchus accompanied him again, as noted in the twenty-seventh chapter of the Acts. Doubtless, he shared Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, for the letter to Philemon that we have, which was written then, makes mention of him also, as also does the contemporary letter to the Colossians. Tradition notes that Aristarchus, like Peter and Paul, perished in the great persecutions of the Church during the reign of Nero.

Let’s see what we can get from the first letter to the Thessalonians. The letter begins with a Paul’s usual statement of affection for the new church he has built and nurtured through constant correspondence over the years. Paul is gratified that they have been faithful to the teaching he had given them, and they have become co-workers with him in the evangelical mission:

“Our preaching to you did not depend upon mere argument; power was there, and the influence of the Holy Spirit, and an effect of full conviction; you can testify what we were to you and what we did for you. And on your side, you followed our example, the Lord’s example. There was great persecution, and yet you welcomed our message, rejoicing in the Holy Spirit; and now you have become a model to all the believers throughout Macedonia and Achaia.”

I Thessalonians, 1: 5-7

And they had sheltered Paul and his fellow apostles, whom they had thus found to be upright and humble men, who did not abuse the rights they had within the Church as apostles. They had even conducted their own businesses, so as not to place any financial pressures on the Thessalonian church; we know that this was Paul’s practice anyway, since he continued to work as a tent-maker during his missionary years.

“We never used the language of flattery, you will bear us out in that; nor was it, God knows, an excuse for enriching ourselves; we have never asked for human praise, yours or another’s, although, as apostles of Christ, we might have made heavy demands on you. No, you found us innocent as babes in your company; no nursing mother ever cherished her children more; in our great longing for you, we desired nothing better than to offer you our own lives, as well as God’s gospel, so greatly had we learned to love you. Brethren, you can remember how we toiled and laboured, all the time we were preaching God’s gospel to you, working day and night so as not to burden you with expense.”

I Thessalonians, 2: 5-9

It seems that Paul had always been torn between the desire to remain with the churches he had built for some prolonged period, or at least visit them frequently, and the desire to forge onwards to the creation of newer churches. But their freedom was frequently impeded by the circumstances, for Paul says at the end of this second chapter that he had planned a journey to Salonika, but ‘more than once Satan has put obstacles in our way.’ When such things happened, Paul would send somebody else out instead, and he mentions here that he sent Timothy instead to them, for pastoral support, bringing a full report back to Father Paul:

“That was my reason for sending him, when I could bear it no longer, to make sure of your faith; it might be that the tempter of souls had been tempting you, and that all our labour would go for nothing. Now that Timothy has come back to us from seeing you, and told us about your faith and love, and the kind remembrance you have of us all the while, longing for our company as we long for yours, your faith has brought us comfort, brethren, amidst all our difficulties and trials. If only you stand firm in the Lord, it brings fresh life to us.”

I Thessalonians, 3: 5-8

The security of the churches brought great comfort to Paul’s mind; he certainly had a fatherly concern for these people and for their personal holiness, whom he had only recently met, for he oftentimes claimed to have begotten them for God and called them ‘little children.’ Chapter four contains the moral lessons of this letter, which is directed primarily towards adultery and fornication, which may have been a particular concern in Thessalonika.

“What God asks of you is that you should sanctify yourselves, and keep clear of fornication. Each of you must learn to control his own body, as something holy and held in honour, not yielding to the promptings of passion, as the heathen do in their ignorance of God. None of you is to be exorbitant, and take advantage of his brother, in his business dealings. For all such wrong-doing God exacts punishment; we have told you so already, in solemn warning. The life to which God has called us is not one of incontinence, it is a life of holiness, and to despise it is to despise, not man, but God, the God who has implanted his Holy Spirit in us.”

I Thessalonians, 4: 3-8

Even that mention of taking advantage of another in his business dealings is sometimes seen as indicating adultery with another man’s wife. There also seems to have been overmuch concern about the fate of those who had died, with much profuse lamentation, leading to Paul’s celebrated account of the ‘rapture,’ when God will claim His own; this section does not have to be taken literally, word for word, as many seem to do, although it does seem as if those who have died before the final coming of Christ will rise to their reward before those who will be living on that day:

“Make no mistake, brethren, about those who have gone to their rest; you are not to lament over them, as the rest of the world does, with no hope to live by. We believe, after all, that Jesus underwent death and rose again; just so, when Jesus comes back, God will bring back those who have found rest through him. This we can tell you as a message from the Lord himself; those of us who are still left alive to greet the Lord’s coming will not reach the goal before those who have gone to their rest. No, the Lord himself will come down from heaven to summon us, with an archangel crying aloud and the trumpet of God sounding; and first of all the dead will rise up, those who died in Christ. Only after that shall we, who are still left alive, be taken up into the clouds, be swept away to meet Christ in the air, and they will bear us company. And so we shall be with the Lord for ever.”

I Thessalonians, 4: 12-16

And Paul repeats the common Christian warning that would later be carefully placed into the Gospels for us: Christ will return suddenly, without warning, so we’d best be ready!

“…the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. It is just when men are saying, ‘All quiet, all safe,’ that doom will fall upon them suddenly, like the pangs that come to a woman in travail, and there will be no escape from it. Whereas you, brethren, are not living in the darkness, for the day to take you by surprise, like a thief; no, you are all born to the light, born to the day; we do not belong to the night and its darkness. We must not sleep on, then, like the rest of the world, we must watch and keep sober; night is the sleeper’s time for sleeping, the drunkard’s time for drinking; we must keep sober, like men of the daylight.”

I Thessalonians, 5: 2-8

Meanwhile, Christians are to esteem in particular the clergy among them, their spiritual directors, and generally support one another in the faith, being singular in patience.

“Go on, then, encouraging one another and building up one another’s faith. Brethren, we would ask you to pay deference to those who work among you, those who have charge of you in the Lord, and give you directions; make it a rule of charity to hold them in special esteem, in honour of the duty they perform, and maintain unity with them. And, brethren, let us make this appeal to you; warn the vagabonds, encourage the faint-hearted, support the waverers, be patient towards all.”

I Thessalonians, 5: 11-14

The rest of the letter consists of one line instructions that we would even today make to one another: do the best for your neighbour, always be joyful, keep praying, thank God always, may He bless and sanctify you, pray for the bishops, etc. And that, with some things passed over, is the letter to the Thessalonians, the people one of the first of the Greek churches, which is still very proud of its association with the Apostle.