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Final Instructions May 1, 2013

Posted by flashbuzzer in Books, Christianity.
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Here are my thoughts on 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28.

Summary: Paul begins by warning the Thessalonians that they must have regard for their pastors, as their pastors:

  • build up the church
  • govern it in Christ’s name
  • instruct them.

They should love their pastors and cultivate peace with them. He also commands them to:

  • admonish the idle
  • console the fainthearted
  • treat the weak kindly
  • be lenient with all fellow believers.

They are to take special care to not retaliate after being hurt; they should cultivate a kind spirit toward everybody.

Paul then tells the Thessalonians to keep calm in adversity through constant prayer, since they know that God tenderly embraces them in Christ.

Next, Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to be on their guard against laziness, which chokes God’s light in them. Also, they should not despise interpretations of Scripture that are properly applied in the church. They must judge everything they hear before condemning or accepting any teaching; moreover, they must abstain from the kind of teaching that has an appearance of being evil.

Paul then prays that God would completely renew the Thessalonians; he desires that their thoughts, their affections and their deeds would be kept entirely pure and unpolluted. He reminds them that God has adopted them, and so He will not leave the work of His hands unfinished.

Paul declares his affection to all believers. He concludes by commanding those who initially receive his letter to show it to the entire church, and he wishes God’s unmerited favor on them.

Thoughts: In verses 20-22, Paul instructs the Thessalonians regarding proper interpretation of Scripture. Calvin offers some varied thoughts on this point in his commentary on verse 21:

He forbade them from condemning anything without first examining it. He also told them to exercise judgment before receiving any teaching as being true…This opens the door to impostors who peddle their false teaching. I answer that in this instance he did not at all require that such false teachers should be given a hearing. Elsewhere Paul taught that the mouths of false teachers must be closed.

I am unsure as to how we should interpret this passage. Should the Thessalonians always examine prophecies to gauge their veracity? Or should they immediately reject prophecies that appear to be false (of course, this implies that they have made at least a cursory examination of these prophecies)?

If the former approach is correct, then one can view the problem of gauging the veracity of prophecies through the lens of signal detection theory. One can think of false prophecies as ambient “noise”. As believers, our objective is to detect true prophecies as “signals” given the presence of this noise. Occasionally we get “false alarms” where we believe that we have heard a true prophecy, but it is actually a false prophecy that has been skillfully delivered by its speaker. Occasionally we get “missed detects” where we fail to recognize that a true prophecy has just been delivered, as the speaker has been unable to adequately convey their point. Now we desire that:

  • the probability of detection be unity
  • the probability of false alarm be zero

though we will never be able to achieve either of these quantities (let alone simultaneously) in this life due to human imperfections.

In verse 27, Paul commands those Thessalonians who initially receive his letter to ensure that it is read to the entire church. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point:

It is not clear if Paul feared that, as often happened, spiteful and envious people would suppress this letter or if he wanted to guard against some other danger – perhaps that some people on account of ill-advised caution would read it to only a small number of people without showing it to everyone. There will always be some people who say there is no advantage in making things widely known even though they recognize those things are excellent. Satan could contrive many tricks or pretexts in order to keep the letter from being read by everyone, and we deduce from Paul’s words how much he opposed this happening.

Given the overall tone of the letter, it is unlikely that the Thessalonian church harbored a disobedient group of believers who wanted to jealously guard Paul’s teachings for themselves. If that had been the case, Paul would have nipped that problem in the bud earlier in the letter. Most likely the Thessalonian church did include some believers who, due to their lack of understanding, would have kept the letter to themselves, as they did not see the necessity of having it read to the entire church. This compelled Paul to be explicit in his instructions, as his teachings were so important that everyone needed to hear them.

Now that I have completed my stroll through this letter, I have a better understanding of its similarity to the letter to the Philippians. While the tone of both letters is fairly pleasant, they also contain a non-negligible number of exhortations. Paul recognized that neither church was perfect, and so the believers in both churches needed to continually grow and strive to be found blameless and holy at the Second Coming of Christ. As an aside, one interesting difference between these two letters centers on Paul’s initial fear that his ministry among the Thessalonians would have been fruitless. I am definitely looking forward to meeting most of the Thessalonian church in the next life and learning how they responded to this letter; for example, how did they view the resurrection after reading Paul’s instructions in that regard?

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