Skip to content

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

October 20, 2014

In the ancient Roman world there were many people who traveled from town to town, preaching a message, and getting free room and board in return from a generous homeowner.  They called themselves prophets or philosophers or teachers or exorcists or healers.  Jesus had an itinerant ministry such as this, as did his disciples, as did Paul.  Which means that when Paul came to towns such as Thessalonica to preach his message, he probably wasn’t the only itinerant preacher in town.  There were probably lots of people who came through town preaching one thing or another, offering something in order to get something.

As one might imagine, such a practice would be ripe for abuse.  All kinds of people would be claiming to be God-sent prophets when in reality they were simply out-of-work drifters looking for some accommodations.  Many a street beggar must have figured out that one could get a lot more donations if one pretended to have a divine calling.  There must have been all kinds of traveling frauds selling magic potions or offering to read one’s future in one’s palm.  It was an easy gig:  pretend to possess something that other people want–a message, a truth, a healing power–and then get free food, free accommodations, and some pocket change.  And then, after people tire of you, or figure out that what you’re selling doesn’t really work, just move on to the next town.

This of course made the general public skeptical of all traveling preachers.  How could you tell the God-inspired ones from the self-centered hucksters?  This was a challenge Paul (and Jesus and his disciples) faced every time he stepped into a new town to preach good news.  People would have been skeptical of Paul’s motives and truthfulness–and understandably so.  Paul had to convince them that he was utterly sincere.  We see in these verses, in what is probably the earliest letter we have from Paul, his assuring the new converts in Thessalonica that he really is being genuine.

In verses 3-6 he mentions all the things disreputable preachers do that he did not do:  deceit, impure motives, trickery, trying to please people, flattery, greed, and seeking praise.  Instead, he (and Silvanus and Timothy, his traveling companions) was gentle, tenderly caring, and self-giving (verses 7-8).

I think Paul distinguished himself from the many itinerant hucksters in these principle ways:  First, he was utterly sincere when he claimed to be sent by God.  There can be no doubt of Paul’s own genuine conversion from being a persecutor of the church to becoming a missionary for the church.  He had his own encounter with the risen Christ and received a message that he considered given to him directly by God.

Second, Paul’s message was not a feel-good message designed to make him popular.  It was fantastic news–God has conquered the power of sin and death–but it was also politically subversive news:  Jesus (not Caesar) is Lord!  Paul’s message meant that people needed to make radical changes in their lives, and the gods of the Roman Empire had to be ignored.  For patriotic Romans this message must have been quite offensive, and for people who preferred to live self-centered lives Paul’s message would have no appeal at all.

Third, Paul willingly paid the price for his subversive message by being beaten, jailed, run out of town, and nearly stoned to death.  Ultimately, he was executed in Rome.

Fourth, Paul intentionally limited his dependence on the hospitality of others by, whenever possible, working for his own food and upkeep.  He was a tent-maker, and he continued that trade even while engaging in his itinerant ministry.

Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, Paul embodied his message of love by being a loving person.  He did not act like a dictator.  He did not demand obedience.  He did not want people groveling before him.  He did not demand to be treated “as an apostle” (even though he was one).  Instead, he was gentle and humble and self-giving.  The authority he exercised in the churches he planted was the authority of persuasion, growing out of the integrity of his life and the respectful way he had treated the people in the congregation.  Of course, Paul had his own flaws, but he was no huckster.

Today in our society we no longer have itinerant preachers, prophets, healers going from town to town.  Instead, we have hucksters on TV and social media and in book sales and videos.  Some of them use religion as their gig.  Which ones have a genuine message from God?  Are they trying to please us or challenge us?  Are they helping us become more self-giving or selfish?  Are they drawing attention to themselves and their products (for a price) or to the source of all meaning and goodness and love?  Do their own lives have integrity?  Are they willing to suffer for what they proclaim?

Not many would pass those tests today.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: