SURPRISED BY AFFECTIONThere’s no doubt in my mind that 1 Thessalonians is the warmest NT letter Paul wrote. Philippians is warm too, of course, but it doesn’t have the sustained tone of 1 Thessalonians.
The letter may be the earliest writing in the NT and it's written to a new congregation of Gentiles who were influenced by the teaching of the OT covenant [see Acts 17:1-4]. They gave their lives to the Lord Jesus and a divide developed between them and the Jews [Acts 17:5]. What they would now hear from Paul would be a new way to view and respond to the OT. He would have and did teach these new converts from a pagan world that living in the Lord Jesus and having life independent of the Mosaic covenant would not mean they could live lawless lives like the pagans [1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, note especially 1-2].
[To speak ceaselessly to Christians today about the pursuit of moral excellence as if they were first century, just-out-of-paganism people makes no sense. Living lives worthy of the Lord Jesus and to walk "worthy of God" we should speak about! Yes! But every week, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation? Ceaselessly? Might as well teach ceaselessly about ancient Jewish worship because the Hebrew writer centered his appeal to Jews on that.]
Moving on. Read the short letter for yourself and note the various expressions of his deep feeling for this newly formed congregation. I’m following the NIV here but any version will do.
He speaks of himself having been “torn” from them [2:17]. He speaks of his profound concern for their welfare this way, “When we could stand it no longer” [3:1, 5].
Then in 3:8, having mentioned that their faith kept him on his feet he says, “For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.” Now we truly live, he says—is that not marvellous?
But that isn’t enough and he bursts out [3:9], “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you.”
Again, in 3:12, he prays that they will be enriched in love and that it will overflow towards others “just as ours does for you.”
But there’s something in 2:8 that is confessional; a confession made with a suggestion of surprise in it. Paul loved all his little churches with the love of the Lord, of course, but 2:8 sounds like something happened with the Thessalonians that Paul hadn’t expected. He always preached the truth in love wherever he went but when he speaks of his experience with the Thessalonians this is how he puts it [following the NEB which goes with the NIV and the other versions]: “With such yearning love we chose to impart to you not only the gospel of God but our very selves, so dear had you become to us.” So dear had you become to us, he says. Here is a pragmatic, stern, hard-working soldier of the blessed Lord Jesus who was surprised by a deep affection for these strangers he had only recently come to know.
In essence he said, “I certainly wanted to give the gospel to you, it’s the mission of my life but in the brief time I spent with you I found I wanted to give my very self to you because…because you had become so dear to me.”
It’s true that there were more than Paul there, because over and over again he speaks of his fellows in the gospel [“we”] but a close reading suggests that Paul in particular felt the closeness of this surprising and lovely bond that appeared. In 3:1 he says “When we could stand it no longer,” but in 3:5 he says, “For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith.”
[I can’t remember where I read this point of “surprise” but it's a lovely insight.]
Friendship that is made even sweeter by a common purpose and destiny—but still friendship—is one of God’s superlative gifts. Even a sound happy marriage that doesn’t at some point become a deep friendship has not yet reached its wondrous potential.
Holy One, thank you for people who came to stay. Thank you for people who drew us into a surprising affection that they have become so dear to us. Thank you too for those lovely people, our children, our spouses and parents and family members for whom we feel such deep affection that doesn’t surprise us. Thank you for the delight we experience when we see the warm side of your brave stern soldiers of the cross.