We continue our re-visiting of the life of Saint Paul
St Paul Writes from Corinth
ST. PAUL’S VERY FIRST LETTERS WHICH WE HAVE, WERE WRITTEN IN 51-52 AD from Corinth when Paul was 47–49 years old. Six years and thousands of missionary miles later, now aged 53–55 years, he once again wrote from Corinth.
As we have seen, Corinth lies 40 miles west of Athens on the Ionian coast, a few miles across a narrow neck of land from the Aegean port of Cenchrae. Two hundred miles of coastline separated the two ports, including the treacherous Cape Malea
Here Paul, after being effectively driven out of the synagogue, taught from the house of a convert – Titius Justus – next door to the synagogue. Re-assured by a vision of Our Lord, he remained in Corinth preaching and teaching for 18 months.
Busy as he was in his very successful preaching to the Gentiles in Corinth (and also converting Crispus, the leader of the synagogue and his household), Paul still bore in his heart and mind the converts he had made in Thessalonica. It is that fatherly concern which led him to write the first and second letters to the Thessalonians in 51–51 A.D.
|The Temple of Apollo in Ancient Corinth|
He had already been a Catholic (though the term was yet to be coined ¬— but we should not forget that reality) for 17 or 18 years. Transformed by hi miraculous encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, and tempered by his years of prayer and fasting in the desert of Arabia, he had now been active in preaching and teaching for some years.
The Thessalonians are his spiritual children. Realist that he is, Paul knows that these converts from paganism will need continuing encouragement and more teaching than he had been able to give them when he first brought them to Christ. For this very reason he had sent his trusted young co-worker Timothy to them. Timothy we recall was himself a convert, from Lystra in Lycaonia (part of modern Turkey), son of a Gentile father and a Jewish mother. Paul had come to rely on him as on a son.
And what word does Timothy bring back to Paul of his Thessalonian converts? He “brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us as we long to see you – for this reason brethren in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith; for now we live if you stand fast in the Lord.”
In Paul’s first letter to the Catholics of Thessalonica we get an indirect glimpse of the local church he had formed. Here was a group of believers entirely counter-cultural to the pagan world around them – a world in which divorce, abortion, infanticide, promiscuity, homosexuality greed, slavery and cruelty were the norm Paul’s converts had forsaken all of this to follow Christ as he had preached Him. They looked forward confidently, keenly and enthusiastically to the Second Coming –the Parousia when their heavenly life would gloriously begin. Some were so strongly expectant that they saw no need to work or to be involved in the humdrum tasks of everyday life – glorious eternity was due any day they thought, why bother?
|Ruins of the Forum of Ancient Thessalonika surrounded by modern Salonika.|
So Paul has his concerns, but good and wise father that he is, he carefully praises all that is good in what they have achieved. He encourages them to persevere in matters of physical morality – knowing the weakness of our human flesh and the seductions of their old pagan lives surrounding them. Knowing that God is love, as St. John would soon write, Paul counsels them to keep building up their love for one another.
Then he firmly presents the necessary correction –there must be no idlers. No one can know when the Lord will come – no-one will know. Everyone must work to support themselves, even as Paul had done when he was with them (with his tent making). He had the right to rely on their support, he points out – but he did not. Everyone in the community must work, he emphasises, not only for their own and the community’s good, but to ensure their good reputation among the pagan observers.
Some in the community were concerned that those of their number who had died since Paul’s time with them might not share in the Lord’s coming. Paul is quick to re-assure them that those who have died will most certainly be taken up by the Lord, as well as the living, at His coming.
Paul concludes by urging them to value and support the clergy he has left to lead their community and to be at peace among themselves. “Rejoice always, pray constantly” he urges them, “… do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast to what is good, abstain from every form of evil”.
Within a year Paul writes again to the Thessalonians, as in the first letter, sending greetings not only from himself, but from Silvanus and Timothy also.
The Thessalonians are enduring “afflictions”. The persecutors were no doubt the same Jewish elements who had Paul brought before the magistrates and had him driven out of Thessalonica and pursued and harassed him even on to Beroea. He reminds them that in God’s justice they will be granted rest when the Lord comes and those who afflict them now will then be punished. He assures them of his continual prayers for their welfare.
This letter is short and is, as it acknowledges, written in response to reports Paul has received about current issues among the Thessalonians. The real heart of the letter concerns the Second Coming which is still a matter causing disturbance among them. Paul emphasises that they must hold fast to what he has taught them and they must totally ignore anyone or any letter purporting to come from him, saying that the time is at hand. No-one will know the time in advance.
In any case Paul reminds them of the detail of his teaching especially regarding the Anti-Christ – the “man of lawlessness”, the son of perdition who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.”
He re-emphasises the detail of his teaching regarding the Anti-Christ:
they are aware of what is restraining him now;
the mystery of lawlessness is already at work;
the Lord Jesus will destroy the Anti-Christ “with the breath of His mouth ‘at His coming;
the Anti-Christ will come with “power and pretended signs and wonders” by the activity of Satan.
He will succeed with all wicked deception against those who refused to love the truth and so be saved. This “rebellion” caused by the Anti-Christ will precede the Second Coming.
It is clear from all of this that the Apostolic teaching in this matter was quite precise and firm. The message retains its validity to-day.
He closes asking for their prayers and once again warning against idlers and slackers urging that they be treated as erring brothers, admonished lovingly but firmly.
He closes the letter with his own special authenticating mark and imparts his blessing: “The grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.”
As we come to consider the writings of St. Paul we can only marvel at the Divine Providence which has preserved these sacred texts for us. The existing manuscripts are in Greek: the Codex Sinaiticus (4th Century) and Codex Vaticanus (4th Century), and in Old Latin and Syriac Versions: Codex Alexandrinus (5th Century) which trace the text back to the middle of the second century, around 90 years after St. Paul’s martyrdom.
The Apostolic Fathers provide very many instances of the use of these texts as Sacred Scripture:
St Ignatius of Antioch (d A.D. 110-17) uses “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess.v 17) and writing to the Romans follows Pauline teaching in “I will that you please not man, but God”(1 Thess. ii 4).
The “Pastor” of Hermas (A.D.140)several times uses “be at peace among yourselves” (1 Thess. v 13).
St Irenaeus (A.D.181-9) cites 1 Thess.v 23 expressly as a quote
Tertullian (b A.D. 160) quotes passages at length from each of the five chapters of 1 Thess. in support of the resurrection of the Body.
St Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 190 – 210)repeatedly cites 1 Thess. in his writings.
So with great humility we come to these texts, usually dictated by St. Paul to an amanuensis, realising that from the very dawn of the life of the Catholic Church, they have sustained, encouraged and guided our brethren far distant in time, even as they do the very same for us to –day. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit still.
COPYRIGHT This article first appeared in the November, 2008 issue of FOUNDATION.