Why Do We Need Paul’s Epistolary “Stepchild”? For Its 2 Stories — An Excerpt from John Byron’s “1 & 2 Thessalonians” (SGBC)
When you think of Paul you probably don’t immediately think of 1 and 2 Thessalonians.
That’s because they are what John Byron calls “the stepchild of the Pauline corpus.” (1)
In his new commentary on the letters, Byron explains that, while they are often overlooked and neglected, we need them because of their two stories. As Byron describes in the excerpt below:
- The first story is about us as much as it is about the Thessalonians, because it’s about a group of believers “struggling to understand their identity in God and the way the church functions in a world that is often hostile toward them.” (1)
- The other story is about God: “it is not a story that starts with Thessalonica. The Story of God begins with the Story of Israel.” (2)
These two stories remind us who we are as much as who God is, so read the excerpt below to be reminded why we need this epistolary stepchild.
In some ways, Thessalonians is the stepchild of the Pauline corpus. The letters are probably the earliest documents of the New Testament. Yet in spite of their antiquity, they are often overlooked and not given the type of consideration usually given to larger letters like Romans and the Corinthian correspondence. Some of this is due to a lack of the normal Pauline theological motifs, such as law vs. grace, circumcision vs. uncircumcision, Jew vs. Gentile, and Paul’s defense of his claim to be an apostle. Indeed the absence of any of the theological themes that helped spur the Reformation led nineteenth-century New Testament scholar F. C. Baur to declare them to be non-Pauline. While few would follow Baur’s conclusion today (at least about 1 Thessalonians), the situation is still not much better. Apart from readings of 1 Thessalonians 4:13 – 18 at funerals and a preoccupation by some with the “end times” (1 Thess 4:13 – 5:11; 2 Thess 2:1 – 12), these two letters do not always receive the level of attention they should.
Yet these two small letters hold some important theological themes for readers of the New Testament as well as hints about the history of Paul and his ministry. Not giving attention to them is to ignore an important source for understanding Paul’s theology and ministry. These letters are just as important to the modern church as Romans and Galatians. As the church moves further into the twenty-first century, many are rethinking the identity and function of the church in the world. Indeed, many are wondering if the church can function at all in this new century while others have abandoned the church altogether. It is within this context that the letters to the Thessalonians become important to us. These letters are more than short missives trying to reassure a group of discouraged and misguided Christians. They tell a story about a first-century group of believers in Thessalonica struggling to understand their identity in God and the way the church functions in a world that is often hostile toward them. In these letters Paul explains how the Thessalonians are part of the Story of God — an ancient story that begins with Israel and has expanded to include the church.
The Story of God
The Bible is full of “stories.” As children in Sunday school we are taught stories like Noah’s ark, David and Goliath, Daniel and the lions’ den, Jesus and Zacchaeus, and Paul and Barnabas. While there is nothing inherently wrong with teaching the Bible this way, it tends to collapse the Bible into a cluster of seemingly disconnected parts. The result is that while we may know the different stories of the Bible, we don’t always appreciate the way that these stories are part of the larger story of the Bible — the story of what God is doing in the world. We tend to know some stories well and others not so well. And it is easy for us, as Scot McKnight points out, to think that the story of the Bible consists of three parts: creation, fall, and redemption. But the Story of God in the Bible is not simply creation, fall, and redemption. As McKnight puts it: “The story of the Bible is creation, fall, and then covenant community — page after page of community — as the context in which our wonderful redemption takes place.”
One goal of this commentary series is to place each book of the Bible in the context of the overall story of the Bible, which is the Story of God. As we begin to think about what Paul says in these letters, it is helpful to take a step back and get the “God’s-eye” view on what he is doing. On the surface it is clear that Paul is writing to a group of people who have come to faith in Jesus and are now struggling in the wake of that decision. But he is doing more than simply responding to a situation. Paul is telling a story — the story of how God brought the gospel to Thessalonica and chose a people to be part of a new community. He reminds them what God has done in the past, what God has done since then, and what God will do in the future.
In sum, when Paul’s letters are read within the larger context of the New Testament and the Bible, what we discover is the Story of God. But it is not a story that starts with Thessalonica. The Story of God begins with the Story of Israel. And if we want to understand the Story of God in Thessalonica, we need to first understand the Story of Israel as part of the Story of God. The place to begin is with Abraham. Unlike Paul’s letters to the Galatians and the Romans, he never mentions Abraham in Thessalonians. But the story is there, even if just below the surface…