In his little book Reading Paul: (Cascade Companions) Michael Gorman argues that Paul needs to be “read as Scripture, as—to be blunt—the voice of God speaking to us”. The historical distance between then and now needs to be understood, but it should not get in the way of hearing Paul address us directly as the church. We “read Paul best when we read him speaking to us and for God” (3-4). The letters, therefore, are not merely “someone else’s mail”; they are pastoral letters written to “all who share the faith of Paul’s first letter-recipients”.
They should therefore not be read as philosophical or theological discourses—though they are quite rhetorically sophisticated—but as documents of spiritual formation. (28)
Well, yes, documents of formation certainly—but two points to pick up on. The first is that by making this a matter of spiritual formation Gorman has loosened the documents from their narrative context. Paul’s letters, I would maintain, are documents of eschatological formation, they form eschatological communities, and 1 Thessalonians is a clear example. There is naturally a spiritual component to this function, but the eschatological concern should not be reduced to it—and certainly not displaced by it. Paul is dealing with history primarily, not spirituality.
The second point is that as documents of eschatological formation the letters of Paul cannot so easily be characterized as the voice of God speaking to us. The eschatology demonstrated in 1 Thessalonians does not permit the modern reader to transport himself or herself into the action. It’s not our eschatology. It’s not our crisis. So in what sense are the texts God’s word to us?
It’s not as difficult as is sometimes thought to connect the letter with Luke’s account of the beginning of the Thessalonian church. A “great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women” (Acts 17:4) were led to abandon the worship of idols in order to “serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:9–10).
This very unevangelical—in the modern sense—account of their conversion reveals the substance of the “word of the Lord” or “gospel” which they had accepted as true. It was the proclamation that the God of Israel had raised Jesus from the dead, that Jesus was therefore the Christ (Acts 17:3), the Son of God, that he would be the judge and ruler of the pagan world (cf. Acts 17:31), and that he would deliver from this wrath to come those Gentiles who had acted in accordance with this political-religious announcement. This is what Paul meant by the phrase “hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1:3). They were converted to a radically new vision for the future of the ancient world. They received the Spirit as tangible evidence of the legitimacy of this hope (1:5).
The letter was then written because Paul knew only too well that this newly formed community of God-fearing Gentiles and perhaps a handful of Jews would face severe opposition. It had been made clear to them from the outset:
…you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. (1 Thess. 3:3–4)
He had been somewhat reassured by the reports that had spread among the believers in Macedonia and Achaia and by news from Timothy that although they had already experienced intense affliction (1:6; 2:14), they were proving steadfast in their commitment to the gospel (1:7-8; 3:6-8). But he is still anxious to strengthen their faith—not least because the “success” of the apostles would be determined by how well the churches dealt with the eschatological crisis (2:19-20). So it is his earnest prayer that the Lord Jesus “may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (3:13).
So here is the realistic, urgent exhortation at the heart of the letter: faithfully endure persecution until God judges this idolatrous world through his Son and brings your affliction to an end.
It is in this context, moreover, that Paul addresses the particular question of the fate of those who have died. Given, on the one hand, the short period of time between Paul’s departure from Thessalonica and the writing of the letter and, on the other, the clearly expressed expectation that they would face violent opposition, there is some ground for thinking that “those who are asleep” were victims of persecution. But in any case, the argument about the “coming of the Lord” in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 further develops the fundamental content of their faith—that the Lord Jesus would deliver them from the wrath of God that was coming on the pagan world.
Much of the instructional material is generally applicable: abstain from sexual immorality, love one another, work diligently, do not repay evil for evil, and so on (1 Thess. 4:1-12; 5:12-22). But in the letter it is likewise framed eschatologically. It is the basis for the sanctification that will ensure that when the day of God’s judgment on the pagan world comes, they will be found blameless. That is precisely the purpose of their calling (1 Thess. 5:23-24).
They are a community set apart for the sake of the day when God will overthrow the old system and install his own rule over the nations.
But in that case, why bother reading 1 Thessalonians today? Partly because we may face analogous situations and may learn from how Paul taught the Thessalonians to face opposition and suffering. But primarily because it helps us to understand a critical and formative period in the story of the family of Abraham, when God finally judged the pagan nations that had for so long conspired against him and against his anointed king. That is the sense in which it is scripture for us. We read the letter best when we read it as part of our story.