Though it is possible to understand 1 Thessalonians 1-3 as a long thanksgiving celebrating what God had accomplished in Thessalonica through Paul’s ministry, it is better to regard 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12 as the beginning of the body of the letter. As such it develops a theme introduced in 1 Thessalonians 1:9, Paul’s coming to Thessalonica and his welcome by the Thessalonians. The Greek word common to 1:9 and to 2:1 is eisodos which is variously translated entrance, acceptance, welcome, visit, coming, reception, or arriving.
1 Thessalonians 2:1-12 describing the entrance and welcome of Paul and his companions can be divided into four sections (verses 1-2, verses 3-4, verses 5-8, and verses 9-12) each of which begins with the Greek conjunction gar usually translated “for” though often left untranslated by contemporary translations. Each of these four sections refers to the “gospel” (verse 2, verse 4, verse 8, and verse 9) indicating that the uniting concept of this beginning section of the body is Paul’s and his companions’ sharing of the gospel. The lectionary text deals with the first three of these sections.
Verses 1-2 introduce the theme of the section Paul’s faithfulness and integrity in sharing the gospel despite the difficulties involved. The subject and verb of the independent clause of the single sentence found in verses 1-2 comes in verse 2 with the declaration that we (Paul and his companions) had been fearless or courageous to boldly speak the gospel to the Thessalonians. This proclamation of the gospel took place in the face of “much opposition.” The Greek word used in verse 2 for this opposition is agōn which was commonly used of athletic competition, especially wrestling. This suggests Paul saw his ministry taking place in the context of competition with powerful opponents.
The use of this athletic metaphor was common among the Cynic and Stoic philosophers of that culture. Paul’s use of the metaphor arises, in part, from the difficulties he had experienced in Philippi. Acts 16 indicates the apostle had been flogged and imprisoned without trial and then asked to leave Philippi when it was discovered Paul was a Roman citizen. Paul simply states in 1 Thessalonians 2:2 that he had previously suffered and been mistreated in Philippi. Despite the trouble in Philippi and the struggle in Thessalonica the apostle declared in verse 1 that his arrival and welcome in Thessalonica had not come about in vain or without effect. The point is that despite opposition the proclamation of the gospel had been faithful and effective.
The reason for the effectiveness of Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians is explained in verses 3-4. Verse 3 points to the integrity of Paul’s ministry by denying any deceit, impure motives, or underhanded methods. The apostle was clearly trying to distance his proclamation of the gospel with the kind of manipulative methods popular among many orators and so-called philosophers of that day.
Verse 4 then describes Paul’s exhortation in positive terms. Rather than human affirmation the apostle declared that his and his companions’ ministry had been approved by God. The Greek verb is in the perfect tense indicated God’s approving action in the past that now has ongoing results. The specific word was often used for testing the purity of metals. Thus, Paul affirms that God has approved the purity of his motives and methods for ministry. The evidence of this approval is that God has entrusted the gospel to Paul and his companions. As a result, their speaking the gospel is not for the purpose of pleasing people, but in service to God who tests and approves their hearts.
Verses 5-8 describe the kind of ministry Paul and his companions had brought to the Thessalonians. Verses 5-6 reiterate the apostle’s denial of inappropriate methods. He calls God as witness and declares that the Thessalonians know that flattery and greed were never part of his ministry. He declares in verse 6 that he had not sought glory or praise from people, whether the Thessalonians or anyone else. This was the case even though, as an apostle, he might have thrown his weight around, that is played the heavyweight by making demands on them. Different translations place this claim in different verses. For example, the NIV includes the denial of asserting apostolic authority in verse 6 while the NRSV places it as the first phrase of verse 7.
Verse 7 also contains a challenging question of the reading of the original Greek text. The question is whether Paul wrote “we became infants (nēpioi)” or “we became gentle (ēpioi).” The reading “gentle” has been favored through most of the history of English Bible translation, but “infants” has better support from the oldest and best manuscripts. A growing number of interpreters favor “infants” and some translations are now using that reading, though they translate nēpioi as “children” or “young children.” The 1984 edition of the NIV used “gentle” but the 2011 edition of the NIV chose nēpioi and translated it as “young children.”
If we read nēpioi and translate as “infants” or “young children” the contrast is with the assertion of apostolic authority. Instead of throwing their weight around as apostles Paul and his companions became like infants or small children toward the Thessalonians. That is, their ministry was non-threatening and did not engage in power games to gain acceptance or success. Instead they became like a nurse or nursing mother cherishing and caring for her children (verse 7).
Verse 8 enlarges on this tender care Paul and his companions showed the Thessalonians. Because of the strong yearning he and his companions felt toward the Thessalonians they were pleased, even delighted, to share the gospel with those in Thessalonica. But their care caused them to move beyond just sharing the gospel to sharing their very lives or selves with the Thessalonians who had become beloved to them. The Greek word psyche was traditionally translated “soul” (as the King James Version did in 1 Thessalonians 2:8), but “life,” “self,” or “person” often communicates the meaning better in contemporary English. Paul’s point is that the sharing of the gospel with the Thessalonians had become more than simply communicating a message. It has become a deeply relational sharing from the heart.
This description of the Thessalonian ministry of Paul and his companions in 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 provides a rich illustration of how believers love their neighbors as themselves. Thus the epistle reading links naturally with the gospel text for this Sunday. If one preaches from 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, Jesus’ teaching on the greatest commandment in Matthew 22:36-39 provides a way of summarizing Paul’s words theologically. If one preaches from the gospel text, Paul’s ministry among the Thessalonians provides a practical illustration of both love of God and love of neighbor.