Friday, March 2, 2018

Bible in a Year: Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, Philemon

In 2017 and into Lent 2018, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

Since I've already covered the General Epistles and Revelation, this is the final post in this series! "The Bible in a Year" in fourteen months, LOL. How fun and interesting it has been to study the Bible again from beginning to end. Before too long, I'll copy these posts to my WordPress blog.

1 Thessalonians may be Paul’s earliest letter. As the introduction of my old Harper Study Bible indicates, the letter seems to fit into Paul’s second missionary tour, during a time when he stayed in Corinth (49-51 CE; Acts chapter 17). Thessalonica was the capital of Macedonia.

Paul loves these people and the letter is filled with words of love and thanksgiving. He thinks about his work with them, and about Timothy’s news from them (chapters 2 and 3). He urges the church to refrain from unchastity (4:9-11), and to work at their own affairs in a way as to earn respect.

One major purpose of the letter is to give them assurance about the coming of Christ. For one thing, they shouldn’t be idle as they await Christ. Also, just because some people among them have died, doesn’t mean that Christ has failed. Salvation is certain, and although Christ will come suddenly, we can still have confidence in his grace. The famous idea of a “rapture” of the church is found in 4:15-18.

Also famous is 5:16-17: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing (or “constantly”), give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

2 Thessalonians is another statement of encouragement to the people; although the letter is a little less warm than the first, Paul wants to make sure the people endure in their faith amid hardship. He writes in more length about the day of the Lord (2:1-17) and also encourages the people not to stop working just because Christ may soon return.

3:10 is one of those “clobber verses” that folks quote in a scolding way: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat”—-or, in a contemporary context, people who don’t work are just lazy and therefore shouldn’t have social safety nets. It’s a cold way to perceive the poor, and contrary to the MANY verses of the Bible where we’re enjoined to take the side of the poor.

1 and 2 Timothy and Titus are called “The Pastoral Epistles” because of their practical teachings. Among New Testament scholars, the epistles are considered pseudonymous because of differences in style and vocabulary from other Pauline letters, because they don't fit easily not the Acts narrative, and because the concerns of the letters and descriptions of church structure seem to come from a later time period.

In the first letter, Paul warns about unsound doctrine at the Ephesian church—-and the dubious character of those who teach such doctrines. Public prayer should be for all (2:1-7). Women should be modest and stay silent as they learn (2:8-15). He discusses the offices of bishop and deacon (chapter 3), and again encourages Timothy to be on guard against false doctrine and to continue in faithful living (chapter 4). Among other practical admonitions are the need to honor and help widows; to let certain men of integrity to be elders; to ensure that slaves honor their masters; and that wealthy people not be haughty (chapters 5-6).

Some famous verses:

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life (1:15-16).

while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come (4:8)

for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it (6:7)

for the love of money is a root of all evils (6:10, RSV)

2 Timothy is a similar exhortation for the young disciple to keep his faith strong, to avoid people who are gossipy and foolish in their conversation, to be firm but gentle in addressing unsound doctrine, and to preach true teachings. Although apostasy and hard times are coming, the strong will hold to Christ and do well.

Some famous verses:

For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline (1:6-7).

holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power (3:5-6; I remember the old KJV wording: having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (3:16). Remember that the author is probably referring to the Old Testament!

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith (4:7)

Titus was serving on the island of Crete. In the letter, Paul covers very similar ground as the other Pastorals, discussing with Titus the topics of church organization, false teaching, immoral living, gentle rebuke, and exhortation.

An undoubtedly genuine letter of Paul's, the brief epistle Philemon concerns the slave Onesimus, who had fled his master Philemon in Rome but had converted to Jesus Faith through Paul. The letter is actually to Philemon’s wife Apphia as well, and to a minister name Archippus. Paul wants Philemon to accept Onesimus back, hinting that Philemon should free him from slavery. Paul remarks that Onesimus was more “useful” (the meaning of his name in Greek) as a brother of Christ than of a slave. Paul also adds that he’d love to have Onesimus as his colleague in ministry, if Philemon would allow it.

Slavery of the Ancient Near East and the Greek and Roman empires was different from American race-based slavery. But to recognize that Scripture accepts an institution that we now consider immoral, alerts us again to the need to interpret scripture for our own time---not to toss out slogans like "Every word of the Bible is true" or "You can't pick and choose", but to wrestle with and pray about Scripture's meaning, using our intelligence, experience, common sense, and tradition to increase our understanding--and to enjoy the Bible!

In the post that I wrote a year ago (March 1, 2017), I quote from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible (New York: William Morrow, 1997). Commenting on Deuteronomy 6:4-9, he writes, “To study Judaism is a moral imperative, because to be good one has to know what one’s duties are and what goodness entails… and this requires study” (p. 489). What a wonderful goal for us Christians, too!

Before Lent is over, I'll find some good quotations about the relationship of the Old and New Testaments.

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