A Commentary by John Stott
1 Thessalonians: 1:1b. a). The church is a community which lives in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We notice in passing the unselfconscious way in which Paul brackets ‘God the Father’ and ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’, as being together the source of the church’s life. Later (in verse 10) he will call Jesus the ‘Son’ of God. Already within twenty years of the death and resurrection of Jesus the coupling of the Father and the Son as equal is the universal faith of the church. This simple fact is enough to undermine the teaching of those who claim that the New Testament nowhere attributes deity to Jesus.
The Greek word for ‘church’ is *ekklesia*, which means ‘an assembly’. In those days it was used in a variety of contexts, religious and secular. As Chrysostom wrote, ‘there were many assemblies, both Jewish and Grecian’. What, then, was distinctive about the *ekklesia* to which Paul is writing? It is this. It is ‘in’ the Father and the Son. What kind of relationship has he in mind by the preposition ‘in’? It is certainly not spatial, as if the church were somehow ‘inside’ God. Nor does it seem to mean that the church is ‘founded on’ God (JBP) or that its members ‘belong to’ God (REB) or simply that they ‘have God as Father and Jesus Christ as Lord’, true as all these statements are. Nor does it seem natural to take ‘in’ as instrumental and translate the phrase ‘brought into being by’ God.
If the phrase had been only ‘in the Lord Jesus Christ’, without reference to the Father, commentators would probably agree about its meaning because to be ‘in Christ’ is a familiar and favourite expression of Paul’s, and because in 2:14 the churches of Judea are described as being ‘in Christ Jesus’. Two New Testament metaphors explain this usage, the first developed by Jesus and the second by Paul. Jesus spoke of his disciples being ‘in’ him as branches are ‘in’ the vine (Jn. 15), while Paul sees us as being ‘in Christ’ as limbs are ‘in’ the body. (1 Cor.12). In both cases the relationship in mind is a vital, organic union which makes possible the sharing of a common life. The fact that Paul here adds ‘in God the Father’ seems no reason why the ‘in relationship should mean something different. Elsewhere Paul describes our new life as ‘hidden with Christ in God’ (Col.3:3); is this not almost the same as saying that the church is *in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ*? Perhaps, then, we should paraphrase the preposition ‘in’ as meaning ‘living in’, ‘rooted in’ or ‘drawing its life from’
In later letters Paul’s description of the church would be the other way round, namely ‘the church of God in Corinth’ (1 Cor.1:2; 2 Cor.1:1). He might therefore have written to ‘the church of God in Thessalonica’, since he referred to ‘God’s churches’ in Judea (1 Thess.2:14) and in other places (2 Thess.1:4). Instead, he wrote to *the church of the Thessalonians in God*(see 2 Thess.1:1 too). Both accounts of the church are true. For God’s church was living in Thessalonica, and the Thessalonians’ church was living in God. To be sure, the preposition ‘in’ has a different nuance in these statements, since the church is ‘in’ God as the source from which its life comes, whereas it is ‘in’ the world only as the sphere in which it lives. Nevertheless, it is still correct to say that every church has two homes, two environments, two habitats. It lives in God and it lives in the world (C.f. ‘in Christ at Philippi’, Phil.1:1, and ‘in Christ at Colosse’, Col.1:2).
Why then did Paul choose to describe the Thessalonian church in the way he did? Since he does not tell us, we can only guess. But it is at least plausible to suggest that, because he knew the insecurity felt by a young and persecuted church, he wanted to remind them that in the midst of their trials their security was in God. It is from him, from the Father and the Son (‘through the Spirit’, we might wish to add), that every church derives its life, strength and stability.
To this church Paul now sends his greeting *Grace and peace*. It seems to be a combination of the Jewish greeting *shalom* (‘Peace’) and the Greek greeting *chairein* (‘Rejoice!’ or ‘Hail!’) (*Chairein* is used as the greeting at the beginning of two letters in the Acts (15:23; 23:26) and of the Letter of James 1:1), now Christianized as *charis*, ‘grace’. It is as if Paul is saying ‘We send you the new greeting with the old’. Still today we can desire for the church no greater blessings than grace and peace. God’s ‘peace’ is not just the absence of conflict, but the fullness of health and harmony through reconciliation with him and with each other. ‘The entire gospel is involved in this word’, writes Ernest Best. And God’s ‘grace’ is his free, undeserved favour through Christ which confers this peace and sustains it.
Tomorrow: Thessalonians 1:1:3). b). The church is a community which is distinguished by faith, hope and love.
|The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.|