A Commentary by John Stott
1 Thessalonians 3. Additional note on Paul’s use of ‘we’.
Is it legitimate, however to apply 1 Thessalonians 2:13 in particular to Paul, since in it he writes in the plural that ‘we thank God’ and that ‘you received the word of God from us? Are we to understand the plural form, which is used almost invariably throughout both letters, to indicate that Paul, Silas and Timothy were joint authors? Or is Paul in reality the author, who uses an epistolary ‘we’ by which to refer to himself? Neither extreme position seems right. But these questions, briefly alluded to already in the exposition of 1:1 and 2:18, must now be more thoroughly explored.
Certainly Silas and Timothy arrived in Thessalonica with Paul and shared with him in evangelizing the city. Timothy too had subsequently revisited the Thessalonians and brought back the news which prompted the writing of the first letter (Cf. 1 Thess.3:2-6; Acts 18:5; 2 Cor.1:19). It is not in the least surprising, therefore, that all three names head both letters. Paul wanted in this way to acknowledge the labours of Silas and Timothy and to indicate their endorsement of what had been written.
This does not mean, however, that we have to adopt a new title ‘The letters of Paul, Silas and Timothy to the Thessalonians’. Nor need we deny Paul’s leading role in the writing of both of them. The use of the plural ‘we’ does not require these drastic conclusions. The position of leadership and the voice of authority still belong to Paul. The evidence for this is both internal and external.
Internally, within the letters themselves, the personality of Paul not infrequently shines through:
1). It is he who was the main preacher when ‘our gospel came to you’ (1:5) and who regularly claimed that the gospel had been uniquely entrusted to him (2:4). It is also he who felt towards the Thessalonians as their mother and father (2:7, 11).
2). Although he wrote that ‘we wanted to come to you’, he then added ‘certainly I, Paul, did again and again’ (2:18). By this he was not correcting himself, to the effect that he wanted to revisit them, while Silas and Timothy did not. He was rather clarifying that by ‘we’ he really meant ‘I’.
3). Although he first wrote ‘when we could stand it no longer’ (3:1), he repeated this by saying ‘when I could stand it no longer’ (3:5). Again he was clarifying his meaning: the unbearable suspense was his.
4). Although he wrote ‘we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens’ and ‘We sent Timothy’ (3:1-2), he meant that he was left by himself alone because he had sent Timothy to them. Timothy did not send himself! And Silas had been sent away too, probably to Philippi. Chrysostom took this explanation for granted. Without justifying his paraphrase, he reworded Paul’s statement: ‘When I could no longer forbear, I sent Timothy that I might know your faith.’
5). In 1 Thessalonians 5:27 he wrote ‘I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers’. The names of Silas and Timothy may have been included in the opening greeting, but it is Paul who takes responsibility for the letter and who solemnly requires the Thessalonians to read it in the public assembly.
6). When in his second letter he waxes eloquent about the anti-God rebellion of the man of lawlessness, he cannot refrain himself from breaking out into a highly personal expostulation: ‘Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things?’ (2 Thess.2:5).
7). When he reaches the end of 2 Thessalonians, he not only seizes the scribe’s pen and writes his signature in his own hand (‘I, Paul’), but sufficiently forgets himself and his ‘we’-style as to call it ‘the distinguishing mark in all *my* letters’ (2 Thess. 3:17). So it is *his* letter after all! It is not just that he gives it his imprimatur, but that the authorship and therefore the authority are ultimately his.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.