To continue building accurate concepts for understanding Letters written in the 1st century to believers in Jesus the Christ, we should frame our understanding of how those believers lived and interacted with each other. They were very different from most groups of believers today.
We have recorded in Acts 1 :
Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. 45They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need. 46Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with a joyful and humble attitude, 47praising God and having favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved.
And in Acts 4:
32Now the large group of those who believed were of one heart and mind, and no one said that any of his possessions was his own, but instead they held everything in common. 33And the apostles were giving testimony with great power to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on all of them. 34For there was not a needy person among them, because all those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, 35and laid them at the apostles’ feet. This was then distributed for each person’s basic needs.
This story goes on in Acts 5 with Ananias and Sapphira being struck down for conspiring to lie to the Holy Spirit about donating the proceeds of a property sale.
These events we deduce to be around the year 30 to 32. We have no record of how long the early church continued the practice of sharing in daily life. But we do know factors that would influence the opinion of most people for many years after:
The teaching of Jesus would certainly be shared regularly. Jesus said some things that would strongly influence the followers of the new religion to view possessions and wealth as lower priority than people. Such as his words to the “rich young ruler” to whom Jesus said “sell all you have and give it the poor”. And the parable of the Unjust Steward that, taken at surface level, appears to be about using worldly wealth for heavenly gain. (it is about much more). And the parable or prophecy about the statements of God at the end of the age, with the sheep and goats separated and God telling them that the actions in caring for the poor are a characteristic of their relationship with God. Etc.
In addition, the Ananias and Sapphira event would reinforce the extreme significance of the common family-style church group. For those who, as most people today, see only a story of extreme karma style justice, the conclusion awaiting the serious christian is that God does not want the sanctity of church life disrupted. Therefore, the serious brotherhood style of living is even more sanctified or approved by God himself. I expect that many in that day developed a similar concept.
In addition, the newly empowered Apostles had just been living an intensive style of community living for their entire experience with the Lord Jesus.
All that makes it appear probable that the early church continued, for an extended period, living a lifestyle of a high contact, committed, community with daily meals.
When we examine various passages in the letters in that light we can see the perspective that Paul could have that is aligned with his other writings, and of vastly greater importance, aligned with the teachings of Jesus the Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith.
For example, when writing the to church at Thessalonica, Paul makes the often quoted instruction:
“If anyone isn’t willing to work, he should not eat.” 11For we hear that there are some among you who walk irresponsibly, not working at all, but interfering with the work of others. 12Now we command and exhort such people by the Lord Jesus Christ that quietly working, they may eat their own food. 13Brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. 14And if anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take note of that person; don’t associate with him, so that he may be ashamed. 15Yet don’t treat him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.
Of course, people normally quote only the harsh part of the instruction, because of their respective sin natures.
But the good student of the Lord Jesus is the “scribe trained in the Kingdom of Heaven” as Jesus himself said. Such a student is diligent and faithful to keep the teachings of the Lord Jesus in his mind in all things. The Lord Jesus gave the instructions and stories that would influence people to care for each other in every physical need, foremost of which is food. And Jesus fed the multitudes on at least 2 occasions. While those were certainly signs and intended as signs, they also completely aligned with one main thing we know about Jesus: he is loving. He is the model of Love that Paul was describing when writing 1 Corinthians 13.
In Thessalonians is Paul changing the instructions about caring for those in need when they are out of work? For me, I cannot fit such a change into the concepts of the Kingdom of Heaven.
But what, then, is Paul telling the church at Thessalonica to do? If I call back into my awareness the concept of the early church being a deeply loving, tightly bonded community, the answer becomes clear.
In this environment of deep and real community the church probably was gathering often to eat community meals, perhaps every day as in Acts. For the brother who has the failing of being weak about taking responsibility for his daily productivity, it would be all too easy to simply show up each day for the community meal empty handed. This illustrates the downfall of community that has repeated throughout history.
We certainly see it in the history of the church as recorded in Acts. The church starts full of vibrant love and so ardent for fellowship that they meet daily. But after some length of time, the story becomes one of focus on the determination of right and wrong, because there are sinners in the midst and people are noticing them and determined to do something about them. That is the progression we see recorded in Acts about at least one regional church.
In his exhortation to Thessalonica, Paul reminds them to keep the 1 Corinthians 13 Love hat on while being honest with the brother: “Don’t treat him as an enemy, warn him as a brother”.
This lesson from 2 Thessalonians builds concepts for us to understand the situation at Corinth. The exhortation “don’t associate with him” is reflected in 1 Corinthians 5. But dealing with the situation at hand never overrides the Command from the Lord Jesus: Love One Another.
Even in the Law, God (one God may I remind you) gave 2 commands among the 600+ that the Lord Jesus (one God may I remind you) brought to our attention as the most important. Love the LORD your God with all thoughts, money, effort and being. And Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. Yourself, whom you feed even when you don’t work, and conversely, for whom you will look for work when hungry enough. And then the Lord Jesus, being the same God that gave that command more than a thousand years earlier, decided that no-one really understood it. They didn’t. And most still do not. So the Lord Jesus gave the illustrative story called the Good Samaritan, in which the only person acting in Love is a person viewed by Jesus’ audience as a highly despised heretic. If you don’t know what I mean, please do your research, it is time you learned. The point I seek to make is that Jesus illustrated the Command “Love your neighbor as yourself” using a highly disruptive example, implying that God is pleased with the person acting in Love, although the person does not have his rules quite right. The Samaritan, a despised person in the 1st century Jewish culture, gives care and sustenance to someone that hates and abuses him. The Samaritan is the example the Lord Jesus gave when asked to defend the Pharisee’s (et al) escape clause in that exceedingly difficult law that Jesus said is one of two most important laws – love your neighbor. By narrowly defining “neighbor”, the Pharisees could proclaim themselves obedient to the Law, while being fully aware of their contempt for other people. Jesus negated their escape clause. Once again showing that if you plan to earn your salvation, the path is beyond your reach. And showing that Love cares for those that abuse and hate you.
When examining the exhortation of Paul to Thessalonica, if we keep the teachings of Jesus intact in our concepts, and expect the Apostle Paul to also have those concepts, and keep our awareness of the difficulty presented by the problems of language, we can see that Paul would not be encouraging anything remotely resembling the removal and starvation of the non-working, food-eating, brother. Rather he is admonishing the Jesus-adoring, love-mongering, daily-fellowshipping, love community to explain to the brother that he is NOT acting in Love towards them. Explain that as he accepts in his mind that it is permissible for him to fail to think of his brothers each day, he is not in alignment with the model that Jesus gave in loving the whole world.
The message of the Love of God is expressed through his intentional and long term plan to die and provide the Bread of Life to all of us, who cannot work for it. Could Thessalonica communicate that message by expelling the man from all physical association with them? “Get out of here and don’t come back, because you eat for free at every meal.” Of course, such a statement communicates the opposite.
So the problem with our understanding becomes focused on the meaning of the word translated as “associate” in the Bible version copied in above.
The Meaning of Words – Dictionaries
A study of dictionaries or lexicons is important. Such a study clearly leads to understanding that such tools are quite recent in widespread use. Recent in terms of ancient history.
Dictionaries/lexicons are very valuable tools, but we must remain aware that the person or group compiling the list of words with associated meanings are writing observations not rules. There is no higher god of language that is telling us what words mean. Throughout history, people struggle to communicate, and fall into patterns of usage, with each person perceiving the communication dependent on the history of communication in their daily contacts.
Lexicographers use deductive and inductive logic to postulate meaning, but all logic is subject to the concepts in which the lexicographer’s mind reasons.
See? I used uncommon words in that last sentence. The uncommon words have an advantage: since they are not used a lot, the perception of those who understand them is likely to be similar to the concept I was trying to communicate. BUT, uncommon words are more likely to be unknown to some readers.
If I change the sentence about lexicographers and inductive logic to use words that are widely used, my communication will be more widely understood, but more likely to be understood in a way that is not what I intended.
For example I could say: People who write dictionaries think about how words are used. The dictionary writers use strict rules they have made to think about words. And the dictionary writer use rules that are less strict but seem likely to give good results. All of their thinking happens in their own heads where their ideas are built on the experiences of their life.
That paragraph can almost replace the previous sentence about lexicographers and logic … but not quite. It uses widely understood words, but arriving at precise meaning is still not achieved even with a lot more words. I presented that simply as an example that understanding words, in context, is critical to perceiving intended concepts.
The reader or listener that wishes to understand the meaning must make the effort to derive the writer or speaker’s intended concepts. That is what we are doing here in this section of this essay.
Back to Thessalonica
Recall that previously in this essay (or series), we reviewed some of the teachings of Jesus that expound on Love. And other teachings as well. Considering the meanings of words within the context of the previous concepts, we can see that the word “associate” must have different nuance than physical. In Thessalonica, how can the group have no further association with a man, yet still treat him as a brother? The answer is simple: the word “associate” can carry logical/philosophical meaning, both in the modern English and in the Greek (where everything physical becomes analogous to logical/spiritual).
This concept of logical/philosophical/spiritual disassociation permeates the whole Bible.
When Paul is giving the wonderful message to Athens on Mars Hill, he uses analogy to focus the concepts of his listeners on Jesus. But then he builds the separation, the distinction. “God was patient waiting for this time when true worship of the Most High God, as yet unknown to you, is available through the one path: belief in Jesus.”
In Thessalonians, Paul exhorts the church to illuminate the separation: the selfish brother is not associated with the body of Love in his actions. Tell him he needs to contribute something. Something like “Hey my good brother, it is really hard to talk about this because we love you so much. But every meal it seems to us you are just here because of the free food. This shows us that maybe you are not aware of the tremendous Love that is the entire basis for our community. I do love you, and I am worried that you are choosing to take advantage of our love for you. Instead, take advantage of the forgiveness of the Most High God who died for your sins and rose from the dead to bring you hope. Jesus, our God and Lord, calls to you to turn to his Love. Then his Love will flow out of you too. ” This imaginary conversation would be in keeping with the instructions from the Lord Jesus. And helps us form a concept from Paul’s instructions that stays true to the Gospel.
Similarly, when Paul reminds the church that while he was there in Thessalonica he instructed them “If anyone isn’t willing to work, he should not eat.” Note that the HCSB copied in translates the Greek as “he should not eat”, using language weaker than absolute command language. It is also important to note that he is talking to the whole group at Corinth which includes those not willing to work. These facts make it reasonable to see this as wise instruction directed to the people who need to examine themselves to see if they should avoid taking other people’s food when they are aware they are not acting in Love. It is not an instruction to the working people in the church to withhold food or fellowship from others.
These concepts help us build a framework that stays on the foundation. And the exercise teaches us how to build consistent with the foundation that is the Gospel.