1. Thanksgiving for Perseverance in Suffering (1:3–4)
3 We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing. 4 Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.
This first part of the thanksgiving contains what one comes to expect of Paul at this point. He begins with gratitude to God for the Thessalonians themselves in light of what he has learned from Timothy regarding their standing firm in the present trying situation (v. 3). Indeed, by way of encouragement he informs them further that the apostles have boasted to others about their perseverance (v. 4), the end result of which, he goes on, is their own certain eschatological future (v. 5). All of this is fairly standard stuff; the surprise comes in his long elaboration of verse 5 in the rest of the sentence (vv. 6–10). Thus the thanksgiving proper (vv. 3–4) is typical of those that will appear in subsequent letters; at the same time, however, it has its share of unique features—a phenomenon that is also in keeping with all subsequent thanksgivings. These will be noted in the discussion that follows.
3 Paul begins his thanksgiving in this instance with two unique features: an emphasis on its obligatory nature and the inclusion of the vocative “brothers and sisters.” The emphasis on its obligatory nature 13 can be taken in either of two ways: as emphasis on its divine necessity, or on the Thessalonians themselves—that thinking about them makes thanksgiving for them something of a compulsion. Most likely it is the latter. 14 In receiving news back from Timothy, Paul has a strong sense of divine obligation to thank God for them, both for their own growth in faith and love and especially for their perseverance in the midst of increased persecution. 15 At the same time the nature of this thanksgiving offers the basic model which will be reflected in all of Paul’s subsequent thanksgivings—genuine thanksgiving, but for the very things that also need strengthening, and sometimes correction. 16
Such giving of thanks “always for you, brothers and sisters,” 17 is fitting 18 because 19 of what Paul has learned about their staying true to the gospel in terms of both their faithfulness to Christ and their love for one another. 20 Indeed, they are more than simply staying true; in each case they are showing signs of “increase.” 21 At the same time, it should be pointed out, these are also the two Christian virtues that need further attention in this community. In fact, the main parts of this letter address some deficiencies in these two aspects of Christian life for which they are also being praised. Thus both the content and the unusually long nature of the present “thanksgiving” seem aimed directly at their “faith”—as a means of bolstering it by reassuring them of God’s sure eschatological justice, despite present circumstances. Bolstering this faith seems also the ultimate concern of the eschatological reminders in 2:1–12. The matter of “love” for everyone is then addressed in 3:6–16.
Thus Paul’s first point of thanksgiving has to do with their “faith,” which continues to carry its primary sense from 1 Thessalonians of “faithful trust” in God. After all, the issue for Paul in these letters is not simply with their “having faith” (= putting their trust in Christ), but with their ongoing steadfastness in that trust. 22 And since Paul had earlier alluded to some possible “deficiencies” in their “faith” (1 Thess 3:10), he now gives thanks to God 23 that their “faith[fulness]” is showing signs of abundant increase, perhaps especially because this is something for which he prayed in 1 Thessalonians 3:12. Even so, this is the concern that will be picked up immediately—both in the rest of the thanksgiving itself and especially in the matter about “the day of the Lord” in 2:1–12.
His second point of thanksgiving is also a matter that carries over from the first letter, that “the love every one of you has for each other is increasing.” This bit of redundancy is especially Pauline. The point is easy to discern: that their love for one another within the believing community continues to be evident, indeed increasingly so. 24 One would like to think, therefore, that the admonition of 1 Thessalonians 4:9–12 has thus taken root among most of them. But the present formulation is also a bit awkward. Paul is especially concerned to point out that everyone in the community is involved in this mutual love, thus (literally) “the love of each one of all of you for one another is growing.” In Paul’s understanding of Christian life, nothing could be more important than this. And even though it is easy for us at our distance to turn this into a Christian platitude, in fact here is a place where Paul has not only understood Christ himself, but has also kept this primary virtue at the forefront in writing to his churches. Even so, this is the issue that will be picked up—less explicitly, to be sure—at the end of the letter, because it is in the matter of love that the unruly-idle are especially falling short.
4 The net result of their increasing faith and abounding love is that Paul and his companions (lit. “we ourselves” 25 ) gladly boast about them in all of God’s churches. However, with the content of that boast he also begins to move toward the first issue to be taken up in the letter—their suffering because of relentless persecution from unbelieving fellow townspeople. Thus the first matter to be picked up from the preceding clause is their “faith.” 26 What the Thessalonian believers now need to hear is the content of his “boast” about them in the other churches. In so doing Paul uses the key words “patience” and “faith[fulness],” again reflecting the language and concerns of the first letter.
But in reminding them that he knows well the context of their faithfulness, Paul now shifts the thanksgiving altogether toward that context. He and his companions thus presently boast of the Thessalonian believers’ “perseverance and faith[fulness]” in the context of “all the persecutions 27 and afflictions 28 ” which they are currently enduring. 29 On the surface of things this would not seem to be a very comforting word. But Paul has regularly instructed his churches that persecution would be the expected lot of those who willingly follow a Messiah who had been crucified by the Romans as a state criminal. And such persecutions will regularly be accompanied by “afflictions” or “hardships” of all kinds. So Paul informs these beleaguered believers by way of thanksgiving that he regularly “boasts” about them in the other churches because of their endurance and continuing faithfulness in the midst of such persecution.
As he has done in 1 Thessalonians—and will do in almost all of his letters—Paul gives thanks for what God is already doing among these believers regarding matters that also need further attention. There is much to learn from this habit of Paul’s. First of all, Paul recognizes more clearly than many who give leadership to the church that these are God’s people, after all, and Paul is only the Lord’s servant on their behalf. Second, he once more expresses gratitude for what God is already doing, thus putting the emphasis where it belongs, rather than focussing immediately on areas that need correction or improvement. May his tribe increase!
13 This is used by many as condemning Pauline authorship, which is a puzzling view, to be sure, since one would have expected a forger to do exactly the opposite—namely, to adhere absolutely to 1 Thessalonians, since it would have been the only Pauline letter he knew. On the other hand, it has also engendered considerable discussion among those who affirm Pauline authorship; cf., e.g., Best (249–50), who suggests that “the obligation … is [in part] forced on Paul by what he sees in the Thessalonians; they deserve this thanksgiving.” For a sane (and helpful) discussion of this language, see R. D. Aus, “The Liturgical Background of the Necessity and Propriety of Giving Thanks according to 2 Thes 1:3,” JBL 92 (1973), 432–38.
15 Cf. Marshall (170), “The thought is … of the obligation imposed by joyfulness and relief”; and Holmes (211), “… [obligation] is not driven by duty but by gratitude to God for the divinely inspired growth experienced by the Thessalonians.”
16 This is a feature that is especially damning for the theory of forgery, since the alleged author apparently knows nothing at all of the rest of the corpus, yet writes with the kind of “instincts” that will emerge in later letters.
17 The appearance of this vocative in the thanksgiving is unique to this letter in the corpus; it will occur again in the thanksgiving in 2:13, in this latter case with the modifier “loved by the Lord.” Although this is another item that is used to argue against Pauline authorship, it is equally a feature that can cut both ways. After all, why would an imitator do this at all, let alone do it twice, since he would have no model for it? Whereas, given the frequency of this vocative in these two letters (see on 1 Thess 1:4), this is a feature that a forger would be expected to imitate more closely in keeping with the earlier letter, and thus not include it in the two thanksgiving reports.
18 Gk. ἄξιον, an adjective whose basic sense is “worthy,” but is also used, as here, in an impersonal sense of “what is fitting or proper.” The TNIV’s “rightly so” has nicely captured its meaning. Lightfoot (97) observes that this phrase serves to balance the obligatory nature of the thanksgiving—the divine obligation in the “we must”; the human with this “it is fitting.” But Aus (n. 13) has shown that this language has deep roots in Jewish liturgical prayers, especially so in contexts of suffering.
20 It should be noted that these two nouns occurred twice together in the first letter (1 Thess 3:6; 5:8), and that they also express the major concerns of the first letter. But it should be further noted that in this letter only the matter of their “faith” gets picked up explicitly; the only further mention of “love” has to do with God’s love (2:16; 3:5).
21 The two verbs are near synonyms; the first (ὑπεραυξάνει) occurs only here in the NT, but it reflects Paul’s love of ὑπέρ-compounds (see comments on Phil 2:9 in my Philippians). On the second verb, πλεονάζει, see the comments that follow.
22 On this question see the comments on 1 Thess 3:2 and 5 above (pp. 116–17, 20). Note also the title of C. H. Giblin’s study of 2:1–12 (The Threat to Faith: An Exegetical and Theological Re-examination of 2 Thessalonians 2 [AnBib 31; Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1967]). Morris (195; cf. P. T. O’Brien, Introductory Thanksgivings in the Letters of Paul [NovTSup 49; Leiden: Brill, 1977], 175) takes strong exception to this understanding, but his concern seems to be theologically driven. One might note, e.g., that in the letter most singularly driven by “faith” thus understood, Paul also uses the noun in this “un-Pauline” way to refer to what is believed in common (Gal 1:23: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy”). Paul is not so easily boxed in as some in the Protestant tradition would wish to do.
24 As O’Brien (Introductory Thanksgivings, 174) has pointed out, this increase is “diffusive rather than organic”; i.e., it does not mean that each of them has “more” love, but that the love they do have is increasingly evident among them.
25 Gk. αὐτοὺς ἡμᾶς; although the αὐτούς would ordinarily be emphatic, here it most likely simply expresses contrast to the preceding “all of you” in v. 3. For other options see Best, 252.
26 In light of 3:6–15, their “increase of love” continues to be a matter that will need constant attention.
27 Gk. διωγμοῖς, a word that occurs five times in Paul (2 Cor 12:10; Rom 8:35; 2 Tim 3:11 [2x]) of the ten times in the NT. It is a term that refers specifically to external persecution inflicted by others.
28 Gk. τοῖς θλίψεσιν; see the discussion of this word in n. 41 on 1 Thess 3:3. The rendering “trials” is unique to the T/NIV among the English versions. The word has to do rather with oppression or afflictions of various kinds.