As the year of St. Paul marches on, we have now begun to read at Sunday Mass from his first letter to the Thessalonians. Let us take this opportunity to reflect on a couple of important points about St. Paul’s letters. First, though, let us recall the circumstances under which St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians.
After St. Paul preached the Gospel in Philippi, he left the church there in good order, and he headed south to Thessalonica.
Like Philippi, Thessalonica was an old Greek city named after a relative of Alexander the Great–his sister Thessaloniki. Unlike Philippi, at the time of St. Paul, Thessalonica was home to a large number of Jews, and there was a synagogue for St Paul to go to and announce that the Messiah had come.
As had happened at Philippi, jealous Jews denounced St. Paul to the Roman authorities. “This man says there is a king other than Caesar, named Jesus.” To keep him from being put into prison, the Christians rushed the Apostle out of the city quickly. St. Paul went south to Athens, then to Corinth. He remained in Corinth for a year and a half.
While he was in Corinth, St. Paul worried about the Thessalonian Christians. He knew they faced persecution from the same Jews who had denounced him. Since he had to leave Thessalonica so suddenly, he had not had the chance to finish teaching the new Christians everything he had a mind to teach them. St. Paul sent St. Timothy to Thessalonica to check up on things.
Map of Modern Greece. Thessalonica is now Saloniki
St. Timothy reported that the Thessalonian Christians were bearing up well under persecution, but that they were confused about life after death and about the second coming of Christ. So St. Paul dictated a letter to them to explain.
This was the beginning of something enormously important. It was the beginning of the New Testament. St. Paul was in Corinth about 18 years after the Lord Jesus ascended into heaven. Meanwhile in the Holy Land, St. Matthew may have been writing his gospel at the same time. This was the beginning of the writing of the most important collection of little books in the history of the world.
Let us pause to consider two important facts about this moment when St. Paul began to dictate First Thessalonians, and the writing of the New Testament began.
The first fact is this: St. Paul did NOT set out to compose “the New Testament.” When he began to write, what the Apostle had in mind was the Thessalonian Christians, what they knew and did not know. In other words, when St. Paul wrote the letter he was not launching a project. He was already in the middle of a project: He was executing the mission that the Lord had given him, to preach the Gospel of Christ to the ends of the earth.
In other words, the books of the New Testament were written because the Church was already busy doing what She is supposed to do until the end of time. The writings of the New Testament bear witness to the Sacred Tradition of the Church, which the Lord Jesus entrusted to His Holy Apostles at the very beginning. In order to understand this testimony, we of course need the guidance of the successors of the Apostles, the Pope and the bishops.
Saloniki, or Thessaloniki--modern Thessalonica
The second fact to mediate on is this. When St. Paul originally preached in Thessalonica and wherever he went, those who heard him and believed accepted his words not as the teaching of a man, but as the revelation of Almighty God Himself.
There is no way for Christian teaching to make sense if it is not given on divine authority. It cannot be a matter of opinion. St. Paul did not teach that Christ is the Savior for the people who want Him to be the Savior. No: All the Apostles taught that Christ is the one, true God. The Church continues to teach the same. Our faith is not in human teaching, but in divine revelation.
In this day and age we frequently must confront the hostility of a different religion. This religion tries to teach that God does not speak clearly, and if you say that He does, you are close-minded. This other religion tries to tell the Church that the Catholic religion is one among many religions, no better than any other.
There are even Catholics who have been confused by the teaching of this other religion into thinking that if they believe that the Gospel is the true Word of God Himself, then they might not be able to relate other people who do not believe this. And, of course, relating to others with an open heart and mind is a crucial part of being a good Christian.
There is a great irony about this confusion regarding how to be open-minded. The idea that being wishy-washy makes you open-minded is precisely the opposite of the truth.
St. Paul himself proves the point. Has the world ever seen a man more adept at relating to people than St. Paul? He is one of the most genuinely open-minded people of all time. He successfully communicated with more different kinds of people than just about anyone ever has. He “became all things to all men.”
May he intercede for us that we might understand his teaching more deeply and imitate his love and zeal more perfectly.