I’ve been going through a book recently with some friends. The book explains the chronology of the New Testament letters and provides the cultural framework that each city/church was embedded in when the letters were written. Currently, we are learning about Paul’s second missionary journey, which mostly consists of his time in the area now (and then) known as Greece.
A few highlights:
While Corinth and Athens were geographically quite close to each other (roughly 50 miles apart), philosophically they were quite opposite of each other. Athens (with its rich philosophical roots with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle) was home to a cultural atmosphere that idealized asceticism and mental pursuits. Corinth, a mere 3 days journey away, glorified the physical pleasures of food, drink, and sex. In fact, Corinth was the home of a sporting event called the Isthmian games. These games were held twice a year to honor the god Poseidon (god of the sea). It is likely that Paul had these games in mind when he wrote to the believers in Corinth ~5 yrs later and used boxing and running analogies (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
The books of the New Testament can lose some of their “umph” when not contextualized. Most pointedly, 1st and 2nd Thessalonians were some of the first letters written, and were written only a few months apart (while in Corinth, btw). Basically the second letter was to clear up confusion that arose from his first one.
Lastly, it seems that from 1 Thessalonians Paul really believed that Jesus was returning during their lifetime. The recipients of his letter must have thought the same thing, as shown by their response (they quit their jobs and didn’t manage their responsibilities). Paul realizes he miscommunicated and addresses the issue in the second letter. In his correction, he gives some stipulations that have to occur before Jesus can return. However, he doesn’t give a time stamp on when he thinks it will happen, which leaves room for the possibility that he believed it would happen in their lifetimes, just not in the next few months.
It is very possible that Paul (much like most christians throughout the ages) believed that Jesus’ return was very close, and that may have been some of his motivation to reach the lost. If that is true, then Paul, a paragon of Christlike character and theology, believed something incorrect, and it is documented right there in scripture. Just like Paul, none of us can claim we’ve got it all nailed down; all we can do is seek The Lord and respond.