Within the final prayer Paul wrote to the Thessalonians in his first letter (1 Thess. 5:23-24) he used two adjectives (holotelēs, holoklēros) which only occur here in all of his letters. These unusual terms give expression to Paul’s confidence that God will enable the Thessalonian believers to experience complete salvation at the Second Coming of Jesus and serve to bring a suitable conclusion to several key ideas he has discussed in this letter.
Holotelēs is used once in the entire New Testament and holoklēros only occurs elsewhere in the New Testament in James 1:4. Luke used the cognate noun holoklēria in Acts 3:16 to describe the complete healing of a lame man. Benedictions such as 5:23-24 tend to summarize arguments made previously in a letter. And then to discover two singular terms in the benediction, both related to the eschatological reality that a Christian possesses, indicates how heavily Paul emphasized the idea of “wholeness, completeness and indivisibility”.1
Paul used holotelēs as part of his final prayer-wish that God “would sanctify you through and through (holotelēs)”, as the New International Version renders it. The word functions as a predicate adjective, modifying the pronoun “you” and defining in this context how God works to make these believers thoroughly holy, i.e. holy enough to be eternally in God’s personal presence. We have no earlier occurrence of this word in Greek literature, but there is one instance in a contemporary inscription. At the Isthmian games of 67 AD a decree cites Nero’s declaration in which he gave “complete (holotelē) exemption from taxes” for all Greeks. Danker suggests the nuance of completion or perfection but in accordance with a high standard.2 Earlier in 1 Thess. 4:3 Paul had affirmed their sanctification to be God’s will. At the end of the letter he expresses his confidence that God will in fact perform this in a way that is quite perfect. Expressed negatively, such believers are “without blame” at the Second Coming of Jesus.
The other adjective holoklēros also is a predicate adjective, and even though it is singular, it modifies the three following nouns “your spirit and soul and body”. In James 1:4 it is bound with teleios to describe followers of Jesus who are “mature and complete (holoklēroi) not lacking anything.” This condition results from the exercise of faith in the midst of difficult circumstances and suggests something that occurs over time but whose outcome brings complete wholeness. This term occurs frequently outside of the New Testament.
In the Greek Old Testament holoklēros described the “seven whole (holoklērous) weeks” (Lev. 23:15) that separate the feast of firstfruits from the feast of weeks. After Israel crossed the Jordan, Moses commanded that they construct an altar from stones that have no tool marks, i.e. remain unhewn (holoklērous) (Deut. 27:6).3 Philo explains that Jewish priests must “be perfectly sound throughout (pantelē kai holoklēron)”.4 When he defines the standards related to sacrificial animals, he is even more specific. They must be “perfect (holoklēra)…scathless throughout (hola di’ holōn asinē).”5 When Josephus described (Jewish Antiquities III. 278-279) the standards for Jewish priests (reflecting passages such as Leviticus 21-22), he emphasized they must be “wholly free of defect (holoklēron)”. Similarly, the sacrificial animals must be “entirely perfect (holoklēra) and free from all mutilation.”
In the papyri holoklēros often seems synonymous with hugies, i.e. healthy. Votive inscriptions in various temples give testimony to the healing various people believe they received by the intervention of a specific god or goddess. In each case they used holoklēros or its cognate noun to show their thankfulness for “wholeness” (holoklēria).6 Horsley claims that in all of these contexts it is the equivalent of sōtēria, physical health and safety.7 It is this sense that Luke employs in Acts 3:16 when he recounts the miraculous healing of the lame man: “Faith in him [Jesus] gave him this wholeness (i.e. complete healing — holoklērian) before you all.”
This term can also express a moral completeness. For example the writer of the Wisdom of Solomon 15:3 describes the merits of worshipping God. He claims that knowing God is “complete (holoklēros) righteousness.” The account of the Maccabean martyrs given in 4th Maccabees (written around mid first century AD) describes the faith demonstrated by the mother as she saw her seven sons martyred because of their loyalty to God, as “perfect (holoklēron) religion”(15:17). In such cases what is emphasized is the entirety of something – there is nothing more to be added (cf. James 1:4).
We also find holoklēros used to describe the spiritual or psychological state of a person. When Philo describes types of the human soul, one of them is “the perfect man (ho teleios) who is “complete (holoklēros) from the first.”8 We see some distinction between these two terms, with holoklēros describing a quantitative completeness, i.e. nothing is deficient, whereas teleios suggests maturity, perfection. Plato several centuries earlier had defined the human condition before evil had marred it as “whole (holoklēros) and without experience of evil things.”9
Coming again to 1 Thessalonians 5:23, Paul prayed that “your spirit and soul and body be preserved completely whole (holoklēron), without blame, at the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He is expecting that the entire person, however it may be described or categorized, will participate as a whole being in the salvation God provides when Jesus returns. Regardless of whether a believer has died and the physical body has deteriorated or whether a believer is still alive, when Jesus comes, the entire person will participate – spirit, soul and body – not just some parts. This final prayer was designed to bring great encouragement and induce correct understanding among the Thessalonian Christians. Despite what Greek philosophies or religious cults might have proclaimed, followers of Jesus can be confident that a Christian as a whole being will participate in God’s salvation.
Not only will a believer be present as a complete person, but during the earthly experience, God is in the process of making that believer perfectly holy, preparing each believer for God’s presence. Paul affirms that we can have full confidence in God’s ability, desire, and action to complete His work.
- the work of sanctification in a Christian’s life depends on the constant action of God, as well as the self-control, obedience, and continual perseverance of the believer. As Christians we engage in this spiritual discipline whole-heartedly because we have confidence in the outcome – God has the ability to make us perfectly holy. What is your commitment today towards this continuing process?
- God created every aspect of our being and has taken action to preserve it whole. So in this life we have obligation to devote all parts of our being to God and His service – body, soul and spirit.
- 1 Robert Jewett, The Thessalonian Correspondence (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986):107.
- 2 F.W. Danker, rev. & ed., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000):704. Some refer to an occurrence of this adjective in Aristotle, but its authenticity is questionable.
- 3 Cf. Joshua 8:31 (9:2).
- 4 Philo, De Specialibus Legibus I.80.
- 5 Ibid., I.166. The last expression means “completely undamaged in every respect.”
- 6 A list of such inscriptions is provided by C. Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, Volume 2 (Peabody, MA.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994): 579.
- 7 G.H.R. Horsley, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, Volume 4 (Macquarrie University, 1987):162.
- 8 Philo, De Abrahamo 47.
- 9 Plato, Phaedrus 250c.