The Psalmist declared “Since my youth, O God, you have taught me” (Psalm 71:17) and he desires that God continually would teach him to do his will (Psalm 143:10). His experience and expectation is that God does instruct him, with the result that he knows God and his ways. While this defines the Psalmist’s relationship with God, it was not true for all in Israel. The prophets yearned for the day when God would restore and rebuild Jerusalem. Sometimes the language borders on the fantastic as they consider how God, using all of his creative power and resources, will fashion Jerusalem from rubies and sapphires. Its walls and buildings will be “sparkling jewels” and “precious stones” (Isaiah 54:11-13). But even more wonderful is that those within its walls will be “taught by the Lord”.
Jeremiah takes this vision a step further. God enables him to foresee a day when God establishes a new covenant with Israel. But it is quite different from the covenant he made at Sinai. Israel did not keep that covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34). When this new covenant is implemented “they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (31:34) and no one will have to teach them this knowledge because God “writes it on their hearts” (31:33).
In a first century B.C. document called the Psalms of Solomon, a messianic figure is called “righteous king, taught by God (didaktos hūpo theou)” (17:32). Because of these wonderful characteristics this figure is able to restore Israel to the glory God intends. Jesus himself urged his followers to acknowledge only one instructor, the Messiah (Matthew 23:8).
It seems that Paul creates a new word in 1 Thessalonians 4:9 to celebrate the inauguration of God’s new covenant. He commends these new believers for their sincere love for one another. What is perhaps more astonishing is that he attributes this to the fact that “you yourselves are God-taught (theodidaktoi) to love one another” (4:9). There is no evidence that this word existed in Greek before Paul wrote this letter. He creates this word to mark the astonishing change that salvation in Jesus has brought to these people. It has changed fundamentally their ‘place’. When Paul visited Thessalonika, he proclaimed “the gospel of God” (2:8-9) and many in city received it as “the word of God” (2:13). The result is that these followers of Jesus now know “the will of God” because Paul and those with him gave them instructions. They know God, in contrast to “the nations” (4:5). But even more significantly God has “given his Holy Spirit to you” (4:8). All of these actions by God have generated their new status as people who are “God-taught” (theodidaktoi).
In creating this word Paul is doing more than being a clever word-smith. Underlying this term is in fact an entirely new eschatological reality . The spiritual order has changed because of God’s actions in Jesus Christ. He defines this change in 1 Thessalonians 5:5, “You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.” The day that Isaiah and Jeremiah prophesied has dawned. The new covenant is now established and by his Spirit, whom He places within us, God writes his will on our hearts. The Holy Spirit generates the desire, ability and understanding necessary for the followers of Jesus to “live lives worthy of God who calls you into his kingdom and glory” (2:13).
A similar idea is probably intended in 1 Corinthians 2:13. Paul affirmed that “we received the Spirit from God.” God has given us the gift of his Spirit precisely to help us understand his wisdom. And so followers of Jesus are people who possess a wisdom expressed “in words taught from the Spirit (en didaktois pneumatos)” (2:13).
Paul used a number of adjectives formed from the word for God (theos) and some other action or attribute. For example, in Romans 1:30 he described sinful humanity as “God-haters” (theostugēs).1 Most are familiar with his “God-breathed” (theopneustos) formulation in 2 Timothy 3:16. “God-taught” (theodidaktos) has the additional feature of being a verbal adjective, formed from the verb “to teach” (didaskein). Such adjectives often have the sense of a perfect passive participle,2 i.e. describing a state or condition achieved because of a prior action. In this case the Thessalonian Christians are “God-taught” because of prior instruction provided by evangelists and teachers, such as Paul, and because of their continued reflection and application of this truth guided by God’s Holy Spirit.
The particular focus of God’s direction and their resultant obedience relates to the second great commandment that requires followers of Jesus “to love their neighbours as themselves”. The Thessalonian believers excelled at “loving one another”. The only thing that Paul can urge upon them is that they continue to “love all the brothers throughout Macedonia” (4:10; cf. 3:12). In one of his other letters Paul describes this command as the “law of the Messiah” (Galatians 6:2), bearing one another’s burdens.
How did God teach these believers? Obviously Paul acted as God’s agent in this matter, both as he shared the Gospel initially and then as he corresponded by letter. Paul compares his teaching activity among them to the way a wise father will guide and instruct his children (2:11). Some written portions of the Old Testament were probably available. We know from the account Luke wrote about the way the Gospel arrived at Thessalonika that a Jewish synagogue existed in the city. This would suggest that portions or all of the Old Testament was present in some form, so that the worship services of the synagogue could proceed. Some of the believers were Jews and some were “God-fearers”, i.e. non-Jews interested in the teachings of Judaism. Such people would have heard parts of the Old Testament read and expounded each Sabbath. They probably had some access to some of God’s revelation directly through copies of Old Testament manuscripts (whether Hebrew or Greek). Paul had dispatched Timothy to the city in order to “strengthen and encourage you in your faith” (1 Thessalonians 3:3). This suggests a teaching and equipping ministry. And then we know from 1 Thessalonians 5:12ff that the church had its own leaders, whose mandate was to provide spiritual care and nurture among them.
I am sure God used all of these resources and perhaps others to teach these believers. As God did this, He was creating his new Kingdom family. They become “imitators of the Lord” (1:6), even in the context of suffering.
- in what ways are you as a follower of Jesus being “God-taught”?
- since God is teaching you, how closely are you paying attention to his lessons? What kind of student are you, if God is the teacher?
- if one of the lessons that God teaches us is “to love one another”, how is this lesson getting applied in your life today? How committed are you to following this instruction from God?