In 1 Thessalonians 2:7-8 Paul uses forceful language to describe his extraordinary relationship with Christians in the city of Thessalonika. When he first visited them and shared the “gospel of God”, he exercised great care lest any impression be given that his gospel work was merely a means to make money. And in his first letter to them, written perhaps a few months after this initial meeting and perhaps only a few weeks after he was forced to leave the city, he reminds these believers that he and his companions, “while working night and day so as not to burden any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God” (1 Thess.2:9). It seems his workshop became his place for proclamation.
Paul used his example of hard, laborious toil to affirm his great love for these believers. In v.7 he describes his response to them as ēpios, “gentle”.1 This adjective is only found one other time in the New Testament (2 Timothy 2:24), where Paul tells Timothy that a spiritual leader must not be quarrelsome, but “gentle (ēpion) to all”, i.e. exercising a “motherly goodness and tenderness” among God’s people. Most frequently this word describes a divine quality, whether applied to pagan gods or to Yahweh. According to Philo, the Jewish writer contemporary with Jesus, when God revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush, He promises to help Israel because “I am of a kindly nature (ēpios) and gracious to true suppliants.”2 Philo also indicates that God’s Law urges masters to show “gentleness (ēpiotēta) and kindness” towards their slaves.3 Similarly the Greek god, Zeus, is said to be “the most gentle (ēpios) god toward humans.”4 Hesiod says that the Greek goddess, Leto, is “endlessly mild (ēpios) towards humans and toward the immortal gods….”5 This adjective defines a person who is good-natured, kindly disposed towards others.
We also find it used to characterize royal figures. In the Greek Old Testament Ahasuerus displayed this virtue (Esther 3:13). In the Greek version the King says that he was “not elated by the confidence of power, but ever conducting myself with great moderation and with gentleness (ēpiotētos)” with reference to his subjects. When Josephus, quoting Hecataeus, narrates the victory of Ptolemy over Syria, he says that “many of the inhabitants, when they learned of his gentleness (ēpiotēta) and humaneness wanted to leave with him for Egypt.”6 Philodemus of Gadara writing in the first century BC on the duties of kings urges them to be mild in judgment and loved for gentleness (ēpiotēs).7 E. A. Judge8 suggests that this virtue of gentleness derives from self-restraint and moderation in the Hellenistic tradition. However, its use in Christian tradition arises from a deep concern for the weak, those in a situation of need. We see this in 1 Thessalonians 2:7-8 as Paul’s gentleness is linked explicitly with his deep love for them (he calls them agapētoi, “beloved”) at the end of v.8.
Connected with this term is the participle (v.8) homeiromenoi,9 which the New International Version translates “because you had become so dear [to us].” This is the only occurrence of this term in the New Testament. When Job wonders “why is light given to those in misery,…to those who long for (homeirontai) death that does not come,” the Greek translator used this verb to express the Hebrew verb ḥakah, to wait for, tarry. The second century A.D. Greek translator of the Psalms, Symmachus, used homeiromai in Psalm 62(63):2 to describe the early morning approach of the Psalmist to God (“O God, my God, early I approach you”), indicating something of poet’s yearning to meet with God. There is one other occurrence in a fourth century A.D. tomb inscription where parents express how they “greatly desire (homeiromeno[i]) their son.”10
Using various analogies of paternal and maternal care, Paul affirms his deep affection for the people in Thessalonika, which in turn motivated him to serve them with gentle kindness and to share the Gospel among them. As he writes to those who responded to the Gospel, he rehearses how his love led him “to share [his] own life” with them. Acts 17 gives us more details about the response of people in this city. It must have been significant, including “some of the Jews” and “a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.” Many had some acquaintance with Jewish teaching (being termed “God-fearing Greeks”), but they responded to the news that Jesus was the Messiah in large numbers and abandoned their idolatry. They must have sensed Paul’s deep sincerity and discerned the truthfulness of his message, despite the slanderous criticisms made against him. This is probably why Paul has to defend his evangelistic methods so vigorously in 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12.
The language Paul used here is unusual. It is designed to make an impression, incorporating apparently both rare and elevated language. Obviously Paul wants to communicate very clearly his affection for these believers. Later in this chapter he will affirm how strongly he wants to return and visit with them, “but Satan has hindered him.”
Paul’s testimony invites us to reflect on the passion with which we serve others by sharing Christ’s Gospel. As people respond to the message and become part of the faith community our love for one another should blossom, encouraging us to give “of our very selves” so that other followers of Jesus might be encouraged and challenged “to walk worthy of God.” Our contemporary Western culture does not lend itself to the development and nurture of such affection. The push for individualism and independence interferes with the body life that the Spirit wants to engender among believers. Self-interest gets in the way too often and the cost of such service is deemed too great. The result is a shallow, anemic Christian community, rather than the robust, agape-drenched, Kingdom people God’s Spirit desires us to become.
We might also consider how Paul’s language defines the essence of ministry leadership within the Christian community.
- Is your ministry leadership today characterized by kind gentleness, or is it defined by harshness and a critical spirit? What needs to change?
- Do you have a deep affection for the followers of Jesus in your faith community? How do you express this? How does it shape the way you share the Gospel and serve others?
- 1 There is a variant nēpios, “infant”, but this seems to be the result of scribal error, adding the final “n” of the preceding verb to the beginning of the noun ēpioi, “gentle” that followed. The term “infant” would add a confusing metaphor into the mix, because immediately after this statement, Paul compares his actions to that of a “nursing mother feeding her own children”. To describe himself first as an “infant” among them and then turn around and compare himself to a “nursing mother”, seems to be a rather awkward mix of metaphors. Conversely, the adjective “gentle” would fit perfectly well. It also contrasts more suitably with his concern not to be a burden upon them, expressed in the first part of v.7.
- 2 Philo, Moses I.72.
- 3 Philo, Decalogue 167.
- 4 Euripedes, Bacchus 861.
- 5 Hesiod, Theogonia 407.
- 6 Josephus, Against Apion I.186.
- 7 Philodemus, Good King, 7:13-14.
- 8 New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, Volume 4, pages 69-70.
- 9 R. Funk, F. Blass and A. Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), p. 53, section 101, are not sure whether the verb has smooth breathing (omeiromai) or rough breathing (homeiromai). They are not sure whether this verb is a variant of himeiromai. In their view this has not been proven.
- 10 C. Spicq, in an article published in the Revue Biblique 64(1957), page 193 says that homeiromai is a synonym for epipothein and signifies “desirer impatiemment, languir”, but also expresses paternal or maternal love.