HOLY SPIRIT: Approaching God And The Family Of Faith by Volker Rabens

Approaching God And The Family Of Faith by Volker Rabens

From A Biblical Theology of the Holy Spirit

The Initiating Word of the Spirit

Christian life begins with the work of the Spirit.  In 1 Thessalonians 1:5, Paul narrates how the gospel came to the Thessalonians “not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”  This formulation conveys one of the two aspects of Paul’s holistic mission to which I want to draw attention to this section (the second aspect being its relational nature).  Namely, 1:5 demonstrates the charismatic nature of Paul’s mission activity.  The gospel does not come to the Thessalonians merely as words but also as power and in the Holy Spirit.  Two parallels from later Pauline epistles, namely 1 Corinthians 2:4-5 and Romans 15:18-19, show that this formulation is central for Paul’s understanding of his Spirit-empowered missionary activity.  These passages associate the “initiating” work of the Spirit with works of power, signs, and wonders.  As the (“pagan”) Thessalonians are called by God “into his own kingdom and glory” (2:12), the initiation into this new sphere is aided by the demonstration of the power of God through the Spirit.

Although there has been some discussion regarding the exact meaning of the third element of the triad “in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction,” it seems most likely that en plerophoria polle (“in/with great conviction”) widens the perspective on Paul’s gospel ministry to include its effects among the Thessalonians.  In the succeeding verse, these effects even become Paul’s primary focus: “you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.”  Paul here uses a phrase that describes the emotional effect of the reception of the gospel; and he is clear that this joy is the work of the Holy Spirit: charas pneumatos hagiou (“joy [inspired] by the Holy Spirit”).  It is striking that 1 Clement uses an almost identical phrase with regard to “conviction”: plerophorias pneumatos hagiou (“conviction [inspired] by the Holy Spirit,” 1 Clement 42:3).  It seems that this is also the reason for Paul’s employment of plerophoria in 1:5: the Spirit is not only at work in the words and deeds of the Apostles, but also in the Thessalonians, enabling them to fully grasp the gospel and being assured of its joyful truth.  Both verses (1:5-6) thus describe the work of the Spirit at conversion-initiation as having an experiential dimension.

However, this experiential dimension has been called into question by some scholars.  For example, Friedrich Wilhelm Horn believes that the early Christian statements regarding the reception of the Spirit are primarily dogmas and not reflections of experiences.  It may be useful to turn here to a third parallel to 1:5-6 from Paul’s other epistles, namely Galatians, as this text may elucidate what receiving the gospel “with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6) may entail.  In the course of his argumentation in his letter to the Galatians, Paul asks the Galatians if they have received the Spirit through the works of the law or through believing the gospel (3:1-5).  His argumentation can only be persuasive if the Galatians can indeed recall receiving the Spirit.  That this memory is tied to a tangible experience comes explicitly to the fore through the way in which Paul connects in parallel “receiving the Spirit,” and “experiencing so much.”  The Spirit-reception was, therefore, a “great experience” (“does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you?”).  Although 1 Thessalonians 1:5-6 is slightly less explicit, it is nonetheless obvious that Paul can likewise remind the Thessalonians of the experiential character of their conversation (power, Spirit, and persuasion), most overtly of the “joy” that the apostle attributes to the Holy Spirit.

The Thessalonians accepted the gospel because they were persuaded by it.  This was due to the word (i.e., content) of the gospel as well as to the accompanying works of power in the Holy Spirit.  Next to this “charismatic” dimension, we also need to draw attention to the relational nature of Paul’s Spirit-empowered mission activity among the Thessalonians.  After mentioning the gospel’s coming to the Thessalonians “in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction,” Paul continues:

Just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.  And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit. (1 Thessalonians 1:5-6)

Paul links the testimony of his behavior and very being, on the one side, with the conjunction kathos (“just as,” “in so far as”) to the preceding triad (power, Spirit, and conviction) and, on the other side, with kai (“and then,” “and so,” introducing a result that comes from what precedes) to the succeeding Spirit-inspired reaction to the gospel (joy inspired by the Spirit), which is an imitation of Paul and the Apostles.  It therefore seems reasonable to understand the Spirit-empowering of Paul’s gospel ministry as encompassing the behavior and character of the Apostles.  We will see in the next part in more detail that Paul comprehends the ethical life of the community to be empowered by the Spirit.  However, we can observe already here, in the first lines of the letter, that the various aspects of Paul’s holistic mission to the Thessalonians were empowered by the Spirit.

The effects of this mission are part of and result from the dynamics of human relationships.  Paul and his partners shared their very selves with the Thessalonians.  The Thessalonians “are witnesses, and God also, how holy, righteous, and blameless” was the Apostles’ behavior towards them.  This is a central aspect of the gospel’s coming to the Thessalonians “in the Holy Spirit.”  The result is not only (Spirit-inspired) conviction and reception of the gospel with “joy inspired by the Holy Spirit,” but also that the Thessalonians become imitators of the Apostles.  The reception of the gospel with Spirit-inspired joy in the midst of suffering is an essential element of the Thessalonians’ imitation of the Apostles, so that the Thessalonians have meanwhile become a model for others in Macedonia and Achaia.  When Paul then turns to giving some instructions in the second half of the letter, he can draw on this interpersonal dynamic: “We ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more.”  In the same way as the gospel did not come “in word only” to the Thessalonians, so also the “learning from us” is not a mere cognitive acquisition.  Rather, it is the social participation in the Spirit-empowered religious-ethical life of the Apostles among them that has brought the life of the Spirit to them and has empowered them to “lead a life worthy of God.”

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