The fledgling fellowship in Thessalonica was a community of people who had experienced a radical change in their lives. Paul and had come and proclaimed to them the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and their God-motivated response had resulted in a “turn(ing) to God from idols”, expressed in the dual activities of “serv(ing) the living and true God”, and “wait(ing) for His Son from heaven.” It is this “serving and waiting” that I am investigating.
I don’t believe that Paul is making this stuff up on the spot. I do not believe that this is original material. Paul is steeped not only in the Old Testament (which he is), but also in the majestic storyline of God’s plan, beginning in creation and culminating in New Creation, tracing the fundamental promises to Abraham, and seeing their fulfillment in God’s new people. So, I wonder if the dual command has a history, a biblical background, that will give depth and context to what it means for us “to serve and wait.”
In the more personal aspect of creation in Genesis 2 (as opposed to the more formal and schematic approach of Genesis 1) we find that God is personally involved with Adam, and gives him a double command: “Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.”(Genesis 2:15 NAS95) This is certainly not all that God says, but these two commands are notable, and perhaps foundational. A literal translation of the Hebrew word rendered above as “cultivate” would be “serve.” Sound familiar? The word rendered “keep” is often literally “guard,” which could easily be understood and waiting and watching, or perhaps, Peter-ishly, “watch and pray” (Matthew 26:41).
A review of the 43 references1 where “serve” and “guard/keep” are found in association, we find that the servant is one charged with royal responsibility to rule righteously, according to God’s law, which is to be guarded, or kept. “Servant” is who you are as one oriented toward God, and holding/keeping to God’s word/plan is what you do. This line traces through Moses and the prophets, through David, and then finally to Jesus, the ultimate Servant of the Lord who fulfills/keeps God’s word/plan perfectly.
Now, abruptly, come back with me to 1 Thessalonians 4, where I find dual infinitives, a similar construction to what we have in 1:9,10. But here there is a very specific application. With regard to the use/implementation of our physical bodies in sexual relationship, we are to serve and wait. The idea of serving is stated negatively in 4:3, where we are told not to serve the flesh, and by implication, that we must not serve the flesh because who we are as Christians is those who have “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” We are servants of God as followers of Jesus, the ultimate Servant, who perfectly cultivates the royal role of righteous representative of God. As servants, we are to keep, or, according to 4:4, “possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor.” We are to wait for our body’s prescribed and righteous fulfillment in the marriage relationship.
Interestingly, there is another infinitive doublet in 4:6, where we are instructed “that no man transgress and defraud his brother,” antithetical actions from cultivating and keeping. Our abandonment of our role as God’s servants, and thus our responsibility to responsibly wait, is a clear violation of the law of love, also a double command, that we love God and love neighbor.
This talk about a proper relationship reserved for marriage leads me, finally (for the purposes of this post) to think about the dual commands given to the husband and wife to “love and submit” in Ephesians 5:22-33, and similarly in 1 Peter 3:1-7. Is there a correspondence here between the responsibilities to “cultivate and keep,” or to “serve and wait”? It at least gives color to these words - that who we are as royal representatives of God, are those who love/serve. And yet, we are not ultimate representatives - only Jesus is, and so we do not simply plough ahead with our own ideas and agendas, but we submit/wait. As broken out in the Ephesians text, it is the husband who is to cultivate the family’s identity as God’s servants,, and it is the ministry of the wife to exemplify that we are not lords, but stewards, who, while responsible, are not ultimate. That would be Jesus, the One for whom we wait. Going back to my review of the OT verses where the Hebrew terms for “cultivate and keep” are associated, it would primarily2 be the husband who is specifically charged with “cultivating” the identity of the household as those who have be oriented toward God, and are thus His servants, and it would be primarily the wife who is charged with “keeping” and ever restraining the functions of the household in order to be consistent with the home’s proper identity.
1Gen 2:15; Num 3:7–8; 8:26; 18:7; Deut 6:12; 7:8; 11:16; 12:30; 13:4; 16:12; Josh 1:7; 22:2, 5; 24:17; 1 Sam 28:2; 2 Sam 22:44; 1 Kings 3:6; 8:23–25; 9:6; 11:11, 34, 38; 14:8; 20:39; 2 Kings 12:21; 17:13; 21:8; Is 56:6; Jer 16:11; Ezek 37:24; Hos 12:12; Mal 3:14; Psa 19:11; 86:2; 119:17; Neh 1:7; 10:29; 2 Chr 6:14–16
2I use the word “primarily,” because other Scriptures make clear that we all members of the covenant community are called to love, and we are all called to submit, and therefore, we all have responsibility for cultivating our God-given identity and keeping our God-given functions.