1 Thessalonians 5:12–28
The One Who Calls You Is Faithful
Read This to Others
Commentary by Lieke Wijnia
I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers and sisters. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you (1 Thessalonians 5:27–28)
Considered to be one of the first naturalists to study insects by direct observation, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) lived in a time during which many learned people studied, collected, and cherished nature as a ‘second book’ of God in addition to the Bible. Natural manifestations were studied in awe and admiration, as a gateway to a closer relationship with the divine creator.
Merian made detailed drawings of insects in their natural habitats; indeed, she was one of the first to do so. Although the combination of specimen and habitat were not always accurate, her method of study was an important contribution to the discipline of entomology.
Of German origin, Merian spent a large part of her life in the Netherlands. There she resided for several years in the Labadist commune in the Frisian town of Wiuwert. Followers of the pietist Jean de Labadie (1610–74), the commune members saw themselves as ‘chosen ones’ because they professed what they regarded as the purest form of Christian faith. While materialism was prohibited, Merian was able to pursue her work because it was considered the study of God’s creation. Towards the end of her life, she spent around two years in the Dutch colony of Surinam. There she continued studying and documenting insects and their life worlds, drawing heavily on indigenous knowledge.
Merian was particularly fascinated by the transformation of caterpillars to butterflies. It is a transformation that resonates with the anticipation of the intended audience of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. He encourages them to remain patient, living their lives as good Christians until the return of Christ.
Both prolific disseminators, each in their own ways, had their work awaken faith in their audiences. Merian achieved the publication of very many of her renderings of God’s tiniest creations during her lifetime and so added to their future study and understanding. Just as Merian’s publications can be regarded as chapters illuminating God’s ‘second book’, so Paul disseminated and encouraged faith through this letter that he requested be read to all brothers and sisters.
Reser, Anna, and Leila McNeil. 2021. Forces of Nature: The Women who Changed Science (London: Frances Lincoln Publishing)
Do Good For Each Other
Commentary by Lieke Wijnia
And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else. (1 Thessalonians 5:14–15)
This painting embodies a final farewell to a difficult yet enduring friendship. Painter Edouard Manet (1832–83) depicted the funeral of his friend, the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–67). The funeral took place in Paris on 2 September 1867 and relatively few people attended. Many of the poet’s friends were still on their summer vacations away from the city; others did not show due to a threatening summer storm. Dark grey clouds hover over the grassy sward on which the carriage with the coffin is followed by a small group of mourners. We see the funeral from a distance, allowing us a view of both the cemetery and the city’s skyline.
Nineteenth-century Paris was the stage for fast-paced changes and rapid secularization. In contrast to his poet friend, Manet remained a Catholic all his life. Baudelaire, who also grew up a Catholic, left his religion behind and became a fierce critic of organized religion.
The two men were also quite different in character. Whereas Manet continuously sought connections between art historical tradition and emerging Modernism, Baudelaire primarily experienced and expressed a sense of alienation from the societal changes around him. Manet embraced the possibilities of bridging tradition and the new, while for Baudelaire social estrangement was the very subject matter of his poetry.
The two men had a solid friendship despite such differences of outlook and artistic approach, embodying the compassion and patience which 1 Thessalonians 5 prescribes for those with other experiences and other views: ‘be patient with them all … always seek to do good to one another’ (vv.14–15).
The resulting canvas is not a smoothly finished artwork. Indeed, the unfinished state of this painting gives it a particular character: it is as though we get a look behind the scenes of the painter’s hand at work, and also a glimpse of the painter’s heart.
In this respect, it can be read as a witness to a particular state of mind—an experienced necessity to ‘capture’ the funeral, to process the experience of the funeral in one way or other, and to show ‘esteem’ for others ‘because of their work’ (v.13), even when it diverges from one’s own.
It reinforces the complexities and richness of personal relations that do not necessarily come easily and that need effort to maintain them.
Coppens, Thera. 2014. Suzanne en Edouard Manet: De liefde van een Hollandse pianiste en een Parijse schilder (Amsterdam: Meulenhoff)
Commentary by Lieke Wijnia
Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:20–22)
Prophecies have a simultaneously prominent and contested position in the history of Christianity. Prophecies tend to be perceived in ambiguous ways. Initially often questioned, prophets either gain followings or are cast aside. Some prophets become leaders; others become outcasts.
How to take revelations seriously? Many people in ancient times wanted proofs of things for which they had no direct sensory evidence, and Western science adjures us moderns even more strictly to test everything empirically.
In 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul calls for an open mind towards prophecies. He tells his audience not to treat prophecies with contempt, but rather with respect—respect at least to the extent that prophecies are worth being put to a test. Who knows what goodness or truth might appear from them? Paul presents openness to prophecies as a mark of faith—an exploration of believing beyond boundaries of the known, the visible, and the empirical.
The unknown prophet represented by this small sculpture does not look as though he has been treated with contempt. He is elaborately dressed from head to toe and seated comfortably. And look at the work’s gilded surface! This is an object on which expense has been lavished.
With one leg nonchalantly crossed over the other, he is shown in the act of writing his prophecy with a quill on a parchment scroll. The scroll, resting on his bended knee, may originally have been inscribed with text, but, if so, this has become invisible over time. Paradoxically so, because only through language can prophecies be shared. It is then up to others to turn prophets’ messages over, and to engage in discussion about whether they are relevant, and how.
The radiant character of this small sculpture echoes the positive and encouraging sentiment communicated by Paul in this passage. ‘Hold on to what is good’ (v.21).
Maria Sibylla Merian :
Branch of West Indian Cherry with Achilles Morpho Butterfly, 1702–03 , Watercolour and bodycolour with gum arabic over lightly etched outlines on vellum
Edouard Manet :
The Funeral, c.1867 , Oil on canvas
Master of Hakendover :
Seated Prophet, 1390–1409 , Polychromed wood
Living with Uncertainty
Commentary by Lieke Wijnia
Regarded as the first Pauline epistle, 1 Thessalonians is addressed to the Christian congregation of Thessalonica, Greece. This exhibition’s passage is a final instruction, the closing statement to a longer letter meant to encourage and reassure its audience. It was an audience that was eager to hear from the apostle about living in anticipation, living without certainty of when and how the return of Christ would be taking place.
While the first part of this final salutation (1 Thessalonians 5:1–11) mainly uses a metaphor of light and dark, the second part of the chapter is more instructive in nature. It takes the metaphor of maintaining the light against the threat of darkness and makes it concrete.
How to live faithfully in uncertain times? Love those who believe in the same things as you, who work hard, and who take care of you and others. But be just as good to those who do not share your beliefs. Be patient with those who make other choices in life than you would, be kind and gentle to those who treat you harshly. Maintain dignity even if the situation you find yourself in is not promising at all.
Paul addresses his audience as capable of behaving in this manner, assessing them as worthy, faithful followers of Christ, and instructing them to treat others like that as well. Paul acknowledges the wait and uncertainty his audience is experiencing in not knowing when and how the return of Christ will take place.
Edouard Manet’s testimony to the earthly farewell of his friend reiterates the close connection in life between the two men. However differently they may have approached their life and art, ultimately they were able to reach out and find one another in conversation, through patience. The unfinished state of the painting also resonates with a topic Paul addressed in the previous section of his letter (1 Thessalonians 4), in which he describes what happens to the dead upon the return of Christ. He paints a picture of how the dead are first brought to life again, and are then joined by those still living, together with Christ, in the heavenly spheres. The light areas left open in the painting—with glimpses of canvas even showing through here and there in the composition’s very heart—seem eloquent of the indefiniteness of the end that awaits us beyond this present life.
The notion of prophecy reinforces again this element that combines both uncertainty and hope. While prophecies might be difficult to prove, they can also be the carriers of good news; utterances that give shape to faith one way or another. Paul’s instruction not to reject prophecies straight away, but to study and test them, is an acknowledgement of their difficult nature, but also of the potential they might have within them. To Paul, Christ is the most important prophet, whose messages he now disseminates among believers. To give prophecies a chance, Paul seems to insist, is to engage with the very nature of Christ.
That Maria Sibylla Merian was able to have her drawings printed and sold during her lifetime was a major achievement. Her interest in the caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation resonates with the anticipation of the congregation of Thessalonica in Paul’s letter. There is something very hopeful in that transformation, which happens time and again with each new butterfly.
Of course, the Thessalonians were waiting upon that one major transformation in their lives: the Second Coming of Christ and their resurrection to eternal life. However, Paul’s letter can be read as an encouragement also to find transformation on a smaller scale in their daily lives; to explore the world around them with eyes open for smaller manifestations of Christ. Merian’s enduring fascination with the tiniest of God’s creations resembles this encouragement to find the sacred in the most unexpected of places.