Repetition and the Christian Life
The New Testament contains 13 letters written by Paul, but we know that Paul wrote more than 13 letters to the many churches and individuals in his day. At a minimum, he wrote a letter to the Laodiceans. He may have written at least three letters to the Corinthians. Beyond that, it would be surprising that a man who went on three missionary journeys and established a number of churches limited himself to only 15 or so letters.
But what’s more surprising to me is that the Holy Spirit saw fit to preserve for us more than one of Paul’s letters to any given church. Why? Because there is often substantial repetition in themes from the first letter to the second. Especially as we look at Paul’s second letter to the church of the Thessalonians, we will discern largely the same themes, some of which are developed to a greater degree while others are more in the background.
But this repetition of themes is a characteristic of the Christian life. Just as Paul needed to send more than one letter to the same congregation about the same topics, so all of us need to hear the same themes time and time again. I am under no illusion that sermon topics are a one and done kind of thing. We all need to hear the same things over and over again, and none of us should ever tire of hearing the gospel. To be sure, we should grow in the depth of our understanding of this and that topic as we hear it time and again, but we should never think that we do not need to hear this or that theme only once.
Specifically in Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, the thematic repetition will focus on two main ideas: the coming of Christ and the threat of idleness. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, he is selective and brief when he touches on these topics. In this second letter, he will spend a good many verses developing the judgment side of the return of Christ. He will also speak much more directly against the members of the church who were taking advantage of the generosity of their fellow believers.
As far as some reasons for why repetition is a characteristic of the Christian life, there are two that I’d like to bring up. First, in the weakness of our flesh, we are forgetful people. Due to the fallen nature of this world, we are both materially and spiritually forgetful. Our minds decay, and we experience a slow leak that requires constant refilling. Our souls can be spiritually forgetful in the face of temptation to the point that the evil that we do not want to do can start to become attractive again. And so, we need to hear and to absorb the same themes over and over again that we might be strengthened against material and spiritual decay.
Second, our Christian lives are vitally connected to the next generation, and so we must continue to tell the old, old story to the coming generations. Beyond our obligations to our own spiritual health, we are obliged to instruct the next generation in the wonderful works of God. Part of what that means is repeating the same themes over and over again. Our prayer is that as each successive generation grows in wisdom and stature it will grasp the doctrines of our faith more deeply. For that to happen, however, those doctrines must continue to be preached from the pulpit and taught in the home.
Repetition, then, is a mechanism of preservation of the truth for both us and the coming generations. This is why God gave Israel feasts and sacraments; it is why God has given us word and sacrament; this is why we annually celebrate both the birth and resurrection of our Lord and Savior.
To add one more concluding thought, this greeting reminds us that the Christian life is a marathon. As we run the race, we need to be reminded time and again why we are running, how we should be running, and for what crown and glory we run. May we have ears to hear and hearts that won’t forget so that we can continue to be conformed to the image of Christ and ultimately share in his glory.