“Mirror Reading” Galatians

As Thomas Schreiner points out in his recent commentary on Galatians, when he wrote this letter, Paul did not need to explain the situation and background to his readers (p.31). They knew what the situation since it concerned them. We are therefore at a great disadvantage when we pick up the letter to the Galatians because we have to infer the situation from what Paul says in the letter itself.

Mirror ReadingThis process of inferring a background for a letter like Galatians is known as “mirror reading.” We only have access to one side of the story. It would be ideal if we were able to read documents written by the opponents of Paul, or a letter from the Galatian churches explaining what the problem was and asking Paul for advice. In the case of Galatians, we have only Paul’s side of the story as he describes it in Galatians.

I think that there are a few other “resources” for reading the situation in Galatia that resulted in the letter Paul wrote to his churches. The book of Acts is an obvious candidate for a source, although sometimes Luke’s theological agenda forces scholars to wonder about his accuracy. In the case of Galatians, for example, there are some chronological problems, but Luke and Paul generally agree on how the Galatian churches got there and what the opponents were teaching in Paul’s churches.

There are other resources that help us to accurately mirror read is the literature of the Second Temple period. Some of these are Jewish, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Psalms of Solomon. There are hundreds of documents that collect Second Temple Jewish literature to help us understand the Jewish world view reflected by Paul’s letters. While Josephus may not always be accurate (especially when talking about himself), his Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews are essential reading for understanding this period in history. I might recommend Paul Maier’s Josephus: The Essential Writings (Kregel, 1988) as a good entry point for students wanting to know more about Josephus.

Other resources are Greco-Roman. These might be less helpful, since they often reflect popular misconceptions of how Judaism was practiced in the first century. There are several excellent collections of this kind of material that save the student from having to sift through the hundreds of Loeb volumes looking for good background material. My favorite is Jewish Life and Thought among Greeks and Romans edited by Feldman and Reinhold (Fortress, 1996). Fortress also recently published Documents and Images for the Study of Paul edited by Elliott and Reasoner (2011). I have also enjoyed Robert Louis Wilken’s The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (Yale, 2003).

While it would be ideal for a reader of Galatians (or a student of Pauline theology) to have letters from the opponents, I think that there is sufficient data to support Paul’s description of the situation in Galatia as accurate.

Is it “fair” to include Acts as background to Galatians? Should we use other Jewish writings as supplementary materials for understanding this letter? What are the dangers of this approach?

Galatians: Freedom through God’s Grace

My new book, Galatians: Freedom through God’s Grace, is now available through Amazon in paperback or a (cheaper) Kindle.

I have been working on this book for a long time, and I am glad to have it in print.You can also order it through the Wipf & Stock website (it is a little less expensive there, they will charge shipping so it is about the same as Amazon Prime). If you are a blogger and want to review the book Wipf & Stock has a “Request Review Copy” on their page and they can send you a copy. If you happen to be around the Grace Christian University campus, drop into my office and I would be happy to sell you a copy (I have a few on hand).

This book had its origins in my teaching ministry at Rush Creek Bible Church, but taught the material in several other contexts over the years and used this blog as a sounding board for material which found its way into the book. I intended this book as a basic introduction to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. It would make a good pastor’s commentary or a supplement for teaching Galatians in a Sunday School or small group Bible Study for a quarter.

Here are my goals in this book in contrast to other styles of commentaries already on the market. First, this is not an exegetical commentary. I rarely comment on Greek grammar except where it is critical to the meaning of a verse. While I do include some cultural and historical background in order to illuminate the text, I do not claim to be comprehensive in this area. There is far more to say about the background to Galatians than I cover in this book. There are several places in the book where I reflect some insights of the so-called “new perspective on Paul,” but this book is neither a critique nor a defense of this view of Paul’s letters.

Second, I do not intend for this book to be an expositional commentary, although that is the closest model. Expositional commentaries focus on an English translation and attempt to explain the details of the text. My goal is not necessarily the details but the overall point Paul makes in the letter. I move through Galatians in sections and comment on the most important aspects of the text in order to understand what Paul is trying to say both to the original readers and to Christians living in similar situations in the twenty-first century. I have attempted to ground this contemporary application in the text of the Bible.

Third, I intend this book for laymen, Bible teachers, and busy pastors who need an overview of the main issues in the book of Galatians. I envisioned this book being used in a small group Bible study or Sunday School class as a supplement to a personal study of Galatians. No book should ever be used to replace reading Scripture, but perhaps this book will help readers to better understand some nuances of Paul’s thought in his letter to the Galatians.

Here is how you can help me out. First, buy a copy of the book for yourself or your pastor. Second, recommend your church library purchase a copy; if you attend a Bible College or seminary, request the book for your library.

If you do buy the book please leave a review on Amazon. You can even review the book if you did not buy it from Amazon. Just a few kind words would really help others to purchase the book. I hate to be whiney about it like some YouTuber, but it is (unfortunately) important to have good reviews on Amazon these days. So leave your comments and rating at Amazon and I will be eternally grateful.

In old news, Jesus the Bridegroom is only $10 for Kindle, and I see a few cheaper copies both new and used if you want a print copy. Again, please consider leaving a review for that book as well.

So what’s next? I have two or three similar books in process, I hope to have Ephesians finished by the end of the year.

What is the Restrainer in 2 Thessalonians 2?

This is a difficult problem in reading the apocalyptic section of 2 Thessalonians. Paul says the Man of Perdition cannot be revealed until the “restrainer” is removed. The problem is that he does not explicitly state who or what the restrainer is. Both the restraining power and the mystery of lawlessness are active at the time Paul writes. The restrainer must therefore be something active at the time of Paul and will continue to be active until the Day of the Lord. As a result, there are a number of suggestions as to the identity of this restrainer / restraining power.

There are two issues that need to be resolved with respect to the identity of the restrainer. First, there are lexical issues: What does the term κατέχω (katexo) mean? The word can mean to hold back or restrain, but also “to hold fast, keep secure.”

Devil FlandersSecond, and perhaps more problematic, are grammatical issues. In verse 6, Paul uses a neuter singular participle, but in verse 7 he uses a masculine singular participle. These two words should not refer to the same thing according to the rules of the Greek language. The first must have neuter referent, the second a masculine. The many suggested alternatives for understanding this passage can be categorized as taking the restrainer as a good force or an evil force.

From the time of Tertullian on, the neuter participle was taken as a reference to the Roman empire and the masculine to the emperor himself. The verb means “to restrain,” therefore it is the rule of the Roman empire (or the rule of law, God ordained political order, etc) that restrains the chaos of the man of lawlessness from being revealed. The problem with this view is that Paul does not have a political rebellion in mind, but rather a religious apostasy, a rebellion against God.  It is also difficult to see Paul claiming that the fall of Rome will be the beginning of the tribulation period and the power of the Anti-Christ.

Oscar Cullman suggested the neuter participle is the preaching of the Gospel and the masculine participle is Paul himself as the key leader of the evangelical outreach in the first century. There is a serious problem with this view since Paul believed he would participate in the return of Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:13ff). This interpretation would need to have Paul taken out of the way before the beginning of the Day of the Lord.

I . Howard Marshall defends this position by accepting the first participle as the preaching of the gospel, but changing the identification of the second to something other than Paul. Essentially he sees the God as restraining the forces of evil in the present age so that the preaching of the gospel can be fully accomplished. The force holding back evil is an angel or some spiritual being working on God’s behalf. This presupposes the idea the gospel must be preached to the whole world before the Day of the Lord, which is not something Paul considered a requirement for the Day of the Lord to happen. This position is appealing since it makes God the restraining power, but one must deal with the “taking away” of the restrainer. God could not be removed, although his role as a restrainer may be.

Roger D. Aus (JBL 96 [1977]: 537-553) argues there are many allusions to Isaiah 66 in 2 Thessalonians so the source of the restrainer should also found in Isaiah. While the word does not appear in the LXX Isaiah 66:9 does talk about the shutting up of the womb as an image for the delay in restoring the fortunes of Israel.  Aus argues that Paul is freely translating the MT at this point, using katexw to mean delay of the Day of the Lord.  While it is possible that the verb could be used to translate the Hebrew of Isaiah 66:9, it is far from the most obvious choice, and Paul simply uses the verb without any modification.

As early as Darby (Notes, 452), the restrainer has been identified as the Holy Spirit in the Church. Walvoord, for example, argues in his prophetic writings that the restraining power is the Holy Spirit.  This is not essentially different than I. H. Marshall described above, although Darby and other following Dispensationalist have made far more of this than Marshall would allow.  If the restrainer is the Holy Spirit, then this passage becomes a clear argument in favor of a pre-tribulational rapture. The Holy Spirit is restraining the satanic influences in the world through the activity of the Church the Body of Christ. When the Body of Christ is removed from the world, the Satan is free to attack the world through the Anti-Christ.

Obviously this is a powerful argument for the pre-tribulational Rapture position. But is the restrainer of 2 Thessalonians 2 the Holy Spirit? Is that what this passage is really saying? The grammar of the passage makes the identification of the Holy Spirit as the restrainer impossible since the restrainer is masculine and the word for Spirit is neuter. If the genders are properly interpreted, they need to refer to two different albeit coordinated things. An additional problem is the Holy Spirit is not explicitly mentioned in the passage. The gospel is mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2 but the Holy Spirit is not.

In the most recent revival of this argument, Charles Powell (BibSac 154 [July 97]: 321-333) sees the preaching of the Gospel as a part of the restraining force, but settles on the first referring to the Spirit and the second to God, with not contradiction based on the Trinity. He observes that in John 14:26 the Holy Spirit is called ὁ δὲ παράκλητος (ho paraklētos), a masculine noun referring the neuter pneuma.This avoids any grammatical difficulties and the thrust of the argument is in line with I. H. Marshall.

Someone might object the Old Testament very clearly indicates the Holy Spirit will be active in the tribulation (Joel 2, for example.) If the Holy Spirit is removed at the beginning of the Tribulation, how can the Spirit be “poured out” as Joel predicts? It is possible to argue the restraining function of the Spirit is by means of the Body of Christ, and the restraining function will end at the rapture. Other activities of the Holy Spirit, such as empowerment for ministry or prophecy, will continue.

Therefore it is best to conclude that the Restrainer power is God, through the Holy Spirit and the positive effects of the preached Gospel. The Spirit is active in the world as a preserving agent, a ministry that will end prior to the final time of persecution before the messiah returns (at the time of the Rapture, if you are into that sort of thing).

The Apocalyptic Paul (2 Thessalonians 2:8-12)

2 Thessalonians 2 is as apocalyptic as Paul gets in his letters. While there are other hints of an apocalyptic worldview in Paul, 2 Thessalonians 2 has a vision of the future in step with Second Temple Judaism’s view of a general persecution at the end of the age before God breaks into history to intervene on behalf of his people.

For example in 1 Enoch 48-50, the “Son of man” will become a “staff for the righteous ones,” people may lean on him and not fall; he will be the hope of the sick and all who dwell on the earth will worship him (48:4-5, cf. 62:6, 9, 63, 90:37; Ps. 72:9, 11; Phil. 2:10.)   He will be the light of the Gentiles (Isa. 42:6, 49:6, cf. Luke 2:32).  The righteous will be saved by his name (48:7).  All of the powerful will be humiliated “in those days” as we are told they will be delivered into the hand of the Chosen One like grass to the fire or lead to the water.  The image of grass being taken to a fire at the time of the harvest is used by Jesus in several parables (for example, the wheat and the tares, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). For bakground on 1 Enoch, see this post, or check out all my posts on the Enochic Literature.

In 1 Enoch 50 the prophet describes a renewal of the righteous from their time of weariness.   This includes a judgment in which the sinners receive evil and the righteous receive good. The righteous are to be saved through the “name of the Lord of Spirits” who will lead people to repentance.  This chapter stresses the justice of the judgment of the Lord of Spirits – “oppression cannot escape him.” Those who are under his judgment no longer receive mercy (verse 5).

PaulPaul’s apocalyptic description of the activities of the Anti-Christ and his coming judgment resonate with 1 Enoch.  In 2 Thessalonians 2 as a parody of the “real Christ.”  The man of sin has a “coming” is παρουσία, the word that is most regularly associated with the return of Christ. Just as Christ has a παρουσία, so to does his doppleganger, the Anti-Christ. The Anti-Christ will do “counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders.” The “miracles, signs and wonders” are also a part of this the Satanic parody since these are the very words associated with the ministry of Jesus and his presentation as the Messiah in Acts 2:22 and his representatives (Cf., Heb 2:3-4).

These “miracles, signs and wonders” are modified by ψευδος, a lie. The word is used here and in verse 11, underscoring the false-ness of the activities of the Anti-Christ. The signs will likely be much like the miracles of Christ, although powered by Satan. This is parallel to Revelation 13:1-4, 13-15, the most detailed discussion of the activities of these end-time players. While the true Messiah did great signs and miracles, he was rejected by his people. The Anti-Christ will demonstrate the same sorts of power, but he will be accepted by the people and worshiped as a god.

The goal of these signs is to deceive people. While the miracles may appear to be good and positive things, things that help people. Those that are deceived are described as perishing since they have rejected the love of truth. The word for “perishing” here is the same as the description of the Anti-Christ in verse 3, “son of perdition.” Those that are perishing will be lead to believe the ultimate “one who is perishing.”

When Jesus return in 2 Thessalonians 2:8, he destroys the power of the man of sin with the power of his word, not unlike the description of the beginning of the messianic age in Isaiah 11:4. The timing of the judgment of the Anti-Christ is at the “splendor of his coming.” This combines παρουσία and the word ἐπιφάνεια, a word that also means something like “appearance,” and is applied to the return of Christ a number of times in the New Testament. The combination of the words was used to describe the arrival of the Emperor from the time of Caligula on, implying the presence of a divine being as well as all of the pomp and ceremony associated with the Emperor.

Paul therefore resonates with the Jewish apocalyptic traditions common in the Second Temple period, at least in this earliest of his letters.

Predicting the Rapture? (2 Thessalonians 2:1)

In 2 Thessalonians 2 Paul addresses a misunderstanding about the return of the Lord and “our gathering” to him (2:1). The church is unsettled and alarmed over a report appearing to come from Paul himself claiming the Day of the Lord had already happened. It is possible this rumor refers to Caligula’s order to erect an image of himself in the Temple in Jerusalem, but this is not at all certain.

Simpsons Rapture

Whatever the case, their concern is no small thing. To be unsettled is the verb σαλεύω and is often used literally to described an earthquake or the movement of the sea. Here it is figurative for the disturbance that the Thessalonians are experiencing. They are not only shaken but also “alarmed” (θροέω).  This is rare word in biblical literature, although in classical Greek it has connotation of being frightened or “crying out in surprise. The only place the word appears in the New Testament is in the Olivet Discourse (Matt 24:6/Mark 13:7).  In a very similar context to 2 Thessalonians, Jesus warns the disciples not to be alarmed by “wars and rumors of wars” or other alleged “signs” the end is near.

The word for the coming of the Lord is παρουσία, the most common word for the return of Christ. The noun simply means “presence” or “arrival” and is used in a variety of ways. It can refer to the arrival of a human (Paul in 2 Cor 7:6), but it is also used for the visit of a person of high ranking, such as a king (3 Macc 3:17). This use usually included flattery, tributes, delicacies, transportation, and gifts of golden wreaths or money. If a god was active in history helping a human that presence of the god is called a παρουσία. Josephus uses the word to describe God’s presence in helping Israel (Antiq. 3.80). The word is used often in connection with sacred events where the presence of a god is assumed.

Paul uses this word not only to refer to the presence of Jesus, but also of the Man of Lawlessness (the Anti-Christ and has his own anti-parousia). The word can be stretched to cover all of the events associated with the eschatological age, similar to the “day of the Lord” in the Hebrew Bible. The second word, “gathering” is ἐπισυναγωγή, is quite rare in the New Testament, used only here and in Hebrews 10:25 where it refers to the gathering together of believers for worship. It is likely Paul is referring to the Rapture, using similar terminology to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.

There are a number of Old Testament passages that teach that Israel will be re-gathered prior to the Messianic kingdom. For example, in Isa 43:4-7 God gathers the children of Zion from the east, west, north, and south, a clear reference to Jews living in the Diaspora. When the eschatological age begins, God will gather his elect (the chosen) from the four winds and bring them back to Zion. (Compare this to LXX Isa 52:12, God is the “gatherer of Israel.” See also Isa 56:8; Jer 31:8. Ezek 20:34; 34:16, Ps 106:47.)

This noun is used in the Second Temple Period for the gathering of Israel at the beginning of the eschatological age. In 2 Macc 2:7 the secret place where the Ark is hidden will not be revealed until “God gathers his people again” (using the verb συνάγω and the noun ἐπισυναγωγή). The word also appears in T.Naph 8:3 where it describes the gathering of the righteous out of the nations at the beginning of the eschatological age. Similarly, T.Ash 7:7 the Lord will gather Israel on account of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Homer RaptureThe idea of Israel being re-gathered is the point of Jesus’ words in Matt 23:37 / Luke 13:34. Jesus contrasts God’s desire to gather Israel together under his wings with their rejection of him as the Messiah. A bit later in the Gospels Jesus uses the noun to describe the gather of the elect from the four winds when Messiah judges the world (Matt 24:31). In fact, in Matthew there is a loud trumpet call that draws the elect from the four corners of the world. The parallel is not precise, however, since Jesus is referring to the gathering of Jews in dispersion together just prior to the establishment of the kingdom. Paul is addressing a Gentile congregation

It is better, therefore, to see Paul’s use of the word as an extension of the Jewish idea of a gathering together prior to the coming of Messiah. Prior to the Day of the Lord there will be a “gathering” (described more fully in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Even though Paul’s description of this gathering is unique in Jewish literature, he is using apocalyptic imagery to describe the “end of the age.”

One application of this line of thinking should be to de-emphasize the tendency among (mostly conservative) Christians to predict the date of the Rapture or to claim that a given even fulfills prophecy, or to declare some world figure is the antichrist. Although there is an attraction to these sorts of religious conspiracy theories, both Jesus and Paul would say “do not be alarmed” at these non-signs of the end.

Another Logos Free Book of the Month – Origen: Treatise on the Passover

Recently Logos has added a second free book promotion. Usually at the middle of the month the offer up something for free and a few discounted books. This month they are offering four volumes of Origen published by Paulist Press. The Ancient Christian Writers series began in 1946, the most recent volume appeared in 2010. Each volume is a new translation of a text, edited and annotated by an expert in early church literature.

Many Logos users may have the Ante-Nicene Fathers set as part of a package, and volume 4 of that series includes some Origen, but it is far from complete. That volume does not include any of the works offered here, the Ancient Christian Writers series provides translations for texts not commonly available. Naturally Logos will sell you a 23 volume set of the Anti-Nicene Fathers in the Ancient Christian Writers series (currently $299, 32% off), or all 66 volumes for $599 (40% off), but here is a good chance to read several important works without spending so much money.

You might not know who Origen was or why you should read his work. Origen of Alexandria (184-253) was an early Christian scholar and theologian who was a prolific writer. He produced commentaries and theological texts as well as the Hexapla, a six column comparison of various translations of the Old Testament. Most agree he was one of the most influential figures in early Christian theology, although not everyone agrees that influence was good. Two of these almost-free books are commentaries, so this is a good opportunity to read early Christian exegesis.

For free, you can add Origen: Treatise on the Passover and Dialogue of Origen with Heraclides and His Fellow Bishops on the Father, the Son, and the Soul (Vol 54, translated and edited by Robert J. Daly).

The Treatise on the Passover dates from around 245. Its central insight is that the passover is not a figure or type of the passion of Christ, but a figure of Christ himself, of Christ’s passing over to the Father. The Dialogue with Heraclides probably comes from between the years 244 and 249. It seems to be the record of a synod-like meeting of bishops, in the presence of lay people, called to discuss matters of belief and worship. Both pieces seem to come from the last decade of Origen’s activity, when he was at the height of his powers.

For $4.99, add Origen: Prayer, Exhortation to Martyrdom (Vol 19, translated and annotated by John J. O’Meara). “Composed in AD 233, Origen’s Prayer combines both a theological treatise on prayer and a unique expression of prayer.”

For $6.99, add Origen: Homilies 1–14 on Ezekiel (Vo. 62, translated and edited by Thomas P. Scheck). “This is the first English translation of Jerome’s Latin edition of Origen’s Homilies on Ezekiel, This volume contains the homilies 1–14.”

For $8.99, add Origen: The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies (Vol 26, edited and translated by R. P. Lawson). “widely regarded as the first great work of Christian mysticism, is characterized by extraordinary intellectual depth and spiritual understanding.”

Logos Bible Software 8 is a significant upgrade to this powerful Bible study system. I did a “first look” review of Logos 8 here. The software runs much more efficiently than the previous version, that alone is worth the upgrade. Everything seems to run faster than Logos 7 and the upgrade is well worth considering. As always, there are less expensive paths to upgrading that will keep you from mortgaging your home. At the very least, download the free Logos Basic or the $79 Logos 8 Fundamentals (currently on sale for 20% and you get some free books by following the link).

With either minimal package you can download and use the free book every month and build your Logos library.  These free and almost free books of the month are only available through the end of September.

Satan Has Blocked Our Way (1 Thessalonians 2:17-20)

When Paul started the church at Thessalonica he was opposed by the Jewish community as well as the secular authorities (Acts 17:1-8). The Jews reacted to Paul’s message that Jesus was the messiah who was crucified and raised to life by God. The city officials in Thessalonica reacted against Paul’s rejection of Caesar as Lord. The idea that there is another king besides Caesar was politically dangerous. If Paul also taught Jesus was returning soon to judge the word (which 1 Thess 4:17-5:10 and 2 Thess 2 imply), the secular authorities may have interpreted this as a prophecy against the emperor and against Rome. As a result, he was forced to leave the city before he had fully prepared the church, and certainly before he wanted to leave. Acts 17:10 says the believer’s in Thessalonica sent Paul and Silas away at night, certainly not the way Paul would have liked to leave these new Christians.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:17 Paul describes this sudden departure as being “torn away” from the new Christians. The verb ἀπορφανίζω has the sense of a child that is orphaned, but also a parent who has lost a child. This is a separation under great emotional distress. Paul did not want to leave, he was forced to leave under threat from the local officials. Notice the verb is passive: Paul did not cause his own departure, he was the victim of circumstances beyond his control.

The letter was written after a short time after his forced departure and Paul thinks of the church often. The introduction to the letter says Paul prays for the church each day and in 2:17 he says he thinks of the church often. Even though Paul’s desire was to return it is possible his enemies were slandering him by saying he never intended to revisit the church. They accuse Paul of taking all the money he could could from the church and then left them on their own to face a black lash from the Thessalonian officials. The opponents are likely blaming Paul for any persecution the church faces.

Paul says he has a strong desire to return.The word for this desire is one of the strongest words for desire available to Paul, it means to “crave” something, usually in an especially inordinate way. In other places the word ἐπιθυμία is translated “lust.” This strong desire makes him make an effort to return. The verb σπουδάζω is not a light or a token effort, but rather doing “something with intense effort and motivation. Elsewhere the word is translated as “be eager to….” (Gal 2:10, Eph 4:3). His one burning desire was to return to the small community of new believers in Thessalonica and continue to build them up spiritually so they would continue the work of the Gospel in the whole region of Macedonia and Achaia (1 Thess 1:7).

Even though he has made every effort to return, Satan stopped him. The word“hinder” (ἐγκόπτω) has the sense of“tearing up the road.” If an army wanted to hinder another army from pursuing them they would tear up the road, burn the bridges, etc. Paul sees Satan’s operation as making any progress Paul might make very difficult. The book of Acts does not describe this Paul’s travels in Acts 17-18 as hindered by Satan, although it is possible Paul saw the ongoing threat of further persecution at the hands of the Jews and civil authorities in Thessalonica as a reason not to return. On the other hand, Paul does not usually avoid ministry because of the threat of persecution. He may have in mind his short time in Athens (Acts 17:16-34) where he was distressed at the idolatry of the city (17:16-17) and did not have much success (17:33, no church is formed). The important thing to observe here is that Paul sees any circumstances which kept him from returning to Thessalonica as spiritual warfare.

This hindrance may have been more subtle. Paul’s efforts to travel back to the city were slowed by what seemed to be coincidental problems or bureaucratic nonsense. It is easy for a Christian to read “Satan hindered me” in 1 Thessalonians 2:18 and assume there was some epic spiritual battle. Satan does not need to appear on the road in the form of a great red dragon breathing fire to destroy Paul and SIlas (in fact, does he ever really do that?) More often than not, Satan is in the details. Travel papers are lost, roads are closed, a minor bureaucrat refuses to sign a paper, luggage is lost, etc.

The important thing to see here is that the source of Paul inability to return is Satan. The church is not suffering because of the civil authorities in Thessalonica, nor are they suffering because of jealousy from the synagogue, they suffer because they are engaged in spiritual warfare. As he says in Ephesians 6:10, the struggle is not against  flesh and blood, but against the spiritual powers of darkness. And sometimes those spiritual powers of darkness take very subtle forms in order to hinder the Gospel.