Book Review: Andy Johnson, 1 & 2 Thessalonians. Two Horizons New Testament Commentary

Johnson, Andy. 1 & 2 Thessalonians. Two Horizons New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 349 pp. Pb; $25. Link to Eerdmans

Andy Johnson’s new contribution in the Two Horizons series from Eerdmans on the two letters to the Thessalonians represents a theological interpretation of Scripture which is intentionally missional. As Johnson explains in his introduction, his goal in the commentary is to focus on elements of the text “most useful for facilitating the continuing formation of the church in its proper identity as a missional community” (2).

Thessalonians, Commentary, EerdmansThe second goal of this commentary is to read the Thessalonian correspondence as part of the canon of Scripture. This means placing these letters into the overall story of the whole Bible and the mission of God to undo humanity’s rebellion. Although he does not use the phrase, his overview in the introduction is the familiar “drama of redemption” which drives most writing which self-identifies as theological interpretation of Scripture.

As with most of the New Testament commentaries in this series, Johnson employs a post-biblical creed as a clarifying lens for “bringing 1 and 2 Thessalonians into focus (2). In the case of this commentary, Johnson uses the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, but he also recognizes his place in the broader Wesleyan tradition as well as his openness to being instructed by other Christian traditions. There are occasional theological readings of the text which are informed by Johnson’s Wesleyanism.

With respect to authorship and date, Johnson briefly surveys the state of the question and recognizes there is some merit to the arguments for non-Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians, but he remains unconvinced (7). But from a canonical perspective, it matters very little if Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians or not since the origin of the letters is of lesser importance to theological interpretations than canonical status. He provides several pages of excellent context drawn from Acts 16-18 and following the lead of Kavin Rowe’s The World Upside Down. Although this a brief overview, it is sufficient to enable Johnson to set these two letters in a proper historical and sociological context.

In the body of the commentary Johnson works through the books in larger sections, commenting on some details of the text but falling short of a detailed exegetical commentary. This is to be expected give his stated goal to write a commentary serving the mission of the church. Greek appears in the body of the commentary with transliteration and Johnson does comment occasionally on grammar, syntax and rhetorical features. This makes for a very readable commentary which will be useful for a pastor or teacher as they prepare to preach or teach Thessalonians in a church context.

Since this is a canonical commentary, Johnson pays close attention to intertextual echoes of the Hebrew Bible, although there are a few places where he hears an echo which Paul may not have explicitly intended. For example, commenting on several texts which may illuminate Paul’s understanding of the Man of Lawlessness, Johnson suggests allusions to Ezekiel 28:1-9 as the “most instructive text in this Old Testament trajectory” even if this was not an intentional allusion by Paul (289). This way of using the Old Testament to illuminate the New is not intertextuality (as it is usually defined), but more like an older hermeneutic where Scripture is the best commentary on Scripture. Although I think Johnson is certainly on the right track to draw attention to the arrogant actions of Adam in the Garden and the paradigmatic arrogant rulers in Isaiah 14 or Ezekiel 28 and the claims of these rules to be divine (as well as possible allusions to Daniel 11 and Antiochus IV Epiphanes), I would prefer to see an argument Paul had this trajectory in mind when he described the Man of Lawlessness, especially in the light of where that trajectory may lead the interpreter who is trying to draw out implications for contemporary application.

One of the primary features of a Two Horizons commentary is a lengthy section on the theological implications of the commentary. Johnson’s reflections on 1 and 2 Thessalonians begin with a section on holiness. Holiness is Spirit-enabled and derived from the triune Godhead. It is “intensely personal but necessarily corporate, public and missional” (255). In these two letters holiness is fidelity to God and “cruciform living” (following Michael Gorman, but also influence Gorman’s recent Becoming the Gospel). This section focuses on cruciform living, love of enemies and peacemaking. This section reflects Johnson’s previous articles on holiness and sanctification in the Journal of Theological Interpretation.

Since eschatology is one key area for the theology of the Thessalonian letters, Johnson devotes a long section to the unique issues raised in 1 Thessalonians 4 and 2 Thessalonians 2. He highlights three types of eschatology in the letters. First, the Parousia is described as representatives of a city going out to meet a victorious king and escorting him into their city. Related to this image is the second, the Parousia as eschatological warfare. Here Paul stands on the foundation of Isaiah. Third, the Parousia is a judgment theophany, especially in 2 Thessalonians 2. God demonstrates his “ferocious love” which restores shalom. But Johnson argues Paul stops short of describing “conscious everlasting torment in Hell” (269). Perhaps this is a theological observation driven by theological commitments, but it is a fact Paul does not describe what sort of judgment awaits the Man of Lawlessness other than his utter judgment.

Johnson devotes a few pages to Dispensational interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Although he does admit Dispensationalism is a kind of theological interpretation of Scripture as practiced in this commentary, he is equally clear the theological suppositions of Dispensationalism are wrong. Perhaps this is a problem with the idea the popular theological interpretation method, since (potentially) any “rule of faith” could be applied to a text as a theological lens. For example, Johnson is a Wesleyan and he consciously interprets the Thessalonian letters as a Wesleyan. Someone could approach Thessalonians with a Lutheran or Anglican set of assumptions and find some slightly different nuances in their interpretation.

But why should any given theological structure be discounted a priori? It seems as though any theological lens is possible even if it is not the preference of a particular scholar. Johnson dismisses Dispensationalism as a theological lens because it does not “square with Scripture,” but someone might equally dismiss his more Wesleyan views expressed in this commentary for the same reasons.

Although Johnson is fair towards Dispensationalist readings of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, his argument is blunted by his used of dated scholarship, or non-scholarship. He cites the Scofield Reference Bible and Hal Lindsey frequently and occasionally the brief commentary on 1 Thessalonians by Constable in the Bible Knowledge Commentary, a single volume New Testament commentary produced by the faculty of Dallas Theological Seminary. At best this use of popular level and dated material makes his critique of Dispensationalism appear to be a straw man argument. There are many books and articles which better treat 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 from a dispensational perspective than these.

Conclusion. These criticisms aside, Johnson achieves his goal to provide a Spirit driven commentary which is dominated by the redemptive mission of God. The commentary is a fine example the state of Theological Interpretation of Scripture and will be a useful commentary for pastors and teachers as the work to apply these two early letters of Paul to contemporary mission of the Church.

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

2 Thessalonians 2:8-12 – Apocalyptic Paul

2 Thessalonians 2 is as apocalyptic as Paul gets in his letters. While there are other hints of an apocalyptic worldview in Paul, 2 Thess 2 develops a view of the future which is in step with Second Temple Judaism’s view that God would allows a general persecution at the end of the age.

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).

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 Thess 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 Thess 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.

2 Thessalonians 2:1 – “Our Being Gathered”

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The reason that the church has become unsettled is a misunderstanding over the return of the Lord and “our gathering” to him. The word for the coming of the Lord is παρουσία, the most common word for the return of Christ.

The noun παρουσία simply means “presence” or “arrival,” and is used in a variety of ways. The noun 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. The obvious meaning of the term here is that Paul is referring to the Rapture, using similar terminology to 1 Thess 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.

The 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” which is described more fulling in 1 Thess 4:13ff. Paul takes other elements of Jewish theology and tradition and expands them in the new Christian ways in this present age of Grace, this appears to be another of these adaptations.

2 Thessalonians – The Situation in Thessalonica

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Why is Paul writing the church at Thessalonica another letter? The consensus answer is that the church received a letter claiming to come from Paul has circulated to the church. This letter claimed that the “Day of the Lord” has already occurred. Paul writes to calm their fears and to assure then that the Day of the Lord has not yet arrived since the “Man of Lawlessness” has not been revealed.

But there may be more here than a false letter. It is possible that the persecution which the church has faced has caused some in the church to wonder if they are suffering because they have sinned (and are being punished) or perhaps have believed the wrong things about Jesus. Much of the Greco-Roman world was motivated by honor / shame, the suffering the church is facing appears to be a “shame” rather than an “honor.” “The Thessalonians themselves may have had a rather low conception of themselves, especially in light of the shame they endured as a persecuted people” (Green, Letter to the Thessalonians, 281).

Paul writes this second letter to clarify that Christians might suffer before the return of the Lord. First, suffering cannot be taken as an indication that the Great Tribulation has begun because God has an appointed time when the restraining power of God is removed from the world, permitting the Lawless One to be revealed.

Second, suffering ought not be taken as an indication of divine disfavor nor should the Christian think that they are dishonored because they are being persecuted. This sort of suffering is the lot of the Christian and the endurance the church has already demonstrated is a worthy testimony of the Lord’s work in their church and is a source of boasting for Paul. Paul is pleased that they are steadfast as they endure persecution (1:4).

Third, the source of the suffering which the church is experiencing is not God, but rather Satan. God is not punishing them at all. Since they are a successful, growing church, Satan is attempting to distract them from their commission as a church and limit their effectiveness As Green observes, “the persecutions were those that they suffered at the hands of their contemporaries and that were motivated by Satan (1 Thess. 1.6; 2.14; 3.3–5).”

The major theme of the letter is that  patient endurance in the face of persecution is an indication that the church is  living a life  comparable to the salvation they have already received. Christians are going to suffer naturally just like anyone, But Paul says in this letter that our response to suffering is an indication that we are “worthy of the kingdom of God.”

This teaching is diametrically opposed to the “health and wealth” gospel popular today. Many Christians sincerely believe that if they are right with the Lord they will be not only healthy, but wealthy and successful as well. This “gospel” is popular because it tells people what they want to hear, that God will fulfill all their earthly desires without requiring anything more than giving money to particular ministries. This sort of thinking confuses God with Santa Claus and seriously misinterprets and misapplies scripture.

Paul’s letter reverses this popular thinking.  It is not that God wants you to suffer illness and poverty, but rather than when you face trials your faith ought to be refined and renewed.

1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 – Respect Those Who Work Hard Among You

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The Church at Thessalonica was perhaps a year old when Paul writes this letter and most of the members were Gentiles, former pagans who now are in Christ. Typical of Paul’s churches, there were some rich, prominent members of the community, but also many poor, perhaps slaves. There would not have been that many who were leaders outside the church, so the people now who were “church leaders” were inexperienced.

This naturally leads to some troubles in the church. Imagine a slave who was particularly gifted with the Holy Spirit as a leader is chosen as a leader of the church and offers an admonition from Scripture. How would a prominent member of the Thessalonian society handle hearing a slave preaching the word and exhorting them to godly living? Alternatively, if a rich person from a socially well-placed family exhorted the congregation, would the poor slave listen to him objectively?

Given the commands Paul gives here, it is likely that these inexperienced leaders were not being given respect due them because of the office they held as elders of the church, and because of the labor the did for the church. Paul describes the work that they do as “toilsome labor,” the very same word Paul used to describe his own work in 1 Thess 1:3. The work that these leaders are doing is had work, taxing physically and emotionally. They are doing this work on behalf of the church, they are due some respect for being the ones that carry the heaviest load.

The leaders are appointed by God, they are “over you in the Lord.” This is how church leaders are described in Romans 12:8, as well as the leader of a family in 1 Tim 5:17. The emphasis is on leading with care and diligence.

Paul says that the congregation is to hold their leaders is high esteem in love because of their work. Notice that the congregation is to hold them in high esteem because of their work, not because of their personality, or whether they do what you want them do, or because you agree with everything they say, etc.

A year before Paul wrote this letter, the leaders of the Thessalonian church were still pagans, and now they are spirit led leaders of a growing Christian congregation. They were doing the best they could, even though they were not the “experts.”

Many applications of this principle come to mind for the modern church.  Paul’s point is that the work of the church is the most important thing and that any lack of personal respect needs to take a back seat to the presentation of the Gospel. This is a very difficult section because modern church is very performance oriented. We are very critical of a pastor or elder, comparing their abilities to other pastors and elders we know. I am thinking about the American church because that is what I know, but I am confident the same is true for any church, anywhere in the world.

Many pastors are judged as successful if they have a large congregation. They may judge themselves this way, if there are a lot of people there on Sunday morning they assume they are doing a great job. But numbers are not the measure of success or respect. It is possible that the pastor is doing everything that God wants him to do, yet there are lots of empty pews on Sunday.

People in the pew judge the pastor’s sermon by the standard of others they have heard, perhaps on Christian radio or the internet.  Modern media makes it possible to hear twenty excellent sermons a week, making it hard for your local pastor to compete!  This is like judging the ability of the church softball team by the standard of the Dodgers. They are playing the same game, but the level of experience and gifted-ness is in another league. There are not many Chuck Swindoll’s, or John MacArthur’s out there, it is highly unlikely we will be able to attract either of them to our church.

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 – Walking in the Light

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Paul uses the concept of light and dark in 1 Thess 5:1-11 to describe the difference between the church and the world. The Church, the Body of Christ, he says, is “in the light,”we are children of light. In contrast to the world is in the dark, unable to see what is really going on.

Paul is answering another question the Thessalonian church asked Timothy. The first question concerned the fate of those who had died in Christ: would they be left out of the Rapture? 1 Thess 4:13-18 assured the church that the “dead in Christ” will rise first when Jesus returns for his church. Now Paul turns to a related subject, the timing of the Day of the Lord. This seems to be an issue for the church, since Paul has already instructed them on the return of the Lord and he must return the issue in 2 Thessalonians 2.

The church is likely asking “when will the Lord return” or perhaps (like the disciples), “what will be the signs of his coming?” That Paul alludes to the teaching of Jesus in this paragraph is a hint that the question was not unlike that asked of Jesus in Matthew 24:3.  But are these even the right questions to ask? Paul says you do not need to know the when, or the signs of the end. Rather, Paul says that you are (as a believer) in the light, living in the daytime. So, act like it!

It may be that the Thessalonian church had been suffering persecution. Since they are suffering, there may bahve been a few int eh church that though this was the Great Tribulation. “But the divine wrath will not be poured out upon the church, which will instead be saved from that event (v. 9, Green, Letters to the Thessalonians, 230).” The suffering you are facing right now, even if it is really bad, is not “The Great Tribulation.”  The reason is simple, the church is simply not appointed to wrath.

When Paul says wrath, I think he means the “Great Day of God’s Wrath.”  He cannot mean suffering, since they are clearly suffering.  All Christians should expect to suffer for their faith. In the context of their suffering and their questions about the “end times,” Paul is trying to comfort a congregation which thinks they may be enduring the wrath of God.

This is an important message for American Christians who think that the government is pushing us closer to the end times. It cannot, those are appointed times and it is not going to happen any faster if the “bad guys” are voted into office. The Anti-Christ is not running for office, even if politicians are against-Christ. As Gene Green says, “Paul demonstrates no interest in fueling an apocalyptic perspective in order to hypothesize about the end nor to foster escapism” (230).

Paul wants to use the teaching of the Day of the Lord as an encouragement to live the Christian Life as fully and completely as possible. He says that his readers are “Sons of the Light and Sons of the Day,” and since they are in the Light they need to realize that there are some responsibilities to living in the light.  If you are a “child of the light” you ought to act like it!

1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 – Meeting the Lord in the Air

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It is unfortunate that teaching on the Rapture has something of a joke in contemporary media. Too many people have made silly predictions of when it will happen. Parodies of the Left Behind series are common, so much so that most people who think about “the rapture” are not thinking in biblical categories, but the rather goofy cartoon images that are replayed in the Media. When Homer Simpson tries to predict the rapture, then something is intensely wrong.

But the “catching away” which Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (and 1 Cor 15) is nothing like pop-media or apocalyptic Christians think it is. Paul did not predict the end of the world, nor did he use the doctrine of the Rapture to scare people into salvation, or to fleece the church of a few more dollars. Paul’s point in this text is to explain what was going to happen to those who had died in Christ before the coming of the Lord.

This event is described as the coming of the Lord. You might hear the word “parousia” (παρουσία) used (usually by someone trying to be pretentious).  The word is used for the presence of a god in a cultic ceremony, or a king or dignitary coming to a city for a visit. In the Jewish world, the word was used for the coming of the Messiah, this is probably the most useful for understanding 1 Thessalonians.

When Jesus comes, he will gather his people to himself “in the air.”   Paul uses several short descriptions here, all have to do with gathering people together.  First, there will be a loud command, a military term for a shouted order. It is sometimes used for a charioteer calling to his horses, or a hunter to his hounds, or a ship master to his rowers. Second, the voice of the archangel will cry out, and third, there will be a trumpet call of God. Loud trumpets are also associated with the coming of a great king, “…when the emperor Claudius died the sound of the trumpets was so deafening that it was thought that the dead could hear them” (Green, Letters to the Thessalonians, 224).

After the Lord has descended, and the dead have been raised, the Lord will catch the living believers up into the clouds, consummating their hope in this life.

The purpose of this catching away is to “meet with Lord.” The word translated “to meet” (ἀπάντησις) is often used of a delegation sent from a city to greet a dignitary or king, usually in order to escort that important person into a city.  The phrase appears 36 times in the LXX, frequently for meeting a king or military leader; sometimes it is used for going out to meet an army. For example, in 1 Kings 13:10, the LXX uses the exact same phrase for Saul going out “to meet” Samuel and greet him after the king had defeated the Amalakites. In 2 Chron 15:2 and 19:2 it is used to describe someone going out to meet a king.

In non-biblical Greek, the phrase is used by Polybius (Hist. 28:19.7) to describe two envoys sent out from Alexandria to meet Antiochus Epiphanes, who was at that time occupying Egypt. In 5.26.8 young men are sent out to meet Apelles, who desires to have an audience with Philip, the king of Macedon. In this text the young men go out, meet Apelles, and escort him back to Corinth “with great pomp.”

Polybius Hist. 5.26.8 On his arrival at Corinth, Leontius, Ptolemy and Megaleas, being commanders of the peltasts and the other chief divisions of the army, took great pains to incite the young men to go to meet him. He entered the town, therefore, with great pomp, owing to the number of officers and soldiers who went to meet him, and proceeded straight to the royal quarters.

Paul chose this word to describe the Rapture to highlight the glory of Jesus as he returns as the Messiah.  Paul is intentionally describing the return of Jesus as the glorious return of the ultimate Sovereign Lord in a way which Greeks and Romans would understand.  When the great king comes, his followers will be gathered to him in order to be a part of his great entourage escorting him back to the world he created.