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.

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.

Like a Mother, Like a Father (1 Thessalonians 2:6-12)

Although he was an apostle, Paul says he was never a burden to the church. Paul may have taught his churches that apostles were worthy respect. If someone like Peter visited the church, the church should take care of his needs. But Paul never abused his apostleship as a demand for respect. It is even possible (based on 2 Corinthians) that there were some apostles that did insist on support from the churches in which they ministered.

Rather than being a financial burden, Paul was gentle, as a mother. The metaphor highlights a mother caring for her new born baby. There is a gentleness in the touch, trying to do what the child needs to grow properly. Obviously a new mother doesn’t toss her child around, she is gentle and tender.

Since Paul loved the church, he was delighted to share his life with them. The ESV’s “affectionately desirous” is a bit cumbersome, but the verb ὁμείρομαι has the sense of deep affection: “to experience a yearning affection for someone” (L&N). Psalm 63:1 (LXX 62:2) uses the verb, “my soul yearns / thirsts for God.”

Because of this deep love, Paul was delighted to share the Gospel. The preaching of the gospel was a pleasure for him. Some people have subjects that they love to talk about, and if you bring up that subject they will babble on for a long time, just pleased that you brought it up. A grandmother asked about her grand-kids, for example. They always seem to have “brag books.”

More than just sharing the Gospel, Paul was willing to share himself with the congregation. He did not simply “do the job,” he gave everything he had to the congregation. In sports, players talking about leaving it all on the field, holding nothing back. That is the way Paul did ministry, giving everything he had to reach his congregation.

Paul describes his work in the church as “toil and hardship.” Paul’s time in Thessalonica was short, and it was not an easy time. He had to work hard to support himself and his ministry. Planting church is very difficult work, doubly so in Paul’s case because he was planting a church in a city that had never even heard of Christianity.

Coaching BaseballMost people do not think of the “ministry” as toil or hard work. (You only work for an hour a week, etc.) While it is sadly true that some Pastors are not particularly hard workers, they are the exception and not the ideal to which most pastors aspire. There is a great deal of effort that goes into be an excellent pastor, and while it is different than other jobs, it is still a skill which ought to be respected by the church served by the pastor.

Paul was successful in Thessalonica because he had pure motives, because he was gentle like a mother, but also because he was encouraging like a father. The classic stereotype is that the mother is loving and caring, but the father is a stern disciplinarian. A father’s encouragement, however, can be one of the greatest motivations in a child’s life, just as is a mother’s love and compassion. Paul uses three participles to describe how he was like a father to the Thessalonian church.

First, Paul states that he exhorted the church. The differences between the meaning of “to exhort” (ESV), or “encourage” (NIV, παρακαλέω) and “to encourage” (ESV), or “to comfort” (παραμυθέομαι) are very close, the two Greek words can both be translated as encourage.  The verb “exhort”  means something like “to prod toward a particular action.” If I urge you to do something, that has a bit more punch than “I encourage you,” but the Greek word is the same. A similar word is used in Romans 12:1, where Paul “begs” his readers to present their bodies as living sacrifices.

Exhortation is something like a cheerleader, someone that builds another up and says “you can do it!” Think of the father who is trying to encourage his child to have confidence playing baseball for the first time – he builds the kid up and pushes just a bit so that there is confidence to “step up to the plate.”  Paul had to do that with his congregation:  He prodded them and pushed them to live  a life honoring to God, especially since some aspects of the Christian life are strange to the Greco-Roman world.

Second, Paul comforted the church. By comfort, Paul is looking more at cheering someone up, consoling, or helping someone who is experiencing a difficult time. The verb is used in the context of comforting someone who has suffered a loss, a death or other tragic event. For example, in John 11:19 people came to comfort Mary and Martha after the death of Lazarus.

Striking OutNotice how closely related the concept of encouragement and comfort are related in Paul’s ministry. He could, as a father, encourage his congregation to excel in godliness, then comfort them in their weaknesses. Taking the baseball analogy from above, the father might “exhort” his child to step up to the plate, but when they strike out on three pitches without swinging the bat, he needs to comfort the child after a failure.

Third, Paul charged you to live lives worthy of God. Paul’s “urge” is “to be emphatic in stating an opinion or desire; to insist on” (L&N). When your father expressed his opinion on a topic, he often was not offering something for discussion, he was telling you what you ought to be doing, perhaps phrased in the form of an opinion. That is what Paul did as well. He showed from the Scripture how the new believers ought to believe and behave. This was not “his opinion” which was open for discussion, something to be accepted or rejected. Paul was telling his congregation how they ought to live.

The content of Paul’s insistence is that his readers live lives worthy of God. Imagine in your mind a scale, with God’s requirements on one side and our actions on the other. “Worthy” describes the balance of those scales, something that is impossible in our own power. Paul is urging his readers to set this lofty goal of spiritual growth for themselves, that they be worthy of the one that called us.

If God is your Father, then the goal of the Christian life ought to be living in a way which makes your Father in Heaven proud to call you his child.

Paul’s Motivation for Ministry (1 Thessalonians 2:1-6)

Snake OilIn the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians Paul tells the church they ought to imitate him as he imitates Christ. In fact, the church is doing just that: they have become a model for other congregations in Macedonia and Achaia. But the prayer does not really explain what Paul means by “imitate me,” he begins to outline some of the ways the church can follow his model in chapter 2. Paul reminds the church how he conducted himself when he was in the city, providing some details on what he sorts of things he models for them in imitate. Abraham Mahlrebe suggested that this description of Paul’s motivations for ministry are not really apologetic, but rather he intends to present himself as an example of moral behavior he expects out of his congregation. Although this might sound arrogant to the modern reader, Greco-Roman philosophers often set themselves as a moral examples for their students to follow.

But Paul is also trying to separate himself from the typical traveling teacher that plagued the ancient world. For Example, the sophist used their oration skills to gain popularity and wealth. Paul contrasts his motives with those of the sophists or other philosophical mountebanks. Like snake-oil salesmen in the American old west, the traveling teacher was a well-known character in the Greco-Roman world. Bruce Winter suggested that Paul was distancing himself “from the habits of the sophists, who entered the cities of the empire with great pomp in order to gain an audience and disciples for their teaching” (Cited by Green, 112). Gene Green cites Dio Chrysostom as an example of a philosopher who set himself up as a model to be followed (in contrast to other philosophers and sophists):

But to find a man who in plain terms and without guile speaks his mind with frankness, and neither for the sake of reputation nor for gain makes false pretensions, but out of good will and concern for his fellow- man stands ready, if need be, to submit to ridicule and to the disorder and the uproar of the mob—to find such a man as that is not easy, but rather the good fortune of a very lucky city, so great is the dearth of noble, independent souls and such the abundance of toadies [flatterers], mountebanks, and sophists. (Dio Chrysostom , 32.11)

In 1 Thessalonians 2:3 Paul claims he did not have “Impure motives” or a moral error (ἀκαθαρσία). When he preached the Gospel, Paul was not trying to get people to believe his message out of a desire to use them immorally. The noun is used for uncleanliness, for dirt and refuse, even the contents of a grave (which a Jew would have considered very unclean). Not surprisingly the word has a connotation of sexual sin, Paul uses the term elsewhere for “every kind of immorality” (Wannemaker, 95).

It is an unfortunate fact that people who attain power use it to sin sexually. This is quite evident that high government officials seem to use their power to be immoral, whether for sexual affairs or quasi-legal bribery. Unfortunately this is as true for religious leaders in our own day. There are people who take advantage of their position in the church to gain sexual favors; it was true in Paul’s day, and it is true in our day.

Paul also says he was “not trying to trick you” when he preached the Gospel in Thessalonica. A snake-oil salesman intends to trick the audience. This word (δόλος) is often translated as “deceit” or “treachery” (BAGD). In non-biblical Greek, the word is used for baiting a hook, a cunning plan to deceive. The most obvious example in the Greek world was the Trojan horse. Paul is not trying to trick people into accepting the Gospel so he can later hit them up for huge donations. Paul had no other motive that to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There was no trick involved, no catch, no hidden clause or fine print. What Paul taught was all there was, and he was successful in Thessalonica because of this.

It is possible Paul is responding to attacks against his character made by opponents either by Jews from the synagogue or the Thessalonicans themselves. It is even possible people in the congregation wonder about Paul’s motivation for preaching the Gospel in their city and founding the church. After all, Paul was only in the city for a short and he left under suspicion of “turning the world upside-down” (Acts 17:5-9). He left Thessalonica after Jason posted bond, possible giving credence to the rumor that Paul was preaching the gospel for the money and did not really care about the church.

One way to define yourself is to describe what you are not. For example, I might say I am a Christian, but not like those guys on TV or like those people who predict the end of the world. In saying this, my intention is to define accurately what I do believe by contrasting myself to more well known “characters” from our culture. Paul does not want to be seen as a sophist anymore than I want to be seen as goofy people claiming to be Christians.Paul’s point in these verses is to remind the readers he is different than the popular philosophers and hucksters they knew well, he genuinely cared for them as he preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, it is easy to dismiss the Gospel because people who claim to be Christians have used their power to to terrible things. People use religion to con people into giving them political power which they abuse to enrich themselves. But not every Christian is trying to manipulate people for money and power! How does the contemporary church convince the culture it is “not like those people?” If Paul is a model in this passage, how do we follow that model and avoid moral and intellectual error?

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 – 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.