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.

What (Who?) is the “Restrainer” in 2 Thessalonians 2?

The identity of the Restrainer in 2 Thessalonians 2 is a difficult problem in reading the apocalyptic section of the letter. Paul says there that the Man of Lawlessness cannot be revealed until the “restrainer” is removed.  The problem is that he does not explicitly state who / 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 that was 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 verb κατέχω mean?  It can mean to hold back or restrain, but also “to hold fast, keep secure.”

Secondly, and perhaps more problematic, there 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.

Man of LawlessnessFrom 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 primary 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, followed by T. Munck argue that the neuter participle is the preaching of the Gospel, and that 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 in the fact that Paul appears to believe that he will 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 . H. 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 that is holding back evil is an angel or some spiritual being working on God’s behalf.  This presupposes the idea that the gospel must be preached to the whole world before the Day of the Lord, which is simply not a Pauline requirement for the Day of the Lord.  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) attempts to make 2 Thessalonians reliant on Isaiah 66 in a number of places, therefore the source of the restrainer also found in Isaiah.  While the word does not appear in the LXX, 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.

Charles Gilbin devotes an entire monograph to 2 Thessalonians 2 and develops a unique theory concerning the problem in the church as well as the identity of the restraining power.  Gilbin sees a specific charismatic prophet within the church that has delivered the prophetic message that the Day of the Lord has begun. He therefore argues that katexw in the neuter has the sense of a prophetic seizure, and that the masculine pronoun refers to a false prophet.  There are several problems here.  katexw only has the sense of a prophetic seizure in the passive, both verbs are active here.  Additionally, it is hard to understand why Paul would argue that the entire Day of the Lord is held in check until a single false prophet in a small local is taken out of the way.

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-trib position.  But is the Restrainer the Holy Spirit?  Is that what this passage is really saying?  It can be objected that 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 things, albeit coordinated things.   An additional problem is that the Holy Spirit is not explicitly mentioned in the passage.  The gospel is (in chapter 1), and the forces of evil are clearly in the context, but the Holy Spirit is not.

In the most recent revival of this argument, Charles Powell (BibSac 154 [1997]: 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 notes that in John 14:26 the Holy Spirit is called ho paravkletos, a masculine noun referring the neuter pneuma.  This avoids any grammatical difficulties, and sounds quite a bit like I. H. Marshall.

It may be objected that the Old Testament very clearly indicates that the Holy Spirit will be active in the tribulation (Joel 2, for example.)  If he is removed at the beginning of the Tribulation, how can he be “poured out” as Joel predicts?  It is possible to argue that the restraining function of the Spirit through the Body of Christ will end at the rapture, although the functions of empowerment for ministry or prophecy will remain.  Obviously God, who is omnipresent, cannot be “removed,” therefore there is some sort of shift in activities, such as at the time of the Flood.

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 at the time of the Rapture, allowing the events of the tribulation to unfold.

2 Thessalonians – The Situation in Thessalonica

[Audio for this study is available at, as is a PDF copy of the notes. You may right-click and “save as….” ]

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

[Audio for this study is available at, as is a PDF copy of the notes. You may right-click and “save as….” ]

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

Paul uses the concept of light and dark in 1 Thessalonians 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, the world is in the dark, unable to see what is really going on. What does Paul mean by “Walking in the Light”?

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 Thessalonains 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 have been a few in the church who thought 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 that 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 will not 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 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 should act like it!