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At the beginning of the letter to the Galatians, Paul must clarify his relationship with the Jerusalem church. If Paul is under the authority of Jerusalem, then it is at least possible that the “men from James” could claim that Paul has not been authorized to preach a gospel to the Gentiles which frees them from the Law.

Image result for ladder of divine acentAt issue here is not the Gospel that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and that he was raised on the third day, according to the scriptures (1 Cor 15:3-5). Paul clearly states this tradition was passed along to him as the primary core of the gospel. It is also clear the preaching of Christ Crucified can be found in the apostolic preaching from the beginning. What Paul is going to argue in the first two chapters of Galatians is that although his Gospel is Christ Crucified, when the death and resurrection of Christ is applied to the Gentiles, they are not “under the Law.” For Paul, Gentiles are not converts to Judaism by rather adopted children of God and therefore not required to keep the Law. As Ben Witherington puts it,

Paul is referring to his Law-free Gospel for the Gentiles which focuses on and is based on faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross which provides one with right standing before God. This distinctive Gospel message about Christ Paul admits is not the sort of thing human beings could have come up with on their own. It had to be revealed by God for it to be known at all. (Galatians, 92)

According to Galatians 1:11-12, Paul’s Gospel was revealed to him by Jesus Christ. At this point in the letter Paul begins to use the first person. He is not writing on behalf of a ministry team (as in 1 Thessalonians or 1 Corinthians), he is presenting his own testimony of how he encountered the grace of God.

First, Paul’s claim is that he was not evangelized by other apostles. We know from Acts that Paul was in fact a bitter opponent of the gospel in Acts. As I read Acts, Paul was came into contact with the gospel in the Synagogue of the Freedmen, where Stephen was preaching. His reaction to Stephen’s preaching was violent and led to his mission to Damascus to round up Christ-followers.

Second, Paul did not learn his gospel from the other apostles. After his encounter with Jesus, Paul did not have a period of discipleship in order to learn the basics of the gospel. He will state that he did not encounter the Apostles until well after he was given a revelation from Jesus. He does not claim to be “one of the Twelve” or even under the authority of the Twelve. He is an independent apostle commissioned directly by God.

Third, the noun apokalypsis (ἀποκάλυψις) is the key to understanding Paul’s point in Galatiansi 1:11-12. The noun appears in Paul’s letters thirteen times, and as might be expected, the word has the connotation of God’s decisive actions in history to bring salvation into the world. This is in fact the title of the final book of the New Testament, the “Revelation of Jesus Christ.” Paul is not saying he has discovered his gospel from careful exegesis of the Hebrew Bible or through crafty application of rabbinic rules of interpretation. He claims in Galatians 1:11-12 that God pulled back the curtains and revealed to him something which has not been known before, what he will call a mystery in Ephesians 3:1-6.

This revelation stands in contrast to receiving a gospel from other humans. Rather than being informed by others of a “Law-free Gospel” for the Gentiles, God revealed it to him through Jesus.

How do you think this claim would have been heard by the Twelve in Jerusalem and the community of Jewish Christian believers who had been following Jesus since his time in Galilee? What kind of resistance to Paul’s claim do we see in either in Galatians or in Acts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“So then” (Ἄρα οὖν) is a common Pauline way of drawing a logical conclusion to a section. Since his readers have been chosen by God as the first to share in the Gospel, they will be glorified at the time of Christ’s return (2:14). If this is true, then they ought to respond to this reality in the following two ways:

Image result for stand firmFirst, the Thessalonians are to “stand firm” (στήκω). This verb has the sense of being firmly committed to something (BDAG). This stands in contrast to Paul’s description of the church at the beginning of this chapter: they were unsettled and alarmed by a report that then Day of the Lord already come. Rather than be shaken by the teaching which contradicted what Paul had taught them, they ought to stand firm in what they know to be the truth.

Second, the readers are told to “hold on” (κρατέω) to the traditions Paul has passed along to them when he was with them or by his earlier letter. Once again, this is necessary since it is possible the disturbing report came to the church from a letter claiming to be in Paul’s name. In 1 Thessalonians Paul was very clear his appeal to the church was not motivated by greed nor was he using rhetoric to fool them into believing something which was not true.

It is very important to notice here that Paul says he passed along traditions (τὰς παραδόσεις). This implies there was a body of teaching Paul could “hand down” to his churches, some of which Paul says he had received from those who were before him. This includes teachings about the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:23) and the resurrection (1 Cor 15:3-5). Although there are some things Paul says he received from the Lord directly (1 Thess 4:15), others are part of a growing doctrinal and ethical tradition Paul delivers to his churches and expects them to hand down to the next generation of believers.

Third, Paul tells the Thessalonians to be encouraged and strengthened in both deed and word (2:16-17). This benediction is something of a conclusion to the first part of the letter. The benediction in 2:16-17 is a prayer to the Lord himself to give the readers strength to hold on to Paul’s teaching. There are two parts to Paul’s wish for the church. First, “Encourage your heart…” This is an inward action, although “encourage” might be a bit soft. In 3:12, Paul uses the same verb to strengthen a command (translated “we urge.”) What is in mind is the Lord prodding and urging the heart to keep the command to hold tight to the teachings Paul gave them.

Second, Paul prays that the Lord would strengthen his readers. This is an external action, an enablement to do the action commanded. Even if the Lord nudges you to do the right thing, it is still possible for you to ignore that urging. The point of this part of the prayer is to actually follow through and do what must be done.

The encouraging and strengthening is to be done “in deed and word.” There is a relationship here “between inward encouragement and outward behavior.” (Wanamaker, 1-2 Thessalonians, 272). Paul does not want his congregation to say one thing and do another.

This section of 2 Thessalonians has some very real application to the modern church. There are occasionally strange teachings which do not conform to the “traditions handed down” and cause some in the church to be unsettled or alarmed. The recent weirdness about the solar eclipse is a case in point. Even a few reasonable people I know were seriously considering this as a “sign of the end.” (Short answer: it was not a sign of the end). Sometimes a popular writer will publish a book with a new or radical reading of Scripture, the church ought to evaluate it in the light of the “traditions handed down.” But from a contemporary perspective, what are those traditions? Is this just Scripture? The Nicene Creed? Do denominational commitments matter? How does the church strengthen itself so that it can stand firm and hold fast to the “traditions handed down” yet still respond to a culture where traditions like this are meaningless?

The situation in Thessalonica has changed since Paul wrote his first letter to the church. In fact, the second letter is so different from the first that some scholars suggest it was actually the first letter Paul wrote to the church and the order was reversed as the early church gathered the Pauline letters into a collection. It is true the whole collection is not chronological, and the general order of the letters is from longest (Romans) to the shortest (Philemon). So it is possible the smaller 2 Thessalonians was placed after the first letter simply because it was shorter. In the absence of evidence, this reversal of the letters is too speculative, and it really does not take into account 1 Thessalonians fits well into the context of Acts.

As for the situation of the letter, the consensus view is that the church received a letter claiming to come from Paul has circulated to the church. This letter claimed 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 is more in the background than a false letter claiming the “end times” have begun. It is possible the persecution the church faced has caused some in the congregation 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 pursuit of honor and avoiding shame. The suffering the church is facing appears to be “shame” rather than an “honor.” Paul taught them Jesus would return soon and render judgment, yet he has not returned to rescue the Thessalonians from their troubles.

Why does Paul write 2 Thessalonians?

First, 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 should not be taken as an indication of divine disfavor. Nor should the Christian think 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 calling as a church. They are engaged in serious spiritual warfare, so they ought to “stand firm and hold fast to the teachings” Paul had already passed on to them (2:15).

Fourth, the central problem in 2 Thessalonians is the false report about the return of Christ (2:1-12). Paul first must remind the Thessalonians of what he has already taught them, that the Lord will not return until “the man of lawlessness” is revealed, and this person cannot be revealed until “the restraining force” is taken out of the way. The identity of the Restrainer is one of the more difficult issues in Pauline studies (here are a few comments on what Paul might be talking about). Setting aside the precise identity of the Restrainer, Paul main encouragement to the Thessalonican church is that they need to be afraid they have entered into the “last days” and ought to encourage one another and be “strengthened in every good deed and word” (2:16)

The verbs translated “ask” and “urge” (ἐρωτάω and παρακαλέω) in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-2 are commonly used to encourage a reader to a particular action.  They appear in personal letters between people of the same social status rather than a “superior” giving orders to his underlings. Paul’s view that the church is a family and that he is a “brother” within that family is implied by the use of these verbs (Green, Letters to the Thessalonians, 183).  Potentially Paul could have “pulled rank” and told the church what needs to change – but he offers these commands a social equal.

Image result for godly livingBut Paul includes a prepositional phrase, he asks them “in the Lord Jesus.”  The commands in this section are not from Paul, but rather from the true authority, Jesus.  Verse 8 will make this point again, if you reject this command you are rejecting the Holy Spirit!

“To please” can mean simply to make another happy, proud, etc.  But the word was used for citizens who had performed some civic duty and had “pleased” the government enough to inscribe their names on monuments. This is the nuance of meaning which would have been familiar to the original audience: live in a way that gets you a statue in the local park! Most contemporary Christians would not hear this meaning, but for a person living in the Roman world, this would be a clear image of what kind of virtuous life the Lord requires.

In the context of the “ask in the Lord Jesus,” Paul is saying that these moral guidelines are ways to please the Lord, who is Jesus. Any citizen of Thessalonica would like to please their government and be honored with an inscription, therefore Paul says you ought to live your life the way the ultimate authority wants you to!

The Thessalonian church is already living to please God, but they can improve, they can do this “all the more.” Anyone that thinks they cannot improve is in trouble, not only have they ceased to grow, but they are probably moving backwards.  Paul says keep moving ahead!  Keep on pleasing God all the more.

In this case Paul says that they ought to live, in order to please.  Living and pleasing God are coupled elsewhere in scripture, Enoch, for example, was said to have walked with God and pleased him. The verbs in this section are in the plural.  He is talking to the whole church, even though some of the issues that follow only concern some individuals within the church.  There is a corporate dimension in Paul’s ethical thinking.

Surprisingly, Paul’s commands here apply to whole church, not just a small part of it.  The rest of the church that is not immoral is responsible for holding everyone accountable to the same standard. Contemporary Christianity tends to individualize these sorts of commands so that they apply to a single person rather than a whole church.

If this is right, then Paul is saying to the whole congregation, “live out your faith in in a way that pleases God.” How would this change the way we think about moral and ethical problems in a church? If one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers; does this mean if one part of the body sins, the whole body sins?

In 1 Thessalonians 4:9–10 Paul encourages the church at Thessalonica to pursue “brotherly love.” What is brotherly love? The noun used here (φιλαδελφία) was only used for literal family relationships before the Christian community began to use it as a metaphor for members of their community (EDNT, 4:434). The only exception appears to be 2 Macc 15:14, the word appears to refer to a fraternal relationship of all Israel. In 4 Maccabees 13:23, 26, 14:1 the word refers to the mutual love between seven brothers who all suffer instead of reject their Jewish traditions.

The Greeks considered the relationship between brothers to be of primary importance, Plutarch used the term “brotherly love” to describe the proper relationship between brothers.

Plutarch, De fraterno amore 2 …where there is an unanimous accordance amongst brothers, the family thrives and flourishes, and friends and acquaintance, like a well furnished choir, in all their actions, words, and thoughts maintain a delightful harmony. “But jarring feuds advance the worst of men.”

Plutarch, De fraterno amore 15  Brothers should not be like the scales of a balance, the one rising upon the other’s sinking; but rather like numbers in arithmetic, the lesser and greater mutually helping and improving each other.

Plutarch, De fraterno amore 21   Again, it is highly commendable in him to have the highest esteem and honor for his brother’s wife, reputing and honoring her as the most sacred of all his brother’s sacred treasures, and thus to do honor to him

Based on the teaching of Jesus, the earliest believers referred to themselves as “brothers and sisters.” In Mark 3:3 Jesus indicates that his “brothers and sisters” are those who hear and obey his words.  If those who followed Jesus faced rejection from their families, it is possible that Jesus intended his followers to be a new “family.”  On the other hand, the family of Jesus may be an allusion to the larger theme of a New Israel among the followers of Jesus.  In Acts 2:29 Peter addresses a Jewish crowd as “brothers,” meaning “fellow Jews.”   So too Paul in Acts 22:1; 23:1.

Paul’s use of the term “brother” and “brotherly love” bears additional theological weight.  By accepting Christ, we are adopted into the family of God, God is our father.  This makes each person that has accepted Christ as their savior a brother or sister in Christ. This new family in Christ is the foundation for many of Paul’s commands (cf., Rom 12:10; other Christian ethical instruction begins the same way (Heb 13:1; 1 Pet 1:22; 2 Pet 1:7; 1 Clem 48:1).  He urges his readers to please God by treating each other like brothers and sisters.

If the church lives in brotherly love, then the father is pleased and honored.  For the Greek world, nothing dishonors the parent more that children who do not display proper affection for one another and feud. If Plutarch could say “jarring feuds advance the worst of men,” how might he describe the sort of angry disputes which plague most modern churches?

 

1 Thessalonians fits well into the book of Acts 17:1-9. Paul arrived in the city from Philippi, where he had been arrested illegally and released when he informed the Philippian magistrates he was a Roman citizen. As is typical for Paul he visits the local synagogue and “reasoned from the Scripture” that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer, die, and rise from the dead. Luke indicates some Jews were persuaded, but also a “large number of God-fearing Gentiles and quite a few prominent women” (Acts 17:4).

Because of this success, the Jews stir up a mob to “start a riot” and drive Paul out of the town. They seize Jason, a prominent Thessalonian who was hosting Paul and Silas in his home. The Jews bring Jason before the city officials and claim Paul has been “turning the world upside down,” defying Caesar’s decrees and claiming there is another king, Jesus. Paul is forced to leave the city and these opponents follow Paul to Berea (Acts 17:10-15). Paul is forced to travel alone to Athens (Acts 17:16-34) and eventually to Corinth (Acts 18). Silas and Timothy returned to Thessalonica and re-joined Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:5). In 1 Thessalonians 3:6, Paul says Timothy had just “just now come from you” and reported good news: the church has continued to grow in faith and love and has stood against the attacks made against it. Timothy may have delivered a letter from the Thessalonians to which Paul now responds in First Thessalonians.

First, Paul must defend himself against unnamed opponents who are slandering him. Based on his defense in chapter 2, these opponents acclaim Paul has no divine authority and may be using the local church to enrich himself. It is true Paul was forced to leave Thessalonica under the cover of darkness (Acts 17:10), leaving Jason with some legal and financial burdens (Acts 17:9, Jason posted bail for Paul). Paul says his appeal to his readers did not “spring up from error or impure motives” (2:3) nor did he use the slick rhetoric of the Sophists to trick his readers into believing the Gospel (2:5). The church itself is a witness to Paul’s behavior in Thessalonica, so the opponents have no basis for making these charges.

Second, although Timothy gave an “encouraging report” (1 Thess 3:6-10), he also seems to have reported on two or three problems for the church. In 4:3-8 Paul deals with sexual immorality, encouraging people to control themselves and live in an honorable way. In 4:9-12 Paul instructs the Thessalonican believers to live a “quiet life” and to work to provide for their own needs. It may be the case some members of the congregation were abusing the generosity of others, no longer working while they waiting for the soon arrival of the Lord Jesus. In both of these cases, Paul encourages the readers to live lives which “win the respect of outsiders” (4:12).

Third, Paul addresses some concerns about the return of the Lord (4:13-5:11). Since Paul’s time was cut short, he may not have had the time to answer all the questions the church may have had about the imminent return of Jesus. What is more, some members of the church have died prior to the expected return of the Lord. Paul first must comfort the community by explaining that those who have died in Christ will certainly participate in the resurrection from the dead prior to the return of the Lord. In fact, they will rise first and join those who are still living as they are caught up to meet the Lord in the air (4:15). In chapter 5 Paul points out that the day of the Lord will come unexpectedly, so the “children of light” ought to live their lives in sober anticipation of the return of the Lord. Both of these teachings conclude with “therefore encourage one another.” This is the main point of any teaching on the return of the Lord, encouragement to living godly lives which “win the respect of outsiders” (4:12).

Although 1 Thessalonians is remembered as the “Rapture book” in popular teaching, the main theme of the book is “encourage one another.” Since the Thessalonian church was small and had to endure some pressure from both secular authorities and their cousins in the Jewish synagogue, they may have felt as though their new faith in Jesus was not worth the trouble. The congregation must comfort one another and encourage each member of their small group to continue living out their faith in Jesus as children of God.

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.

After a successful time in the synagogue in Thessalonica, charges are made against Paul before the local Roman authorities (Acts 17:1-9). The charges against Paul are significant: he is accused of “defying the decrees of Caesar” and “advocating another king, Jesus.”  Given the recent history of Thessalonica, these are dangerous charges indeed. 

Augustus-Caesar-StatueFirst, Paul and his companions are troublemakers. This could be standard rhetoric, although it does seem that wherever Paul goes there is trouble. But Rome did not particular care for trouble-makers. In fact, this phrase (οἱ τὴν οἰκουμένην ἀναστατώσαντες οὗτοι) literally means the ones who are turning the world upside down.” C Kavin Rowe uses this phrase as the title for his excellent book subtitled “Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age.” As he points out in his chapter on Acts 17, to “turn the world upside down” is a grave accusation in the Roman world (p. 96). Luke used the phrase later in Acts to describe the revolutionary activities of the Sicarii, actions that will result in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem (Acts 21:38). It is possible to take this phrase not as “they are troublemakers” but rather as “they are rebels against the Roman Empire.”

Second, they subvert the decrees of Caesar. In 1 Thess 1:9 Paul says that the congregation has “turned form idols.” Obviously any pagan Gentiles saved during Paul’s time in the city would have turned from whatever idols they worshiped. But this “turning from idols” must have included the Roman cult.  If this is the case, then turning from the Roman cult could be understood as an act of disloyalty.  It is possible then that Gentile God-fearers still participated in some form of official cult, despite worshiping in the synagogue.

Third, they advocate another king, Jesus.  In 1 Thess 4 and 5 Paul clearly teaches that Jesus is coming back in power and he will establish his own glorious kingdom (1 Thess 2:19, for example).  This could easily be understood in terms of a change of emperors, that the empire of Rome was about to be supplanted with the empire of Jesus. It is clear, at least for Kavin Rowe, that “the figure to whom King Jesus is juxtaposed is beyond a doubt the Roman emperor” (p. 99).

Fourth, Paul’s preaching of the gospel challenges the truth of pax Romana. In 1 Thess 5:3, Paul says that when Jesus returns, it will be at a time when people are saying “peace and safety,” but they will in fact be destroyed.  Peace and security is exactly what was promised by the Empire, pax Romana meant that the empire was a safe and peaceful place to live.  Paul says there that the peace of Rome is an illusion.

All of this points to the radical nature of Paul’s gospel from a Roman perspective.  After the Jerusalem Council, we are well aware of how radical the gospel is from a Jewish perspective.  But now we see how dangerous the idea of Jesus can be from a Roman imperial perspective.  Paul is declaring that Jesus is the Real King and that his empire of peace is going to overwhelm the so-called peace of Rome.  This alternative way of viewing the world provoked violent reactions from Rome.

ZECC ThessaloniansZondervan is giving away a copy of the ZECNT volume on 1-2 Thessalonians by Gary Shogren and all you have to do is tell them who the Restrainer in 2 Thessalonians 2 is by leaving a comment on the Koinonia site.

This brings to mind a great new way to solve theological debates.  Blogs can give away a prize to whoever can solve the Synoptic Problem or explain who those people were who were raised to life in Matthew 27:52-53.  We just need to find a prize big enough to bring in the heavyweights in to leave comments.

Anyway, Zondervan is kind enough to give away a copy of this fine commentary, leave a comment and / or retweet the page for a chance to win. Fortunately I posted by thoughts on this passage a few weeks ago, so Reading Acts subscribers have an inside track.

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Christian Theology

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