Stand Firm and Hold to the Faith – 2 Thessalonians 2:15

“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?

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 Thess 1:3-4 – Paul’s Debt of Thanksgiving

Paul normally opens his letters with a prayer of thanksgiving, conforming to the rhetorical style of the first century.  In this introductory section, an author would normally praise his readers and introduce to them something of the plan of the letter.   The “praise” section of the letter intends to put the readers in a positive frame of mind, more likely to accept the teaching that follows (see Wanamaker, 1-2 Thessalonians, 215). In this case, Paul praises his readers and then introduces the idea of the return of the Lord, the subject of the main section of the book

Paul begins by saying “we ought to always thank God for you….”  The use of the word “ought”  in this thanksgiving section is quite unique in Paul.  ὀφείλω means “to be indebted” and it appears here in the thanksgiving section and in again in 2:13, another prayer of thanksgiving,   This world therefore “frames” the first major section of the book.

Why would Paul say that he is obligated to praise the readers?  It sounds a bit cold and perfunctory, especially in contrast to the warm praise offered in the first letter. It is possible that the praise Paul gave them in the first letter embarrassed them, they did not feel they were worthy of the high praise that Paul used in 1 Thessalonians 1.

The debt owed is not to the congregation, but rather to God.  Since God is working in their church to develop fruit from the seeds he planted, it is his responsibility to praise God for the growth. Two specific areas are mentioned, faith and love.  The third part of the familiar Pauline “faith-hope-love” is present in the next section when Paul outlines the hope of the believer in the soon return of Christ.

Their faith is growing.  The verb for growing in this verse (ὑπεραυξάνω) is an intensive form of the normal word for growth.  The word has a nuance of exceeding or abundant growth.  The verb is in the present tense, indicating on-going growth.  The church did not think that they had arrived spiritually and were no longer in need of any further growth. What growth that has occurred has been abundant, beyond expectations perhaps, but not yet perfection.

Their love is increasing.   Like “growing,” increasing is a word which highlights the abundance of the growth (πλεονάζω). In 1 Thessalonians 3:12 Paul prays that the church experience an increase in their love “to the point of overflowing.”  To some extent Paul is thanking God for answering his prayer, the church has continued to grow in love to the point of abundance. They are increasing in love for one another.  The growth that is happening is drawing them closer together, the persecution that they are facing is making their congregation much more loving and supportive of the individual elements within the group.

The basis for this growth is that the church as endured trials (v. 4).   As in the first letter, Paul makes a point of telling the congregation that he boast of them to other churches.  Perhaps a church like Corinth did not prosper in faith and love because they had not experienced external persecution.

Paul’s boast, therefore, may be an instruction to churches which have not yet been persecuted.  When the difficult times come, be like the Thessalonians, whose faith grew stronger during times of persecution.  The fact that their faith grew stronger during persecution should not surprise us.  It is always the case that Christians in persecuted countries have a stronger faith that Christians in countries were Christianity is legal and popular.  The persecution serves to focus the attention on what is important rather than on petty differences and minor points.

How would the church in America be different if it was facing a serious persecution?  My guess is that it would be stronger, growing in love and faith.  I also doubt we would be renovating malls or sports arenas either.