We continue in our series on Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, and we come to chapter two, verses 13-16. In the opening 12 verses of this chapter we saw Paul’s deep conviction that he had been entrusted with this sacred stewardship to preach the gospel. But what would the response be as this gospel went out? He knew that God had sent him to gather in the elect, and those who had been appointed for eternal life would respond favorably to the proclamation of the gospel. But in any given city Paul didn’t know exactly what he might encounter. So he is filled with thanksgiving at the way the Thessalonians had truly embraced the message, and he writes about it here in our text…
1 Thessalonians chapter two, verses 13-16…
SCRIPTURE READING & TEXT COMMENTS
- READ vv.13-16
- The latter part of this passage is sometimes characterized as “harsh”, “vitriolic”, “violent”, and “anti-Semitic.” Some commentators are so uncomfortable with verses 15-16 that they will say it must have been added later by someone else, that Paul could never have said this. However, there is no manuscript evidence for such a theory. Other commentators argue that these words could not have been Paul’s, because they are in conflict with his seemingly more positive treatment of the Jews in Romans 9-11. But again there is no textual evidence for this, and if you read Romans 9-11 you find both sides of the equation, that is, very strong statements that the Jews are in rebellion against God, that the majority of them had been hardened, as well as strong statements holding out hope for the salvation of the remnant.
Paul loved his countrymen and longed for their salvation. Even after writing this letter while in Corinth, Paul would go on to Ephesus and continue his practice of going to the synagogue first to preach the gospel. But he wasn’t going to avoid the fact that God’s own people had rejected one prophet after another, something which Jesus himself says in Matthew 23. They had killed not only God’s prophets, but even God’s own Son. Jesus died under Pontius Pilate, and the Roman soldiers actually did the killing, but over and over again in the Gospels and the book of Acts, the Jewish authorities and the nation of unbelieving Jews as a whole are culpable for the death of Jesus.
This is the only place in Paul’s letters where he comes right out and states it so clearly. Of course, Paul would have been horrified if later Christians would use his words to justify anti-Semitism.
The key thing to see is that Paul’s strong language here is not anti-Semitic, it is anti-unbelief. He has equally strong language about Gentile unbelief elsewhere in his writings, such as Romans 1. Anyone—Jew or Gentile—who opposes the message of salvation going out is diametrically opposed to God himself, and thus the strong language fits, even to the point where words that were formerly only applied to the enemies of God’s people the Amorites, who were said to be “filling up the measure of their sins,” is here applied to the Jews who oppose Paul’s message. Anyone who rejects the gospel of God rejects the Son of God, and anyone who rejects the Son of God is an enemy of God.
This is why Paul says at the end of verse 15 that the unbelieving Jews are “hostile to all men” or “opposing all mankind,” by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved. Their hostility to all men is this: they try to prevent the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles. The most loving thing you can do for your fellow human beings, the most humanitarian thing, is to allow them access to the message that God has provided a way to escape his wrath through his Son Jesus.
One last textual item to note, and that is the final phrase – “the wrath of God has come upon them at last.” The commentators puzzle over Paul’s putting it in the past tense. Why didn’t he say, “The wrath of God will come upon them at last”? Some explain this as an expression of the certainty of judgment, that God’s judgment is so inevitable that it can be spoken of as a past event, for the sake of emphasis. But it seems better to take it in the sense you find in a passage like Romans 1.18ff – where we read that the wrath of God is already being revealed from heaven.
In that context the wrath of God is seen in the way that God lets unbelief run its course in all kinds of unrighteousness and immorality. Here in our text, it is a matter of God giving the unbelieving Jews over to their sin, allowing them to fill up the measure of their sin, allowing them to be hardened in their opposition to the gospel. He may also have had in mind some specific events that his readers would have perceived. Within a year or two prior of Paul writing this letter, the Jewish people had suffered greatly, including their expulsion from Rome by decree of the emperor Claudius, and the massacre of thousands of Jews in the temple during the Passover of AD 49.
These would have been vivid, recent events, and they function as a foretaste of a great judgment that would come in AD 70, which in turn is a preview of the final judgment to come upon all who oppose the Lord Jesus Christ.
John Stott, The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians
Wanamaker, Charles, Commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians
F.F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians
Leon Morris, 1 and 2 Thessalonians
George G. Findlay, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Thessalonians
You might remember the Robin Williams/Robert DeNiro movie Awakenings, based on the true story of Dr. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist who in the late 60s discovered beneficial effects of a new drug called L-Dopa. He applied this drug to patients who had survived the 1920s epidemic of the so-called “sleeping sickness,” a terrible disease that attacked the brain, leaving some victims in a catatonic state. Dr. Sacks found that with L-Dopa, some patients could at least temporarily come out of this sleep-like state to resume a fairly normal life.
Dr. Sacks has over the years written a number of other books over the years, the most famous of which was a collection of case histories dealing with some of the more difficult neurological challenges he had ever seen. The book was entitled, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” If you didn’t know the background you might think that title was meant to be a joke. That is what the clerk at the bookstore thought when I bought the book last week. But it was no joke. This patient’s condition did result in some pretty humorous moments, but in the context of a very sad existence.
Let me share a bit of that story with you:
There was nothing wrong with that man’s eyes, but he could not truly see in terms of attaching any meaning to the things he saw. They call it visual agnosia.
Our text tonight reminds us that far too often people are suffering from a kind of spiritual agnosia. They hear the message of the gospel, but it does not register with them. They can open the pages of Scripture, or they can come to church and hear a minister preaching the message of salvation through Jesus Christ, but to them it is only words. The gospel does not come in power, it does not weigh on them; there is no sense of personal appropriation of the message, no whole-hearted embrace of the message as personally relevant to them.
This is the great dividing line that runs through the human race. It may appear that two people who live in the same town, shop at the same stores, eat the same food, attend the same sporting events, and so on, are no different, but in reality there is a vast, immense, eternal difference between a person who merely hears the Word and a person who truly hears it and receives it as the Word of God.
It’s interesting to note that the apostle Paul typically mentions some items of thanksgiving in his letters to the various churches, and then he usually moves on to the heart of the letter. In the case of 1 Thessalonians, he gave thanks to God for a number of things in chapter one, verses 2-10, and then moved to the topic of his ministry to them in the opening verses of chapter two. But just when we thought that he had left that note of thanksgiving behind, Paul departs from his normal structure and suddenly brings up a matter of great thanksgiving – it seems as though he wants to draw special attention to the way that the Thessalonians had embraced the gospel as what it really is, the very Word of God.
Why is this a critical issue in Paul’s mind? Why would he be so filled with thanksgiving that the Thessalonians had responded this way to his gospel message? What is at stake?
Well, as we have already seen thus far in our study of the book, Paul believes that every single person’s eternal destiny is at stake. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and every person’s greatest need is to have that sin forgiven, to be reconciled to God, to be welcomed back into his presence and to be spared the fury of God’s wrath.
We saw back in chapter one, verses 9-10 that when Paul summarized his message to the Thessalonians, it centered on this message of Jesus being the one who could deliver you from the wrath to come. The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. Those who know Christ can take great comfort and encouragement at the prospect of the second coming. Paul says that “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.” (5.9-10). But for those who do not embrace the gospel with all their hearts, it will be a terrifying day. 2 Thessalonians 1.9 – “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day….”
With the coming of the Lord in view, Paul had a sense of urgency, as we said last Lord’s Day evening. There is salvation in no one else – there is no other name under heaven given among men by which a person can be delivered from the wrath of God. Jesus took the judicial punishment that we should have received, the wrath and curse of God. He was delivered up for our trespasses, and raised for our justification. If you hear that good news and believe it, you can have assurance that on the last day God will welcome you into his kingdom. It will be a day of rejoicing. But if you hear the message of the gospel and see it as nothing more than a human opinion, or a self-help remedy, or a philosophical school of thought, then you will face God as the avenging Judge, and you will not escape his justice.
You say, “Well, what about all those people we know who are virtuous, decent people, but who see the Bible as a merely human book?” Are they going to suffer eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord? You have to remember that this approach, as polite as it might be on the surface, contains within itself a principle of fundamental hostility to God.
It is the same impulse that led to the atrocities mentioned in v.15 – persecution, killing the prophets, and even killing the Lord himself. There is no neutrality here. The person who will not recognize the gospel as a divine message refuses to do so because there is in that person’s heart a rival deity – namely, the self. Whether a person shakes his fist against God, and violently opposes the gospel, or whether it comes out as a polite, tolerant “no thank you” to the gospel, the core principle is the same, and the outcome is the same.
And this isn’t limited to unbelievers. The same fundamental opposition to God that Paul condemns here in the unbelieving Jews finds it way all too often into our heart. We struggle against the tendency to elevate our own will, our own opinion, our agenda, and our voice. We set ourselves on the throne by failing to submit to the divine authority of God’s Word. We obey the commands of God selectively, only when they make sense to us, or when they fall in line with our plans and our little kingdoms.
The Word not only comes to unbelievers announcing the way to escape the wrath of God, it also comes to believers announcing the way to navigate through a dangerous, narrow path as followers of Christ. It is our map, our ammunition, our light, our protection, our greatest weapon, and our counselor. Above all, it brings us face to face with Jesus, who loved us and gave himself for us. The Word does not cease to be an urgent message once we have been converted. It is always urgent, always leading and guiding us to the way of wisdom, helping us to avoid pitfalls and temptation, to be trained in righteousness.
We all wish that we were further along in Christian maturity. We all want to be the kind of people that Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians 1 and 2 – people who are marked by deep and unwavering faith, a steadfast hope, an active and selfless love, people who are willing to suffer hardship for the sake of the truth. Those things will happen, if we receive the word as a divine Word, like these early Christians in Thessalonica. God’s Word was at work in them. It will do the same in us. Amen.