01 February 2021

When Christians suffer… and those who make us suffer.

1 Thessalonians 2.13-16.

Paul, Silas, and Timothy were very pleased with the Thessalonian church, and say as much throughout this letter. These folks didn’t just embrace the message, the λόγονlógon of God’s kingdom they heard from the apostles; it sparked faith in them, and got ’em to act upon what they heard and believed.

With consequences, ’cause they got persecuted for it almost immediately. While the apostles were still there preaching the gospel. Ac 17.5-9 Got people arrested for disturbing the peace, and if you know anything about Romans, you know they have the bad habit of crucifying everyone they can until they get peace again. It’s why they got the apostles out of town as quick as they could—and that concern for the apostles only goes to show what a compassionate relationship they had with one another.

1 Thessalonians 2.13-16 KWL
13 This relationship is also why we unceasingly praise God:
You who received the message of God you heard from us—
not a message of people, but just as it truly is,
a message of God which also activates your faith.
14 For, fellow Christians, you became imitators of God’s churches
of Christ Jesus in Judea, because you suffered their sufferings
you from your own countrymen, same as they by the Judeans.
15 They had also killed Master Jesus and the prophets, and attacked us,
displeasing God and opposing every person,
16 preventing us from speaking to gentiles so they might be saved.
Thus their sins are always full. The wrath takes them out in the end.

The message the apostles brought to Thessaloniki wasn’t just a human message, manufactured by humans by our own will. Not that human messages can’t have a mighty big impact. Popular conspiracy theories definitely do, and have devastating consequences. But those messages don’t produce fruit of the Spirit. They produce no evidence God’s at work in anyone’s life; just the opposite. Faith in God isn’t activated; fear is.

And that’s how the apostles knew God’s message had got through to the Thessalonians. They now had an Empire-wide reputation of great faith.

Thing is, you’re gonna get people who read this passage without looking at the context of the Thessalonians’ great faith, 1Th 1.6-10 and leap to the conclusion the evidence of God’s work in the Thessalonians was made evident by their suffering. Supposedly this is how you know the apostles’ message was a divine word instead of a human one: The Thessalonians suffered. Just like the prophets, just like the churches, just like Jesus himself. Pain gives weight.

Wrong. ’Cause plenty of heretics and false religions get persecuted. The government has to go after cults all the time—and rightly so, ’cause their cultish behavior is full of slavery and abuse. Even pagans can suffer. Doesn’t make ’em right; it makes them human. Everybody suffers; anybody who claims otherwise is trying to sell you the “cure” to suffering. And the only true cure is resurrection.

Plenty of Christians, same as plenty of humans, have a sob story about how we suffered. Maybe we overcame the suffering; maybe not and we’re still complaining about it. But pain doesn’t make our message mighty. God does. When we follow Jesus and produce the Spirit’s fruit regardless of our suffering, then we have a testimony worth sharing. Although I (and likely you) have heard plenty of testimonies where people haven’t grown any more fruitful at all; they simply overcame suffering, give God the credit, and figure that’s enough. I say those testimonies suck. Have we grown? Do we simply feel closer to God, or has his character actually rubbed off on us any? If you’re not more like Jesus as a result of your experiences, do shut up and sit down. First work on being a better example. Imitate better Christians. Imitate Christ.

The antichrists of Judea.

Speaking of passages people like to misinterpret: The second part of this bit, where the apostles wrote about the Judeans who made ’em suffer, is an awfully popular passage with antisemites. “Look, Paul calls the Jews a bunch of Christ-killers! He says they’ve earned God’s wrath. Well, let’s help God out a little, and pour a little wrath on them ourselves.” They declare all Jews to be antichrists, and persecute ’em for it.

Obviously they’ve dismissed a few facts. Namely that Christ Jesus is a Jew, deliberately chose to be born a Jew, and is the King of the Jews—for Messiah means a king of Israel, and Christ is simply a Greek-form translation of Messiah. Jesus never stopped being Jewish, nor Israeli, nor their king. The Twelve were Jews, and all the first Christians were Jews. All the apostles who wrote 1 Thessalonians are likewise Jews: Paul and Silas grew up Jewish, and Timothy (whose mother was Jewish) converted.

Clearly not all Jews are meant by the apostles’ use of Ἰουδαίων/Yudéon, “Jews,” in this passage. Just those in the leadership of Judea at this point in history: The head priests and head Pharisees. The nobles. The senate.

Ἔφθασεν δὲ ἐπ’ αὐτοὺς ἡ ὀργὴ εἰς τέλος/éfthasen de ep’ aftús i oryí eis télos, which I translated “The wrath takes them out in the end,” is usually rendered along the lines of the KJV’s “For the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost,” or the NIV’s “The wrath of God has come upon them at last.” It tends to be translated present tense, as if God were smiting them right then when the apostles wrote this—or as if God’s smiting them right now as we read this. But éfthasen isn’t a present-tense verb. It’s aorist, meaning it’s neither present nor past nor future tense; it’s a timeless tense. We don’t have timeless tenses in English, so aorist sentences get misinterpreted all the time.

When does the wrath overtake the Judean leaders? Arguably it took ’em out when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, which probably took place less than 20 years after 1 Thessalonians was written. Some scholars think 1 Thessalonians was written after the Jewish War, and therefore the apostles were writing about Judea’s destruction as a past-tense event. But I don’t think the apostles had the Jewish War in mind when they wrote verse 16. They were thinking of God’s judgment upon the Judean leaders at the End, when they have to stand before the Christ whom they utterly rejected, and had the Romans execute for them.

And this wrath is applied to them by God. Not humans; not antisemites; certainly not Christians. We have no business declaring ourselves instruments of God’s wrath. We’re to love our neighbors, not judge them. Coming at them all wrath-filled and judgment-minded, we’d never be able to share the gospel with them. Had Paul and Silas shown up in Thessaloniki all persecution-and-brimstone angry, they’d’ve won no one over to a grace and peace-filled gospel. Maybe some other gospel, like the one dark Christians and antisemites embrace. But certainly not Christ’s gospel.

So no, this is in no way an antisemitic statement. And in fact the apostles equated the Judean leaders’ misbehavior with that of the Thessalonian leaders. The Thessalonian leaders and people were persecuting the Thessalonian church, same as the Judean leaders and people persecuted the Judean church. If the Thessalonians thought they were alone, or they had it bad, the Judeans had it just as bad. Worse: The Judean leaders had also killed Jesus and the prophets, and were trying to prevent the gospel from reaching gentiles like the Thessalonians.

Nope, there’s nothing inherently wicked about Judeans or Jews. Just humanity.

Because every culture God sends prophets to, has killed prophets. Any culture Jesus lived in would’ve killed him. Had Jesus shown up today (other than in his second coming, obviously), he’d inevitably butt heads with our hypocritical civic and religious leaders. And they’d try to be rid of him, same as the Judean senate did—through fair means or foul. Out of pure spite, humans tend to prefer foul.

No, it’s not because the Judeans or Jews deserve wrath more than we. Look at the many people in our own culture who reject God’s prophets, visions, and Messiah. Look at the many hypocrites who claim allegiance to Christ, but they never obey his commands, either out of pure ignorance or pure apathy, and replace them instead with self-righteousness, anger, hatred, and other works of the flesh. We’re no better. We’re likely worse; we’ve had Christ longer. We have even less excuse to be antichrists. And the wrath awaits our antichrists same as those ancient Judeans.