Thessalonians: Being Formed By the Waiting, Understanding Apocalyptic Language, and the Liberating Work of the Spirit

Paul and Silas in Thessalonica
Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews.
 And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd. And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things. And when they had taken money as security from Jason and the rest, they let them go.
Acts 17:1-9

Of all of Paul’s undisputed letters, Thessalonians might be the most difficult one to engage as modern readers. This is at least in part because of its apocalyptic language, but it’s also because this is understood to be the earliest of Paul’s writings, and thus reflective of a thought process that Paul would go on to flesh out over the course of his travels and ministry with more focus and clarity. It represents itself as raw, emotionally driven, and in many ways a very particular fashion. The praise and admonishments and call that we find in its words don’t easily translate across cultural experiences and eras. Add into this mix the tension that exists between the 1st and 2nd letter, with a good deal of certainty surrounding the first letter and a good deal of uncertainty plaguing the second, and these two books represent a challenging effort for exposition, translation and engagement.

Ancient, But Still Relevant
In this though, the letter (and letters) are certainly still relevant and important for us as engaged readers of scripture, particularly in its early expression of Apocalyptic thought and the developing Pauline context. For one who is reading Acts, it operates as a bit of a balloon bubble, narrowing us in on Paul’s travels to the city (and his ministering to the pagan Gentiles in Thessalonica 1:9-10), being pushed out of that city (Acts 17:5-8), and later sending Timothy (1 Thes 3:11-12) in his stead to see how they were doing in his absence (1 Thes 3:6). The context for the first letter (and possibly the second) is a letter written in response to Timothy’s accompanying word that, despite the few issues they were facing as a community of believers, they were doing well.

Positive, Affirming, and Admonishing Words
A good deal of the book is positive and affirming towards this end, with the latter chapters narrowing in on a call to keep going the way they are, but in this toalso push themselves to do just a little bit more in response to some of the struggles that Timothy has made Paul aware of.

Of special interest to Paul is restoring their hope in the risen Christ as one who liberates both those who are alive and those who are dead (3:10; 4:13). This focus is significant because it sheds light on the early communities and their understanding of Jesus within what scholars call an “apocalyptic” understanding. Most, if not all, the books in the New Testament are heavily influenced by this apocalyptic movement born from the late Old Testament period and the Inter-testament period, where we see the Jewish understanding of Resurrection (at the end of time) being shaped against Greco-Roman ideas of the afterlife (especially in their idea of hell) and the reality of the growing oppression that saw the Messiah as one who was coming to liberate the Jews in the here and now.

In a pagan Gentile environment (Thessalonica, the Capital of a Roman Province, was a key place for trade and Greco-Roman philosophical development), there would have been confusion over reconciling the Resurrection hope (the return of Jesus) as something meant for them (who were still alive) in their current struggles, persecution and oppression. This was a similar expectation they had of Jesus being raised up as the liberator of the Jews before His death. Thus, making sense of Jesus’ death as liberation for the Thessalonians was a hope they had for the here and now as they waited patiently for the promised return. Only their oppression continued, people started dying, and their patience was being tested. They started to wonder where is Jesus, leading to questions about exactly what their expectations were when it came to their liberation and how it would happen, with a key question being, did those who died miss out? And if so, how do we grieve for them? (1 Thes 3:10; 4:13) This left them in a state of depression, a feeling of unpredictability and carrying a heavy emotional response.

The Power of Witness- Faith Hope and Love
This is why Paul begins with immediate words of encouragement, with Paul exhorting the virtues of faith, hope and love. (1 Thes 1:3) as affirming qualities, moving to establish their own witness as proof that God (and their life in Christ) was still working in their midst through these virtues (1:5-7). By establishing this basic train of logic, Paul underscores that his witness (through the Spirit of Christ) empowered them to be imitators of Christ, and thus their witness was empowering others in Thessalonica to be imitators of Christ, going forth “everywhere” on their behalf. Paul leads them towards a sense of independence, trusting that their faith is theirs, not Pauls, giving to them at the beginning of time. The Spirit of Jesus is working in their midst, and all they have to do is look around them to know this is true. This is the reason that Paul is able to confidently speak of them as the “chosen” people, an important declaration for them to hold on to as Gentiles in the midst of their ongoing suffering (2:4) and waiting (1:10). Paul is able to remind them that their waiting and their suffering is not counter to his own witness, pointing out that he told them they would face oppression (3:4). This is not a reason to doubt their witness to others.

Formative Faith and Faith For the Future
Paul intentionally contrasts the nature of their faith in their (shared) liberation with the reality of their experience as they (the living and the dead) wait for Christ’s liberation. The character of their (shared) faith is given a gentle trait, described as a nursing mother, using the language of humility and of serving others giving of themselves, and later like a father’s relationship to his child (2:11). This is all formative language that speaks to the ongoing nature of faith’s expression.

This is also why Paul is interested in connecting the Spirits work with their work, emphasizing that the witness of the spirit and their willingness to live in the Spirit in the everyday go hand in hand. Hard work is important when it comes to holding or losing hope (2:9), and Paul eventually instructs them to “live quietly”, “mind their own affairs” and to “work with their hands” (a fulfillment of Jeremiah’s covenant), which is one of the places where he provides both a gentle admonition and a slight correction to their current behavior. In their waiting, and in their suffering, the inclination is that they had apparently slipped into modes of depression and anxiety, causing them to depend on the money and work of others rather than bearing out the witness of the Spirit through their involvement in society in honest and contributive ways. This same admonition is found later in 2nd Thes 3:6-10.

Of concern for Paul is that love of others is ultimately shaped by the Spirit’s witness, which is self giving not taking, and arrives and is expressed through their love for others (4:9). This same love is then filtered out into a particular example from their experience, which is the struggle with and engagement in sexual immorality as part of the Greco-Roman world they are a part of (4:3). The will of God, Paul says, their sanctification, is to abstain from sexual immorality. “God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness” (4:7). The point Paul continues to make here is that the Spirits witness and their witness goes hand in hand as it expresses love outwardly, and sexual immorality (however this is interpreted from their particular situation) is antithetical to this love as it is the oppression of others in exchange for their own desires (idolatry).

From the Particular to the Apocalyptic
Here Paul starts to evoke more obvious and aware apocalyptic language. “But you are not in Darkness… you are children of the Light” (5:4) Paul declares. He pulls from this language, speaking of day and night, dark and light as metaphorical images that can help place their “waiting” and “enduring” as a spiritual practice into a greater spiritual reality. This is the hope they have, that Christ will liberated those who are dead and alive, so Paul challenges them not to grieve as “those without hope” (4:13), but rather as those with a greater vision of what God is doing through Jesus (making what is wrong right). He then cleverly spins this back, using the same imagery of the spiritual armor we find in Ephesians, to their fear and question surrounding those who had died. He takes that fear (grieving as those without hope) and places it in a more hopeful context by calling them to “stay awake” in the here and now, once again connecting their current practice with the bigger picture as a way of holding onto hope. The challenge here is both an affirmation and an admonition, with the call to stay awake then leading into the call to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all (5:18), all language that requires one to “stay awake” so that as they wait they can help all who are struggling, a definitive expression and response of love that stands over the sexual immorality and their taking from others (5:14). 

The Controversy of Thessalonians
There are two key controversial elements of these letters, the first being that infamous phrase in 2:15 that declares that the “Jews killed Jesus”, and the difficult apocalyptic language that we find in 2 Thessalonians that uses hard and fast language to reference God’s judgement at the desruction of the wicked. Before speaking to those two elements, a brief word on the second letter.

2 Thessalonians In Context
The two letters are set together because of some obvious shared characteristics in the first few verses along with the tradition of early readers, but there are key differences that have caused scholars to long since question that they belong together as part of the Pauline tradition. This is of particular concern with the apocalyptic language that emerges.

On an immediate level, giving thanks in hearing that they are “doing well”, which is cited as evidence of their witness (1:5) and as something they can trust in, reminds us of the first letter and establishes a similar concern. It is in 2 Thes 1:9 that the language and concern turns towards an emphasis on the the final liberation using apocalyptic language. It is from this that we get this exposition of thought surrounding how understanding the final liberation can give them (if the audience is the same as those in Thessalonica) further hope. It shifts the focus from the present focus of the first letter to the future expectation, establishing this against the second coming of Christ, the coming of the “man of lawlessness”, and eventually (finally) the justice of God that they long for prevailing in their midst through the eternal destruction of their oppressors (those who do not obey the Gospel and know God 2 Thes 1:9), which leads to their liberation (those who know God).

In the flow of this narrative picture, the rebellion and man of lawlessness (2:3) comes before Christ, and arrives in the form of Christ (powers and signs and wonders). The parallels to Jesus’ own descriptive ministry are intentional, speaking of the “mystery of lawlessness” as already at work (2 Thes 2:7) in the same way that so much of Paul’s teaching understands salvation to already be at work in the already-not yet reality that informs our waiting. Only in the case of the man of lawlessness, they are sent by the Devil rather than God, and comes not in revealing truth but rather “deception”.

The Controversy: What Do We Do With This Apocalyptic Language?
This sort of language is admittedly difficult for modern ears to wrap our minds around. It stands a good distance from some of the more familiar and practical pictures of faith we find in letters like Philippians, Corinthians and Galatians. Depictions of eternal punishment, hell and condemnation also come rife with all of the baggage of modern interpretations and expressions which sets this apocalyptic language in grand images of the end of the age, the antichrist, destruction, and judgement.

This is far out of my league, and there are plenty of wonderful scholars who have wrestled with this language and its ideas on a far greater level and with more insight than I could ever have myself. But for what it’s worth, here are a couple of key approaches and ideas that I have found and borrowed along the way (of my own spiritual journey) that have been helpful in coming to, encountering and reading passages like this.

Apocalyptic Language as Present and Future Focus
As I mentioned earlier, apocalyptic language comes from a tradition that informs the whole of the New Testament writings. You see it all over the Gospels, and in books like 2nd Thessalonians, Jude, 1st and 2nd Peter and the mother of them all, Revelation. This is a tradition that emerges from this crossroads between Jesus’ ministry and the later age of Jewish tradition (the Prophets, and books like Daniel). It is also very apparent in the extra-Biblical material, playing into that long process of deciding which books belonged in the canon of Jesus’ witness (the key concern for the NT) and which books veered into more Gnostic expressions (of which apocalyptic language can be a part of in its grand emphasis on spiritual imagery and its shared emphasis on “revealed knowledge”, which we find at the root of the word “apocalyptic”, literally rendered “revelation” or “unveiling of the knowledge”, and gnostic, literally rendered “knowledge revealed”). Even Revelation was a book that was a very late entry into the canon and tradition for this reason (it’s not even a big part of Eastern Orthodox tradition still)

What informs the development of this language is the Jewish Tradition of the Resurrection, which becomes fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus as “revelation”. In ancient Jewish belief, the emphasis was far more on the here and now, a life lived in witness to God’s work in their midst, with long life in service to the Lord as the gift often sought. Thoughts on the afterlife were present, but they were represented through a quiet confidence in a final Resurrection, not the fleshing out of the final age as a key focus of their concern. What this confidence (in the Resurrection) did was free them up to be concerned with today, which is what we see in much of the Old Testament scripture.

It would be later developments of Jewish understandings of heaven and hell that flowed naturally from their questions concerning the Revelation of God and provided the framework for Apocalyptic language. What is important for understanding this development is that it formed within the belief systems of the surrounding nations, which all held a greater and more defined sense of the afterlife as part of their focus. Apocalyptic language in the Judeo-Christian tradition then reflects the need to locate this shared awareness of the spiritual realm within the unique Revelation of God and ultimately the unique expression of Jesus. It is through this that we find these far more expressive and fleshed out depictions of a future vision in later Old Testament writings being set against the idea of a God who took on flesh and became human (which sets the Judeo-Christian vision apart from every other religious expression that surrounded it in important ways).

What’s important about this is not to do away with these apocalyptic visions of the future as created rather than given realities. It is simply to highlight the fact that apocalyptic language in scripture carries a unique focus on both its future concern and its concern with the here and now. This is its Judeo-Christian concern. For the people of God in scripture, the story has always been one of God’s working in the midst of present struggle. From the get go, the Abrahamic Covenant arrives with a future promise but a present application. In the history of the Israelite Nation, the focus was always on the present oppression and exile and God’s liberation of their present circumstance, which was then set within the future leaning promises of God’s Covenant through the prophetic word of the Prophets. This present-future focus is important, because it allows us to locate passages like this (Thessalonians) both in its history (the Israelite Nation), in its context (the Roman Empire), and its contextualization (our world). And this happens as it did for the ancient Jewish belief in the Resurrection, which is that our hope is found in the promise of what God will do, and our faith comes through the belief that (and our participation with) God is already doing this in our midst.

The Hope For Justice in the Face of Injustice
What flows out of this then is an emphasis on justice. Far too often modern readers tend to take this language and apply it arbitrarily to pictures of a God who judges the wicked simply according to their lack of belief (or for any number of nameless personal transgressions). This spins out into all sorts of theological treaties that places the emphasis of God’s activity on the destruction, the punishment, and the payback, and often with ambiguous definitions of godliness and ungodliness attached. It is from this that we arrive then at (equally) all manners of end times rhetoric that is steeped in fear, an angry God doing what God will do, and the decisive distinguishing of the moral and the immoral (again, ambiguously rendered) within the countless different distinguishing lines that we draw to define the final judgement in identifiable terms (of who is in and who is out).

In its present future focus, the focus of apocalyptic literature is more accurately placed onto matters of “justice”, not judgment, even if both are intertwined. I think for modern ears trying to enter into the ancient language of these scriptures, justice is the shared concern and the way into the narrative. The root of justice means that “what is wrong is being made right”, and when paired with “apocalyptic” as the unveiling and revealing of what is not known, what this language speaks to is precisely the kind of scenario the Thessalonians found themselves in- facing current oppression, and oppression with an uncertain end.

In this way, the emphasis of this revelation (that God will enact justice) is always hopeful, and always contextual. It is framed against the idea that oppression exists, and somehow and in someway justice (making right) will come. This is something that we can all, I think, understand to some degree. In this same way, the wrath of God is placed (always in scripture) on a response to injustice, the same way we might look with anger on the problem of racism, and it arrives in the language of liberation, even if that language might look and sound different than our own. And the more this is set into the whole of scripture and the whole of the Christian narrative, the more expressive and realized this language of liberation becomes as an all encompassing idea.

What God Does and What God Gives us Too
Reminiscent of the hardening of hearts that we find both in ancient narratives like the Exodus story and in the language of the Gospels, we find a difficult phrase attached to the statement in 2 Thessalonians that God “sends a strong delusion so that they will believe what is false and be condemned.” This is in response to the “godlessness” that they are already engaged in. At the core of the modern struggle with apocalyptic language is the idea that this justice is God’s work. While we might be able to relate to justice as a shared hope and demand, once we place this out of our hands and into the hands of God it suddenly becomes a more difficult notion to reconcile. Most of us, I think, don’t like the idea of feeling out of control. And yet, the most important piece of understanding why apocalyptic language was hopeful and not necessarily retributive in nature (although it can lean in those ways when expressed by those facing oppression) is how it is always speaking into a particular power structure. It exists in Judeo-Christian language as a way to give voice to the oppressed. That is where it emerges from, not from the powerful looking to exert power over others, but the weak looking for God’s saving work, from those treated injustly looking for justice.

In this manner, much of this language tends to fluctuate between language that evokes what God is doing (sending a strong delusion) and what the oppressors are already doing (engaging in godlessness), often meaning both at the same time. There is a sense that God is giving the godless over to their own actions, while also upholding his Power to liberate. We find this in 2 Thes 3:1, which follows the act of delusion saying, (So then), because of this Pray that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and deliver of the evil one “Not all have faith, but the Lord is faithful and will establish (you).” This is the reverse of the delusion of the evil one, emphasizing God’s Power over the Power of Sin and Death.

Justice and Mercy Existing Side By Side
Recognizing that the key concern of the witness of Jesus on the Cross is that He delivered the world from the Darkness and the Powers of Sin and Death, one can then understand this working relationship between justice and mercy, two co-existing virtues of God’s grace and the liberation of the oppressed. Paramount to Paul’s developing thought is that when it comes to matters of justice, all of us are on the side of the oppressed and equally the oppressors. What God’s justice is ultimately pulled under is this enveloping picture of liberation for all. It erases our tendency towards arbitrary distinctions regarding God’s Justice and God’s Mercy, and places both of them within God’s concern for the oppressed (which is ultimately all of us as both the oppressed and the oppressor). The reason God’s Justice is so important is because it removes us as the judge. It allows us to lean into the promises of the apocalyptic language in a more fervent and faith filled way, either as those who need to hear we are oppressing others or as those who need to hear of liberation, because what is not yet known will be made known, and what we don’t yet see is already at work. This forms our response to justice and oppression primarily because it allows us to carry this conviction into these places, informing us of God’s grand vision for us and our world together. It is not individual, it is collective, but it arrives at the collective by way of individual concern for this liberating work.

In this way, God’s Justice and Mercy become equal parts of our participation in the promise of the Gospel. We are involved in imparting God’s Justice and Mercy in love, a central facet of the Judeo-Christian Apocalyptic vision. And love (or lack of it) is always described in terms of division and fellowship, self giving and self taking, both key markers of the Thessalonian passage.

A Grand Prophetic Tradition
One cannot read the New Testament outside of its Old Testament context, and the Apocalyptic Tradition can open us up to the language of God in a whole new way. It can help us understand the most crucial point in Israel’s history- the exile. So much of the New Testament stories are framed against the exile, both that from Egypt and the exile from Jerusalem. It is from here that we can gain that picture of waiting, persevering and being formed out of the oppression, struggle and trials of our current time, set against this idea of us as both oppressor (what leads to exile) and the oppressed (the experience of exile). Therefore, one cannot gain a full picture of the language that hits us (modern readers) like a brick in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 without seeing it through the light of Isaiah and Jeremiah, two of it primary reference points and the framework for understanding the “fleeing from God’s presence” (Isaiah 2) that forms the man of lawlessness and those with him.  Set in the time of exile, the language evokes the language of exile by contextualizing it into the experiences of the Thessalonians the same way it would today. This is how Apocalyptic language it supposed to work. With its future emphasis, and recognizing God as the one that will make things right (justice, or justification), we can then move to see God’s working in the here and now, in our midst, actively restoring justice to the injustice places even now.

A Final Word on that Controversial Word
Much has been written about that controversial word in 2:15 which states that the “Jews” were responsible for killing Jesus. Many unfortunate and harmful things have come out of this verse, not to mention it causing many to move away from the faith as they were unable to reconcile it with their picture of a just God.

Again, I am out of my league here and only speaking personally, but just a couple words on framing this passage that possibly connect with our discussion of the Apocalyptic language and its OT context.

1. First, Paul is a Jew himself. If you read the passage I quote from Acts at the head of this post, you will see that as Jew who came to believe in Jesus, this led to difficult relationships between him and his fellow Jews. Although the authorship of 2 Thessalonians is up for question and largely debatable, it is less of a question that we could associate it with Pauline influences to some degree or another.

2. This certainly doesn’t reconcile this passage, but it could give it some context. It is entirely possible that what was an early outflow of Paul’s conversion were both these deep setted feelings he had for himself as a Jew, and likewise his fervent desire for the Jewish people to see and find their own heritage in Christ as well. This places the phrasing in less hostile places, and into a personal context. It is not a phrase that is being lobbied in an external fashion on a group of people in a generalized fashion (from the outside), but rather the  inner workings of someone trying to flesh out their awareness of who they were and who they have come to be. It would have more in line with, in this sense, Paul’s later thoughts on “all” having fallen short than blaming the Jews.

3. Lastly, and importantly, one of the reasons this verse might arrive as such a challenge is because of modern addictions to overly literal ways of reading scripture. This is Paul’s earliest work, and it’s fair to say that whoever wrote the second letter came from a similar place in time. Paul’s ministry and thought process is literally something you can watch play out and develop over the course of his letters. There is a big difference from 1 Thessalonians, Galatians and Romans for example, especially as he begins to flesh out his thoughts on death, the resurrection and atonement. And this reality doesn’t need to diminish scripture. It doesn’t need to separate our feelings that “he said this” and therefore all of scripture is wrong or useless. This deep connection between author, writing, human experience and God’s witness is what actually helps make scripture that much more alive. We can see God working through the stories, the confessions, the shortcomings and the wrestling. It is a deeply human story as much as it is a measure of the Divine witness.

In this spirit, it is perfectly okay to also say that perhaps this phrasing is reflective of a thought process that was still being fleshed out, an emotional response to a particular feeling. We can see and understand this while still upholding scripture as a sacred witness to God’s working in our midst.



Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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