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New Testament Eschatology -- New Testament Letters

This series has sought to provide a different view to some of the opinions some people raise regarding the Apostolic belief and teaching about the return of Jesus. Some hold that the Apostles believed and taught the early church to expect the 'end of the world' within their lifetime. 'And they were obviously wrong', is the common remark. But, I don't think that those people who hold to this view follow it all the way through. If the New Testament writers were 'obviously mistaken' in their belief and teaching, then that would mean the whole Christian church, since it's very beginning was mistaken. I find this position lamentable. Sure, I get it. The writers of the Bible were human beings and prone to error. But what if we are the ones who are wrong? I never seem to hear that as a possibility. Therefore, what we have set out to do is to see if the Apostles got it wrong or perhaps we have misunderstood them.

Our journey in this series has taken us through some Old Testament passages that used poetic language that depicts 'the coming of the Lord' and the destruction of creation to refer to the overthrow of a nation. We saw that even though poetic imagery was used, sometimes a 'human timetable' was used to predict when the event(s) would take place. However, we also observed that, at times, a cryptic phrase was used ('the Day of the Lord') to keep people watching and waiting. Next we looked at a passage that bridged the Old Testament promises with the New Testament story. In that passage, YHWH promised to send Elijah to prepare the people for the coming Messiah before the 'great and dreadful day of the Lord'. We saw that this Old Testament passage was pointing to John the Baptist (Elijah) and Jesus of Nazareth (Messiah). Then, we looked at the conversation that Jesus had with the disciples regarding the fall of Jerusalem (Matthew 24-25). We observed that, while some people see the 'end of the world' in that conversation, Jesus was actually telling those first disciples about the destruction Jerusalem and the Temple. He told them that this would be something they and their contemporaries, their 'generation', would experience. With this as our foundation, we now turn to some of the letters in the New Testament and see if the Apostles continued with this idea of the coming judgment on Jerusalem or did they start looking for the end of the world. Our first stop will be the first letter to the Thessalonians.

1Thessalonians was (probably) written in the early 50s by St Paul and is one of the uncontested letters. Our first passage is found in the first chapter.
1Thessalonians 1.8-10.  'And now the word of the Lord is ringing out from you to people everywhere, even beyond Macedonia and Achaia, for wherever we go we find people telling us about your faith in God. We don’t need to tell them about it, for they keep talking about the wonderful welcome you gave us and how you turned away from idols to serve the living and true God. And they speak of how you are looking forward to the coming of God’s Son from heaven—Jesus, whom God raised from the dead. He is the one who has rescued us from the terrors of the coming judgment.'

The idea here, it seems, is not one of perpetual anticipation. Paul is referring to the hope that the Thessalonians would witness the coming of Jesus.  This 'coming of God's Son from heaven' would bring 'judgment'. This judgment is something that (at least) Paul thought he would experience as well for he wrote that God would 'rescue us'--meaning, at least, him and the Thessalonians.

This 'coming judgment' should remind us of things we read earlier. John the Baptist used this phrase when talking with the religious leaders of his day. We would go too far to suppose that Paul actually meant a completely different judgment when the one John predicted hadn't come yet. Since Paul does not give us any ideas of a different judgment, the safest view is that he was referring to the same one as John the Baptist.

The judgment (or 'justice') of God is the point of our next passage.
1Thessalonians 2.14-17.  'And then, dear brothers and sisters, you suffered persecution from your own countrymen. In this way, you imitated the believers in God’s churches in Judea who, because of their belief in Christ Jesus, suffered from their own people, the Jews. For some of the Jews killed the prophets, and some even killed the Lord Jesus. Now they have persecuted us, too. They fail to please God and work against all humanity as they try to keep us from preaching the Good News of salvation to the Gentiles. By doing this, they continue to pile up their sins. But the anger of God has caught up with them at last.'

Some people suppose that Paul here (as elsewhere) refers to all Jews for all ages. That is not the case. He had a specific group in mind, the Jews of the first century who did not trust in the Messiah Jesus. It was upon those people that God's anger had 'caught up with them at last'. Again, the idea here is the coming judgment of Israel at the hands of the Romans. That judgment had yet to take place when Paul wrote this letter and it would be over stepping our place to suppose that Paul meant a different judgment.  A judgment that some people would say 'failed to come'. The only failure that I see is to not recognize the judgment that did take place within that generation--the fall of Jerusalem. That was the judgment that John the Baptizer talked about. That was the judgment that Jesus talked about. Paul, our earliest Christian witness, was referring to the same one. If we keep that judgment in mind then Paul wasn't 'obviously mistaken' but completely accurate.  If we can keep that judgment in mind, then there is a great continuity with the teachings of Jesus.  It is what we would expect to find.  Only when we leave 70 CE off the table as a possibility do we come up with the 'they were mistaken' position.  If we leave it as a possibility, everything seems to fall into place.

I think we'll stop here before we continue on with some of the most troublesome passages in 1Thessalonians. Until next time...

Peace be with you.

OD

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