NT Eschatology—Letters 01
This series, which started here, 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 followers of Jesus 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 its 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 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 uses “the coming of Yahweh” 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 Yahweh”) 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, Yahweh 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.
1 Thessalonians was (probably) written in the early 50’s by St. Paul and is one of the uncontested letters. Our first passage is found in the first chapter.
1 Thessalonians 1.8-10 (NLT): 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 is not one of “perpetual anticipation,” as some maintain. Paul’s referring to the hope that the Thessalonians would witness the coming of Jesus. But this “coming of G_d’s Son from heaven” would also bring “judgment.” This judgment is something that (at least) Paul thought he would experience as well for he wrote that G_d would “rescue us”—meaning, at the very 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 meant a completely different judgment when the one John predicted hadn’t come to pass yet. Since Paul doesn’t 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 G_d is the point of our next passage.
1 Thessalonians 2.14-17 (NLT): 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’s not the case. He had a specific group in mind, the Jews of the first century who didn’t trust in Jesus the Messiah. It was upon those people that G_d’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 in less that 20 years. That judgment had yet to take place when Paul wrote this letter and it would be overstepping 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 not recognizing the judgment that did take place within that generation — the fall of Jerusalem. That was the judgment that John the Baptist talked about. That was the judgment that Jesus talked about. Paul, our earliest Christian witness, was referring to the same event. 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’s a continuity with the teachings of Jesus. It’s what we would expect to find. Only when we leave 70 CE off the table as a possible interpretation 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 1 Thessalonians. Click here for the next post in this series.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC