Friday, September 15, 2017

The Coming Wrath and the Message of Paul

"Most scholars believe 1 Thessalonians was the first of Paul’s extant epistles to be written. Sent shortly after Paul established a community of believers in Thessalonica, the letter reflects from beginning to end the thrust of Paul’s message when he first arrived in the city. At any moment, Paul had warned his listeners, an outpouring of divine wrath would engulf an unsuspecting humanity and bring it sudden destruction (1: 10; 5: 3; cf. 2 Thess 1: 5-10). Human sinfulness had all but reached its limit. Gentiles for their part had paid no heed to the true and living God while serving idols; their immorality was notorious and their conduct in general befitted darkness, not light (cf. 1 Thess 1: 9; 4: 4-5; 5: 6-7).

"As for Jews, estrangement from God was signaled by their no less notorious history of rejecting his messengers: the prophets of old, the Lord Jesus but recently, and now his apostolic witnesses (2: 14-16). Retribution for all would be swift and inescapable (5: 3). Many people today — for reasons we need not explore here — do not take such a message seriously. Evidently, however, Paul’s first-century readers in Thessalonica had done so; the notion that a deity might be angered by their actions was nothing new, and divine displeasure was a dangerous thing. Jews and non-Jews alike had always been concerned to keep on good terms with the supernatural powers that influenced, or even controlled, their destinies. With such concerns, Paul’s message found a natural resonance.

"We may well wonder whether Stendahl can be right in suggesting that the question 'How am I to find a gracious God?' has occupied people in the modern West, but it is inconceivable that he is right in denying such a concern to the people of antiquity — particularly if we think of those who responded to Paul’s message of pending doom. Whether or not it induced a harbinger of the introspection characteristic of later times is, in this regard, a red herring. With or without an introspective conscience, anyone who takes seriously a warning of imminent divine judgment must deem it an urgent concern to find God merciful. So much is clear.

"Conversely, nothing in the letter suggests that the relationship between Gentiles and Jews in the believing community was an issue in Thessalonica. If 'the leading edge of Paul’s theological thinking was the conviction that God’s purpose embraced Gentile as well as Jew, not the question of how a guilty man might find a gracious God,'  and if the latter question marks rather the concerns of the later West, then it must be said that Paul’s message to the Thessalonians left them in the dark about the core of his thinking while pointlessly answering a question that they were born in quite the wrong time and place to even dream of raising."

"The answer Paul gave to the question he is no longer allowed to have raised was that God had provided, through his Son Jesus, deliverance from the coming wrath (1: 10; 5: 9). This message of 'salvation'  — appropriately labeled a 'gospel' (= good news) — had been entrusted to Paul (2: 4, 16). To be 'saved,' people must “receive” the gospel he proclaimed (1: 6), recognizing it to be, not the word of human beings, but that of God (2: 13). Such a response to the word of God signified a “turning to” the true and living God (1: 9) and faith in him (1: 8). Those bound for salvation were thus distinguished from those doomed to wrath by their response of faith to the gospel. The former are repeatedly identified as 'the believing ones' (1: 7; 2: 10, 13), the latter as those who do not believe (or obey) the truth of the gospel (cf. 2 Thess 1: 8; 2: 12; 3: 2)."

-- Stephen Westerholm,  "Justification Reconsidered" (p. 5). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.