A People to Be Glad for and a People to Be Sad For
Passage: 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16
Good morning! It’s been three weeks since we last looked at 1 Thessalonians. I hope you all had a wonderful time with family and friends over the holidays and that you’re ready to hit this new year running. Turn with me in your Bibles to 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16. When I first started studying this passage I thought to myself, “This is really simple; not of lot of application; what am I going to say?” Those are famous last words as a preacher, because when I started writing my lesson yesterday, I was like the Energizer Bunny–I just kept going and going and going! There was so much I wanted to say! So let’s get right to it this morning, and I pray God will bless your heart through what we discover.
John MacArthur’s commentary on this passage titles it, “A People to Be Glad for and a People to Be Sad for.” I couldn’t think of a better title than that this week, so...
A People to Be Glad For (v. 13)
In this verse, Paul returns to the Thanksgiving he began back in chapter 1:2. It’s almost like Paul trailed off or got sidetracked at the end of chapter 1, and now he’s getting back on track. (Of course, there are no accidental words within Scripture, so we know that everything we’ve studied is important.) But here in this verse, Paul gives two additional reasons why he is glad for the Thessalonians. First, he is thankful for the way they received the word.
How did the Thessalonians receive the gospel message? They “welcomed it [that’s a great word, isn’t it?] not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God.” Can you summarize that?
There are lots of people in the world who welcome the Bible as the word of men. I am reading a fascinating book right now by a man named Jordon Peterson. The cover includes a quote from the New York Times calling Peterson “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now.” That’s high praise! What sets Peterson apart is that he pushes back against many of the tenants of postmodern liberalism. (That’s also what makes the book fascinating.) What’s also interesting is that Peterson loves the Bible! He quotes from it often in every chapter! So as a Christian reading Peterson’s book, you start to get excited: “I think this guy’s a Christian!” But it doesn’t take long to figure out that Peterson reveres the Bible not as the Word of God, but as one of the most important human books ever to be written.
The Thessalonian believers did not receive Paul’s message (the same message we read in the New Testament) as the words of really smart men. Words from really smart men never saved anyone from hell. The Thessalonians took Paul’s message for what it truly was–a word from the true and living God–and that is what set them apart.
Maybe there is someone here today who does not believe that this Book is God’s Word. Perhaps, like Jordon Peterson, you’ll grant that it’s interesting and that you should read it or even that it’s a great work of literature or that it shaped western world, but you can’t come along with me when I say that it’s inspired. If that’s you, I’d like to talk to you for a minute.
My first question for you is have you read the Bible? I could stand here all day and give reasons why you should believe the Bible, but I think the famous preacher Charles Spurgeon was absolutely right when he said, “The answer to every objection against the Bible is the Bible.” That means that the best place for me to start in terms of convincing you that the Bible is true is to get you to read the Bible!
Spurgeon said the Bible is like a lion that we tend to surround with arguments. “Let the lion out!” he would say. “He will take care of himself!” So I would just ask you, “Have you taken the time to listen, really listen to God’s Word?”
You say, “Is that a cop-out because the Bible is hard to defend?” No, the Bible is actually very easy to defend, because it’s true! If parts of the Bible are difficult for us to swallow, it’s usually because our modern sentimentalities clash with those of the original audience, or more importantly, because we as finite sinners have difficulty coming to grips with the ways of an infinite, holy God.
The Christian worldview may clash with the presuppositions of other worldviews, but it is internally consistent. Not only that, but it agrees with the facts of the universe as we know it. It makes more sense than any other worldview, and I will go to the mat for that statement.
Next, I would just say that if you are interested in dialoging in person about this, I would love to talk with you. I know I’m a pastor, but I promise to be patient and to answer your questions, and I won’t expect you to change your mind all-of-a-sudden. I want you to be convinced for yourself that the Bible is true; and sometimes, that takes time. But I’m going to pray that God would reveal Himself to you.
Even if you are a member or a regular attender of this church (which most of you are) and you have questions about these things, please don’t hesitate to ask. I know sometimes it feels awkward to ask the questions that are rolling around in your head, but that’s what Pastor Kit and I are here for, and I think you’ll be glad that you did.
Finally, it is my duty as a preacher to warn you. In the final analysis, you don’t stand in judgment of God’s Word; God’s Word stands in judgment of you. God is your Creator, so whether or not you say you believe in Him, you will stand before Him one day. The Bible says that “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” It also says that you are a sinner–you’ve disobeyed God–and that the only way to escape hell is for you to repent of your sins and to fling yourself upon Jesus. These are realities that cannot and will not change, and the day of reckoning is coming, so do not neglect your soul.
Paul was glad for the Thessalonians because they took his message for what it was–the very word of God. Second, he was glad for the Thessalonians because the word was at work in them (v. 13). How did Paul know that the word was at work in them? Let’s continue reading (v. 14).
We’re only in chapter 2, and Paul is already starting to sound like a record player! Do you see any themes in these verses that have shown up already? Turn back to 1:6. So here in 1:6, the Thessalonians imitated the missionary team and the Lord by receiving the word in the context of persecution. Then, skipping over to 2:14, they imitate the churches in Judea the same way!
Now, just to be clear, these Thessalonians had most likely never met their Judean brothers and sisters, just like they had never seen Jesus. But the same Holy Spirit who was shaping the Judeans was shaping the Thessalonians, too! He was shaping them to resemble Christ, and in doing so, He was shaping them to resemble each other, as well.
But notice exactly how the Thessalonians resembled the Judeans. It wasn’t just that they suffered persecution, but that they suffered it at the hands of their own countrymen (and that word in the Greek has to do with ethnicity)–at the hands of their own people.
I would guess that for many people, the hardest thing about becoming a Christian is being rejected by those you used to be closest to–friends, co-workers, sometimes even your own husband or wife, parent or child. Both the Judean churches and the Thessalonian churche knew what that felt like.
The Judean Christians had suffered at the hands of their fellow Jews. Opposition to the gospel in Thessalonica was also at first spearheaded by the Jews, but the complaints the Jews raised were quickly taken up by the city rulers, so that when Paul writes this book, the church of Thessalonica appears to be mainly a church full of Gentile Macedonians persecuted by Gentile Macedonians.
Why do you think people often turn on their family and friends who receive the gospel? I think they do so because they understand that gospel demands one’s highest allegiance. They actually get that right!
Jesus said, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.” He went on to say, “Who of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.” You cannot be an American first and a Christian second. You cannot be a police officer or teacher first and a Christian second. You cannot even be a wife or a mother first and a Christian second. Christ demands your highest allegiance.
Could it truly be said of you that Christ was your highest priority last week? Did he take precedence over everything else?
When we make Christ our highest priority, some people will not like it. And that’s where we get into a people to be sad for.
A People to Be Sad For (vv. 14-16)
These verses are actually more difficult to interpret than it might first appear, so I want to walk you through that.
There are two main questions about these verses. Number one, in vv. 15-16, is Paul referring to all unsaved Jews in general or specifically to the unsaved Jews living in Judea? (To illustrate this point, if you’re looking at the NKJV, the last word in v. 14 is “Judeans.” But if you’re looking at almost any other version including the King James, that word is just “Jews.” It can be translated either way.)
The second question in this passage is what is the wrath Paul refers to at the end of v. 16? Paul says of these people to whom he’s referring that “wrath has come upon them to the uttermost” or “at last.” What does that mean?
I’m going to do my best to answer both of those questions, but before I do, I think it is very important for you to see the similarities between these verses and an extended passage in the gospels. So turn with me to Matthew 23.
In Matthew 23, Jesus pronounces woes upon the Scribes and Pharisees. Let’s pick up in v. 29 (Mat 23:29-24:3). And from there, Jesus launches into an extended discussion of the end times, including the Great Tribulation.
1 Thessalonians 2:15-16 is almost like a summary of that passage we just read. Both passages refer to the unbelieving Jews. Both passages talk about how the Jews persecuted their own prophets as well as the Christians. Even though the Matthew passage doesn’t specifically mention the death of Christ, that is obviously part of the context. Both passages talk about the nation “filling up the measure” of its sins. And both passages refer to the wrath of God being poured out on these people. So I think it is wise, especially given the fact that Paul would have been very familiar with the teachings of Jesus, to interpret 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16 in light of Matthew 23-24. Does that make sense?
So to whom exactly is Paul referring in this passage? Is it to the unbelieving Jews in general or is it specifically the Jews living in Judea? It seems like the majority view for some time has been that Paul is referring to the unbelieving Jews in general. However, some newer commentators have suggested that we should delete the comma between vv. 14 and 15 (there were no commas in koine Greek), meaning that Paul is referring to a specific subset of Jews who lived in Judea and were guilty of every sin on this list. The problem is, it’s difficult to imagine how the Judean Jews could have committed every sin on this list! For instance, in v. 16, Paul says that these people, whoever they are, forbid them (that is, Paul, Silas, and Timothy; see 1:1) from preaching to the Gentiles. When did the Judean Jews forbid Paul, Silas, and Timothy from preaching to the Gentiles? This seems to be a clear reference to what the Thessalonian Jews did when Paul was in that city.
So it appears to me that in v. 15, Paul transitions from a conversation about persecution in Judea to a conversation about the sins of the Jewish people in general. Does that make sense?
So what are the sins of the Jewish people? Well first, they killed the Lord Jesus. Second, they killed their own prophets (which could be a reference to the Old Testament prophets or the New Testament prophets. Both are mentioned in Matthew 23.). Third, they persecuted us, that is, Paul, Silas, and Timothy. Fourth, they don’t please God. Fifth, they are contrary to all men.
There could have been many ways in which the Jews were contrary to all men, but the specific example Paul cites is how the unbelieving Jews forbid him from preaching the gospel to the Gentiles. Have you ever heard a children’s worker say to a misbehaving child, “It’s one thing if you won’t to listen, but at least be quiet so that other people can listen”? It’s as if Paul is saying, “It’s bad enough that you have rejected the gospel. But why stop us from preaching to the Gentiles? That’s just spiteful! What do you have against them?”
Paul says that by sinning in all of these ways, the Jewish people are filling up the measure of their sins. This concept has a long history in the Bible. In Genesis 15:16, God tells Abraham that it will be more than four hundred years before his descendants inherit Canaan because “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” The flood came when the earth was full of violence, and in Matthew 23, Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt.”
You say “What does that mean?” The idea behind those phrases is that God patiently forbears with groups of people until their sins are so great that judgment can no longer be delayed. And then the hammer falls. That’s a scary, scary thought, isn’t it? Because you know what all of us in this room are thinking: how close are we to that point here in America?
The nation of Israel, God’s chosen people, had reached that tipping point, which brings us to our next question. What is the wrath that Paul refers to at the end of v. 16? Again, I think we should consider the parallel passage in Matthew 23-24. So go ahead and turn back there. What kind of wrath does Jesus refer to in these chapters (v. 33)? So there’s one form of wrath: condemnation to hell for unbelievers. But that’s not all. Look down at 24:2 (24:2). What is this verse referring to? Jesus is prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. But it doesn’t stop there, either, because most of chapter 24 has to do with the judgment of God upon Israel during the Great Tribulation. So we have here three possible forms of wrath: hell for the unbelievers, the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and the Great Tribulation. So which one is Paul referring to in 1 Thessalonians 2:16?
My answer to that question would be “yes.” I think that like Jesus, Paul was referring to all of the above.
But there’s one more question to answer. You might have noticed that in v. 16, Paul uses the past tense. He says that the wrath of God “has come” upon them. This has led some scholars to believe that Paul was referring to some kind of judgment that had already occurred. For instance, in one very bad year for the Jews, A.D. 49, Caesar expelled all of the Jews from the capital city of Rome and there was also a tragic event in which about 20,000 Jews were slaughtered in the temple at Jerusalem.
But to me, as bad as those events were, that explanation seems somewhat anticlimactic given the language Paul uses here. He seems to be referring to something even bigger. So I think Paul is just using a past tense to refer to something that could happen at any time and was sure to take place, because Jesus had already announced it.
But before we move on, I want you to think about how Paul responded to God’s judgment of his nation. Did he just write them off and leave them to rot? No! In fact, the irony of ironies in this passage is that prior to salvation, Paul had been the poster child for the very people he was condemning! So although the entire nation was headed to destruction, individuals within that nation were very redeemable! Paul says in Romans 10:1, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.”
Because Paul longed to see his fellow-Jews saved, he maintained his identification with the Jewish community. This is fascinating to me. In 2 Corinthians 11:24, Paul says that he received 39 lashes from the Jews on five separate occasions. The very harsh punishment Paul is referring to in that verse was meted out by the rulers of a synagogue. Where did Paul always go first when he came into a new city? To the synagogue! Why? What was wrong with Paul’s head? Paul maintained his connection to the Jews because he wanted to see them saved.
What an example for us! How often are we willing to keep going back to the people who persecute us in order to see them saved?
There’s a tremendous example of this in Pilgrim’s Progress. In part one, Pilgrim reads his book (the Bible) and discovers that he and his city (the City of Destruction) are doomed because of their sin. He tries to warn his wife and children, but they refuse to listen, and when Christian decides to go to the light, they beg him to return. But Bunyan says, “The man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on, crying, ‘Life! Life! Eternal life!’ So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the plain.”
The gospel often separates us from those we would otherwise be closest with.
But did you know that Pilgrim’s Progress also has a part two? Do you know what it’s about? It’s about how Christian’s wife, Christiana and their four sons follow in Christian’s footsteps. You see, although Christian refused to be dissuaded from following Jesus, he did not forsake his wife and children. Instead, he was a faithful witness to them; so that after he dies, they too become Christians.
In John 17, Jesus famously tells the twelve disciples to be in the world but not of the world. In his commentary on those verses, D.A. Carson says, “Followers of Jesus are permitted neither the luxury of compromise with a ‘world’ that is intrinsically evil and under the devil’s power, nor the safety of disengagement.” Think about that statement. “Followers of Jesus are permitted neither the luxury of compromise… nor the safety of disengagement.” Which of those pitfalls is more of a temptation for you?
Who are “your people”? What communities are you just naturally a part of? How can you maintain holiness without totally disengaging from those communities so that you can be a witness to those precious people headed for destruction?
If you, like the Thessalonian and Judean churches, are living in the middle of that uncomfortable tension between compromise and disengagement, I want to commend you. Keep it up! A lot of persecution takes place within that zone. But when you stubbornly plant yourself there–when you just refuse to go away, refuse to give in, and refuse to stop loving–all at the same time, you prove that the Word of God is at work in you. And by doing so, you become a powerful testimony of the truthfulness of God’s Word to all who have eyes to see.
If you haven’t done a good job of staying in that zone–if you’re M.O. is to run out of bounds either by compromising your convictions or by disengaging with people who are different and make you feel uncomfortable, I hope that you will be challenged by the examples of these two churches, as well as by Paul himself, who refused to give up on his unbelieving Jewish countrymen, as wicked as they were.