Sermon – June 28, 2020
While Paul has been speaking about the nature and purpose of his ministry, in 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16 he speaks about the reaction of the Thessalonians to not only the preached message, but the persecution that accompanied it. What gave the Thessalonians, so young in the Lord, the ability to withstand such fierce attacks on their faith? Why not just cash in? As it turns out, for a very straight-forward reason: they believed that the message they received from Paul was nothing less than a word from God himself.
We would do well to notice first that God is the subject of the gospel. “The message you heard from us,” Paul says, “about God.” The message of the cross is not first and foremost about us – but rather is a declaration about God in Christ as Lord. It is easy, given the vast benefits of the gospel for us, to get this utterly confused. Yet, we are always going to be tempted to change the gospel and its demands so long as we see ourselves at the center of gospel proclamation.
All the same, when they heard this word, they understood that it was not the same as the other philosophies and theologies that they heard previously in the public square. Rather, this, they knew, was the word of God. Given their understanding of this, we should not question why they stood firm! Of course they stood firm, buoyed by the conviction that the God of heaven and earth, the living and true God, was with them, working in them, and held out great and unbreakable promises to them in this gospel.
It turns out, this conviction was shared by the early church in Judea, who faced the same kind of persecution from their countrymen as the Thessalonians did from theirs. And both reacted the same way – standing on the conviction that they must obey God rather than men (Acts 4:19, 5:29).
Paul turns his attention, in vv. 15-16 on the wrath of God that now falls upon the Jews. Verses like these have been used to fuel the fire of anti-Semitism throughout Christian history, and wrongly at that. Two things to notice that help to clarify Paul’s thoughts:
First, while he does seek to highlight the wrath of God on the Jews specifically, he doesn’t leave out the Gentiles who likewise stand against the gospel. Even in this passage, the countrymen of the Thessalonians persecuted them just as the Jews did the churches of Judea. Paul is clear what this will gain them in 2 Thessalonians 1:9:
They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.
So, God’s wrath falls on unbelievers, especially those who stand against the gospel, whether they are Jews or Gentiles.
Secondly, Paul is not likely speaking of all Jews. Rather, removing the comma from the ESV at the end of v. 14 changes the sentiment, restricting the wrath to those who “killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets…” This makes much sense, after all, the churches in Judea were filled with Jews! For Paul, the lines of family are no longer drawn around ethnicity, rather they are drawn around belief in Christ. He is not filled with hatred for the Jews, but understands and applauds the necessary wrath of God against those who continually persecute Jesus and his Church.
The real point here is not that Jews are the worst, but rather that they have had all the advantages that God could give them in their flesh. Yet, even Jews, God’s chosen people, who came from the Patriarchs and whom Christ came from, will face God’s wrath as they continually go against God’s word. Given that – what chance do we have? Let us cling tightly to the word of the gospel, a word about God and a word from God, that we might stand strong in times of persecution and suffering.