The Letters of 1 & 2nd Thessalonians—13th and 14th books of the New Testament—A.D. 51-53
Optional Yearly Reading Schedule–January 26
14. Break-Up Of a Partnership…and a Friendship
Recorded church history (Acts) narrows its focus to Paul
Following the Jerusalem Conference detailed in Acts 15, which took place by the estimates of most scholars in approximately the year 49, the chronology of events in Paul’s life becomes a little simpler.
The “Apostolic” period in the life of the church (roughly 30-70) will draw to a close with Nero’s violent persecution of the church in the mid-60s, resulting in the deaths of both towering figures Peter and Paul. The destruction of Jerusalem by future Roman emperor Titus followed shortly thereafter in the year 70.
Some scholars and commentators continue to recognize the Apostolic period through the end of the first century since three of the gospels and the writings of John did not come until later in the century. Little is known, however, about the movements of Jesus’ followers during the period between 70 and 100.
But thanks to Luke and Paul, we know a great deal about how the church developed in the middle of the century. We are especially given insight into some of the stresses it was facing in the 50s and 60s. The account of the Christian movement during this time comes primarily from the book of Acts, in which, from the year 50 on, Luke exclusively follows the events of Paul’s life. Luke was a traveling companion and assistant to Paul and wrote about that particular portion of the Christian expansion he was part of. Thus far more is known about Paul than any other Christian figure of the period.
It is unfortunate that Luke did not apply his historian’s skill to a more thorough and widespread chronicle of the early church. Wouldn’t we love to know what all the other original disciples were doing throughout those years, and no doubt the equal impact they were having in other parts of the Mediterranean world! But though Luke and Paul present only one limited camera angle on a movement exploding in many directions, we are certainly grateful for what Luke gives us, and for Paul’s letters as they dovetail with the Acts account.
A second mission trip—and a bone of contention
Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch from the Jerusalem Conference with a letter from the Jerusalem Apostles to Gentile believers (Acts 15:22-29), confirming their unified agreement not to burden Gentile converts with Jewish law beyond a few conditions regarding food and sexual immorality.
“Some time later” or “after some days” (Acts 15:36)—probably about a year—Paul suggested to Barnabas that they make a second trip to visit the Galatian churches they had visited before—and to whom he had sent his letter.
At this point, a highly significant event occurred that caused a parting of the ways between Barnabas and Paul.
As we recall, Barnabas’s nephew John Mark had accompanied them in the earlier travels. But Mark had left them in Perga and had returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13.) We know nothing of the reasons. Was he homesick? Was his mother Mary perhaps ill and needed him? Was Mark’s decision one of immaturity? Had some specific circumstance arisen requiring his attention back home?
Or…did he have an argument with Paul?
We don’t know. From Paul’s response as they now contemplated a second trip, we can infer that Paul still held Mark’s decision against him. Therefore, when Barnabas suggested they take Mark along a second time, Paul refused. Many translations of Acts 15:37-38 use the word deserted for Paul’s description of what had taken place earlier: “Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work.”
The result was no mere minor disagreement, but a “sharp contention” (vs. 39)—so sharp that Barnabas and Paul parted company. We cannot but wonder whether the Antioch incident and subsequent letter to the Galatians may have injured what must have once been a very close friendship between these two great men. The awkwardness of again visiting those churches, after they had received a letter from Paul calling Barnabas a hypocrite, could certainly have been a factor. In addition, Paul now refused to take Barnabas’s young kinsman along. Whatever the cause of the early dispute, to put it in our terms, Paul considered Mark a flake.
But Barnabas was “the son of encouragement.” He believed in people. He considered no one a flake. In Barnabas’s eyes, everyone deserved trust, everyone deserved to be believed in. Everyone deserved a second chance.
Barnabas put his own reputation on the line to defend Paul much earlier to the skeptical Jerusalem apostles, at a time when Paul had no one to vouch for him. Now Barnabas again put his future on the line to stand up for his nephew Mark.
In the end, because of the dispute, they each went their separate ways—Paul with Silas on what would be known as the second missionary journey, and Barnabas with John Mark on a journey of their own.
John Mark’s invisible motives…and growing stature in the church
It is intriguing to consider the hidden relational dynamics that may have been involved here.
John Mark may have grown up in close proximity to Barnabas. His uncle may have been the head of his home. It was to the home of Mark’s mother Mary that Peter first went (Acts 12:14) after his miraculous release from prison. It was a home that was at the very center of the activity of the Jerusalem church, and one that Peter was familiar with. Obviously, then, Peter and Barnabas and Mark had all been close years before, though Mark, still young, may have just been a boy during the formative years of Jesus’ ministry.
In Antioch, when Paul rebuked Peter and Barnabas, it would have been natural, when he heard about it, that Mark would have taken the side of Peter and his uncle over Paul, especially if he had experienced prior difficulty with Paul on the journey. It seems reasonable to suppose, if ongoing relational tension existed, that Peter, Barnabas, and Mark remained loyal to one another. Mark, as a younger and less mature man, might well have found the dispute more difficult to put behind him.
And now, indeed, tension surfaces between Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark. Whatever the state of things between Paul and Barnabas at the time, it is clear that Paul is unwilling to forgive Mark, and is willing to separate from Barnabas over it.
This sub-plot will come full circle several years later. By then John Mark, whom tradition identifies as a “scribe,” is no longer a boy. He has grown into a man who, after traveling with Barnabas, has rejoined Peter, the man who may have become his spiritual mentor. At that point Mark is traveling as Peter’s “interpreter.” We don’t know what this means. Did Peter require “interpreting” because he only spoke in the native Aramaic dialect? Or does this phrase indicate a wider sphere of travels on Peter’s part throughout the Roman empire where many tongues were common? Whatever was the case, his young assistant was obviously educated and fluent in multiple languages.
What I want to know is what became of Barnabas! I love that man.
In time, these travels with Peter will lead Mark to take his own place—alongside the very man who at this early point in the story rejects him as a worthy traveling companion—as one of the significant authors and communicators of the young Christian enterprise.
How wonderfully ironic that the very man Paul rejects turns out to be the one whose pen reaches even higher than Paul’s letters to write the world’s first gospel. How further ironic that it will later be Peter who will voice this same principle when speaking about Jesus, saying that he was “rejected by men but chosen by God.” (1 Peter 2:4) Might he also have been thinking about his own protégé Mark and this split with Paul?
The account of the split ends with: “Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left…he went through Syria and Cilicia.” (Acts 15:40-41)
We hear no more about what happened to Barnabas and Mark, because Luke’s narrative follows Paul. But within a short time Mark will re-emerge, no longer as a washout, as Paul saw him, but as one of the most important figures in the entire church.
15. Jesus Is Coming Back—and Soon!
The events of Paul’s second missionary journey are recounted by Luke in Acts 16-18:22. The trip took place approximately between the years 50 and 52, and took Paul and his companions to Lystra, then to Troas, Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth, and Ephesus. There they sailed again homeward for Caesarea and Antioch.
It was an enormously significant trip!
As a result, the Christian gospel first landed on Greek shores and penetrated to the heart of the Greek-speaking world. Christianity confronted ancient Greece as Paul preached at Athens. And most of the cities visited during these years later received letters from Paul, among which are included some of his most wonderful writings—Philippians, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians.
The first of the writings prompted by this second missionary journey were the Thessalonians letters which we will consider next.
What is this all about—Paul…a circumciser!
One of the most interesting occurrences of the trip took place when Paul and Silas reached Lystra. There they met Timothy (of Jewish mother and Greek father) and must obviously have been taken with him. Paul immediately saw in young Timothy another protégé like Silas, and a potential mature Christian leader. He invited Timothy to join them as he and Silas continued their journey.
What happened next presents one of the most baffling conundrums of Paul’s entire career…in Luke’s words, “because of the Jews who lived in that area,” Paul circumcised Timothy!
What to make of this astonishing move is a puzzle. The commentators predictably explicate the action in a way that mitigates any hint of inconsistency on Paul’s part, explaining it as a matter of “expediency.” Paul had roundly condemned Peter and Barnabas for their “fear of the Jews.” Luke explains Paul’s actions by saying it was “because of the Jews.”
You can draw your own conclusions.
Traveling on through Asia to the coast of the Aegean at Troas, they made their way around Macedonia through Philippi and Thessalonica, then south. In Corinth Paul met Aquila and Priscilla and stayed with them for approximately eighteen months. There, from Corinth in about 51, he wrote his first letter to the Thessalonians whom they had recently visited. Some time later followed the second letter.
(It is possible—depending on alternate dating theories—that Galatians may have also been written at this time. This would create three different options for the order of Paul’s first three books—Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians…or 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 2 Thessalonians…or 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Galatians. These alternate orders may mean little to most readers. But it is possible that a different historical context would resolve some of the difficulties—the Antioch situation, second coming issues, etc.—raised by these first three letters.)
Thessalonica hit with second coming fever
In Thessalonica, a huge cosmopolitan seaport of Macedonia (Greece), Paul and his companions stirred up great controversy. Actually…Paul raised controversy wherever he went! He and Barnabas had been stoned in Lystra on their first journey, barely escaping with their lives. Now after going first to the Jewish synagogue of Thessalonica to preach, some Jews and many Greeks were persuaded by their eloquence and converted to Christianity. But their bold preaching and a mass of Christian conversions stirred up violent opposition against them. Before long, much of Thessalonica was in an uproar, with mobs threatening their lives.
They fled the city.
Apparently the Jewish instigators of the opposition, not satisfied just to be rid of them, chased them to Berea. Again they were forced to flee for their lives. Their flight this time took Paul’s small party of missionaries to Athens. It was there (Acts 17) that Paul’s famous “Men of Athens, I see that you are very religious men…” speech took place on Mars Hill. At some point Paul apparently sent Timothy back to Thessalonica to see how the recent converts were making out after their hasty departure. Timothy rejoined Paul in Corinth, where, based on his favorable report, Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians. Timothy and Silas then set out north from Corinth to deliver the letter, while Paul stayed on at Corinth with Aquila and Priscilla.
They returned with news that Paul’s teaching about the second coming was being seriously and wrongly interpreted. The misunderstandings were so widespread that people in the Thessalonian church were quitting jobs and lazily slacking off on all responsibility, doing little but waiting for the Lord’s return.
Paul quickly sent back another letter to place his teaching about the Lord’s return into perspective.
But which letter is which?
All the books of the Bible have some controversy surrounding dating and authorship. The first uncertainty regarding the letters to the Thessalonians involves doubts about the order of the two letters (some scholars believe that 2 Thessalonians was actually written first). Along with this, there are also doubts that Paul was the author of 2 Thessalonians. No compelling evidence exists to validate either a different order or different authorship, but commentaries on the Thessalonian letters are full of various theories, including that Silas wrote 2 Thessalonians under Paul’s general oversight.
One of the chief arguments in favor of different authorship for the two books is the distinctive outlook presented in each on the parousia, or second coming of Christ. In the first letter it is more imminent, while the second seems to back off and suggest a longer timetable involving more things that need to take place before Christ can return.
The second letter is also more formal than the warm and affectionate tone of the first. Some of these difficulties are removed by reversing the order of the writing.
Donald Guthrie, in his New Testament Introduction, comments:
It has traditionally been assumed and is still widely accepted that 2 Thessalonians followed 1 Thessalonians, but it has been maintained by some scholars that a reversal of the order solves some of the difficulties. The main reasons in support of this view may be grouped in the following way…
The traditional order is attributed not to historical precedence but to size…
There is nothing in 1 Thessalonians to give rise to a misunderstanding such as is answered in 2 Thessalonians…
The eschatology of 2 Thessalonians is said to be more ‘crude and Judaistic’ than 1 Thessalonians…
In 1 Thessalonians the trials are said to be over while in 2 Thessalonians they are still ahead…
In 2 Thessalonians the internal difficulties are spoken of as if they are a new development of which the writer has just heard, whereas in 1 Thessalonians everything is familiar…
The wording of 1 Thessalonians iv. 9, 13, v. 1, where the subject matter is introduced with the phrase ‘no concerning’, is, on the analogy of 1 Corinthians, alleged to indicate matters raised in a previous communication…
It will be seen that none of these reasons is convincing taken separately, nor is the cumulative effect any more so. (pp. 575-77)
There are, however, scholars who disagree. Leander Keck, contributing to The Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary on the Bible, noting the above factors as well as several others, concludes:
All these considerations taken together persuade this author that the letter is not from Paul. Those who claim II Thess. is genuine must explain who a letter claiming Paul’s name would have circulated within weeks after 1 Thess. was written—or else make Paul speak of a hypothetical letter—and why the readers who had just read 1 Thess. and who remembered Paul the way I Thess. says would not know how to tell what was Pauline. The advocates of the traditional view seem to have failed to do this…
If we had either I Thess. or II Thess. alone, there would be no problem; it is precisely our having them both that makes the problem acute, and it is precisely the fact that I Thess. is genuine that shows that II is not… (pp. 875-76)
The simplest explanation, however, is that Paul wrote the second letter in an obviously less exuberant mood, concerned because of the report that the Thessalonians had gone over the top in their fanatic enthusiasm about the second coming. In the second letter he was attempting to place future events into a broader and longer-range perspective. This remains the majority view of most scholars from across the spectrum from liberal to evangelical and fundamentalist.
Paul’s “pastoral” concern for the congregation is clear, striking the personal note of feeling toward every congregation he visited that will continue to be his trademark for the rest of his life.
In contrast with Gal. and Col. this letter does not debate theological alternatives, though it deals with them. In contrast with Rom. it is not a theological essay. In contrast with the Cor. letters it does not deal with a series of crises in the church, though it often seems to touch lightly on some of the same problems. This is a pastoral letter by an apostle who wants to guide the church he has founded but cannot remain with them. (Leander Keck, The Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary on the Bible, p. 867)
— A Window into Reading the Bible for the Big Picture —
De-mythologizing Early Christian Theology
The discussion of content and tone raises the central thematic focus of both letters to the Thessalonians—the second coming. The simple question is fascinating and intriguing: Where did this teaching come from?
Removing the halo
We encounter here another halo that needs to be removed. This is not a halo sitting on a man’s head, such as the one we had to take off Paul in order to get beneath the surface in our reading of Galatians. We now need to de-idealize the theology of primitive first century Christianity.
There are many who idolize the first century church, as if everything was perfect in those first decades of Christianity.
The church experienced growing pains, immaturity, needless disputes, and much doctrinal uncertainty. The church’s theology grew and changed and developed with the passage of time. To understand this process, we have to de-halo-ize the theology of this period, recognizing its errors as well as the revelations of truth that came as a result of it.
This attempt to dig beneath the surface of traditional perspectives—not to debunk but to discover truth beyond formula and cliché—may be discomforting to some readers. But we each have to honestly ask ourselves what we want to gain from our reading of the New Testament. If we want only interpretations that confirm what we have been taught and what we have always believed, there is no reason for new self-discovery.
But if we are hungry to discover more truth, new truth, deeper truth…that process is impossible if we read every book of the Bible with our minds full of glowing, halo-ized imagery.
how did an erroneous preoccupation with the second coming originate?
There is simply no way around the fact, reading the first and second letter to the Thessalonians, that the early church got it badly wrong in their attempt to understand the second coming of Christ. The universal view of the first century church was that Jesus would return soon—in their lifetimes.
But he didn’t.
The falsehood of this primary ingredient of the teaching is obvious from the simple facts. Jesus didn’t return. This doesn’t necessarily make the whole second coming teaching wrong, but this central component of it certainly was. This cannot help but lead to the question—what else in the teaching might also be suspect?
This is neither the time nor place to examine such a question in depth. But the end result is one we must confront with deep sobriety: A seriously flawed teaching was spread through the church.
The foundation of this teaching—the Lord is coming soon!—has had repercussions throughout history ever since. Most of it originates here, in these two letters. Paul’s cautions in the second letter have done little to dissuade the overzealous in every era of church history.
So how did this outlook come to play such a prominent role in the theology of the early church, to be perpetuated all the way down to our own times, when gullible second coming interest is as feverish as ever? Nothing has changed. We are the Thessalonians.
It is certain that the teaching on the parousia did not originate entirely with Paul. It is more than probable that it came from the original disciples, who misinterpreted Jesus’ words about future events.
Again we note how intrinsically linked are early Christianity and the Judaism out of which it emerged and of which, in 50 a.d., it was still very much a part. The controversy over Jewish Law and circumcision was not the only point of intersection between the two faiths. Much of Jewish theology heavily influenced early Christian thought—as why should it not…Christianity was not a new religion, but an outgrowth and fulfillment (as Christians saw it) of God’s revelation to Israel.
Nor must we forget that Paul was a learned Pharisee. He had studied in Jerusalem under the revered rabbi Gamaliel, a member of the Sanhedrin. Paul was a Jewish theologian before he became a Christian theologian. Much in Paul’s letters attempts to harmonize and develop former Jewish theological ideas into a comprehensive new “Christian theology” with Jesus as the revised central focus.
It is not a new theology, it is an amplified, fulfilled, expanded theology.
As such, many of the errors and mistaken perspectives of the old were carried over into the new.
16. Messianic Prophesies Influence Christian Doctrine
In Jewish theology, given impetus by one captivity after another, including that of Rome, and written about by a continuous succession of prophets, a day was foretold when God would enforce by fire, sword, and judgment the triumph of Israel over the sinful nations of mankind. Then at last would the Messiah arise to lead God’s chosen nation to occupy its rightful stature in the world. The minor prophets (Joel through Malachi) especially are full of such predictions. As the twelve books bearing the names of these prophets were the last writings of the Old Testament, they remained fresh in the minds of every Jew as pointing to what would be the “next phase” in God’s timetable. The current first-century oppression of Rome heightened the expectation of a soon and dramatic delivery.
This season of judgment and doom upon the world, out of which the new Israel, led by what they assumed would be a conquering warrior-Messiah, would emerge triumphant, was called “the Day of the Lord.” The writings of Amos and Joel, as well as other of the prophets, are full of the terminology of impending judgment and a complete reversal of the world order.
Old Testament origins
Throughout the prophets we find a dual message: Judgment followed by healing and restoration. Jewish theologians interpreted this as judgment on the world so that Israel could rise triumphant. Always it is the same progression—judgment followed by the restoration of a newly triumphant Israel.
“Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver, he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness. (Malachi 3:2-3, NIV)
Isaiah 13 bears ominous similarity to later Christian apocalyptic teaching. It is not difficult to hear notes echoed similar to Jesus’ Jerusalem discourse of Matthew 24:
“Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; as destruction from the Almighty it will come…Pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in travail…Behold, the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation and to destroy sinners from it. For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising and the moon will not shed its light. I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant, and lay low the haughtiness of the ruthless…Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the Lord of hosts in the day of his fierce anger….its time is close at hand and its days will not be prolonged.” (Isaiah 13:6-22)
It is clear that much of Christian second coming theology (which took on many aspects of its permanent character from these two Thessalonian letters, the rapture as but a single element), as well as a hell theology that enforces punishment of sinners (which will emerge later as Christian “theology” continued to develop and expand), has roots in the revenge motive so evident throughout the Psalms of David and the writings of the prophets.
How much in the Christian theologies of these two future areas of uncertainty (the second coming and God’s solution to sin) originate in an old-covenantal perspective, and how much actually originate in the specific teachings of Jesus Christ, is obviously a matter of much controversy into which each man and woman will inquire more closely in his or her own way, and according to an individual timetable of hunger, growth, prayer, and personal discovery.
First coming prophecies become a second coming theology
It is not difficult to see how the Old Testament Jewish prophetic outlook was modified and expanded to become, not a first coming theology but a timetable for the Messiah’s second coming. It is curious to consider how Jesus’ teaching evolved in twenty years—from what he told the disciples in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21—to the fully developed rapture and tribulation theology we find in the Thessalonians letters. Perhaps, hearing from the twelve what Jesus had prophesied overlooking Jerusalem, Paul pieced together his second coming outlook by combining the Lord’s words with those from the Old Testament prophets.
William Barclay, whose insights we will have occasion to quote frequently in these studies, comments:
An essential part of the Jewish thought of the future was the Day of the Lord. That was the day when God was going to intervene directly in history; and when the present age, with all its incurable evil, would begin to be transformed and recreated into the age which is to come.
Very naturally the New Testament writers, to a very great extent, identified the Second Coming of Jesus and the Day of the Lord; and they took over all the imagery and all the pictures which had to do with the Day of the Lord and applied them to the Second Coming. (William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1, p. 341)
The Jews had missed the Messiah’s first appearance because they misinterpreted the prophecies. Now Paul, in conjunction with others, placed the entire scope of the prophecies into a broader and expanded perspective:
The servant-Messiah and redeemer must come first, and has come. When he returns, then will the “great and terrible day of the Lord” be at hand.
Paul had obviously been preaching the second coming when in Thessalonica. It seems worth noting that, though it is linked with 1 Cor. 15:51-52 and Matthew 24:30-31, 1 Thess. 4:17 is the only scriptural passage where a so-called rapture is mentioned to. If it had been intended to occupy the central focus it has come to occupy in second coming theology, it is curious that neither Paul nor any other New Testament writer ever mentioned it again.
The intricacies of the entire second coming theology are too complex for us to examine here. The belief that Jesus’ return was right around the corner, however, is one factor in this theology whose beginnings we can easily trace. The imminent return doctrine obviously came from a misunderstanding of Jesus’ words about the lesson of the fig tree, that “this generation would not pass away until all these things are fulfilled.”
The Jews had been expecting the imminent appearance of the Messiah for years. Why should not the new Jewish Christians likewise have expected his imminent return?
How much else in the early church’s understanding of the second coming of Christ will turn out to have been wrong, and how much of Paul’s theology of the parousia will be judged by eternity to have been right…those are questions that still, after two thousand years, we do not know the answers to.
We only know that the first century church completely mistook the timetable.
January 30-: 1 Thessalonians 1-4
January 31: 1 Thessalonians 4 – 2 Thessalonians 1-3