We’ve been working through 1 Thessalonians in our church’s Bible class for the past few weeks, and it’s been quite the ride. As the earliest-written Christian document ever found, it features a number of themes begging for study. The guy leading it is a New Testament professor where I work, and he’s really led the class through some unusual discussions, ones you don’t usually find in church.
One of those centered around 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, a passage that perhaps makes us squirm a little bit nowadays, for several reasons:
Brothers and sisters, you became imitators of the churches of God in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus. This was because you also suffered the same things from your own people as they did from the Jews. They killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out. They don’t please God, and they are hostile to the entire human race when they try to stop us from speaking to the Gentiles so they can be saved. They constantly fill up the measure of their sin. God’s wrath has caught up with them in the end.
I’ve used the CEB, as I typically do, but replaced their preferred interpretation in v. 16b with the footnoted translation (in italics), which more closely captures the literal sense of the Greek.
So there’s the anti-Semitism, the blaming of “the Jews” for the death of Jesus, never mind that he was actually killed by Romans – and never mind that it was actually a tiny number of Jews involved in turning him over to them. For example, even if you can justly incriminate all Jerusalem Jews for Jesus’ death – and you cannot – there were still large Jewish populations in Alexandria and Rome, never mind the rest of Palestine, who would have never even heard of Joshua the Messiah until told about him by Christians decades later.
Then there’s the italicized phrase, which is a little weird.
There’s similar language in only one other place in the Bible – and we Protestants miss it because it’s not actually in our Bibles:
It is a sign of great kindness that those Jews who acted immorally weren’t left alone for very long but experienced punishments immediately. With other nations the Lord patiently delays punishment until they fill up the full measure of their sins, but with us he decided to deal differently, and is exacting retribution on us before our sins reach their peak. Therefore, he never withdraws his mercy from us. Although disciplining us with misfortunes, God doesn’t forsake his own people.
This is 2 Maccabees 6:13-16, where the author here says that God deals with Jews and Gentiles differently. It’s a little theodicy in the middle of a narrative about the intertestamental Maccabean revolution. Why do the Jews always seem to have bad things happen to them while their enemies do not? Well, because God is constantly punishing the Jews so that they can repent, thus emptying out their “cup” of wrath before it can reach the top. But for the Gentiles, he waits. And when the cup gets full, God really lets them have it. So it’s theodicy, and it’s eschatology, too. In the end, they’ll get theirs, too. And, boy, will it be something!
So in 1 Thessalonians, this construct has been reversed. The Jews are described as filling up the measure of their sin. But it gets weirder: It also argues that God’s punishment has already happened. Which is fine, if 1 Thessalonians were written after 70 C.E., when Roman troops razed Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. But it was written around 20 years before that. So what is this passage talking about? We don’t know. Personally, I lean toward scribal interpolation, rather than this paragraph being a part of Paul’s original letter.
But that’s a little beside the point. Because 1 Thessalonians is merely another chapter in the Bible writers’ millennia-long struggle to determine the reason why bad things happen to God’s people – or even just good people.
Just about the entire Old Testament is written trying to explain why the exile happened, and just about the entire New Testament is written in the context of ostracism from and persecution by the society around these new Jesus followers. Why did/does God allow this pain to intrude into the lives of the people he loves, and who love him?
The thing is the Bible does not really provide a consistent answer. You can read through and pick out passages that support a narrative of tit-for-tat judgment, one in which God’s wrath burns hot against sinners and their wickedness. The Flood narrative; the reward-punishment dichotomy of Deuteronomy; the conquest narratives; the punishments of Saul, David and Solomon; various warnings of the prophets; certain psalms; and 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 can all fit nicely into this line of thought, and you would certainly not be accused of cherry-picking just one or two verses to do it.
On the other hand, you can read through and find a narrative focusing on God’s infinite mercy and grace, on his patience and of course on his love and justice. Often, these verses are not found far away from the ones we’d use to write the judgment narrative. The psalms, the prophets, pieces of the Law, the life of Jesus itself – all portray a different God than the one in those other passages.
Nevertheless, we’ve tended to focus on the first rather than the second. Some have attempted to fold the second narrative into the first. Yes, God has infinite patience, love and grace but … when it runs out, everybody better get ready for some wrath.
And, sure, there’s room for anger inside love and patience – we should get angry about social inequity, child abuse, oppression of others, etc., and there’s no reason to think God doesn’t get angry about these things, too. But leaving room for wrath and judgment within a narrative of mercy and grace is much different than leaving room for love and grace within a narrative of wrath and judgment, which is what tends to happen when we talk about these things.
In the end, we, like the author of that passage in 1 Thessalonians, have accepted the narrative of the Old Testament while neglecting the narrative of the New. We unquestioningly embrace a narrative in which God is so angry about idolatry and oppression of the poor that he sends a vicious, rapacious army to destroy the nation he founded – a punishment that falls hardest on the very people whose oppression sparks the judgment in the first place.
The judgment narrative therefore collapses on its own injustice, and we are left with the one typified by the life of Christ. Jesus got angry, but anger was only a piece of his personality. He was quick to forgive, slow to judge and welcoming of all. We see that in the Old Testament, as well, though we’ve been taught to condition those passages on the others (rather than the other way around).
1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 appears to be a relic of an imperfect, ultimately misguided theodicy that we’ve chosen to embrace over and against the other possible explanations found in the Bible – among them this simple yet unfulfilling notion:
“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. … Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”
Sometimes that indiscriminately falling rain is accompanied by howling winds, storm surges and flooding. Sometimes it lands in major population centers. Sometimes it’s given a name, like Sandy. And sometimes we just don’t have a reason why that is.