Preached by Jason Abbott
Today, we’re looking at a text that’s caused more than a little controversy. John Stott summarizes the storm surrounding verses 15 and 16 of today’s passage in the following way:
These two verses, sometimes called “the Pauline polemic against the Jews”, have been described as “violent”, “vehement”, “vindictive”, “passionate”, “intemperate”, “bitter” and “harsh”.1
Some have argued that (if Paul wrote these two verses) he is an anti-Semite. Thus, we have to ask—Is that the case? Is this passage a wholesale condemnation of the Jews? Is this an example of anti-Semitism? We must get to the very bottom of what Paul’s saying here, because these are serious accusations against the Bible and, therefore, against the Christian faith.
By the way, if that doesn’t pique your interest, I’m not sure what’s going to. You might need to check for a pulse. A lot rides on these four verses of Scripture. In our Adult Sunday School right now, we’re studying the hard saying of the Bible. And, this text would fit quite nicely into that class. So, are you ready?
Let’s dig-in by reading and praying for the Lord God’s help and illumination as we study his holy word together.
1 Thessalonians 2:13-16
13 And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. 14 For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind 16 by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them at last!
In order to make some sense of this text for us, I want to pursue two points. (1st) We, as believers, do and don’t preach the gospel. That may seems strange to you, but I hope to make sense of it in a bit. (2nd) There are only two nations. Or, you might say, there are really only two kinds of people. Again, I’ll show you what I mean as we dig into the text together.
1. We do and don’t preach the gospel (v. 13).
I don’t know what exactly you think about our Sunday worship gatherings—and really, more specifically, the preaching of Scripture that, most often, Benjamin or I do. And, I’m not talking about whether you’re entertained by it or whether you prefer his preaching to mine or mine to his. That’s actually not all that important. What is important and what I am wondering about is what you think is taking place when we preach the Bible.
Friends, what you think about the nature of that is of supreme importance!
Back in 2001, I went to see U2 in concert at the United Center in Chicago with my brother-in-law, Charles. The two of us were seminary students at the time, so we had flexible schedules. And, on this particular tour, if you arrived there early and stood in line for a long, long time—when they finally opened up the stadium—you could race to the stage and claim a prime spot. And, we got one of those spots; we were so close that I was able to grasp hands with Bono at one point.
But, you know, we had to work for that experience. We had to plan for that. We had to make that a priority. Friends, whenever they finally opened those doors, no one was slowly walking to the back of the stadium. Everyone ran to the stage. Everyone got as close to the music as possible. They wanted to see the musicians. They didn’t want to miss one lyric or one note. They wanted to hear everything—because it was U2! It was Bono! It was the Edge! It was important to them!
(At this point, you’re wondering what this has to do with anything.)
Suppose that next Sunday John Piper or Mark Driscoll or Sinclair Fergusson or Matt Chandler or (for the more mature among us) Chuck Swindoll was booked to preach here at Community. How do you imagine people would respond to that? Do you think anyone would skip church? And if not, why is that?
(Where is Jason going with this? Do you think John Piper is coming!!?)
Friends, what’s the nature of a U2 concert or of a famed preacher’s sermon? What about those makes us prioritize them—sprint to them and sit in rapt attention while listening to them?
Or, to bring us back to my original question—What do you think I’m doing? What’s the nature of this preaching moment right now? Well, Paul tells us exactly what it is. Paul says we preach the gospel, and, simultaneously, we don’t preach it. Look at what he says:
And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you… (v. 13).
Friends, when the Bible is being accurately preached and illuminated for us, it is not me or Benjamin or John Piper who is speaking in and through that sermon. It is our Creator who is speaking to us. Friends, something infinitely more glorious than a U2 concert happens in this sanctuary every single Sunday morning.
Do you believe me? Is that what you think’s happening at this very moment? I’m not making this up. This is what’s been believed and confessed in the church for centuries. Just listen to this section of The Second Helvetic Confession:
THE PREACHING OF THE WORD OF GOD IS THE WORD OF GOD. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.2
Do you see? Even through my sinful motives and inadequacies, God speaks. Look, even when the least eloquent summer-intern is preaching (no offense Noah!), we should listen with rapt attention as if it were the apostle Paul himself preaching; because, when Scripture is preached, we are hearing from the Lord!
We live at a time when the weekly, Sunday gatherings of the faithful are—without a doubt—being undervalued. Part of that’s due, I think, to a misconception of what is taking place here—the sense that not much happens in Sunday worship, the idea that it’s not that important. If, however, what Paul and the confessions say about the preaching of the word is true, if it’s God speaking through the preaching, then what could possibly be more important?!
Friends, I have one more sermon to preach to you after today—so this is not about me. This isn’t about making me feel popular or important. No. Rather, this is about you. Are you going to gather each week with an anticipation and expectation of hearing from the Lord and being transformed by his voice preached? I hope so, because the church will not survive on “bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Amen.
Well, let’s move to the controversy I mentioned in the introduction. I’ll deal with it in our second and final point.
2. There are only two nations (v. 14-16).
Paul appears on first glance to say some pretty severe and sweeping things about the Jews here. Is he being anti-Semitic? Is he holistically condemning them? Is this an example of biblical racism? Well, the short answer is no. Not in any way! But, we need to see how and why. So, look again at these verses with me.
For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them at last… (vv. 14-16).
First, we must notice that Paul again begins with the thematic of imitation. The church in Thessalonica imitated the churches of Judea. And, because of this, because they followed their example (and, therefore, the example of Jesus Christ), the Thessalonians experienced persecution. But, we could easily miss from whom. Who persecuted the Thessalonians? Their countrymen did! That’s important.
You see, Paul is talking to a group of Thessalonians who are being attacked by other Thessalonians. And, he says this is precisely what happened to the Jews who followed Jesus—who became Christians. They were attacked by other Jews—their own countrymen. Following Jesus, Paul explains, will create a great divide, even between your own countrymen, your own friends, your own family members. This echoes precisely what Jesus taught during his ministry. He explains:
Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law (Luke 12:51-53).
Paul isn’t drawing ethnic or racial lines here. He’s got far bigger categories in mind—far more profound divisions in mind. He highlights the ultimate divide. The divide following Jesus makes. The divide God makes between all the people who turn to him for mercy and receive salvation, and all the others who won’t turn and, therefore, perish. Paul says, “The Jews who have set themselves in opposition to Jesus and the gospel (by doing so) have set themselves in opposition to the Lord. And, likewise, he’s saying, “Your own countrymen who oppose and persecute you, (by doing so) have set themselves in opposition to the Lord.” When people do this, no matter if they are Jew or Thessalonian, they “fill up the measure of their sins” and put themselves under the wrath of God (v. 16). That’s the divide!
Second, Paul was a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5). He was Jewish. And, moreover, he was a Jew who loved his countrymen with a deep, intense love. He longed that they’d turn to Jesus—even if it meant he, Paul, would have to die and be punished in their place. Just think about what he says in Romans.
For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh (9:3).
In fact, after writing this letter to the Thessalonians, Paul continued to travel. And, as was his custom, he always went first to the local synagogues and the Jews in order to preach the gospel. Now, that’d be a strange tradition for him to maintain if he was racist towards Jewish people.
Finally, Paul seems to be the least bigoted or racist person in all of Scripture in most of his writings. Rather than making distinctions based on a person’s gender or social status or ethnicity the apostle Paul seems far more apt to get rid of them because of the good news of Jesus Christ. He’s constantly preaching this.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).
No. Paul doesn’t divide people according to their race or ethnicity or gender. He does not discriminate in that way. He is for uniting and advancing all humanity in Jesus Christ. That’s his mission. That’s what he died for.
Yet, as I said earlier, there is a divide. Paul refers to it in this very passage. Jesus spoke about it during his earthly ministry. The narrative of Scripture revolves around it. It’s the great and main problem in human history—our sin, our rebellion against our holy Creator. Since the beginning, this has been the divide.
But, the gospel tells us that Jesus has bridged it. Jesus has opened the door. Jesus has made peace between us and God. And, if we align ourselves with him—by trusting that he died for our sins and paid our penalty—we become a new race. We are made a new people. The people of God!
Friends, in what ways are you creating distinctions which the Lord does not? What are the divides that you sinfully believe are too wide for Christ Jesus to span? Whatever they are, repent of them. But for the grace of God in the person of Jesus, you are no different than those people.
And, as you repent, remind yourselves of your true identity in Christ Jesus. You are a citizen of the kingdom of God. In this sinful and fallen world, that’s easy to forget sometimes. But, it’s the reality for all who’ve placed their faith in Christ. What a glorious reality! What a glorious identity!
I was reading a book this week, and its author described the Apostle’s Creed as a believer’s pledge of allegiance. I thought that that was a provocative thought. So, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like us to recite it together. And, as you say it together, meditate on your ultimate and true, heavenly citizenship and identity in Christ.
(Pray as we conclude the recitation.)
1 John Stott, The Gospel and the End of Time, 55.
2 You can read the entire confession here.