“Imitating other Believers in Judea” – 1 Thess 2:13-16 [Sermon Notes on 1 Thessalonians, Week 8]

(13) And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe. (14) For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews (15) who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone (16) in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.

Paul here goes back once again to the major theme in 1:2, in his thanksgiving: You Thessalonians didn’t just hear the message, but you accepted it.  When he says word of God in 2:13 he is not speaking of “the Bible” – in this case the Old Testament – but the gospel message.

They accepted it “not as a human word”, in the sense of “not as something that people made up”, but as what it is, the message God spoke. See how he keeps repeating the word “God” (we have underlined it above).

And the gospel message works in them, transforming them from the inside out. This reminds us of a key text from Isa 55:11:

…so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

And now these new believers were responsible to pray for those who were even then hearing the gospel for the first time in Achaia, as we see in Paul’s next letter:

As for other matters, brothers and sisters, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you. (2 Thess 3:1)

So, the Thessalonians imitated Paul, the Lord Jesus (1:6) and also other churches, especially the churches in Judea. It is interesting that the bulk of new believers in Thessalonica came from paganism (1:9-10), but most Jews did not receive the gospel in that city, nor in Jerusalem and Judea.

Like the Jewish Christians, these Gentile disciples suffer at the hands of their own people, their neighbors, and their local government. Thessalonians suffer at the hands of Thessalonians, while the churches in “Judea” (2:14a) are persecuted by Judeans. When Jews or Gentiles receive Christ, they find themselves cut off from their former people and persecuted by them. The underlying premise is that, if the people of the covenant act this way when their fellow Jews receive Christ, then imagine the reaction of the Gentiles among whom you live.

Some people point to this paragraph, which has very strong language, and they ask whether Paul is anti-Jew, anti-Semitic. But we need to keep in mind that Paul is not speculating about race but is responding to a concrete historical situation: the synagogue wielded great power in Judea and enough power in Macedonia to cause serious persecution to the Christians there.

Ruins of the Ostia synagogue, outside the city of Rome
Ruins of the Ostia synagogue, outside the city of Rome

The Jews “killed the Lord Jesus”. Of course, they did not literally crucify Jesus, but they did arrest him and plot to turn him over to the Roman occupation government:

“Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:22-23)

The Jewish Talmud contains references to Jesus, and imply that he was stoned or hanged for being a sinner, perhaps for practicing magic.

Paul goes on to say that they also killed “the prophets”. It was a regular teaching in the Old Testament that Israel killed the prophets that God sent to them, for example:

But they were disobedient and rebelled against you; they turned their backs on your law. They killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you; they committed awful blasphemies. So you delivered them into the hands of their enemies, who oppressed them. But when they were oppressed they cried out to you. (Neh 9:26-27)

These prophets in 1 Thess 2:15 are probably Christian prophets, not Old Testament ones; I say this because of the word order – first Jesus, then the prophets. It is worth noting that at least one Judean Christian prophet was well-known to the Thessalonians, that is, Silas himself:

Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. (Acts 15:32)

The Jewish church’s trouble began from the earliest days. In the grandest of ironies, Paul was the Jew who was most notable for persecuting the church within its first decade. His was no mere bureaucratic mission, but a crusade of hate:

“I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities” (Acts 26:11)

The Jewish authorities in their turn plotted to kill Paul several times; in Acts 15 it’s said that Silas and others “risked their lives” for the gospel.

Paul goes on to say that they “displease God” or “Do not live pleasing to God”, which is the same language as 2:4.

Let’s stop here and remember that just as today, there were anti-Jewish people in the first century:

Among themselves they are inflexibly honest and ever ready to shew compassion, though they regard the rest of mankind with all the hatred of enemies. Tacitus History 5.5.

Jews were thought by some to be lazy, arrogant, and “picky” about what they ate.

Paul is not being anti-Jew, but he has a particular point: “they are hostile to all people, in that they hinder us from evangelizing them.” Not only do they reject the gospel, they don’t want anyone else to hear it either.

The best explanation of this “hindering” is that the non-Christian leaders of synagogues, first in Judea and later in the Diaspora, threw obstacles in the way of Christians when they wished to speak to God-fearers or to pagans about the gospel. This is precisely what happened in Thessalonica (Acts 17:5; see also 13:45–51), and it particularly affected Paul, whose method was to do his initial evangelism in the synagogue to try to win Jews and God-fearing Gentiles.

Paul concludes in 2:16b that “In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.”

The phrase “their sins are fulfilled” or “to the limit” is based on Genesis:

And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete. (Gen 15:16)

And the Lord Jesus spoke harshly as well:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors.” (Matthew 23:29-32)

“Wrath comes upon them to the end” – this phrase is a little difficult, but “unto the end” probably means “up unto judgment day.”

Now, this teaching of Jesus and of Paul went directly contrary to what the rabbis taught:

In the case of the other nations the Lord waits patiently to punish them until they have reached the full measure of their sins; but he does not deal in this way with us, in order that he should not take vengeance on us afterwards when our sins have reached their height. Therefore he never withdraws his mercy from us. Although he disciplines us with calamities, he does not forsake his own people. (2 Macc 6:14–16)

That is, God would only discipline Israelites, but would not condemn them.

So, how do we understand Paul’s strong language in 1 Thessalonians in his own context?

First, we must understand the population demographic in which he lived. The Jews in the Diaspora, as best as can be estimated, outnumbered Christians, and probably would for centuries. Therefore, until the conversion of Constantine, the synagogue was a greater potential threat to the church than the church could be in return.

Second, Paul’s condemnation of “the Jews” here, like the language of John’s gospel, has principally to do with the Jewish leadership elite in Judea. Especially pernicious is that some Jews actively tried to block the Gentiles from hearing the gospel. Paul does not hypothesize about some underground Zionist conspiracy, but instead points to public actions that the synagogue had taken to impede his work.

Paul followed closely the approach taken by the Hebrew prophets and the Lord Jesus, in showing that God’s ancient people were in fact furthest from the truth, and that Gentile believers would come to salvation despite the conventional assumptions of the synagogue.

Christians today must show with great care that Paul is not racist or anti-Semitic in this passage and explain why it should not and must not lead to anti-Semitism.

Historical Note: During the Middle Ages and beyond, Thessalonica had the largest colony of Jewish people in the world. During the Holocaust nearly all were expelled and killed by the Nazis.

“Imitating other Believers in Judea” – 1 Thess 2:13-16 [Sermon Notes on 1 Thessalonians, Week 9], Gary S. Shogren, PhD, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San Jose, Costa Rica

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