A COMMENTARY ON FIRST THESSALONIANS
" 2:14 For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews: 15 Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men: 16 Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost." KJV
(1 Thessalonians 2:14-16)
There is a certain spirit in the text of Scripture-a character that cannot be found in any other literature or writing. In the world, writers reflect their private perspective, generally promoting their own interests. Words are carefully chosen to promote a private agenda or idea. When dealing with matters pertaining to this world, there is nothing particularly wrong about this. However, when it comes to the salvation of God, such private agendas and views are completely out of order. We are reminded that "no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation," and "prophecy never had its origin in the will of man" NIV (2 Pet 1:20-21). The text before us demonstrates this reality. The Apostle, moved along by the Holy Spirit, speaks of conditions from the heavenly perspective. There is no "varnish" on his words, but they are straightforward and to the point. Men and circumstances are viewed from a heavenly perspective, with no regard for how it will be viewed by critics. This will particularly be seen in the reference to the Jews. What is here affirmed contradicts many assessments of the death of Christ. The powerful effects of the Gospel are also affirmed to include the aggressive opposition of those with whom the saved were formerly identified. While these circumstances may vary slightly among us, all believers recognize their reality.
FOLLOWERS OPPOSED BY THEIR OWN PEOPLE
" 2:14 For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews." Remember, this entire chapter is devoted to an assessment of the Thessalonian's conversion. An extensive commentary like this confirms that more happened in our salvation than can be seen from a cursory, or surface, view. Often, words like "evangelism," "missions," "soul-winning," etc., (none of which are found in Scripture) focus undue attention upon approaches, neglecting the marvelous results of Divine working. Those addicted to the use of such language rarely speak of what was actually was involved in the conversion of the people.
"FOLLOWERS." The Thessalonian believers "became followers." Most other versions use the word "imitators." Some more liberal translations use the expressions "took as your examples" BBE and "modeled yourselves after." NJB The concept of "followers" presumes the faith-life has been lived out before the people. They have seen faith in action, and joined others in the journey to glory. It reflects the reasoning of Moses to Hobab, son of his father- in-law: "come thou with us, and we will do thee good . . . if thou go with us, yea, it shall be, that what goodness the LORD shall do unto us, the same will we do unto thee" (Num 10:29-32). Earlier in this book, Paul reminded the Thessalonians they had become followers of himself, Silas, and Timothy (1:6). There is a certain distinction in true believers that draws upon the hearts of those who believe the Gospel. It calls upon them to be "followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises" (Heb 6:12). This perspective is rarely seen in an institutional setting, where the observance of faith is supplanted by human agendas.
The idea of a "follower" is seen in several different expressions of Scripture. One is being "an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity" (1 Tim 4:12). Another is pursuing "righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart" (2 Tim 2:22). Just as with the Thessalonians, there came a point in time when those in Christ started going the same direction as other believers. It was a time when their view became harmonious with those in Christ Jesus. Then, they began making progress toward the mark for the prize of the high calling in Christ (Phil 3:14).
CHURCHES OF GOD IN JUDAEA. Nothing in the text suggests the congregations in Judaea (well over 1,000 miles away) were known to the Thessalonians, and that is not the point of the text. The churches in Judaea were among the first to believe the Gospel (Acts 1:8; 8:1). Now, about seventeen years later, the Thessalonians believed the Gospel and realized the same results as brethren in far-removed Judaea. Those in Judaea were Jews, and those in Thessalonica were Gentiles, but faith put them on the same road, causing them to have the same experiences. God took them both "out" of a fleshly society for His own name (Acts 15:18). Faith produces a unity among those possessing it (Eph 4:13). That unity comes because believers are on the same highway (Isa 35:8), desire the same country (Heb 11:16), and are looking to the same Lord (Heb 12:1-2). It only remains for such brethren to meet face to face for this to be confirmed to their hearts. "The churches of God in Judaea" were God's people in Judaea-those for whom Jesus was interceding and in whom the Holy Spirit was working. They were the ones in that area whose names were written in heaven.
SUFFERING FROM YOUR OWN COUNTRYMEN. As soon as the Thessalonians believed, opposition arose from fellow-citizens. In particular, the opposition came from Jews who met in a local synagogue (Acts 17:1-8). These Jews "rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city" NIV (Acts 17:5-8). All of this did not happen because the Thessalonian believers had caused some form of social disruption, fomented an insurrection against the government, or ceased to function as good and profitable citizens. Neither, indeed, were oppressors imported from some other area to wreak havoc against these new believers. The opposition came from their "own countrymen" because they had chosen to believe and embrace the Gospel. Their opponents sensed the Gospel had put the people at a variance with this world, and particularly with powerless religious systems. The Thessalonian Jews knew there was a vast difference between the Gospel embraced by some of their countrymen, and their lifeless and ritualistic religion.
EVEN AS THEY THE JEWS. In the beginning of the church, believers were opposed by their own countrymen, or people. The Apostles were vigorously opposed by the Jews when the numbers of believers began to swell (Acts 4:1-7). Paul may have reference to his own persecution of believers who were scattered from Jerusalem into Judaea and Samaria (Acts 8:1-4; 9:31). The point is, faith produces similar experiences in those who have it. When you are suffering, the knowledge of this will bring consolation to your heart (1 Pet 5:9).
THE AGGRESSIVENESS OF RELIGIOUS OPPOSITION
" 15 Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men." These are unusually strong words, and have been energetically opposed by many. I have more than once heard unlearned people say the Jews did not kill Jesus. In fact, it has become fashionable to make such foolish assertions. The Holy Spirit, however, has no regard for fleshly sympathies. He will move Paul to speak truthfully about his own people, yet not be hopeless about their future.
THEY KILLED THE LORD JESUS. On the surface, this may appear to contradict Christ's own words. "I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself" (John 10:17-18). Based upon that, men might be tempted to think Jesus was not killed, or murdered. That, however, is not the meaning of His word. Jesus meant no man could have taken His life if He did not submit to die. To put it another way, His death was the result of His decision, not that of the people. However, they also were responsible for what they did. "They killed the Lord Jesus." On the day of Pentecost Peter told the Jews, "ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain" (Acts 2:23). Later he told another crowd they had "killed the Prince of life" (Acts 3:15). He again told the Jews they had "crucified" Jesus Christ of Nazareth (Acts 4:10). Standing before the Jewish council, Stephen charged them with being "the betrayers and murderers" of "the Just One" (Acts 7:52). Let there be no doubt about the Jew's involvement in Christ's death.
Zechariah foretold the death of Christ when he said the Jews would eventually "look upon Him whom THEY have pierced" (Zech 12:10). The irony of the situation is that Jesus actually came to them-"His own, and His own received them not" (John 1:11). Although they did not personally nail Christ's hands and feet to the cross (Psa 12:10), hoist him into the air, and pull His life from Him, they were guilty of His death. They were guilty because they rejected Him, opposed Him, and delivered Him to Pilate, when Pilate "was determined to let Him go" (Acts 3:13). "The people of Israel" gathered together "against" Christ (Acts 4:27). We should also add, that to fail to duly remember Jesus at His table is to also be "guilty of the body and blood of the Lord" (1 Cor 11:27) - even though, like the Jews, it is not done directly.
THEY KILLED THEIR OWN PROPHETS. There is nothing worse than corrupt religion. Not only did it move the Jews to kill their own Messiah, they also killed "their own prophets," sent to warn them, and turn them from their evil ways. Jesus told the Pharisees they were "the children of them which killed the prophets" (Matt 23:31). Weeping over Jerusalem, Jesus said, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee" (Matt 23:37). Stephen told the council who determined he should be stoned, "Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which showed before of the coming of the Just One" (Acts 7:52). Through Jeremiah, God told Israel, "your own sword hath devoured your prophets, like a destroying lion" (Jer 2:30). Those who are not serious about their religion must take into account what corrupt religion can drive a person to do. To this very day, vigorous opponents of true Gospel preachers come from Christian circles. Many of us have suffered at the hands of "our own countrymen!"
THEY HAVE PERSECUTED US. Not content to have killed the prophets, and the Lord Jesus Himself, the Jews militantly opposed Paul, hounding and persecuting him wherever he went. Early in his ministry, the Jews in Damascus "took counsel to kill him" (Acts 9:23-24). In Antioch of Pisidia the Jews "raised persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them out of their coasts" (Acts 13:50). They persecuted him in Iconium (Acts 14:1-4), stoned him in Lystra (Acts 14:19), and beat him with "forty stripes save one" no less than five times (2 Cor 11:25). They also opposed him in Corinth (Acts 18:12-18). Once certain of the Jews banded together "and bound themselves under a curse, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul" (Acts 23:12).
When the Gospel is believed, people are endeared to others who have believed the Gospel. They are drawn to kindred spirits, and noted for their love of them (John 13:35). When, however, the Gospel is NOT believed, yet religiosity is retained, animosity and opposition result. This accounts for the hostilities that exist in the Christian community- hostilities that bring hurt to the saints of God. The real circumstance is that some have believed and some have not. Faith never moves one to oppose Jesus or those in Him.
THEY ARE CONTRARY TO ALL MEN. This expression means the unbelieving Jews did not confine their opposition to Paul. They challenged anyone and everyone who preached the Gospel. In this, they "please not God," or "displease God." NIV All who are aggressive against believers, for whatever reason, are displeasing God and incurring His wrath. Eventually, God will come to the defense of His people-either here or there!
FILLING UP SINS AND THE WRATH OF GOD
" 16 Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost." This is a continuation of the thought expressed in verse fifteen. Other versions read, "They are not pleasing to God, but hostile to all men, hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles," NASB and "They displease God and are hostile to all men in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles." NIV
FORBIDDING. The idea is that, in being hostile against Gospel proclaimers, they were hindering the spread of the Gospel to the Gentiles, for which purpose Paul had been called into the apostleship (Acts 9:15). The Jews did not actually stop the Word from getting to the Gentiles, although that was their intention. The Thessalonians received the Gospel, even though the Jews vigorously sought to stop them from doing so. The fact that this happened, however, did not relieve the Jews of the responsibility for trying to stop the Gospel from reaching the Gentiles. Their sin is credited to them just as though it had been 100% effective. Whether it is for good or for evil, what men INTEND to do, is what will be credited to them. In the case of good, for example, those who have little, yet give beyond their means, will be credited for giving much-as was the case with the widow in the Temple, and the churches in Macedonia (Lk 21:3; 2 Cor 8:1-3). The same is true of evil intentions.
THAT THEY MIGHT BE SAVED. Men do not stumble into salvation. The Gospel is spoken to them by "ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man?" (1 Cor 3:5). Those who make it more difficult for this message to be preached, whether by outright persecution, disparaging words, or discouraging conduct, are duly noted by God, and will receive their just dues. After aggressively persecuting the church, Paul himself was shown "how great things he must suffer for" Jesus' sake (Acts 9:16).
This provides a more thorough view of the nature of the day of judgment. Those who have thrown up roadblocks to hinder godly men and women from speaking will be judged as though they had stopped the preaching of the Gospel altogether, snatching from men the opportunity of being "saved." This is a most arresting consideration.
FILL UP THEIR SIN ALWAYS. There are technical details in the Kingdom of God that we must see. Sin, for example, accrues judgment, piling up one after another. All sin is not the same, and one sin is not the same as ten or twenty. In fact, the responsibility for sin-especially hindering the Gospel-multiplies exponentially-like the doubling of interest every day. Other versions read, "Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins," NRSV and, "In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit." NIV There comes a time when the sin of men reaches a point where God must judge them-here and now. That is why God did not judge the Amorites until their sin had "reached its full measure" (Gen 15:16). Daniel also spoke of a time when "the transgressors have run their course" (Dan 8:23). This point was reached when God sent the flood-the cup of iniquity was full (Gen 6:6-7).
There is such a thing as "storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God" NASB (Rom 2:5). James reminded sloppy Christians, "You have heaped up treasure in the last days" (James 5:3). Just as faithful believers lay up for themselves treasures in heaven, so their opponents treasure up wrath for themselves. In this day of religious gentility, this is rarely heard. Yet, it is a sobering reality.
WRATH IS COME UPON THEM. The words are so strong they cause the timorous to shrink back: "for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost," KJV "but God's wrath has overtaken them at last." NRSV Paul is not saying the fulness of Divine wrath had already come upon the Jews, for they were still energetically opposing them. He is, rather, foretelling their judgment, as Jesus did in the 24th chapter of Matthew. They had already gone too far, and it was only a matter of time until God would pour His wrath upon them. Approximately eighteen years later (70 AD), Jerusalem would be destroyed, and their house would be left desolate until they said, "Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord" (Matt 23:38-39). It is to be understood this judgment would not exclude those Jews who chose to believe the Gospel-that "remnant" that remained "according to the election of grace" (Rom 11:5).
Let every professed believer take care they are a source of encouragement and support for the preaching of the Gospel. Everyone either promotes or hinders that preaching. They either are a source of encouragement or discouragement to Kingdom laborers. Suffice it to say, those who extend themselves to strengthen the hands of those declaring the Gospel, will themselves be strengthened by God-sent laborers. The Thessalonians, and this Epistle to them, are proof of that reality.