Here is another installment of my Tuesdays with Thessalonians. Today I look at 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, a set of verses that have proven to be very troublesome for the church at times. In fact many NT scholars don't think they were written by Paul. I happen to do think Paul wrote them, which makes dealing with them even more difficult.
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.
There are times in life and ministry when we are tempted to lash out against those whom we perceive to be opposing us or causing us grief. At the same time, we know that the witness of scripture often calls for a very different reaction. We are called to demonstrate self-control, to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. So when we read in the Bible a statement that appears to display a lack of these virtues it is difficult to know not only how to interpret, but how to apply such passages.
The above verses represents one of those occasions when we are left scratching our heads wondering about what we have just read and how we can preach it. Some have chosen to simply avoid the topic. The Revised Common Lectionary, for instance, omits 2:14-16 from the preaching year. Similarly, the Catholic Church’s Liturgy of Hours omits Psalms 58, 83, 109 and selected verses from others because they are “harsh in tone and would present difficulties in worship” (Kenton Sparks, Sacred Word, 46). But ignoring such problem texts could be labeled irresponsible since it assumes that people don’t read their Bible and will never wonder what to do with these verses.
The need to wrestle with these texts is highlighted by church history. There have been times when Christians, based on a reading of difficult texts like this one, enacted persecutions and oppression against Jews. One only has to look at some of the cringe inducing statements made by Martin Luther to realize that the church carries much responsibility for helping to lay the theological groundwork for the Holocaust (Martin Luther, On the Jews and Their Lies). This has led, in turn, to charges that Paul was anti-Semitic and so is, by extension, the church.
What we need to remember, however, is that Paul is using insider language to talk about his fellow Jews. And this language, harsh as it might sound to us, needs to be read in its historical and cultural context. Paul is certainly frustrated with the actions of some of his fellow Jews in relation to the gospel, but his comments should not be interpreted as his final say on the subject. His comments about Jews are the result of a theological disagreement over the identity of God’s Messiah, not a repudiation of Israel as God’s people. There is no suggestion here that he no longer views himself as a Jew. In fact, in later letters Paul will boast of being a child of Abraham, an Israelite, a member of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews and will go so far as to wish that he could be cursed and cutoff from Christ for the sake of his own race (Rom. 11:1; 2 Cor. 11:22; Phil. 3:5). Moreover, Paul is not publicly abusing them. He is a Jew critiquing other Jews. And Paul will have similarly harsh language for his fellow Christ followers who he considers to be either perverting the gospel or challenging his authority (e.g. Gal. 5:12; 2 Cor 11). There is nothing worse than the church airing its dirty laundry for the whole world. And that is exactly what Paul is not doing here.
One thing we should take away from this passage is a caution about how we use language, especially in the public sphere. In an age when any and every word we utter can literally travel around the world in seconds we need to be cautious about the words we use. The Bible has a lot to say about the words we speak and the damage they can cause (Prov 12:18; 21:23; Luke 6:45; Col 3:8; Jas 1:26). Today, however, our culture thrives on “gotcha sound bites” and the “politics of personal destruction.” Rather than engage those we disagree with we eviscerate them with words. Christians, however, should be willing to discuss issues in ways that are consistent with the gospel. This is true both inside and outside the church. Paul didn’t have to worry about people with whom he disagreed taking his words out of context and putting in a video clip on the internet. We, on the other hand, do not have the luxury of assuming that what we say will stay within “the four walls” of the church. While Paul may have been free to use hyperbole and insider/outsider language, such a choice is not always the best option for us today. In most cases the old English proverb “think before you speak” can help us eliminate trouble before it starts.
Let me close with this about preaching this text. It needs to be preached, but what needs to be focused on is Paul’s point here. His primary purpose here is pastoral. He wants to encourage the Thessalonians in the face of persecution. I would acknowledge the rather harsh sounding language here and even the way that it shows up elsewhere in the Bible. But I also would bring in other scriptures like Prov 13:3, Eph 4:29, and Col 3:8 to show that it is important to watch not just what we say, but how we say it. Finally, I would point to 1 Thess 4:11 where Paul talks about living in such a way that you “win the respect of outsiders.” Even though Paul may engage in some rough and tumble insider language here he is still concerned with the way the community interacts with those on the outside.