A Commentary by John Stott
1 Thessalonians 2:13-16. d). A herald.
It is well known that the commonest New Testament word for preaching is *kerysso*, to act like a herald (*keryx*) and make a public proclamation. The verb occurs in verse 9, ‘we preached [*ekeruxamen*] the gospel of God to you’, and the concept lies behind verse 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 the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe*. There is a deliberate interplay in this important statement between ‘God’, ‘us’ and ‘you’. What you received (the technical term for receiving a tradition which is being handed on), namely what you heard *from us* (the apostle), you accepted as the word *of God*, which is effectively at work *in you*. The message came from God through the apostle to the Thessalonians and was changing them.
This is an unambiguous assertion by Paul that the gospel he preached was the word of God. We are familiar with the claims of the Old Testament prophets that they were bearers of the word of God, for they introduced their oracles with the formulas like ‘the word of the Lord came to me’, ‘listen to the word of the Lord’, and ‘thus says the Lord’. But here in verse 13 is a comparable claim by a New testament apostle. Paul does not rebuke the Thessalonians for regarding his message too highly. On the contrary, he commends them for having recognized it as what it truly is (God’s word) and for having accepted it as such. More than that, he actually thanks God constantly that they have done so, and adds that the gospel authenticates its divine origin by its transforming power in their lives. This is a clear indication of Paul’s self-conscious apostolic authority. He knew who he was (an apostle of Christ) and he knew what his message was (the word of God). And the Thessalonians knew these things as well.
The efficacy of the gospel in the believers was seen in the fact that they *became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus* (14a). The Judean churches are probably singled out for mention because they were the first to be planted. And the ‘imitation’ of them by the Thessalonians was an unwitting rather than a deliberate one. All true churches, which belong to God and live in Christ, are bound on that account, in spite of cultural differences, to display a certain similarity to one another. This similarity was seen not only in their receiving the word, but also in their suffering for it: *You* (Thessalonians, mostly of Gentile stock) have *suffered from your own countrymen the same things those (Judean) churches suffered from the Jews* (14b).
But what sufferings at the hands of the Jews does Paul have in mind? He tells us:
…(15) *who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all men (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*.
These two verses, sometimes called ‘the Pauline polemic against the Jews’, have been described as ‘violent’, ‘vehement’, ‘vindictive’, ‘passionate’, ‘intemperate’, bitter’ and ‘harsh’. So incongruous do some commentators feel them to be in one of Paul’s letters, that they attribute them to an anti-Jewish interpolator. But there is no manuscript evidence that they were added by a later hand.
We must begin our evaluation of these verses by studying what Paul actually wrote and by setting it against the background of the most recent Jewish persecution which he had experienced. Luke makes it clear in Acts 17 and 18 that it was Jewish opponents of the gospel who pursued Paul from Thessalonica to Berea and from Berea to Athens. Then after his arrival in Corinth (from which he wrote 1 Thessalonians) it was Jewish opposition which led him to take the drastic step of turning to the Gentiles. In his indictment of the Jews in verse 15, he accuses them of five things, which remind us of Stephen’s speech before the Sandhedrin (Acts 7). First, they had *killed the Lord Jesus*. To say such a thing today would be regarded as a very reprehensible, anti- semitic statement. And it is true that the Romans were also implicated in Jesus’ death. So are all of us for whose sins he died. Indeed, Paul included himself personally in this (Gal.2:20), and never forgot that he had once been ‘a blasphemer and a persecutor’ (1 Tim.1:13). Nevertheless, the Jewish people as a whole shared in the blame and said so (Mt.27:25). While implicating ourselves, we cannot exonerate them. Secondly, they *killed…the prophets*, which Jesus himself had accused them of doing (Mt.23:29-31: Lk.13:34). Thirdly, they *also drove us out*, which seems to put the apostles on a level with the prophets (Cf. 1 Cor.4:9). Fourthly, *they displease God*, especially by rejecting his Messiah, and lastly they *are hostile to all men*. This phrase has reminded many commentators of Tacitus’ famous description of the Jews: ‘Towards all other people (i.e. except their fellow-Jews) they feel only hatred and hostility’. Further, Paul explains their hostility to the human race in terms of their attempt to stop the apostles from preaching the gospel and so to stop the Gentiles from being saved (Cf. Mt.23:13). Paul saw this policy as the appalling thing it was. The Jews had not only killed the Messiah and persecuted the prophets and the apostles. They were also obstructing the spread of the gospel and so the work of salvation.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.