A Commentary by John Stott
1 Thessalonians 2:13-16 d). A herald (continued).
As a result of their antagonism, *they always heap up their sins to the limit*. Just as God’s judgment fell on the Amorites when their sin ‘had reached its full measure’ (Gn,15:16), so it would fall on the Jewish people when they had filled up the measure of their sins and those of their forefathers (Mt. 23:32). Then it can be said that *The wrath of God has come upon them at last* (16). According to 1:10 God’s wrath is future, but here it appears to be past. Ernest Best explains that although *phthano* means to arrive, it can express an arrival with or without ‘participation in whatever experience lies at the destination’. Thus, Jesus’ statement in Matthew 12:28 that ‘the kingdom of God has come upon you’ (*ephthasen*, the same verb in the same tense), affirms its arrival, while leaving open whether people have yet received it or not. Similarly, Paul’s statement about God’s wrath could mean either that it ‘has fallen on them and they now experience it’, or that it ‘hangs over them and is just about to fall upon them’. If the former is right, then (commentators suggest) Paul may be seeing the arrival of God’s judgment in such events as the unprecedented famine in Judea of AD 45-47 (Acts 11:27-28), the brutal massacre of Jews in the temple precincts at Passover in AD 49 (described by Josephus), and in the same year the expulsion of the Jews from Rome by Emperor Claudius (Acts 18:2). Since 1 Thessalonians was probably written in AD 50, these were all at the time vivid, recent events.
The other translation seems to me more likely, however, namely that ‘the wrath of God is over their heads’ (JBP), though it has not yet engulfed them. The destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 was still twenty years away. But the reference in 2 Thessalonians 2:4 to Antichrist setting himself up in God’s temple strongly suggests that Paul was familiar with at least some of the apocalyptic warnings of Jesus (e.g. Mk.13:14). So Jesus’ epigrammatic saying about God’s coming judgment on the nation had surely become current, like ‘the kingdom of God will be taken away from you’ (Mt. 21:43), your house is left to you desolate’ (Mt. 23:38), and ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children’ (Lk. 23:28). If the tradition of such predictions of judgment was part of the background of Paul’s thinking, then the Jews’ continuing rejection of the gospel would surely make him think this judgment to be imminent, which indeed it was. In this case the final words *eis telos* are likely to mean neither ‘decisively. completely, to the uttermost’, nor ‘for ever’, but ‘finally’, i.e. ‘the wrath of God hangs over their heads at last’.
However we interpret the last two sentences of verse 16, they are extremely solemn words. Yet anti-Semitism cannot find any possible justification in them. No Christian can read the long history of anti-Judaism in the church without feeling profoundly ashamed. The worst example among the Fathers was Chrysostom, who in AD 386-88 in Antioch preached eight virulent sermons against the Jews. He likened them to animals, and made wild accusations against them, ranging from gluttony, drunkenness and immorality to infanticide and even cannibalism. In the Middle Ages four repressive regulations of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) obliged Jews to live in ghettos and wear distinctive dress, while during the Crusades the church failed to restrain the popular fanaticism which led to pogrom and pillage in Jewish communities. More embarrassing still is Luther’s intemperate treatise *On the Jews and their Lies* (1543). It is true that his health was declining, not long before his death, and that he was disillusioned over his earlier hopes for the conversion of the Jews. Yet these things do not exonerate him for his diatribe against them, or for his call to set fire to their synagogues, destroy their homes, confiscate their Talmudic books and silence their Rabbis.
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.