A Commentary by John Stott
1 Thessalonians 2:13-16. d) A herald (continued).
Only one clarification helps to lighten our Christian sense of guilt. It is what some Fathers, medieval churchmen and Reformers were expressing was anti-Judaism not anti- Semitism, a theological conviction not a racial prejudice. Thus Chrysostom reserved his bitterest invective for ‘Judaizing’ Christians who tried to combine church and synagogue. And Luther’s overriding concern was the honour of God’s Son, whom the Jews denied. Even Rosemary R.Ruether, in her violent critique of the Christian anti-Jewish record, *Faith and Fratricide* (1975), concedes this: ‘There is no way to rid Christianity of its anti-Judaism, which constantly takes social expression in anti-Semitism, without grappling finally with its christological hermeneutic itself.’
By Christianity’s ‘Christological hermeneutic’ Professor Ruether is referring to our belief that Jesus is the Messiah, that those who deny Christ are Antichrist, and that only those who acknowledge the Son have the Father also (E.g. 1 Jn.2:22-23). Such convictions may help to explain some Christian attitudes of antipathy towards the Jews; they certainly do not excuse them.
Returning now to Paul’s statements in 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16, we need to remember that he himself was a patriotic Jew, as we learn particularly from Romans 3:1-4 and 9:1-11:36. He gloried in his Jewish ancestry. He longed with anguish for the salvation of his people. He declared that he was willing even to forfeit his own salvation if only thereby they might be saved (Rom.9:1-5; 10:1). He also taught that God had not cast off his people, because his gifts and call are irrevocable, and that he intended to include them again, if they did not persist in unbelief. Metaphorically speaking, his plan was to graft back into the olive tree the natural branches which had been temporarily cut off (Rom. 11). So we have to balance 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16 with everything Paul wrote a few years later in Romans 9-11. There is no evidence that he changed his mind during the interval, and so contradicted himself, or that in 1 Thessalonians his statements are vengeful, or incompatible with the mind of Christ. No. Paul is simply stating bald facts. Many of his Jewish contemporaries were rejecting Christ, opposing the gospel and hindering Gentiles from being saved. In consequence, God’s wrath had come upon them, as Jesus himself had warned.
How is it possible, however, to reconcile the horizons of 1 Thessalonians (which predicts, even declares, God’s judgment) and of Romans 11 (which affirms the continuing validity of God’s covenant and the assurance of Israel’s salvation)? Are not the warning of judgment and the promise of salvation equally irrevocable and therefore contradictory? Perhaps the solution to this problem is to be found in the difference of Paul’s terminology between God’s wrath upon ‘the Jews’ individually (1 Thess.2:14) and his salvation of ‘Israel’ collectively (Rom.11:25-26). Paul had not come to believe, when writing to the Thessalonians, that henceforth all Jews could expect nothing but judgment, and that no Jew could be saved. This is plain from the fact that, when he moved on from Corinth to Ephesus, he continued his policy of evangelizing the synagogue first (Acts 19:8; cf. Rom.1:16 ‘to the Jew first’). And even when he reached Rome, he called the leaders of the Jews together (it was his first act) and ‘explained and declared to them the kingdom of God and tried to convince them about Jesus from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets’. Moreover, ‘some were convinced’. It was those who rejected Christ who were themselves rejected, and on whom God’s judgment fell (Acts 28:16-31).
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.