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Series: Paul to the Thessalonians

Our text today is a second section of thanksgiving to God. I have given you a handout where you can see how this second thanksgiving parallels the first one in a number of ways.

Our focus today will be on the latter part of this passage that talks about judgment on “the Jews,” which has been read by some as a justification for anti-Semitism.

But first a few words about –

Paul’s thanksgiving

“13And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”

Paul is giving thanks here again, that they received the gospel. As we saw last week, it was not the word of some charlatan, but God’s own word that they received. And God’s word is alive and active, as Paul says it is still at work in them transforming them.

“14For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews . . ..”

Here Paul cites as the chief evidence of the validity of their faith that they underwent suffering for it. And just as in the first thanksgiving, where Paul talks about how they became imitators of himself and Jesus in their faithfulness in the midst of suffering, so here he talks about how they have become imitators of the churches in Judea who suffered faithfully.

So Paul is seeking to encourage them. They may be outcasts because of their new faith, but they are connected to a larger body of believers who have suffered – the church in Judea.

Next we come to our focus for today –

What Paul says about “the Jews”

  • He talks about “the Jews 15who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets . . ..” The prophets here probably refers to Christian prophets like Stephen and James the son of Zebedee who had died for their faith.
  • “and drove us out . . ..” This refers not just to what happened in Judea, but also Paul’s own dealings with some of the Thessalonian Jews who chased him out of town.
  • “and displease God and oppose all mankind 16by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved . . ..” Note that he says this specifically because they are hindering the progress of the Gospel.
  • “so as always to fill up the measure of their sins . . ..” The idea of filling up the measure of one’s sins is talked about in several places in Scripture (Genesis 15:16; Matthew 23:32; Daniel 8:23). God is patient with all who rebel against him, but he sets a limit. And when the measure is full, then comes judgment.
  • Which is what Paul talks about next, “But wrath has come upon them at last!” There is punishment coming soon, or that has even already started.

This is the question that faces us –

Is Paul being anti-Semitic here?

That is, is he making a blanket negative statement about all Jews, that they displease God, are opposed to humanity and deserve God’s wrath? So that this is what we should think of all Jews? I want to take this issue seriously because there has been much hatred and oppression of Jews over the last number of centuries, often in the name of Christianity, in part, based on a certain reading of texts like these.

There has been horrible persecution, evil and cruel stereotyping, and just a generation ago, the holocaust where millions of Jews were systematically killed for no other reason than that they were Jews. It pains me beyond measure to think that any of this hatred could be based upon the New Testament – which teaches us to love even our enemies. But many have done just this. And not just crazies or fringe elements, but renowned Christian leaders in centuries past have said things that have contributed to this. And so I want us to attend to this today with some vigor.

Is Paul being anti-Semitic here? The answer is no, because –

Paul is referring to a particular group of Jews

The word “Jew” comes from the word “Judea,” a reference to the old southern kingdom of Israel based in Jerusalem, named after Judah, one of the 12 patriarchs. The word “Jew” can refer to 1) anyone who is Jewish/Judean in religion or culture – who upholds the law of Moses, and is connected to Abraham. And there were many different kinds of Jews: Essences, Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, followers of John the Baptist, Diaspora Jews living outside the land of Israel. Or it can refer to a sub-group of Jews 2) those in charge in Judea – the political and religious authorities of Judea and the temple. These “powers that be” were made up of a loose coalition of Sadducees and Pharisees and any who aligned themselves with them.

Here is why we know that Paul is referring to the latter:

– Paul was himself a practicing Jew in the religious sense. Paul says plainly enough in Acts 22:3, “I am a Jew.”

– Jesus, his Lord, was Jewish down to wearing the tassels on the corners of his garment (Matthew 9:20) in accordance with the Law of Moses.

– Most Christians at this time were still practicing Jews. Indeed all the writers of the New Testament were Jewish, except Luke.

– And in our text itself the churches in Judea who are being persecuted by “the Jews” are also Jews!

We have to understand that just as there were Pharisees and Sadducees,  and so forth, so Jesus’ followers were another form of Judaism – the “Jesus movement” or it was sometimes called – “the way,” made up of both Jews and Gentiles in Christ.

So the point here is that Paul can’t be condemning all Jews. He and his fellow Jewish Christians are Jews. (This is also the case in the gospel of John where the phrase “the Jews” most often refers to the Judeans in power.)

So what we have here is in an inter-Jewish conflict over what it means to be faithful to God, focused on whether Jesus is the Messiah or not. And it was all–out. The Judean “powers that be” condemned and persecuted the Jesus movement. And the Jesus movement condemned them for failing to receive the promised Messiah. (For similar kinds of inter-Jewish prophetic condemnations see 2 Chronicles 36:14-21; Jeremiah 22:1-9; Hosea 5:1-4, etc.)

This is the context of this passage. Paul is talking about judgment coming on these Judean “powers-that-be” and those that align with them. These are precisely the ones who killed Jesus and the prophets and have opposed the preaching of the gospel, as he says in these verses.

Let’s reread this passage with this in mind – “For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Judean ‘powers that be’ who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But God’s wrath has come upon the Judean ‘powers that be’ at last!”

It’s also important for us to understand that he is not just talking about a particular group of Jews –

Paul is referring to a particular judgment

He is quoting Jesus from Matthew 23, reminding them of the Jesus traditions he has handed on to them. You have a handout so let’s look at this briefly.

Both talk about 1. Persecuting the prophets

  • Paul speaks of “. . . the Jews who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out . . .” – vs. 14-15.
  • Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town . . .” – Matthew 23:34.

Both talk about 2. Hindering the gospel

  • They “displease God and oppose all mankind by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved” – vs. 15-16.
  • “Woe to you . . . for you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.” – Matthew 23:13.

Both talk about 3. Filling up the measure of sin

  • “ . . . so as always to fill up the measure of their sins.” – v. 16.
  • “Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers” – Matthew 23:32.

Both talk about 4. Coming judgment

  • “But wrath has come upon them at last!” –  v. 16.
  • “Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation” – Matthew 23:36.

So Paul is referring to Jesus’ speech in Matthew 23. The point here is that the judgment that Jesus speaks of is the judgment that Paul is talking about. In Matthew 23 Jesus is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple within a generation. This is what he refers to in Matthew 23:38, “your house is left to you desolate” and this is expanded on in chapter 24.

Paul is saying that this judgment is already breaking out against the Judean ‘powers that be.’ He most likely saw this in several activities on the part of Rome – opposing the Judean leadership (the expulsion of Jews from Rome and various conflicts with Cumanus the new Roman governor at this time).

And in fact this judgment did happen in 70 AD, within a generation of Jesus’ prediction. The Sadducean/Pharisaic coalition that played a role in killing Jesus and persecuting his followers was wiped out and their political and religious base was no more. Why do I share all this with you? The judgment Paul is talking about has already happened! This is why these Judean powers don’t exist anymore. They were judged and set aside forever. These verses don’t apply to any other Jews.

Christian anti-Semitism!?

So listen to me this morning. We must decisively renounce hatred of any people group, whether religious, racial or cultural. We must put aside any hint of prejudice or bigotry. God has called us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Yes, we will disagree in religious matters with various groups and in the midst of persecution we may point out that there will be judgment on our oppressors – like Paul does here. But we are also called to love our enemies and this excludes hatred, bigotry and prejudice.

Now the temptation for many today in America is to hate Muslims. But the call to love our neighbors includes all people.

But for Christians to be prejudiced against Jews makes no sense! It’s like being prejudiced against your mother. That’s where we came from! Do you understand this?

  • Christianity is a form of Judaism, that includes both Jewish believers and Gentile believers in Christ.
  • And we serve a Jewish Messiah, our Lord Jesus.
  • And we claim Abraham as our father and honor Moses as a saint.

Do many Jews not believe? Yes. Do many Gentiles not believe? Yes. And we are called to love them all!

Let’s end by hearing what Paul says in Romans 9:1-5. Here Paul is not focused on encouraging those who are being persecuted and assuring them that there will be justice from God. Here we see his heart for unbelieving Jews, some of whom are the very ones who have persecuted him and the Thessalonians.

“I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” Hear his heart in this. He would even give up his salvation for them to turn to Jesus!

“They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.”

William Higgins

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