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Series: Paul to the Thessalonians

Paul mosaicWe are finishing up our series on Paul to the Thessalonians today. There is much more we could cover, especially if we went on into 2 Thessalonians, but that will have to wait for another time. As we close, I want us to focus in on a theme that is in the background of 1 Thessalonians and can be easily overlooked. There is a strong contrast here between God’s kingdom and Rome’s; between the empire of God and the empire of Rome.

First a bit of background connected to –

Thessalonica’s devotion to Rome

Culturally, Thessalonica was a Greek city, although it held onto its local Macedonian political traditions and structures. In its religious life it had many different gods that were worshipped, and many temples, priests, and rituals. And this was entirely ordinary outside of Israel. It distinguished itself, however, in its devotion to emperor worship.

Thessalonica had taken the right side in a Roman civil war – siding with Augustus, and was handsomely rewarded for this. It was made a free city. It benefited economically from is close association with Rome. And it enjoyed the Pax Romana – the peace and security that the Empire brought to their region. So their relationship with Rome was important and actively cultivated by its citizens and leaders. It was a very pro-Roman city.

As I said, this was expressed through the cult of Emperor worship, specifically focused on Caesar Augustus. He was deified and worshipped as a god. There was both a statue of him and a temple dedicated to him in Thessalonica at the time Paul was there.

God versus Rome in 1 Thessalonians

This contrast comes out in several key words and phrases:

1. God’s “kingdom” – 2:12. To give it a bit more context, it says, we “charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”

This language of kingdom and empire, was well known in the Roman world. Rome claimed to have the most powerful and glorious kingdom ever. Yet here Paul’s speaks of God’s kingdom; of “his own kingdom and glory.”

2. “The Lord” – 2:19. This was used as a title for Roman emperors, and it is a general description of what they claimed with other terms. They had authority and power and ruled the world.

Paul’s use of this title is rooted in Biblical sources, but it also makes the counterpoint to Caesar clear. It is used often in 1 Thessalonians in reference to a different Lord, the Lord Jesus.

3. “Son” of God – 1:10. The full phrase is, “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son.” (vs. 9-10).

Augustus claimed to be the son of god. His father was Julius Caesar who, after his death was revered as a god. And so Augustus called himself “the son of god” and was worshipped as such in Thessalonica. There are coins that proclaim this, which were minted in Thessalonica at the time of Paul.

But in 1 Thessalonians Jesus is the true Son of God, the Son of the “living and true God,” not of a dead Roman leader.

4. “Good news” – 1:5, or gospel. This word has roots in Scripture, but also in the culture of that day. It was used in reference to Roman emperors to talk of their birth, their ascension to the throne and their good deeds that helped the empire. So for instance one could speak of the good news that Augustus had brought in a new era of peace and security.

This word is used six times in 1 Thessalonians in each case talking about the good news of Jesus, the true Lord and Son of God.

5. “Peace and security” – 5:3. This was a slogan associated with Rome and Caesar Augustus. He ended the civil war and had brought law and order to the region through military might.

Paul critiques this as a false security, for when Jesus returns, while they are saying “peace and security” there will be sudden destruction. That is, the security of Rome will not protect it against the coming judgment of God. True peace and security only come through Jesus, and it will cover the earth when Jesus returns and deals with all evildoers and evil.

6. The “coming” of the Lord – 4:15. The word for coming here was used for the visit of a god, an emperor or some dignitary to a place. The Thessalonians would have known this, since kings and dignitaries would have visited their city. Here it is applied to the coming of Jesus. He is the true emperor and Lord and will come to them.

7. “Meet” – 4:17. The phrase is we “will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” This was a term used for the welcoming committee that goes out to greet a visiting dignitary or emperor and escort them back into the city (Acts 28:15-16). Here it is applied to Christians going up to meet the Lord Jesus in the air when he comes, presumably to escort him to the earth.

One other note from 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4. However you understand the man of lawlessness, he is modeled on a Roman emperor (with Greek rulers also in the background; e.g. Antiochus Epiphanies. For instance the incident in 40 where Caligula tried to place a statue of himself in the Jerusalem temple, not too long before Paul wrote 1 and 2 Thessalonians). The day of the Lord will not come until, “the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.” These are very plausibly the actions of a Roman emperor with their arrogant claims and titles.

Paul’s point

 In all of these contrasts (and there are more) Paul is redefining their political identity in light of Jesus and the kingdom of God. His point is that God’s kingdom, ruled by the Lord Jesus, his Son is the real kingdom. And this is the community that the Thessalonians are now a part of. His point is that God’s gospel about Jesus and the salvation he brings is true salvation. And this is the salvation that the Thessalonians have received.

Rome is simply a parody of God’s kingdom (N.T. Wright). Despite its glory and power it is frail, feeble and flimsy in comparison to God’s kingdom which is eternal in power and glory.

The political implications of Paul’s claims were not lost on his opponents in Thessalonica or on the rulers of the city. This comes out in Acts 17:6-8. His opponents said, “’These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.’ And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things.”

They were disturbed because Paul’s teaching would upset the relationship they had with Rome. None of the Thessalonians wanted to lose their benefits and privileges. And this was certainly a source of the persecution directed at the Thessalonian believers. So they got these political implications and the subversiveness of his message, and they and reacted negatively.

Well, whether you think of it in these terms or not –

We live in an empire . . .

– perhaps the greatest, most powerful, most wealthy one ever. What does Paul’s message to the Thessalonians say to us?

1. Beware of nations or empires that assume a divine status. The more powerful the country, the more the temptation to take on an identity that only belongs to God’s kingdom.

This happens in our country when politicians of all stripes and of all ages apply Christian terms and categories to this nation. For instance calling this country “the light of the world. A city set on a hill (that) cannot be hidden” from Matthew 5:14. Well I’m sorry, but this phrase is already taken! It is talking about the people of God and the kingdom of God, not this country. Or seeing our country as the savior of the world come to unite people of all backgrounds into one under our banners and ideals. Again, this is what the kingdom of God will do as people of all tribes and tongues come to submit to Jesus and honor him.

When we mix Christian faith and our national identity, through what is called civil religion – a very watered down version of Christianity, we always get into trouble, biblically considered. Whatever God’s purpose is for a given country, it is not to be his kingdom. He has already chosen a nation for this – his church! It is arrogant to say that it is otherwise. In fact, it is idolatrous.   Certainly we as Christians should not be so foolish as to take part in this. Rather we need to remember our true, separate identity as members of God’s kingdom:

  • We are “the light of the world. A city set on a hill (that) cannot be hidden” – Matthew 5:14.
  • We are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” – 1 Peter 2:9.
  • “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” – Philippians 3:20.
  • Ours is a nation made up of people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, as Revelation 7:9 says.

Just as Paul worked to transform their political identity, so we need to remember this as well in our situation. Our country is one thing, the kingdom of God is an entirely different and better thing.

2. Beware of looking to your country for salvation. Don’t look to it for your security and peace and for meaning in life. There are a number of ideas and philosophies in our culture that come to us as alternative gospels; that promise us peace and happiness.

Financially there is the gospel of the American dream, of free market capitalism and consumerism where if we just keep buying more and more things we will be happy. This, even though we are taught to pray for daily bread and are to share with the poor.

Militarily there is the good news of peace and security via the US military and intelligence communities, even though such peace and security is only about preserving our lives in this world and we are called to lose our lives in this world in order to gain them in the next.

Politically there is the good news of democratic freedom, which is the equivalent of salvation, and we are to spread this by all means throughout the world. Even though freedom for the Christian is the freedom we have in Christ to serve God and to live under his theocracy.

Personally there is the gospel of autonomy and self-fulfillment; the casting off of restraints so that you can do whatever you want. Even though we will never find our true selves until we find ourselves in Christ by submitting to him.

Don’t look to these false gospels and the idols that they promote. True salvation only comes from God, through our Lord Jesus. And it will only fully come when our Lord comes and we meet him, as Paul told the Thessalonians. This is the good news. This is how we find peace, meaning and blessing.

(For the background material here I benefited most from Ben Witherington’s commentary on 1 Thessalonians)

William Higgins

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