This is part of an ongoing series blogging through 1 Thessalonians. You can find the first installment here.
I've separated the rest of that sentence "who calls you into his kingdom and glory" to emphasize it and not let it get lost. Remember from the gospels that Jesus came to bring the Kingdom and this invisible kingdom is where our focus needs to be in order to live lives worthy of God. As for His Glory, oh our Lord is longing to show that to us! I should probably do more posts on this later, but during Jesus' "high priest prayer" in John (right before his arrest and crucifixion) He expresses His desire for us to see His glory. It is a longing of His heart and promise for us.
"And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God" Ah yes, this is an amazing thing. I remember when this happened in my own spiritual journey. I had read the Bible on and off and frequently growing up and God had spoken to me in it before, but on some level I hadn't really believed it was the true word of God. That is I recognized it and it alone as scripture, but I did not trust in the Holy Spirit enough to preserve it through the millennia that had passed from its penning to my reading. I relied often on scholars who were more apt to base their understanding on it from archaeological or anthropological data then from actually taking the Bible as inerrant. I am often talking Christian scholars here, who believed in Jesus and His resurrection, and yet somehow could not believe the Bible hadn't been corrupted, at least a bit, along the way. I was a religion minor studying these scholars in college and suddenly a light went off, a literal illumination of the Spirit. I realized that these scholars talked and believed in the Father and the Son but had no understanding or appreciation of the Spirit. And that if I had faith in the Spirit then I had to have faith in His Power, a Power that certainly could and certainly would preserve the word of God for the generations, through the authors and the scribes and scholars who copied it throughout the years. Now in this passage, I do not think Paul and the authors are strictly talking about a scripture reading, but about the preaching of the gospel. However, the principle is the same, that is, that the Spirit has the ability to speak to us, the living word of God. Obviously man is fallible enough that God does not always use any of us, but through His indwelling Spirit He often uses us anyway. And He can and will use scripture in a direct way, the Sword of the Spirit, cutting through the sinews of the lies when a heart is illuminated by God.
The word of God "which is indeed at work in you who believe." What a powerful promise to grasp hold of and have faith in! The powerful word of God, at work in us!
"For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus" I admit my first thought was why didn't Paul say that they became imitators or Christ or were in Christ Jesus? Why bring in the church in Judea? Upon reflection two things become important to my processing of this verse: one, it's a segway to talking about the Judea region's church and nonbelievers in the next verses. Two, it emphasizes a theme we see in Paul's writings we don't see much in the teachings of the modern church. That is that to imitate someone who is in Christ is the same as to follow Christ. Well I don't know if it's the exact same. But the metaphor that comes to mind is of a ewe, her lamb, and a shepherd. Years ago I was haunted by that verse where Jesus says his sheep will know his voice. You know the one? I was haunted because at the time I didn't feel I knew Jesus' voice. Years later, after walking with Him in with fellowship, Bible reading, and prayer that same verse thrilled me because I now knew His voice and He gave me insight into the verse. A lamb born to the flock does not yet know the shepherd. In the same way, Jesus does not expect the baby Christians (new believers) to know Him yet. Instead the lamb follows its mother and the other sheep, who identify the shepherd with their behavior and trust in Him, and soon the lamb knows the shepherd just as well. In this way Paul urges churches to follow sheep, that is Christians and other churches who are known to be in Christ, that through their example, the discipline of obedience, and the revelation of the life-giving Spirit the church becomes just as adept at following the shepherd as any of the flock at large and worthy of rearing lambs of its own.
"You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out." When I read over the this passage in anticipation of this study this week I cringed. I am sure this is one of the verses people have used without love in history to ostracize Jews. However, remember that Paul is a contemporary of Jesus (though he hadn't met Jesus personally prior to the ascension) and when he is speaking of the Jews who killed Jesus, that is were part of the conspiracy to kill Jesus, cried "crucify him!" when Pontious Pilate asked if he should free Jesus, and/or gawked at his demeaning method of death. That is, he is literally talking about the Jews that killed Jesus, and not passing a judgment on Jews as an ethnicity. Indeed, Paul himself is a Jew and he reveals deep love for his people in many other places in the New Testament.
Okay, that misinterpretation set aside, let us focus on the verse as it applied to the Thessalonians. Again as we talked about a few weeks ago, following the example of Christ means suffering. In this they are talking about persecution. He is comparing whatever suffering the Church in Thessalonica is enduring to not just the dramatic killings of Jesus and the prophets, but also those who "drove us out." That refers to the fact that the Jews, that is ones who have not come to Christ, have already recognized that the teaching of the gospel of Jesus is contrary to their teachings and so expelled Christian Jews from synagogues and probably other aspects of Jewish life as heretics. We know from both history and reading the gospels that the very "righteous" Jews did not want to stoop to socializing (even sharing meals) with those they saw as non-Jews, so likely Christian Jews are slowly (or perhaps even speedily) becoming social outcasts amongst their own people, even relatives. They are facing social discrimination, humiliation, and rejection. And Paul, here in the Holy Bible, is listing this with the crucifixion and the murder of God's prophets. Why do I point that out? Because while I totally do agree that there are some Christians who overuse the word "persecution" I also think there are many who preach that unless you're getting stoned God doesn't see your social stigmatization as being a Christian as suffering. Well, that's wrong. Rest assured if you're reading this and you've lost a friend, a family member, respect, social standing, or community because of your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, Jesus considers your suffering worthy to be listed amongst His own, and indeed that suffering is a mark that you are in Him. Believe and be joyful about it.
"They displease God and are hostile to everyone in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved." Do you know anyone like this? Doubtlessly you do when you realize this is referring to people who get really angry at anyone who wants to evangelize. Both the society I live in and the society I come from have this in place at least more than they have those who are open to hearing the gospel. And if that's the case where you live, that is only by the power of the Spirit of God. Basically, those who are at amnity with God do not like to hear the gospel preached and might go to any lengths to prevent it. Believe Paul, he knows: he was witness to Stephen's stoning for this crime and even approved then, before His salvation.
"In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last." I admit the second statement fascinated me, wondering if 1 Thessalonians was written post 70 AD (the destruction of Jerusalem.) Doing a bit of research though, apparently 1 Thessalonians is pretty much the only book in the New Testament (seemingly) that's dating isn't disputed because it was written by Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy. This trio broke up as ministry partners in 51 AD according to Acts, and they had visited Thessalonica in 50 AD. So basically they know that this letter is from after leaving Thessalonica but before splitting up, that is late 50 AD- 51 AD. Therefore, some believe that these verses were stuck in this letter after Paul wrote it (that is after 70 AD.) As I said above, I believe in the Holy Spirit's power to preserve the scriptures so I reject that.
Instead, I think that there are a few more probable interpretations: either something was going on in 51 AD in Jerusalem that Paul thought were clear signs the end was upon them (likely, considering the eschatological nature of this letter, as we will see in future weeks.) Another possibility was this was a faith based statement, that is that the Spirit was revealing to them the reality the eminent destruction of the city (admittedly still 19 years away.) Or this might be talking about the wrath of God in a spiritual sense, that is, that the condition of these specific Jews at this point was they were under the wrath of God. Some translations translate "at last" as something like "to the uttermost", therefore not necessarily indicating the wrath was a long time coming, but that is is severe. And that goes along with the first statement "In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit", because the always there implies that a) this is ongoing and b) this might also be an observation of a pattern in those who persecute the church. Taken in that way, this is not a statement just about first century Jews, but about those who fall under the pattern outlined in the previous verse, displeasing God by being hostile to those preaching the gospel.
Therefore I do think the most probably interpretation, especially taken in context, is that those who oppose those who are trying to spread the word of God are heaping up sins until their limit and then will experience the wrath of God. And if you consider that, I smile with hope. Not at those falling to the wrath of God, but because as I said was we looked at the last verses, Paul was once amongst their number! This verse is a testament to God being able to save us from His Wrath through faith in Jesus Christ and being wiped clean by His blood.
The next week, week 6, can be found here.