Andy Johnson answers your questions about Thessalonians

Andy Johnson
Andy Johnson

In our August newsletter, we invited readers to submit their questions for Andy Johnson, author of the new 1 & 2 Thessalonians commentary in the Two Horizons New Testament Commentary series.

Is yours among the questions he selected? Read on to find out!

Do you think that Paul’s eschatology, or other aspects of his theology, changed or developed from A.D. 48 until his death? If so, how and why? — Robert M.

I think it is almost certain that Paul’s thinking on various matters did indeed change, at least to some extent, over his twenty or so years of working in different missional contexts. However, trying to nail down exactly which aspects of his theology developed and to what extent they did is difficult to do for a variety of reasons (e.g., we don’t know for sure the order in which the letters were written). Generally speaking, attempts to do this are generated by the need to offer an explanation of what appears to be an inconsistency between what Paul says in one letter about a particular issue and what he says in another letter about that same issue.

For example, apparent inconsistencies on eschatological matters in Paul’s letters have often led scholars to try to explain them by arguing that Paul’s eschatology changed/developed between the time he wrote the letters in question. As a case in point, Paul’s failure to mention transformation in dealing with the resurrection of Christ followers in 1 Thess 4:13-18 has led some to argue that in this, probably the earliest document in the NT, Paul conceives of the future resurrection in “crassly physical” terms as simply the resuscitation of “flesh and blood” corpses, without envisioning their transformation. In 1 Corinthians 15, so the argument goes, Paul’s thinking develops so that he now describes the future resurrection in entirely non-physical terms so that what is raised is a “spiritual body.” He continues to develop his views to the point where in Philippians 1 and 2 Cor 5, when one dies, one is immediately with the Lord without the need for body-talk. In other words, he develops from a “crassly physical” Jewish conception to a “more spiritual” Hellenistic conception.

I do not find this strategy for dealing with such apparent inconsistencies on eschatological matters either historically convincing or theologically helpful. (For instance, it raises the question: Which stage of Paul’s development should one prioritize in theological reflection on such eschatological matters?). My view of the nature of Scripture does not require me to deny that there may be inconsistencies between different parts of Scripture regarding the same issue. However, as I attempt to demonstrate in the commentary in a section dealing with eschatology in the Thessalonian correspondence, there are context-specific reasons why Paul says what he does about the future resurrection in 1 Thess 4:13-18 versus what he says about it in other context-specific ways in his other letters. I will remain open to hearing proposals about Paul developing his thinking regarding other issues, but in this example, these supposed eschatological differences are not “inconsistencies” that need explaining via a developmental hypothesis. Rather, they are best interpreted as differences in his rhetorical emphases, differences that are helpful for generating fruitful theological reflection. My hunch is that more often than not, other apparent differences fall into a similar category.

How do you explain the meaning of the “rapture” based on Paul’s teachings in 1 Thessalonians 4 and 2 Thessalonians 2? — Marc W.

Does the passage in I Thessalonians 4:13-18 refer to a rapture, or is it referring to the Second Coming, or a little of both? — Bryant. W

Given their similarity, it is best to deal with both these questions together. Let me first simply say that I think the answer to Bryant’s question is basically “Yes.” But I need to clarify that immediately by answering Marc’s question as to the meaning of the “rapture” in 1 Thess 4 and 2 Thess 2. The only time in the Bible where the Greek word “caught up” (harpadzō), is used in an eschatological context is in 1 Thess 4:17 (the word is not used in 2 Thess at all). The Latin equivalent, rapiō, is the word from which the English word “rapture” is derived. Hence, this text has been understood throughout most of church history to refer to the “rapture” of Christians when Christ returns. However, this is not to be equated with “the secret Rapture of the church” as espoused by popular versions of Premillenial Dispensationalism (e.g., the Left Behind books and movies). That is, it does not refer to a moment when the millions of “true” Christians simply disappear from the face of the earth because Christ has secretly returned, met them in the clouds, and caught them up into heaven so that they’re not around when the rest of the world “goes to Hell in a handbasket,” so to speak. 1 Thess 4:13-18 simply doesn’t say this or even imply it. The text simply leaves those “raptured” suspended in the air, but neither here nor anywhere else in Paul’s letters does Paul go on to say that the Lord takes them all back to heaven with him. Rather, the images in this text imply that when living followers of Christ are “caught up” into the air (not heaven) together with those from their number who died previously, they together meet the Lord and join his “royal coming parade” (i.e., his parousia) as they escort him back to an earth that he then sets right/redeems.

This understanding of “rapture” is clearly at odds with the very widespread notion of the secret rapture of the church popularized over the last two centuries by Dispensationalism. Many Christians simply imagine that the Dispensationalist view has been what the Church has always believed. They are usually unaware of both its relatively recent origin or that, despite its claims to the contrary, it does not represent what is “the clear and plain” meaning of a whole host of eschatological texts in the Bible. In fact, it constitutes a whole interpretive system—a particular (deficient in my view) theological hermeneutic—that one brings to the biblical texts to structure one’s interpretive judgments. Without employing this theological hermeneutic a priori, the Thessalonian correspondence never plainly refers to, or even implies, a secret rapture. If you’d like to pursue the issue further, the second part of the commentary has a seventeen-page section in which I address in some detail the way Dispensationalism originated, its interpretive assumptions, and the way those assumptions are displayed as Dispensationalist interpreters read the Thessalonian correspondence. I am hoping this section will be helpful, especially for pastors who are attempting to form and shape their congregations with what I understand to be a healthier eschatology than what they tend to encounter in popular Christian culture.

Does “the day of the Lord” in 1 Th. 5 speak about the return of Jesus, or is it a reference to something else? — Barry W.

In the OT prophetic writings, “Day of the Lord” language refers to when Yahweh (the LORD) comes to bring judgement and salvation, to set his people and the world right. Paul uses this language in a similar way in 1 Thess 5 and other places, but does so in reference to the Lord Jesus specifically. However, in Paul’s writings, when he uses the term parousia to refer to the return of Jesus (only in 1 Cor 15 and in the Thessalonian correspondence), he is referring to Jesus’ initial arrival and an accompanying “royal welcoming parade” in which his followers can participate. This is how he has just described Jesus’ return in 1 Thess 4:13-18, i.e., as a parousia. This means that the phrase, “Day of the Lord” and the word parousia are not simply interchangeable. The parousia (the return of the Lord Jesus) happens on, and is the catalyst for, the Day of the Lord but is not equivalent to everything else happens on the Day of the Lord (e.g., judgment, resurrection, transformation of the cosmos). To be clear, this means—once again in contrast to popular Dispensationalist interpretations—that the Day of the Lord referred to in 1 Thess 5 is not something that happens seven years after the event of Jesus’ return (described as a parousia) that Paul just described in 1 Thess 4:13-18. To reiterate, the parousia of the Lord is the catalyst for, and happens on, the Day of the Lord.

How is it that the afflicted church is granted relief when our Lord returns “on that day” (II Thess 1:5-10) — through judgment on their afflicters? How is the church to experience present relief knowing the judgment is in the future? Or is the relief spoken of here the believers’ eternal state? — Chuck M.

The overall gist of vv. 3-10 seems clear enough. But these verses are one long, difficult sentence in Greek and the (at times turgid) structure of Paul’s language makes a number of the details very difficult to interpret with a high level of confidence. Obviously the commentary itself discusses these difficulties in more detail and the way I will try to answer your question relies on a number of exegetical judgments that I can’t defend or even mention here. The relief that the church is granted “on that day” has several facets. It is obviously relief from the persecutions and trials they are faithfully enduring because of their commitment to God’s redemptive mission in their particular context. Of course, that relief comes as a result of God’s vindicating judgment on their behalf and his bringing judgement against those currently persecuting them. But as the subsequent verses indicate, this “relief” moves beyond simply the cessation of suffering and God’s judgement on those causing it. God’s vindicating judgment on their behalf is constituted by their sharing in the “glory” of the Lord Jesus at his royal return, i.e., sharing in both the honor he receives and in his glorious incorruptible (indeed divine!) life (vv. 11-12).

I’m not quite sure that this passage promises the church that they will experience present “relief” based on God’s future judgment. However, because of the way I translate v. 5, I do think the passage gives the church reason to have confidence in the present based on what God will do in the future. I understand v. 5 to be saying that the Thessalonians’ own faithful endurance of suffering as a direct result of their participation in God’s mission is actually evidence to the church itself in the present that God will judge rightly in the future (just as God “judged rightly” with a vindicating resurrection of Jesus after he had faithfully carried out the divine mission). The result will be that God will publicly recognize them as worthy participants in God’s kingdom as they share in the glory/honor of the Lord Jesus.

In preparing to teach/preach in Thessalonians, what would be one or two things you would want to be sure your hearers understood? In other words, is there something about the setting, the culture, vocabulary, or some other issue that if the reader/hearer does not understand or misunderstands, their interpretation and understanding will go wildly astray? — Carl F.

I’m not sure that there is some one thing that could cause a reader or hearer’s interpretation to go “wildly astray” with regard to interpreting any and every passage in these letters. Obviously, from my comments above on popular Dispensationalism as a theological hermeneutic, it should be clear that I do think bringing that a priori hermeneutical scheme to bear on the eschatological texts in these letters will cause one to misinterpret them.

Beyond that, however, a couple of brief observations about the setting of these (or any other Pauline) letters might aid in better equipping those who preach and teach on them. We usually—and understandably—bring our own well-developed understandings of the Christian faith and ethics to bear on how we hear these letters and sometimes may even attribute a similar understanding to their first hearers. But in order for us to understand better why and how Paul goes about the pastoral task of shaping a people in the way he does, we need to remember the sort of audience he is attempting to shape. He is working with people in a social context where being “religious” did not entail either moral transformation or being re-socialized into an identifiable group devoted only to one god. In fact, perhaps the biggest leap in these Gentiles’ imagination was not so much moving from believing in many gods to believing in only one. Rather, it was in coming to terms with Paul’s insistence that the (cruciform) character of that one God they now believed in was supposed to be mirrored in their individual lives and in their corporate life together. Unlike the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon, this God did not simply undergird the status quo. Rather, this God’s very character was missional, given that this God of Israel was on a mission to rectify/transform the cosmos and bring it to its intended destiny.

That leads me to a second related observation. As we approach Paul’s letters, we need to have our eyes open to their missional aspects. Paul is not simply trying to shape the people in these congregations to reflect the character of God just so they can experience eschatological blessing, however that is conceived. Rather, Paul is attempting to shape and equip his congregations in ways through which the Spirit enables them to share in God’s cruciform character, thereby making them participants in this God’s own redemptive mission. Perhaps these two observations will be obvious to many, but it took me awhile to grasp how taking these two matters seriously would substantially impact the way I approached Paul’s letters. The commentary attempts to show the substantial impact that taking account of these related observations has on interpreting the Thessalonian correspondence.


2 thoughts on “Andy Johnson answers your questions about Thessalonians

  1. Do you suppose that the method often used is simply critical, when the scientific method is simply critical, that what is needed is a more discerning and more comprehensive method? After all we are dealing with a communication of untold subtleties and depths. A Puritan, whose name escapes me at this time, declared that our problem is with the perspicuity of the Bible, i.e. its clarity. A more synthetical method might better grasp the issues involved. Consider for example the promise, I will come again, in Jn..14, is actually in the present tense, I am coming to you. He comes to use every day, every moment. The two-sidedness of the doctrines are designed to fit the two-aided nature of our brains, and they provide the tension which enables us to become balanced, creative, constant, magnetic, and one other behavior that escapes for the moment.


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