Monday, November 10, 2008

The Wrath That Is To Come

On Friday, we looked at what might be reflective of a very early Christian confession in I Thessalonians 1:9,10. Those verses literally say:

For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

I fashioned those verses as a doctrinal statement to read something like this:

We, the members of the church in Thessalonica, believe and live these doctrines:
- Radical solidarity with those who labor by proclaiming the Word of God;
- Turning away from idols to the true and living God;
- Waiting for the Son of God to return from heaven;
- Jesus, whom God raised from the dead, is the one who will rescue us from the wrath to come.

What we noticed at the end of Friday's post is that word "wrath" and the assumption that there is wrath that is coming. What Paul does not say is what this wrath is, or, even better, whose this wrath is. I'm guessing that there are two serious possibilities:

1. God's wrath is coming against a world that rejected Jesus and continues to resist the gospel.
2. Rome's wrath is coming against Jews first, then spreading its way against Christians (who, from a Roman point of view, were a weirdo sect of Jews).

I suppose that we typically read the word 'wrath' as a God thing. The Greek word in the accusative case is pronounced 'organ.' Think of that the next time you are subject to some bad organ music ("So this is what 'wrath' means.") The meaning, according to the excellent online resource at is: "1)anger, the natural disposition, temper, character 2) movement or agitation of the soul, impulse, desire, any violent emotion, but esp. anger 3) anger, wrath, indignation 4) anger exhibited in punishment, hence used for punishment itself 4a) of punishments inflicted by magistrates."

As you can see, the word itself is not necessarily a God thing. We have years and years of 'hellfire and brimstone' preaching that has pretty well convinced us that it is God's favorite emotion. But, in an attempt to read this letter freshly (naively is the going term among biblical scholars), we can set aside centuries of preachers getting their willies by proclaiming God's damnation against all of their pet peeves and acknowledge that we cannot be sure whose wrath this is, let alone what wrath it is.

Here are the uses of the word 'wrath' in this letter:
1:10 "and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming."
2:16b (speaking about the Jews specifically) "Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last."
5:9 "For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ"

As you can see the first use does not mention whose wrath we're talking about; the second explicitly does- it's God's and its happening already; and the third implies that God could destine someone for wrath, but has not done so for those who have obtained salvation through Christ.

So, we might ask, if God's wrath had already overtaken the Jews, what did it look like? We do not know of any natural or supernatural catastrophe that struck only Jews, or even just Jerusalem during the 50's, which is when this letter is typically dated. And, Paul has more than Jerusalem Jews in mind in this letter- He is speaking of the Jews in Philippi and Thessalonica and other places where they tried to prevent him from preaching to Gentiles. So, we can rule out lightning, fire from heaven, earthquakes, etc. as being the way that God's wrath was overtaking Jews in the 50's. None of that happened and certainly none of it happened with the kind of surgical strikes that would annihilate the bad Jews in Jerusalem, and Philippi, and other choice cities along the way.

IF this letter is quite a bit later, like 66-70, then we might think Paul is talking about the butt-kicking that the Romans gave the Jews during the Jewish revolts; but most people think Paul was dead by that time and it's really hard to write letters when you're dead.

However, there were constant reminders among Jews that Rome was in charge, like when some zealous Jews sawed off the golden eagle overlooking the temple and the Romans responded by crucifying thousands of Jews as a lesson. That kind of wrath was always a possibility and there could have been just such an event during the 50's that the church in Thessalonica (some of whom were Jewish) knew too well.

So, here's where my mind is about wrath in this letter from Paul:
- It does not seem to refer to natural disasters that strike a given vicinity
- It does not seem to refer to supernatural disasters that strike more surgically
- It may be that Rome's sword can express God's wrath (but that doesn't make Rome good)
- It may be that God's wrath is expressed, not through disaster and catastrophe, but through people's spiritual blindness and hard-heartedness. From Paul's perspective, that we quite evident among some of the Jews of his day, who- in their zeal- were rabidly opposing God's own salvation.

I need to tell you that I'm leaning toward this latter possibility, that when Paul talks about wrath- at least in the 2nd chapter of this letter- it is something that is expressed not in great killing demonstration, but in people's own receptivity or rejection of the best news that Paul had ever heard- in Christ, we have new life.

For those of you reading this blog on blackberries, I know these long notes are responsible for your sore thumbs and I'll try to keep them more succinct in the future.

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