Donald Andrew Henson II

1 Thessalonians 5

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament on May 29, 2012 at 12:30 am
Thessaloniki Film Festival

Thessaloniki (Photo credit: Recovering Vagabond)

Read 1 Thessalonians 5 here.

In my previous post, I maintained that Paul’s views on the Kingdom of God may have evolved over time – originally, Christ’s followers appeared to have believed that his return was imminent – meaning measured in months, not years. There wasn’t much need to develop an opinion on what might become of someone who converted to Christianity and then died of old age before Jesus’ return. As the years rolled by and people began to die off, the need arose. I suspect that Paul meditated / prayed /thought it over, and decided that Jesus’ resurrection was a precursor to that of believers – the ‘first fruits’ doctrine that he develops later in his letter to the Corinthians.

Conservative Bible commentaries seem to abhor the idea that Paul may have developed this doctrine later, as the situation arose. Most seem to explain 1 Thessalonians 4.13-17 by saying that Paul was simply telling the Thessalonians something he had neglected to mention to them before. I find this implausible. To teach a resurrected Christ without mentioning the promise of resurrection to deceased believers just doesn’t seem likely.

It seems much more likely to me that his central message for two decades had been Christ’s immediate return to set up a kingdom. I think the part about the dead in Christ rising first was something he came up with as the situation changed. This is not to say he made it up necessarily; if you’re a believer, you might think that he simply received further enlightenment from the Holy Spirit. I’m not sure why many commentary writers feel the need to insist that he had simply neglected to inform his flock of so critical a piece of information.

In chapter 5, Paul again returns to the topic of the return of Christ, and the sparing of believers from the coming wrath. It seems to me that it is a topic never far from his mind as the wrote this letter. He tells them to forget about trying to predict the exact time or day when Jesus would be coming back; it wasn’t something that was possible to do. This hasn’t deterred many of his followers from trying to do so over the centuries. Seems the last guy to do so was sometime within the last year or so.

Basically, Jesus is going to sneak up on everyone – just when they think things are going pretty well, he’ll return. However, Christians are not to be caught unaware, for they are to live their lives in a constant state of preparedness for his return. He may not come back tomorrow, but believers should live as if he will.

Again, I would take issue with those who might neglect their civic duty in a democratic government due to their belief that Jesus is going to come back and fix everything. I believe the problems that we face as Americans are quite fixable, so long as everyone is truly interested in fixing them. If a large proportion of the population feel that the purpose of government is to prepare for Jesus’ return – not to try and create a better society – then America suffers due to their belief. Even if you think Jesus is coming back, you shouldn’t stand in the way of progress. What if he waits another 2000 years?

I’ve found several things in this letter that I think do potential harm to American democracy, but finally, here at the end, is some advice that, if taken, would actually improve it.

Live in peace with each other. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.  Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.

Imagine if we always strove to do what is good for each other and everyone else – what a brilliant democracy we would have. Why is it that we seem to be only looking at what’s best for us personally, or what fits into our particular worldview, instead of what would be good for America? Paul’s admonition to be positive is also not bad advice, as long as we don’t insist that problems don’t exist.

He ends the letter with instructions that prophecy not be treated with contempt; that is, allow people to say ‘thus sayeth the Lord’, but to ‘test’ what they say, and to hold on to the good prophecies and forget the others. However, he doesn’t really spell out what kind of test would be appropriate, and this is troubling. How am I supposed to know when someone is really speaking for God, or when they are just a little stirred up about something themselves? For the average believer, it usually boils down to accepting the prophecies they agree with, and neglecting the ones that might actually require them to change their views.

I actually had one believer tell me, just today, that when she was unsure whether the ‘voice’ she heard in her mind was God or just her own, she might ask God to give her a sign – through her dog, if I understood her correctly. Pardon me if I sound dismissive, but in a democracy, I’d rather folks use the mind God gave them to make important decisions, and not seek out canine oracles. But I guess if  in the Old Testament, God spoke to Balaam through an ass, he must speak through dumb-asses today.

And finally, I don’t know what a holy kiss is – but I’m glad that’s one custom of the early church that didn’t make it to the 21st century.

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  1. I think there’s something wrong with your archives page. If you click on ‘archives’ and scroll to the bottom of the page, the arrow says ‘older entries’ where it should say ‘newer entries’ and vice versa. That was not your doing was it?

    • Yes – I just noticed that myself a couple of days ago! I’m using a theme – seems to be a small glitch. I’ll try to get it fixed. Thanks!

  2. I just found this site and it’s intriguing. As a Christian (who is more than a little unusual), your perspective as a non-believer on the Bible ought to be interesting. I probably won’t be able to refrain from putting in my two cents now and then.

    —“Again, I would take issue with those who might neglect their civic duty in a democratic government due to their belief that Jesus is going to come back and fix everything.”

    I also would take issue with people who do this, as would the Scripture, I believe. For example, Jesus said in Mark 12:17 to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” While, obviously, he was speaking there of paying taxes, the principle applies to other types of involvement in government. Believers are to be in the world, but not of it. We have duties here, as part of our life on earth, that should not be neglected. Involvement in government is one of those.

    I believe the preparedness that we are told to have for Christ’s return is mainly spiritual. We are to keep our minds and hearts in right relationship so that we will be ready to greet our Savior when He returns. We are also to be about the Lord’s work. That means winning other souls to Him and discipling other believers. It does not mean that we should necessarily do these things only (at the expense of civic duties, for example).

    —“He ends the letter with instructions that prophecy not be treated with contempt; that is, allow people to say ‘thus sayeth the Lord’, but to ‘test’ what they say, and to hold on to the good prophecies and forget the others. However, he doesn’t really spell out what kind of test would be appropriate, and this is troubling. How am I supposed to know when someone is really speaking for God, or when they are just a little stirred up about something themselves? For the average believer, it usually boils down to accepting the prophecies they agree with, and neglecting the ones that might actually require them to change their views.”

    You have a good question there. How does one determine whether or not someone is speaking for God? First of all, God does not contradict HImself. The most important test is first and foremost whether or not what is being said is in keeping with God’s word, the Bible. If not, it didn’t come from God. Secondly, is it rational and sensible? God is not the author of confusion. Rationality is a gift from God to all men. He intends for us to use it. Thirdly, does it claim to be a new revelation? God has given us His complete revelation in the Bible. There is no new revelation. So anyone claiming to have received new word from God for mankind is either lying or deluded. Anyway, those are the guidelines that come to mind right away. There may be others.

  3. Hi Lindsay – thanks for commenting on my blog. I’m just getting started with a chapter-by-chapter secularist view of the NT – and I’m happy to have believers point out where they feel I’m looking at things the wrong way.

    I agree that Christians need to have a dual approach to life – in fact, one of the first posts I wrote on this blog was titled Render Unto Caesar that expressed similar ideas to yours.

    Please indulge me a bit further on this issue of prophecy. I said that, since Paul had not really given instructions on how to judge prophecy, Christians would likely choose prophecies they liked the sound of and ignore others. Your explanation of how prophecies might be judged is problematic for me.

    First, you say that, since God cannot contradict himself, that any prophecy should agree with scripture. I agree with you on principle – but the problem is that non one can agree on what the scripture says. For example, if you prophesied to someone that they should go see a doctor, some Christians wouldn’t have a problem with your prophesy, but others would say that it couldn’t be valid – because they don’t believe in going to see a doctor.

    Let’s say that a prophet said that a person or a group of people were in danger of losing their relationship with God. If they didn’t repent, then God would remove them from the flock. In this case, most Baptist believers would say that, because of the doctrine of eternal security, this prophecy was invalid. Others might disagree.

    I could come up with other examples, but I think you see my point. Saying that a ‘true’ prophecy wouldn’t disagree with the Bible isn’t very useful, since there are thousands of denominations using the same Bible, yet preaching very different things on Sunday.

    Your second point leaves me less than satisfied as well. You say prophecies must be rational. Yet rational thought seems to contradict the life of faith. You’ll remember when the prophet Elisha told the leper Naaman that to go bathe in the river Jordan if he wanted to be cured. Naaman was angry – the instructions were illogical. If he had followed rational thought, he wouldn’t have been healed. It seems to me that prophecies might often ask people to do illogical things; if we’re to judge on how sensible a prophecy is, we’d never pay attention to the illogical ones. It would seem that prophecy would be a waste of time.

    And finally, the idea that prophecy can contain no ‘new revelation’ seems to make the gift absolutely useless. Prophecy without revelation would be reduced to just quoting the existing scripture, wouldn’t it? And unless you are a Catholic, your entire denominational beliefs are based on new revelation. The Presbyterians split with the Lutherans because they felt God had given them revelation that church leaders should be elected democratically. Baptists had a different revelation.

    My own denomination, Assemblies of God, started just over a hundred years ago – again due to ‘new revelation’. I feel that your three qualifications for judging prophecies would eliminate them all – making prophecy a bit waste of time. But Paul seems to think it is something we should pay attention to.

    Again, thanks for commenting.

  4. I believe you misunderstand what prophecy is. Prophecy is proclaiming the word of God. In the Old Testament, God spoke to His people through prophets who were mouthpieces for God. They told the people what God was saying to them. In many cases, this was new revelation – new information about God’s expectations and commands for the people. In New Testament times, God was completing His revelation by revealing the mystery of Christ and His atonement and how the church was to function. However, revelation was closed with the completion of the New Testament. (Keep in mind that when Paul was writing, revelation was still going on). God has now given us the complete understanding of His commands and expectations in the Bible. He has revealed Himself to us in its pages. Thus, prophecy today does not consist of telling us new and previously unknown things about God and His commands as it once did. All that will be revealed to us (in this life) has already been revealed.

    Prophecy today consists of proclaiming the word that God has already revealed (i.e. proclaiming Biblical truths). It doesn’t have to be ONLY quoting scripture, it can also include explanations or rewording to make it more understandable, but there will be nothing fundamentally new because God has already revealed Himself. Also, God now indwells the hearts of His people (believers) and speaks to them personally in revealing His personal will for their lives. We do not have prophets between us and God anymore. This more personal plan for individuals is not revelation (revealing God’s nature and commands for mankind), but God does speak to our hearts about His will for our lives and guides us through principles in His word. God can speak to us through the counsel of godly friends, but He does not tell another person things to tell me that I am commanded by God to do. The things I am commanded to do have already been given in His word. The things He has planned for my life particularly, He tells to my heart.

    When I have impressions in my heart of what I should do, I evaluate them according to the Bible to be sure that they are in keeping with God’s revealed word. For example, if I am having an impression that I should pray for someone to be saved, I know that this is always God’s will. God wants all people to come to him. On the other hand, if I feel like striking someone in anger, I know that this is wrong according to the Bible and this impression did not come from God.

    As for rationality, while sometimes what God tells us doesn’t seem at first to be rational, it is when you consider the whole picture. In the case of Naaman’s leprosy, Naaman wasn’t looking for a natural healing. He was asking God to heal, and God can heal however He pleases (I’m sure Naaman knew that). What Naaman objected to wasn’t the irrationality of thinking the Jordan’s water would heal (He knew it would be God that healed), but he objected to the humiliation of bathing in a dirty river.

    By the way, it is not necessary to suspend rationality in order to have faith. The opposite of faith is not reason, but sight (check it out for yourself). In other words, we can know truth logically and still have faith in it because we haven’t seen it yet. For example, we Christians have faith that Christ will return for us. We haven’t seen it yet, but we believe it will happen (and we live out our faith by acting according to our belief). We do, however, have good and rational reasons for our faith. God never asked us to simply believe for the sake of believing. Ours is not a blind faith (although many do believe blindy, having not learned about what they believe). God gives us evidence that what He says is true. Thus, we use our reason to strengthen our faith. So now, while we wait, we have faith that Christ will return, but that faith is grounded in good reasons. However, when Christ returns and we see Him, we will no longer have faith. Our faith will become sight.

  5. Also, just because people cannot agree on what the Bible says does not mean that there is no true meaning. There is only one correct interpretation for Scripture. We just understand it either better or worse. In general, though, the main points are pretty clear and most Christians agree on them. Holding up a prophecy (in today’s world, think of prophecy as a sermon or something similar) to God’s word to see if it matches is one very important way of determining if a person is speaking for God.

  6. […] think this is a fair summary of her main points – you can read her comments for yourself on my previous post. I said that I thought her answers were well presented and seemed […]

  7. this is typical christian back pedaling. whenever they hold an idea that is unravelled and un-defendable, they just start ‘redefining’ words. “oh, it doesn’t literally mean ‘prophecy’, it means ‘proclaim’…” Lindsay also mentions good evidence and ‘reasons’ for believing that Jesus is coming back for some people(i assume she means the lucky ones who got the correct interpretation). i hope she’s refering to something besides the bible; otherwise it’s like using the Joker as evidence that Batman is real. it’s also a sign of a weak biblical argument when one begins to oscillate between ‘literal’ and ‘metaphorical’ or ‘OT’ and ‘NT’, or ‘spiritual’ and ‘physical’. either it’s the literal, divine work of god , cover to cover, or it isn’t. if a divine being inspired a book, it would be clear, coherent, consistant, impossible to misinterpret or change in translation(a supreme being would not allow it). it’s much more plausible and RATIONAL to admit that it was written BY men, FOR men, to promote a human agenda and the purposes of its human writers.

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