(1 Thess. 2:13 ESV) 13 And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.
Notice how Paul uses “word of God.” It obviously can’t mean “New Testament,” in that 1 Thes is either the first or second book written of the NT. Nor does it mean “Bible,” because Paul isn’t speaking of the OT; he’s speaking of the gospel.
This “word of God” has the power to work within believers. Well, believers believe the gospel and non-believers do not.
Let’s go back to —
(1 Thess. 1:4-8 ESV) 4 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything.
You can’t help but notice the parallels between “gospel” and “word.” These thing produce faith and believers.
We could refer to dozens of other passages. These should make the point:
(1 Cor. 14:36 ESV) 36 Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached?
Paul is saying that the “word of God” came from the Jews. What message did God communicate from the Jews, through Paul, to the Corinthian church? The gospel.
(2 Tim. 2:8-15 ESV) 8 Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, 9 for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! 10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. 11 The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; 12 if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; 13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful — for he cannot deny himself. 14 Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. 15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.
We desperately want to make “word” mean “Bible” or “a list of God’s commands” when in fact Paul has the gospel in mind.
Of course, we’re also bad to redefine “gospel” to mean “doctrine,” so that a “gospel preacher” conducts a “gospel meeting” that deals with everything but Jesus and the cross. And that entirely misses the point.
To clinch the argument, consider the grossly abused phrase “obey the gospel.” In most conservative Church of Christ sermons, “obey the gospel” means “be baptized,” utterly without proof or evidence.
But consider —
(Rom. 10:15-17 ESV) 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
If English means anything, Paul plainly means by “obey the gospel” that we should believe the word of Christ and so come to faith in Jesus. Baptism is not under discussion, and hasn’t been since over four chapters earlier. The topic is faith in Jesus.
Looking ahead a bit, we have —
(2 Thess. 1:5-10 ESV) 5 This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering — 6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.
Who is damned? Those who “do not obey the gospel.” Who is not damned? “All who have believed.” Obviously, “obey the gospel” means “believe in Jesus.”
And yet our preachers routinely take “obey the gospel” entirely out of context to mean “be baptized,” and we never, ever call them on it. We say that we’re people of the book, and that we search the scriptures to see whether what we’re told it true. But we don’t. Not when our childhood teachings are being affirmed.
(1 Thess. 2:14-16 ESV) 14 For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind 16 by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved — so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them at last!
This is a challenging passage. The general statement is that the Thessalonians imitated the Jerusalem congregation by suffering the same persecution that the Jerusalem Christians suffered. That’s a dramatic claim — and points out the degree to which persecution and suffering were tied to faith in the early church. Paul is not the least surprised by their suffering, and sees it as a mark of the genuineness of their faith.
The difficult part of the verse is Paul’s broadly worded condemnation of “the Jews.” He blames “the Jews” for the persecution of the Jerusalem church, for killing Jesus, for killing the prophets, for driving “us” (the apostles?) out of Jerusalem, and hindering “us” (Paul’s missionary group, the apostles?) from preaching the gospel to the Gentiles. As a result, he declares that the Jews are filling up the measure of their sins and are presently suffering wrath.
So is Paul suddenly an anti-Semite? How should we understand him? Well, consider —
- Paul is comparing the Thessalonians’ countrymen (fellow Gentiles) to the Jews. What he says about the Jews he is also saying about unbelieving Gentiles — in principle. Obviously, they didn’t kill the prophets, but they brought suffering to God’s faithful children — just as the unbelieving Jews were doing.
- We likely see here an early version of the early church’s doctrine of a “third race.” Christians are not Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles. They are neither. They are just Christians and so one race, one nation, one people. “The Jews” therefore are not believers.
- As we see in Rom 9 – 11, Paul is fully capable of speaking and thinking in terms of corporate or national guilt. This is foreign to the individualism of the West, but it’s written all over the Bible.
- When God sent Moses, it was to rescue the nation of Israel — not just certain faithful individuals. (Although some didn’t make it due to their lack of faith.)
- When God judged the Northern Kingdom as idolatrous, the entire nation was destroyed by Assyria. There was no individual judgment. They were judged as a nation.
- When God judged Judah as idolatrous, he allowed the Babylonians to carry the entire nation off into captivity. There was no individual judgment.
- When God sent John the Baptist, then Jesus, and then the apostles to call the Jews to repentance and so to end their Exile from God as prophesied in Deu 30, they went to the nation and called for national repentance — although they accepted individual repentance.
(Deut. 30:1-6 ESV) “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, 2 and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. 4 If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. 5 And the LORD your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. 6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
This is language of national redemption. “You” in 30:1 is “you, the nation of Israel” not “you few who repent.” Hence, in Paul’s mind, those who repent by believing in Jesus as Messiah are the true Israel — even if they’re Gentiles! No one else is.
Doubt me? Read Stephen’s sermon —
(Acts 7:51-53 ESV) “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
Now, I’m not at all denying individual responsibility for sin. I’m just saying that that authors of scripture often think in national terms because, after all, God’s covenant is with the nation of Israel. Now, individual Jews wouldn’t be saved without individual faith and wouldn’t be damned except for their individual lack of faith in Jesus. But most of the Bible is written in terms of national salvation and national condemnation — and so it’s not at all unbiblical for Paul to write in similar terms.