2 Thess 2:13-14
Having contradicted the false teaching regarding the Second Coming and likely concerned that he may have offended the church, Paul immediately shifts the subject to give a word of encouragement.
(2 Thess. 2:13-14 ESV) 13 But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. 14 To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
“Firstfruits” in v. 13 is a little surprising. It is, of course, OT language referring to the spring harvest. The firstfruits are the first barley, wheat, or other grain or fruit to ripen in the field, and some of these were given to God as part of the Pentecost celebration. The 3,000 baptized at Pentecost were the firstfruits, converted on the day of celebration of the firstfruits (no coincidence at all, of course).
So in what sense were the Thessalonians firstfruits? Well, they were the first Christians in Thessalonica — and so carried the special burden of preserving a Christian community in that city. After all, if they abandon the faith, who will come after them? And they are the ones through whom God wishes to bring countless others to salvation over the centuries. They have a hugely important role to play in God’s cosmic plan. They are important and valued — and loved by God. This should give them confidence regarding Judgment Day. God wants them to persevere and be saved.
The scriptures, both testaments, are routinely ambiguous as to whether God or the individual does the choosing or decides on the calling. We err when we lean too far either way, as the inspired text wants to have it both ways — and it’s up to us to try to comprehend how that can be. (Contemplating that question while avoiding either extreme is a great venture into serious Bible study and understanding the Jewish understanding of God. Anyone can repeat the arguments from either extreme, dating back to the Reformation. Serious theology is understanding how both kinds of verses can be true.)
Thus, God chose the Thessalonians. How? Even equipped with the gifts of an apostle, there was just one Paul and only so many people he could speak to. Just as Jesus chose to limit his earthly ministry to the Jews (with a very few exceptions), Paul — as directed by God — chose to preach only in certain places. How could he not?
Does that mean there was no election before the foundations of the earth? Well, does God know the future? But for now, this is not Paul’s point. His point is that these people are beloved by God so much that God sent his missionary to them to preach the gospel. Not everyone was so privileged.
(This kind of “election” requires no Calvinist assumptions, but then neither is it entirely Arminian free will. Only those who’ve heard the gospel have the ability to obey the gospel by believing in Jesus. It’s free will, but free will constrained by God’s choices. Not an easy doctrine, but I don’t know another way to see things.)
He uses Torah language to speak of Abraham and Israel — who were similarly chosen and called. God only called Abraham (so far as we know), but God didn’t make him agree to leave Ur. After all, if Abraham had no choice, then there is nothing about his decisions to follow God that make him a great example to us. To do what you have to do is meaningless. So does my iPhone. It trivializes the entire narrative to suggest that Abraham had no choice but to honor God’s call.
Of course, the Calvinist interpretation tends to focus solely on the NT and ignore the OT sense of “elect” and “call.” But when Paul uses OT language he is intending to speak in terms of OT ideas. We can’t remove Paul from history in order to preserve a doctrinal viewpoint. On the other hand, the Arminian position does much the same thing — and seeks to ignore the many passages that treat election as something vitally important. I mean, denominations with Arminian traditions simply have no doctrine of calling, election, or predestiny.
To Paul, his missionary work is much like the work of Moses in calling God’s people out of slavery and into freedom and a new inheritance. God called Moses, and Moses called the Israelites — all as instructed by God. God chose Israel — and no other nation. But he chose them to be a light to the nations and to display the glory of God to the world. Again, it’s the firstfruits concept. Israel was to be the firstfruits of a worldwide harvest.
Just so, God chose Adam and Eve to have dominion over the Garden and to bear his image, making God visible to the world. They learned good and evil and found themselves separated from the presence of God.
The Jews were chosen, and the Torah taught them good and evil, and they disobeyed and were separated from the presence of God by the destruction of Solomon’s Temple.
The Jews of Jesus’ day received the presence of God in the form of Jesus. They were taught to believe/trust/be faithful to Jesus as Messiah, Lord, and Son of God. And they (on the whole) rejected Jesus and so lost the presence of God — which instead was given to the faithful Jews and the Gentiles who joined the household of faith — the newly elect children of God, who have the Spirit as a seal of God’s very presence within them as God’s temple on earth, the body of Christ.
Election is an inevitable result of God being active in world history to deal with individuals and nations and their salvation. God chooses to do much of his work indirectly, through humans called and elected to be his people and to help him bring redemption to the entire world. The point of election is that the entire world should be saved — which sounds contradictory, but it’s not.
It’s all God’s initiative. God could have called thousands of others, but he chose only to call Abraham — and in Paul’s day and today, not everyone is called because not everyone hears the gospel. Paul declares that the fact that God chose these people at this place to hear the gospel should give them confidence that God really does want them to make it to the end.
But our calling is not because we’ve been chosen in contrast to the damned who surround us. Rather, we are chosen to represent God to the damned who surround us so that they will be chosen, too. We, like Adam and Eve, Israel, and the early church were called and elected to display God in his temple, to draw all others to God — so that we may be called and elect among all nations and all peoples.
There is another subtlety here, pointed out to me by a reader many years ago. Almost every NT passage dealing with God’s love speaks in terms of God’s love for the saved — the elect, as it were. And we read about God’s wrath for all others. That would seem to cut the world in two — those loved and those subject to wrath. But it’s not that simple.
John 3:16 begins with “God so loved the world.” He gave Jesus for people who’d not yet believed in him, out of love for the entire world. After all, God’s desire is that the entire world be saved, and plan A is for the church to do the preaching. (I can’t find a plan B.)
God loves the entire world, but for those without faith, where the church has failed in its mission, they will be justly punished for their sins — taking into account their knowledge of God’s will. Rom 5 is quite clear on all of this, including the fact that our accountability depends on our knowledge — our available light, as it were. The result is that those without special revelation from God — the Bible, gospel preaching — will be punished far less than the rest. See Luke 12:47-48, as we previously covered.
That is, for those who are not saved, God loves them and so will only punish them to the extent justice requires. He doesn’t hate the damned, but neither does he extend grace to those outside of Jesus. But grace is not an entitlement — it’s an undeserved gift. God’s love for the damned is manifest in the sacrifice of Jesus and the sacrifices of countless missionaries and others who’ve labored to share the gospel on behalf of God — often at the expense of their lives.
One last point.
In the opening thanksgiving of the first letter (1:4; q.v.), [Paul] echoed language from Deuteronomy 7:7–8 regarding Israel’s constitution as Yahweh’s people (“loved by God / chosen”). Here the same reality is expressed in terms of “loved by the Lord,” which is the precise language of the Septuagint found in the blessing of Benjamin in Deuteronomy 33:12. This can hardly have been accidental, since we know from other places in Paul’s letters that he himself was a Benjaminite (Rom 11:1; Phil 3:5), something concerning which he takes a measure of pride. What he has done, therefore, whether they would have caught it or not, is to bestow on these “beloved” friends his own ancestral blessing: they “are loved by the Lord.”
Gordon D. Fee, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), 299.
Cool. Benjamin was the smallest tribe, and one of two landed tribes, along with Judah, that continued as a part of Judea in their ancestral lands. And Paul saw something of his own tribe of Benjamin in the Thessalonians — a small church that would remain faithful despite incredible difficulties. And so he recognized them as something akin to fellow Benjaminites — a great compliment in Paul’s mind to see in the largely Gentile Thessalonians his own clan. He is, in effect, saying, “You are my family, my people, my tribe.”
They may not have picked up on the subtlety, but to a devoted scholar of the Old Testament and Benjaminite, Paul surely intended the compliment.