During 1964 I published in The Differentiator three papers re-examining certain matters which concern our understanding of the Thessalonian Epistles. In the light of the better understanding of Prophecy which has come to us in consequence of the fresh view of the Seventy Sevens brought about by the researches of the late Commander Steedman, the time has come to develop the findings we reached then.

Few, if any, of us appreciated at the time the extent to which our understanding of these epistles was hidebound by traditional assumptions, so that we were unwittingly to a considerable extent misrepresenting them and misleading ourselves. As usual, these inadequacies introduced confusion, not only regarding our own affairs but, by distorting everything, matters concerning Israel also.

This last remark must seem extraordinary at first glance, having regard to the fact that "Israel" is not mentioned even once in the two Thessalonian epistles and "Jew" only once—and that by way of contrast. Indeed, what binds together all Paul's Epistles after Galatians in the canonical order, is the circumstance that "Jew" appears only twice in them, "Israel" also only twice and "Israelite" not at all. Yet by applying 2. Thess. 2:3 to ourselves by making "The Apostasy" there referred to as if it were of or from the Gentile churches of the present time, or even the church which is Christ's body, many earnest students are definitely misapplying to these something which concerns Israel and not these or ourselves at all. The only other occurrence of the word apostasia, apostasy, is Acts 21:21, where it definitel refers to apostasy from Moses. The remarkable feature (this mistake is the way even some of the best expositors have managed to involve themselves in fundamental misunderstanding, simply by allowing their thinking to become entangled in this strange error).

Years ago (July, 1912) Dr. Bullinger wrote: "It is we who have robbed Israel of the promise of I Thessalonians." Even more extraordinary than the craziness of this error is the fact that if, instead, he had referred to "the apostasy of 2. Thes. 2:3," which he does apply to us, he would have been exactly right. He has afforded an outstanding example of the way a great man and a good man can be swept into a current of error which makes nonsense of the facts.

Why, then, did Paul refer at this point to Israel's future apostasy? To answer this we have to consider the two epistles as a whole. In the first, Paul sought to meet the sorrow of the Thessalonians over those who are reposing in the sleep of death by disclosing to them the glorious expectation that they, together with those who will be surviving, will one day be snatched away together with them in clouds for meeting the Lord into air. And thus also we shall always be together with Him (1. Thess. 4:13-17). And Paul adds "So that, be consoling one another with these words" (v. 18).

And did they? Alas! Their faith presently began to waver and falter under persecution and affliction. It had been strong enough to bear them up in their grief over the loss of their loved ones, thanks to the marvellous revelation Paul had given them in 1. Thess. 4:13-17; but in spite of this, the day of relief seemed to draw no nearer, doubts arose Consequently, they began to do what many Christians have done since: peer into Hebrew Prophecy in the hope of finding some comfort there—and this in defiance of the warning of 1. Thess. 5:1-11. SO they lost completely all sense of historical perspective, and they began to think of the Lord's Day as something concerning themselves. Yet, as Paul reminded them, they were "accurately aware that (the) Lord's Day is as (a) thief in night" (5:2). True, from then onwards people have from time to time cried "Peace and security"; but in the light of experience we cannot affirm that extermination was standing inescapably over them (5:3). The disaster envisaged here in this prophecy cannot be declared ever yet to have come about, except locally and on a minor scale. Yet this one is forecast as universal on earth, as is very plain from the description of the accompanying horrors disclosed in the Revelation vision.

The positive prospect displayed in 1. Thess. 4:13-17 and the negative prospect in Chapter 5, should have reassured the Thessalonians, and no doubt did-for a while. Yet the effect did not last. In due time, Paul found it necessary to write a second epistle to them, reminding them that God will repay with affliction those who are afflicting them (2. Thess. 1:6). He promises ease with him and his companion apostles; but no immediate ease, only in the future unveiling of the Lord Jesus from heaven (1:7-10). Anything to enable them or us to fix a point of time in the near future is avoided. The point is that the rest will eventually come, and that when it comes those afflicting them will know no rest. This is a plain enough intimation that no immediate ease was to be expected; for the Thessalonians must have been very well aware of the general plan of Prophecy. Paul even goes so far as to remind them of this a little later on in his argument (2:5): "Do you not remember that, being still with you, I told you these things?" In the circumstances they had no excuse for the doubts Paul was endeavouring to allay.

That such doubts began and persisted is the result of our mortality. Well understanding this, Paul was not content with his reminder in Chapter 1. He went on to refer back to his great revelation of 1. Thess. 4:13-17; and, on its behalf, to ask the brethren not to give way to the temptation to instability. "The presence of the Lord of us, Jesus Christ; and our assembling with Him," is not only a sure and unshakable expectation for ourselves, it is the most vital future point of crisis, not only for us but for everyone else.

Until it is reached and passed, all history as seen by God is a stalemate; nothing of His plans for earth or heaven can make any progress; except, that is, the calling and training or earth of the joint-body-people of whom the Thessalonian: themselves are shown to be a most important section. That calling is, we may well declare, at present the hub round which everything of God's purposes is actively centred. Thus it is on behalf of this tremendous expectation and all it implies that the brethren, the Thessalonians and ourselves must not be quickly shaken from our mind, nor yet be alarmed, at any rumours put out from evil sources.

The essential point of 2. Thessalonians 2 is Paul's special appeal to faith and to sanity. It ought to be impossible for us to be shaken from our mind concerning the truth of Scripture Prophecy, let alone to be alarmed by any claim that the Lord's Day is present. Nor should it be possible for us to be upset by rumour from such sources as those:—Rumour through a spirit, when we must be perfectly well aware that many evil spirits are in the world. Through a word when experience shows us all too plainly that the very air around us is crowded with lies. Through a forged epistle even if purporting to come from Paul himself, or any fake, writing, easily compared and condemned by reference to the genuine ones. The test is so easy to make!

Yet when we give the matter serious thought, we find that people all around us are daily being misled by such evil as these. Perhaps we do not get actual forged epistles now but we get something even more dangerous, though not practicable at the time when Paul wrote—parts of Scripture, so grievously mistranslated and misrepresented as to be a deceptive as any forged epistle could possibly be, and mud more dangerous because the reader seldom has any means of discovering for himself that the mistranslation or misrepresentation exists. More often than not, those misled in that way deserve sympathy rather than blame; but that is not so with those who deliberately listen to evil spirits or to words which they must be able to perceive are out of accord with truths declared plainly elsewhere in Scripture. Hymn books are a prolific source of such misrepresentations. Few hymns are without them, many declare actual lies.

What truly is marvellous, though the wonder of it is seldom appreciated, is that any light at all has got to go through the clouds of misrepresentation, and the fog of confusion which they have created. Yet truth is great, and must in the end prevail; and those who find it in spite of ever increasing difficulties find something else as well: how exceedingly precious it is and how worth searching and struggling for. It is our lot to have to fight for what God graciously gave to the first members of the Church which is Christ's body.

The Thessalonians had an enormous advantage over us, in that they had the Greek Scriptures in their own mother tongue—and yet some of them allowed themselves to be misled by spirit, by word or by epistle as through Paul. We should keep this in mind whenever we are tempted to feel discouraged at our lack of success; for we have an immense deal to be thankful for in what success we have managed to achieve. They were near the source of truth, while we are nineteen centuries away. They had God's Word incorrupted, while we have continually to be on the watch for such corruptions. Yet, in spite of their advantages Paul had no choice but to make it plain that some even believed that the Lord's day was then present!

It is tempting to throw up our hands in despair when we consider this; but that too would be an act of unbelief and quite inexcusable. We have the truth before us in the Sacred Scriptures. Our task is to search for it and to believe it and to leave to the power of the Holy Spirit the results of our efforts. If others bluntly refuse to listen, that is no fault of ours, provided we present the truth to them with the utmost gentleness in our power. Such bluntness does not absolve us from the obligation to witness for truth by proclaiming the Word. From the merely earthly point of view we are as soldiers desperately fighting a battle that is already hopelessly lost. From the point of view of heaven we are a beleagured garrison desperately holding on against overwhelming odds until rescue shall come—and winning! That we have little, or even nothing, to show here and now for our efforts does not matter at all; for everything we are losing here we are winning in triumph among the celestials in glory beyond anything we can possible imagine. Presently we shall say, as our Lord did, "Tetelestai," "It is consummated"; and for some of us this will not even be followed by death, but by splendour at present unthinkable.

The fresh investigation into the dating of Paul's Epistles (Vol. 26, Oct., 1964, pp. 217-228) went far to establish the idea that 1. Thessalonians was published quite late, after Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians. Since nobody has in the ensuing years attempted to refute the argument then presented, the case may now be regarded as reasonably well established. Let us, then, on that assumption take a fresh look at Paul's main prophecies.

The first is Romans 11; Israel's casting away and taking back. This is actually Israel's prophecy primarily; but it involves the disclosure that the callousing, in part, of Israel is "until the complement of the Gentiles may be entering" (Rom. 11:25). This is not directly the subject of 1. Corinthians 15; which (apart from the secret it discloses) deals with the subject of resurrection in a general way and does not mention either Israel or Gentiles; yet the information it affords is necessary for the understanding of later disclosures. The secret of 1. Cor. 15:51-57 is the climax of the chapter, and belongs to the out-called-company, the standing of which is the main feature of the epistle.

The distinction here is important, as it is very necessary for us to distinguish between matters which refer to the out-called-company as people who are called out from Gentiles (and also from those of Israel according to flesh who, like Paul, have surrendered their Jewish status), and those which regard them as people who are neither Jew nor Greek, but New Creation, They are the same people, but viewed from different standpoints. Here, in 1. Cor. 15:51-57, the latter point of view holds the field, but only in part, for it does not explicitly refer to "the complement of the Gentiles." To clarify this point, we have to look further.

We take a considerable step that way in Phil. 3:17-21, where Paul exhorts his readers: "Go on becoming joint-imitators of me, brethren, and go on noting the ones walking thus, according as you go on having us as model; for many are walking of whom many times I said to you and now am lamenting also, as I am saying it, who are enemies of the cross of Christ, the consummation of whom is destruction, whose god is their bowels, whose glory is in their shame, who are disposed to the terrestrial things. For the citizenship which is ours in heavens is existing, out of which (citizenship) also (a) Saviour we are awaiting—(a) Lord, Jesus Christ, Who will be transfiguring the body of the humiliation which is ours, conformed to the body of the glory which is His, according to the operation which enables Him to subject also to Himself the universe."

Yet even this does not go the whole way. In Col. 1:5 Paul writes of "the expectation which is reserved for you in the heavens," and in 3:1-7 he urges his readers to be "seeking that which is above, where the Christ is sitting at the right (hand) of God. . . . Whenever the Christ may be manifested (as) the life of us, then you also together with Him will be manifested also in glory."

This leads us on to a matter already examined, the correct translation of 1. Thess. 1:9, 10, and in particular the meaning of the verb anamenO, up-remain. In the light of our discussion in Vol. 26 (1964) pp. 174-176 it is evident that most versions are wrong here, though an accurate rendering without any paraphrase at all seems to be beyond our reach. Read: "Reporting. . . . how you turn back toward God from the idols, to be slaving for God living and true, and to be remaining (directed) upward (in relation to) His Son out of the heavens, Whom He rouses out of dead ones, Jesus, the One rescuing us out of the indignation that is coming." These quotations are like a series of steps leading up to a commanding eminence, namely, 1. Thess. 4:13-17, which crowns the whole series. As was remarked in the discussion quoted above: "Appropriately 1. Thessalonians comes immediately after Colossians, for it is so closely related to Col. 3:1-7 as to be in a measure a commentary on it; and we can now see 1. Thes. 1:10 as a summing-up of those seven verses. The Thessalonians had turned back from their idolatry, from the demons who once had dominated them. Firmly fixed on that which is above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, everything they possessed was out of the heavens, and they themselves were remaining; in that upward attitude in their whole relation to God's Son."

This upward attitude of the Thessalonian saints explains how it was that Paul could and did give to THEM the crowning revelation of 1. Thess. 4:13-17. Not till the matters disclosed in Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians had been mastered could the Lord Jesus explain to anyone at all the full, glorious truth up to which the previous revelations led. If we go through the passages listed above, we will see gleams of light, as it were through gaps in an overcast sky; but here the pall is swept away and the undimmed glory shines out. There is nothing to this revelation, there is nothing that could be appropriately added to it—except what already exists elsewhere, a warning against failure to believe it; and we do get this, though only in an indirect manner, as if Paul were unwilling in such a context to intrude any thing that might sound like blame, that might mar the almost continuous praise. The one direct exception, in 2. Thes. 3:11, is so mild that anywhere else it would pass with hardly any comment.

The upward attitude of the Thessalonian saints also explains how it is that the crowning revelation of 1. Thes: 4:13-17 makes so little impact on nearly all who call themselves Christians. The horrid truth is that the overwhelming majority of them have no interest in what is above. To practise the admonition in Col. 3:1 is not for them! Since they have never been together roused with the Christ (literally, "to the Christ") it is not possible for them "to be seeking that which is above, where the Christ is sitting in God's right (hand)." And even those who do seek that which is above often, without realizing what is happening have their understanding of Prophecy distorted by dwelling too much on the earthly side of it. The all too common practise of treating Israel's prophecies as if they were ours is a form of this failing.

Each of the two epistles nevertheless contains an indirect criticism of the Thessalonians in the form of supplemental information which, as their contexts show, ought not to have been needed by them; namely, 1. Thess. 5:1-11 and 1. Thess. 2:1-12. That it happened to be needed is our good fortune, as Paul's comments afford us new information and help which otherwise we would have been unable to come by. Moreover, both these passages reveal to those who take the trouble to read them intelligently the extent of the chasm between 1. Thessalonians 1 to 4; 2. Thess. 1:1-10; 2:13-17 and the passages named above; for 1. Thess. 5:1-7 and 2 Thess. 2:1-12 carry the unmistakeable stamp of Hebrew Prophecy, whereas the rest of the two epistles have no point of contact with it at all. Except for those two passages, the two epistles are not only Paul's own Prophecy in a very special way, they are the consummation of the series of steps of revelation discussed earlier in this paper. But 1. Thes 5:1-7; 2. Thess. 2:1-12 belong by their very nature is the kind of Prophecy so conspicuous in Daniel and Matthew 24, and entirely harmonious with Hebrew Prophecy as a whole.

In writing "no point of contact" I am not unmindful that they come side by side in these two epistles; but the point is that they stand in complete contrast. The Hebrew-type prophecies are there as a careful warning against mingling or confusing them with Paul's prophecies, which are separate and distinct from any other prophecies anywhere at all There is an "either. . . or" element in every prophecy Paul wrote in which any people are in view other than the called-out-company which is Christ's body. Take, for instance, Rom. 11:25. Israel's calloused state is UNTIL the complement of the Gentiles may be entering. Paul's wording is most careful. There is no excuse whatever for reading this as if Paul had stated that the callousing would cease before that entering, or that it would continue after.

Despite the careful wording of the prophecies of Scripture utter confusion about them is so general as to be reckoned as normal. Yet when even so fine and noble a church as that of the Thessalonians went astray in this matter, what can we do but hold firmly to Scripture and refuse to be misled by any attempts, however plausible, to water down and even to reverse Paul's most definite teaching?

As Dr. Bullinger originally pointed out, there are no Church Epistles beyond those two to Thessalonica because there is no higher truth to be taught. There is nothing further for churches as such. What further things Paul had to say were to individual believers, to Timothy, Titus and Philemon. His final message to churches was an appeal for discipline, and prayer for peace and grace. It reads like the close of a treatise, and that is precisely what it is. To attempt to lead from it to Romans or 1. Corinthians, as if in a sequence, involves an absurdity; yet that is exactly what the dispensational extremists are doing.


Return to Differentiator Revisited