As these words are being written an Atlantic gale is raging outside and the brief daylight drawing into the long midwinter night as the year 1956 nears its close with news of floods and ships in distress.
In our ministry it has been a year of steady progress in the face of many difficulties; and for what has been achieved humble and hearty thanks to God is called for. In particular, many errors, old and new, have been refuted and replaced by Scripture truth; and, in addition, much fresh light has been granted to us and cheering support from our friends.
Yet in one respect the outlook has deteriorated rather than improved. Collectively we are recruiting few, if any, fresh students of God's Word to replace those falling asleep. This is an unhealthy, even desperate state of affairs; one which calls for prayer and action by us if we would escape HIS reproach when we meet our Lord in the air. A fresh examination of this problem will be found in this issue; and all readers are urged to consider it very seriously indeed as One in which they themselves are personally deeply involved.
Of the world outside the less said the better. The almost universal refusal to face hard facts has become almost terrifying. We must regard the practically unmixed evil and darkness around us as an indication that our own vindication may not be very far distant. Let us pray that this may be so.
Reflection on our recent discussions and on letters from
various correspondents has given me a clearer insight into the
problems of general Christian doctrine. Theological doctrines
may be classified into four groups:—
The second set constitute what is, I have come to believe, "The Tradition" to which Paul refers in 2. Thess. 3:6 and which is discussed at some length in this issue.
Some people write as if there were no true Christian doctrine outside the first group. This sounds well; but I have yet to find anyone who lives up to this ideal of theirs in practise.
Others are contemptuous of all tradition. This attitude is sound and good when applied to merely human traditions, but not otherwise. To such, 2. Thess. 3:6 must be a serious stumbling-block. That is why they are usually ignorant.
For some time past, I have been under fire on account of my interpretation of the Thessalonian Epistles; the basis of the attack being that I have been "building on what is not said" in stating that there is no event of Prophecy which is stated in Scripture to precede the fulfilment of 1. Thess. 4:13-17 and, therefore, so far as we are aware, there is no reason why it should not be fulfilled at any moment.
I have countered this criticism by pointing out that it applies equally well to my critic's own interpretation, which is that a number of events prophesied in Matthew 24 and the Revelation must take place first. Nowhere is this said. Nowhere is this even implied. If the one view is "building on what is not said," so is the other. Moreover, the critic's view really is "building on" something very definitely not said; for it explicitly assumes that 1. Thess. 4:13-17 forms an integral part of a series of prophecies from the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the Greek Scriptures, even though not one of them gives the slightest ground for that assumption; whereas what I believe to be the correct view makes no assumptions at all, beyond the very reasonable one that, as it is a separate and distinct prophecy, it ought to be regarded and treated as such.
But there is more to it than that. After this disclosure by the word of the Lord is revealed to the Thessalonians, Paul goes on to refer to Hebrew Prophecy; (1. Thess. 5:1-3), and in his second epistle he expounds this subject at much greater length (2. Thess. 1:6-10; 2:3-12). There is nothing even remotely like these three passages in the whole of the rest of his epistles; so it is important that we should try to discover the reason for the references to these matters.
The first thing to be noticed is that while 1. Thess. 4:13-17 is a special and entirely new revelation, the first and third of the three are explicitly matters about which the Thessalonians knew already (1. Thess. 5:1, 2; 2. Thess. 2:5).
The second is in connection with the word paradosis, tradition, which occurs twelve times in the Greek Scriptures. Of these, no less than nine deal with human traditions (Matt. 15:2, 3, 6; Mark 7:3, 5, 8, 9, 13; Co1. 2:8), which are plainly condemned. The remaining three (1. Cor. 11:2; 2. Thess. 2:15; 3:6) refer to traditions handed over by the Apostle Paul; and it is particularly noteworthy that two of them are in 2. Thessalonians, the epistle specially characterized by references to Hebrew Prophecy, and very obscure ones at that.
The third is that all three of these references to Hebrew Prophecy are references or reminders, rather than explicit, disclosures as 1. Thess. 4:13-17 is. The first and second presuppose more than they actually tell. To the third this applies still more. In a manner utterly foreign to Paul's usual style, which is normally a model of clarity and precision, he refers in a most cautiously roundabout way to the future unveiling of the man of the sin. The very form of this wording implies that his readers knew already about the sin to which; he is referring. Incidentally, there is no sufficient textual evidence for substituting "lawlessness" for "sin" here as the C.V. and some other versions do. If it be justified, it must be on the ground of vv. 7 and 8; and it is at least arguable that a few copyists tried to improve the text by bringing v. 3 into line with them.
The fourth is the contrast between these three passages and the remaining matter of the two epistles. Whereas the three passages are obscure, the rest is, as usual with Paul; extremely clear and open to no sort of questioning about the actual meaning of what is written. If anyone feel in doubt, about this, a simple experiment will clear the issue. Read through the epistles, ignoring the three passages, 1. Thess. 5:3, 2. Thess. 1:8-10 and 2:3-12. From beginning to end the whole will be perfectly clear and straightforward. The omitted parts will then appear as a sombre background throwing them into relief. Their chief value to us will then be seen to be as a background. As a revelation, they are little more than an enigma, and one which has puzzled expositors throughout this era. There can be no doubt that in 2. Thess. 2:3-12 Paul was somehow constrained to do no more than hint at his meaning, just sufficient to remind the Thessalonians of matters which, plainly, were perfectly well known to them. We cannot doubt that they fully understood his allusions, even if we do not.
So it can hardly be accidental that twice, immediately
after, Paul refers to the tradition which he had taught them. These are:—
"Consequently, then, brethren, stand firm, and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether through word or through our epistle." (2. Thess. 2:15)
"Now we are charging you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you be putting yourselves from every brother who is walking disorderly and not according to the tradition which they accepted from us." (2. Thess. 3:6).
This sequence cannot be accidental; so we may safely deduce that some understanding of Hebrew Prophecy was part of the tradition which Paul taught the Thessalonians. The reference to "our epistle" should be noted, too; for the readers of the second epistle had two before them. As the only specially doctrinal part of the first epistle, namely 1. Thess. 4:13-17, was a special "word of the Lord," it could not be part of any traditions; so his reference must be to the second epistle, primarily at least, unless what I believe to be the truth about the time of fulfilment of that word of the Lord formed part of the traditions, later lost.
Turning to the remaining occurrence of "tradition," we read (1. Cor. 11:1, 2):—"Become imitators of me, according as I also am of Christ. Now I am applauding you that you have recalled all of mine and are retaining the traditions according as I gave them over to you." Later on in this same chapter, in vv. 23, 24, the Apostle Paul says:—"For I accepted from the Lord, what I give over also to you, that the Lord Jesus, in the night in which He was betrayed, took bread, and giving thanks, He breaks it and said, 'This is My body which is broken for your sakes.'" The repetition of the words "I give over to you" is very striking, and they are repeated again in 1. Cor. 15:3-10:—"For I give over to you first what I accepted also, that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, . . ."
Putting these clues together, we may deduce with reasonable confidence that Hebrew Prophecy, the history related in the Gospels and the institution of the Lord's Supper are all comprised within the tradition which Paul passed on to the Thessalonians and Corinthians; and the cryptic information set out in 2. Thessalonians about future events suggests very strongly that other matters were included as well which are no longer known to Christians.
So the question must arise: Why have some of these traditions been lost; and, not only that, replaced by a mass of ecclesiastical tradition, all of which is highly suspect and much of which is plainly false? Surely the answer is that the disorderly brethren of whom Paul spoke in 2. Thess. 3:6 became predominant in the churches, so that they, one and all, turned away from Paul? And here, too, the word "tradition" no longer remains plural, no longer are many separate traditions thought of; instead, the Tradition is in view, a whole body of doctrine. Not all the Tradition has gone. Much of it was kept for us in the written Scriptures. But the mysterious words of 2. Thess. 2:3-12 have a special value for us, in that they indicate that the Tradition, as a complete entity, is not ours now.
Once this is seen, many matters which have always been a puzzle become much plainer.
One is the question why there. has never been another church to compare with that of the Thessalonians. We read the Hebrew Scriptures very carelessly if we fail to perceive that, throughout Israel's history, apostasy has always brought about a permanent weakening of zeal and of power, even when they repented and tried to make a fresh start. In this respect, there is no evident reason why we should be any better off; and so it has, in fact, turned out. The failure of the early church as Paul's ministry closed became complete within a few decades. From time to time thereafter, good and great men were called, but they recovered very little of the lost ground. Then came the great rebirth of faith with the Reformation; but even that achieved only a very partial recovery, and decay with reaction to the errors of "Catholic" traditions soon set in. During the nineteenth century much new light with recovery of forgotten truth came from God; but the corresponding increase of life in the churches, though by no means negligible, was far from emulating the vigorous life of the Thessalonians, and dissension with apostasy soon set in once more. This general and progressive weakening of the churches, inevitable though it has been, must not be taken as an excuse for complacency but as a challenge to ourselves. God has raised up saints who have halted and even temporarily reversed the general decline. If, but only if, we do our duty, He may yet call even us to a similar high honour.
We must not overlook the fact that there has been a great revival of understanding of the Scriptures in our midst. Yet in one respect it is unique in our records—it has brought about no corresponding revival either of our spirituality or our zeal, our numbers, our influence, which have all progressively declined from their already extremely low estate. It seems almost impossible to interest anyone in our work, which is proceeding in a vacuum as it were. Yet the fact that it exists at all means that it is in line with God's will and is destined to work out His purposes, even though we cannot see how and are inevitably assailed with doubts as to whether our labour is not after all in vain in the Lord.
Another is the question why we have to search the Scriptures with zeal and concentration in order to achieve even a reasonably satisfactory modicum of the truth. The Apostle Paul's churches never knew that difficulty as we know it. Sure enough, the essential truths are there. The answer to the question how can a man become righteous and then have peace with God; the reign of grace; the position of Israel during the present period, as set out in Rom. 9 to 11, and ours in relation to circumcision, in Galatians; our standing and destiny among the celestials, as set out in the Prison Epistles; the issues of general conduct set out in all the epistles and especially in those to the Corinthians; the instructions for personal faithfulness in the Personal Epistles; the work of the Lord Jesus Christ as the great High Priest in Hebrews and the history in the four Gospels and Acts—all these vital essentials are set out plainly enough for all who care to take the trouble to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them with open minds and believing hearts. All these treasures of wisdom and knowledge are ours for the gathering; but we are only deceiving ourselves if we pretend that we possess in them anything more than the essentials. And they have to be gathered, they do not fall into our hands without any effort of our own; even though the need for such effort is largely due to the vast confusions which have resulted from the unbelief of those who have preceded us and, to be completely candid, from our own. Yet, even so, when every allowance has been made for these things, the fact remains that a number of unanswered and often unanswerable questions remains. Only those whose knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures is wide and deep adequately comprehend at all how great this number is. We know nothing, or almost nothing, as we ought to know it.
An outstanding example of this is discussed in the papers "On the meaning of 'ta panta'" in our Vol. 17, p. 109 and p. 270 (June and December, 1955). The former is a lengthy plea for suspending judgment over questions to which Scripture gives no clear answer, the latter a careful setting-out of the facts which are revealed. In the former I wrote (p. 118):
Personally, I have no doubt that the answers to some and possibly even most of these questions were known to those who heard the Apostle Paul, and were part of the Tradition. It may well prove that they can be recovered from the Scriptures even now—if only we would give ourselves wholeheartedly to the task and exercise real faith in ascertaining and believing the precise words which God has used in them. This task calls for a higher standard of honesty and integrity than generally exists among us; in fact, something like that exhibited by many of those who devote their lives to pure research in Science.
Yet another is the question why false traditions are so potent and tenacious. The loss of one segment of the truth creates a vacuum which has to be filled somehow; so filled it is—by guessing, or by taking over bodily the evil ideas of paganism. So a double task awaits the reformer: to cast out the false and to recover the true. No wonder his labour is so arduous!
A word of warning. The foregoing must not be taken as casting even a shadow of doubt on the completeness or the integrity of the Sacred Scriptures. They are complete. They are final. When Paul said his mission was to complete the Word of God, he unquestionably was literally right. The Scriptures contain all that is necessary for us to know.
But there is good ground for believing that they do not contain all we might have known if the churches had continued faithful as that of the Thessalonians was. The Tradition would have given us that little bit of further knowledge and insight which, for us, would have made all the difference between the now necessary patient and careful research which can never be wholly complete, and a sufficient, ready and certain grasp of the Truth which God arranged at first that we should possess and which the earliest Christians did possess. It may well be that this loss is part of His plan for us, a necessary condition for the training curriculum arranged for us. Part, and a very important part, of the cross we have to bear is the extremely great difficulty of settling finally the matters mentioned above and such questions as when 1. Thess. 4:13-17 is to be fulfilled, in such a way as to carry conviction to all our brethren, and not merely the little group to which we belong. The sin of turning ourselves away from the truth brings automatically the punishment of losing the ability to receive the truth. Our predecessors sinned in this way and won for themselves, and for us, this punishment. Our part is to recognize the fact and to do all we can to recover the lost truth and set it out; so that, with God's help and by His grace, we can pass on the torch to those who may follow.
When one comes to consider the matter unemotionally, it seems extraordinary, even outrageous, that there should be any disagreement at all between brethren in Christ over such vitally important questions. What makes it so much worse is that some of the worst of these disagreements have come about in consequence of a flood of fresh light. We ought to regard it as a deep reproach to ourselves, something worthy of the most earnest searching of heart, of figurative sackcloth and ashes. Perhaps it is something in our favour that we should, some of us, be sufficiently spiritually minded to be able to agree to differ; but that does not remove the terrible reproach that we should differ at all. Since I began to write in these pages I have been involved in extensive correspondence and received a considerable amount of literature from sources hitherto unknown to me; and I have been astonished and deeply shocked to discover the extent of the subjects which, once, I thought settled beyond any possibility of reasonable doubt, yet which are disputed or denied by some of the literature or correspondents. Recently one has insisted that there were no more than twelve apostles and that it was Paul who truly took the place of Judas among the Twelve. This gentleman is one who has to be taken very seriously, whose knowledge of the Scriptures generally is extensive and well worthy of respect; he is definitely not the sort of person whom one is privately tempted to regard with derision or contempt, as, unfortunately, some are. Instead, on reading his views the main temptation (for me) is to ask, with Pilate: What is truth? That is the position, for it is no light matter that over such a subject as the number of the apostles it is possible for two students of Scripture to disagree so fundamentally.
When such disagreements as this come to notice, it is terribly easy, and terribly wrong, to write off the other party as an ignoramus or a fool, or dishonest. Yet perhaps it is the one who behaves thus who is the fool, the one who lacks the knowledge to face his opponent's case who is the ignoramus, the one who takes the easy way out and shirks the issue raised who is the dishonest party. I know well that there are many who dislike all controversial matter. Apparently they are unable to understand that all Christian teaching is controversial, as all is attacked some time, somewhere, or by somebody. Do let us face facts! Nothing is ever gained by running away from them. The Christian who expects to live through his life in calm complacence is a fool or a coward. That is the plain truth; and the fact that we naturally dislike hearing it shows only too clearly that in our hearts we are aware of this.
I wish most deeply and intensely that there were sufficient people among us who really care and who desire to thrash out these matters thoroughly and decisively. As things are, it is extremely difficult to get away from a distressing suspicion that all efforts and researches in these studies are little more than beating the air. One cannot expect absolute finality in any subject, but some measure of finality is absolutely necessary as the pre-condition for any progress at all to be made. No arithmetic would be possible if one could never tell for certain whether twice two made four or sometimes three or five.
Personally, I hate to intrude my private feelings into these pages; but the time has come for this issue to be considered very earnestly indeed. For truth's sake, for our own sake, it is vitally necessary to do something about it. Our divisions are worse than unhappy, they are rapidly becoming ridiculous.
Such an assertion as this is bound to be resented, but that is not my fault, and, anyhow, there are always people who react violently and bitterly against anyone who tears away the shell of illusion wherewith they attempt to protect themselves against the horrible realities of this earthly life. Let us make a real effort to be honest with ourselves and ask ourselves candidly whether it is not ridiculous that we should, at this late date, have to argue with one another as to whether Peter and the rest of the Eleven did rightly or wrongly in Acts 1:15-26 and whether Luke was correct in writing "the apostles Barnabas and Paul" in Acts 14:14 or meant his words to be taken at their face value? Then, if Paul really were one of the Twelve, how was it that he had to wait 3 years before relating his story to Cephas and another 14 years before getting a final settlement with him and the rest of the Twelve (Gal. 1:18; 2:1); and how his position. as one of the Twelve Apostles of the Lamb can be reconciled with his statement in Phil. 3:4-16? There ought not to be any doubt at all about such matters. The fact that there is constitutes a terrible indictment of Christians in general.
No intellectually honest man can ever be absolutely sure that he is unquestionably correct in an exegesis involving a deduction from one or more passages of Scripture; and as so many controversies are over such deductions, room must always be left for the possibility that some of the deductions are incorrect. But for the life of me I cannot see how there can be room for legitimate difference of opinion as to whether or not Acts 14:14 teaches that Barnabas was an apostle in exactly the same sense as Paul was. Scepticism, or ecclesiastical tradition of any sort, surely over-reach themselves on such a point as this, and come dangerously near downright unbelief.
This study is partly the result of reflection on two questions which arise from 1. Thess. 5:1. Search of all available printed matter has failed to reveal any suggestion that they have ever been specifically examined before. They are:
It is worth noting that, so far, it has proved impossible to pin down anyone to setting out the exact words or passage which Paul is supposed to be quoting or re-delivering.
Yet there is no getting away from the fact that Paul thought he was giving out a fresh revelation by word of the Lord. If he was not, he was either mistaken or deliberately uncandid or even dishonest.
Some have endeavoured to get over this man-made difficulty by contending that the fresh revelation was that the living would not by any means outstrip the reposing. But is there anything so very important about that, taken by itself? Is there anything so very new about it, considering that, just before he declares the Lord's word, he states that those reposing will God, through Jesus, lead forth together with Him? If that be so, it would not matter all that much if the dead were, in fact, to have to tail a while behind the "living surviving unto the presence of the Lord." As they are dead, it could not matter in the least to them to have to wait a little while longer, and to the living it would not matter all that much, as they would know that the resurrection of the dead would not be long delayed. Surely in their glorified bodies they could bear to wait a little while longer, if that were the will of their Lord?
No. The idea that only v. 15 was the Lord's new word cannot be sustained. It is the whole passage, or it is nothing at all.
Once we truly grasp that the whole of 1. Thess. 4:13-17 is a new revelation by word of the Lord, we are well on the way to understanding it.
The immediate result of seeing that the passage was something quite new is that we can see further that, so far as Prophecy is concerned, Paul had hitherto told the Thessalonians nothing beyond the scope of Hebrew Prophecy. Some of what he discloses in 2. Thess. 2 is new; whether there was any other new material is not stated, but we can safely assume that if there were it was not outside the scope of what has been passed on to us in that epistle.
Why this reticence about the future expectation of the church which is Christ's body.?
We can only suppose that, somehow, the time was not ripe for it when Paul first visited Thessalonica. After all, so far as we know, the truths of the Prison Epistles were not disclosed until quite late in Paul's ministry. Men's minds had to be prepared to receive them. Doctrine must needs be disclosed progressively. People cannot take it in all at once; and it is a matter of common knowledge that, in fact, they can take in properly very little at a time. Moreover, preoccupation with Prophecy is not a good thing anyhow and is particularly harmful in the immature. The music of Chopin is lovely beyond compare, but its very beauty tends to deafen the ear to the beauty of other and in some ways greater music. He has been called "The Great Detainer," and, in Theology, Prophecy can often be appropriately called the same. Unfortunately, its study is, only too often, a blind alley which most effectively diverts Its devotees from the main truths of the Evangel. So we may conclude that Paul waited till the Thessalonians were sufficiently mature to receive it properly before disclosing prophetic truth which specially concerned themselves. This, then, is the answer to Question (A).
For Question (B) we have to remember that what to the Thessalonians was largely a reminder of things which they already knew is, for everyone else, a disclosure of truth greatly needed by them. Paul wrote to a small and local assembly; he wrote for a vast number of those who were, we now know, to follow him down the centuries; and this applies to all the epistles as well. Why God chose that His revelation to us should take this almost casual form is known to Him alone; but we must assume that it was for the best. Paul repeated these things so that we might get to know them.
The eighth parable of Matthew 13 (v. 52) is a key truth for the present period. Here in these Thessalonians epistles we find things new and old side by side. Although we must learn from this juxtaposition the relation between them and the bearing the new has on the old and the old on the new; we must also be most careful to keep them apart in our minds, to avoid reading the new into the old and confusing the old with the new, thereby spoiling or watering down the new. Both are valuable beyond measure in their proper places; neither is anything else but a stumbling-block when misplaced by insertion into the context of the other.
R. B. WITHERS Last updated 6.2.2006