Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Day of the Lord here?

Got ya.  This is actually from the 7th chapter of my second Paul book. :-)
2 Thessalonians 2 is one of the most cryptic passages in the Bible. Paul seems intentionally vague. He alludes to knowledge he and the Thessalonians share but that he apparently does not want to mention explicitly in the letter. “You know,” Paul says, “what is holding him back” (2:6). But he does not say what or who it is. He mentions things he told them when he was with them but keeps the details out of the letter. It feels like some of the powers he of which speaks are looking over his shoulder.

The general topic is the “Day of the Lord,” which Paul associates with the parousia or “arrival” of Jesus, as well as with believers being gathered to him (2:1-2). 1 Thessalonians also speaks of the Day of the Lord. It says that this event will come “like a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:2). For unbelievers, the arrival of Christ will be surprising, along with the wrath of God that ensues (1:10; 5:9). But it will not surprise believers for they are awake (5:4-5). Just before that Day, Christ will return from heaven. The dead will rise and Christ will meet us with them in the clouds (4:16-17).

The tone here is quite different in 2 Thessalonians. If 1 Thessalonians urges them to be ready for the Lord to come at any time like a thief, 2 Thessalonians puts on the brakes and tells them to wait because a few things still have to happen yet. For this reason, they do not feel like they were written one right after the other. Certainly 2 Thessalonians does not feel like it was written before 1 Thessalonians. A scenario sometimes advanced is that Paul wrote the Thessalonians that Christ could return any day then some of them stopped working and acted as if the Day had already come.

But the situation seems driven by something more than Paul’s former teaching. 2 Thessalonians 2:2 mentions a rumor going around that the Day of the Lord had come. Paul even mentions the possibility that someone might forge a letter in his name to this effect. This statement, coupled with the strong claim at the end of 2 Thessalonians that Paul signed the letter with his own hand (3:17), raises the stakes for us not to take Paul as the author of this letter. If Paul was not the author of 2 Thessalonians, then it would be difficult not to take this letter as a somewhat blatant attempt to deceive.

But what circumstances might lead the Thessalonians to think that the Day of the Lord had arrived? On the one hand, we should probably think of this comment more as the beginnings of the end. Surely everyone believed that the return of the Lord from heaven to judge the earth would be a fairly obvious event—you will know when it happens. Surely it was not like the Thessalonians had heard Jesus had returned to Jerusalem already!

But surely some event of major proportions was happening to trigger such talk. Even if we bracket the question of Paul’s authorship, the temple must still be standing, for 2:4 mentions some “man of lawlessness” setting himself up in the Jerusalem temple as God. It is very difficult to imagine that any Jew or Gentile believer at that time would have pictured anything but the Jerusalem temple when they heard this statement. Certainly Paul does spiritualize the temple at times (e.g., 1 Cor. 3:16). But 2 Thessalonians is talking about rebellions and the movements of a lawless individual. Surely the audience of 2 Thessalonians would have heard Daniel 11:31 in these words, the desecration of the temple by a contemptible king who sets up an “abomination that causes desolation.”

Indeed, it is hard for us not to hear overtones here of Matthew 24:15 and Mark 13:14, where Jesus speaks of such an abomination in the temple. And surely it would have been hard for any audience at the time of Paul not to remember a somewhat recent event when the emperor Caligula tried to have a statue of himself erected in the Jerusalem temple. This event happened at least ten years before 2 Thessalonians, so it is not the event Paul has in mind. But it seems very likely that it gives important background for what Paul and the Thessalonians would have pictured when Paul spoke of the man of lawlessness setting himself up in the temple as God...

1 comment:

Marc said...

I think the problem for the Thessalonians wasn't so much that they thought they'd missed something (Rapture or Parousia or whatever) but that they had been misled.

It seems they thought Christ would return before any of them died. Then someone dies and they say: Hey, wait a minute... didn't Paul say Christ was coming soon?!

Maybe Paul, in his enthusiasm and expectancy, just forgot to add this all could take a while and deaths might occur.