17 October 2012

A somewhat-mundane Book

by Frank Turk

I have a confession to make about what happens when I write a lesson for adults: more often than not, I have written the lesson that I need most from this passage.  Sometimes, maybe, those lessons wind up being too simplistic because, while I have had faith in Jesus our savior for about 20 years now, I have a long way to go.  So when the elders at church let us know we’d be teaching through 1 Thes this fall, I have to admit that I was hoping to get inspired by the other guys’ lessons because while I have read the whole book once or twice, I feel like this book is not my favorite book of the Bible.

I don’t dislike it, I don’t have theological objections to it, and I’m not worried that it is going to lead us astray.  It is the word of God, after all.  We all believe that  All Scripture is inspired by God, breathed-out by Him, and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness so that we can be equipped for every good work.  We believe it – that’s why we’re call Sunday School at our church "Equipping Hour," so that we can study God’s word, and get equipped.

But this book is not like the Acts of the Apostles, or the Gospel of John, or Ephesians, or Romans.  You know: when John MacArthur wrote his commentary for Romans, it turned into two 500-page volumes.  When he wrote the commentary on this letter, it was so small that it also included the second letter to the Thessalonians – and together that volume is about 300 pages long.  If we surveyed this class, or maybe the pastors we read and respect, I’ll bet this book doesn’t come up in the top half of the books of the Bible regarding its influence or its depth.

If I had to guess, there are two reasons for this.  The first one, which we haven’t gotten to in the text yet, is that this book talks about the end of all things in Jesus’ second coming.  In that, because it says more than, “Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will Come Again,” it will open up a lot of conjecture and questions which, it seems to me, the Bible ultimately doesn’t intend to answer.  It will make us mindful of the intention God has to bring all things to a conclusion.  He will make Christ King above all Kings and Lord above all Lords, and the judge of the living and the dead, but we tend to want a lot more than that from our eschatology.  I can understand why a pastor doesn’t want to make a ministry out of threading the eye of that needle.

The second reason this book doesn’t get a lot of attention is sort of ironic, given the first reason.  It doesn’t get a lot of attention because it is a somewhat-mundane book.  The word “justification” makes no appearances in this book.  “Propitiation” is not mentioned.  “Sacrifice” isn’t given any consideration.  “Grace” is mentioned only as part of Paul’s greeting and farewell.  God’s sovereignty and omniscience is not extolled.  In some sense, it’s hard to see that Paul wrote this book at all since whatever it is he is talking about here makes no direct reference to the great and good theology he presents to us in other places – the places we enjoy more, the places where we feel like our roots as a “Reformed” people run deep and draw their best nourishment from.

This is a commonplace book.  But somehow, it winds up in the Bible as Scripture.  That, it itself, ought to be a lesson to us when we consider Paul’s view of scripture.  If we all believe that  all Scripture is inspired by God, breathed-out by Him, and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness so that we can be equipped for every good work, then there is a use for a book like this one which winds up getting only a minor representation in our systematic theology.


Bill said...

Good morning. It is funny you bring this up at this time. Every morning I go through the Psalms, Proverbs, and NT via the MacArthur Daily Bible with my sons before departing the fix and guess what book we are currently going through? Yep, First Thessalonians. JMac has a great list of reasons Paul had for writing this seemingly less terse, more encouraging letter. Here’s what he says:
1. Encouraging the church (1:2-10)
2. Answering false allegations (2:1-12)
3. Comforting the persecuted flock (2:13-16)
4. Expressing joy in their faith (2:17-3:13)
5. Reminding them of the importance of moral purity (4:1-8)
6. Condemning the sluggard lifestyle (4:9-12)
7. Correcting a wrong understanding of prophetic events (4:13-5:11)
8. Diffusing tensions within the flock (5:12-15)
9. Exhorting the flock in the basics of Christian living (5:16-22)
Short book, long on meat.

FX Turk said...

Basics are never the most entertaining, as we will see in the subsequent posts on this topic.

Dominique Carlson said...

sounds like a very "felt needs" kind of book....

Bill - DJP made it very clear several posts ago that he knows nothing about JMac and no one is allowed to bring anything by him into the conversation, err, I mean comments section...

MTHudson said...

I appreciate the candor, Frank. No matter how great a passion God's given us for his word, we all end up (at least feeling like) we're walking through the somewhat mundane sometimes.

It's good to remember that we're not alone in that, and better to be reminded that it can't really be mundane after all, if, as you said: 'we all believe that all Scripture is inspired by God, breathed-out by Him, and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness so that we can be equipped for every good work,'. I'll probably end up re-reading 1 Thess. this week because of this post.

James Scott Bell said...

This is a book that makes it clear we have things to do in order to please God (4:1). This does not often excite those who would rather sit on their pillows contemplating "great and good theology," a leaky part of which is the idea that nothing we can do will ever please God. That's bad theology. Look: we have to control our bodies (4:4-8), we have to keep getting better at love (4:9,10), we have to live in a way that wins the respect of outsiders (4:11,12). We are commanded to be joyful, to pray continually, to encourage with Christ's second coming, to honor the Spirit's fire, and so on.

It's a work book. Sometimes you have to put down your systematics and pump up your industry.

That is why this book is in the Bible.

Merrilee Stevenson said...

Mundane? Somewhat-mundane? Even with the words, "...for the Lord is the avenger in all these things..."?

I'd like to think you are lulling us to sleep before unleashing the super-hero application to this book.

In the very least, your use of the force convinced me to read it all this morning, just looking for reasons to prove you wrong.

But alas, my people need me...

FX Turk said...

Bill: it's funny you should mention Dr. MacArthur on this. His treatment of the 2 letters to Thessalonica (one-volume of commentary) is about 340 pages -- and his treatment of Romans is 2 volumes weighing in at almost 1000 pages.

Which comes up later in this series: this is a book which, because it is for the ordinary church, never seems to get anything but an ordinary treatment.

Bill said...

I think I understand what you mean when you use the terms: “somewhat-mundane,” “ordinary treatment,” and “Basics.” Consider: water is very basic yet also quite necessary. Food is quite mundane but also necessary. So while the Thessalonian Epistles are not the doctrinal treatise that Romans is, so be it. It is not meant to be that. It is meant to be something that is like water, necessary.

I’ll leave you with this quote: “The Thessalonian epistles catalog the marks of a healthy, growing church. They give the responsibilities of the leaders to the congregation (1 Thess. 5:12, 14–15); the congregation to the leaders (1 Thess. 5:13, 25–28; 2 Thess. 3:1–2); of believers to grow spiritually (1 Thess. 5:16–22), stand firm in the midst of persecution (1 Thess. 2:14–16), and live orderly lives (2 Thess. 3:6–13); and the church’s responsibility to discipline sinning members (2 Thess. 3:6, 14–15). They also emphasize the church’s responsibility to reach the lost world with the saving truth of the gospel (1 Thess. 1:8–10).”

Not so mundane when viewed in that manner. BTW, I think Merrilee is right, when do we hear the sound of a shoe dropping?

Unknown said...

I am in the middle of teaching a 16 part series on 1 and 2 Thessalonians to my 70 member adult Sunday School class at our EPC church in the second largest city in Illinois. I have entitled the series Eschatology 101. I think that the Thessalonian letters do a great job of presenting the topic of eschatology in the context of the Christians daily life and that's how I'm teaching the series.

Robert said...

I think we tend to get in our own way with stuff like this. I mean we in general, not pointing to you or anybody in particular. We want to have some great deep knowledge of something new instead of focusing on the day to day grind of living. This book is definitely more attuned to the day to day life of the Christian and how we should be living/thinking and not some deep truth that we need to sink our teeth into.

I can't help but to think that pride plays a large factor in all of this. The deep teaching and knowledge seem to make us feel special and that we have something that others don't. In contrast, these types of truths are something that most of us know and should be better at applying, but we aren't. Thus the need for this book in Scripture.

MarieP said...

I think you wrote this so provocatively on purpose!

Even the most "academic" of Paul's letters were not written in an ivory theological tower. Romans and Ephesians can be just as practical and "mundane" as 1 Thess.

FWIW, the words election, gospel (4 times!), and sanctify/sanctification (3 times) all appear in the letter.

And, the letter certainly wasn't mundane to those who first received it. After all, aren't we in one sense "reading someone else's mail?"

1 Thess 2
17 But we, brethren, having been taken away from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavored more eagerly to see your face with great desire. 18 Therefore we wanted to come to you—even I, Paul, time and again—but Satan hindered us. 19 For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming? 20 For you are our glory and joy.

Anonymous said...

Suggestion: read it every day for a month.

Second suggestion: if you still don't love it after that, memorise it. If you do love it, memorise it.

Either way, by that point, you'll probably love it. But then do a verse by verse analysis (take your time, it will take a while) of what the verse teaches / implies about each area of doctrine (theology proper, Christology, etc.)

Then you'll love it.

And then reflect on the fact that the mundane is truly theological, and the theological is mundane, and the basics are deep, and we don't really understand theology if all we understand is theology. :)

trogdor said...

The eschatology of 1 Thessalonians is one reason I really like the book - it's the eschatology that we pretty much all agree on, and not much else. You're right that it gives a big-picture eschatology but doesn't get bogged down in the details people love to debate endlessly. What it gives us instead is this: Jesus is coming again, and this fact informs every aspect of life for the Christian (and is the overwhelming dread of all others).

The references to Christ's return and reign are numerous and persistent - every chapter ends with a refernce to Christ's return and the final judgment. Aside from the extended discourse in 4:13-5:11, you have:

(1:9-10) For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.

(2:19-20) For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.

(3:13) ...so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

(5:23-24) Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

Jesus dies, was raised, and ascended to heaven, from whence he will return to be with his people whom he saved from wrath (which is still on not-his-people). Those who have preceded us in death are with him already, and at the end we will all be together with him. Believing this is confirmation of our faith and a great encouragement to us, and the ultimate personward goal of ministry is to prepare people for Christ's return.

This permeates through all aspects of life and ministry. Paul's concern for the Thessalonians, his encouragement at their proven faith, his fatherly/motherly care for them, his desire to see them sanctified and grow in faith and love and perseverence, his encouragement in the face of death - all of these and more are placed in light of Christ's return.

And so with us. Every thing we do at church, our interactions with neighbors and coworkers, how I raise my daughters and treat my wife - it should all be done keeping in mind that Jesus Christ is reigning and returning, and we've got to be ready.