Coming from my last post, we are looking at 1 Thessalonians 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.”
With this passage alone, Paul would fail miserably in the Reformed Evangelical circles here in the US. We are rightly taught Sola Christus (in Christ alone) and Sola Gratia (by grace along) and Soli Deo Glori (for the glory of God alone).
The surprise comes in that Paul says none of these things. The context of 1 Thessalonians certainly is eschatological. So, the phrase here “Lord Jesus at his coming” refers to the future judgment day. On that day, where is Paul’s hope? His glory? His certainty of commendation through judgment? Every part of me wants to burst out like the Sunday School kid who answers every question with “Jesus!”
But, Paul doesn’t. He states that it is the Thessalonians themselves that are his hope and glory and joy on that day. This isn’t the only place he says this – see also Philippians 4:1 and 2 Corinthians 1:14
Put Paul in street clothes, change his name to Bill and make him a church planter (no tattoos, though) going from town-to-town somewhere in America. Because he is fairly successful he gets interviewed by a blogger. The blogger asks, “Bill, what do you look forward to at the second coming?” Bill replies, “Well, I really will take joy in seeing the people I ministered to. In fact, my hope and glory really come in seeing them persevere in the faith at the second coming. They really are the sum of what I am about here on earth. They are what I will boast about on that day.”
The blogosphere lights up with screams of heresy and ridicule. “What about Jesus!” “What about the glory of God in all things?”
But, this isn’t Bill, it’s Paul. So, we know he surely can’t mean what he wrote in this passage. In fact, Calvin says as much in his commentary on 1 Thessalonians:
“Farther, when he calls them his hope and the crown of his glory, we must not understand this as meaning that he gloried in any one but God alone, but because we are allowed to glory in all God’s favours, in their own place, in such a manner that he is always our object of aim…” (Baker Books 1999, 263)
Who am I to argue with Calvin? So, I won’t.
I’ll just ask some questions. Do we allow the Bible to speak for itself? Can we allow for surprises in the text that challenge our frameworks? Do our theological systems allow for the clear and plain reading of a text?
And, I will simply ask of Calvin’s comment, why? Why must we not understand it this way? Is it the preponderance of passages that go the other way?
To bring some modern flair and maybe a remedy to all of this, let me go to another person I greatly respect, noted New Testament commentator Dr Greg Beale. In his IVP New Testament Commentary on 1-2 Thessalonians, he takes his cues from Calvin and then John Piper’s famous Desiring God framework:
“It is good when we desire our own joy in the way God says true joy can come because it pleases God and is the only true way of pleasing ourselves. When our desires are in line with God’s desires, it is a good because we reflect God’s mind and heart…To fulfill our desires and joy is not selfish when it means that only God gets the glory, since God is the one who ultimately engenders righteous, joyous desires in us. This is why the only glory at the end of time is God’s own glory…he [Paul] takes joy in and glorifies the God who will complete the faith of his readers.” (Inter-Varsity 2003, 94)
For Calvin, Beale and many others this passage is read only in light of the other of Paul’s passages where he speaks of God alone being glorified in all we do. So, in the end both Calvin and Beale are saying the same thing – Paul doesn’t really mean that he takes joy and hope and glory in the Thessalonians. It is only in God that he glorifies.
I’ll confess that part of me thinks this is exactly the way forward; after all, I follow very much in line with Calvin, Piper and Beale. But, I am still not completely satisfied. I still wonder if we are allowing this surprise in the text to stand or are we muting it a bit because of our frameworks? More importantly, are we missing the bigger point of Paul’s message in this letter?