The Surprise of Paul

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?

9 thoughts on “The Surprise of Paul

  1. Marty, I’d love to hear Lionel comment on how this might relate to his PhD research. If I recall rightly, he is in part looking at Paul’s self-conception as a priest in ministry, thinking especially of Rom 15:16

    to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

    In Philippians 2:15-17, this language of offering the Gentiles as a sacrificial offering to God gets linked in with Paul’s boasting (glorying) and joy in them, to which you refer…

    …in which you shine like stars in the universe 16 as you hold out the word of life—in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing. 17 But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you.

    So are they his joy and boast and crown because they are his priestly offering (by grace – Rom 15:15, and in Christ) to God?

    I guess this just adds in some other ‘surprising’ language – of priestly work – which Paul seems to be more comfortable with than some evangelicals. But that’s probably because we miss what he is saying and jump to the conclusion that we don’t want to hint of anything catholic!

  2. Hi Marty (and Sandy), a few random comments:

    1) I liked your post – but I wasn’t particularly surprised! This just shows I’m not as in touch with the American Reformed Evangelical scene as you are. It’s really interesting to hear you say that American Christians would think this was crazy and heretical. I’m sure I’ve got biblical blind spots too, but I don’t think this is one of them.

    2) Sandy you’re quite right that the word “glory” in Paul is often linked with a priest-like conception of viewing the world. In the Old Testament, especially the bits with a “priestly” focus, “glory” is often a word used to describe things and people which God specially uses to display his power – the temple, the priests, etc.

    3) For those who like technicalities: I think the decision to translate this with the English word “boast” makes this passage seem a bit more surprising than it should be. For us English speakers, the word “boast” automatically carries a negative vibe. But the original words καυχάομαι / καύχησις are often used in a positive sense by Paul and other ancient writers, and mean something like “take pride in” or “glory in.” Those who “boast” are usually expressing confidence rather than arrogance. This is seen most clearly in the threefold reference to “boasting” in Romans 5 (vv. 2, 3, 11). Here, the ESV is inconsistent, because it stops using the word “boast” and instead uses “rejoice”. Pual is saying that all Christians have a legitimate “boast” in God, through Jesus Christ, which involves confidence in God’s final salvation. The activity of “boasting” itself is not necessarily wrong, not even “boasting in God.” Boasting is only wrong when the grounds of the boast are illegitimate (e.g. Romans 2:17).

    • Thanks, guys.
      I haven’t thought about in the actual terms of Paul’s priestly ministry. Very interesting.

      The heritage we have here in Reformed theology is often represented in our day by Piper. His framework of God doing things for God’s own glory – thus we do things only for God’s glory – is very strong, as you probably know. And I just wonder if it is pushed too far then a passage like just isn’t allowed to say what it says.

      Don’t you think that is kind of what Calvin is saying? That Paul can’t really mean what he says here.

  3. OK, you’ve made me think more. And now I think more, I’m quite sympathetic to Calvin at this point, actually. I don’t think Calvin is calling Paul a heretic, or saying that Paul “can’t really mean what he says”. Calvin’s not judging Paul by an external doctrinal standard. Rather, Calvin is just trying to fit Paul’s statement here into the framework of other statements by Paul along the lines that God is ultimately the one who is glorified in everything, e.g. Rom 11:29, Gal 1:5. Calvin’s reminding us that you’ve got to understand Paul’s statements here against Paul’s wider theological backdrop, which is expressed elsewhere by Paul and in other parts of the Bible. Paul’s statement here, says Calvin, is definitely the truth, but it ain’t the whole truth.

    And I think this makes a lot of sense of the context too. Paul isn’t setting up a contrast between glorying in God and glorying in the Thessalonians. His real contrast, in this context, is between what his fellow-Jews normally gloried in before God (i.e. really stupendous, obviously glorious things, like the temple and God’s law) and what he is glorying in before God (i.e. the suffering, weak-looking Thessalonians who are clearly getting a rough deal and look pathetic).

    That is, to paraphrase he’s NOT saying this: “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Oh, it’s not Jesus! It’s not God! We don’t glory in them. No, it’s you! For you are our glory and joy.”

    Rather, to paraphrase, he saying something like this: “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you [even though you seem weak and sad, and are being opposed] are our glory and joy [in the sight of Jesus Christ].”

    I don’t know for sure, but I reckon John Piper would probably say something quite similar.

  4. Having said that, I get your point that if our only reaction to a biblical text is to announce that it’s not saying something heretical, then we have a real problem. Do Calvin or Beale go on to tell us what the text is actually teaching us (positively), or are they simply content to assure us that it’s not rocking our orthodoxy? If the former, that’s great. If the latter, then I agree there’s a problem.

  5. If I might add my far less well-thought-through and non-Greek-scholarly reflections to the mix…

    If our framework is “glory in God alone” (which is a right and biblical one), and if this is taken to exclude glorifying in other things (which I admit it seems to on first reading), then I think this verse should, indeed, challenge us and rewrite our way of thinking – not be explained away. For isn’t it right that we glory in other things besides God? (I know this sounds contradictory – to glory ‘only’ in something surely means that you can’t glory in something else – but not if the something else leads you to glorify the ‘only’.)

    We glory in God’s creation (not sure I can think of a verse for this one, it’s just a hunch). We glory in God’s people (see verses above). But there’s no contradiction here: because God made his world, and brings growth to his people, to glory in them is to glory in God’s good gifts which brings the glory right back to him.

    I guess what I’m saying (like Lionel?) is that there doesn’t need to be any either-or about this. To drive a wedge between them is to drive a wedge that isn’t in the Bible. The problem comes when we glory in things instead of, or more than, God – this is idolatry. There’s no problem when our glory in God’s good gifts leads us to thank and glorify God. I think I read something along these lines from Piper on joy and creation in “When I Don’t Desire God”.

    (I guess part of the issue is what we mean by ‘glory’ – if we mean ‘rejoice’, it’s good to glory in creation and people, as long as they lead us to glory ultimately in God; if we mean ‘serve’ or ‘worship’, that might not be so helpful.)

    To take a completely different tack…

    What about 1 Corinthians 3? Could Pual be talking about his reward on the last day: seeing his work and ministry bear fruit into eternity? A ministry which isn’t built on the foundation of Christ and which is destructive of his people will be burned up on the last day. A ministry which is built on Christ and which grows God’s people will bear fruit that will last into eternity. On the last day, the eternal fruit of our ministry in people’s lives will be part of our reward, our ‘boast’ and our joy. It’s a sign that we’ve been faithful, and an outworking of our faith. (I haven’t studied this passage in detail, so I may be reading it incorrectly.)

  6. Another thought: are they Paul’s ‘glory’ also in the sense, not tht he glories in them, but that they bring glory (a ‘crown’) to him? Again, this would be the idea of faithful service and ministry being rewarded. Which makes the verse even more shocking: not just that I ‘glory’ in something besides God, but that he brings me ‘glory’ – not an unhead of biblical idea, since God is said to take and to give glory (Job 19:9, Psalm 3:3) and to exalt the humble (Matthew 23:12), and we are to seek his praise (Romans 2:29, Matthew 25:23).

    Or is the ‘glory’, again, not something that we give but something we receive, in the sense of entering into glory (2 Corinthians 4:17)?

    Just ramblin’…

    • Hi Jean; this is quite possible! Especially if Paul is deliberately contrasting his own ministry with other expressions of Jewish ministry in his day.

      For example, Ben Sira, a Jewish author writing a little while before Paul, describes the ministry of Moses and the priests using very similar language:

      From his descendants the Lord brought forth a man of mercy, who found favor in the sight of all flesh and was beloved by God and man, Moses, whose memory is blessed. He made him equal in glory to the holy ones, and made him great in the fears of his enemies. By his words he caused signs to cease; the Lord glorified him in the presence of kings. He gave him commands for his people, and showed him part of his glory. (Sirach 45:1-3)

      He exalted Aaron … He wrapped him with a robe of glory … with a golden crown on his turban, an inscription of a seal of holiness, a boast of honour … this became an everlasting covenant for him and for his offspring in the days of heaven, to minister before him [i.e. “the Lord”] and to serve him as priest … (Sirach 45:6-15)

      This way of describing Moses and priests would quite possibly have been circulating in the synagogues which the Thessalonians used to attend before they were kicked out (Acts 17:1-9). So it’s also quite possible that Paul is deliberately contrasting his own ministry to the gentiles with this kind of thinking about priestly ministry. If so, Paul is doing it to show that he (Paul) is the real deal, the true heir of Moses, the proper kind of priestly Jewish minister to the nations. Paul has a true boast, true glory, etc.; not in outward glory, but in the Thessalonians themselves.

  7. Thanks, everyone. Great discussion.
    My next post on the passage is early next week. Jean’s second post is where I am leaning at the moment. But, I didn’t change my post so that you can see it as I originally thought. It isn’t nearly full of insight as your posts above.

    I have to say that for a text that doesn’t have many surprises, it generated some comments. So, thanks!

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