1 Thessalonians 2:15-16: Israel’s Sins and God’s Wrath

This blog post is the second in a two-part post of studies in 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16. Last post, we learned about Bibliology from Paul’s comments about the Thessalonian response to his message. Today, we will look at what Paul said regarding the Jews in this passage, and thus learn some lessons about Israeology, the study of Israel. This may be a new word for you, and it is uncommon to be included in lists of doctrines. However, I believe it is a valid category for doctrinal discussion because so much of God’s plan for the ages does include past, present, and future Israel.

In vv15-16, Paul takes a slight diversion to discuss Jewish action in the present. He gets here by drawing an analogy in v14 between the persecution experienced by the churches of Judea and the church at Thessalonica at the hands of their own countrymen. Verses 15-16 may be summarized by seeing four historical facts that Paul states about the Jews and two concluding with two main points about the present state of the Jews before God.

As far as historical facts, four things are outlined by Paul. First, he says that they “were killing the Lord Jesus and the prophets.” (translation mine, unless otherwise noted) The Jews have a history of persecuting God’s servants, both past and present. Second, they were driving Paul and his group out of Thessalonica. This should be understood as an allusion to the events we see in Acts 17 where the Jews especially are involved in the persecution of Paul. Third, the Jews’ state is summarized as one in which they are “not pleasing to God”. Finally, there is an intensification to their state by pointing out that they prevent Paul from sharing the gospel to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In a summary, the Jews are clearly hostile to Paul and therefore to Jesus Christ and to His Father.

After describing the Jews’ actions in the present time, Paul concludes with two points. The first is explicitly said to be the result of these things, namely that they are “completing the filling up of their sins always.” (v16b) It is telling that he mentions that this is happening “always”. For sure, many Jews had been saved, and Paul was one of them. But, he is speaking here generally of them as a people, and for sure it is true that this is accurate. The idea that they are “completing” this fill-up of sin does fit with the idea that this is a process, and thus one can combine this with what follows in the next phrase that their sins are preparing them for God’s wrath.

The second point is in v16c, and there is an interpretive challenge in identifying what is meant here. The statement made is this: “But wrath has come upon them to the utmost.” (NASB) The basic connection one can make is that wrath on the Jews is the result of their sins that Paul has just explained. There are several ways that the text can be taken though, pertaining to this wrath.

  1. “Wrath has come upon them to the utmost”, focusing on the degree to which they have been put under God’s wrath.
  2. “Wrath will come upon them at the end”, a reference to the wrath they will experience in the Tribulation.
  3. “Wrath will come upon them at the end of this period”, a reference to the wrath they will experience in 70 A.D. when Jerusalem is destroyed by the Romans.
  4. “Wrath has come upon them until the end,” emphasizing the length of this wrath, namely until the end of the age.

These options reflection several issues in the Greek that I have found challenging to understand precisely what Paul is saying here. The aorist tense of the main verb, “has come,” can support either a past or future meaning (for a discussion of aorist tense, you can consult Rodney J. Decker’s Reading Koine Greek). The context must be used to support the decision on meaning. I believe that the second option is the most likely intended meaning. To identify it as this, there are two keys I will offer. First, the most natural meaning of “end” in this verse would seem to refer to the end times “end” of the age. Second, the wrath of God coming in the Tribulation on the world is referenced in 1 Thessalonians (esp. 5:8, but also 1:10 probably as well). Third, the concept that the Jews are “completing the filling up of their sins” gives an impression that they are filling themselves up but that the consequence of those sins has not come yet. The last point is probably one of the more convincing. It is not an easy thing to pin down though in this passage.

In conclusion, what can we say this passage teaches about Israelology? In a nutshell, we see that the nation of Israel as a whole, though albeit not all (Rom. 11:1-5), was an enemy of those who know the gospel of Christ and it seems implied that they will continue to be until the end times. As a result, they are constantly adding to their sins and these are preparing them in a sense for the wrath of God, specifically the wrath they will experience in the end times. More study is needed into precisely how this fits together with the purpose of the Tribulation, but this is my conclusion at this time. Regardless of the current sinful condition, make no mistake: God is not finished with Israel. I will conclude with this marvelous passage from Romans 11:25-27 (NASB, emphasis mine) regarding the future salvation for Israel as a nation:

For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery–so that you will not be wise in your own estimation–that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written,”THE DELIVERER WILL COME FROM ZION,HE WILL REMOVE UNGODLINESS FROM JACOB.” “THIS IS MY COVENANT WITH THEM,WHEN I TAKE AWAY THEIR SINS.

2 thoughts on “1 Thessalonians 2:15-16: Israel’s Sins and God’s Wrath

  1. In dealing with aorist as a “tense” and not as an aspect / perspective, we can deal with the grammatical issue — are there aorists that cannot be translated into pasts? But even so, we must deal with the issue of whether we are using an “ad hoc,” in other words, a theory invoked awkwardly in a particular place to solve some other problem we’re dealing with in the text. To put it bluntly, we can’t say that an aorist is not a past, simply because it’s possible that it is not a past, and that would help us in a particular place. Plausibility does not make it true. (Or false!)

    Would the understanding of the aorist participle αποκτειναντων not be an issue, if we looked at the problem as how to understand Paul’s generalization using participles in 1 Th 2:15? in 2:15-16, the next two participles are not even aorist (μη αρεσκοντων, not being agreeable, and κωλυοντων, forbidding). I think it’s more a problem of reading English nuances into Greek semantics. If Paul says “the Jews” (2:14) and we hear it as an English-style generalization, we think he is speaking about all Jews “as such,” and hear our grammar-school rules, “don’t make bad moral generalizations about people; it’s not nice.” But we are wrong to place the Greek under the English rules we’ve heard. It’s obvious that Paul is speaking about a specific group, since all Jews as such, universally, do not forbid Paul to speak to the Gentiles” in 2:16, but that group did. On the meaning of εις τελος, toward the end, I think the HCSB did a better translation than the NASB, indicating that God’s (temporal) wrath has come upon them at the end of the event he described, and giving another option than the four you mentioned. Thanks for dealing with a very difficult text, which I think our presuppositions make so!

    1. Larry, I haven’t ignored your comments…You had a lot to add. I purposely didn’t discuss the distinction between verbal aspect and tense as English understands tense, so your point is right that we shouldn’t select a particular meaning just because the grammatical form could mean one thing…However, my point was that the meaning I suggest is correct is supported by the context. I’m not sure that the comparison to the other participles is significant because the clause is an actual verb and not a participle (ἔφθασεν). Wallace in Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics does discuss a proleptic (futurist) aorist if its in the indicative mood (as this is), and it lists this verse as an albeit debatable one, but notes in a foot note that if the proleptic aorist is lexically influenced then it is notable to compare Matt. 12:28 which uses the same verb

      I looked up the HCSB, and I just wasn’t entirely persuaded that there was not sufficient reason to take the εἰς τέλος as “in the end”. True, there is no article there, but I didn’t see that as significant in this context, though I have started to consider looking into it. The key lexical issue I couldn’t come firmly down on (and I hope to as I study Thessalonians more) had to do with whether there is something in the lexis ὀργὴ that focuses it on the temporal aspect. I have heard some Dispensationalists argue that ὀργὴ, and especially here in 1 Thessalonians, is focused on wrath manifested in a visible way, not wrath as a position, and thus tieing it to the end times. I reviewed BDAG and also have worked through 1 Thess. 1:10, but haven’t been able to really resolve that. I need to continue working through the epistle, as there is one other reference to the word (5:8).

      Anyway, it is all a bit conjecture but I felt that in the context, this interpretation made the most sense and was the most natural meaning and within the bounds of the grammar, but albeit still a difficult one.

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