Thursday, December 8, 2016 Thursday after the Second Sunday of Advent
2 Thessalonians 2.1–12
The text of the readings follows after the comments.
We start Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians today. It may be the earliest book in the New Testament. Now, that’s a controversial thing to say, as many biblical scholars would say that it is unlikely to have been written by Paul. They say this because it sounds an awful lot like Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians (and the consensus is that Paul did write it), and so these scholars get suspicious, wondering if the author is someone wanting to write in Paul’s name and use his authority. Indeed, the letter tells its recipients not to be alarmed by letter of word “as though from us” that the Day of the Lord has come, so it suggests that some people were already doing this.
However, my Paul Professor at Trinity College, Toronto believed that it was by Paul, and argued for the early date, and even claimed to be able to date it more or less exactly – 40 AD. This is because Hurd thought that all the details matched a particular well-attested event in history – the attempt by the Emperor Caligula to erect a statue of himself as a divine being in the Temple in Jerusalem. Judea and Jerusalem had been conquered for Rome by Pompey the Great in 69 BC, more than a hundred years earlier. While Pompey had profaned the Temple by entering into it and even going in to the Holy of Holies, only discover that it was an empty room, he immediately confirmed the High Priest in his office, ordered that Jews and the Jewish religion should be left alone and not be required to conform to Roman sacrificial expectations, and called for the regular sacrifices to continue. And so it continued until Caligula’s time (although Pompey’s career, up until that time unstoppable, started its long decline which ended in 48 BC with him assassinated and beheaded by followers of Julius Caesar in a boat off Egypt – coincidence, or punishment for having committed sacrilege?).
Caligula was not a good Emperor – no ancient writer says anything good about him. He either was a megalomaniac or he was a mischievous young man who enjoyed putting the senators and aristocrats through gross humiliations. Eventually he was assassinated, too, only by members of his own bodyguard. But Caligula clearly did not get why the Jews, out of all the subject peoples in the Empire, should have an exemption from Roman ritual practices, especially those around worshiping the genius of the Emperor, who just happened to be him. So he issued orders that a statue of himself erected in the Temple. The Roman governor of Syria, Petronius, was told to make sure this happened, so he made his way to Judea. However, when he arrived he was told that the Jews opposed it and would rather die than let it happen; some ten thousand people came to protest Caligula’s order. He went to Tiberias, a Roman colony on the Sea of Galilee, and the same thing happened there. Even though he had two legions with him Petronius delayed, not seeing a whole lot of benefit changing something that seemed to work for a century. He eventually sent a letter to Caligula, saying that there there was some opposition, and did he really want him to go ahead? Of course, he knew full well what the answer was, but sending aletter to the Emperor in those days took time, and getting an answer also took time. Petronius was probably hoping for something from the gods, or maybe even the Jewish God. And then it happened – Caligula was murdered, and his uncle Claudius had no interest in setting up statues in Jerusalem, and instead went on to conquer Britain.
Think of this when you read over 2 Thessalonians 2.1-12. Who might the lawless one be? Caligula, perhaps, who “opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God”? Sounds like it to me. His attempt to aggrandize himself in the face of the Jewish God was a “rebellion”, and perhaps in Paul’s mind this gross abomination would be the trigger for the Day of the Lord and the return of Jesus in glory as the Son of Man, destroying this blasphemer “with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming” and moving on to judge the quick and the dead.
But then Caligula was assassinated, and Paul had to revise the schedule. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, which according to Hurd is a somewhat later letter, perhaps a year or two after Caligula’s death, represents some of that revision, and is somewhat less precise than Second Thessalonians. As Paul wrote his others letters – First Corinthians, Galatians, Second Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon, Romans (and possibly Colossians and Ephesians – scholars are divided), the Day of the Lord becomes less important, although it never quite recedes completely.
And perhaps the message for us. Yes, we can get very excited by current events and look to them for signs of the return of the Son of Man. On the other hand, there are also other aspects of the Christian faith – say, “love” as described in First Corinthians 13 – that are equally if not more important. Yes, we need to be ready to meet the one through whom all things were made, but in a very real sense, we do that through prayer and contemplation, through reading and meditating on the scriptures, through participation in the Body of Christ in the church, and by reaching out to help the least of those among us. Don’t be “quickly shaken or alarmed.”
In the days of Ahaz son of Jotham son of Uzziah, king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel went up to attack Jerusalem, but could not mount an attack against it. When the house of David heard that Aram had allied itself with Ephraim, the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.
Then the Lord said to Isaiah, Go out to meet Ahaz, you and your son Shear-jashub, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller’s Field, and say to him, Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smouldering stumps of firebrands, because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and the son of Remaliah. Because Aram—with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah—has plotted evil against you, saying, Let us go up against Judah and cut off Jerusalem and conquer it for ourselves and make the son of Tabeel king in it; therefore thus says the Lord God:
It shall not stand,
and it shall not come to pass.
For the head of Aram is Damascus,
and the head of Damascus is Rezin.
(Within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered, no longer a people.)
The head of Ephraim is Samaria,
and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah.
If you do not stand firm in faith,
you shall not stand at all.
2 Thessalonians 2.1–12
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? And you know what is now restraining him, so that he may be revealed when his time comes. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned.
Now the festival of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was near. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to put Jesus to death, for they were afraid of the people.
Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve; he went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers of the temple police about how he might betray him to them. They were greatly pleased and agreed to give him money. So he consented and began to look for an opportunity to betray him to them when no crowd was present.
Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it.’ They asked him, ‘Where do you want us to make preparations for it?’ ‘Listen,’ he said to them, ‘when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters and say to the owner of the house, “The teacher asks you, ‘Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ ” He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there.’ So they went and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.