Israel was defeated by the Babylonians (now Iraq). They were carted off to Babylon, where they were expected to assimilate into Babylonian life. Sixty years passed. Israel is incapable of fighting against the Babylonians, to regain their freedom; they appear to be doomed to never see the Promised Land again. Cyrus II is the king of Persia (now Iran). He is poised to defeat the Babylonians, and release the captives. Cyrus and Persia do not worship the Jewish god Yahweh.
- Through Isaiah, God addresses Cyrus II, calling him “his anointed”. That is the English word. You know the Hebrew and Greek words, they are “messiah” and “Christ”. This had to be an outrageous statement to god’s chosen people in exile. How could a pagan king possibly be Yahweh’s “anointed”? He doesn’t even know God’s name! (v. 1)
- God is going to make things easy for King Cyrus, paving the way, breaking down doors, and giving him treasures hidden away in secret places. (vv. 2-3a)
- The reason God is doing this is clear. It is for the sake of his captive people, who he lovingly calls “Jacob” in this text. This is good news for Israel, because they are not able to free themselves. The shocking thing is that God calls upon a non-Hebrew to be his servant, His anointed one. (vv. 3b-4)
- The last paragraph is a proclamation that our Lord God Yahweh is the one and only god; there are none besides him. (vv. 5-7)
Either we or someone we know has been faced with an impossible situation, only to be saved from disaster. How did that happen? People of faith believe that is by God’s loving hand. How has God surprised you in your faith walk?
1 THESSALONIANS 1:1-10
This letter from Paul to the church in Thessalonica is probably the oldest writing in the New Testament. It was even written before any of the gospels were put to paper. These are the opening lines to his letter. It follows the typical format for most of his letters.
- He begins by naming the senders & recipients of this letter, and then greeting them. It was written by Paul, who included his two assistants’ names Silvanus (also known as Silas) and Timothy. It is addressed to the people of the church in the Greek city of Thessalonica. He greets them with a blessing of grace and peace. (v. 1)
- Grace, the free gift of God’s mercy and love.
- Peace, in this case, is “shalom”; wholeness to life and completeness, more than a sense of calm. If you have the first, the second follows.
- In the second paragraph, Paul praises them for their work. In particular, he praises them for their faith, hope, and love. These familiar words may also be found in 1 Corinthians 13, especially verse 13. Besides these three words, latch onto the word “conviction” in verse 5. (vv. 2-5)
- Paul is proud to say that in spite of persecution, they “became imitators of us [Paul, Silas, and Timothy] and of the Lord [Jesus]”. It always strikes me odd and slightly conceited that Paul tells others to “just be like me!” I now believe that Paul was offering himself as a role model for those going through difficult times. Jesus, of course, is the perfect role model. But they had only heard stories about Jesus. Paul and Silas were there in person. (v. 6a)
- We now learn more about that conviction. Paul, Silas, and Timothy came to Thessalonica, taught, and brought many to Jesus. Some leaders of the synagogue didn’t approve, and stirred up trouble. There was persecution. I recommend that you read Acts 17:1-9, to get the whole story. But the point is that Jesus’ believers there were steadfast in their faith “in spite of persecution…”. (v. 6b)
- This church’s evangelical work is so exemplary, that the news of it spread far and wide. (vv. 7-9)
- Verse 10 is interesting, and worth explaining. It is a reference to the Parousia, or Jesus second coming. At the time this letter was written, only about 20 years after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, Christians believed that Jesus return would be a little different than we now understand it. They believed:
- Jesus was returning very soon. We now know that at least 2,000 years would transpire before this event.
- When he returned, after a time of conflict, God would emerge triumphant over evil, and Jesus would reign on earth. The “wrath that is coming” refers to this time of conflict. Their beliefs on Jesus’ return were simple. Book of Revelation wasn’t written until about 50 years later. The message is that they should remain faithful, knowing that God will make things right when Jesus returns. That is actually what Revelation tells us, anyway. (v. 10)
The Gentiles in Thessalonica left the religion of their families, and became Christians. Imagine that! What would it take for you to even change denominations, let alone religions? Their enthusiasm was so great, it caught on. Others could see their energy and love, and wanted to be a part of that.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Do we display this level of enthusiasm to those around us? Shouldn’t we? How do we make this happen?
Jesus is nearing the end of his ministry. He is in high gear, teaching through the use of parables. More and more, he is annoying the Pharisees, the High Priest, and other leaders of the established religious organization. He challenged their thinking, and they didn’t like it. It is good to remember that Jesus was also a Jew, as were almost all of his followers. He was criticizing his own “church”. (It really wasn’t called a church, but rather a synagogue.) Increasing, he is making enemies, and they are out to get him.
Also, this passage speaks of Herodians. Most Jews hated the Romans, and everything they stood for. Herod, who was also a Jew, worked with Rome for his own personal gain both in political power as well as financial gain. Herodians were Jews who supported Herod’s work. In a sense, they were traitors to Israel. But they were seizing the day, and reaping the benefits of supporting Herod and Rome.
NB: Jesus is into politics here, and I’m afraid I am going to break one of my rules, and also talk politics. I hope this does not offend.
- The Pharisees were so upset with Jesus that they teamed up with the hated Herodians. Their hope was that between the two groups, they could set a trap and shame Jesus in front of his followers. (vv. 15-16a)
- The start out by buttering him up in verse 16b.
- Jesus sees right through their ploy. (v.18)
- We all know the rest. The coin is shown, and Jesus says the famous line “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
- Dumbfounded, they walk away.
- Jesus clever answer was perfect. If he said “It is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor”, he would have been called a traitor to the Jewish cause. If he had said it was not lawful, he would have been called a traitor to Rome. He would have most certainly been reported to the authorities by the Herodians.
Jesus won the battle, but what do we take away from this story?
One thing it does not mean is that God is not interested in politics and governmental structures. In Ezekiel 34, God rails on the religious and political leaders of the day. (He calls them “shepherds” of his flock.) They neglected the needs of his flock, and God was not happy with them. God is very interested in how the leaders care for his people. He holds them accountable; he will judge them. Many would like to say that this means that God is not interested in taxes. But I don’t think that’s it, either. Taxes can provide care for the poor, needy, widows, orphans, etc. Good government, good “shepherds”, are doing the Lord’s work, if they tax from the abundance and care for the disadvantaged. My takeaway is the last part of verse 21—“…and [give to] God the things that are God’s.”
I also think about how Jesus challenged the thinking of the best people of faith in Judea—the Pharisees.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
- What are “the things that are God’s”, that we should be giving? Here are a few of my thoughts.
- Is part of this “giving” ensuring that our elected government officials are genuinely concerned about the poor, needy, and disadvantaged? These are God’s concerns; they should be ours as well.
- Jesus showed compassion to the needy by healing the sick. He also preached that we should share from our abundance. (“If you have two coats, give one away.”) Since we are to be imitators of Christ, shouldn’t we heal the sick poor, by taxing the rich?
- Part of this “giving” having a good sense of stewardship. Realizing that everything we have is a gift from God. Sharing and tithing, therefore, are simply giving back what was already His. This holds true for individuals, organizations, and governments. All are accountable to God.
- What would we do if Jesus returned, and challenged how we thought about God? What if he told us that some of the things we were doing that we thought were godly did not please the Father?