Bible Commentary: 1 and 2 Thessalonians – Interview with Andy Johnson

Johnson 1 2 ThessaloniansAndy Johnson has taught at Nazarene Theological Seminary since the fall of 2002 where he is the Professor of New Testament. He is the author of numerous scholarly and popular articles, a co-editor of Holiness and Ecclesiology in the New Testament (Eerdmans, 2007), an associate editor of the Wesley Study Bible (Abingdon, 2009), and part of the translation team of the Common English Bible (2011). His most recent publications include 1 & 2 Thessalonians in the Between Two Horizons commentary series (Eerdmans, 2016) and Holiness and the Missio Dei (Cascade, 2016).

He is also an avid Kansas City Royals and Kansas Jayhawks (basketball!) fan and a youth baseball and basketball coach. The happiest time of his year is when he is standing over on third base giving signs to his kids at the plate and he’s fully convinced that baseball will be a part of God’s new creation about which he loves to write.

1. What previous research and/or personal interests led you to this project and helped prepare you to write this commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians?

I wrote this commentary over far too many years. I started work on it about 2004 and worked on it off and on for 11 years. Prior to 2004, I had worked in Pauline Studies but had become interested in the emerging area of theological interpretation. I was convinced that the most helpful sort of interpretation for the Church would always be theological in nature, however one chose to describe what that entailed. Over those 11 years, my understanding of theological interpretation took shape was broadened as I had to deal the specificities of 1 & 2 Thessalonians.

2. Who is the intended audience for this commentary? Would it benefit pastors? professors? students? lay Christians in the local church?

While some sections might be beneficial to a few lay Christians, much of the commentary would be tough going for most lay Christians. Its primary intended audience is theological students, professors, and pastors.

3. What is unique about this commentary? What contribution does it make to studies of 1 and 2 Thessalonians?

Like other commentaries in this series, this one approaches the biblical text theologically. What I aim to do in it is to stimulate critical reflection on the church’s beliefs and practices in order to facilitate the church’s ongoing formation into the visible body of the cruciform, living Christ to whom Scripture bears witness. To speak of the church’s formation into such a visible body, however, compels us to ask to what end. The formation of the church and members who make it up into conformity with Christ is not simply for the sake of insuring the salvation of its individual members. Rather, as I argue throughout my comments on these letters, the church is formed into the visible body of the living, cruciform Christ in order to participate in the life and mission of the Triune God. Taking this point seriously means that interpreting the Bible theologically for the sake of the church ought to be characterized by a missional orientation toward the interpretive task. In other words, since the Triune God is by nature, a “sending/missional” God, a properly “theological” interpretation of Scripture will itself be missionally oriented for the purpose of aiding in the continuing formation of the church as a missional community.

In the commentary, I try to make this missional orientation to the interpretive task evident in at least two ways. First, while there are numerous critical issues and aspects of the text one might choose to comment on in the Thessalonian correspondence, I consciously attempt to focus on elements of the text that seem to me to be the most useful for facilitating the continuing formation of the church into its proper identity as a missional community. Second, throughout the commentary I assume that Scripture has a roughly discernible shape that bears witness to God’s mission for the cosmos. I then employ this narrative framework (along with the aspects of the Nicene-Constantinople creed) as a clarifying set of interpretive lenses for bringing 1 and 2 Thessalonians into clearer canonical focus. That, in turn, contributes to a better understanding of the shape of Scripture’s missional framework and the church’s participation in that mission (at least I hope it does). I’m not aware of another commentary on 1 & 2 Thessalonians that intentionally takes this sort of approach in the exegesis of these letters.

4. What section or passage of this commentary was particularly memorable to research and write? Why?

Two passages in particular, both regarding eschatology, were particularly interesting for me to research and attempt to explicate. Both 1 Thess 4:13-18 and 2 Thess 2:1-12 have fueled popular understandings of “the end times.” In the 1970’s both these passages struck terror into my teenage heart because I was afraid that I might miss the secret rapture of the “true” believers to heaven (allegedly referred to in 1 Thess 4:13-18). And I was pretty sure it was right around the corner because lots of “prophecy experts” were saying that the “Man of Lawlessness” (aka “the Antichrist”) was already alive and living somewhere in Europe. He was just waiting for the “restraining” Holy Spirit to be taken out of the way (supposedly referred to in 2 Thess 2:6-7) when the Church was raptured to heaven before he made his public appearance. This 1970’s version of popular Dispensationalism has morphed into other versions since then (e.g., the slightly different version offered by the Left Behind series). But the notion of a secret rapture of the church and particular predictions of the appearance (and identity!) of the “Man of Lawlessness” are still quite widespread in popular Christian culture.

5. How would pastors in particular be helped by your approach in the eschatology of 1 and 2 Thessalonians?

In the face of such widespread eschatological notions, pastors need to be equipped to form and shape their congregations with a healthier eschatology that is more biblically and theologically coherent. Toward that end, the latter part of the commentary has two sub-sections that I think might be particularly helpful for pastors. In the first (“On the [Secret] Rapture”), I address in some detail the way Dispensationalism originated, its interpretive assumptions, and the way those assumptions are displayed as Dispensationalist interpreters read the Thessalonian correspondence. I try to show that this particular “theological hermeneutic” is deficient and that neither 1 or 2 Thessalonians ever plainly refers to, or even implies, a secret rapture…unless, that is, one brings this particular hermeneutic to the text as an a priori assumption. In the second of these sub-sections (“Paul’s ‘Anti-Christology’”), I suggest a way of reading the passage on “the Man of Lawlessness” canonically, with one eye turned toward paradigmatic arrogant kings of the OT and the other turned toward the Christ hymn in Phil 2. My hope is that this reading and my accompanying hermeneutical observations will point pastors in a helpful direction and actually encourage them to teach and preach on this passage.

6. Besides your commentary, what are your top recommended books (commentaries or otherwise) on 1 and 2 Thessalonians?

I recently wrote about the primary resources I’d recommend on the Pauline letters of Philippians to Philemon. Here’s what I said about 1 & 2 Thessalonians:

Jeffrey Weima’s recent commentary on 1–2 Thessalonians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Baker Academic, 2014) deserves to become the standard, full-scale commentary on the Greek text for English readers, particularly for evangelicals. Even though his knowledge of the secondary literature on these epistles is unsurpassed and informs his comments judiciously, and though he devotes great attention to historical, political, and cultural contexts, he keeps his primary focus on the Greek text, offering sound and mature exegetical judgments. He writes clearly and accessibly, but working through some of the more exhaustive exegetical sections might take more time than some busy pastors can devote. In keeping with the aim of the series, he demonstrates good theological awareness in his comments but does not engage in lengthy, sustained theological discussion.

In my own commentary on these letters (THNTC, 2016), I utilize the developing interpretive framework of missional hermeneutics to present a theological interpretation that aims to help the church more fully participate in the life and mission of the triune God. The exegetical section proper proceeds verse-by-verse, bringing not only first century socio-historical and political background to bear on the text, but explicit theological concerns as well. The rest of the commentary offers substantial discussion of various theological issues raised by 1 and 2 Thessalonians (e.g., eschatology, holiness, election), including an essay critiquing popular Dispensationalism as a particular theological hermeneutic.

The commentaries by Abraham Malherbe (AYB, 2004) and Gordon Fee (NICNT, 2009) are also good additions to one’s library. Although Malherbe (wrongly in my view) sometimes dismisses the importance of the political background of Roman imperialism, his knowledge of the ancient literary context and the Greco-Roman moral philosophers generally enriches one’s understanding of these epistles. Fee’s commentary represents what one has come to expect from him, namely, thorough knowledge of background material and sound interpretive judgments paired with pastoral sensitivity (“Building a New Testament Library: Philippians – Philemon,” Catalyst [March 2016].

7. What is next for you? What project are you currently working on? How can people follow your work and ministry?

I am returning to focus on my “first love,” at least in terms of theological topics. Over two decades ago, I completed a dissertation on 1 Corinthians 15. I have been interested in the topic of resurrection ever since and have written a good number of articles on resurrection as well as taught a course on resurrection in the NT every other year. I am in the beginning stages of writing a book that will focus on the way resurrection relates to a variety of other theological topics such as: atonement, the Spirit, the Triune God, justification, sanctification/holiness, election, the church, the missio Dei (and possibly even the issue of race). I plan to approach all this by engaging in a theological/missional interpretation of particular scriptural texts.

I don’t do much with social media other than occasionally tweet @ajrisen. If anyone is interested in seeing some of my presentations in webinars, sermons, or workshops offered in lay settings, you could search for my name at the NTS Center for Pastoral Leadership.


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