The casual reader of 1 Thessalonians 2:14–16 might conclude, at first glance, that Paul, Silas, and Timothy were rank anti-Semites.
For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way, they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.
Christ-killers, Gentile-haters, maximal sinners, and objects of God’s wrath: In the sad history of the Church, Gentile Christians have cited descriptions of Jews such as these to justify their anti-Semitism, discrimination, and pogroms. Words have consequences, and after the Shoah, sensitive Christians can’t help but wince at what the missionaries wrote.
Words also have contexts, however, and we misinterpret them when we read them in light of our history instead of their own.
So, to begin, the casual reader of 1 Thessalonians 2:14–16 concludes Paul, Silas, and Timothy were rank anti-Semites. But each of the missionaries was himself a Jew. Paul described himself as “a Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil. 3:5). The Jerusalem Council thought so highly of Silas that it commissioned him to carry news of the law-free gospel to Gentile converts (Acts 15:25–27). And Timothy, though the product of a religiously mixed marriage, thought enough of his Jewish heritage to undergo circumcision as a young adult (16:3). If the missionaries hated Jews, then they hated themselves. They did not hate themselves, so they did not hate Jews.
Moreover, though the missionaries wrote harsh words about the Jews who opposed Christ and the early Christian prophets, these words were not their last words. Remember, after all, that Paul himself at one time “approved of their [the Jews’] killing him [Stephen]” (Acts 8:1). (Stephen was a Jewish believer and the Church’s first martyr.) Just prior to meeting Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul was “still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (9:1). And then, this “Christian-killer” and “Gentile-hater” became the apostle of the living Christ to the Gentiles. If God’s grace changed him, it could change them too.
And then, finally, remember that the power-relationship between Jews and Christians in the first century was the reverse of what it became in later centuries. On occasions, Jews who did not believe in Jesus persecuted those who did. Not all of them, of course—for many came to faith in Christ—but some of them. (See Acts 7:54–8:3; 9:1–2, 19-31; 13:49–52; 14:1–7; 17:5–9, 13–15; 18:5–6; 21:27–36; 23:12–22 for incidents involving Paul.) Did this produce in the missionaries a desire for vengeance? No. Instead, they praised the Thessalonian believers for imitating their joyful suffering (1 Thes. 2:14, cf. 1:6).
Love for Jews. Hope for the redemption of enemies. And willingness to endure rather than inflict suffering. These were the missionaries’ attitudes. They should be ours as well.