The Letters to the Thessalonians by Gene Green

The Letters to the Thessalonians (Pillar Commentary) by Gene Green (Leicester: Apollos, 2002).

This is another fine addition to the Pillar series of commentaries from Apollos, edited by Don Carson and begun by his magnum opus on John.  Gene L. Green has already written two well-regarded commentaries on the Thessalonian correspondence in Spanish and now brings his careful and even-handed scholarship to bear on the letters for an English audience.  The influence of Bruce Winter and the social-historical approach to the New Testament popular at Tyndale House in Cambridge will quickly be seen here.  There is a long introductory section full of historical details about Thessalonica, only some of which is directly relevant to the interpretation of the letters but which may be interesting to some readers all the same.

Green is very concerned with the rhetorical background (Malherbe’s ‘Moral Exhortation: A Greco-Roman Sourcebook’ is well used throughout).  This can be somewhat tiring: pages 134-135 are not untypical in mentioning Plutarch, Aristotle, Philo of Alexandria, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Socrates, Dio Chrysostom, Epictetus, and the Maccabean literature.  Some of this is most illuminating; Green is especially good at bringing out how the “royal theology” (talking about God’s kingdom and glory, and Christ’s ‘parousia’) of the letters resonates with the “monarchal longings of the Thessalonian people” spoken of in the historical introduction, for instance.

It would be nice to have more “theology” (on page 92 for instance, on the doctrine of election) but that is a common complaint with commentaries that are strong on exegesis.  Green is always interacting with the NIV but the exposition itself is firmly based on the Greek text.  (It is certainly not overused, but the author is familiar with modern aspectual analysis of New Testament Greek).  Will future commentaries in this series interact with the ESV instead, one wonders?

There is a very good discussion of the debate over 1 Thessalonians 4:4 and whether one is to ‘acquire a “vessel”’ or control one’s body.  On sexual immorality in that passage it says, “What many would view in our day as a strictly ‘personal’ issue is understood by the apostle as a community issue that has eternal consequences” (page 197).  It also brings out very clearly how 1 Thessalonians 4:8 would be a stinging rebuke to those who dismiss such teaching on sexuality as “just old Paul and his ancient hang-ups” – a possible background in first-century Thessalonica and a definite issue in many churches and denominations today.

Green is helpful on the explicitly eschatological passages.  The issue in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, for instance, is not that Paul forgot to tell them about the second coming, or ran out of time before he was chased out of town by “lewd fellows of the baser sort” (as the KJV translates Acts 17:5).  Rather, “at the moment of confronting the reality of death, the Thessalonians did not allow their confession to inform their reaction to this human tragedy” (page 215).  On 2 Thessalonians 1, Green is clearly not an annihilationist, and he rightly puts the case bluntly when he says, “Eternal destiny is bound inextricably with one’s response to the gospel of Christ.” (page 295).  There is a good discussion of the “man of lawlessness” texts, but this will require careful thought – there are no ready-made answers on a plate!

There is some good application here too as he dismisses the kind of fictional nonsense about the “rapture” propagated in popular Christian novels (read not just by Americans) and also says a little on “the current trend toward speculation based on counting toes in Daniel or horns in Revelation and relating them to current events…  What happens in Israel or the Middle-East,” he continues, “is, for us, beside the point” (page 246).  The rest of the commentary is not always so helpful when it comes to contemporary application, but again that is a common complaint with this kind of commentary.

There are quite a few typographical errors in the review copy (including two different spellings of judgment/judgement in contiguous sentences, and a missing “is”, on page 148, and several mentions of “the Paul” rather than just “Paul”).  Believers “do now know” when Christ is coming again according to page 232 (surely the “now” should be “not”?)!  This is a minor annoyance which, it is hoped, will be rectified by future well-deserved re-printings of this fine commentary which deserves to be consulted even before those of Wanamaker (NIGTC), Morris (NICNT), and Bruce (WBC).

This review was first published in Churchman 118.1 (2004).

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