the beating heart of Paul’s theological imagination

I was struck by something as I prepared to speak on the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians a couple of weeks back. At the end of the chapter, Paul sketches out what it looked like for them to become Christian (verses 9b-10):

You turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead — Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

The three key features of this brief verbal sketch belong together — almost self-evidently. Right?

But according to Jeffrey Weima (Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old), the combination of terms Paul puts together here is highly unusual.

‘Living and true God’ is an utterly unique description for Paul, drawing together significant strands of God’s self-presentation in the Old Testament. Likewise, the actions of ‘turning to God’ (from idols) and ‘serving’ him alone are only directly correlated in 1 Samuel 7.3.

This got me wondering: What moved Paul to put these ideas together?

Then it struck me. Although the may not occur together in the space of a single verse (or even across a few verses), these ideas all appear in roughly this constellation in Isaiah 40-66.

Isaiah’s majestic vision of God’s intervention to comfort Israel and restore Zion begins with a New Exodus and culminates in a New Creation, repeatedly striking the following notes:

  • The folly of idolatry (and the corresponding need to repent).
  • The truth/faithfulness and living authority of Israel’s God.
  • And the eschatological scene of the Great Assize, in which God judges his enemies and vindicates his faithful servant.

Isaiah reworks the familiar themes of Old Testament faith — monotheism and the supremacy of Israel’s God — against an eschatological backdrop. And this takes us straight to the beating heart of Paul’s theological imagination!

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