Concerning the times and seasons

Reading the New Testament as historical narrative rather than as “Christian theology”—as raw material rather than as over-refined intellectual product—is not a matter of self-contained interpretation. It’s not just about how we understand the text. It’s about how we live with it. If the relationship between God and his people was constructed narratively then, it is constructed narratively now. But how do we get from then to now? Or as James put it in response to “The gospel, the story of Israel, and personal salvation: no compromise”: “how would the historical-narrative approach provide a message that could be propagated in the public square—today in our society?”

Earlier this week I recorded a video lecture for St John’s College Nottingham on 1 and 2 Thessalonians. One of the things I wanted to stress was that if we locate these letters loosely—the fit is not perfect—in the account of the apostles’ journey through Macedonia and Achaia in Acts 17, what emerges is a rather intense and compelling narrative about the power that a Jewish gospel had to transform the pagan world within the cultural and historical purview of its protagonists. The biblical God is all the way through a God of history.

But history both connects us with and disconnects us from the New Testament. The narrative connects us because one thing follows another—we are part of the same story. But it also creates distance. It takes us beyond the cultural and historical—and eschatological—purview of its protagonists.

Concerning the times and seasons

What I want to suggest here is that Paul’s reference to the “times and seasons” in 1 Thessalonians 5:1 leads us down an interesting exegetical path that may help us to understand better what is involved in thinking narratively today.

Having reassured the Thessalonian believers that the dead in Christ will not miss out on the vindication that will come with the parousia (1 Thess. 4:13-18), Paul goes on to address the question of when this will happen:

Now concerning the times and the seasons (tōn chronōn kai tōn kairōn), brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. (1 Thess. 5:1–2)

The phrase “times and seasons” is usually taken as an idiomatic way of saying “when these things will happen”, but usage elsewhere suggests that some quite specific connotations may attach to it.

First, the risen Jesus is asked by his disciples whether at this time he will “restore the kingdom to Israel”, and he tells them that it is not for them to know “times or seasons (chronous ē kairous) that the Father has fixed by his own authority…” (Acts 1:7).

Secondly, when Nebuchadnezzar’s dream about a kingdom of God that will destroy great empires is revealed to him, Daniel blesses God in these words:

Let the name of the great Lord be blessed forever, because wisdom and majesty are his. And he changes seasons and times (kairous kai chronous), deposing kings and setting up, giving to the sages wisdom and understanding to those who have knowledge…. (Dan. 2:20–21 LXX; cf. 4:34 = 4:37)

What this suggests is that the phrase “times and seasons” (or “seasons and times”) is characteristically used in apocalyptic settings with reference to the indeterminate or unknown times when God deposes kings and restores kingdoms. These are not just any old “times and seasons”. They are “times and seasons” when the God of Israel changes the course of history.

The political significance of the Jewish gospel for the nations

This is where it helps to merge Paul’s apocalyptic narrative with Luke’s account of the origins of the church in Thessalonica.

In the synagogue Paul seeks to persuade the Jews that God raised Jesus from the dead and that he is, therefore, Israel’s Messiah. This is the Jewish gospel. Then the Jews go to the civic authorities and accuse the apostles of turning the oikoumenēn upside down, of acting against the decrees of Caesar, and proclaiming that “there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7). That is, the Jews quite correctly (whatever their motives may have been) highlight the political significance of the Jewish gospel for the nations.

Shortly after this, Paul tells the “men of Athens” that the God of Israel is no longer willing to overlook the “times” (chronous) of pagan ignorance. He now commands people across the Greek-Roman world to repent of their idol-worship, “because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31; cf. 14:15-17).

This provides the narrative frame for Paul’s summary of the faith of the Thessalonians—that they have turned from the old system of idol worship to serve the “living and true God”, and to “wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:9-10).

So the Jews reject a gospel which says that God raised his Son from the dead in order that they might be “freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” and escape national destruction (cf. Acts 13:38-41). But the Gentiles believe the gospel which says that Jesus, raised from the dead, will be the future judge and ruler of the nations.

The day of the Lord, therefore, will be a day in the course of history when God will dramatically reshape the political-religious landscape of the ancient world. He will depose such blasphemous pagan kings as Caesar (cf. 2 Thess. 2:3-4, 8) and will restore the kingdom to the descendants of Abraham. Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians is to make sure that they are ready and prepared for this extraordinary coup d’état. [pullquote]They are meant to be an advance community—a revolutionary cell—of the coming new régime when the true and living God will rule over the nations because of his Son.[/pullquote]

The wisdom to understand the God of history

Now, that is all strictly a matter of history—it’s the story of how these Thessalonian believers got themselves tangled up in what Israel’s God was doing in the ancient world. But the passage from Daniel 2 highlights another aspect to this “times and seasons” motif in Jewish thought. The God who “changes seasons and times” gives “to the sages wisdom and understanding to those who have knowledge”. The argument is also found in the Wisdom of Solomon:

And if anyone longs for wide experience, [wisdom] knows the things of old and infers the things to come; she understands the subtleties of speech and the solutions of riddles; she has foreknowledge of signs and wonders and the outcomes of seasons and times (kairōn kai chronōn). (Wis. 8:8)

A narrative theology does not allow us to live in the past, playing at early church, fighting old battles—like the enthusiasts who dress up and arm themselves with swords and longbows and cannons to re-enact Hastings or Agincourt or Gettysburg. Living biblically is not a nostalgia trip. But it does push us to seek the wisdom to understand our own context in the light of the story of the people of God.

The challenge for the Western church is to develop a self-understanding that is both critical and biblical, both a gift of God and informed by sane historical and sociological analysis. Micah Redding is right to stress that “future apocalyptic moments should be expected to run along the lines of the Old Testament prophets, not the lines of current apocalyptic story-telling, or rapture predictions”. But the prophets were also astute historical commentators, and biblical wisdom has always had a strong worldly component to it. 

The narrative you describe is so compelling and so urgent that it begs us to consider 1) whether the apostles spoke falsely of an imminent parousia or 2) whether we have failed to understand what they were describing and thereby missed the fulfillment of their words.  The latter seems far more likely.

A narrative theology does not allow us to live in the past, playing at early church, fighting old battles—like the enthusiasts who dress up and arm themselves with swords and longbows and cannons to re-enact Hastings or Agincourt or Gettysburg. Living biblically is not a nostalgia trip. But it does push us to seek the wisdom to understand our own context in the light of the story of the people of God.

I hate to sound like a broken record around here but I am again trying to get a sense of how this might work in practice; how a church might begin to move toward this new way of thinking and acting.

It seems to me the vast majority of evangelicalism is in fact as describe in the quote above. Some emerging churches are trying to get back to play acting as the early church others prefer to re-enact the Reformation Church while others, sadly, seem stuck in the 1980’s or 90’s with praise bands and sermons as self-help oriented moralism.

The way we read scripture is so engrained that breaking out of this mindset seems nearly impossible to me.  I noticed for example, that during the Christmas season the entire focus is on the incarnation and the theological implications thereof. No discussion of the story of the people of Israel, of Jesus as messiah or as the Son of Man, no focus on what the story of his birth and life meant in a narrative but all focused on his birth as theology (God was born to die so you could live).

This to say nothing of eschatology and judgment in the gospels in their historical context.

So, again, how to begin to change?  Do you see a different format for the church itself or changing what happens in church on Sundays?  Is it liturgical or ecclesiological or cultural and intellectual? All of the above?

I am not asking this in a vacuum. I am trying to begin to explore how I might bring this type of change to my own (Methodist) church either by Sunday school classes, evening discussions or maybe even separate gatherings outside of “church.”

It strikes me that what is needed first is the freedom to approach scripture differently; to tell the stories of the people of God as narrative and history that help us see where we came from and the community we are a part of.  To deemphasize systematic theology, doctrine and spiritual growth formulas (in the modern evangelical sense) and focus on changing our mental maps so we are open to new ways of thinking and understanding.  

This is a necessary first step to hearing and speaking with a prophetic voice shaped by a narrative-historical approach, yes? If what comes from the pulpit is the same perspective how does anyone in the pews see the world differently?  [Or perhaps the opposite, if no one in the pews thinks differently the message from the pulpit will never be comfortable saying something different.]

Then perhaps we could begin to approach art and music with this new lens and bring that into our exploration. But I am just speculating at this point.

I have already begun deconstructing sermons from a narrative-historical perspective. So I guess what I am saying is that if I am going to join the cult I want to sign up others … (that is a joke for the record) and I am not sure how to start this process.