K:JNWTS 31/1 (May 2016): 21-26

The Living God Necessitates Transcendent Eschatology:
Semi-Realized Eschatology in 1 Thessalonians as Suggested by Acts

Scott F. Sanborn

In this article, we will suggest that Paul's claim that the Thessalonians turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thess. 1:9) can be grounded for its background in the proclamation of Paul in the book of Acts. We suggest that this background indicates that the designation "living God" indicates God's transcendent nature, which is most fully revealed in the resurrection of Christ to the transcendent throne-room of God. And this is in contrast to the idolatrous horizontalism of paganism in its worship of this age. In addition, as indicated by our title, we hope to show that the book of Acts teaches that God's transcendent nature necessitates a transcendent consummation of history. By God's gracious free choice, this has now been semi-realized in the resurrection of Christ. Some connections between Acts 14 and 17 and the latter's connection to Acts 7 leads us to this conclusion.

In 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10, Paul reminds the Thessalonian Christians "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, that is Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come." These words conclude with the first of several eschatological markers in this letter (1:10; 2:12, 16, 19; 3:13; 4:13-18; 5:23), suggesting their importance. The letter closes with the God of peace presenting believers without blame at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess. 5:23). This future salvation is connected to God's deliverance of his people from wrath (1 Thess. 2:16), introduced in 1 Thess. 1:10. Another indication of the importance of these two verses (1 Thess. 1:9-10) is that the already of Christ's transcendent resurrection into "heaven" is connected with the not yet of deliverance from future judgment.  This is expanded in a central passage of this letter (1 Thess. 4:13) in which "the Lord himself will descend from heaven" to bring final salvation. In what follows, we hope to demonstrate that Paul's claim that the Thessalonians have turned to the living God from idols indicates that they have turned from an idolatrous preoccupation with this provisional arena to heaven. That is, they have been turned around to participate in the semi-eschatological life of the living God in heaven even now. There they serve him and his resurrected Son in glory (already), waiting for his return from heaven (not yet).

The one reference to Paul's preaching of the living God in Acts (Acts 14:15) shows God to be the transcendent Lord who made heaven and earth. This has implications for the transcendent nature of the eschatology that Paul was preaching in contrast to the idolatry of paganism. In Acts 14:15, Paul calls them to turn from these vain things to the living God, and the living God is described as the one "who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them". Thus, he represents God as the transcendent Lord who has given witness to his transcendence through the good gifts he (not Zeus) has given to human beings in rain from heaven and fruitful seasons. But even more so, God reveals his transcendence as the creator of heaven and earth in his miraculous deeds (Acts 14:10) and the preaching of the gospel (Acts 14:7, 15) which was connected with them. In these mighty acts, God indicates that he is the living God, in contrast to all the impotent gods of paganism. The witness of God in nature (Acts 14:17) to the effect that he is the living God who made heaven and earth (Acts 14:15) is consonant with the witness of God in the gospel as witnessed to in miraculous acts (Acts 14:10). Both proclaim that God transcends this creation as the living God. As the living God who transcends creation, he is able to act in nature (giving good gifts) and in redemptive history (in miraculous acts). In this way, Paul sees the witness of nature and scripture as coordinate. We will suggest by a comparison to Acts 17 and 7 that this means natural revelation necessitates a transcendent eschatology, though it does not reveal the redemptive means in Christ by which sinners might enter into the blessedness of this eschatology. This is a matter of God's freely chosen grace revealed in redemptive history. Nonetheless, natural revelation requires that if God should redeem, it would be unto a transcendent eschatological blessedness and not one of an everlasting terrestrial nature.

There is one other element of Paul's sermon in Acts 14 that we will highlight at this point—its redemptive-historical character. "And in the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own way" (Acts 14:16). This suggests that (as in Acts 17 and 7 to follow) Paul preached the forbearance of God in times past in their rebellion against his transcendence. They had rejected God's transcendence as revealed in nature and instead clung to "vain" things (Acts 14:15), idols such as Zeus and Hermes who did not transcend this horizontal dimension. It is possible that Paul was cut off by the crowd before he could finish his speech, but in accord with Acts 17 it seems that he is going in the direction of preaching the transcendent resurrection of Christ. For he had indeed been preaching the gospel in this city (Acts 14:7), and thus also at the time (Acts 14:15) he healed the lame man (Acts 14:8-10). Thus, it seems that where Paul concludes in his sermon in Acts 17 (vv. 30-31) is where he began in his sermon of Acts 14 (v. 15). It is indeed this transcendent resurrection that was displayed when he healed the lame man saying, "Stand upright" (Acts 14:10). And it is this resurrection power that is displayed after Paul was stoned by this crowd and taken for "dead" (Acts 14:19), for as such "he arose" (Acts 14:20). These hints that Paul preached that the transcendence of God over creation requires transcendent eschatology will be more fully explored in Acts 17. Let the reader take note at this point, that this preaching elaborates what Paul means by the "living God" which we find in 1 Thessalonians 1:9.

In Acts 17, Paul gives a similar proclamation to that found in Acts 14. He addresses these pagans with "the God who made the world and all things in it". In Acts 17, Paul does not call God the "living God", but instead says he is "Lord of heaven and earth". "Lord of heaven and earth" like the "living God" points to his transcendence. In both, God's transcendence is indicated by the fact that he created the world (Acts  14:15; 17:24) In Acts 17, Paul uses this fact to preach God's transcendence over human temples; God "does not dwell in temples made with hands" (Acts 17:24). He then lays out in greater detail than Acts 14 the witness of God in natural history. There is much that might be said on this witness in detail, but here it is sufficient to point to three things. First, this revelation accords with God's transcendence over history. Second, God reveals his own action in natural history by all that he has done in it. In this way, Paul presents God as the transcendent Lord over creation and thus as the first cause and main actor in it. Third, he did this as a testimony to his own transcendence that people might seek him as the transcendent God and so find him (Acts 17:27). This hints at an eschatological consummation presented to humanity through natural revelation. But all have sinned and rejected God's transcendence and clung to its polar opposite, to idolatry (Acts 17:16, 29).

In the midst of God's revelation in nature and its suppression, Paul then reveals God's redemptive-historical reversal in Christ. "Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is declaring to men that all everywhere should repent" (Acts 17:30). Like Acts 14:16, Paul proclaims God's longsuffering before Christ, but here he is able to cap it off with God's declaration that all everywhere should "repent". Nonetheless, this was not entirely absent in Acts 14. In Acts 14:15, Paul said he was telling them to "turn" from these vain things to the living God, demonstrated in his miraculous acts. To "repent" (Acts 17:30) and "turn" (Acts 14:15), is to turn from the idols of this age (horizontalism) to the transcendent living God. And this transcendent living God has revealed himself most fully in Christ and the semi-realized aspect of his resurrection and present reign. It is this aspect of Acts 17 that we hope to undergird next by a comparison with Acts 7. Nonetheless, if it is true, it has significant ramifications for Acts 14, for Acts 14 has a many similarities to Acts 17; and in Acts 17 Paul appears to reach an eschatological climax that he did not explicitly reach at the close of his sermon as it has come to us. Instead, the climax of Paul's sermon in Acts 17 finds its closest parallel to the conclusion of Paul's preaching as he gives it at the beginning of his sermon in Acts 14: 15. That is, "we…preach the gospel to you in order that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth." If Acts 17 (and thus Acts 17:30-31) indicates a turning from an idolatrous horizontalism to Christ's semi-eschatological kingdom, it is reasonable to conclude that Acts 14:15 teaches the same. This would further reinforce the argument that turning to the living God involves turning to God in his heavenly transcendent arena in Christ. As this language of turning to God from idols is found in 1 Thessalonians 1:9, it would further indicate that Paul is articulating to the Thessalonians new semi-eschatological life in the risen Christ in these words. Thus, we turn to a comparison of Acts 17 with Acts 7.

Paul's statement in Acts 17: 24 ("The God who made the world and all things in it, since he is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands") echoes Stephen's earlier speech in Acts 7:1-53 where Stephen says, "the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands" (Acts 7:48). Like Acts 17, Stephen then notes that this follows from the fact that God made all things. "Was it not my hand which made all these things?" (Acts 7:50, quoting Isa. 66:2). Since Stephen is preaching to Jews, the context is somewhat different, focused as it is in the whole history of redemption from Abraham onward. Thus, it is after stating that Solomon "built a house for him" (Acts 7: 47) that Stephen also quotes Isaiah to the effect that "heaven is my throne, and the earth is the footstool of my feet; what kind of house will you build for me? Says the Lord" (Acts 7:49; Isa. 66:1). The redemptive-historical movement in Stephen's sermon is focused on the mighty acts of God in history. He brings in God's transcendence to show that the present administration of God's kingdom in Christ transcends the Old Testament era and its temple. In other words, should God freely choose to redeem, the fact that "the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands" (Acts 7:48) requires a transition in the history of redemption that brings the kingdom of God to fruition in a more fully transcendent expression. We might call this the necessity of transcendent eschatology. God's transcendent nature requires transcendent eschatology. This is seen as Stephen traces out the onward march of God's promises and presence with his people through his prophets, whose words finally look ahead to the Righteous One (Acts 7:52). This culminates in God's own words expressing his transcendence to the temple: "heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool, what kind of a house shall you build for me?" (Acts 7:49, quoting Isa. 66:1, as we have noted). In accord with this, the prophetic promises looked ahead to the Righteous One (Acts 7:52). Thus, God's transcendence comes to expression historically in Christ's resurrection[1], as indicated when Stephen sees the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. The right hand of God is a designation of proximity to God in his transcendent throne room. "Heaven is my throne" (Acts 7:49) and thus Stephen sees "the heavens opened up" when he sees the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:56). Here Christ is raised in the invisible realms of glory and thus not visible to others besides Stephen. 

Also in Acts 17, Paul uses this transcendent nature of God to preach the transcendent resurrection of Jesus Christ. The echo of Acts 7 in Acts 17 also strengthens the suggestion that Acts 17 depicts Christ as a judge associated with the transcendent realm of God. As we have noted, after Stephen preaches the transcendent nature of God, he sees Christ transcendently raised to the right hand of God. The connection of Acts 17 to Acts 7 would be further strengthened if Christ's posture of standing indicates that he is Stephen's advocate, as some argue. As such, Christ would be standing as Stephen's judge, attesting to his justification before God's throne. In this way, Acts 7 would associate Christ's judicial role with his transcendent heavenly habitation.  In addition, there are also points in Acts 17 itself which indicate the connection between Christ's resurrection as judge and the transcendent realm of God's judgment seat. God himself is said to judge the world in righteousness through the man that he has appointed. The transcendent God of heaven and earth judges, and the proof that he will judge through Christ is that Christ is raised from the dead. Christ is so associated with God in his judgment as transcendent Lord that it makes sense to associate Christ with the transcendent realm of the divine judge himself. That is, since God judges through Christ, Christ is presumably at God's right hand. Christ is in God's transcendent throne room. This fits nicely with Acts 7, in which Christ stands (perhaps as judge) in the transcendent realm of God's glory throne-room above.

As in Acts 7, Acts 17 presents the resurrection of Christ as the culmination of history. As we have seen, natural revelation (through its historical revelation) testifies to God's transcendent character. But human beings have suppressed this knowledge and made creatures an end in themselves (idolatry). In past history, God overlooked the times of ignorance (Acts 17:30) but "is now declaring to all men that all everywhere should repent" because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world for refusing to worship his transcendent nature. The man who will judge the world must be different. He must seek and lay hold of God in his transcendence (Acts 17:27). And in Acts what is the closest possible way that a human nature can do this without blurring the distinction between the divine and human nature? It is for that human nature to be raised into the invisible heavenly realm above (as indicated in Acts 7:56, 49). Therefore, that man who is raised from the dead as a judge is associated with the transcendent arena inhabited by God himself (Acts 17:31). In summary, Paul moves in Acts 17 from the transcendence of God as Creator to the transcendence of the kingdom of Christ Jesus in contrast to the this-worldly horizontalism of idolatry. The fact that God is "Lord of heaven and earth" (Acts 17: 24) necessitates an eschatological consummation. Now by grace, God has freely chosen to offer a way of blessedness into this consummation through the resurrection of Christ.

It is interesting that Paul's sermon on the Areopagus comes shortly after Paul's first preaching in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9). And thus we come full circle to Acts 14:15 with its use of the "living God" that is instrumental to 1 Thessalonians (1:9-10). The Acts 17 sermon (by its connection with Acts 14) implies that Paul's intention in speaking of the living God who made heaven and earth in Acts 14 was to preach the transcendent kingdom of Christ. Thus, when Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 1:9 that they have turned from idols to serve the living and true God, we conclude that he is saying they have turned from the horizontalism of idolatry to the transcendent living God in Christ Jesus and his resurrection arena (1 Thess. 1:10). In 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10, Paul is explicit in connecting the living God to the resurrection of Christ. It is the living God who raised Jesus from the dead (1 Thess. 1:9-10). This again suggests that Paul's preaching of the living God to Gentiles (as in Acts 14) was to lead them on to the transcendent resurrected Christ (as he also did in Acts 17). In 1 Thessalonians 1:10, the already of Christ's transcendent resurrection is connected with the not yet of deliverance from future judgment as it is in Acts 17:31. The already and not yet of the kingdom are part and parcel of the same fabric. But the future aspect of eschatology in 1 Thessalonians should not blind us to the already of semi-eschatological participation in Christ. Paul's language of already turning to the transcendent living God should lead us to see this. As such, this may help us further understand God's present activity among the Thessalonians. For we saw in Acts 17 that God presently manifested that he was the transcendent living God through his mighty works in history (e.g., the healing of the lame man, Acts 14:8-10). So also in 1 Thessalonians 1, God's living character is represented in his transcendent activity among his people. God's choice of them and Paul's ministry among them has been revealed "in power and in the Holy Spirit" (1 Thess. 1:5). The present joy of the Holy Spirit has been at work in them in the midst of their tribulations (1:6). As a result the word of the Lord has sounded out from them (1:8). As a result of the activity of God among them, it is reported that they have turned to the living God. This makes sense since the living God is the transcendent Lord who is at work in history presently through his Holy Spirit. Thus, it is said of them that their work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope is associated with that arena where Christ is raised (1 Thess. 1:3). As living saints they live out these realities "in our Lord Jesus Christ". Thus, they live them out where he dwells "in the presence of our God and Father" (1:3). They live before the living God in his transcendent abode in heaven (1 Thess. 1:3 with 1:10).

In this chapter, we find three key elements that depicted the "living God" in Acts 14. The first two are God's transcendence and his mighty acts. Christians are intimately united to these mighty acts when God bring sinners into union with those acts through his Spirit. That is, through his Spirit, God brings sinners into union with his transcendent life (to the extent that creatures may inhabit it without blurring the creator/creature distinction). Third, as in Acts 14, God's transcendence and activity is placed in antithesis to idols (Acts 14:15, 1 Thess. 1:9).  Thus, in 1 Thessalonians 1:9, we find the semi-eschatological antithesis between the transcendent living God and the horizontalism of idolatry. The only difference is that what Paul calls the crowd to do in Acts 14:15 (turn to God from idols) they have done in 1 Thessalonians 1:9. This eschatological antithesis is implicit in all that is found in 1 Thessalonians 1, for God expresses this antithesis through his Spirit's supernatural work among his people. For after noting God's work among his people (that we have sketched above in 1 Thessalonians 1:3-8), Paul says that this is an indication that they have turned from idols. That is, God's activity among them is not simply an indication that they have turned to their transcendent Lord in abstraction (without any consideration of his antithetical relationship to idolatry). No, this work is in antithesis to idolatry. And thus the work of God's Spirit among them manifests that they have turned to God from idols.  In this way, 1 Thessalonians 1 reflects the three key elements associated with the "living God" that we have found in Acts 14.

This is only a further step on the journey of unearthing the semi-realized aspects of eschatology in 1 Thessalonians[2]. More can be traced throughout his two epistles to the Thessalonians. What a wonderful gospel it is, Paul's gospel to the Gentiles. In it he preaches the necessity of a transcendent eschatological consummation from the very transcendent nature of God himself. The rejection of this is idolatry. But God has overlooked this willful ignorance and has identified his Son with the eschatological death it deserves. Having satisfied God's wrath for idolatry, he is raised from the dead to idolatry's antithesis, the heavenly realms of God. There he lives before the transcendent living God. And from there he calls his church into union with himself, delivering them from idolatry, placing them in heaven for the worship and praise of God alone. In this they live, testifying to heaven's superiority to idolatry and waiting for their Lord from heaven. He alone is the living God and he will come.

[1] As an aside, if we connect the necessity for transcendent eschatology with Anselm's argument for the necessity of the God-man and his atonement, the necessity of Christ's resurrection and ascension to heaven follows.

[2] For further insights into the semi-eschatological dimension in 1 Thessalonians (most of which I have not repeated in this article), I refer the reader to James T. Dennison, Jr., "Eschatology and the Structure of 1 Thessalonians" in Kerux 19/3 (Dec 2004): 31-35. I am indebted to this article for the general point of view that led to my own present reflections.