They are not pleasing to God, but hostile to all men, 16 hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved; with the result that they always fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them to the utmost (1Th 2.15b-16).
Paul is writing here of his unconverted Jewish opponents, those who followed him around from city to city and tried to undercut his evangelistic and church-planting work. In the process of noting their doom, he uses an odd expression: “they fill up the measure of their sins.”
What does that mean? And is it unique to Paul’s Jewish opponents, or is this something that other cultures should be wary of?
I think it’s easier to answer the first question if we begin by answering the second.
Similar language appears in 3 other places in the Scripture:
- In Genesis 15.16, God tells Abram that his descendants will be exiled for 400 years, after which they will return to the Promised Land of Canaan, “for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet full.” Here we learn that God is showing mercy to the Canaanites, whose land God has promised to Abram and his descendants, by giving them 400 years to repent (or, as my Dad would have said, “straighten up”). God knows, as he knows all things, that they won’t repent, but rather “fill up” their sins, bringing judgment on themselves.
- In his prophecy of the coming world kingdoms, Daniel reveals (Dn 8.23) that an evil ruler (commonly interpreted to be Antiochus IV “Epiphanes”) will arise “when the transgressors have filled up.”* Again, the context is of evil cultures exceeding all moral norms and “maxxing out” their sinfulness.
- Finally, in his condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees of his day, Jesus tells them to “fill up … the measure of the guilt of your fathers … from the blood of the righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah … whom you murdered between the Temple and the altar” (Mt 23.32-35). He concludes the outburst by saying, “Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation” (Mt 23.36). That is, the bowl of guilt has been filled to the brim; it’s time for judgment. And what a judgment it was—the city of Jerusalem and the cherished Temple reduced to rubble, and the Jewish people scattered to the four winds for nearly 1900 years.
The picture in all these passages is consistent. Mankind, inclined to evil, rejects God’s will and pursues his own. In kindness and grace, God withholds punishment, giving mankind ample opportunity to come to his senses and repent, righting the wrongs that he has perpetrated. But he sees the apparent lack of punishment as “getting away with it,” and he accelerates down the slope of rebellion without compunction or restraint.
But God is just as well as merciful, and his compassionate mercy does not allow for perpetual unrighted injustice. A day of reckoning will surely come. The vessel of sin will eventually be full, and the time for justice will arrive. Wrong will be righted. The offender will be held to account.
Since God does not change, this principle applies to our culture as certainly as to any in the past. We live in a society that is rapidly filling up the measure of its sins—in its arrogance against God and his people, in its rejection of his wise design for sexual behavior, in its worship of all things temporal, in its love for violence, in its denial of justice to the poor and otherwise powerless and favoritism toward the powerful and favored.
God’s people can take comfort in the surety of coming justice, from a God who can execute it in ways far more just, pervasive, and thorough than anything we can devise for ourselves.
* For the nerds among my readers, I note that the verb “filled up” in 1 Thessalonians is anapleroo, the same verb in the Septuagint (LXX) of Gn 15.16. The verb in Daniel (LXX) and Matthew is pleroo.