19. 2 Thessalonians
Lecture: 2 Thessalonians
We looked at 1 Thessalonians last week, and there really is no critical debate as to the authorship of 1 Thessalonians. Today, just about all critical scholars would say that there are seven letters that are clearly Pauline. Those letters are the four largest ones (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians --no questions about authorship on those); Philippians everybody acknowledges as Pauline; Philemon; and 1 Thessalonians. Those seven letters, just about any critical scholar will accept as Pauline.
The others (2 Thessalonians, Colossians, etc.) are debated. The others that are debated are Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians. It’s interesting that in the early part of the nineteenth century, a man by the name of F. C. Bauer argued that there were really only four letters that you knew were Pauline, and those were Romans, 1 and2 Corinthians, and Galatians, and the reason is that those are the only letters that deal with the defense of the doctrine of justification by faith; the others were all pseudonymous. Scholars tend to try to out-criticize each other. If it became accepted that only four letters were authentic, it wasn’t long before someone came along and said that there are no letters that are authentic. It’s kind of hard to top that, but yet another scholar came along and tried to argue that Paul never lived.
Now that wild insanity is over, and so when you talk about Paul’s letters, everybody -- even those at Harvard and Yale Divinity School and so forth -- would say Paul wrote Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon – these are clearly Pauline. Some even in this group may argue that he may have written Colossians and 2 Thessalonians and Ephesians. But the others (the pastorals) -- you would be politically incorrect to accept those.
The questions of 2 Thessalonians are not due to any external evidence. In other words, everybody from the very beginning acknowledged this letter as being Pauline. But it’s primarily because there are so many “differences” between 1 and 2 Thessalonians. And the irony is that in the other argument, there are too many likenesses between the letters, both of which argue that Paul didn’t write this.
For instance, the eschatological section in 2 Thessalonians chapter 2 about their not being shaken as to the day of the coming of the Lord, and how certain things must take place first (the man of sin must be revealed, and the restrainer taken away). These are supposedly in conflict with 1 Thessalonians 5:1, where Paul says that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. Well, if you come “like a thief in the night”, you can’t have certain “things that must take place” beforehand, as 2 Thessalonians chapter 2 seems to refer to.
Another argument against Pauline authorship is the claim in the book that this is indeed written by Paul. We read in 2 Thessalonians 3:17, “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine. This is the way I write.” This is an argument against his having written the letter, because if he really wrote the letter, he wouldn’t have had to say that. It’s a strange kind of argument in many ways, but they’re arguing that Paul would never have to affirm so strongly in his own letter that he really wrote it; it’s only if you’re a forger that you’d say something like that.
The other thing is that there are some very close parallels, for instance the wording, “we give thanks to God always for all of you”, you find in both 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and this argues strangely against Paul having written it. Somebody was copying a later letter of Paul, and used that same terminology. Reference to a work of faith is also mentioned in both letters (this shows that someone who had a copy of 1 Thessalonians was using phrases from it). But these very phrases, like “giving thanks to God always for you” are found in 1 Corinthians 1:4. They’re found in Philippians 1:3, and Colossians 1:3 as well. Now the first two everybody acknowledged as Pauline, so you can’t say that the writer of 2 Thessalonians saw these phrases in other Pauline letters and therefore he copied it; because he could say the same about 1 Corinthians. Paul just repeated himself sometimes. It’s hard to argue that way.
There is reference to a forged letter in chapter 2, where he says (v.2) that they should not be “quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit, or by word, or a letter purporting to be from us ….” They argue that no one would forge a letter from Paul unless time had passed, and he’d become fairly famous, and people knew wrote a lot of letters. Only then would you forge a Pauline letter. On the other hand, the people at Thessalonica know that Paul wrote an earlier letter, so a forged letter arguing another point of view would fit very well with his having written 1 Thessalonians.
Now, again, I don’t think there’s any real reason to deny that Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians 3:17. I think the arguments against his writing some of the other letters, like the Pastorals, are stronger, but I don’t think they’re convincing there. But here, I think they’re very weak.
Just some comments (we don’t have time to go through verse-by-verse and analyze this letter) on the kinds of things that I want to call your attention to. In 1:9-10, Paul makes a specific reference to the eternal judgment that comes upon the unbeliever. Paul says, “They [those who are opposing God] shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, an exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints ….” Here’s a reference to eternal judgment. You can’t argue from this passage, however, whether this involves an eternal consciousness in that punishment, or an annihilation of some sort. It’s eternal, unchanging, but it is from other passages that I think you have to argue that this is a conscious existence after death. This simply says that it’s eternal and it’s banishment from the Lord. But annihilation would be possible here; although in light of other evidence in the testament, you add that and then you have a conscious eternal judgment that takes place.
One of the things that we have, especially in America, is a very individualistic kind of Christianity. And in 1:11-12, Paul has “To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Now the “you” here is a plural. And I think that when Paul talks this way, he’s not so much talking about you and I as individuals simply, but about the church as the body of Christ that is to be this way. That’s much more of a corporate understanding. We usually think of something like this: if every one of us is a church, we’ll be filled with the Spirit, and then the church will be filled with the Spirit. That’s not the way Paul thinks. He thinks: if the church is filled with the Spirit, then all the individuals will be filled with the Spirit. But he thinks more of the body as a unity than we do. We’re very individualistic. And I think that we need to start thinking about how Paul thinks more of the community of believers, the body of Christ, and it may be some of our Protestant background that deals with that. There’s a balance – surely, there’s individual piety, and God wants to see Jesus Christ glorified in us as individuals, but he thinks of the community, the church, the church in Thessalonica – Christ should be glorified in it in the midst of a pagan environment.
Now in 2:1, we have a problem that developed, probably from 1 Thessalonians chapter 4. Remember that Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians because of a problem. He had taught earlier to the church that, when Jesus comes, we would be glorified with him and we would meet him as he comes in his glory. The problem is that some people have died in the believing community since Paul left, and they’re wondering if they’re going to miss out. What about the people who have died, the dead Christians? What about Grandma and Grandpa, will they miss out on this glorious appearing? And so he says, “No, the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive will meet him in the air.” Now what’s happened is that there has come a kind of “second coming fever”, that the Lord’s about to come so soon that all sorts of disruptions have taken place in the community. Some people have stopped working. Look at 3:6, for instance, “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat any man’s bread without paying …” What’s happened apparently is that there were people in the church who believed that the Lord would come so soon, why work any longer? Besides, you have more than enough to take care of all of us. So, they have become lax this way. And the result is that Paul says “don’t be shaken” by this idea that the Lord is about to come.
And furthermore, this idea has been further raised and agitated by a number of things. In 2:2, we have the fact that there had been a reference that they should not be “shaken in mind by spirit, or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us.” “Spirit” here is probably some sort of a visionary experience that someone in the community had. He probably came forward and said “I had a vision, and the Lord’s about to return, etc.” Even in more recent times, there was “98 Reasons Why Jesus Will Return in 1998” – a book that was succeeded by the same author by “99 Reasons Why Jesus Will Return in 1999”. You would think that somehow people would learn from this. But here, somebody had a vision that the Lord is about to return, and that has shaken the community. Don’t be shaken by visions like that, “…or by word”. Here, there is some oral report that some person had, “I heard the other day, or I once heard someone say that something of one nature ….” And there may even have been a fraudulent letter “…a letter purporting to be from us…”, all of which is stirring up the congregation that the Lord’s return is about to come. The Day of the Lord has come.
Exactly why people are being persuaded this way, along with these things – one potential reason for this is that there is a sense in theology when we talk about realized eschatology. You remember New Testament 1: realized eschatology means that the kingdom of God has in some way already come. It has. The first fruits of the resurrection has begun – Christ has been raised from the dead. We’ve been raised to newness of life, the Spirit has been given. And some have suggested that, if you emphasize this to an extreme you get over-excited about the end-times being just about to break in on us, etc. The Day of the Lord that’s referred to here is somewhat broader than the second coming. The Day of the Lord includes all that takes place at the very end. If there is tribulation, that’s part of the Day of the Lord. Then you have the Parousia, or the coming of the Lord, that’s part of it as well. Some have suggested that in 1:4, the “persecutions and afflictions” that they are suffering; and in 1:7, the affliction they’re going through might have suggested to some people that the end times had come and that the great tribulation was now upon them.
Paul says, “No, before that takes place, some things must occur first.” And there’s a back-side of that sheet that you might want to turn to. There are three things he says have to come first:
• Tone of these things it that there has to be a rebellion or apostasy (v.3). One of the problems we have is that this was a letter, and he’s sharing this with teaching that he’s already given them. Has he talked about a great rebellion coming – by whom? That the Jewish people will have a rebellion? That the Christians will turn away from the Lord? That the world in general will abandon God’s moral standards? The fact that he uses the word “the” indicates that it is a specific rebellion that they are apparently aware of, so some great something at the end -- a great apostasy -- is going to take place first. That’s a very common idea in the Old Testament and in Jewish literature in general – that the end times will be terrible times – that all will fall apart before the end. This is very different than many people who say that there’s a rapture first, and then the end times come. Paul seems to be saying no, this will come first, before the Lord’s coming will take place.
• Then there’s a man of lawlessness -- what that means is an anti-Christ – there are several suggestions here. Again, because it’s a letter, his audience knew what he meant. We are somewhat unable to figure it out precisely.
• The third thing is in v. 6, that there is a restrainer that will be removed – something restraining, keeping the end from taking place. And the interesting thing is, we don’t know, from the text of this, whether the restraining is a good thing or a bad thing. And if you argue that it’s a good thing, what exactly is this good thing that’s restraining the evil so that the end will not take place yet? Some have suggested that it’s the Holy Spirit, the presence of the church. Some have suggested that it could be the Roman Empire (which Paul had a high opinion of in many ways), that restrained sin. Some thought that Paul himself might have been the restrainer (there is no suggestion from Paul on that). Some have suggested that it’s God or God being removed, etc.
So there are a lot of things here that for us are unclear, but I think this indicates that this is the letter nature of this. He doesn’t have to explain these things. Perhaps it would have been helpful if he had, but for whom? For us, but he wasn’t writing to us. And the people of Thessalonica, they would have understood. This is the problem with interpreting letters. We are outsiders. And I think, rather than simply speculating, we have to say that we simply don’t know on these things. Paul did say that they shouldn’t be shaken that the Lord would return immediately to them, because certain things would take place first.
Now in 2:15, “Brethren, stand firm, and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken wore or by letter.” There are traditions that Paul gave to them. We’ll look at some traditions, in 1 Corinthians especially, later on. But these have been passed on. So, they had from the beginning not only the Old Testament to guide them, but his churches had traditions – some of them probably were the Jesus traditions (the oral traditions of Jesus’ words and deeds). There were other kinds of traditions; some seem to have been theological formulations. In 1 Corinthians 15:3, Paul says, “I delivered to you what I also received …” and he gives a tradition, which is not a saying of Jesus or an act of Jesus, but it goes on, “…how Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve ….” That’s a tradition that they had apparently been handed, and memorized as a sort of a catechetical tradition that they remembered. And that was also part of their theological basis. So both the Jesus traditions and other theological traditions they had been taught and were aware of.
He goes on in 2:16, “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.” “May the Lord Jesus and God our Father ….” Placing them side by side must indicate that there’s a very unique Christology that Paul has in mind here. You don’t say “…and may Robert Stein himself and God our Father, who loved us …” – you don’t do that! But Paul puts Jesus in that way. He didn’t put himself there, but there’s something about Jesus. And you might say that this makes him part of the trinity -- but that’s too developed at this point. But the very fact that he places Jesus and God side by side in this kind of a benediction is a very high Christology. And later on, he gives in Philippians statements that indicate that he is divine. And when you say that Jesus is divine, and you’re a Pharisaic Jew, that’s different than if you say that Jesus is divine and you’re a philosopher on Mars Hill, where there are all sorts of divinities up there. So, we have here a Christology that is not the Nicene Creed at this point, but a very strong understanding of Jesus’ divine nature, said by a Jew who every day repeated “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one.” And Jesus is placed side by side with God in that way.
A couple of other comments briefly on this: 3:14, “If anyone refuses to obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.” Paul thinks his letters are authoritative, that the church must obey them. He doesn’t say, “At the next prayer meeting, why don’t you consider some of these things?” He doesn’t write that way. He writes, and people are to heed what he says. And I think that is very much in harmony with our view, that they are canonical – they’re part of the sacred scripture.
Two more comments: 2:1, in light of the issues that we have today when we talk about translation and inclusive language, “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you brethren ….” For “brethren” here (some have “brothers”), the Greek word is “brothers”, plural, but the meaning of this word is what? Brothers and sisters? How do you translate it? See now, that’s the problem. The problem is that if you just have a word-for-word translation, you might want to put “brothers” there, which could be confusing. Or you could say that the thought that Paul has in mind, is he’s writing to the church – to all the church. He does not want the church to be shaken by this, and he uses “brothers” in an inclusive way, to include all who are in the church. But how do you translate that? It’s not a theological issue in the sense of whether you’re being true or false to the Bible. Do you translate the thought of Paul, or the word of Paul? The word is brothers, but the thought is brothers and sisters. So if you have an inclusive translation, then you’d put brothers and sisters here. And that’s something you’ll have to decide, as to how you want to deal with that.
In 3:6, Paul states something about the relationship that the church should have towards those that live in idleness, “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” Now are there implications to that? A Christian today sees political issues on welfare. There’s been an emphasis now on how people on welfare should work. Paul is not saying that if a person is physically unable to work, don’t give him anything to eat. When these people are living in idleness, it means there’s work available. They can work, they simply are not doing it. And in the earliest history of the colonies, wasn’t it the Jamestown governor who took this very literally, and people who refused to work were not fed? It’s amazing how people feel like they ought to work after something like that. How do you apply that in your own situation? Well, one thing you have to think about is whether work is available [i.e., idleness and unemployment aren’t necessarily the same thing], and whether one is physically able to work; and so one must draw implications for that.
The main thing in 2 Thessalonians is that we have to remember that Paul writes because of a particular problem on “second coming fever”. And that he tries to calm this down by saying that there are certain things that must happen before these things take place.