Lecture 3: Thessalonians | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 3: Thessalonians

Course: Introduction to the New Testament: Romans to Revelation

Lecture: Thessalonians


I. Opening Remarks

A book known as the Bible Code Two published in 2003, stopped short of predicting the end of the world in 2004 which never happened of course. But nevertheless it gave reasons for strongly thinking that it might have happened at that time. Back at the turn of the millennium many of us can remember the scare over what was called Y2K or the millennium bug. There was a period of time during 1999 when six of the tops ten best-selling Christians books in the United States, all predicted with one measure of confidence or another a catastrophic failure of computer systems and the ushering in of events which would lead to Christ’s return and the end of human history as we know it. In the 1990s there were similar prophecies, one well known Christian broadcaster and former executive of a well-known and respected Christian Bible College and University predicted the end of the world in 1994. Back in the early 90s, a Korean cult or sect was known for going around parking lots, including the seminary at which this lecturer teaches throughout the United States posting booklets and pamphlets explaining why September 21st would bring Christ’s return. A former NASA scientist by the name of Edger Wisnin published a book in the late 80s called eighty eight reasons why Christ will return in 1988. And as we move back through history, one can find particularly in the last two to three hundred years where at least once in every generation of Christian history, those who look to the signs of the times and confidently predicted that they knew they were in the final generation. For one thing that may be equivocally said about all of these prophecies that to this date, one hundred percent of them have proved wrong. One would think that would lead the Christian church at the very least to be extraordinary suspicious of the next round of such prophecies and at most simply pay no attention to them at all. But Christians seem to suffer from collective amnesia about the failed and false prophecies of the past and thus succumb to the proclamations of the present.

II. Background

The first letter to the Thessalonians gives the most balanced and certainly the most extensive teaching about how Christians should look ahead and forward to Christ’s return of all of the epistles in the New Testament. Fortunately, the background to 1st Thessalonians is much more straight forward and not nearly as contested as the background of Galatians which we surveyed in the last lecture. We look at Paul’s second missionary journey of which Thessalonica was one of the cities where Paul and his companions went. Located in Macedonia, in the northern part of what today is the country of Greece. They arrived after crossing crossed over the Aegean Sea into Europe. Unlike the small city of southern Galatia, Thessalonica today is a prosperous and flourishing city, second only to Athens, the capital of Greece, itself in size and significance. Thus different problems beset Archaeologists there, not that we are looking for the small, out of the way, places whose locations can’t always be identified and for which there isn’t often great interest which affects funding in doing excavation but rather that we have a bustling busy city that needs to be worked around if they are to dig up anything that may remind of ancient Thessalonica. One can, however, see ruins of the ancient Roman walls within the city that go back to the New Testament period and the immediate centuries following. There is the central agora or market place in Thessalonica which is in the process to being excavated within its business center. There also exist even ruins of ancient shops that originally lined the area of that ancient market place. In addition, one can see ruins of Roman baths, the ancient equivalence of our modern day hot baths. Roman baths could be cold, medium or hot. Even an Odium, an indoor theater that would have had a domed shaped covering over it is to be found.

For additional historical information and background to 1st Thessalonians, perhaps the most important points come from the text of Acts and 1st Thessalonians themselves. In Acts 17:1-9, it describes how Paul spent a comparatively short period of time in planting the initial Christian congregation in that city. Acts refers only to a ministry of three Sabbaths though as our supplementary textbook, Acts through Revelation points out many scholars believe that he must have spent a short additional period of time there. But we are not talking about more than a few months. The fledging Thessalonian church we learn underwent significant persecution by local Jewish towns’ people who did not respond positively to the Gospel and that persecution initially led Paul to leave Thessalonica for the city Berea.

As you move onto the next paragraph of Acts 17, we read how the believers sent Paul and Silas on their way leaving Thessalonica and then again in verse 15, we have to assume that Timothy went along or had caught up with the other two at some time in Berea. The believers there sent Paul, Silas and Timothy further down the Greek coastline and eventually to Athens. In Acts 18:5 however, we read that Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia to join up with Paul, conferring what 17:14 told us that Silas and Timothy initially stayed at Berea before joining Paul, which as it turns out did not occur while Paul was in Athens but only when Paul had moved further on down the coast to the town of Corinth. Or one would imagine unless we also had 1st Thessalonians chapter 3 in front of us, so at first glance the text might seem to contradict what we have just read, in fact it merely supplement’s it. 1st Thessalonians 3:1 reads, ‘so when we could stand it no longer we thought it best to be left to ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, our brother and co-worker in God’s service….’ In essence, Paul is saying, go back to Thessalonica to check up on how things were going there. And shortly after Timothy’s return, the first letter to the Thessalonians is written according to 1st Thessalonians 3:6 having just come back to Paul bringing good news about the growth and progress of the Christian community in Thessalonica.

Apparently in addition to everything that we have just read in Acts, Timothy caught up with Paul in Athens earlier than Silas did and then was sent back to Macedonia, particularly to Thessalonica only to then rejoin Paul as Silas also did in Corinth further along in Paul’s second missionary journey. Because Acts tells us that is where the three missionaries finally got back together and because all three men are named, in some sense, in the authorship of 1st Thessalonians in chapter 1:1, we may infer that this letter was written from Corinth near the end of Paul’s second missionary journey before he began his journey back to the eastern end of the Mediterranean world. That means, according to all the dating and chronology that we surveyed in our introductory lectures to Paul life and letters, that we are somewhere in the year AD 50 or 51 in the 1st century. A concise, five point outline, corresponding relatively closely and closer than the letter to the Galatians to the conventional form of Hellenistic form of letter writing shows the greetings and thanksgiving comprised the 1st chapter, not only is the thanksgiving re-instated as it had been absent in Galatians but is effusive in Paul’s letter for the fledging Christian church in Thessalonica. The body of the letter includes three points, the information section is delineated by the first two major outline points which in turn can be divided into Paul’s reflections on the his time with the people there in Thessalonica, showing his concern for their wellbeing since he left, especially in light of the persecution that caused him to leave. Exhortation material is then largely grouped together in the final major section of the letter body in chapters four and five with a reasonable conventionally conclusion, rounding out the outline of this epistle.

III. Christ Will Return Soon

It is interesting to reflect on the relationship between the emphasis on Christ’s return as still being very soon, which extends to each chapter of 1st Thessalonians and is particular prominent in chapters four and five and what seems to be an opposite emphasis on the things that must still occur before the end can come in 2nd Thessalonians which we will analyze in more detail after surveying the exegetical highlights of Paul’s first letter. But to preview one very plausible way of putting the two letters together, it is not all fanciful to imagine that even a scant twenty years after Christ’s return with Jesus’ apostles having understood that Jesus’ own message to be one of a near or soon coming return to begin to wonder if something had gone wrong. If Jesus had it wrong, if their understanding of Jesus’ teaching had been wrong or if there were some other explanation for why, after a full twenty years, but there was no sign of any visible supernatural coming or presence of Jesus corresponding to the resurrection and ascension which foretold the way Jesus would come back as explained by the angelic messengers early in Acts chapter one. It would be natural therefore for Paul in 1st Thessalonians to attempt to address this question briefly and re-assert the conviction that Christ was indeed still be coming soon but why then the opposite problem, the setting of 2nd Thessalonians? Howard Marshell in his New Century Bible commentary on 1st & 2nd Thessalonians very plausible suggest that it could have been an overreaction to Paul’s 1st letter which now forced Paul now in his 2nd epistle to provide a balancing emphasis.

IV. Christ's Return

For students who have already studied the Gospel of John may have learned that there was a similar pattern between the Gospel of John and later Epistles of John, a pattern we will introduce for those who have not encountered it later on in this series of lectures when we come to the epistles of John. A pattern which plausibly suggests among other things that the Gospel is responding to early Gnosticism so in the epistles, John had to introduce a balancing emphasis. It would be natural here in Thessalonians as well to imagine that the return of Christ was so near or perhaps from an imbibed Hellenistic philosophical notion that there were no supernatural resurrection and the Messianic age yet to come but that the only thing of a New Age or resurrection that Jesus had ever promised was the spiritual new life that believers could have already in this age. Thus, 2nd Thessalonians needs to debunk this second reaction and insist that there are very specific signs of the times that still much occur, only after which Christ will return and that it is indeed a public and bodily event that will usher in the final judgment in a way that has not already taken place in some invisible spiritual way. There are other ways of putting these two letters together but this is the way that certainly seems quite plausible.

V. Exegetical Highlights

Turning then to the 1st Epistle to the Thessalonians and commenting simply on some very select exegetical highlights and also referring the reader to the textbook for more detailed notes. We may observe in the opening three and a half chapters before turning to Paul’s more famous and extended and controversial discussion of eschatology or last things. It is not only his thanksgiving in its formal location in chapter 1:1-10 that is effusive in its praise for the Thessalonians growth and progress in Jesus, but he adds extra thanksgiving periods that could almost be viewed as discreet or separate thanksgivings in 2:13, a very lengthy and detailed verse and again in chapter 3:9. How is it that this young church, as far as we can tell had the shortest period of time of any of the other churches that Paul wrote letters to in terms of formal instructions they had with Paul’s physically present. How was it that such a church turns out to be the one in the first three chapters of 1st Thessalonians that Paul praises more than any of the other churches which we have preserved letters of, addressed to those Christian congregations. And it is indeed that the 2nd thanksgiving period of 2:13 that a significant component of an answer to this question. As Paul explains, we also thank God continually because when you received the Word of God you heard from us, you accepted it, not as a human word, but as it actually is, the Word of God which is indeed as work in you who believe. In other words, the accurate and faithful preaching of the Gospel message, it is itself, certainly not inerrant or flawlessly inspired in the fashion historically attributed to the written Scriptures, but nevertheless, God’s Word addressed to humanity with all the power and the possibilities of changing lives and fashioning new communities there unto appertaining.

Martin Luther at the time of the protestant reformation, perhaps more than any other single individual in the history of the church emphasized the preaching of faithful exposition of Scripture as central to the task of Christian worship and as the very Word of God. It is a humbling, convicting task which Christian preachers and teachers and ministers of the Word have, but also that should be greatly encouraging as we are faithful to Scripture unfolding and explaining and applying it, we can know that we have and speak with the very authority of God himself.

Chapter 4:10 also closely relates to Paul’s sustained praise for the Thessalonians and indeed has been identified from time to time as a possible theme verse to this epistle. We read, ‘in fact, you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia, yet we urge you dear friends to do so more and more. Or in the words of the New American Standard translation at the end of that verse, ‘excel still more’. Even though the Thessalonians have begun with a rapid growth, there is always room for further growth and danger of falling back and so Paul urges them to press on to greater heights and greater Christian maturity. It is interesting to read as well, Paul’s very personal and poignant and transparent remarks and insights concerning his motives for ministry. He was reflective of his time in Thessalonica and of his concern for their well-being after he had left. We read, ‘instead we were like young children among you, just as a nursing mother cares for her children,’ and then on into verse 8:a, so we cared for you. Again in verse 11, you know we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his children. And finishing that sentence in verse 12, ‘encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God…

On the one hand, Paul compares himself to being like children in the mitts of the Thessalonians; there was a servant leadership role that was central to Paul ministry. He did not lord it over to people to whom and among whom he ministered, but rather sought to serve them and there was a vulnerability sense of helplessness attached to children’s lives and hostilities from outside and at times, division, within various churches which forced Paul to changed his plans in ways he had not expected. But the real burden of these verses is changing the metaphor, Paul as both mother and father. One should not try to deduce some bazaar conclusion about Paul’s gender or sexual orientation from this. He is simply appealing to what was in his world one of the most powerful and tender metaphors for gentle care and nurture to that of nursing mother with her baby at her breast, and then this balancing out the maternal metaphor with a paternal one in talking about the role of a father, not in this context, not as an authority which he clearly was in the ancient world, but as one who when functioning properly, encouraged and comforting his children as well as urging them and training them in proper spiritual living. Parents, of course, when functioning properly do not have the option of abandoning their children. They are ‘stuck’ with them for good or ill.

It’s interesting, especially today in the 21st century western world with the turnover rate of pastors and other Christian leaders being at a seemingly all-time record high with people who at one stage of their lives seemed to have believed that God was calling them to ministry and indeed professional ministry for career, suddenly finding a fair amount of hardship of one kind or another and reinterpreting that call so as to leave the ministry for some other vocation altogether. Perhaps one of the things that has gone wrong is they have lost sight of the kind of commitment Paul expresses in these verses. Unless we recognize our flocks or our charges though they may change as people come and go and though they may change as we move from one place to the next. Nevertheless more like family, more like ministering to close relatives to whom we have become committed, no matter how much grift they may give us. Perhaps that is the model that will lead to the necessary stick-to-itiveness even through the very hard times and it needs to be emphasized more than it often is. There is another metaphor that punctuates the Thessalonian epistles and 1st Corinthians as well and several other portions of Paul’s letters of which we first encounter here in 1st Thessalonians 2, not least in four consecutive verses in chapter 2:3-6 and that is the theme of imitating Paul, much like the respected philosopher in the Greco-Roman world or the Rabbi in the Jewish world, did not give formal class room lectures nearly so much as gather a small group of followers who lived and walked with him at times as we would phrase it today, 24/7 (24 hours a day and 7 days a week), around the clock, seeing how he acted in a broad cross section of settings that life could show and seeing that he was not perfect, seeing how many mistakes he would make and seeing how he repented and sought forgiveness and moved on with his life, a fresh.

Of course, there were popular philosophers, particularly in the Greco-Roman world who were viewed as hustlers as well and these were ones, not to be observable 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. They would put on a mask for a period of time in public without folks knowing what they were like in more private moments. It is interesting to see how implicitly some of those kinds of the practices by those philosophers would appear in contrast. Paul describes, ‘for the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motive nor are we trying to trick you,’ apparently as some popular philosophers were. Verse 4, ‘on the contrary we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the Gospel. We are not trying to please people but God who tests our hearts.’ It is even when Christians leaders, ancient or modern, are not consciously trying to deceive their charges or even themselves. It is so easy to do that drawing a greater praise rather than that one knows may well draw conflict or censor from others, even though one also knows the latter option is more faithful to Scripture. Verse 5, Paul continues, ‘you know we never use flattery nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed. God is our witness, as soon as one accepts money for ministry which Paul did at times though not in others. We will return to this conversation in 1st Corinthians 9. There is always the danger of doing that which will bring in the most money. Yet that can never be the guiding principle for one who wants to be faithful to the value of Scripture. Which more often than not call believers to do that which may, in the eyes of the world, lead to a less prosperous rather than a more prosperous outcome. Finally in 2:6, we read that Paul, Silas and Timothy were not looking for praise from any human being, not even from the Thessalonian church but as apostles of Christ, they could have asserted their prerogatives, they could have led in an autocratic way which leads into the metaphor we have already discussed in 7:a, ‘it because like little children, like servant leaders instead.’

Skipping ahead to chapter 4, we will see yet another exegetical highlight of many that we could mention. It has to do with a connection between holly lives and moral lifestyles. It talks about the will of God, are likely to draw a crowd among believers, rightly eager to discern God’s specific will for their lives in difficult or complex situations. Where should I work, what church should I join, what ministry should I be involved with, who should I marry, should I get married and the list can be seemingly endless. God does provide individual Christians at times with very specific answers to these questions. But even in Scripture, by no means, on a regularly basis, if one studies the concept of the will of God where it appears throughout the New Testament. One discovers very consistent links to Godly moral living and often ‘little more than that’, though in reality, Godly living is hardly a little thing. A classic example of this comes in 1st Thessalonians 3 and 4, it is God’s will that you should be sanctified, you should be made increasingly holly, you should avoid sexual immorality; perennial temptations for God’s people for compromising holiness. Each of you should learn to control you own body in a way that is holly and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans who do not know God.

As we will see when we look at the sequence of topics in Roman 12, it’s arguable that Paul understood that God’s more general moral will be illustrated in this passage with the particular difficult area of sexual temptation, is almost a necessary prerequisite before being able to understand his more specific or particular will for our lives in convoluted situations. Put more simply, if we are not concerned to obey what we already know is God’s will for us in our lives in moral living in general. Why should we expect him to reveal to us more specific dimensions of his will that set us apart from what he requires of the Christian next to us.

Finally, we may comment on chapter 4:11-12 which contain the often overlooked command to make it our ambition to lead quiet lives. We mind our own business and work with our hands just as Paul, Silas and Timothy instructed the Thessalonians so that our daily lives may win the respect of out siders and so that we will not be dependent on anyone else. There is an interesting two fold reason for work, work that pays our bills, that feeds our families, that puts bread on the table, work in Christian thinking and Jewish thought preceding it is something good and God ordained it to be just and from Genesis 1 onward, God planned that humanity should exercise Godly dominion in stewardship over the earth and in chapter 2 gave Adam and Eve the specific task of Stewarding the Garden of Eden. Of course, the fall in chapter 3 corrupted life in the workplace even as it did in every other area of life. But in Christ, the process of being redeemed from the cruse has begun and that means redeeming the workplace, not demeaning it, not look down on it as a necessary evil until we can do real Christian ministry in another context. Work is part of the Christian’s call, whether to use a modern dichotomy not nearly as common or understood in Paul’s day, whether sacred or secular, work is part of God’s will for our lives and we should in a Godly fashion to gain the respect of outsiders to be a good witness, whether we explicitly talk about Jesus at any given moment or not and also that we will not have to, as we might put it, mooch off anyone else, Christian or otherwise and thus create potentially a greater hardship for them and lose favor or respect with them as well.


VI. Three Views of the Rapture

As with every topic we cover, much more could be said about the first three and half chapters of 1st Thessalonians, but we pass to the segment from chapter 4:13 - 5:11 on eschatology which tends to be the reason, at least in modern Christian life, that people turn to Thessalonians more than any other book. And here we think particularly of the picture in 4:16-17 in which the Lord will come down to earth from heaven or at least come earthward with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and the trumpet call of God and the dead in Christ will rise first after which we, who are still left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and so we will ever be with the Lord. This is the one unambiguous text in all of the Scripture, though many would add other texts here and there to this one that describes to which Christians have come to call the ‘rapture’, from the Latin word rapio which translates the noun equivalent to the Greek verb translated here as being ‘caught up’. We use the concept of rapture in English for whoever is caught up in romantic affection for one another. And in that sense of being seized or gripped and in this case in this word picture, being lifted from the earth to meet Jesus in the air, with the clouds in the air has become known as the rapture.

But this is the only place in scripture specifically where this imaginary and this terminology is unambiguously used. As a result, theologians over the centuries and particular among those whose approach to eschatology known as pre-millennialism of which we will speak in more detail when we get to the Book of Revelation. A division into three major approaches to the rapture has been spawn. Perhaps best known in the modern western world is the view of the pre-tribulation rapture sometimes abbreviated as ‘pretrib’ rapture? Because so many text in Scripture talk about a period of tribulation immediately before the return of Christ and the end of human history as we now know it, it has become natural and understandable that theologians would ask how this rapture, chronologically, related to the tribulation and thus to the final public visible return of Jesus on the clouds. The ‘pretrib’ approach understands the rapture as being caught up to meet the Lord in the air here as an image which leads to Jesus and his followers turning around and returning to heaven, escaping the horrors that human history has ever known representing by the tribulation and then descending with the Lord for his second coming and events of the final judgment that follow.

A second approach has come to be known as the mid-tribulation rapture or ‘midtrib’ in which a view of the rapture is adopted that is tied to a division of tribulation separated into two periods of time, one in which persecution of believers is not as intense as the second and it is only this latter half, sometimes linked to the full unleashing of God’s wrap on this earth that believers will exempt from. This is the least common view throughout Christian history, depends largely on an interpretation of Revelations Chapter 11 to which we will return. But for the sake of completeness, it is presented here. Finally the view that has prevailed throughout church history, not as well known in the last 150 to 175 years of American church history, is the post tribulation rapture in which believers are caught up to meet the Lord in the clouds in the air who is in fact descending as part of the parousia at the end of the tribulation, they then turn around and join him in his descent back to earth functioning as a kind of welcoming party escorting him to this earth for the events surrounding the final judgment and resurrection of all people living and at the very least, dead believers as well. Fortunately, nothing involving a Christian’s salvation is at stake in this debate and therefore applying the principles we learn from Galatians chapter one, this debate should never be seen as a central one that could divide Christians with any animosity from one another, that could prevent fellowship or joint efforts for the Kingdom.

What else should we glean from 4:13 – 5:11 without arguing that one must adopt it, it is the most likely or the correct approach to the debate about the relationship between the tribulation and the rapture. It is at lease worth noting that the term used for the meeting of believers with Jesus in 1st Thessalonians is the term apantesis in Greek which appears in two other places in the New Testament. Once in Matthew 25:6 in which the bridesmaids form the escort party to join the bridegroom on the way to the brides’ house to complete the marriage ceremony and the celebration there. And again in Acts 28:15 when an escort party of Christians have left Rome upon hearing that Rome and the other shipmates of his were now coming along that road to Rome. They meet him and escort him back to Rome in the exact fashion the post-tribulationists imagines believers welcoming Jesus in the air in a triumph by to the earth. It is also worth noting that while trying to find texts among those early church fathers who clearly were pre-millennial. There are no unambiguous references to a pre-tribulation rapture until the writings of John Nelson Darby, the founder of the Plymouth Brethren demonization in Scotland. In about 1830, a movement that then flourished, particularly among Scottish immigrants to America and it was influential among those who founded the movement known as dispensationalism spawning such well known institutes as Dallas Seminary and Moody Bible Institute under the leadership of people like Lewis Berrie Jayber and C.I. Scofield whose reference Bible became the standard for generations of American evangelical Christians and indeed Christians around the world in missionary work initially emanating from American dispensationalism .

That the pretrib view is recent and little attested in Christian history does not in and of itself disqualify it, but it is of little known historical fact and in many circles that at least put into perspective that perhaps the strength for various other options is something worth considering. But, and this is a big one; it is very clear that Paul doesn’t want this or any other passage of his or any other Scriptural authors apocalyptic teaching about eschatology ever to prove divisive. Apocalyptic is always written for the encouragement of beleaguers Christians and 1st Thessalonians is no exception. Chapter 5:18 says therefore encourage one another with these words not split yourself off into warring eschatological factions. And verse 13 begins the entire section; he does not want people to grieve over the loss of Christian loved one, at least not in the way that non-Christians do who have no hope. We must focus on what Christianity in its orthodox manifestation has always agreed on. That Christ will return, that believers will be resurrected and glorified and so shall we be ever with the Lord as the end of verse 17 puts it. And this gives us all the hope we need even if we never agreed this side of eternity on some of the finer points of eschatology.

Finally, I have chosen to make some brief comments on chapter 5:22 because it continued to be mistranslated and misapplied in many Christian settings around the world. The NIV reads, beginning with verse 20, ‘do not treat prophesies with contempt but test them all, hold on to what is good, reject whatever is harmful.’ The New American Standard Version somewhat more literally reads, Verse 22: ‘Abstain from every form of evil and fortunately many people have read or have heard others quote, using the language of the King James, in which the term for the Greek term, Adoss is rendered appearance, Abstain from or avoid every appearance of evil. And in English, the word appearance is ambiguous. It can mean something that looks like something else even though it really isn’t. For example, I saw a small dark brown flat rectangular object on my desk at a distance and it had the appearance of Chocolate. But when I got closer to it, I realized that it was a dark mahogany wood chip instead. Because of that possible English meaning of appearance, this command has often been used to warn, sometimes in a very heavy handed way, Christians from doing things which were morally neutral or even potentially beneficial simply because someone might misunderstand it, and because in some context, it might have the appearance wrongly though that perception was of evil. But the Greek word, Adoss, had no such meaning and therefore this application of this passage doesn’t apply. The kind of appearance that Adoss referred to was the kind of appearance we speak of when we describe a newscaster on the verge of retirement, having his or her last appearance on the nightly network news. This is appearance in the sense of the presence of the real thing and so it is more appropriate to translate 5:22 as avoiding or obtaining from every form or kind or actual manifestation of evil. It doesn’t say anything about what someone should do in a situation where one might be misunderstood as doing evil. Indeed if one would apply that latter approach to every situation in life, one might never get out of bed, but not getting out of bed might be misunderstood for laziness and inaction. So we would find ourselves in a situation that would be impossible to obey Scripture’s teachings.

VII. 2 Thessalonians

We turn now to 2nd Thessalonians, a shorter epistle, a large percentage of scholarly comment has been taken up with the two issues: first on whether or not Paul wrote this epistle and also to the question of the order of the letters, the reason for putting 2nd Thessalonians after 1st Thessalonians was first of the two letters together and secondly to put them in decreasing order or length. Neither of which requires 2nd Thessalonians to have been written chronologically after the first epistle. And nothing in the text of either letter even hints at Paul trying to disclose for us the order in which he wrote these two letters. I will pass over these issues however in this supplementary lecture since I have gone into some detail into them and referred readers to other sources that present considerably more detail than in my written textbook. The outline, however, is worth brief comment; just like 1st Thessalonians, one finds introductory and thanksgiving, more or less conventional in nature occupying the first chapter, followed by a letter body. The information of which spans chapter two, the exhortation portion, a good section of chapter three followed by closing greetings at the end of chapter three. There is no lack of thanksgivings as there is in Galatians and no extra thanksgiving as there is in 1st Thessalonians. This is the purest example of a standard Hellenistic letter form of Paul we have looked at.

We have already mentioned that the overriding content leading to a common identity of chapter 2:2 as the thesis sentence for this second epistle to the Thessalonians. It is to warn the church there that simply because Christ is returning despite his apparent delay and that at least from God’s perspective, one can speak of that as happening soon, it is not so soon that believers should stop working or it is likewise not some they need to fear that has actually happened and they’ve missed it because they didn’t realize that it as an invisible spiritual event not publicly discernable by all believers.

VIII. Background to 2 Thessalonians

Additional background information that’s worth stressing; if Thessalonians was written by Paul (as viewed by this lecturer), and if it was written after 1st Thessalonians, then we can note that are at least three corollaries. First, 1st Thessalonians itself must have been written a short time after Paul’s founding of the church there. Due to his ongoing concern about their well-being that led to send his companions back there or at least to send Timothy back as Silas had moved on. We know that because Corinth is likewise the only place in the Book of Acts where we know for sure that Paul and Silas and Timothy ministered together after the founding of the Thessalonian church and given the continued sense of concern and urgency by the writer of Thessalonians for the well-being of the church. So if Paul wrote 2nd Thessalonians after 1st Thessalonians, it was written a comparatively short time afterward 1st Thessalonians. So it should also be dated around the period of AD 50-51. On this assumption of authorship and order, it’s clear from the opening chapter of 2nd Thessalonians that the persecution has increased and that the problem introduced in 1st Thessalonians now elaborated on in 2nd Thessalonians 3 with those who have stopped working. Irrespective of the order of the two letters and the authorship of 2nd Thessalonians, we may likewise add that it seems to follow as a corollary that 2nd Thessalonians does emanate from Corinth or at least was meant to appear that way by virtue of the description in the opening verse. And that chapter 2:2 whether or not formerly identified as a thesis state for the letter as we have suggested earlier on does point to the fundamental disruption theologically speaking and probably sociologically as well.

Chapter 2:2 reads that we should not become unsettles or alarmed by the teachings allegedly from this trio of early Christian leaders, and goes on, whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter asserting that the Day of the Lord has already come. Again, for the sake of slightly more literal translation, at least in respect to word order, we may read the New American Standard in which the three express the hope that the Thessalonians not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message, or more literally, a word as if from us, to the effect that the Day of the Lord has come. As a results and because the clause as if from us comes immediately after a reference to a letter, it is often been viewed as Paul having received the word that a forged letter in his name has taught false eschatology to the Thessalonians which he must now correct. But again with Howard Marshell with his New Century Bible Commentary, he correctly points out that syntactically the use of the clause as if from us after the paired tirade of either by a spirit or by a message or a letter, most naturally modifies all three options. So that it may have been some alleged Christian prophecy, the supposedly spirit of the lord or some less formal oral instruction or a letter or any combination of these which has given rise to the Thessalonians misunderstanding.

Intriguingly, it is Paul with his companions alone, who in a short period of time preached Gods word to the Thessalonians, preached it in such a way that they believed it was the very Word of God and thus inspired by the Holy Spirit, even if not in the same inerrant way that the Spirit inspired Scripture and who subsequently wrote one and two follow up letters to the Thessalonians. Is it not therefore with Marshall, perhaps, certainly plausible and maybe even probable that it was the combination of Paul’s preaching and his follow up letter that caused the misunderstanding of teaching that Christ was coming back so immediately that some could quit work and simply wait for the moment to happen? Teachings that seemed to be from Paul, but in fact it was a misrepresentation of Paul’s work. There is no way of being sure but it does seem to be as plausible as the alternatives. We have commented on a rendering of chapter 2:2, the approach that has been suggested is perhaps supported by chapter 2:15 as well where Paul reiterates to his Thessalonian brothers and sisters the imperative to stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. There’s no mention of Spirit there but the other two options reappear and here there is no question that Paul is talking about the oral and written instructions that the three communicated to them.

IX. Exegetical Highlights of 2 Thessalonians

Returning to chapter 1 and now preceding sequentially through the epistle for a few additional highlights. We see Chapters 1:2 – 12 as the extended thanksgiving for this short epistle contains a response to the persecutions that the Thessalonians are experiencing from their non-Christian neighbors. Some of the strongest words of God’s promised judgment are made of those persecutors on judgment day. Chapter 1: 9 epitomizes such judgment, perhaps even climaxing it with the promise that these persecutors who do not know God, who do not know the Gospel will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his mightiness on the day when he comes to be glorified (verse 10) that is when Christ returns to initiate final judgment.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, the two most common metaphors for hell are fire and outer darkness, metaphors which if either were pressed absolutely would cancel each other out. To speak of them as metaphors makes hell no less real but perhaps 2nd Thessalonians 1:9 provides in non-metaphorical terminology the agonizing reality that those other metaphors depict other exclusions from the presence of God and all things good. On one hand, some Christians who are understandably troubled by this depiction of hell have often wondered that the concept of everlasting destruction, noted here and other places in Scriptures support what has come to be as the doctrine of annihilation. Namely that unbelievers’ eternal judgment will simply be a fact that they will cease forever to consciously exist whereas believers will have a chance to spend eternity with God in Christ in the company of all the redeemed. That debate requires a look at many other scriptures besides this one, but as we’ve pointed out in our textbook, the only reuse of the exact terminology of Paul in 1:9 comes in the Old Testament of 4th Maccabees where the context makes it very plain that everlasting conscious torment is in view. But can Christians countenance a God who threatens such on unbelievers? Let’s never forget that this is apocalyptic and still designed to encourage the oppressed.

It is fascinating that in an age of great tolerance and relativism, of great pluralism and inclusivism, one area that even very liberal religious people or supposedly irreligious people regularly do not tolerate and cannot tolerate others tolerating is injustice against the minorities of our world, of the many different categories and rightly so. The Bible is similarly occupied with themes of justice for the oppressed and marginalized, stigmatized and the outsider of many different kinds. But never forget that the first Christian communities for the first three hundred years of their existence were one of those oppressed groups by Rome as well as more sporadic personal and local persecutions by Greeks and Romans alike; thus in this context, Paul promises judgment on the persecutors to encourage the Christians that justice will be done. Because it will never be fully carried out in this world even with Christians and others best efforts. And if it would be carried out perfectly in the age to come then neither believers nor others need to take God’s judgment into their own hands, not least because how imperfectly and at times improperly it will be carried out. They can, as Old Testament prophetic texts repeatedly suggest, reserve God’s vengeance for him, for he is the Lord.

Chapter 2 presents us with fascinating texts that are perhaps better known at least as controversial theologically thinking: What are these signs of the times? What are these extra events that must happen? We read in 2:3, don’t let anyone deceive you in any way for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, a man doomed to destruction, he will oppose the good and exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped so that he sets himself up in God’s Temple proclaiming himself to be God. Who is this man of lawlessness? Inter-testamental Jewish apocalyptic likewise envisioned a diabolical arch enemy of God’s people emerging and it is likely that it is that this same kind of figure whom John refers to in his epistles as the anti-Christ; in the Book of Revelation as a beast that is empowered by the dragon that is Satan himself. But something or someone is preventing him from appearing. Verse 6 says, ‘you know what’s holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so until he is taken out of the way.’ In the original Greek the expressions for the one who is holding this man of lawlessness back is in the neuter and masculine forms respectively suggesting both a power and a person and suggestions have ranged from the church to the Roman Empire or the power of government more generally to God himself. Whatever the restrainer turns out to be, the theological point on which all perspectives agree is that, it is God’s sovereign will to determine when these events take place and his people should stop trying to guess when they would occur.

But what about the latter part of verse 4, that the man of lawlessness or the anti-Christ will set himself up in God’s temple? When Paul wrote this in 50 or 51 AD, God’s temple would naturally suggest to his readers, the Jewish temple still standing in Jerusalem, but it was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, never to have been built again to this day. Dispensationists therefore have often wondered and even confidently proclaimed that there must be a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem on the site of the original one as one of the signs that the end is near. There are problems with this interpretation however; one is that it means in those centuries no Jewish people were anywhere near Israel and technology was not what it is today, it simply would not have been possible with any short period of time for a temple to be rebuilt and thus those scriptural teachings about the possibility of Christ’s return coming at any time would simply have been false. A more theological problem involves the purpose of such a rebuilt temple. The only theological function of the temple was over against the synagogues that dotted the Jewish landscape throughout the places they lived, was that it was the one place designated by God for animal sacrifices of which in the Christian dispensation have been done away with once and for all. To reinstate them would be to implicitly go against the finality of Christ’s sacrifice.

A final problem with taking the temple of God here as the literal Jewish temple rebuilt in Jerusalem is that in every other place, Paul uses an expression like this; he is referring to the church of Jesus Christ or Christian individuals within it, metaphorically as temples. Given all these reasons to question the necessity for a rebuilt temple is unfortunate that some Christians continue to support the tiny group of ultraorthodox Jews who would like to see a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, especially when this creates such a greater adverse and hostel situation internationally and locally with all of the ethnic groups and religions and nationalities competing for access to Jerusalem as a holy site. But once again, hopefully this sound repetitive, these are the debates that Christians should occupy themselves with, though sadly at times we have because apocalyptic is meant to encourage. So chapter 2 ends verse 17 with a prayer that Christ might encourage our hearts with this eschatological teaching and strengthen us as the prayer was for the Thessalonians that they be strengthened in every good deed and word.

Finally, we turn to chapter 3 for a brief follow up comment on those who have stopped working. As we mentioned a bit earlier there may be a sociological as well as an eschatological dimension to this problem. Bruce Winter and Robert Gewit as well as others have studied this topic at length in recent years including an analysis of the archaeology of Thessalonica, the likelihood that the poor early Christians there would have lived in two and three storied densely populated crowded apartments, to use the equivalent modern terms for them. That it would have been very natural for Christians living in the same building to share a communal meal with one another in which they also celebrated the Lords supper and that perhaps realistically, this was the only meal in which the rule of 3:10 could ever have been enforced. Anyone who is unwilling to work shall not eat. Perhaps there were those that still depended on their patriots in a sociality of patriots and clients about which we will talk in more detail in our introduction to 1st Corinthians in our next lecture. But to use a rough temporary analogy, perhaps there were those who were used to munching off the richer people rather than looking for jobs when they could have done so when work would have been available. We must not read 3:10 as a social or political comment against all forms of a well-fair state. Every sociality have the helpless needy who would love to provide for themselves but can’t and compassionate people whether government or religious organizations or any other combination of groups.

We should be very concerned to see that the basic needs of such people are met, but the most literal rendering of the Greek in this particular passage is not, if anyone will not work as if Paul had used the future tense of the verb, to work, but as we read in the NIV, anyone who is unwilling; there is a separate verb there, to will. Those who do not have the will, the readiness, though they have the capability, the opportunity should not be given free hand outs. Much for temporary application, not least in the whole area of eschatology, perhaps we have stressed disproportionately to its degree of emphasis in these two letters, but if combine that emphasis with exhortation to holiness in behavior in the work place and in every area of life including the issue of simply doing the very best one could do at all times to provide for oneself and not be dependent on others. We look at the contemporary church and it is arguable that the crucial application for our day is that we should simply stop writing and reading all supposedly non-fictional or fictional representations of when the end will come and how it will come as long as there are other aspects of God’s will that we have not yet perfectly mastered. And that should give us enough to be occupied profitably in service to God and his Kingdom, particularly in areas we are not doing very well in business ethics, theology of ethical living in one’s work whether it is ever accompanied by explicit Christian witness or not, sexual ethics, hardly any comment needs to be made in that area and in general, a quest for holiness in every area of Christian living.

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