2 Thessalonians

2 Thessalonians Introduction

The language and contents of the second letter are so close to those of 1 Thessalonians as to suggest that it was written not long afterwards. It follows the same general pattern. From chapter 1 it appears that the situation of opposition from outside must have worsened. The pungency of Paul’s language may also suggest that he himself was the object of particular attack from people outside the church (cf. 3:2). This increase in opposition may have been part of the reason why a group developed in the church who believed that they were living in the very last days. They claimed support for this belief from some kind of statement which purported to come from Paul himself. Paul repudiated this statement (or, more probably, the questionable inferences drawn from it), and argued that various events had still to happen before the return of the Lord. In the final part of the letter we find evidence that some members of the church were taking advantage of the hospitality of others and living in idleness at their expense. Although no explicit connection is made, it is hard not to believe that the ‘apocalyptic’ excitement reflected in chapter 2 contributed to this situation. It called forth strong words of censure from Paul who firmly believed that, where possible, Christians should work for their living.

These points determine the structure of the letter. As in 1 Thessalonians, the opening greeting (1:1–2) is followed by a prayer-report which also functions as encouragement and teaching: the church was still suffering from opposition, but was bearing it steadfastly, and Paul assures the believers that God will judge those who oppose them and prepare the church to share his glory when Christ comes (1:3–12). The centre of the letter is teaching about the return of Christ, directed against the people who were asserting that the last days (in the sense of the final period of time) had begun. Paul teaches that a period of satanic opposition to God on an unparalleled scale will precede the return of Christ; meanwhile, the church, conscious that it was the object of God’s gracious choice, and dependent on his strengthening, must hold firm to the end (2:1–17). Finally, there is exhortation. The church is asked to pray for Paul, and attention is drawn to those Christians who had abandoned their daily work and were living off their good-natured friends. Paul strongly condemns this idleness and the consequent nuisance-value of the idlers (3:1–16). There is a brief closing greeting (3:17–18).

These comments on 2 Thessalonians have been made in terms of the ostensible historical context of the document as a genuine letter from Paul to the church at Thessalonica. On this view of the situation we have to assume that in the period after the writing of 1 Thessalonians a kind of ‘apocalyptic fervour’, whose origins can perhaps be detected in 1 Thessalonians, developed further in the church. Paul does not deal with it in terms of castigating directly or indirectly a group of opponents, as in some other letters; rather he writes to believers who may have been misled by a misinterpretation of his teaching.

Such a situation appears to be quite plausible. Yet many commentators disagree. They detect a sharp contrast between the emphasis on the nearness of the second coming in 1 Thessalonians and the stress on the ‘not yet’ in 2 Thessalonians. This fact then alerts them to other peculiar features which they detect in the letter—the lack of personal, concrete allusions, the peculiar repetition of phrases form 1 Thessalonians, some differences in language and thought amd so on. Numerous scholars think that these differences are incompatible with the traditional understanding of the letter as Pauline. They judge attempts to solve some of the problems by arguing that the letters were written in reverse chronological order, or that they are compositions of fragments originally written in a different order, to be inadequate. The only solution which will do justice to these peculiarities, so it is argued, is that the letter is a later composition by another writer who wished to use Paul’s name to correct his teaching or false inferences from it, perhaps even to claim this letter alone was authentic (cf. 3:17) and that 1 Thessalonians was to be rejected. One major weakness of this view is that its supporters have not offered a convincing and plausible reconstruction of the circumstances in which such a letter could have been composed—and directed to Thessalonica in particular. Again, the language used to refute the claim that the day of the Lord had already arrived is so cryptic that it is hard to envisage a later writer expressing himself in this fashion if he wanted to persuade his readers. Although it must be granted that there are some oddities in the language, structure and thought of the letter, it is fair to say that the difficulties in regarding the letter as written by someone other than Paul are greater.

The message of the letters

Both letters contain ample teaching about the gospel and the character of a young church which can be developed to show how Christians should live and witness today. Nevertheless, some contemporary Christians who are conscious of a long—and lengthening—period of church history rather than of their days being numbered may feel that the framework of Paul’s theology with its stress on the future coming of the Lord and above all on the sense of its nearness, with all the implications that this has for Christian living, is unrealistic. Yet Christians today may too easily assume the permanence and independence of their own collective existence in a secure universe and fail to realize that at every moment they depend upon the Lord’s mercy and live in the light of his coming. If God shattered the time-space framework of the universe by coming into it in the person of his incarnate Son, surely he can and will bring human history to a consummation by a future intervention to establish his everlasting reign in justice, peace and love. Paul also makes it plain that Christians are not meant to spend their time doing nothing and waiting for the Lord to come. Rather, they must prepare for his coming by showing the qualities of Christian living, faith, love and hope.

Further reading

J. R. W. Stott, The Message of Thessalonians, BST (IVP, 1991).

L. Morris, The Epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians, TNTC (IVP/UK/Eerdmans, 1977).

———, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, NICNT (Eerdmans, 1977).

F. F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, WBC (Word, 1982).

I. H. Marshall, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, NCB (Eerdmans, 1983).

cf. compare

BST The Bible Speaks Today

TNTC Tyndale New Testament Commentary

NICNT The New International Commentary on the New Testament

WBC Word Biblical Commentary

NCB New Century Bible

Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (2 Tes 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.