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New Testament: 2 Thessalonians

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Summary

Saint PaulWritten to a community of believers beset from without by persecution and from within by misunderstanding, the letter gives instruction about living faithfully in light of Jesus' promised return. Promises, correction, and encouragement aim to comfort the church and strengthen its members' ability to withstand their current crises. Those who endure will be vindicated, because God is just. The day of the Lord has not yet come for it must follow a time of rebellion against God and the revealing of "the lawless one." Disruptively idle Christians damage the fellowship of believers and its ability to embody the gospel in the world.

So What?

Amid the traumas wrought by persecution against people of faith and the destructive reality of evil, 2 Thessalonians insists that God is just and that faithful living will result in glory being ascribed to Jesus Christ. The sometimes harsh and dire language of this letter continues to remind Christians in perilous circumstances that the church's witness is of utmost importance, that faithful obedience is part of the calling that God empowers believers to fulfill. The book presses readers of every age to consider what it means for them to live in light of the promise that Christ will return.

Where Do I Find It?

The Second Letter to the Thessalonians is the fourteenth book in the New Testament. Adjacent to 1 Thessalonians, it stands in the midst of the "Pauline corpus," the collection of letters attributed to the Apostle Paul (the books of Romans through Philemon).

Who Wrote It?

The opening words of 2 Thessalonians identify its authors as the coworkers Paul, Silvanus (identified as Silas in the book of Acts), and Timothy, and the letter's penultimate verse claims to come from Paul's own hand. However, pivotal interpretive issues--particularly the curious relationship between the format and content of this epistle and 1 Thessalonians--give good reason to suppose that 2 Thessalonians was composed by an unknown person writing in a later generation in the name of Paul and his colleagues.

When Was It Written?

Determining when this letter was written relates to determining who wrote it and what was taking place among the addressees. If Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy wrote it soon after 1 Thessalonians, that would place it in the mid 50s. If an admirer of Paul wrote it at a later time and invoked the apostle's reputation to address new circumstances, it likely comes from between 80 and 100 C.E.

What's It About?

The letter tells a community of Christians facing persecution to cling to what they have previously been taught, to refrain from disorderly behavior, and to wait faithfully for the return of Jesus Christ.

How Do I Read It?

This letter speaks sharply about vengeance, punishment, evil, and exclusion. Its harsh language can shock readers who do not live in places where Christians experience persecution or who question whether assurances of retribution can really bring comfort to the afflicted. Read 2 Thessalonians in light of other biblical books' teaching about the end time and with eyes to imagine how the gospel gives assurance to embattled and vulnerable communities of faith. Consider how language of "grace" and "peace" (1:2; 3:16-18) also shapes the letter.

AUTHOR: Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament

I. Introduction (2 Thessalonians 1:1-12)
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy greet the Thessalonian church, thank God for the Thessalonians' faith and love, and assure believers that their faithful endurance of persecution will result in Christ being glorified and the punishment of those who afflict them.

II. On the Coming of the Lord (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12)
Refuting suggestions that the day of the Lord has already come or begun to be manifested, the letter asserts that Christ will return after a period of rebellion and lawlessness that will include the revealing of "the lawless one."

III. Prayers and Appeals (2 Thessalonians 2:13-3:5)
As they pray for the Thessalonians and ask for their prayers, the letter's authors encourage their readers to stand firm in the teachings and traditions that they have previously received from Paul and his associates.

IV. Strict Warnings against Idleness and Disobedience (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15)
The letter strongly criticizes believers who have stopped working or neglected responsible behavior and instructs other Christians to avoid them and their disruptive patterns of idleness.

V. Concluding Words and Benediction (2 Thessalonians 3:16-18)
The conclusion pronounces a blessing of the Lord's peace and grace, then offers a final greeting that claims to come directly from Paul's own hand.

AUTHOR: Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament

The letter itself offers no plain references to Paul's travels or other discrete historical events, making it practically impossible to determine either the date of its origin or the specific historical circumstances to which it speaks. From beginning to end, the epistle paints a picture of a Christian community at risk of fracturing because of intense persecution. Although there is no description of the precise nature of the calamities that beset this community, 2 Thessalonians indicates that the travails are causing serious problems. One of these is that some of the church's members have become anxiously speculative about the timing of the "day of the Lord" and Christ's return. Their misunderstandings have provoked fear and alarm (2:1-2). Another problem is that some people, perhaps out of their conviction that Christ's coming is immediately imminent, have ceased working and thereby endangered the church's ability to function as a community (3:6-15). In response to the particular crisis, the letter points its readers back to "traditions," instructions previously given by Paul and his coworkers concerning Christ's coming and the proper practice of Christian ministry (2:15; 3:6). The appeals to these traditions may indicate that debate rages over conflicting understandings of Paul's teaching, perhaps because the church has received spurious communications that claimed to be either directly from Paul or consistent with his prior instructions (2:2-3, 15; 3:17). Whatever the specifics of the circumstances that give rise to this letter, it responds to the crisis by calling the community to close ranks and protect itself against threats through continued faithfulness to the message of the gospel. The letter assumes that the church can persevere because God provides the power to endure, as a fulfillment of God's "call" to believers (1:11-12).

AUTHOR: Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament

  • Authorship. The structure of 2 Thessalonians and the topics it addresses closely resemble the structure and topics of 1 Thessalonians, yet the two books appear to speak to two starkly different sets of circumstances, especially as they address believers' outlooks on the return of Christ. Some interpreters, therefore, conclude that Paul (or one of his associates, Silvanus or Timothy) recalled 1 Thessalonians when composing this letter. This position supposes that Paul deliberately mimicked the format of the earlier letter as he wrote to address changes that had suddenly come upon the Thessalonian Christians, caused by an intensification of persecution or perhaps by misunderstandings of his previous teachings. Other interpreters, however, consider the two letters' perspectives on "the day of the Lord" to be so radically different that they must have come from different generations. This would suggest that someone, writing after Paul's death, imitated the style of 1 Thessalonians to speak to a new state of affairs in Thessalonica (or elsewhere) from a Pauline perspective, drawing upon the weight of Paul's authority and renown. New Testament scholars are deeply divided over this issue and whether a later author might have been deceptively writing in Paul's name or candidly addressing his audience in a way that merely claimed his words were continuous with Paul's legacy. Another possibility, although supported by just a small number of interpreters, is that 2 Thessalonians was actually written prior to 1 Thessalonians. Because of scholars' disagreements about how to relate this book to 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians belongs among the "disputed" letters attributed to Paul. Those who conclude that Paul or one of his contemporary associates wrote 2 Thessalonians point to verses that express anxiety about letters that falsely claim to be from Paul (2:2; 3:17). Why would anyone beside Paul write such things unless in an effort to deceive readers? Those who propose that 2 Thessalonians comes from someone writing a generation after Paul emphasize the differences between the letters' literary styles and theological outlooks. The question of who wrote 2 Thessalonians resists an easy answer. As with all of the disputed epistles, no single piece of evidence is decisive; readers must carefully interpret the entire letter before they can consider the data and reach a conclusion.
  • A harsh and vindictive letter? A comparison of the two letters may suggest that 2 Thessalonians lacks the pastoral warmth that so pervades 1 Thessalonians. Some interpreters take this as one among several indications that 2 Thessalonians comes from a later generation. None of the undisputed Pauline epistles makes promises about opponents facing divine retribution as a means of reassuring beleaguered believers. Yet it may be the case that Paul considers the Thessalonians' circumstances to be so dire as to warrant such language. In any case, the book's tone presses the question of how the gospel leads believers to regard those who are outside of their fellowship. Even though this letter may be less tender than 1 Thessalonians, and no matter who wrote it, it remains loaded with concern for its audience. Numerous prayers, encouragements, and benedictions (1:1-4; 2:13-17; 3:5, 16-18) convey a pastoral perspective.
  • Identities of "the lawless one" and "what is now restraining him." The description of apostasy, lawlessness, and deception that must assail the world before Jesus Christ returns (2:3-10) has confused interpreters since ancient times. The letter reads as if its original audience might have understood who or what are the forces mentioned in this passage, as if they were active participants in the sociopolitical landscape of the first century; if so, their exact identities are no longer apparent. In any case, the brevity and incoherence of the passage should be an encouragement not to treat it as a roadmap or codebook for discerning the precise conditions that will announce Christ's return.
  • The relationship between 2 Thessalonians and 1 Thessalonians. Despite differences in the vocabulary they use, the two letters speak in similar voices, as if one imitates the other's style and wording. For example, each begins and ends with an almost identical sentence (1 Thessalonians 1:1; 5:28; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-2; 3:18), each contains a long statement giving thanks to God for the Thessalonians' reputation for persevering in faith and love despite persecution (1 Thessalonians 1:2-10; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12), and each includes an appeal for the Lord to strengthen the hearts of the addressees (1 Thessalonians 3:13; 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17). The two letters also speak to the same themes, although from differing perspectives and with different rhetoric. For example, both speak about dealing with troublemakers within the community of faith, with 1 Thessalonians briefly calling for people to admonish "idlers" who create disorder (5:14). By contrast, a comparatively long portion of 2 Thessalonians rails against "believers who are living in idleness" and calls on other Christians to shun such people on account of their disruptive behavior (3:6-15). The complex relationship between the two letters makes it all the more important and interesting to read them in light of each other and to consider their distinctive contributions.
  • Waiting for the coming day of the Lord. First Thessalonians tells its readers that Jesus' return is imminent, but will nevertheless come with an element of surprise, "like a thief in the night." Second Thessalonians 2:1-12 offers a substantially different outlook. It tempers any expectation of immediacy. The letter counsels against speculation "to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here" (2:2) or that this day is in the process of manifesting itself. Chapter 2 also deemphasizes the element of surprise by suggesting that a sequence of calamitous events (rebellion, the emergence of "the lawless one," and assaults on the truth) must precede the coming of Jesus Christ. These teachings aim to curb readers' strong, reckless enthusiasm about Jesus' return. Given the audience's experiences of persecution, it is easy to imagine how people might be especially eager. They are told, however, that more distress is yet to come.

AUTHOR: Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament

  • Idleness. Idle behavior is condemned, not because inactivity is contrary to the gospel, but because it needlessly disrupts the life and work of the persecuted community of faith (3:10-15). Evangelists who do not support themselves do not conform to the pattern of the apostles' ministry (3:6-9) and may bring disrepute upon the gospel.
  • Jesus' second coming. The letter does not mention Jesus' death or resurrection but focuses on what he is yet to do when he will be "revealed from heaven" (1:7), vindicating believers and destroying evil. The description of Christ's return (1:5-2:12) acknowledges the reality of evil, reaffirms God's justice, and asserts Christ's supremacy over forces of lawlessness that will be annihilated merely by "the breath of his mouth" (2:8).
  • Persecution, vengeance, and eternal destruction. Assurances of retribution upon persecutors expand to encompass the destruction of those who do not know God or obey the gospel (1:6-10). In other books Paul speaks of Christ's return in terms of how it will benefit believers; 2 Thessalonians describes the event as bringing about the destruction of enemies, to declare that God will prove to be just, despite the proliferation of lawlessness in the world.

AUTHOR: Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament