The Bible - Book by Book - 2 Thessalonians
Modern scholarship frequently attributes the authorship of 2 Thessalonians to some unknown author. It is argued that 2 Thessalonians is too similar to 1 Thessalonians. It is also argued that it is more formal in tone. And that the view on the ‘signs’ of the end times are different, i.e. 1 Thessalonians views the end as coming suddenly and 2 Thessalonians views the end coming with a variety of events signaling the end. These objections are easily answered. The first two objections almost answer themselves. It is similar in content, but not too similar. The tone is different because Paul has already indicated his love for the church, and he doesn’t need to repeat all that in the second letter. As to the third objection, both views were often held in tension in Judaism. Many Old Testament prophecies speak of the end of time as being sudden and preceded by signs and events. It would only seem logical that Paul’s conception of this would mirror the Scriptures.
There are arguments that favor Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians. First, the letter says he authored it (2 Thess. 1:1). That alone should suffice, but if not, the early church universally attributed authorship to Paul. This was in spite of the fact that there were known forgeries of Paul’s letter circulating in Thessalonica (2:2, 3:17). The reasons to doubt Pauline authorship do not outweigh the reasons to accept Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians.
Probably very soon after Paul wrote his first letter to the Thessalonians, he penned the second. The context of his first letter was following his brief visit to Thessalonica in which a small but growing church was formed. Paul’s presence in the city began to disturb some and a riot broke out. Paul and Silas fled the city. Paul ends up in Corinth and sends his first letter via Timothy to the church in Thessalonica. Now, with this second letter, it does not appear that the circumstance in Thessalonica have changed much at all. So, much of 2 Thessalonians is a reiteration of the first letter with some new emphases.
Paul commends the Thessalonians for their continued spiritual growth in the face of persecution. Paul also deals with false information that had crept into the church about the return of Christ. And then he gives some instruction about the problem of idleness in the church.
The two main passages that are often discussed with 2 Thessalonians are the passage on the “Man of Lawlessness,” and the passage on idleness. Both of these relate to the issue of the coming of the Lord.
The Man of Lawlessness is an individual embodiment of evil. He is not Satan, but comes by the activity of Satan (2:9). This individual will deceive those who are “perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved” (2:10). They will believe what is false and be condemned in their error. The Man of Lawlessness will place himself as an object of worship (2:4). Though Paul does not use the term “Antichrist,” this Man of Lawlessness will be the opposite and antithesis of Christ.
Thought it appears that the Man of Lawlessness will wreak havoc on humanity, his fate is sealed. Paul portrays Jesus Christ as a divine warrior. The “Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming” (2:8). By his “mouth” is meant not just his words but also his power. Revelation connects the returning Christ’s mouth with the devastation of a battle sword (Rev 19:15). There is no need for believers to fear persecution and trial because Christ will return and vindicate his people. He will judge evil and punish wickedness.
The second passage deals with the problem of idleness because of the Second Coming. The wealthy in the church were supporting the poorer brothers and sisters. But the poorer were growing idle and not wanting to work. Paul mentions this problem in 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12; 5:14, but the problem has only gotten worse. Some did not work because they believed the return of Christ was so imminent that it didn’t matter what they did. Why labor when Jesus was coming back at any moment? This is the same wrong mindset that is often observed by end-times cults and prophets. While this was probably the presenting reason, the real reason was that they indulged in the sin of laziness.
Paul’s response to their idleness: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (3:10). There are times and places for assistance and alms. But laziness or bad theology are not reasons for financial help. But for those truly in need, the church has an obligation to support them. It would be easy for the church, frustrated by the lazy, to give up and declare, “We can’t support people. You’re on your own.” This would also be sin. Paul encourages, “brothers, do not grow weary in doing good” (3:13).
The church today should learn from Thessalonica. We should stand firm against the attacks of the evil one. We must encourage the idle and support the needy. And in the face of trials, we find hope in Paul’s prayer, “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” (2:16, 17). Amen.