Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Flyover Country: 2 Thessalonians

The day of the Lord remains a touchy subject among Christians. Some believers (I among them) look for its fulfillment at a future date. Others insist it occurred in A.D. 70 at the destruction of Jerusalem.

The book of 2 Thessalonians is part of this ongoing discussion, though not directly. Because it was written prior to A.D. 70, it cannot possibly settle the matter beyond dispute. When the apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, both purported “fulfillments” were still future.

And yet, even well before A.D. 70, some Christians were claiming the day of the Lord had already come. That is the error Paul’s second letter was written to refute.

Let’s have a quick look then.

One Sentence Summary: Correcting an error concerning the timing and impact of the return of Christ on the unbelieving world.

Background

Paul’s second letter to Thessalonica was written six months to a year after the first, probably in Corinth and probably around A.D. 52, making it the fourth NT epistle (Galatians and James also precede it). It is very nearly a postscript to his first letter, providing clarification and reinforcement on a question that had since arisen about the timing of the day of the Lord. It is possible that Silas and Timothy returned from delivering 1 Thessalonians with news of the false teaching that spurred this urgent corrective.

By my count, 20 of the book’s short-and-sweet 47 verses could reasonably be called “eschatological”. The rest is personal or practical.

The Day of the Lord

Paul’s two letters to Thessalonica have similar themes, but where 1 Thessalonians is primarily concerned with the impact of the day of the Lord (in all its various aspects) on believers, Paul’s second letter is more concerned with the impact of the day of the Lord with respect to the unsaved.

When he mentions the Day in his first letter, it is with reference to the church: “You are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief,” and he goes on to explain that the church’s job is to live as if we are already on the side of the Judge, as opposed to objects of his coming judgment. “God has not destined us for wrath.”

But when he mentions the Day in his second letter, it is primarily with reference to the unsaved, though there are of course always implications for the church. “The mystery of lawlessness is already at work.” God will send those who are perishing a strong delusion to ensure their final condemnation. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction.

Implications for the Churches

The first implication for the Thessalonian believers (and others) is doctrinal: the apostle would not want them to waste time debating the inaccurate eschatology others were teaching them: “Let no one deceive you in any way.” Paul does not want the Lord’s people “shaken” or “alarmed”. It is appropriate that children of God have at least a basic knowledge of their Father’s plans. The question of whether they might be lost rather than saved in that day is not even on the table.

The second implication is practical: the day of the Lord is the time in which God intends “to grant relief to you who are afflicted ... when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven,” to vindicate his people (“to repay with affliction those who afflict you”), and to publicize his relationship with them for the world to see (“when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints”). It is a message of hope, not fear.

Organization and Content

The book is comprised of three short chapters in typical Pauline style, beginning with introductory greetings and personal remarks, and ending with a benediction.

In between these sets of “bookends” are seven subject divisions in four groups:
  1. ch1 v3-4 rejoice in the spiritual progress of the Thessalonian believers.
  2. v5-10 tie that progress into the coming implementation of the kingdom of God, making general remarks about the vindication of the saints and judgment of the wicked which probably reinforced the teaching he had already given them.
  3. v11-12 are concerned with Paul’s ongoing aspiration for them, that they would be ready for that day when it comes.
  4. * * * * *
  5. ch2 v1-12 is the “meat” of the epistle, providing clarification on the subject of the day of the Lord and its timing, specifically that Christians could not possibly accidentally miss it. It had not already occurred, and nobody should think that it had, regardless of the “authority” that insisted upon it.
  6. * * * * *
  7. v13-17 are back to thanksgiving and aspiration for their comfort and hope.
  8. ch3 v1-5 are a request for prayer and an expression of confidence in them.
  9. * * * * *
  10. Finally, v6-15 are the practical application of the prophetic teaching in chapter 2: if the day of the Lord has not yet come, then his readers ought to live lives consistent with their hope. They are to be productive people doing good to others. In particular, idleness is not to be tolerated.
Value to Modern Readers

Well, unless you are a radical Preterist or one of those vaguely religious people who simply doesn’t give a lot of thought to what the Bible says about the future, you are probably persuaded that the day of the Lord still hasn’t come. I would tend to agree with you.

Accordingly, apart from the personal details which are specific to first century Thessalonica, everything in this letter applies to those who profess to follow Christ today.

Their hope remains our hope, and if they were to work diligently in view of the coming kingdom, how much more ought we, who are living that much closer to its coming, to do the same?

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