One Hour – One Book: “The Second Letter to the Thessalonians”

beat upBeat up, confused and discouraged – these were the early believers of Thessalonica that Paul wrote. Here are some STUDENT NOTES that may help you study the letter more effectively.

The church barely got started, and was swamped with persecutors and problems – they needed confidence that God understood their problem.

One of the most powerful attacks of the enemy is PERSECUTION. It is not simply the act of beating down believers that he uses. He seeks to get believers stirred with a rage of injustice in order to get them to doubt God’s reality or perhaps question God’s true goodness. Troubles make us impatient at best, cynical at worst. This is an old ploy – and the enemy has used it since the beginning of the church. Because people are against your message does not mean that the message is wrong. It may mean their hearts are the problem. If you look closely, the condition of the attackers hearts will become apparent.

What was God’s answer? He offered comforting truths about the way He will deal in judgment. God is not unaware of the unfair attacks believers suffer – He simply awaits the proper time to respond. This is the nature of 2 Thessalonians 1. Be careful of being led away from sharing Jesus because of the injustice of an irrational lost world. It is a trick. Judgment will come in due course – but not until the last man, woman or child is reached by an obedient believer! If we allow ourselves to get stirred up, love will dissipate, and anger will suppress our call to obedience. In our world, wrong will be called right. God will be mocked. People will make outrageous charges against the people of the Truth – and allow others who are clearly sinister to walk by untouched. We must anticipate it, and we dare not allow ourselves to be distracted by it.

Some were shaken by a false letter and forged explanations of eschatology that were designed to throw them off track of following the truth – they needed clarification of what Paul already taught them.

A second attack that has been successfully used by the enemy is CONFUSION. Sometimes it is the muddling of false doctrine that emerges from improper use of the text of Scripture. Sometimes it is the elevation of false scripture – or the relentless charges against the true Word of God. Still other times, it is the misguided and poorly formed teaching of a wayward pulpit. After two thousand years, the enemy has played a role in all of these.

What was God’s answer? He offered in the letter some statements that were to make His follower recognize the voice of the Heavenly Shepherd, and follow Him alone. This is the sound found in 2 Thessalonians 2. Be careful to learn the Word in its context. Be careful to learn from sources that have been well grounded, and evidence properly living. No one is perfect, and no one’s understanding is complete – but there are clearly better sources and worse ones. Stay away from the flimsy and speculative – and be proactive about your growth in understanding of the Word.

Some were upset by undisciplined and disorderly Christians, who were not living the truth – they needed a charge to make certain their responses.

A third attack that is still common today is that of DISCOURAGEMENT. It is hard to serve God when you see so many believers that act as bad as the world! Paul ascribes the bad behavior the saw in the wayward as undisciplined behavior. He didn’t simply call them lazy, he argued that proper disciplines in life that were essential to obedience were simply lacking – and that resulted in dependencies on others that were not right.

What was God’s answer? The church needed to take external actions to make clear the unacceptable nature of the wayward believer’s individual choices. The body needed to instruct, correct and if need be, withdraw from them. Discouragement infects the body when it doesn’t know a response – and it therefore becomes a victim of the situation. If left alone, the body would be constantly weakened – sapped of resources and grumbling behind the scenes. The best way to deal with wrong is mark it out, and then make clear the proper boundaries and responses to it.

The letter has three parts:

Inspiration to Oppressed Christians (1)

2 Thessalonians 1:1 Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: 2 Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 3 We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is [only] fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows [ever] greater; 4 therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure. 5 [This is] a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you will be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering. 6 For after all it is [only] just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and [to give] relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, 8 dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, 10 when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed– for our testimony to you was believed. 11 To this end also we pray for you always, that our God will count you worthy of your calling, and fulfill every desire for goodness and the work of faith with power, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus will be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and [the] Lord Jesus Christ.

Instruction to Perplexed Christians (2)

2:1 Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, 2 that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. 3 Let no one in any way deceive you, for [it will not come] unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, 4 who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God. 5 Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things? 6 And you know what restrains him now, so that in his time he will be revealed. 7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains [will do so] until he is taken out of the way. 8 Then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming; 9 [that is], the one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, 10 and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. 11 For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, 12 in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness. 13 But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. 14 It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word [of mouth] or by letter from us. 16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal comfort and good hope by grace, 17 comfort and strengthen your hearts in every good work and word.

Injunctions to Disorderly Christians (3)

3:1 Finally, brethren, pray for us that the word of the Lord will spread rapidly and be glorified, just as [it did] also with you; 2 and that we will be rescued from perverse and evil men; for not all have faith. 3 But the Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen and protect you from the evil [one]. 4 We have confidence in the Lord concerning you, that you are doing and will [continue to] do what we command. 5 May the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and into the steadfastness of Christ. 6 Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we [kept] working night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you; 9 not because we do not have the right [to this], but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, so that you would follow our example. 10 For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either. 11 For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread. 13 But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary of doing good. 14 If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame. 15 [Yet] do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother. 16 Now may the Lord of peace Himself continually grant you peace in every circumstance. The Lord be with you all! 17 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand, and this is a distinguishing mark in every letter; this is the way I write. 18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

Acceptance of the Letter as Authentic

One of the critical debates a student of the Word today will face outside the halls of a Bible believing church is this: How do we know that what we have TRULY came from the Apostles and is our uncorrupted? The Bible is only the answer if we recognize its authority – and there are many voices that try to erode both its authority and its influence – even in some “Christian” circles. Bible believers tend to just “write off” the critics – but that does little to help prepare our youth to have their faith attacked in the public university, and now even in many a “Christian” college.

What do critics say about 2 Thessalonians, and how can their critiques be addressed?

Critical scholars have made arguments about whether Paul actually wrote the second letter to the Thessalonians. In fact, among the Bible’s critics, it is one of the least accepted books of the “corpus Paulinum”. For purposes of understanding the variety of critical scholars, it might be interesting to note that Epistles that are accepted by as Pauline include Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians and Galatians. Most, but not all, accept Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon as authentically Pauline in origin. More objections have been raised about Colossians – although it is still generally accepted as Pauline. From there, the scales tip against Pauline authorship in the minds of critical scholars. They find many objections in 2 Thessalonians, and even more in Ephesians. Perhaps the least accepted are the so-called Pastoral Epistles – 1, 2 Timothy and Titus. The reasons for their doubts vary, but it is worth offering some brief responses to their criticisms of the letter we are studying – 2 Thessalonians.

Fact: This letter had great acceptance and support in the earliest years of the faith.

We should recall that the earliest lists of the letters that are widely regarded INCLUDE the letter and do not challenge its legitimacy or authorship. These lists include both Marcion’s canon (c.144 CE) and the Muratorian canon (c.180 CE).

• In July, 144 CE, Marcion, (son of the bishop of Sinope who was a wealthy ship-owner), stood before the presbyters to defend his teachings. He was excommunicated and he began to use his money to spread a strand of Christianity that quickly took root in the Roman Empire and by the end of the 2nd century. His followers, called the Marcionites set up their church to defy the mainstream. He left only one single work, Antitheses (Contradictions), in which he set forth his ideas, but it was not wholly preserved. Scholars try to piece together its contents from the the writings of his theological opponents — particularly in Tertullian’s five volumes written against Marcion – Adversus Marcionem. The main points of Marcion’s teaching were the rejection of the Old Testament and a distinction between the Supreme God of goodness and an inferior God of justice, the God of the Jews. He regarded Christ as the messenger of the Supreme God. Marcion argued the Old and New Testaments were irreconcilable to each other. He accepted the following Christian writings in this order: Gospel according to Luke, Galatians, 1, 2 Corinthians, Romans, 1,2 Thessalonians, Ephesians (which Marcion called Laodiceans), Colossians, Philemon and Philippians – but even these had some things that needed to be adjusted. In his opinion the 12 apostles both misunderstood the teaching of Christ, (thinking Him to be the Messiah of the Jewish God) and falsified his words from that standpoint. He charged Judaizing interpolations had been introduced and he took them out – making his “authentic text” of the Gospel according to Luke into the “Evangelicon”, and his adapted ten Pauline letters into the “Apostolikon”.

Second Thessalonians is both quoted and named in the extant works of Irenaeus, and referenced by Ignatius, Justin Martyr, and Polycarp. The letter is included in the most ancient MSS (Latin, Syriac, and others), suggesting its full acceptance from the earliest times of the church. Don’t back up to frivolous charges like “Everyone knows they have proven these letters weren’t written by Paul!” There is no such PROOF, there are only recent academic opinions, and these were formed quite late in history. Early followers didn’t have these deep doubts.

What arguments are offered against the Pauline Authorship of the letter, and how can we pose some answers to these?

We could outline essentially five arguments that are often used to challenge the authenticity of this letter as from Paul’s own heart and quill.

First, there is what some see as a reversal in the eschatology of Paul from his previous letter to them. Some think this letter argues the Lord’s return is not imminent because there are signs that precede the Lord’s return. According to this argument, Paul’s authenticated work in 1 Thessalonians anticipated the Lord’s swift return, while 2 Thessalonians 2 seems to slow that down.

That appears an unfair evaluation in my view. Paul was facing a tricked and demoralized congregation, because of a fake set of messages that took what he wrote to be a comfort and turned it into pain. He wasn’t simply building on the last letter, he was calming them down from an attack. A careful look at the text shows that he was not fully explaining his position, but asking them to recall things he told them when he was with them (2:5,6). He withheld full explanation for brevity, to get the letter quickly to them and reassure them – snatching and revealing of the Man of Sin will precede the ending wrath of the “Day of the Lord”. A restraint will be removed, but it hadn’t happened yet.

Second, some cite linguistic features – that the language of the letter varied from Paul’s other writing. Here is the problem – such a comparison on only three chapters if very thin. If you took only three chapters of Romans, it may be possible to show that it was stylistically different than other parts of the same letter – because it was written over a period of time. I would suggest that the tone change may have to do with the rushed nature of the letter.

Akin to this argument is a third challenge by critics – the letter appears more formal in style than the earlier one. Again, I would argue that it was written under the duress of time, and sensitivity to a new type of attack on the congregation.

A fourth challenge has been raised about assumptions. To some it appears the readers were assumed to have a greater knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures than would be expected (in the view of the critic) of Roman Gentiles. This clarity of Gentile domination doesn’t take into account that many congregational leaders were likely Jews. The work began in a synagogue (Acts 17:1-10) and the leaders were likely chosen who knew much of God’s Word already (1 Tim. 3:6).

From an entirely different direction comes the claim of over similarity of his earlier letter. “Would Paul write twice to the same audience about the same topic?” some ask. This seems to ignore the stated reason for the letter – they were under attack and needed additional answers.

Date of writing

This letter was written between 50 and 54 CE near the end of the Second Mission Journey (closer to 54). It should certainly be dated very shortly after 1 Thessalonians, and is written with some urgency (cf. 2:1-3).

Paul was there for only three Sabbaths, and then forced to leave. He sent back messengers to checek on and correspond with the church. Since the Second Journey began in 50 CE or shortly after, and since the long part of the journey was the year and a half in Corinth, from which this letter was written, we suspect it was written in about 53 CE, the year before Emperor Claudius died.

Lessons of the Book

In chapter one, “Inspiration to Oppressed Christians” Paul spoke to those under attack and offered critical lessons:

How do believers take heart in persecution?

• Keep growing and know that your testimony is enhanced by the testing of persecution (1;3-5).
• Be settled in recognizing that God will deal with those who are hurting you (1:6).
• Recognize the timing of the Lord in regard to judgment (1:7-8).
• Remember that your suffering has an end, but their coming judgment does not end (1:9).
• Don’t forget the magnificent One is on His way! (1:10).
• Recall our prayers, that God will use your lives powerfully to glorify Jesus (1:11-12).

In chapter two, “Instruction to Perplexed Christians” Paul outlined the future:

Has God said clearly what our future holds? YES!

• Don’t think that the wrath of the “Day of the Lord” is what you are experiencing – it isn’t (2:1-2).
• Don’t be fooled – first is the “snatching” and then the “Man of Sin” is revealed (2:3).

The Greek noun “apostasia” is used twice in the New Testament (here and Acts 21:21 referencing Paul as ” teaching Jews among the Gentiles to forsake (apostasia) Moses.” The term is “apo” or from and “istemi” “stand” with a core meaning of “departure”. The Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon defines “apostasia” as either “a defection or revolt” or a “departure or disappearance.”

• Don’t forget! There is a restraint on the man of lawlessness’ revealing that will be removed before the end comes. (2:4-7). The influence is there, and the hunger to be revealed – but there is a God-ordained restraint upon him right now.
• Don’t be dismayed, Jesus will deal with his power! (2:8). The enemy will work, and God will dull minds, but it will all be dealt with in the coming judgment (2:9-12).
• Be thankful with us that God has called us to rescue and deliverance! (2:13-17)

In chapter three, “Injunctions to Disorderly Christians”, Paul explained how to deal with the unruly:

How should believers handle those who are wayward in the ranks?

• Back away from them during their disobedience (3:6).
• Keep walking in discipline and work hard (3:7).
• Don’t try to get things from others for free – work hard (3:8-10).
• Remember that people need productive work to do or they will multiply sins (3:11).
• Recognize that practical instruction is part of the work of the church (3:12).
• Don’t tire of doing right and walking in obedience (3:13-14a).
• If someone won’t follow the Word, mark them and admonish them in brotherly affection (3:14b-15).