Sunday, April 05, 2020

2 Thessalonians 1 (Explanatory Notes)

I have a life goal of following in Wesley's steps and self-publishing Explanatory Notes on the whole Bible. I have a fair amount already on the New Testament and published Galatians some time ago. I've also had notes on 1 Thessalonians done for years.

I have a podcast/video series every week I call, "Through the Bible in Ten Years." My Thessalonians videos are in a playlist there. Thus far I've been through the Gospel of Mark and most of Acts. This week I begin 2 Thessalonians. But I've never done Explanatory Notes on 2 Thessalonians.

So here goes. I'll do the chapters first and the introduction at the end.
Prescript (1:1-2)
1:1 Paul and Silas 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.

The authors of 2 Thessalonians are the same as that of 1 Thessalonians, giving us the immediate impression that this letter was written in the same time frame as the earlier letter. Paul, Silas, and Timothy were together on Paul's second missionary journey. We do not see Silas mentioned on any later letters of Paul other than 1 and 2 Thessalonians. We would then guess that 2 Thessalonians was written from Corinth to Thessalonica around the years AD50-51. [1]

As we mentioned in the introduction, the order of the Thessalonian letters is open for discussion. 1 Thessalonians was put first because it is longer than 2 Thessalonians. It would thus be possible that 2 Thessalonians was written first, and it has been suggested. However, most scholars have concluded that this order is in fact the order in which they were written.

The same comments we made about the greeting of 1 Thessalonians thus apply here. This is the prescript, a standard letter greeting. The greeting of "grace and peace" potentially embodied the unity between Jew and Gentile that stood at the heart of Paul's mission theology.

A quick comparison between the greetings of 2 Thessalonians and 1 Thessalonians show a very strong similarity. In general, this is not surprising. However, the similarity may go beyond what we would expect unless there was some degree of copying going on. We will return to this question.

A singular church is addressed again. The default interpretation would thus suggest that there is one major house church in the city that consisted of perhaps 40-50 people. There may of course have been smaller cell groups within this overall "assembly."

[1] As we said in the introduction, if the implied setting of 2 Thessalonians were to differ noticeably from the Corinthian time frame, we might wonder if something more is going on here than what appears.

1:3 We ought to give thanks to God always concerning you, brothers [and sisters], just as is worthy, because your faith is exploding and the love of each one of all you multiplying toward one another, 4 with the result that we ourselves boast in you in the assemblies of God about your endurance and faith among all your persecutions and the tribulations that you are bearing.

Again, a thanksgiving section was common in ancient letters. We should not take the common features of Paul's thanksgiving sections as an argument against his genuine feeling for his churches or his actual prayers for them. He gives thanks for some of the same things mentioned in 1 Thessalonians 1--their faith and love.

As mentioned in the introduction, the similarity to 1 Thessalonians, although with some different words, is something to observe. We speculated in the introduction that perhaps Silas or Timothy had more to do with the writing of 2 Thessalonians than Paul. We speculated that perhaps one of them stuck closely to the content of 1 Thessalonians in keeping with the overall purpose of the letter. Whether this speculation is true or not, we note here the similarities between the two letters.

We get the impression that their faith and love have grown since the writing of 1 Thessalonians. They are on the same path and trajectory. Persecution has not diminished their faith and love, only increased it.

They have become a source of boasting for Paul, Silas, and Timothy. Paul had mentioned boasting in them in 2 Thessalonians 2:19. They bring him honor before Christ, like a parent is proud of one of their children.

We certainly get the feeling that the level of persecution has increased for the church at Thessalonica. No mention is made of what group might be doing so. Since the church was predominantly Gentile, we doubt that their persecution comes from Jews in the city. They probably have little to do with the synagogues of the city.

It seems more likely that they would encounter resistance from the city leadership in general, remembering that the Christian gospel was potentially subversive. It proclaimed a different king than Caesar and the immanent upheaval of the current world order! Paul himself apparently set the city on this trajectory, since it was the city not the Jews who had the power to force him to leave. 

The "churches of God" are the "assemblies of God." They are the collection of all the house churches meeting all over the world. There are as yet no church buildings.

5 [It is a] demonstration of the righteous judgment of God so that you might be deemed worthy of the kingdom of God, on behalf of which you also suffer, 6 since it is right for God to repay with oppression those who are oppressing us 

Persecution for Christ both confirms the impending judgment on those who do the persecution and confirms the righteousness of those who are persecuted. Note the importance throughout Paul's writings of the worthiness of God's people when Jesus returns. Paul insists that Jesus-followers live in a manner worthy of the gospel (e.g., Phil. 1:27).

There was no contradiction in Paul's mind between faith and works. Works might not be a basis for justification, but once you had received the Spirit, both faith and a worthy life were normative. The works that were impossible without the Spirit were now indicative of the Spirit.

We note that judgment is not contrary to God's character as love. In this case, judgment is the demonstration of God's love toward the persecuted. Loving judgment protects the innocent and restores order to the world by removing the instruments of evil. 

7 and relief to you who are being oppressed, along with us, at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from [the] sky with the angels of his power. 8 "with fire of flame, giving judgment to those who do not know God" [2] and to those who are not obedience to the gospel of our Lord Jesus, 

While 1 Thessalonians 1 speaks of the arrival, the "parousia" of Jesus, 2 Thessalonians speaks of the revelation of Jesus, the "apocalypse" of Jesus. Revelation of this sort is the unveiling of that which has been hidden. It is the unveiling of the heavenly, spiritual realm, the breaking in of heaven into earth.

1 Thessalonians 4-5 do not focus on the judgment of those on the earth but on the salvation of those in Christ. 1 Thessalonians 5:9 alluded to the judgment of those who are not "snatched up" to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thess. 4:17). But we indicated in our notes on that chapter that the saved were probably not joining Christ merely to go party forever. 1 Corinthians 6:2-3 suggest that the meeting in the air is in preparation for judgment.

These verses give greater clarity on what happens to the world after those in Christ are removed. King Jesus, his powerful angels, the dead in Christ, and the still alive in Christ will proceed to finalize the arrival of the kingdom of God. The kingdom that had come near and was inaugurated in Jesus's earthly ministry will now be consummated. God's kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven.

Verse 8 alludes perhaps to two or three Scriptures in the Old Testament. Psalm 79:6 speaks of God pouring out his anger on those who do not know God. Jeremiah 10:25 also speaks of God coming in judgment on those who do not know him. Isaiah 66:15 speaks of the LORD coming back in fire, rebuking the earth with flames of fire.

The Isaiah passage is particularly interesting because it is in the context of the restoration of Jerusalem. Part of this restoration is the destruction of those that oppress it. This allusion may be significant as we move into 2 Thessalonians 2.

9 who will suffer justice, eternal destruction "from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his strength" [3] 10 whenever he should come to be glorified among his holy ones and to be marveled at among all who have faith, because, on that day, our witness was believed among you. 

1:9 does not specify the nature of eternal destruction. Indeed, Paul has almost nothing to say about the fate of those who are not in Christ. Eternal destruction could of course refer to eternal punishment, but it could also in theory refer to eternal annihilation. If the allusion to Isaiah 66 continues here, it is noteworthy that Isaiah 66:24 speaks of the worm not dying and the flame not being quenched among the dead bodies of those who rebelled against God. [3]

Paul also seems to allude to Isaiah 2 here. Isaiah 2:19 and 21 both speak of running from the glory of God's majesty. People hide in the crags of rocks and in caves trying to get away from judgment. His holy ones or "saints" are those who have faith. They are holy because they are set apart to God. It all started when they believed (had faith in, trusted in) the witness that Paul brought to King Jesus.

In my opinion, any image of vindictiveness is anthropomorphic. It is uses human anger in justice to picture the finality and definitiveness of judgment. It is the end of all that opposes God. It is the removal of that which harms the righteous because of God's love for them. It is the protection of the innocent. It is the setting of everything right in the world.

[3] This image from Isaiah 66 is also used in Mark 9:48.

11 For which also we pray always concerning you in order that our God might might deem you worthy of election and might fulfill every good pleasure of goodness and work of faith with power, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus might be glorified among you and you in him, according to the grace of our God and [the] Lord Jesus Christ.

The Thanksgiving section continues. The theme of worthiness also continues, although there is no hint at all that the Thessalonians have been unworthy. It is simply the case that Paul, Silas, and Timothy believe that a person must be worthy when Christ returns in judgment.

Notice that one must be worthy of election (cf. 2 Peter 1:10). This is not what we would expect Paul to say if election implied worthiness. That is to say, in the system of John Calvin, those who are elect will certainly prove to be worthy, for it is completely a matter of God's choosing. Paul's wording suggests that it is exactly the opposite. Election is conditional upon our faithfulness. This faithfulness is God-empowered, but it requires an act of our will.

The phrase, "work of faith" also appeared in 1 Thessalonians. It once again demonstrates that Paul knows no dichotomy between these two concepts. Our worthiness brings honor and glory to God even though it is empowered by his grace. The power is God's unmerited gift, although it requires our act of faith.

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