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How to Read the Bible Book by Book: 2 Thessalonians

2 Thessalonians 2:1-2: “Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come.

It is not known how much time elapsed between the writing of 1 Thessalonians and 2 Thessalonians, but it is thought that it was only a matter of months. Paul appears to have written both letters during the 18 months that he spent in Corinth. Paul would not have been that far away from them during this time, so it would have been easy to send correspondence up to them. He has concern for this new church—a church that he only got to spend a few weeks, or a few months at most, before he was forced to move on because of opposition and trouble. The church continued to face persecution after Paul and his companions left, so you can imagine how Paul worries about them.

In this second letter, there is a new threat to their peace and well-being—that of false teachers. Unlike other letters that Paul writes, the false teachers in Thessalonica are not Jewish legalists trying to force the law upon the new believers, though perhaps some of that took place as well. But in Thessalonica, the main threat of false teaching seems to be around the subject of the return of Christ. Some are saying that they have already entered into the period of judgment known as “the Day of the Lord,” and this explains why they are suffering persecution. In the letter, Paul writes to address three things specifically: first, he encourages them to remain faithful in the persecution; second, he wants to correct their misunderstanding about the Day of the Lord, and third, he warns the idle who have stopped working in anticipation of Christ’s return. These three subjects break nicely into the three chapters of the letter.

Chapter one primarily deals with their ongoing suffering of persecution. Paul wants them to know that he continually thanks God for them because he knows that their love for one another has grown more and more, even as they face this terrible suffering. Perhaps it is the suffering itself that binds them to one another so deeply. Mutual suffering often has that effect. Paul speaks of how he can boast to other churches about them, because they serve as a fine example of how to endure in difficult circumstances.

But even as he holds them up as a model, he wants them to know that their faithfulness is also a sign to their enemies. God is just. A time is coming when he will pay back those who have brought suffering upon his people. He will give trouble to those who have troubled them. This will all take place on the day that the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven. At that time, he will punish those who do not know God and have not obeyed the gospel. Paul says they will be paid back with “everlasting destruction,” or more literally, “the destruction of the age to come.” They will be shut out from the Lord’s presence and from his glory, while God’s own people will then be glorified. It is Paul’s most definitive statement on what will happen to the wicked. It is a chilling picture, to say the least. But for a people who are being harshly persecuted, it is also a picture of comfort.

In chapter two Paul then turns his attention to false teaching. Apparently, there were those who had either risen up among their own ranks, or had come in from the outside, who were claiming that they were already in that period of time known as “the Day of the Lord.” Remember from our study of 1Thessalonians that the day of the Lord is a reference to God’s judgment. While it is called a “day,” it always represents a period of time in which God unleashes his punishment on people who have not been obedient to him. This happened to Israel and Judah in the Old Testament, as well as on Gentile nations like Assyria, Babylon, Edom, and Egypt.

All those previous Days of the Lord are merely a foreshadow of the great and final Day of the Lord that will fall upon the whole earth at the close of the age. It will consist of a period when God unleashes his wrath on the globe in a similar way that he unleashed his plagues on Egypt before delivering the Israelites. It appears that some in Thessalonica were claiming that this day of wrath was already under way, and the suffering they endured was part of God’s judgment.

But Paul is writing to reassure them that such a thing is not the case. If some are claiming this is what Paul teaches, he is now clearing the record. The Day of the Lord has not arrived yet. According to Paul, some definitive things must happen before the Day of the Lord arrives. Primary among them is the rise of one who is called “the man of lawlessness.” Who is this man? There is a lot of mystery surrounding this because he is not spoken of often in the New Testament. Second Thessalonians presents him as the man of lawlessness; 1st John speaks of how they have heard that there is an “anti-Christ” who is to come; the book of Revelation speaks of a beast who rises to world power. They all speak of the same reality, though each one of them is veiled and mysterious. Paul speaks of several things that will identify this man. He will exalt himself as a god. He will demand worship from the people. And he will manifest himself as Satan often does…as a worker of light who is actually a deceiver and a liar. Even though such a person has not appeared, even to this day, perhaps we can recognize the spirit of such a one, as there is now present in Western society a belief that secular values are more moral than traditional Christian values. Because that is true, it is not hard to see how such a person could arise who presents himself as the solution to humanity’s problems—one who claims to have a superior morality than that of Christ and Christians.

Whether things manifest in that way or not, the point of Paul’s discussion in chapter 2 to is to say, “such a man has not arisen yet; and because that is true, you can be confident the period of the day of the Lord has not yet arrived.” The same would be equally true today.

In chapter three, Paul then turns his attention to those in the community who are idle and refusing to work. It looks as if the teaching about the imminent return of Christ had led some to give up the struggle of a daily living and were living off the generosity of other church members. Paul will have nothing of this. If people do not work, they will not eat. After all, even when Paul and his companions came among them to teach and evangelize, they did not depend upon the generosity of the saints there in Thessalonica but worked to provide for themselves. If Paul was not willing to live off their generosity, then neither should those who are idle.

Second Thessalonians is a small letter and is often neglected in our churches because of its controversial subject matter. But there are good things here for the believer to receive and reflect on. The Day of the Lord draws ever nearer, and so also may difficult times. But like them, we are sustained by our faith in Christ and our love for one another.

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