In general things were still well among the Christians in Thessalonica. Nevertheless, they had heard some troubling news about the return of Jesus; some among them had abandoned all earthly responsibilities awaiting His return. For these reasons Paul wrote again to the Thessalonians.
Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians is the fourteenth book in modern editions of the New Testament. Paul, Silvanus (Silas), and Timothy are listed as its authors, but Paul’s is the primary voice (2 Thessalonians 1:1); 2 Thessalonians 3:17 may suggest Paul dictated it to an amanuensis. Many scholars cast aspersions on Paul’s authorship of 2 Thessalonians on the basis of perceived differences in style and theology; the former may be on account of the use of an amanuensis, and the latter begs the question. Early Christian testimony reinforces confidence in Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians; he likely wrote it not terribly long after 1 Thessalonians (ca. 51-52 CE), most likely from Corinth. Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians to address certain issues which had arisen in Thessalonica regarding the Lord’s return and how Christians should live in the meantime.
Having begun with a standard epistolary greeting (2 Thessalonians 1:1-2), Paul gave thanks for the faith and perseverance of the Thessalonian Christians (2 Thessalonians 1:3-4). As an aside Paul considered their sufferings as a token of God’s judgment; they were counted worthy of suffering for the Kingdom; God would repay the affliction of the oppressors on them on the day of Judgment, when the Lord returns to inflict vengeance on those who do not know God or obey the Gospel but be glorified by those who have expectantly awaited His return (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10). Thus Paul prayed for God to consider the Thessalonians worthy of their calling and Christ would be glorified in them (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12).
Paul then exhorted the Thessalonian Christians about the return of the Lord Jesus (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12). They should not be shaken in their minds by words or supposed letters from Paul suggesting the day of the Lord is immediately at hand (2 Thessalonians 2:1-3). The Lord would return only after a falling away and the revelation of the “man of sin,” the “son of perdition”: he opposed and exalted himself against God and set himself forth as God, as Paul had told them beforehand, and had explained what power restrained him until the time of his revelation (2 Thessalonians 2:4-6). The work of lawlessness was already at work; it only needed the one who restrained to be taken out of the way; then the lawless one would be revealed, empowered by Satan, deceiving those who would be deceived, whom Jesus would destroy at His coming; God sent the deceived their delusion, to believe the lie, to be judged and condemned on the final day (2 Thessalonians 2:7-12).
Paul gave thanks for the Thessalonian Christians since God chose them in the beginning for salvation and sanctification of the Spirit, having called them through the Gospel (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14). They should thus stand firm and hold fast to the traditions they had been taught; Paul prayed for God in Christ to comfort and establish them (2 Thessalonians 2:15-17). Paul solicited their prayers on his behalf to proclaim the Gospel and be delivered from unreasonable men; the Lord is faithful and will guard them, and Paul had confidence in the Thessalonians’ obedience (2 Thessalonians 3:1-5).
Paul then commanded the Thessalonian Christians to withdraw from Christians who did not walk according to the traditions given by him (2 Thessalonians 3:6). The Thessalonian Christians were given an example of how to live by Paul and his associates: they worked to provide bread for themselves, even though they had the right to draw support for them, and thus the Thessalonians were to work as well or not eat; Paul had heard that some of the Thessalonians had quit working and lived as busybodies; they are to work quietly and eat their own bread (2 Thessalonians 3:7-12). The Thessalonians were not to be weary in doing well; they were note those who proved disobedient to the letter, have no company with them, but not treat them as an opponent but to warn as a brother (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15). Having asked the Lord Jesus to give the Thessalonian Christians peace and writing a salutation in his own hand, Paul ended the letter with a standard epistolary conclusion (2 Thessalonians 3:16-18).
Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians often leaves us as many questions as it would answer, particularly in regards to the “man of sin” or the “lawless one.” Plenty have entered the gap and throughout time have offered plenty of suggestions as to whom Paul speaks; however we may seek to understand the “man of sin,” we must recognize that the “mystery of lawlessness” was already at work when Paul wrote to the Thessalonians (2 Thessalonians 2:7), and this “man of sin” must be comprehensible to the Thessalonian Christians since Paul spoke of him (2 Thessalonians 2:5). We do well to not miss Paul’s main premise: the Lord has yet to return; it will be evident when He returns; Christians are to live expectantly but to still work quietly and eat their own bread, entirely consistent with other things made known about the Lord’s return and the Christian life in the meantime.
Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians provides important insights into the questions and challenges experienced by Christians awaiting the Lord’s return. Some will say the Lord has already returned or will return in a very short time; some get so caught up in eschatological fervor as to cease living today. We do well to take Paul’s instruction to heart, recognize that the Lord will come at the right time, to live as if that moment may come at any time, but continue to live quietly and eat our own bread. May we stand firm in the Gospel as we await the Lord’s return!
Ethan R. Longhenry