Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

While the authorship of 2 Thessalonians is questioned by many scholars, interpreting the letter in light of Paul’s thought world, particularly in relation to 1 Thessalonians, is necessary for the purpose of preaching.

Luke 19:4
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November 3, 2019

Second Reading
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Commentary on 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

While the authorship of 2 Thessalonians is questioned by many scholars, interpreting the letter in light of Paul’s thought world, particularly in relation to 1 Thessalonians, is necessary for the purpose of preaching.

The opening salutation of 2 Thessalonians (sender, recipient, and greeting) is almost identical to that of 1 Thessalonians. 2 Thessalonians follows the language and form of 1 Thessalonians, including a prayer of extended thanksgiving.

One of the chief reasons that the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians is challenged is because of the inconsistency between its account of the end-time and that of 1 Thessalonians. For example, unlike 1 Thessalonians (4:13—5:3), 2 Thessalonians seems to entail a schedule of end-time events (2:1-12). Since our lection selects only 1:1-4 and verses 11-12 but does not include the content in the middle, which illustrates the final judgment “on that day” of Christ’s coming (1:10), preachers may not feel a need to address the difficult topic of eschatology. Yet, the affirmative tone of thanksgiving arises from the situation of suffering of the Christian believers, which Paul (along with Silvanus and Timothy) relates to their salvation on the day of the judgment. 

Observing the following structure helps us see how these themes (thanksgiving—suffering—end times) are related.

  • 2 Thessalonians 1:3 We must (opheilomen) always give thanks to God for you brothers and sisters… (because of your faith and love in the midst of suffering).
  • 1:5-12 The judgment at Christ’s coming
  • 1:11-12 … we always pray for you, asking that God will … fulfill work of faith…
  • 2:1-12 The time before the end
  • 2:13 We must always give thanks to God for you brothers and sisters… (because God chose you for salvation).

Paul does not express the obligation of thanksgiving in any other letters. This derives from the Thessalonians growing faith and increasing love, which stems from their response to persecutions and afflictions.

In his extended thanksgiving and prayers in 1 Thessalonians, Paul remembers their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3). While 1 Thessalonians explicitly indicates the hope for Christ’s coming (parousia, 2:19; 5:8), the term “hope” is missing from the usual triad of faith, love, and hope in 2 Thessalonians 1:3.

However, “hope” is not only dispersed throughout the eschatological discourse (2 Thessalonians 1:5-12; 2:1-12; see also 2:16), it can also be seen as interchangeable with “steadfastness” or “endurance” (hypomone) as found in 1:4 and elsewhere in Paul’s other letters (Romans 5:3-4; 8:25; 2 Corinthians 1:6; 6:4). These passages often describe the conditions of affliction, tribulation, and suffering in which Paul puts together faith-love-hope, endurance, comfort, and salvation, which also appear in the following and other passages of 2 Thessalonians: 

  • 1:4 Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.
  • 2:6 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope.
  • 3:5 May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.

So how does this apply to preaching this text?

  • First, the source of faith, love, and hope is God and Jesus Christ.
  • Second, faith, love, and hope are not abstract or inward dispositions but manifest in the everyday life of believers through their “work,” “labor,” and “endurance” of suffering, which work together, for example, in the form of “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).
  • Third, the practice of faith, love, and hope is not personal but communal, as Paul boasts of the believers in Thessalonica among the churches of God. Accordingly, suffering is their collective experience.
  • Last, although our text seems to limit “the love of every one” to “one another,” as is required in the extreme circumstance of persecutions and afflictions (2 Thessalonians 1:3-4), Paul prayed in his previous letter, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all…” (1 Thessalonians 3:12).

Preachers may find it difficult to apply these messages in the context of today’s church, especially when it is not directly experiencing persecution or suffering. Yet, we are reminded of the exclusion, hatred, and persecutions that certain members of the church of God have to endure today not only because of their faith but also because of their minority positions in their society.

Suffering of the oppressed must not be justified for any reason, because God is a God of justice, who will punish oppressors and comfort the afflicted (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). The imagined future of God’s justice in the face of the persistence of evil can be seen as going beyond the persecution of believers to broader experiences of oppression and evil.

If your church consists of mostly privileged members, you may reflect on what God’s calling is. It is God who makes “you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering” (2 Thessalonians 1:5) and who will make “you worthy of God’s call and will fulfill every good resolve and work of faith by God’s power” (1:11). Paul goes on to say, God “called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2:14). Likewise, preachers can proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ for those who suffer today and call on the believers to do work of faith and labor of love in solidarity with the afflicted.

Only those who see the reality of suffering of our neighbors and creation and take part in the suffering are able to hope for redemption (Romans 8:18-25). Despite the imagery of the final judgment and apocalyptic scenarios that seems predominant in 2 Thessalonians, the future of God’s justice and glory invites us to embody the hope of salvation so that the glory of Christ manifest in us—in our work of faith and our labor of love which are fulfilled by God (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12).