Commentary on 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Most will know that scholars dispute Paul’s authorship of 2 Thessalonians. We should also note that, with few exceptions, decisions about authorship seem to have little impact on the interpretation of specific texts. For homiletical purposes, it seems wise to assume that the author is, or wants to be understood as if he were, Paul.
In so many ways the language at the beginning of this epistle is conventional. That is, it follows the conventions of ancient letter writing. We miss a lot, however, if we simply treat these verses as the New Testament’s version of boilerplate language.
For example, both 1 and 2 Thessalonians identify the recipients of the letter as “the church of the Thessalonians.” This is different from Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians and Philippians, which all address believers “in” a specific location. Even Galatians addresses the churches of Galatia, not of the Galatians. Paul does locate this church of the Thessalonians. They are located “in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The course of the entire letter makes it clear that the Thessalonians are very much rooted in a material situation. Paul cannot, therefore, be urging them to think that their spirits are in God, although their bodies are in Thessaloniki.
At the same time, it is also clear that this community of believers is undergoing persecution. The persecution of the church would have altered the material conditions of its members. This material situation might have led their persecutors, and even members of the believing community, to question whether God was truly with them. In that light, this slight variation on Paul’s standard greeting could be a way of helping them frame their understanding of their own context. Despite material appearances to the contrary, God is with them, they are in God.
As is typical, Paul moves on to offer thanks for the congregation in 1:3-4. In this case, Paul’s thanks is focused on their “faith,” their mutual love, and their “endurance.” The construction in verse 3 is unusual and worthy of comment. Paul says “we are obligated always to give thanks to God … ” Some English versions translate this phrase as “we ought always to give thanks to God … ” The New Revised Standard Version says, “we must always give thanks to God … ” This unusual construction can give the impression that Paul’s thanks is grudgingly given. Alternatively, one might look at the prayer offered in 1 Thessalonians 3:12 that the Lord may cause the Thessalonians’ love for each other to grow and increase. In that light 2 Thessalonians 1:3 could simply reflect the fact that Paul’s prayer has been answered and thus, he is bound to give thanks. A further alternative is that the growth in the Thessalonians’ faith in God and mutual love for each other is so extraordinary and evident, that the growth itself compels Paul, and any other observer, to offer thanks.
Likewise, Paul and his companions are obligated to boast in the ways in which the Thessalonian believers have endured in the face of persecution. Perhaps as social media has grown, developed, and taken root in our lives the idea of “boasting” has come back into fashion in ways that it would have been in Paul’s day. In Paul’s world “boasting” is a perfectly acceptable form of communication for free people. It helped to properly situate someone within the highly stratified social world of the first century. Accurately knowing someone’s social status and accomplishments increased the prospect of acting justly toward them, of giving them what they are due. That Paul boasts is not at all remarkable. That he boasts in the persecution of believers would have horrified many non-believers. It would have reflected a value system radically at odds with their own. Strikingly, Paul’s boasting is among the churches of God. This served to underwrite a distinctly Christian value system, one decisively at odds with the value systems of the surrounding cultures. The very fact of the Thessalonians’ persecution is testimony to the quality of their faith and love. Their endurance in the face of persecution is a sign that they are “worthy of the kingdom of God” (1:5).
Verses 5-10 focus on God’s ultimate vindication of the Thessalonians’ fidelity and endurance and on the ultimate judgment of those who persecute them. When the reading picks up in verse 11 Paul shifts from giving thanks and boasting to praying. Paul prays that God will continue to form them to be worthy inhabitants of the kingdom into which God is calling them. In the course of such formation, God will cause all of their “desires for goodness and works of faith to be powerfully fulfilled.” The end result of this is the mutual glorification of the name of Jesus in the Thessalonians and the glorification of the Thessalonians in Jesus.
Paul’s prayer seems to imagine a type of circular process here. The course of becoming worthy to inhabit the kingdom requires the shaping of faith and desire so that the outworking of the Thessalonians’ desires and faith forms them more and more to be worthy inhabitants of the kingdom. This, in turn, generates greater, deeper, desires for goodness and works of faith. This culminates in lives that give glory to Christ and are in turn glorified because they are in Christ.
Through thanksgiving, boasting and praying Paul is able to reflect a complex set of assumptions and expectations about the course and focus of the Christian life, including its requirement of mutual love.