Commentary on 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Last Sunday’s reading opened on a note of “thanksgiving” (1:2).
Today’s in contrast turns to a “begging” appeal (2:1; the NRSV disguises this literary contrast by delaying the “we beg you” until much later in the sentence.) Paul is getting down to brass tacks; the “occasion” of the letter now occupies center stage. In typical masterful rhetoric, in a deliberate parenthetical aside, Paul mentions the two key bases of the confidence he hopes to instill in his readers: the sure and certain “coming of the Lord Jesus Christ” and the conviction that part of this “coming” will be their being “gathered together with him” (2:1). Fortified with these two convictions the Christian community will be able to let go of the false rumors and at the same time hold on to the comforting and empowering truth of the gospel.
Letting Go False Rumors
That said, Paul now turns to address the false rumors that have suddenly (“quickly” NRSV) arisen to upset this community so thoroughly (2:2; the doubled use of “shaken” and “alarmed” underscore the intensity of the unrest). As is typical, once rumors begin to fly, they can be initiated and encouraged from a number of directions. The author notes a number sources–“by spirit,” “by word,” and “by letter.” “Spirit” is clearly not the Holy Spirit, but rather a spirit that belongs to the heated emotions and fears of the rumor mill that get magnified as they spread in the community. But there are also more tangible sources. The reference to “word” and “letter” clearly knows of persons (Paul is not specific here, perhaps assuming the readers will know to whom he is referring) who for whatever purpose are stirring up this community with false rumors. With climactic rhetorical effect, the substance of the rumor is left until the very end of the sentence: a false report that “the day of the Lord has already come.” The unspoken fear that has gripped this community is the day has come, and they somehow missed it or were left behind.
Then, as now, such speculations and fears about the “day of the Lord” need to be nipped in the bud. Paul now states his request in as forceful and direct a way as possible (2:3). The verb used names it for what it is: a “deception.” The people are being deceived. The aorist tense of the original Greek verb suggests an incisive order to immediately decease and desist: Stop it right now(!), while the surrounding doublet of “any one” “in any way” intends to silence all opposition. Paul is really pulling out the stops here and banking on his authority as an apostle to simply give an order and hope that the community will respond.
But he does not count on that authority alone. The “for” (i.e. “because”) that attaches the subsequent clauses (2:3b-4) adds rationale to support the command. It is impossible for the “day” to have come, because before that day two conjoined events must happen: the “rebellion” must take place and the “lawless one” be revealed. To what this term refers is somewhat obscure. (The Greek is literally “the man of lawlessness,” making it sound somewhat like a contrast to the “son of Man” language of the gospel tradition. The fact that many ancient manuscripts read instead “man of sin” shows that even early Christian readers were not so sure about what the term meant or to what it referred) What is clear is that this lawless one is an enemy of God and sets himself up as an alternative object of worship, taking upon himself the very role of God (2:4).
Paul now turns to one final basis of his appeal, coming now not as an order, but as a pleading and personal appeal for the Thessalonians to recall Paul’s ministry and preaching during his time among them. “Do you not remember how I used to tell you these things again and again while I was with you?” (2:5; my translation). Paul seems to know, all arguments and rationale aside, ultimately the matter of hearing the gospel and getting it right–avoiding the false rumors of deception–depends on the personal experience of the “mutual consolation of brothers and sisters of faith” in Christian community.
Hearing the Truth in Community
It is to that experience of community that the second portion of the reading for the day now turns. If the first part of Paul’s address has been to call for a “cease and desist” in the matters of false rumors, the second part now turns to assert the alternative positive and foundational confidence in the power of the message of the gospel that must displace such rumors and occupy the spirit and mind of the community.
To inaugurate that assertion, Paul returns to the same theme that began the letter: the “we must always give thanks to God for you brothers and sisters” of 2:13 is an almost verbatim repetition of 1:3. The gospel “tune” is back on track with the sure and certain heart of the gospel. But with a major addition: yes, it is thanks for you, but now it is a “you” who are “beloved by the lord.” Whatever rumors may shake their day, the one thing that these Christians–like us who have our own versions of the rumors–need to remember is that in whatever comes, they are “beloved ones” (the perfect tense of the participle “beloved” here would suggest this love is a “done deal,” established firmly, and not about to be shifted or undone).
Chosen for Salvation
Now comes the clearly stated reason for this confidence. The “because” (Greek oti) of verse 13 intentionally matches the “because” of verse 3 with an alternative to counteract the false rumors devastating the community. And, wow! What a reason it is! As clearly and directly stated as the gospel gets: “God has chosen you for salvation.” But with one important word tucked right in the middle: “as first fruits.” Far from being left out, as those who foster the rumor mill would have you believe, you are the “first fruits.” (Whereas in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 it is those who have died who will be “first in line” at the Lord’s coming, now it is these “living” Thessalonians who hear for themselves the same assurance that previously they sought for those who had already died.)
The two marks of this “salvation” in the community are “holiness” and “faith.” Salvation is not just a matter of hope in a future coming. Paul directs them to dig into their experience and note the confirming signs of that salvation as they are already experienced in community. For the Thessalonians as much as for us the signs of salvation are found not in constantly looking to the future, but by looking around them at lives that are lived in a “holiness” that is the gift of the Spirit’s presence among them. Such lives are further marked by the sign of “faith” or “trust” that enables them to live by the “truth.” Thus, they are not to be deceived or unsettled by vicious rumors that would tempt them to turn away from the certain hope that belongs to God’s calling and choosing.
And That’s the Gospel Truth
Paul, for a second time, reminds these Thessalonians of where they have heard this truth. It was in the preaching. Paul’s “preaching” (2:14) of the gospel was part the double purpose of God’s choosing. Far from being forsaken or left behind, the gospel asserts God’s purpose all along in salvation is that they would be united in glory with Christ Jesus.
Finally then, what will count is that this community not be mislead by “word” or “letter” of false rumors (cf. “as if from us” 2:2), but that it stand firm and hold fast to the “traditions that they were taught”–the actual words of the apostle himself by “word” and “letter” both when present and when away from them (2:14).
The conclusion to the main subject of the letter and also as the climax of the gospel proclamation is marked now by a somewhat lengthy benediction. Since the unsettling rumors in the community had to do with fears of having missed Christ’s coming, not surprising that the agency of this prayer should be so firmly and emphatically stated: first of all, the Lord Jesus Christ “himself” (the very one they await); and then God the father “who loved.” Three times the important “us” includes the hearers in this love of Father and Son: it is “our” Lord Jesus; it is “our” Father who loved “us.” Further, the prayer is that by grace this God, who not “will give” but “has already given” (aorist tense in the original) “eternal comfort” and “good hope,” will do so again in this instance–that God will “comfort” (parakalew, the word can mean “comfort, console, encourage”; cf. Paraclete) your hearts and “strengthen” (or “establish”) them in good work and in good words. Both are necessary, God-works and good words, to quash the rumors of the “bad words” that are threatening this community and to replace the rumors with actions of care and concern for the needs of its members.
The Mystery of Lawlessness
Once again the lectionary omits the somewhat strange and troubling language and imagery having to do with the view of the end times (2:7-12). As noted in the remarks on last Sunday’s lesson, this material has occasioned some to question whether Paul is actually the author of this letter or whether this letter may not represent a later period of Christianity when speculation about the end time became more prominent in Christian circles. Even the very language of the “mystery of lawlessness” would suggest some uncertainty about the nature and identify of this “lawless one” except that it is assumed to be an agent in league with the powers of Satan. It is clear, however, this lawless power will be restrained in the end by God. The current deception and false rumors are seen to be a sign of those who have not believed the gospel and who will ultimately perish along with the lawless one at the coming of the Lord.