These letters are shorter than some Pauline writings and sometimes do not receive the attention that Romans and Corinthians get. However, 1 Thessalonians is likely the earliest written description of the Christian movement. Paul was hard at work in his missionary activity and had not yet needed to respond to issues which arose in evolving communities. Therefore, he focuses on eschatological hope which was an important characteristic of the early Christian movement. Reflecting on this writing is certainly helpful for today’s Christians, seeking the hope promised by the life and death of Jesus.
The second letter to the Thessalonians may be an original from Paul or, more likely, a later writing by a disciple of Paul. Again, a review of the hope of Jesus’ return is likely to be a help in today’s Christian understanding. The two letters to the Thessalonians help to understand hope with patience regarding Jesus’ return.
Meet Our Professors
Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament
Harry Attridge has made scholarly contributions to New Testament exegesis and to the study of Hellenistic Judaism and the history of the early Church. He has published numerous books, authored book chapters and articles in scholarly journals, and has edited 11 books, including Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, First-Century Cynicism in the Epistles of Heraclitus, The Interpretation of Biblical History in the Antiquitates Judaicae of Flavius Josephus, Nag Hammadi Codex I: The Jung Codex, and Psalms in Community. Dean Attridge has been an editorial board member of Catholic Biblical Quarterly, the Harvard Theological Review, the Journal of Biblical Literature, and the Hermeneia Commentary Series. Before coming to Yale, Dr. Attridge was Professor of New Testament Studies and Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Notre Dame. He has served as president of the Society of Biblical Literature since 2001. He holds degrees from Boston College (A.B.), Cambridge University (B.A., M.A.), Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Harvard University (Ph.D.).
David L. Bartlett
David L. Bartlett was the J. Edward and Ruth Cox Lantz Professor Emeritus of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. An ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches, USA, Bartlett served as the senior minister of congregations in Minnesota, Illinois, and California. From 1990 to 2005, Bartlett served at YDS on the faculty as well as in administrative roles including Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Dean of Academic Affairs. Bartlett has published numerous books and scholarly articles. It is with great sadness that we note his passing in late 2017.
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1 & 2 Thessalonians
1 Thessalonians I: Greetings and Thanksgiving
The salutation names three authors of the letter, Paul, Silvanus, also known by his nickname Silas, and Timothy. Both of Paul’s fellow workers played important roles in the development of his missionary activity. According to Acts 15:22, Silas was part of the delegation sent to Antioch to announce the results of the “apostolic council” in Jerusalem. Paul chose him as a companion in his missionary activity in Syria and Cilicia, his “first missionary journey” (Acts 15:40). It was during that journey, in Derbe and Lystra, where Paul encountered Timothy, son of a Jewish mother and Greek father (Acts 16:1), whom he recruited to his missionary team. Silas continued with Paul and was with him in prison in Philippi (Acts 16:19–40), and he was with Paul when the apostle initially worked in Thessalonica (Acts 17:4-9) and Beroea (Acts 17:10).
Timothy apparently was part of the team as well, since he remained with Silas in Beroea when Paul was sent off (Acts 17:14). Silas and Timothy reunited with Paul in Athens (Acts 18:5), which was probably the location from which Paul sent Timothy on the mission to Thessalonica, a mission to which he refers later in 1 Thess 3:2. If the account in Acts is correct, Silas accompanied Timothy on the trip; and the two rejoined Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:5), providing the occasion for writing the letter. The presence of Silas and Timothy with Paul in Corinth when he first preached there is confirmed by Paul’s reminiscence of the start of his mission there in 2 Corinthians 1:19. After Acts’ mention of the presence of Silas in Corinth, he disappears from the pages of Acts. He serves as co-author with Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:19, and he is listed as co-author of 2 Thessalonians (1:1).
After Timothy joined Paul on his first missionary journey, he continued to play a significant role in Paul’s missionary and pastoral activity. His work of keeping Paul in touch with the Thessalonians was apparently one for which he was particularly well suited and his skill would come in handy later in Paul’s career. Paul wrote his correspondence with the church in Corinth on his “third missionary journey,” during much of which Ephesus served as his headquarters. During that time, his relationship with Corinth experienced periods of stress; and Timothy worked as an intermediary between the apostle and his restive congregation (1 Corinthians 4:17; 16:10). Paul also hoped to send Timothy to the Philippians along with the local leader Epaphroditus to keep his relationship with that congregation on an even keel (Philippians 2:22).
Acts 19:22 mentions that Paul in Ephesus, the headquarters of his third period of missionary activity, sent Timothy accompanied by a companion named Erastus to Macedonia, probably to prepare for his own return. Timothy probably visited all the congregations that Paul had founded in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Beroea. Paul subsequently himself visited the area (Acts 20:1) and moved on “to Greece,” probably to Corinth, accompanied by Timothy and representatives of all the Macedonian communities (Acts 20:4). In addition to the Thessalonian correspondence, Timothy appears as Paul’s co-author in Romans, 2 Corinthians, Philippians, and Philemon. He continued his collaboration with Paul as he wrote Romans (16:21). He was also known to the author of Hebrews (Hebrews 13:23). The pastoral epistles which bear his name (1, 2 Timothy) may in fact be products of this close companion of Paul. Indeed, it may be due to Timothy’s initiative that we have the collection of Paul’s letters. In any case, the names in the salutation remind us of the collaborative nature of Paul’s work as an apostle.
The Thanksgiving (1 Thessalonians 1:2–10)
Prayers of thanksgiving are a common feature of Paul’s own letters and the letters of his school (Romans 1:8; 1 Corinthians 1:4; Philippians 1:3; Colossians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:3), although the language of “blessing” can also be used (2 Corinthians 1:3; Ephesians 1:3). Such prayers of thanks mirror a convention of ordinary letter writing, attested in numerous personal letters on papyrus surviving from antiquity, in which the writer would offer a brief prayer of thanks to the divine for good health, safe travels, or good fortune. Paul’s use of the convention does more than fulfill a common epistolary expectation. In his prayerful way Paul usually introduces the themes and issues that his letter will pursue and that strategy is certainly in evidence here.
For now, we shall focus on the thanksgiving paragraph that constitutes chapter 1. As we shall see, Paul picks up the theme of thanksgiving again at 2:13 and may mean for both chapters to be part of one larger prayer.
Paul initially focuses on the Thessalonians themselves and expresses gratitude for many things about them (1:2–7). He then reminds the Thessalonians that they are part of a larger enterprise of spreading faith in God (1:8), in which they already have had some success. He highlights two elements of that faith (1:9–10), which neatly encapsulate what the letter is about.
The Thessalonians (1:1–7)
Paul’s first word of thanks “for you,” is certainly what an ancient orator would call a captatio benevolentiae, an effort to secure the good will of an audience. But Paul is not engaged in a cynical rhetorical ploy, however effective his rhetoric may be. Pastoral apostle that he is, he endeavors throughout the letter to reinforce ties of love that bind him to his congregation. In fact, much of Paul’s correspondence has the same practical effect, of reinforcing or, in some cases, restoring relationships with his converts.
In claiming that he recalls who and what they are, Paul uses a famous triad, “the work of faith, the labor of love and the steadfastness of hope.” He will recall that triad late in the letter (5:8) using military imagery to make his point. His most famous use of the triad appears in his paean to love in 1 Corinthians 13:13. Other early Christian authors, such as the homilist who wrote Hebrews, will also find use for the triad as a way of organizing Christian life (Heb 10:22–24). What came to be called the “theological virtues” thus play an important role as organizing principles of much of Paul’s preaching.
Paul goes on to be thankful for the fact that the Thessalonians have been “chosen” (v 4), a theme which will reappear in 2 Thessalonians 2:13. Here Paul echoes the Old Testament’s language of “election,” although it is now not the traditional people of Israel who are chosen, but those Gentiles who have responded to the Gospel message. The language thus recognizes the divine initiative in the process of salvation, something on which Paul will insists in all his letters, as he argues that it is not by what people do that they are God’s people but by God’s grace. Paul does not here reflect any further on the idea of election, as he will in Romans 11, when he confronts the problem that his fellow Jews have not accepted his gospel, while gentiles have.
Paul further reflects on the way in which God’s gracious choice of the Thessalonians took place “in power and in the Holy Spirit” (v 5). Paul will use similar language in talking to the Corinthians about how the gospel came to them (1 Corinthians 2:4). Paul adds another phrase to describe the effect of his initial missionary activity. The NRSV translates it “full conviction,” a meaning that the word will come to have in later Christian writings. Here, however, it may have a more objective sense, referring not to the inner state of those who came to faith, but to the way in which the gospel was presented, something like “with complete success.” Paul’s preaching, in any case, had a dramatic impact; and he reminds the Thessalonians of that experience.
Since he has invoked his own action, he reminds the Thessalonians that they took him as a model and they “became imitators” of him (v 6). Imitation of Paul’s behavior is something that he encouraged (1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1; Philippians 3:17; 4:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:7–9), as did most ancient teachers of ethics and morality. The imitation here seems to focus not on virtue in general, but on the endurance of persecution, the kind of resistance to his message that Acts 17:1–9 recounts. The example that the Thessalonians set in Macedonia no doubt refers to the reception of Paul and his message in Beroea (Acts 17:10–15). Achaea would refer to both Athens and Corinth, the next stops on Paul’s mission (Acts 17:16–18:17).
The Faith of the Thessalonians (1:9–10)
Paul now shifts slightly from his prayerful thanks for what the Thessalonians have been. Within that thanksgiving, in the reference to faith, hope, and love, there are also seeds of some of his coming exhortation. He now hints at a topic that has caused distress in the congregation at Thessalonica, and that forms the thread through the two Thessalonian epistles, the eschatological hope that Paul and his new Christians share.
Paul frames his articulation of the theme in two subtle moves. The first is to say that the good reputation that the Thessalonians have includes a reference to their beliefs. In other words, he is not introducing something new, but simply continuing his thanks to God for what the Thessalonians already know. The second step is to point to something that is certainly true and probably not a matter of any controversy. The Thessalonians have “turned to God from idols.” They were, in other words, Gentiles, who may have had some attraction to Judaism (Acts 17:4); but, inspired by Paul’s preaching, they became devotees of the “living and true God” of Israel. If they had been attracted to Judaism, its monotheistic faith and its admirable code of ethics, what kept them from joining the community was the requirement of circumcision. Paul believed in vision of Isaiah (55:5; 66:18–21), that in the end time, when God set things right, Gentile and Jew would worship together. Such an ingathering was now happening, made possible by the death and resurrection of Christ, which inaugurated that time when God’s promises would be fulfilled.
Paul’s conviction that the expected end time was underway made possible his outreach to Gentiles that elicited such a positive response at Thessalonica. But intrinsic to the turn to the “living and true God” was an eschatological hope, a call “to wait for His (God’s) Son from heaven.” That Son, the instrument of God’s final, powerful restoration of the world to justice and order was the agent of the coming “wrath” or judgment on sinners as well the one who “rescues us.” Eschatological hope is the foundation of Paul’s Gospel and the presenting issue in the concern that the Thessalonians have, and Paul will address that concern in due course.
Richard S. Ascough, “Redescribing the Thessalonians’ Mission in Light of Greco-Roman Associations,” New Testament Studies 60 (2014) 61–82.
Jane F. M. Heath, “Absent Presences of Paul and Christ: Enargeia in 1 Thessalonians 1– 3,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 32 (2009) 3–38.
Questions for Discussion:
- What conventions do you use when addressing people either in person, by letter or by some modern electronic system of communication? How do you attend to the emotional impact of what you say? Do you see Paul working in any analogous way with his Thessalonian congregation?
- Are there people in your life to whom you look as models of either behavior or faith? Are they ways in which you try to serve as a model for others to imitate?
- Do you have a sense that as members of a Christian congregation you have been “chosen” or “elect”? What are the implications of that belief?
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1 & 2 Thessalonians
1 Thessalonians II: The Bonds of Affection
We have noted that in this earliest letter as in his later letters Paul moves from his salutation to an expression of thanksgiving. Typically, these thanksgiving passages foreshadow some of the themes that Paul will address in the longer body of the letter—theological or ethical issues that are especially pertinent in his exhortations to his churches. In 1 Thessalonians, the use of the thanksgiving passage is unusual. Either there are two thanksgiving sections (1:1-10 and 2:13-16) or Paul writes one long thanksgiving. If we have here one long thanksgiving section, it is marked by an inclusion—a phrase at the beginning of the section is repeated with some variation at the end. This is a familiar rhetorical device. “This is the worst of times; this is the best of times” followed by a long list of lamentable and commendable features of the present situation and closing: “Indeed, this is the best of times; this is the worst of times.”
Paul’s inclusion here consists of 1:3 and 2:13.
“We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father…”
“We also constantly give thanks to God for this…”
In each case Paul’s gratitude is for the steadfastness of the Thessalonian believers in receiving the word that he preached and in holding it fast against opposition.
Perhaps especially in 1 Thessalonians the thanksgiving does not simply direct us toward the real point of the letter. Perhaps the thanksgiving is the heart of the letter. Some scholars have suggested that 1 Thessalonians is an example of an ancient letter of friendship, whose purpose was above all to reiterate and strengthen the bonds of affection and respect between the writer and the recipient.
If you are old enough to remember letters written on paper and sent in envelopes, remember the ones you received from a parent when you were away from home for the first time. Perhaps you suspected that the long introductory paragraphs about how much the parent misses you and longs to see you were simply a set up for the real point of the letter, something like: “Why don’t you ever call?” Or “Get those grades up before the end of the semester.” But when you become a parent (or a friend or a lover), you discover that the heart of the letter really is the confirmation of the bond of love, and that the last notes are a kind of postscript. Most important: “I love you.” Secondarily important: “Call home.”
The genuine longing and affection that we read in the first chapters of 1 Thessalonians indicates Paul’s strong desire to reestablish and strengthen his friendship with the church he founded. The postscripts of the last chapters are important, but only as manifestations of the fundamental affection.
Paul’s Bond with the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 2:1-8)
Paul reiterates and strengthens his relationship with the Thessalonians in at least two ways in these verses. First, he shows solidarity with their suffering for the sake of the gospel. Second, he insists that his ministry among them has been marked by integrity and familial affection.
He shows solidarity with the suffering of the Thessalonians by references to the stress that he has undergone in preaching the gospel (2:1-2). We cannot be sure about the nature of the opposition Paul has received. The reference to Philippi may represent his reminiscence of the events narrated in Acts 16 where Paul and Silas are imprisoned. (Silas is listed with Paul and Timothy in our letter’s salutation). More generally the theme of persecution recurs later in this chapter, and in 2 Corinthians 1:5–11 and 11:23–29 Paul provides a list of the ways in which he has suffered for the gospel. Certainly, it is part of the power of the Gospel that good news raises up opposition and Paul—like the Thessalonians and like the churches in Judea—has born the burden of that opposition.
The references to the integrity with which Paul preaches the Gospel also remind many commentators of 2 Corinthians, where in chapters 10-13 especially Paul defends himself against accusations from the so called “super apostles” who have appeared in Corinth after his departure. Accordingly, many commentators have sought to discern in 1 Thessalonians 2:3-6 evidence of opposition to Paul’s preaching among the Thessalonians. Does he protest that he preaches without guile? Then someone has accused him of trickiness. Does he protest that he preaches without financial gain? Then someone has accused him of greed.
Abraham Malherbe has shown how such antithetical self-descriptions (“not in guile but in sincerity”) are typical in the self-designation of many first century philosophers and suggests persuasively that Paul’s self-presentation here may not be a self-defense as it so clearly is in 2 Corinthians. Rather Paul uses the contrasts to clarify the positive claims he wishes to make about himself.
Paul’s description of his own ministry here reminds us of the instructions Luke describes Paul giving to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. Both cases may represent a typical list of virtues for the faithful and honest preacher. That the virtues are typical does not mean that they are not important, just that Paul may not be contrasting himself with any particular opponents at this point.
In the last verses of this paragraph Paul’s language moves from the philosophical to the familial. He is once again reinforcing the bonds of friendship and even more. The early Greek manuscripts of 1 Thessalonians 2:7 provide two different versions of a key word. Either Paul was “gentle” (epioi) among the Thessalonians or he (and Timothy and Silas?) were “children” (nepioi). The textual evidence is mixed, but the sense of the paragraph works better if we translate “gentle” with the NRSV. This would lead appropriately to the image of the nurse, who is not only caring for children; she is caring for her own children. Paul images himself as nurse and mother! He is perfectly happy to be a gender bender if the image enhances his defense of his own apostleship and underlines his affection, leading naturally to the remarkable claim of friendship: “we determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves” (2:8).
More on Paul’s Bond with the Thessalonians (2:9-12)
These verses expand on two themes. First, Paul underlines his financial integrity by insisting that he did not preach the gospel for personal gain. On the contrary, he worked with his hands to support himself. For further emphasis on his unwillingness to be paid for his apostleship, you might want to look at 1 Corinthians 9. Second, he draws on another familiar image—now he is not the nurse/mother of verse 7 but the father. His urging and pleading come not from an egotistical sense of his own authority (there’s that rhetorical antithesis) but from his own deep affection for the church.
Notice though that the purpose of his fatherly exhortation is not simply to build personal integrity or familial solidarity. From the beginning of this letter it is clear that the Gospel and Paul’s proclamation of that gospel come from God and lead to God. God calls the Thessalonians into his own power and glory; the power and glory that are to crown the faithful at the end of the age, and the power and glory that is manifest among them even now. (See 1:5)
Thanksgiving Renewed (2:13-16)
Verse 13 nuances and strengthens the claim of the whole epistle and of the preceding verses that it is God who is at work through Paul, among the Thessalonians, and then through the Thessalonians too. It is hard for us in an age that stresses human flourishing and self-fulfillment to understand Paul’s strong claim. He presumably thinks human flourishing is just fine, but the Gospel is about the fulfillment of the transcendent purposes of God.
The next verses (vv 14-16) are complicated for at least two reasons. First, they are precisely the kind of statements that have led to the lamentable history of Christian anti-Judaism, if, as the NRSV reads, Paul is writing about the “Jews, who killed both Jesus and the prophets.” Second, this description of the role of Jews in God’s history of redemption sounds very different from what we hear from Paul about Israel and the Jews elsewhere—especially in Romans 9–11,
For both these reasons some commentators have argued that 1 Thessalonians 2:14–16 is an interpolation, added to Paul’s letter by a later hand. This is not the only passage in Paul that has been attributed to a later editor, although there is no early manuscript of 1 Thessalonians that omits these verses.
For two reasons, we take the reading to be original. Firstly, Paul almost always writes with a set of issues in mind, and the issues for the Thessalonians were not the same issues as for the Romans (and some years intervened between the two letters).
Furthermore, we are helped by Abraham Malherbe’s suggestion that it is equally possible to translate the Greek without the comma, so that the phrase reads: “as they for their part suffered at the hands of the Jews who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets.” That is, Malherbe suggests, Paul is not saying that all Jews are implicated in the death of Christ, but that the very same group of Jews that persecuted Jesus and killed the prophets are now persecuting the church in Judea—most of whom, of course, are Jews as well. For a similar sentiment, see Matthew 5:5, 12.
The overall function of the passage is clear enough. The suffering that the Thessalonians undergo unites them in solidarity with followers of Christ in Jerusalem, who have been harassed by their fellow-citizens (mostly Jews) as the Thessalonians have been harassed by their fellow citizens (mostly Gentiles). In their suffering both the Judean Christians and the Thessalonian Christians suffer following the prototype of their Lord.
There is so much we do not know about early Christianity. We are not sure precisely what the troubles were in Jerusalem nor in Thessalonica. Certainly, there was social disapproval and family dissension for believers in both places; and in Jerusalem at least two early followers of Jesus suffered martyrdom, Stephen (Acts 7) and James, the son of Zebedee (Acts 12:2).
Paul’s reference to the wrath of God in v 16 need not refer to any particular event but more generally to his repeated belief that the end times have begun. (See Romans 1:18). Indeed verse 16 might be translated not that God’s wrath has overtaken them at last but that God’s wrath has overtaken them as part of the consummation, the telos, the goal of God’s work.
Paul’s Travel Plans (2:17-20)
The chapter and verse divisions of our Bibles are the work of later editors. Neither Paul nor those who originally gathered his letters knew that chapter two was ending and chapter three was about to begin. We shall see in our next discussion how the first verses of chapter 3 provide the outcome of Paul’s dilemma at the end of chapter 2.
What is apparent in these verses is, again, the strong stress on familial relations. Now Paul, who has been a nurse/mother and a father, relates to the Thessalonians as an orphan. The separation is not simply inconvenient, it is wrenching. A mother caring for a child, a father eager to instruct his offspring, an orphan separated from his family, all evoke an emotional response.
Again, we see the way in which Paul’s ministry to the Thessalonians is undergirded by his understanding of eschatology—of the end of time. The claim that Satan has hindered him is not simply a mythological nod to popular folklore but a conviction that at the end of times the prince of evil will even more furiously resist the work of the Gospel.
The claim that the Thessalonians are and are to be Paul’s hope and crown and joy is not just a fancy way of saying he likes them (“You are my pride and joy”). It represents the deep hope that at the coming of the Lord, in the not too distant future, Paul will be able to present the Thessalonian church at the throne of judgment and grace as the proof and prize of his own faithfulness—to the end.
Abraham Malherbe, “Gentle as a Nurse: The Cynic Background to 1 Thessalonians 2,” Novum Testamentum 12 (1970) 203–17.
Jennifer Houston McNeal, “Feeding with Milk: Paul’s Nursing Metaphors in Context,” Review and Expositor 110 (2013) 561–75.
Karl Paul Donfried, “The Epistolary and Rhetorical Context of 1 Thess 2.1–12,” in idem, Paul, Thessalonica, and Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002) 163–94.
Questions for Discussion:
- Much of Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians assumes that they suffer social consequences and perhaps even some suffering for their faith. Are there ways in which you find yourself suffering difficult consequences for faithfulness? Or, in our more accepting society do we need to rethink some of Paul’s assurances to meet our own circumstances?
- We are appropriately concerned in our time to deepen understanding among religious groups, perhaps especially the understanding between Jews and Christians. How do you interpret Paul’s words about the death of Jesus? How might you reinterpret them for our time and situation?
- How do Paul’s self-descriptions in this chapter suggest ways that we can get beyond disputes about exclusive verses’ inclusive language and find language imaginative enough to touch a variety of readers or listeners?
- How do Paul’s self-descriptions help us think about leadership in our congregations? How is his apostleship like and unlike the leaders we need today—both ordained and lay?
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1 & 2 Thessalonians
1 Thessalonians III. A Messenger and His Message
Paul’s Emissary (3:1-4)
At the end of what we now number as chapter 2, Paul told the Thessalonians that he was eager to visit them, his “glory and joy,” but was prevented from doing so by “Satan.” He suggests that the hostile power of the ultimate adversary is behind whatever his practical problem may have been. He now tells the Thessalonians that he has sent Timothy, his “brother and co-worker” to them. We have already seen how important a collaborator Timothy was in Paul’s missionary activity in the late 40’s and early 50’s, the period of the “second missionary journey.” This section of the letter confirms the importance of Timothy’s role and specifies what it was that he was supposed to do, “to strengthen and encourage” the Thessalonians “for the sake of your faith” (v 2). The work is that of a pastor, and the word “encourage” is from the same root (parakleo) used to describe a homily, the kind that Paul preached in a synagogue (Acts 13:15) or delivered in the form of a letter (Hebrews 13:22). Timothy was indeed Paul’s partner in mission.
Paul also indicates that the occasion for this mission was “persecution” (v 3). Apparently, the negative reaction to Paul’s preaching recorded in Acts 16 and 17 did not abate after he left Macedonia. The new movement of believers in Jesus continued to cause controversy. This was caused by their rejection of traditional worship or their expectation of an imminent day of judgment, the “wrath to come” (1:10), or perhaps the sense that with their proclamation of the “kingdom of God,” they were inimical to the established order of the Roman empire. The problem that Paul addresses was not unique to the Macedonian area. References to “persecution” are frequent in the New Testament and many authors insist, as Paul does here, that persecution was to be expected, it was “what we are destined for.”
Paul had certainly experienced negative reactions to his preaching on numerous occasions as he himself reports (2 Corinthians 1:8–11; 11:23–29). He reminds the Thessalonians that he had warned them that persecution was coming. He was hardly alone in doing so. Other early Christian sources provide examples of similar warnings. These include the prediction of persecution of disciples just after the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:11–12); the statement by Jesus in the Farewell discourse of the Fourth Gospel that the world would “hate” his disciples (John 15:18–25); the advice in the First Epistle of Peter not to consider tribulation strange, but to share in Christ’s sufferings (1 Peter 4:13); the advice of Hebrews to an audience that had experienced oppression (Hebrews 10:32–34) to view suffering as the chastisement of a caring Father (Hebrews 12:4–11) and to imitate Christ in accepting shame (Hebrews 13:13).
While many contemporaries in the Roman world reacted negatively to the first Christians, there was not a systematic and official, empire-wide persecution of Christians until the third century. Hostility was common and authorities often intervened, as the emperor Trajan famously recommended to his governor Pliny, when, in the early second century, the latter asked for advice on how to deal with the phenomenon of Christians. There were examples too of Christians being used as scapegoats for catastrophic events, such as the fire in Rome in 64 CE under the emperor Nero. Though sporadic and arbitrary, opposition, sometimes violent, was a fact of life for many early Christians, and it apparently was so for the Thessalonians.
Paul admits that he was worried about the Thessalonians (v 5) and concerned that his labor had been in vain. The description of his concern, that the “tempter had tempted” his congregation, may reflect an early Christian expression such as the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:13 and Luke 11:4). While the language may be conventional, Paul’s concern was no doubt real.
Timothy’s Report (3:6–13)
Paul reports to the Thessalonians the good news that he heard from Timothy. In naming their “faith and love” Paul echoes two elements of the triad that marked his initial prayer of thanksgiving (1:3). That he does not mention the “hope” of the Thessalonians may be because he will soon address an issue raised about their expectations.
Paul continues the warm, personal language that has characterized this letter from the start. Timothy had reported that the Thessalonians “remember him kindly” and “long to see” him. He responds with the same “longing” (v 6).
Continuing to reinforce the positive quality of his relationship with the Thessalonians, Paul explains how important is the good news that he has received about them. The firm faith of the Thessalonians has been an encouragement to him in his distress and persecution (v 7). The brief mention of Paul’s situation reinforces the solidarity with the Thessalonians that he has evoked throughout the letter. If they are suffering persecution, so is he. But their firmness in the faith is a ground on which he can stand (v 8).
Continuing the positive reinforcement, Paul celebrates the “joy” that the good news of the Thessalonians’ fidelity has brought him (v 9). Paul had previously insisted that the faith of his community was a source of his “joy” (2:19–20). This brief comment is worth attention. We sometimes may be tempted to think of Paul as a serious theologian and pastor, but it is useful to remember how he insists on “joy” as a hallmark of the Christian life. He defines the reign of God in Romans 14:17 as characterized by “righteousness, peace and joy” and prays that that congregation may be filled with joy and peace (Romans 15:13). He is full of joy when he reconciles with the Corinthian community (2 Corinthians 2:3; 7:4). Joy is one of the “fruits of the spirit” (Galatians 5:22). That believers are a source of his joy is something he will say to the Philippian congregation (Philippians 2:2; 4:1) and to individuals like Philemon (Philemon 1:7). For Paul the life of a disciple of Christ, whatever trials and tribulations it may have involved, was always one of joy, grounded in the communal relationship with other people of faith.
Paul concludes this section with two references to prayer. He first tells the Thessalonians that he prays for them “night and day” (v 10), yearning to see them again and be of service to them. He then actually prays, offering three petitions, acting out the report about his prayer that he has just given. The first petition is for God to guide him back to Thessalonica (v 11). The second asks that love may abound in the community (v 12). In crafting the third petition (v 13) Paul is aware of what he wants to say next and provides a transition to chapter 4. He prays that the Thessalonians may be strong “in holiness” to “be blameless.” His next comments (4:1–12) will remind his addressees about what holiness involves for him, a life lived according to ethical principles familiar from the Torah and common to early Christian communities. The condition of being blameless and holy is one that is particularly important because of what is soon to take place: “the coming of the Lord with all his saints.” Here Paul anticipates his instruction about eschatological hope (4:13–18). Paul’s tone is prayerful and his wishes supportive, but he has some important advice that he wants to give his beloved Thessalonians.
Abraham Malherbe, “Ethics in Context: the Thessalonians and their Neighbors,” Restoration Quarterly 54 (2012) 201–18.
Karl Paul Donfried, “Was Timothy in Athens? Some Exegetical Reflections on 1 Thess 3.1–3,” in idem, Paul, Thessalonica, and Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002) 209–20.
Questions for Discussion:
- The experience of persecution, not familiar to most of us in the United States, is a fact of life for many Christians today. Are there, nonetheless, ways in which contemporary Christians in the US face persecution? On the other hand, do some claim to be persecuted for questionable reasons?
- Do Paul’s reflections on persecution say anything to us about how we should relate to persecuted Christians throughout the globe?
- How important in your understanding of the Christian life is the experience of “joy”? Is it compatible with suffering? Is it something that can be cultivated or just accepted?
- Are the prayers that Paul offers for the Thessalonians good examples of what we should pray for? What kind of practice of prayer do you pursue?
Yale Bible Study
1 & 2 Thessalonians
1 Thessalonians IV. Instructions for Christian Life
Paul has affirmed the depth of his affection for the believers in Thessalonica. He reminds them that he has expressed that affection by sending Timothy to visit them. And the affection has only been strengthened by the report that Timothy has brought of their faith and hope and love. With chapter four Paul moves to several sets of instructions. Formally the letter is now most clearly an example of parenesis, ethical and practical instruction appropriate for a teacher with students or an apostle with church members.
At the end of chapter three, Paul sets forth the assumptions on which the parenesis is based—the grounding of the lives of the Thessalonians in God, the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ; the bonds of mutual love among the Christians and between the Christians and Paul; and the promise that the Lord will come to appraise the holiness of the Thessalonians.
Chapter four begins with direct attention to the issue of holiness. We do not know for sure whether Paul here responds to direct information he has received from Timothy or whether he shares with the Thessalonians from his more general concerns for the Christian life. In 1 Corinthians, there is direct evidence that Paul is responding to information he has received from and about the congregation—some of the information contained in an oral report from Chloe’s people and some of the information contained in a letter. While there is no such inescapable evidence here, the context of chapter four, immediately following the report of Timothy’s visit to the Thessalonians, suggests that he knows whereof he speaks. The specific exhortations are related to known issues within the Thessalonian community. Of course, we have only Paul’s response to what may be Timothy’s report so it takes some imagination to try to indicate what problems Paul addresses. (Reading Paul is a little like playing jeopardy; we get the answer and then must guess the question.) Yet it is clear that in this chapter there are three distinct subjects: sexual purity, communal cooperation, and comfort in the face of death.
Sexual purity: (4:1-8)
The section begins with a clever rhetorical strategy, familiar in moral exhortation in the first century and now. Rather than condemning the Thessalonians for their moral lapses, Paul credits them for their exemplary behavior and only suggests that they be a little more exemplary. He is somewhat like the pushy parent who responds to the B+ on the child’s report card: “Well, that’s really quite good.” Implicit is the claim: “But I know you could do better.”
In a similar parenetic vein Paul reminds the Thessalonians of his own teaching among them on the question of sexual morality. Then he ups the stakes by saying that he gave them these instructions “through the Lord Jesus” (v 2). It is possible that Paul has in mind some particular teaching of Jesus regarding sexual purity that he has passed on to the church. We have an instance of this kind of reminder in the teaching on divorce in 1 Corinthians 7. It is also possible that Paul as a Christian leader under inspiration (a Christian “prophet”) may believe that he has received a spiritual revelation on this question from the Risen Lord. What we can say undeniably is that Paul sees his whole ministry, including the ministry of moral instruction, as being a manifestation of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. To say that he is an apostle is to say that he brings a message from an authority greater than his own.
Paul makes much the same point at the end of our section (v 8) when he tells the Thessalonians that to ignore these instructions is not just to disrespect Paul but to reject God and the Holy Spirit God gives to guide Christ’s people in all righteousness.
What is clear is that the sexual behavior Paul commends is an example of purity and holiness and that this behavior contrasts Christian believers with the larger Gentile world around them. The passage reminds us of the Holiness Code in Leviticus where Moses tells the people to be holy as God is holy, in part as a way of differentiating them from the unholy nations all around.
Perhaps Paul has particular popular sexual malpractices in mind; if so, he is appropriately reticent to name them. It is quite clear that he has a particular understanding of sexual fidelity to commend—and while we can be quite sure what kind of life he encourages, the exact nuances of the argument are not altogether clear.
The phrase that may have been entirely clear to the Thessalonians but is puzzling to us appears in v 4. Both the meaning of the verb (NRSV “to control”) and of the noun (NRSV “body”) are disputed. Start with the noun. The Greek word is skeuos, which most often means “vessel” as in “container” “a vessel of oil.” In the idiom Paul uses here it could refer either to a man’s own body, the vessel that contains his life or to a man’s own wife, as in our somewhat sexist phrase “the weaker vessel.” So, it is not clear whether the instruction about purity has to do with what a man does with his own body or with his own wife though the net result, not surprisingly, will be much the same.
Similarly, the verb ktaomaiin most common usage means “to acquire” or “get for oneself.” However, it more broadly can mean “to possess”-hence the various translations for this verse:
“that each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honor.” (NRSV) (similar REB)
“that each one of you learn how to acquire his own wife in holiness and honor.” (Malherbe, AB)
The translations suggest a response to two rather different issues. The first suggests that the issue may be inappropriate lust within marriage, sexual behavior where the husband does not show due respect for the wife. The second translation suggests that the issue is lust outside marriage, and that the proper response is for the libidinous male to find a wife. There are other passages in Paul that could reinforce either of these interpretations.
The interpretation is further complicated by the next verse (v 6) and the injunction that “no one exploit a brother in this matter.” (The NRSV’s more inclusive translation just further confuses the issue.) How does either of these behaviors “exploit a brother”?
What is clear is that the proper context for sexual expression is marriage. Marriage is a matter of mutual respect. In this as in all other matters Christians honor not only their own marital relationships but the whole community. Christians should not look like pagans. And there will be judgment for those who do not live up to this standard.
Communal cooperation (4:9-12)
The claim that right Christian behavior always involves attention to the whole community of faith becomes even clearer in this next section. There are several injunctions here.
The Thessalonian community are to love one another (v 9). That seems clear enough.
The Thessalonian Christians are to love Christians throughout Macedonia (v 10). That is a little less clear. Does “love” here imply some kind of inter-congregational cooperation, incipient Presbyterianism? Does it imply some kind of financial support? Does it imply sending missionaries to spread the Gospel throughout Macedonia? Does it imply continuing to set an example for all the churches of Macedonia (as in 1:7)? Certainly, it includes holding up these other churches in regular prayer.
The Thessalonian Christians are to “aspire to live quietly and to mind your own affairs” (v 11). Perhaps this is a response to some problem that Timothy has reported. Perhaps it is just a general admonition that is bound to be appropriate in any Christian community.
Minding your own affairs may be closely related to “working with your own hands” in the last injunction of this section. It may mean not to rely on other Christians to maintain your economic and physical security. It is possible that some of the Thessalonians have taken Paul’s strong pleas for interdependence to suggest that it is more blessed to depend than to be depended upon. We simply do not know. We do know that Paul has already reminded the Thessalonians that he worked among them with his own hands and by implication they are called to follow his example. He of all people had the right to rely on the financial support of the church and he refused to do so.
Some have thought that these verses indicate that the Thessalonians Christians were slacking off in general. They connect this to the repeated claim of our letter that Christ will return soon and hypothesize that since the days were short it might seem advantageous just to back off such mundane activities as working with your hands.
There is no clear evidence of this connection between Jesus’ return and laziness in this passage, and we are reminded of the placard posted on a Yale office bulletin board. “Jesus is coming again. Look busy.”
Comfort in the face of death (4:13-18)
In interpreting this last section of our chapter, it helps to remember that throughout this chapter Paul is concerned with the edification of the community. He opposes sexual behavior which threatens unity. He opposes the kind of laziness or the kind of nosiness that destroys community, too.
Now his vision of community broadens. He is concerned not only for the community of the living Thessalonians, he is concerned for the community shared by the living and the dead. Again, just as Christians are supposed to practice their sexuality differently from the way pagans do, Christians are supposed to honor their dead differently from the way pagans honor their dead.
It is fairly clear what the situation is in Thessalonica. In the (not very long) time since Paul started the church, some of the members have died. Paul needs to explain more clearly his hope for the end of time to spare the Thessalonians from inappropriate grief and to assure the wellbeing of their community. Whether Paul responds here to specific information from Timothy we cannot be sure, but it seems the simplest explanation of the lengthy response to what seems a quite specific problem.
Some have suggested that Paul takes on the issue of the resurrection of dead believers here because this is a relatively new problem for him as well. Clearly during the early part of his ministry, he believed that Jesus would return during his lifetime. Perhaps he left the Thessalonians with exactly the same impression, and neither he nor they had much pondered the issue of those who died “in Christ.” (Falling sleep was a euphemism for dying, then and now; its use probably does not imply any particular understanding of the state of the dead.)
While it is dramatically appealing to think of Paul struggling with the death of believers here for the first time, this seems a little late in his ministry for him to be surprised by death (see our suggested chronology in the introduction). And while it is possible that he had preached Jesus’ coming to the Thessalonians without any reference to the general resurrection, it seems more likely considering Paul’s Pharisaic background and considering what he would later write in 1 Corinthians 15 that the idea of general resurrection was not brand new but that the fact of death left some problems for the Thessalonians.
The most obvious problem from the way Paul shapes his solution is the problem of the order of eschatological events. The anxiety of the Thessalonians seems to be that when Christ returns the dead will miss out. They will miss out on the big event and they might miss out on the celebration to follow. Paul’s comforting word, then, is that the living will not precede the dead in greeting the coming Christ (v 15); but quite the contrary, the dead will be at the front of the welcoming party (v 16).
Abraham Malherbe suggests a slight variation on this theme. If, as Paul has told them, the Thessalonians are aware of their unity in Christ, their hope for the end was a hope that they as a community would be caught up into Christ’s reign. How disappointing that they might have only most of the community present. Salvation was not, after all, just about this Christian or that. It was about the community.
In any case the overall promise is clear. Christ will return with the kind of supporting players and special effects predicted by much apocalyptic literature. Neither the dead nor the living will be left out of that glorious consummation.
We are left to wonder whether Jesus, in mid-air (v 17), has come to bring the faithful to heaven with him or has come to rule over the faithful on earth. Perhaps the purpose of this parousia, this coming, is not for him to welcome the believers but for them to welcome him. There is after all that old prayer that Paul may know: “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”
Lindsey Trozzo, “Thessalonian Women: The Key to the 4:4 Conundrum,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 39 (2012) 39–52.
Richard S. Ascough, “A Question of Death: Paul’s Community Building Language in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18,” Journal of Biblical Literature 123 (2004) 509–30.
Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden, “1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 in Rabbinic Perspective,” New Testament Studies 58 (2012) 199–212.
Questions for Discussion:
- While we are not certain precisely what issues Paul is addressing when he speaks of sexual purity, it is quite clear that he commends sexual intercourse within the context of marriage. In our society, for Christians and non-Christians alike the it seems that sexual intimacy does not depend on the marriage vows. Are there ways that we can be honest about the different morals of our society and yet learn from Paul’s deep concern for marriage?
- How do you understand the relationship between faithfulness to God and the gift and responsibility of labor? How does this affect our vision of a church or a community that can be both loving and rigorous?
- Paul clearly is deeply concerned with the interdependence within congregations and probably among congregations as well. In your own church, how does your community move beyond polite relations with other Christians and other churches to a deeper and more strenuous commitment?
- Paul is deeply concerned not only with the claim that Christ will come again but with some of the details of that scenario. It is hard in a world that has waited for that return for two millennia to be as certain as Paul about what God’s triumph in Jesus Christ might look like. Do these details matter? What can you affirm about the Christian hope beyond death?
Yale Bible Study
1 & 2 Thessalonians
1 Thessalonians V. Eschatology and Final Admonitions
The last chapter of 1 Thessalonians treats in inverse order (sometimes called a “chiastic” arrangement) the themes of the two previous chapters. Paul begins by offering some more general reflections on eschatological hope that frame the attention in the previous chapter to the issue of the recently deceased (5:1–11). He then appeals to the community to act as they have been called, repeating some important themes from his earlier admonitions (5:12–24). He then concludes with standard epistolary formalities (5:25–28).
More on Eschatology (5:1–11)
Paul had just discussed what he anticipated would be the scene at Christ’s return to earth. His sketch of that scenario did not mention when it might take place, although Paul seemed to anticipate that it would happen in his lifetime (4:15). Here he introduces a word of caution about such particular expectation about the “times and the seasons” (v 1). He says that he really does not have to write about the subject because of what the Thessalonians know. In rehearsing, what he had probably taught them about their eschatological hope, Paul echoes sayings found elsewhere in early Christian literature.
The reference to the decisive end time event as the “day of the Lord” derives from prophetic predictions about God’s intervention into human affairs (Isaiah 2:17; 4:2; 7:18, 20; 13:9, 13; 26:21; 27:1; 28:5; Ezekiel 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:11; Amos 5:20; Zephaniah 1:7; Malachi 4:5), which early followers of Jesus readily appropriated (1 Corinthians 1:8; 2 Corinthians 1:14). A saying attributed to Jesus (Matthew 24:43–44; Luke 12:39–40) warned his disciples to be ready for the coming of the Son of Man, which will happen at an “hour” they do not suspect. They are like a householder who does not know when a “thief” might try to break into the house. Matthew (24:42) frames that saying with an explicit warning that the disciples do not know “on what day” the Lord will come. Paul’s version of the warning makes the same connection between the image of the thief in the night and the coming “day” found in Matthew. It is unlikely that he knew the Gospel of Matthew, but he certainly knew of the sayings tradition underlying it.
Some Christians have overlooked the reticence to specify a time for the realization of eschatological hope found in the Jesus tradition and in Paul. Among more modern interpreters, Dispensationalists of the early nineteenth century have tried to read the apocalyptic texts of the Old and New Testament as a series of datable signposts to the End Times. Such Christians were probably inspired by the book of Daniel, with its calculation of the time when the defiled Temple would be restored (Daniel 7:25; 12:11–13) or by symbolic temporal calculations of the book of Revelation derived from Daniel (11:3; 12:6; 13:5). The failure of such efforts to succeed in identifying the date of Christ’s return has not prevented others from pursuing the effort to do so.
Efforts to date the second coming of Christ with some precision took place from the earliest days of the Christian movement. Like the sayings of Jesus, Paul here warns that any attempts to predict the future are likely to prove futile. He, however, focuses on another problem: the effort to deny the possibility of any imminent judgment. Predictions of “peace and security” (v 3), an echo of Jeremiah 6:14, are not to be trusted, since those who confidently predict such conditions will find themselves in the midst of “destruction.” The thrust of this warning to take seriously the possibility of coming judgment also resembles the eschatological teaching of Jesus (Matthew 24:37–39; Luke 17:26–33). Quite apart from the prediction of end-time events, Paul’s words are a salutary reminder that conditions can change rapidly and unexpectedly, a phenomenon abundantly attested in recent history.
The image of a woman in labor (v 3) appears in Isaiah13:8 as a metaphor for agony that people will feel as the day of the Lord approaches. The eschatological sermon of Jesus (Mark 13:17) echoes Isaiah’s language but in terms of a “woe” on those who are actually pregnant in those days. Images of a woman in labor, with different metaphorical twists, appears in other early Christian treatments of the end (Rev 12:1–6; John 16:21–22).
Paul has no hesitation about mixing his metaphors and jumping from one symbolic sphere to another. He does so now, alluding to the proverbial wisdom of the Jesus tradition. He begins by picking up the contrast of darkness and light inherent in the image of the thief in the night (v 2) and applies the contrast to his addressees. He tells them that they are not in darkness, so as to be surprised by a thief (v 4). Instead, the Thessalonians are “children of light” and “children of the day.” Here Paul evokes other sayings of the Jesus tradition about the light that shines from (Matthew 5:14; Mark 4:21; Luke 8:16; 11:33; John 11:10) or upon (John 8:12; 11:9; 12:35–36) his disciples, who can be called “children of light” (Luke 16:8).
Paul quickly moves (v 6) to make a hortatory point, telling his addressees not to fall asleep. In doing so he alludes again to the parabolic saying of the householder or to the summons of Jesus to “keep awake” (Matt 24:42; Mark 13:33; Luke 21:36; cf. 1 Corinthians 16:13). Paul continues the play on the image of the servants at night, adding a moralizing twist: keeping awake is tied to being sober (v 6). He adds a brief explanation that sleep and drunkenness are phenomena of the night (v 7). The combination of sobriety and nocturnal watchfulness is probably also proverbial and appears in the famous saying of 1 Peter 5:8 to “be sober, be watchful” (NRSV: “Discipline yourselves, keep alert”) because the devil goes about like a roaring lion.
Assuring his audience that they are not drowsy drunkards, Paul shifts his metaphorical gears once again, now introducing martial language (v 8). The Thessalonians are to don military equipment that looks like the three virtues with which Paul begin. The “breastplate” is one of faith and love, and the “helmet” consists of the “hope of salvation.” Perhaps reflecting some time spent watching gladiatorial games, Paul deploys a general metaphor of spiritual arms in Romans (13:12) and 2 Corinthians 6:7, and 10:4. The specific equipment mentioned here appears again in the most elaborate development of this metaphor in Ephesians 6:11–17.
The bottom line of the intricate pattern of images is a message of hope and that God wills the salvation of his people, a goal made possible by the death of Christ (vv 9–10). Paul ties the reflection of this chapter to the presenting issue that occupied him in chapter 4, the fact that some Thessalonians have died. His message of hope is that whether “awake or asleep,” i.e., either alive or dead, we “live with him.”
Final Exhortation (5:12–23)
A series of discrete bits of advice focuses not on general issues of ethical behavior but on aspects of the life of the community. Paul first asks the Thessalonians to respect those who “labor among you” and “have charge of you” (v 12). The Thessalonians, like other Pauline communities were not simply egalitarian communes, but had some organizational shape. Paul hints at some of the functions that were involved in his depiction of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:10–11, 27–30. Many functions seem to be “charismatic,” i.e., simply a result of the gifts and graces that people had for healing, teaching, preaching, and meeting other community needs. But among those who had gifts and graces were people who “have charge”; or as the Greek literally puts it, “stand in front” of the community (v 12). The church does not yet have the offices of bishops and deacons that Pauline communities will soon acquire (1 Timothy 3:1–13); but, not surprisingly, it does have people assuming leadership roles, perhaps a group of elders (presbyters). Paul asks that they be respected (v 13).
Paul’s admonition to be “at peace among yourselves” (v 13) recognizes the possibility of dissension that in fact marked various Pauline communities, and indeed most other human groups. The advice to “admonish the idlers” (v 14) points to an issue that will loom larger in 2 Thessalonians (3:6–12). Here it is a part of series of suggestions about helping those in who need encouragement, the “faint-hearted” and “weak.” The admonition echoes the call of Isaiah to support the faint-hearted in the face of God’s coming intervention into human history (Isaiah 35:3–4). The admonition not to return evil for evil recalls the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38–42) and frames this set of recommendations in balance with the call to be at peace.
Paul had earlier highlighted joy as a hallmark of his own experience of faithful community (3:9). He returns to the theme here with a call to “rejoice always” (v 16). Prayer (v 17) and thanksgiving (v 18) should be hallmarks of the community “in all circumstances.” The term for “giving thanks” (eucharisteite) is the word from which the Christian sacred meal derives its name. While the celebration of a daily “eucharist” is not likely to have been part of the church’s life at this point, the later tradition of doing so is one way of fulfilling Paul’s summons in these verses.
Paul’s communities understood themselves to be “spirit filled,” and the description of worship at Corinth in 1 Corinthians 11, 12, and 14 provides a glimpse into what that meant for Paul’s converts. Paul values the spontaneity and enthusiasm that was part of early Christian assemblies and does not want that Spirit to be quenched, although he himself will try to enforce some discipline on expressions of the Spirit among the Corinthians. Here he focuses on “prophets” (v 21), by which he probably means people who deliver words of exhortation in the communal meetings, the kind of people to whom he refers in 1 Corinthians (11:5; 14:3, 24, 29–32). Yet even what such inspired preachers have to say needs to be “tested” (v 21) and subject to judgment about what is good and evil (v 22).
Benediction and Farewell (5:23–28)
The concluding verses of the letter display common language of prayer, although Paul makes one final allusion to eschatological hope in asking that the community be kept “sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord” (v 23).
One special note in Paul’s farewell is the call to greet all the brothers and sisters “with a holy kiss” (v 26), a practice that Paul mentions at the conclusion of several of his letters (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12 and see 1 Peter 5:14). The “holy” kiss is probably a ritualized version of a normal, friendly greeting. Such greetings are part of many Christian liturgies to this day, a tangible sign of the kind of solidarity for which the epistle as a whole pleads.
David May, “‘You Cannot Hide the Soul’: 1 Thessalonians 5:12–22,” Review and Expositor 96 (1999) 277–85.
Thomas W. Currie, “1 Thessalonians 5:1–24,” Interpretation 60 (2006) 446–49.
Questions for Discussion:
- The hope for the future that Paul expresses in 1 Thessalonians is not simply about the survival of the individual and restoration to life; it is also about the community and its fate. What kind of hope for the future do you have? Is that hope tied to a scripturally based timetable?
- Paul’s use of imagery in this chapter is striking. Are there ways in which you find the images of light and darkness or of the life of virtue as a military enterprise to be particularly useful for thinking about Christian belief and practice?
- Paul’s advice about how to behave as a Christian community relies heavily on the language of being “spirit filled.” What exactly is he talking about? Does the language make sense in a contemporary environment?
Yale Bible Study
1 & 2 Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians I. More Thanksgiving
There is good evidence that some of the letters attributed to Paul were written by someone else in Paul’s name. Some scholars have thought that 2 Thessalonians is one of those letters. Those who hold this position cite several kinds of evidence:
- 2 Thessalonians follows the structure of 1 Thessalonians so closely that it seems likely that someone was using the earlier letter as a template for the second letter.
- The understanding of the end of time seems so different in 2 Thessalonians from the understanding in 1 Thessalonians that it appears to represent a different author—not Paul.
- The particular features of 2 Thessalonians’ anxiety about what is going on in Thessalonica suggest a date later than Paul’s own ministry.
- The fact that the author insists that it is Paul’s hand that signs the final words of the letter may indicate that the pseudonymous author is protesting too much. This is just the kind of emphatic insistence on genuineness that might be expected from someone who has actually made up the whole letter.
Those who defend the authenticity of the letter have responses to each of these claims.
- 2 Thessalonians closely follows 1 Thessalonians at some points because Paul would still have the earlier letter very much in mind. Further, both letters follow a structure that is common in first century letter writing, so it is not surprising that structurally they seem to be much the same.
- It is impossible to discern what the range of apocalyptic scenarios might be for Paul. I Thessalonians is different not only from 2 Thessalonians but from 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 8, each of which was certainly written by Paul. And, of course, we have only a few of the many letters Paul probably wrote; and we have no direct access to the sermons he preached.
- Unfortunately, we do not have any independent evidence of the early history of the church at Thessalonica. We can propose plausible scenarios for 2 Thessalonians being written shortly after 1 Thessalonians and plausible scenarios for a later date. Different readers will find different reconstructions of history plausible.
- The emphasis on Paul’s own signature makes considerable sense since he has been concerned that someone has misinterpreted his eschatological hope to claim that the second coming has already happened. By signing this letter, he authenticates this work over against the other letter or the interpretation that has confused the Thessalonians.
All our attempts to describe the relationship between the two letters are hypotheses. Two such hypotheses seem to us plausible:
First, as Abraham Malherbe suggests, the letter that the Thessalonians misunderstand is in fact the letter we have as 1 Thessalonians. Though this letter does not say what the Thessalonians have been led to believe, i.e., that the Kingdom is already here, it is entirely possible that some of those who read the letter aloud to the congregations or someone who served to interpret that letter provided the misreading that Paul intends to correct.
Malherbe suggests that the other main issue 2 Thessalonians addresses, the laziness of some who receive their livelihood as a dole from the church, is simply a further manifestation of the problem Paul had noted in 1 Thessalonians.
So, according to Malherbe, in a very short time after he sent his first epistle to Thessalonica Paul has learned of their misinterpretation and their disappointing practices and writes a second letter to strengthen what he has urged in the first—patience in waiting for the fullness of the apocalypse and the personal responsibility to work and contribute.
The other possible scenario suggests that 2 Thessalonians is written sometime after 1 Thessalonians—perhaps toward the end of the first century of our era. The second coming has been delayed for a long time; and, not surprisingly, Christians either become discouraged or reinterpret the Kingdom as a purely present reality. The problems that the community experienced in the 50’s have been exacerbated in the decades since. One of Paul’s followers then writes what he thinks Paul would say to correct the wrong eschatology and to improve the disappointing behavior.
Though we favor the second scenario, we understand the question of the date and authorship of 2 Thessalonians remains unanswerable with the evidence we have. What we can tell from our letter is what is going on in Thessalonica and what the author thinks needs to be done about it.
The Initial Salutation (1:1–2)
As with I Thessalonians Paul, Silvanus (Silas), and Timothy are listed as the senders of the letter. Again, as in that earlier letter, this list does not imply that the epistle was written by committee but that Timothy and Silas are with Paul and that the message he writes represents their common opinion.
“Grace,” as we have seen, is a close verbal cousin to the usual salutation in Greek letters, “greetings”. “Peace” translates the Greek word which is the translation of the Hebrew word “shalom,” which then as now would be a standard greeting. The word also represents the wholeness, fulfillment, and reconciliation that are central to Paul’s gospel (and perhaps here to the gospel of Paul’s disciple, if such a person wrote this letter). (From here on we shall refer to our author as “Paul” without trying to settle the question of original authorship.) It is a fundamental claim of Paul’s writings that “that “grace” and “peace” are gifts of God—sometimes of the Father, sometimes of the Son—here a gift from both.
The first Thanksgiving (1:3-4)
Like 1 Thessalonians, our letter contains two thanksgiving sections, 1:3-4 and 2:13-15. In other Pauline letters, there is one thanksgiving that strengthens the solidarity of the apostle with his church and sets forth some of the key themes of the letter that follows. Here the two thanksgivings provide a kind of frame (inclusion) for the prediction of the consummation of history in 1:5-2:12.
This first thanksgiving reinforces the bond between the author and the congregation. In doing so it uses an appropriate pedagogical device. Paul commends the church for being so faithful and then uses that commendation to nudge them toward fuller faithfulness.
The Coming Judgment, Part one (1:5–12)
It becomes clear that one theme of the letter will be the issue of tribulations and perhaps even persecutions. We immediately expect that one purpose of the letter is to provide comfort, and that will come. At this point, however, these very tribulations become the entry into Paul’s claims about Christ’s return.
The promise of judgment (v 5) speaks to the issue of the suffering of the faithful in at least two ways. First, suffering strengthens them in faith and makes them worthy of the coming Kingdom. Second, their suffering provides all the evidence God needs to work retribution on those who persecute and harass them.
Again, as in our reading of 1 Thessalonians, we cannot be sure of the nature and extent of the persecution. There is no evidence of widespread martyrdom afflicting these early Christians, and it may be (as in the first letter of Peter) that what they suffer is mostly ostracism and verbal abuse from the pagan society they have left behind. So, what Paul promises is a coming judgment, a kind of tribunal where those who have been unjustly persecuted are rewarded and those who have persecuted unjustly will be punished.
As with 1 Thessalonians, we have a brief but vivid scenario of what that judgment will look like. There will be Jesus’ descent from heaven, a retinue of angels, and a flaming fire, presumably a purifying fire rather than a destroying fire (vv 7–8).
When Jesus returns he will be greeted by a host of “saints”—that is of believers. The faithful will not only recognize him; they will glorify him (v 10).
These features of Jesus’ return seem to be typical of early Christian apocalyptic literature—literature that deals with the conclusion of history by God’s intervention. Matthew 24:9-13 suggests that distress and false prophecy will precede the coming of the end.
Matthew 24:30-31 presents a scenario not unlike that of this letter. “Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” (See also Mark 13:26-27)
The prediction of Christ’s return echoes Daniel 7:13: “I saw one like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven.” The scenario is, of course, much further elaborated in the book of Revelation: “Then I looked and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand.” (Rev. 14;14). If our letter is in fact written by one of Paul’s disciples for the problems of the later part of the first century, Revelation comes from much the same period.
Judgment will be pronounced on any who fall into the following categories:
- They do not know God.
- They do not obey the gospel.
- They afflict believers.
- They have not believed Paul’s testimony about Jesus.
Unlike any other Pauline letter 2 Thessalonians goes on to describe the features of eternal judgment (v 9). On the one hand, the condemned will suffer eternal destruction. On the other hand, they will be separated from the presence and glory of God. It may be that Paul describes not two different punishments but one. To be separated from the glory of God is itself to suffer destruction; apart from God we are nothing.
Verses 11 and 12 bring us back to the thanksgiving prayer, or perhaps represent a continuation of that prayer. Again, the hope is that their faith and obedience may grow from more to more; and we know enough of Paul to suspect that before our letter is over he will be perfectly happy to spell out what that “more and more” looks like.
The end of this, the goal, the telos (to use the Greek word) is glory—twofold glory. The goal of Paul’s prayers and the believers’ lives is that Christ should be glorified and the believers should be glorified in him. This glory surely represents the glory at the end of time when Jesus judges some for glory and some for separation. But in this letter as in others, the present time also provides the opportunity to glorify Christ and to participate in his glory.
What makes this glory possible is (as we saw in verse 2) “grace”—the unearned generous gift of “our God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” This simply reaffirms the strong emphasis in this paragraph on the strong working of God. It is God who will make the believers worthy of their call to be believers. It is God’s power that they are enabled to be faithful and resolute. Of course, God’s power is yet to be revealed with the fire and the angels and the shouting crowds. But they need only look at their own community to see that power active already. Judgment day will ratify what every day already demonstrates: the gracious power of God.
Edgar Krentz, “Through a Lens: Theology and Fidelity in 2 Thessalonians,” in Jouette M. Bassler, ed., Pauline Theology, Vol. I: Thessalonians, Philippians, Galatians, Philemon (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991) 52–62.
Robert Jewett, “A Matrix of Grace: The Theology of 2 Thessalonians as a Pauline Letter,” in Jouette M. Bassler, ed., Pauline Theology, Vol. I: Thessalonians, Philippians, Galatians, Philemon (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991) 63–70.
Paul Foster, “Who Wrote 2 Thessalonians: A New Look at an Old Problem,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 35 (2012) 150–75.
Questions for Discussion:
- Our discussion suggests that it is possible that 2 Thessalonians was not written by Paul but by a later follower writing in his name. Does this change your sense of how authoritative or helpful the book may be? (The same issue arises with several other letters attributed to Paul.)
- 2 Thessalonians suggests that the suffering of Christians may serve to strengthen their faith and to make clear the faults of their persecutors. How do you understand human suffering and its relationship to God’s love and providence?
- This letter places stress on the judgment that God will bring on the ungodly at the end of time. In many of our churches we are very reluctant to talk about God’s judgment, since we don’t want to be judgmental. Can we draw helpfully on the claims that this letter makes about God as judge?
Yale Bible Study
1 & 2 Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians II. Resistance and Delay
In the first chapter Paul presented a scenario of eschatological events that was different in many ways from what appeared in 1 Thessalonians. The earlier letter had a positive and encouraging tone, offering consolation to those whose friends and relatives had died. The letter assured them that they would be together again to greet Christ on his return. The scenario sketched in this letter emphasizes the judgment that would take place at the time of Christ’s coming. Although the scenario differed from that of 1 Thessalonians, the initial picture of eschatological judgment sketched here is familiar from other early Christian depictions of what would happen at the end of the age. The eschatological discourse of chapter 2 moves into less familiar territory, although it too has abundant parallels in the tradition of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic thought. It depicts a period of strife between “our Lord Jesus Christ” and a mysterious individual who resists his coming. Although the passage does not use the term, it served as a basis for Christian speculation on “the Antichrist.”
The Lawless One (2:1–12)
The reference to “being gathered together with him” (v 1) alludes to the kind of scenario that Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. It is similar as well to what appears in Jesus’ eschatological discourse in Matthew 24:31, 38–42. The subsequent reference to the source of deception, a “spirit,” a “word,” or a “letter as if by us” (v 3) lists possible sources of false teaching, an inspired prophecy, a rational argument, or a Pauline letter. The latter phrase may be an explicit reference to, and an attempt to discredit, 1 Thessalonians, although this letter will later endorse Paul’s teaching “by letter” (2:15).
The second verse focuses on the precise problem with expectation of the eschatological “gathering,” the belief that “the day of the Lord is already here.” Anyone who read the eschatological passage in 1 Thessalonians and its reference to “we who are alive, who are left,” (1 Thessalonians 4:17) could easily have drawn the inference that the second coming of Christ was going to happen in the lifetime of the first generation of believers. Paul, of course, had warned the Thessalonians that it was impossible to predict when Christ’s return would occur (1 Thessalonians 5:1–2), but that warning did not prevent his followers from hoping that the event would happen sooner rather than later.
There are, in fact, numerous other passages in the New Testament that give evidence of a belief in Christ’s imminent return. In Mark 9:1, for example, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” The epilogue to the Fourth Gospel (John 21) seems to address a similar hope that the first generation of disciples, or at least the “beloved disciple,” would be alive to welcome Jesus back to earth (John 21:20–23). The author of John 21 had to correct that expectation, by treating a purported saying of Jesus, perhaps something like Mark 9:1, as a hypothetical question, not a promise. The Book of Revelation plays in intriguing ways with eschatological hopes, how the “not yet” is somehow here “already,” but it too has passages that point to Christ’s imminent return (Revelation 10:7; 12:10–12; 22:12). Paul himself in 1 Corinthians refers to the “impending crisis” (7:26), and expresses his convictions that “the appointed time has grown short” (7:29) and that “the present form of this world is passing away” (7:31). Belief that the events of the “end time,” including the second coming or “parousia” of Christ, were imminent was thus common enough among Christians of the first century but that belief became more problematic as time wore on.
One way of dealing with what has been described as the “delay of the parousia” was to reinterpret eschatological hopes. Examples of such reinterpretation are in evidence in such texts as 2 Timothy 2:18, which condemns two teachers, Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have declared that “the resurrection has already taken place,” but their teaching does not seem to be the problem addressed in 2 Thessalonians. The problem seems to be the expectation that the parousia is imminent.
Other early Christians refocused eschatological hope. The eschatological discourse found in Mark 13 could be used in support of the belief in the imminent second coming mentioned in Mark 9:1. The third evangelist uses Mark 13 as the basis for his version of Jesus’ eschatological teaching in Luke 21. Writing after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, he extends the eschatological timetable by saying that the destruction of the city is simply the start of the “times of the Gentiles” (Luke 21:20–24). The coming of the Son of Man would take place at a later, indefinite date (Luke 21:25–28).
The scenario of 2 Thessalonians also suggests that something must happen and someone must appear before Christ’s parousia. It names the event as “the rebellion” and the coming one as “the lawless one,” who is “destined for destruction” (v 3). Both terms are rather vague and could refer to any number of things. The first, apostasia (literally, “apostasy”) can be translated with political overtones, as in the NRSV’s “rebellion.” It would then refer to a period of political and military turmoil, of “wars and rumors of wars” such as those predicted in Jesus’ eschatological discourse (Matthew 24: 6; Mark 13:7; Luke 21:9). The term will come to have a special sense in Christian circles for those who deviate from accepted teaching and discipline. The related verb appears in 1 Timothy 4:1, referring to those who “renounce the faith.” Similar references to such doctrinal apostasy as a hallmark of the end time appear at 2 Timothy 3:1–5; Jude 18–19.
The figure of the “lawless one” who is “destined for destruction” may be a “false Messiah,” predicted as a feature of the end time in the various versions of the eschatological discourse (Matthew 24:23; Mark 13:21; Luke 21:8). The first epistle of John explicitly mentions as a feature of the “last hour” an “antichrist” (1 John 2:18), and suggests that this figure is linked with “apostasy” (v 19). The scenario thus involves some kind of division in the community prompted by a figure with a new or different message from that of the Johannine elder.
The following description of the “lawless one” (v 4) has echoes of various figures who opposed the God of Israel. One is the “Day Star, son of Dawn” of Isaiah 14:12–20, who said, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit on the mount of the assembly.” Another is the Prince of Tyre of Ezekiel 28:1–10. A third is Antiochus Epiphanes, the Greek king of the Seleucid empire, who defiled the Temple in 167 BCE, leading to the Maccabean revolt. His actions inspired the language “desolating sacrilege” of Matthew 24:15 and Mark 13:14. The Book of Daniel describes Antiochus in clearly unflattering terms (Daniel 7:23–25; 8:23–25; 11:20–28).
The audacity of the figure of the “lawless one,” who takes a place in God’s Temple, “declaring himself to be God” (v 4) could be inspired by these Biblical figures, or by contemporary Roman emperors, usually “divinized” after their death, but often objects of cultic reverence in Eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. The visions of the Book of Revelation certainly connect demonic opposition to God with that political power and such an anti-Roman attitude may undergird the prediction of the “lawless one” here.
Biblical villains of cosmic dimensions and eschatological projections of opposition to God are woven together into the figure of the “lawless one.” But, the letter further lengthens the eschatological timetable, and makes him a hidden reality, subject to a mysterious “restraining” force (v 6). This vague entity is probably inspired by stories of angelic struggles between forces of good and evil, such as those found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Scroll of the Rule (1QS), for example, depicts the struggle between the Spirit of Darkness and the Spirit of Light. A similar tale in Revelation 12:7–17, drawing on ancient myths of divine combat, tells of the struggle of the archangel Michael with the Devil and the expulsion of the latter from heaven. Whatever its inspiration, the “restraining” force remains mysterious and is not easily identified with any contemporary reality. That mysterious quality further lengthens the eschatological timetable.
While mystery shrouds the eschatological future, it offers a way of reading the present and contemporary application is the focus of the remainder of the reflection on the “lawless one.” That “coming” figure already has an impact on the world, where the effects of “Satan” are to be felt (v 9). Paul understood that an inimical spiritual force was at work in opposition to his mission (1 Corinthians 7:5; 2 Corinthians 2:11; 11:14; 12:7; 1 Thessalonians 2:18), and, in some way, could punish sinners (1 Corinthians 5:5). He, or one of his disciples, can also name this personal force “Beliar” (2 Corinthians 6:15), who stands in opposition to Christ. The current passage envisions a similar figure. Satan is responsible for the “wicked deception” of those who “refused to love the truth” (v 10). The reading of eschatological characters as symbols of contemporary church divisions, noted as features of 1 John and the pastoral epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), appears once more.
Although the author has pointed to the baleful work of Satan who leads some astray, he now ultimately attributes the process to God, who sends people a “powerful delusion” which leads to false belief (v 11). The formulation here might be taken to support a strong notion of predestination, and the language echoes the reference to divine “destination” of 1 Thessalonians 5:9. But the pattern of divine action is very similar to what Paul describes in Romans 1:18–25. A human decision to refuse the gift of faith prompts God’s action in leaving people to their desire. Like many religious thinkers of the first century, our author holds in tension two principles that philosophers and theologians have long struggled to reconcile: divine sovereignty and human responsibility. In any case our author has a harsh word for those who have not believed and taken pleasure in unrighteousness: they “will be condemned” (v 12).
Another Thanksgiving (2:13–15)
The somewhat harsh tone of the reflection on eschatology in which 2 Thessalonians has been engaged since 1:5 now reverts to a more positive, pastoral mode. The Thessalonians ought to give thanks because God has “chosen” them, as Paul had said at 1 Thessalonians 1:4. They are the “first fruits,” an image that Paul uses for the gifts of the spirit (Romans 8:23), or of the resurrected Christ (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23), but also of those who have come to believe (Romans 11:16). The Thessalonians are presented as an offering to God, but the result of that offering is their “salvation,” which happens through “sanctification” and “belief in the truth.” These are certainly terms that Paul uses to characterize Christian life. “Sanctification” is a term defining what is appropriate for presentation to God in the Temple cult. Paul uses it, for instance in Romans 6:19–22, to refer to the result of living in the righteousness that comes as a gift from God accepted in faith. While “faith” in Romans can certainly have a propositional content (Romans 10:8–13), it is more a stance of fidelity, imitating the fidelity of Jesus. While Paul was hardly bound to a wooden use of his language, the formulation here sounds as if it is an adaptation of Pauline vocabulary with a slightly different meaning from Paul’s characteristic usage.
Our author holds on to the core hope of Paul’s eschatology, the attaining of “the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.” With that hope in mind, he urges his addressees to “stand firm” (v 15) and hold fast to what he has taught. Here 2 Thessalonians seems to endorse Paul’s earlier correspondence by referring to “our letter.”
The chapter ends with a prayer for comfort and strength (vv 16–17).
Hanna Roose, “‘A Letter as By Us’: Intentional Ambiguity in 2 Thessalonians 2.2,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 29 (2006) 107–24.
Andy Johnson, “Paul’s ‘anti-Christology’ in 2 Thessalonians 2:3–12in canonical context,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 8 (2014) 125–43.
Questions for Discussion:
- The author of 2 Thessalonians seems to be engaged in a reinterpretation of early Christian hope and expectation. If this is so, what are the implications for your understanding of what Scripture does?
- Do the images for eschatological conflict used in 2 Thessalonians play any role in your own thinking about Christian hope? Do you see any correlation between them and what other passages of the New Testament say on the topic?
- The framing of eschatological hope in this letter seems to pay special attention to issues of community coherence. In the process those who disagree seem to be demonized as agents of an inimical spiritual power. Does the letter reflect a tendency in all situations of disagreement that we should be aware of? Are there ways in which Christians should frame their disagreements with others?
- Does the language of “sanctification,” used for what happens within the life of the community, resonate with contemporary Christians? What does it suggest to you? And what are its practical implications?
Yale Bible Study
1 & 2 Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians III. Some Practical Advice
Spreading the Gospel (3:1-5)
These verses echo the first thanksgiving section of 2 Thessalonians (1:3-4) and that of 1 Thessalonians (1:7-10). Paul rejoices that the word has spread among the Thessalonians and prays their blessing that the Lord’s word will continue to spread through his ministry. He reminds them that, like them, his ministry has been hindered by opposition and burdened by tribulation.
The other side of that comparison, of course, is that their tribulations reflect his own (v 2). Paul’s prayer that God will guard them might mean “guard them from evil” but more likely means “guard them from the evil one” (v 3). Apocalyptic literature of this time included a strong dualism, the belief that the world was the battleground between good and evil and more concretely between God and his angels and Satan and his minions. We see this not only in Paul but in the gospels. The parable of Mark 4:15 talks about Satan taking away the word—very much as our letter pictures Satan opposing the word of the gospel. In John 13:2 and Luke 22:3 Satan enters the heart of Judas, causing him to betray Jesus. For these early Christians, there are many opponents but the opposition has a leader.
In good parenetic or teaching, fashion Paul encourages the Thessalonians to behave rightly by assuring them that he knows they are doing just that—all he asks is that their faithfulness increase continually (v 4). In the next verses, he will spell out more explicitly what the commands are that he wants them to (continue) to follow.
When Paul prays that God direct their hearts to the “love of God and the steadfastness of Christ” (v 5), he could mean either God’s love for them and Christ’s steadfastness toward them, or he could mean their love toward God and steadfastness toward Christ. Of course, there is no doubt that he would have prayed for both.
In the middle of this paragraph there is a nice play on words that the NRSV captures quite well. Paul is referring to the evil people “For not all have faith” and then contrasts them with God’s own self “But God is faithful” (v 3). At the heart of the gospel and of this epistle’s confidence is not simply the faith of people—or even the spread of the word, but the faithfulness of God.
Warning against idleness (3:6-14)
Strikingly the initial exhortation here is not simply not to be idle, but to avoid people who are (v 6). Paul seems to have in mind some kind of church discipline similar to that that Jesus commends in Matthew 18, where Christians take responsibility for the behavior of their brothers and sisters. The response to inappropriate behavior is that the faithful should “keep away” from those who act inappropriately (v 6). In somewhat similar manner in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul exhorts the Corinthian Christians to discipline a church member who is having sexual relations with his stepmother. The community is to gather and expel the offender from their fellowship.
In Matthew 18 and probably in 2 Corinthians 5, the hope is that the offenders may repent and be restored to community. In a similar way, Paul tells the Thessalonians that their job is to shame the offenders into penitence. Unlike Satan and unlike those who harass and persecute the church, these people are not to be opposed as enemies but to be chastened and corrected as brothers and sisters.
As in 1 Thessalonians 5:14, Paul uses his own example as the grounds for encouraging the Thessalonians to work with their own hands and not depend on the labor of others. The longest description of Paul’s desire to make his living by his own hands is in 1 Corinthians 9. From Paul’s defensive remarks in 2 Corinthians 11:5–11, it is clear that some of his opponents thought that this independence, which he considers a mark of honor, is really a mark of shame. In both cases he defends his willingness to work as an appropriate mark of his apostleship.
Here and in 1 Thessalonians there is not an argument based on the rights of apostleship, but there is considerable emphasis on the way in which Paul can be an example (v 9) for the Thessalonian believers. He does so by being unwilling to eat bread he has not earned by the work of his own hands (v 8). Paul’s example is reinforced with a pithy proverb, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (v 10), a bit of wisdom often cited in other contexts!
We can only guess what the exact circumstances are that Paul here criticizes, and we can only guess how he has received this information. If this is a genuine letter written shortly after 1 Thessalonians, he has learned not only of the reception of that letter but of other circumstances in the church. Among those circumstances is the sad fact that the laziness condemned in 1 Thessalonians seems only to have grown by the time of 2 Thessalonians. If this is a later letter by another hand, then a mid-first century problem has only deepened toward the end of the century.
In 2 Thessalonians 2:2, the NRSV has the author denying the false claim that “The Day of the Lord has come.” However, it is probably more appropriate to translate the phrase “the day of the Lord is at hand.” Then the author goes on to list the conditions that still need to be fulfilled before the arrival of the end. In our verses, it seems that some of the Thessalonian believers may be relying on the industry of their fellows while they themselves take it easy for what they think will be a very short time of waiting.
In the light of a mistaken conviction that the coming of the Day of the Lord devalues the obligations of everyday life, perhaps some brothers and sisters have decided that it is more blessed to receive than to give. For whatever reason, it seems that most members of the community are working hard (but not all) and that the reason or at least the rationalization for this behavior is what our author thinks is a mistaken eschatology.
When in v. 6 Paul refers to “the tradition” that the Thessalonians have received from him we may find a slight hint that his admonitions have already become part of a tradition—so that we have here the words of a later writer. Or it may be that he has himself been passing on a tradition—based either in Jesus’ teaching or in the Old Testament—that the faithful should work for what they eat.
The word translated “busybodies” in v. 11 seems to suggest that the issue is not simply that some are not working but that they are using the time they have on their hands to meddle in the affairs of others. Idle hands make busybodies. Or, if you really mind your own business (do your own business) you won’t have time to be a busybody.
Final greetings and benediction (1:16-17)
Paul ends the letter as he begins with the prayer for peace, for shalom. Abraham Malherbe probably rightly suggests that the language is the language of the benediction at the Christian assembly and that Paul provides the comforting echoes of liturgical blessing—at the end of a section which has continued mostly warning and admonition. The liturgical tone of the passage is evident in the three times repeated uses of the Greek pas— “every” or “all”.
“Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in all ways. The Lord be with all of you” (v 16).
The Lord may either be God the Father or Jesus the Lord. In either case what characterizes the Lord is here the giver of peace. That may be a word both of comfort and exhortation as a conclusion to the suggestions for church discipline that precede.
The final verses (17–18) suggest that the letter has been dictated and signed only at the end by the apostle in his own hand. As we have said, this emphasis may represent Paul’s attempt to counter the false letter or the false interpretation of 1 Thessalonians that has encouraged the Thessalonians to believe that the end time is at hand. Or this may be a clever device by a follower of Paul to give authenticity to a letter not really written by Paul but written to apply “Pauline” principles to a new time and a new situation.
Nijay Gupta, “An Apocalyptic Reading of Psalm 78 in 2 Thessalonians 3,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 31 (2008) 179–94.
Dorothy Jean Weaver, “2 Thessalonians 3:6–15,” Interpretation 61 (2007) 426–28.
Questions for Discussion:
- In both the letters to the Thessalonians the appeal to faithful behavior rests in part on the expectation that the Day of the Lord is near, or very near. In most of our churches that expectation has faded or been reinterpreted. Are there ways in which we can still lay hold of the strong expectation of our letters, or ways in which we can seek to be faithful but with a different vision of Christian hope?
- In this chapter, the author clearly instructs the Thessalonians how to discipline those who are slack in their responsibilities. Those who do not work should not eat. Is there still a place for strict church discipline in our congregations? If so, how might that work in ways that are faithful to the implications of the gospel?
- How do we understand the injunctions against busybodies in a time when social media blur the distinction between the private and the public, between my business and yours?
- The letter begins as it ends, with a hope for “grace” and “peace.” Can you think of concrete ways in which grace and peace might be manifest in your life or the life of your faith community?