Last week we started a three-week focus on this second letter to the Thessalonian church. We named, while looking at chapter one, that first and foremost, we must read this for what it is – a letter from a church leader to a church over which they have credibility as an apostolic leader. There is some question by scholars as to the author of 2 Thessalonians. While 1 Thessalonians is universally agreed to have been written by Paul, 2 Thessalonians offers a lot of questions regarding authorship. However, regardless who actually penned this text, it has been accepted into the Biblical canon as offering God-inspired writings to guide the church. As such, it is wise to learn the text, and discern how if offers us guidance as those who seek to follow in the tradition of the church that believes in Christ as Lord.
If the first chapter of this text offered mostly a salutation, greeting, and words of thanksgiving, chapter two dives hard into the meat of the author’s concern. It begins with a clear exhortation and thesis, followed by supporting theological dialogue. There is a very clear issue the author is seeking to deal with, made known in the first verse of this morning’s reading.
Our NRSV, and many translations of the Bible, reorder the Greek text. In our pew bibles, the text begins, “As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together with him, we beg you …” However, according to the Greek, the opening phrase is ἐρωτῶμεν δὲ ὑμᾶς (eh-pote-oh-men de who-mas), which is, in our NRSV text, the second phrase of this opening line. It is the interjecting phrase, translated as, “we beg you.” The King James writes, “we beseech thee.” Other versions use ask or pray or entreat. This interjecting phrase of the Greek text shouldn’t be buried in the opening line; it deserves its location up front. The phrase indicates that a new topic is about to be discussed.
Remember, in the original letter, there was no division into chapter and verse. It was just a letter. The biblical editors have bumped this into a second chapter, which helps us know that there is a new thing to be discussed, but in the original letter, this interjecting phrase would have been important for the readers to know the author was shifting his focus. The text is now shifting from the words of thanksgiving and commendation in the opening of the letter to a word of admonition and correction.
With this shift, what is it that the author is going to focus on? The author is going to focus on the question of timing regarding Christ’s return, and how our understanding of the timing of Christ’s return effects how we live as a people of faith. Verses one and two offer, “We beg of you, regarding the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, do not be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here.” The author is writing a word of correction to a community that seems to altered their belief that Christ’s return is already upon them.
To understand this concern, we have to look back at the First Letter to the Thessalonians. In 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, we read, “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.” Paul had given them some instructions regarding the return of Christ. He had placed in their mind this promise that Christ was going to be returning, and gave them some thoughts as to what that would look like. The dead would be raised to the Lord, and we – the living – will join them, and with Christ, we will all be together forever.
One has to wonder what was going on that would cause the Thessalonians to believe this grand return to Christ had begun. What had given them reason to believe that this promised return was now underway? We could speculate, and suggest that some in the church claimed they had seen ghosts – a sure sign that the dead were coming back to life. We could also speculate that the graves of loved ones were turning up unearthed. Grave robbers were a real concern back then, and it’s possible they found graves opened and empty, and wondered if those bodies had been returned to Christ already.
Yet, in our text today, we find in verse three that, while we don’t know what influence they had, others do seem to be influencing their thoughts regarding Christ’s return. Verse three begins with the author saying, “Let no one deceive you in any way.” It seems the rumor mill has been churning, and the church has formed some anxiety at the possibility of Christ’s return – not imminent, not to come, but already begun. This letter is then offered more as a call back to their senses, “like a letter to a son or daughter away at college who is getting involved with the wrong crowd. The author wants to remind the Thessalonians about the truth they know.”[i]
To calm their concerns, the author lays out what the Thessalonians had already been taught – he’s reminding them of truths they should have already known. Continuing in verse three, we pick back up, “for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.” The author instructs, there is a lawless one – one who intends and indeed will bring destruction. This one opposes God, even to the point of exalting himself above God, as if this lawless one is worthy of being exalted. … The author indicates, Christ’s return will not happen until this one is called out for who he is – for being a false god – revealed as one who, though he seeks to imitate and obstruct god, is indeed lawless, evil, and unworthy.
Verse five affirms that this is not new information. “Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?” asks the author. It is as if the author is perturbed that the church community has given in to these false claims that Christ’s return is already here, or that they have forgotten what they had previously been instructed regarding Christ’s return.
Verses 6-11 are omitted from the reading of the lectionary text, but they continue the explanation of the lawless one. We could, like the middle verses in last week’s text, focus in and draw close attention to the lawless one that is discussed in these verses. We could spend a few weeks in worship speculating who the lawless one is, or was, or will be. We could make antiquated and contemporary connections to characters in the public and private realm who play this role – the role of one who believes they are above all gods. The role of the one who exalts themselves as above rule and law, as the best and greatest, as the most righteous and perfect. The role of the one who promises they can solve all humanity’s problems, and who claims they should be exalted as if the savior.
But this work of identifying is fruitless. As Rev. Brian Findlayson offers, “[the lawless one] takes on many shapes. He can be a political leader, a philosophy, a heresy, a revolutionary group … yes the day may even come when he is a rouge computer.”[ii] The author in 2 Thessalonians does not invite the church to identify the lawless one. The author does not invite the community to try and pinpoint exactly who this lawless one is, as if it is our job to call out the lawless one and squelch their voice and power. In fact, they author’s teaching invites quite the opposite.
Remember, this text is a continuation of what we read last week. The theme and focus are in concert, because they are part of the same letter. Last week, we talked about how in the opening words of thanksgiving, the author makes clear that it is not the job or role of the Thessalonians to be judge over those who offer persecution and affliction to the community. There is a God who will be judge, who will fulfill the role as caretaker and sustainer, even when persecution and affliction offer present and real dangers. But, as God is the judge, and will thus judge as a just and merciful God, we have only one appropriate response in the face of such affliction and persecution – faithfulness, hope, and love.
Here, the invitation is predicated upon the same response. “The impulse to deny God’s godliness, to deny that we are created and not creator, is an impulse set deeply within the human heart.”[iii] But that is not our call – there is a God and it is not us. What the author is instead insisting is that, “Christians can be confident, encouraged people because we know that we are held as first fruits by God’s choice, preserved through the Spirit.”[iv] Regardless of the presence of the lawless one, regardless of the identity of the one who seeks to bring destruction, we, as people of faith, are a people called to trust in God, are a people who are called to believe in the new life made possible by Christ, and are a people who need not fear!
This instruction is made more abundantly clear as we pick back up in verse 13. After the author has laid out an explanation of the lawless one, and named why the presence of the lawless one refutes any possible claim that Christ’s return has already begun, he shifts back to a focus on the church community itself. Beginning in verse 13, we read, “But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by your letter. Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.”
“For the writer, the solution for controlling errant thought and irresponsible behavior lies in a specific set of traditions associated with the apostle’s past.”[v] This admonition is not uncommon; it’s normal to invite corrective behavior as a remembering of self. Like when a parent says, “We taught you better than that.” Or in the phrase often used when someone moves out of a small town, “Don’t forget from where you came.”
In the case of this letter, from one writing with apostolic leadership, it’s a worthy question to ask, what traditions are the Thessalonians being invited to remember? To what traditions is the church being invited to hold fast?
The author writes little more that can guide this instruction. All the author offers is to stand firm and hold fast to what you’ve been taught, either by our words or letter. Without much guidance, at best, we could turn back to 1 Thessalonians and consider, what were the focal points of the first letter? What had this community been taught previously? What might the author be referring to in offering this instruction?
The first letter is five chapters long, but is summarized with a final exhortation by Paul in chapter 5:12-22. It reads, “But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.”
Do you see what Paul’s focus is in 1 Thessalonians? Do you see the connecting points for what the author in 2 Thessalonians is trying to recall?
“Having begun in one direction based on the teaching of Paul while he was with them, they have been surprised by this new teaching [about Christ’s return] and their fear is that of having had their foundation pulled out from underneath them. They are paralyzed, scared, uncertain what to believe and, from that, how to act.”[vi] In the midst of the anxiety – this paralyzed nature – the author says, don’t forget who you are, and who you have been. Live according to this.
The letter is not written so that we might be anxious in our anticipation of Christ’s return; nor is it written as an invitation to identify and call out the lawless one. We are not invited to be the judge over others; nor are we asked to hold others accountable. The letter is written to remind us of what matters most: that we hear the words of Christ, that we follow the teachings of the Lord, that we share God’s love with everyone around us, and that we rejoice in all things, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for each of us. This admonition to remember is not just about right thought or ideal, it’s not about governing practices or maintaining laws … the focus is on our belief in Christ as Lord, and in response, our faithful actions that further God’s grace and love in the world. So may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort our hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word. Amen.