2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
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2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17 Biblical Commentary
In his first letter to the Thessalonian Christians, Paul encouraged them to live as if Christ’s Second Coming might take place at any time (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11).
His second letter acknowledges that Thessalonian Christians have endured persecution (2 Thessalonians 1:4). He assures them that God will set everything right on Judgment Day (1:5-10). He tells them of his constant prayers for them, that they might prove worthy of their calling so “that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him” (1:11-12).
He tells them of events that will precede the Second Coming (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12), and warns against idleness while awaiting it (3:6-15).
2 THESSALONIANS 2:1-5: LET NO ONE DECEIVE YOU
1 Now, brothers, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together to him, we ask you 2 not to be quickly shaken in your mind, nor yet be troubled, either by spirit, or by word, or by letter as from us, saying that the day of Christ had come. 3 Let no one deceive you in any way. For it will not be, unless the departure comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of destruction, 4 he who opposes and exalts himself against all that is called God or that is worshiped; so that he sits as God in the temple of God, setting himself up as God. 5 Don’t you remember that, when I was still with you, I told you these things?
“Now, brothers (adelphoi), concerning the coming (parousia) of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 1a). The word adelphos can mean a sibling by the same physical parents, but in the New Testament adelphos is often used metaphorically to mean a spiritual sibling—a brother or sister by virtue of being children of the same Heavenly Father. Christians in the first century referred to each other as brothers or sisters (Acts 6:3; 9:30; 10:23; Romans 8:29; 1 Corinthians 5:11; Ephesians 6:23; 1 Timothy 6:2; Revelation 1:9; 12:10). Some Christians today still use that sort of language. The rest of us would do well to recover it.
The Greek word parousia means “coming” or “arrival” or “presence.” In the New Testament it is used frequently to speak of the Second Coming of Christ (Matthew 24:3, 27, 37, 39; 1 Corinthians 15:23; 1 Thessalonians 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; James 5:7; 2 Peter 1:16; 3:4; 1 John 2:28). Christians have adopted the word Parousia—a word moved directly from Greek to English—to mean Christ’s Second Coming.
The idea behind Christ’s Second Coming has its roots in the Old Testament understanding of “the Day of the Lord” (Isaiah 13:6, 9; 58:13; Jeremiah 46:10; Ezekiel 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Amos 5:18, 20; Obadiah 1:15; Zephaniah 1:7-8, 14, 18; 2:2-3; Malachi 4:5). It was to be a day when God would save the faithful and judge the wicked. In the New Testament, it came to mean the day when God would bring an end to the current age and institute the age to come (Ladd, 138-139).
In these verses, Paul tries to correct misunderstandings of the Parousia. In verse 5, he reminds these Thessalonian Christians of the things that he taught while he was with them—but he doesn’t reiterate what those things were. This puts us at a disadvantage, because we don’t know what he previously taught them. However, we know that in his first letter to this church, he told them “that the day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2). He assured them that they belong, not to the darkness, but to the light (5:5). He encouraged them not to sleep, but to watch and be sober (5:6).
In verse 2, Paul reassures them that the day of Christ has not yet come, so one of their problems must be anxiety that they have somehow “missed the boat.” He also spoke of Christ’s coming in the future tense in 1:10 (“when he comes to be glorified in his saints”). Presumably, these Thessalonian Christians have misunderstood the Second Coming because of false teachers planting seeds of doubt in their minds.
“and our gathering together (episunagoge) to him” (v. 1b). The word episunagoge is a combination of epi (to) and sunagoge (a gathering place for Jewish worship—a synagogue). In this verse, Paul is talking about Christ gathering together his faithful to himself at his Second Coming.
“we ask (erotao) you not to be quickly shaken (saleuo) in your mind, nor yet be troubled” (v. 1c-2a). In situations like this, Paul often urges (parakalo) particular behavior—parakalo (urge, call, exhort) being a stronger word than erotao (ask, request). In this verse, Paul is making a gentle sort of request.
Paul asks the Thessalonian Christians not to let things bother them—not to be shaken (saleuo) or troubled by the things they hear. The word saleuo (shaken) can be used for a ship being tossed about by the waves. Paul wants the Thessalonians not to be tossed about by every wave of opinion that tries to wash over them.
In verse 15, Paul will give this entreaty a more positive expression, saying, “So then, brothers, stand firm, and hold the traditions which you were taught by us, whether by word, or by letter.”
“either by spirit, or by word, or by letter as from us” (v. 2b). Spirit, word, and letter are three potential sources of misinformation.
• One person might claim to have been inspired by the Spirit with a particular revelation.
• Other person might claim to have received a word from God.
• Still another might claim to have received a letter from Paul and his companions.
Paul is telling these Thessalonians not to allow themselves to be shaken or troubled by falsehoods received through any of these three sources.
“saying that the day of Christ had come” (v. 2c). The misinformation in question is a claim that Christ has already come—that it is no longer a future event—implying that the Thessalonian Christians have missed the boat.
“Let no one deceive you in any way” (v. 3a). Being led astray by deception is always a potential problem for believers. Elsewhere, Paul talks about sin, finding occasion through the law, having deceived him (Romans 7:11). He warns Timothy about “evil men and imposters…deceiving” (2 Timothy 3:13). He warns Titus about unruly men, vain talkers, and deceivers” (Titus 1:10) (see also Jeremiah 29:8; Lamentations 2:14; Revelation 12:9).
Christians need always to be on guard against such deception (1 Corinthians 15:33; Ephesians 5:6).
“For it will not be, unless the departure (apostasia) comes first, and the man of sin (anomia—lawlessness) is revealed, the son of destruction” (v. 3b). Now Paul says that Christ’s coming “will not be” until certain events have occurred.
The apostasia will come before Christ will come again. This word apostasia can be translated departure, rebellion, or apostasy. In this verse, Paul uses this word to speak of people who appear on the surface to be Christians, but who have departed from the true faith to follow “the man of sin”—”the man of lawlessness”—”the son of destruction”.
People have tried to guess who Paul means by this “man of sin”—this “man of lawlessness”. It could have been Antiochus Epiphanes, who profaned the temple and inspired the Maccabean revolt. It could have been Pompey, who profaned the Holy of Holies. It could have been Caligula, a particularly despotic emperor who claimed divinity for himself.
“he who opposes and exalts himself against all that is called God or that is worshiped; so that he sits as God in the temple of God, setting himself up as God” (v. 4). While working on this exegesis, I was also reading a biography of Adolph Hitler. When I came to this verse, I realized how well this description fit Hitler, who opposed God (Hitler was an enemy of Christian churches as well as Jews), who exalted himself as the great messianic Fuhrer (leader), and who set himself up as God.
But Hitler was just one of many people who have done these things. Stalin (USSR), Tojo (Japan), Mao (China), Kim Il Sung (North Korea), Pol Pot (Cambodia), Idi Amin (Uganda), Ceausescu (Romania), Milosevic (Serbia), Saddam Hussein (Iraq), and Kim Jon Il (North Korea) are only a few examples of tyrants who have set themselves up as gods. There are many more—in Africa, the Mideast, Latin American, and Asia.
But on a smaller scale, we see this same phenomenon in churches—people who believe that they have all the answers—people with little respect for others—people willing to stab opponents in the back, figuratively if not literally—people who bend scripture to fit their purposes—people who set themselves up as congregational demigods.
Lloyd Rediger wrote a book entitled Clergy Killers: Guidance for Pastors and Congregations under Attack that outlines how this works when laypeople attack clergy. But we must acknowledge that clergy as well as laypeople sometimes exalt themselves, stand against what God wants, and set themselves up as little gods.
“Don’t you remember that, when I was still with you, I told you these things?” (v. 5). As noted above, Paul reminds these Christians of the things that he taught them while he was with them—but he doesn’t reiterate what those things were. This puts us at a disadvantage, because we don’t know what he had previously taught them. However, we know that in his first letter to this church, he told them “that the day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2). He assured them that they belong, not to the darkness, but to the light (5:5). He encouraged them not to sleep, but to watch and be sober (5:6).
2 THESSALONIANS 2:6-12. NOT IN THE LECTIONARY READING
6 Now you know what is restraining him, to the end that he may be revealed in his own season. 7 For the mystery of lawlessness already works. Only there is one who restrains now, until he is taken out of the way. 8 Then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will kill with the breath of his mouth, and destroy by the manifestation of his coming; 9 even he whose coming is according to the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, 10 and with all deception of wickedness for those who are being lost, because they didn’t receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. 11Because of this, God sends them a working of error, that they should believe a lie; 12 that they all might be judged who didn’t believe the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
These verses are not in the lectionary reading, but the preacher should be aware of them. Verses 6 and 7 are very difficult to understand. Who is the “man of lawlessness” (v. 3)? What is restraining him? We can only guess at the answers.
But it is clear that “the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will kill with the breath of his mouth, and destroy by the manifestation of his coming” (v. 8). Therefore, although Christ’s coming will be delayed, he will come in power to destroy evil. The coming of the lawless one “is according to the working of Satan” (v. 9)—in contrast to Christ, whose coming is in accord with God’s will.
Paul goes on to describe the folly of those who “didn’t receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved” (v. 10). God will judge them, because they “didn’t believe the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (v. 12).
With this passage, Paul is trying to reassure these persecuted Christians that God will make things right in God’s good time. God will vindicate their faith and their faithfulness.
2 THESSALONIANS 2:13-15. STAND FIRM, AND HOLD THE TRADITIONS
13 But we are bound to always give thanks to God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief in the truth; 14to which he called you through our Good News, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brothers, stand firm, and hold the traditions which you were taught by us, whether by word, or by letter.
“But we are bound (opheilo) to always give thanks to God for you, brothers loved by the Lord” (v. 13a). The wording in this verse is similar to that in 1:3. This is an unusual expression of thanksgiving in that the Greek word opheilo suggests obligation—we ought to give thanks—we are bound to give thanks. Some scholars have suggested that this reflects reluctance on Paul’s part to give thanks for these Thessalonian Christians. Others believe that this language, being uncharacteristic of Paul, suggests that someone other than Paul wrote this letter. But it seems better to take Paul’s words at face value—that he is truly thankful for their growing faith and their love for one another.
“because God chose you from the beginning (either ap arches or aparchen) for salvation” (v. 13b). This verse introduces the idea of election—God’s having chosen some people and not having chosen others. In the Old Testament, God chose Abraham and his descendants, the Israelites. The idea of election carries over into the New Testament (John 15:16; 17:6; Ephesians 1:4; 2:10). However, in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:1-14), Jesus concludes by saying “For many are called, but few chosen” (Matthew 22:14), which suggests that many are called, but only the elect have chosen to respond.
There are two possible readings for the part of this verse translated “from the beginning.” Some manuscripts read ap arches (from the beginning) and others read aparchen (firstfruits). Both readings make sense. If the correct reading is ap arches,Paul could mean that God chose these Christians from the beginning of time (see Romans 8:28-30).
But God could also have chosen these Christians as firstfruits. In the Old Testament, the first fruits were those which were dedicated to the Lord. If the correct reading is aparchen, Paul may have wanted to encourage these Christians by suggesting that they were the first of what will become many people devoted to God.
God chose these Thessalonian Christians “for salvation.” While salvation in the Bible is sometimes being saved from one’s enemies, in the New Testament it usually has an eschatological character—i.e., end of time events—God’s judgment—heaven and hell.
The idea of salvation is especially important in Paul’s letters. The “Good News of Christ…is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Paul says that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18), “But the righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). “All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) which means that we are subject to an eternal penalty for our sins. However, we have been “justified freely by (God’s) grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God set forth to be an atoning sacrifice, through faith in his blood” (Romans 3:24-25a).
“through sanctification (hagiasmos) of the Spirit” (v. 13c). The word hagiasmos has to do with sanctification—the act of making a person holy. It is closely related to the word hagios, which is most frequently translated “saint” in the New Testament. Just as salvation is a gift of God, so also is sanctification. We are not capable of making ourselves holy. Sanctification requires action by the Holy Spirit.
“and belief in the truth” (v. 13d). The deceiver (Satan) has convinced many people that it doesn’t matter what we believe as long as we are sincere. That runs counter both to scripture and to our everyday experience.
• Scripture (both Old and New Testaments) tells us that our beliefs are absolutely central to our well-being, both here and in the hereafter.
• That is confirmed by our experience. People tend to act on their beliefs. If they believe things that aren’t true, they will act on those false beliefs and will suffer the consequences. If they have been well taught, so that they believe that which is true, they will benefit immeasurably by their teaching—and by their true beliefs.
God effected the salvation of these Thessalonian Christians “through sanctification of the Spirit and belief in the truth.” This belief in the truth has come about in spite of the efforts of the best efforts of the deceivers (vv. 2-4).
“to which he called you through our Good News” (euangelion) (v. 14a). The call of God came to these Thessalonian Christians “through our euangelion“—our Good News—our Gospel—the Gospel that Paul and his companions had preached to them (see 1 Thessalonians 1:5).
“for the obtaining of the glory (doxa) of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 14b). The word “glory” is used in the Bible to speak of various wonderful things—but it is used especially to speak of God’s glory—an aura associated with God’s appearance that reveals God’s majesty to humans.
Christ shares God’s glory. The glory of the Lord was revealed at his birth (Luke 2:9; John 1:14). His disciples, Peter, James and John, were privileged to see Christ’s glory on the Mount of Transfiguration (9:28-36). Christ’s cross was necessary so that he might “enter into his glory” (Luke 24:26; see also Philippians 2:5-11). The Gospel of John in particular speaks of the cross as Christ’s glorification (John 12:23; 13:31-32). Jesus spoke of returning “with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27).
The apostle Paul notes that “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), but then says, “We were buried therefore with him through baptism to death, that just like Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
In this verse, then, Paul is saying that God has called these Thessalonian Christians to the truth (v. 13) so that they might obtain their share of this glory which Christ shares with God the Father.
“So then, brothers, stand firm, and hold the traditions (paradosis) which you were taught by us, whether by word, or by letter” (v. 15). In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul spoke of Timothy bringing him “good news of your faith and love” (1 Thessalonians 3:7)—and being encouraged by their standing firm in the Lord (1 Thessalonians 3:8). Now he encourages them to continue standing firm in the face of tempters and deceivers (2:1-4).
He encourages them to “hold the traditions (paradosis) which you were taught by us, whether by word or letter.”
The word paradosis (tradition) has a checkered place in the New Testament, because much of the opposition to Jesus came from men who were wedded to the traditions of men rather than the word of God (Matthew 15:2-6; 7-13; see also Colossians 2:8).
However, the traditions that Paul encourages these Christians to follow are those “which you were taught by us, whether by word, or by letter.” Those traditions will serve as a north star for fledgling Christians—always helping them to orient themselves in the midst of confusing circumstances—always pointing them in the right direction.
2 THESSALONIANS 2:16-17. THE LORD JESUS COMFORT YOUR HEARTS
16 Now our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, 17 comfort your hearts and establish you in every good work and word.
“Now our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort” (paraklesis) (v. 16a). Now Paul offers a benediction—a prayer that Jesus and God who loved and comforted Paul and his companions (v. 16) might also comfort the Thessalonian Christians (v. 17).
The word paraklesis, translated “comfort” here, means, exhort, encourage, and/or comfort. It is a spine-stiffening sort of comfort, then, rather than cuddly comfort. Paraklesis is the sort of comfort that comes from helping someone to see the possibility of overcoming an obstacle or winning a battle. It is the sort of comfort that comes from giving a beleaguered person a vision of glories to come.
“comfort and good hope through grace” (charis) (v. 16b). Hope is life-giving. Life without hope is drab and meaninglessness. As one example, prisoners serving indeterminate sentences (sentences with no clear end-date) cope less well than prisoners who can calculate the number of days until they will be released. They cope less well, because their fate is unclear—because they have nothing definite for which to hope—no end-date by which to measure their progress.
People place their hopes in all sorts of things: Personal strength or appearance, academic degrees, 401k’s or pension plans, political figures, etc., etc., etc.
But comfort and hope are something that these Christians can receive only through the grace (charis) of God. Grace is the gift of salvation by God to all who accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ. That is the foundation on which their comfort and hope rest.
“comfort (parakaleo) your hearts” (v. 17a). See the comments above (verse 16) on the word paraklesis, which is related to the word parakaleo in this verse. Parakaleo (v. 17) is a combination of two words, para (near) and kaleo (to call), and means to call near—to invite—to beseech—to exhort. Paul is praying that the Lord Jesus and God the Father might comfort these Christians by calling them near—by inviting them—by helping them to feel God’s presence. I might be exaggerating the difference, but I see parakaleo as a somewhat softer word than paraklesis (v. 16), which I see as a spine-stiffening word.
“and establish you in every good work and word” (v. 17b). Knowing Paul, we can be sure that he chose the words “work” and “word” carefully.
“good work.” Looking ahead to the next chapter, we find that work is a problem in Thessalonica. Paul has learned that some of the Thessalonian Christians are “living in idleness,” so he counsels the rest of the community “to keep away from believers who are living in idleness” (3:11, 6). He notes that, when he was in Thessalonica, he toiled day and night to provide his own support (3:7-9). He counsels, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (3:10).
But for Christians, work is something more than laboring to make money to buy bread. It involves service to Christ and others. At its best, work is a tangible expression of love for God and neighbor (see Matthew 22:37-39).
“word.” Psalm 19:14 comes to mind here. “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, (O Lord), my rock, and my redeemer.”
Our words have power to injure or to heal—to lift up or to tear down—to enlighten or to spread darkness. Just as Paul prays that God will establish good work among these Christians, he also prays that God will help them to speak good words—words of faith—healing words—words that lift up—words that enlighten.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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