The Biblical Illustrator
Book Overview - 2 Thessalonians
by Joseph Exell
I. The occasion of the epistle--The apostle remained in Corinth for a year and six months (Acts 18:11), and it was undoubtedly during the latter part of this time that he wrote this Epistle. Silas and Timothy were still in his company (2 Thessalonians 1:1); the former for the last time, as we may conclude from the silence of the history. Communications would naturally have passed meanwhile between himself and the Thessalonians. He would have heard, concerning his former Epistle, how far it had produced its effect, where it had been misconstrued and where it had failed. The effect of such tidings is very apparent in this letter. It was plainly written with a twofold intent:
1. The anticipation of the Lord’s Second Advent, aroused by the teaching and former letter of the apostle, had been stimulated to an unhealthy activity by fanatical or designing teachers, who had even forged a letter in the name of St. Paul, and had filled the Church with anxiety and alarm. This state of feeling has indeed been supposed by many critics to have been occasioned simply by the misunderstanding of the former letter. Not to speak, however, of the unlikelihood that the calm prophetic words in which he had enjoined “the patience of hope” in reference to the great event should so have been perverted, his own language (2 Thessalonians 2:2) seems to show decisively that he referred to a supposititious letter. “Spirit” refers to a pretended prophecy; “word” to a pretended saying on inspired authority; “letter,” therefore, would similarly mean a pretended epistle. Moreover the word as, in the phrase “as by us,” would scarcely have been used by the writer, had he intended to indicate his own letter. We therefore conclude that an imposture had been practised on the Thessalonians, advantage, no doubt, having been taken of what the apostle had actually said and written. To prevent such imposition for the future, he now expressly states that his own signature and “salutation” would henceforth authenticate all his Epistles (2 Thessalonians 3:17).
2. The other circumstance was the disregard of one most important injunction of the former Epistle--there laid down briefly, almost with an apology, as though a hint in a matter so obvious would be sufficient (1 Thessalonians 4:11). But this gentle suggestion of Christian duty had proved inadequate. In the Church there were some who, influenced, perhaps, by the anticipation of an immediate catastrophe in the world’s affairs, neglected the ordinary duties of life--“working at no business, but being busybodies.” Thus early did religious fanaticism produce its natural fruit in selfish indolence; and the loftiest hopes of the Church were perverted into a plea for the most ignoble mendicancy. For such offences the fitting remedy, sharp and stem, was excommunication; while yet, as if to acknowledge the nobleness of the truth which had been so misread and degraded, the offender is to be dealt with tenderly, in the hope that he might learn to apprehend it aright. (S. G. Green, D. D.)
II. Its genuineness and relation to the first epistle--Like that of the First Epistle is practically uncontroverted. We seem to have very early testimony to its use--Polycarp appearing in two places to quote it, though anonymously, according to his custom; and Justin, speaking of the man of Sin, a manner which shows his acquaintance with this Epistle. The objections of a few modern scholars are chiefly drawn from the prophecy in chap. 2, from supposed contradictions between the two Epistles, especially in regard to the date of the advent; from fancied allusions to the persecution of Nero; from a mistaken notion that the doctrine of an Antichrist (which was in reality pre-christian) was only invented by the Moutanists. Doubts have been entertained by a few critics, who acknowledged the genuineness of both, which of these two letters is the earlier. Ewald placed the second first. The arguments, however, are hardly worth considering in face of the fact that in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, we have an allusion to a former Epistle. All the historical portion of the First Epistle (especially 1 Thessalonians 2:17; 1 Thessalonians 3:11) bears evident tokens of being the earliest communication that had passed between St. Paul and his spiritual children since he had left them. (Canon Mason.)
The Second Epistle may be regarded as continuing the first and as diverging from it, and in one respect, at least, forming a link of transition to the later Epistles. It defers the advent of Christ, and yet presents a more vivid and detailed account of the manner and circumstances of it. More fully in the apostle’s mind, nevertheless, in its outward manifestation, it seems to remove further from him, the intervening objects overshadowing the distant vision. The very definiteness with which he conceives it, leads him, as it were, a step onward, to consider the stages of its revelation, to ask the question, not “when shall these things be, and the end of the world”? but what shall happen first. It was thought by Grotius that this Epistle must have preceded the first. Improbable as it is (comp. 2 Thessalonians 2:15) that a previous Epistle could have interposed itself between the visit of the apostle and chapters two and three of the First Epistle; and inconsistent as 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 would then be with 2 Thessalonians 2:1-17., the opinion may serve to remind us that, in one sense it is true that the Second Epistle anticipates the First; that is to say, it is based on the lesson which the apostle had taught the Thessalonians while he was yet with them, and previously to either (2 Thessalonians 2:5). The subject of Antichrist was not new to them; they had been told what was meant, and what withheld that he should be revealed in his own time, whereas, in the former Epistle, he had led their minds exclusively to the heavenly vision. (Prof. Jowett.)
I. The salutation (2 Thessalonians 1:1-2).
II. The retrospective portion (2 Thessalonians 1:8-12).
1. Thanksgiving for progress made (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4).
2. Hopes thus afforded against the advent day (2 Thessalonians 2:5-10).
3. Prayers for continuance in so happy a state (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12).
III. The instructive and hortatory portion.
1. On the date of the advent--
2. On the necessity of work.
IV.--The gospel of Paul at Thessalonica What was the gospel brought to Thessalonica? Can we give to ourselves any precise account of the “good news” which “Paul and Silvanus and Timotheus” announced in this city, and which produced so powerful and enduring an effect? To these questions the indications of the two Epistles, compared with the story of the Acts, enable us to give a tolerable answer.
1. The foundation of St. Paul’s teaching was laid in the proof of the Messiahship of Jesus, drawn from the prophecies of Scripture, compared with the facts of the life, death, and resurrection of the Saviour. The method of this proof, briefly indicated in Acts 17:3, is set forth at length in the report of his discourse at the Pisidian Antioch given by St. Luke in the thirteenth chapter of the Acts.
2. The purpose of Christ’s death and its bearing on human salvation must have been abundantly explained by the apostles. So we infer not only from the central position of this subject in St. Paul’s later Epistles, and from the prominence given to it in Acts 13:38-39, where the announcement of forgiveness of sins and justification by faith forms the climax of St. Paul’s whole sermon; but the language of 1 Thessalonians 5:8-10 leaves us in no doubt that the same “word of the cross” was proclaimed at Thessalonica which St. Paul preached everywhere. Here “salvation” comes “through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us”--a salvation from “the anger of God,” a salvation in part received already, in part matter of “hope,” and which belongs to those who “have put on the breastplate of faith and love.” This salvation was the great need of the Gentile world, which “knew not God,” and was enslaved to idolatry and shameful lusts (1 Thessalonians 1:9; 1 Thessalonians 4:5; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-20, Ephesians 1:8). Still it must be admitted, and it is remarkable, that very little is said in these two letters on the subject of the atonement and salvation by faith. Evidently on these fundamental doctrines there was no dispute at Thessalonica They were so fully accepted and understood in this Church that it was unnecessary to dilate upon them; and the apostle has other matters just now to deal with.
3. The Church at Thessalonica being chiefly of heathen origin, St. Paul and St. Silas had said much to them of the falsity and wickedness of idolatry, completing the lessons which many of their disciples had already received in the synagogue. Their faith was emphatically a “faith toward God--the living and true God,” to whom they had “turned from their idols” (this seems to imply that many Thessalonian Christians had been converted directly from paganism), and whom they knew in “His Son” (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). And this living and true God, the Father of the Lord Jesus, they had come to know and to approach as “our Father” (1 Thessalonians 1:8; 1 Thessalonians 3:11; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; 2 Thessalonians 2:16), who was to them “the God of peace” (1 Thessalonians 1:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; 2 Thessalonians 1:2), who had “loved them and given them eternal comfort and good hope in grace,” had “chosen” them and “called them to enter His kingdom and glory,” who “would count them worthy of their calling and accomplish in them all the desire of goodness and the work of faith,” who had “given them His Holy Spirit,” whose “will” was their “sanctification,” whose “word” was ever “working in” them, who would “comfort and strengthen their hearts” in every needful way and would reward them with “rest” from their afflictions in due time, whose care for His beloved was not limited by death, for He was pledged at Christ’s coming to restore those whom death had snatched away (1 Thessalonians 1:4; 1 Thessalonians 2:12-13; 1 Thessalonians 4:3; 1 Thessalonians 4:7-8; 1 Thessalonians 4:14; 1 Thessalonians 5:18 : 2 Thessalonians 1:5; 2 Thessalonians 1:7; 2 Thessalonians 1:11; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17). Such a God it must be their one aim to love and to please; St. Paul’s one desire for them is that they may “walk worthily” of Him (1 Thessalonians 2:12; 1 Thessalonians 4:1; 2 Thessalonians 3:5). The good news the apostle had brought he speaks of repeatedly as “the gospel of God, while it is “the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 1:8), since He is its great subject and centre: cf. Romans 1:1; Romans 1:3, “the gospel of God--concerning His Son.” It is important to note the prominence of God in these Epistles, and the manifold ways in which the Divine character and relationship to believing men had been set forth to the Thessalonian Church. For such teaching would be necessary, and helpful in the highest degree, to men who had just emerged from heathen darkness and superstition; and these letters afford the best example left to us of St. Paul’s earliest instructions to Gentile converts.
4. So we come to that which was the most conspicuous and impressive topic of the Thessalonian gospel, so far as we can gather it from the echoes audible in the Epistles, viz., the coming of the Lord Jesus in His heavenly kingdom.
5. The moral issues of the gospel inculcated by St. Paul at Thessalonica, the new duties and affections belonging to the new life of believers in Christ, are touched upon at many different points; but not developed with the fulness and systematic method of subsequent Epistles. Most prominent here are the obligation to chastity, as belonging to the sanctity of the body and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8), and the claims of brotherly love, with the good order, the peace, and mutual helpfulness that flow from it (1 Thessalonians 4:9-10; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-15; 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15). What is singular in these Epistles is the repeated and strong injunctions they contain on the subject of diligence in labour and attention to the ordinary duties of life (1 Thessalonians 4:10-12; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15). A striking moral feature of the gospel proclaimed at Thessalonica is manifest in the conduct of the missionaries of Christ themselves--their incessant labour, their unbounded self-denial, the purity and devoutness of their spirit, and their fearless courage (1 Thessalonians 1:6-7; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12; 2 Thessalonians 3:8-9). (G. G. Findlay, B. A.)
V. The style and character of the two epistles--They are the letters of a missionary, written to an infant Church but very recently brought from heathen darkness into the marvellous light of the gospel. They lie nearer, therefore, to the missionary preaching of the apostle of the Gentiles, as we find it, for instance, in Acts 14:15-17; Acts 17:22-31, than do any of the later Epistles. This accounts for their simplicity, for the absence in them of controversy, and the elementary nature of their doctrine, They are addressed to a Macedonian Church, and they exhibit in common with the Epistle to the (Macedonian) Philippians a peculiar warmth of feeling and mutual confidence between writer and readers. They are singularly affectionate letters. From 2 Corinthians 8:1-2; 2 Corinthians 11:9, we gather that the generosity which endeared the Philippians to St. Paul (Philippians 4:14-17) distinguished the Macedonian Churches generally. The apostle can scarcely find words tender enough or images sufficiently vivid to express his regard for the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 2:7; 1 Thessalonians 2:11; 1 Thessalonians 2:17; 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20; 1 Thessalonians 3:9). He feels his life bound up with them (2 Thessalonians 3:8). He boasts of them everywhere (2 Thessalonians 1:4; 2 Corinthians 8:1-2). If he exhorts them, his warnings are mingled with commendations, lest they should think he has some fault to find (1 Thessalonians 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 4:9-10; 1 Thessalonians 5:11; 2 Thessalonians 3:4). Further, these two are especially cheering and consolatory letters. The apostle sent Timothy to “comfort” the Thessalonians “concerning their faith” (1 Thessalonians 3:2), and in writing he pursues the same object. Persecution was the lot of this Church from the beginning (1 Thessalonians 3:4; Acts 17:5-9), as it continued to be long afterwards (2 Corinthians 8:2; cf. what was written to Philippi ten years later, Philippians 1:28-29). So the apostle bends all his efforts to encourage his distressed and suffering friends. He teaches them to glory in tribulation. He makes them smile through their tears. Lastly, these are eschatological Epistles: that is, in the language of theology, they set forth “the last things” in Christian doctrine--the second coming of Christ, the raising of the dead and transformation of the living saints, and the judgment of the world; they announce the advent of Antichrist as the forerunner and Satanic counterpart of the returning Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12). (G. G. Findlay, B. A.)
the Week of Proper 13 / Ordinary 18