Introduction to the Book of Esther

The Books of Esther and Ruth are not really stories about their respective “heroines.” Rather, they are part of the Bible’s larger story about God and His dealings with His people, and with the world. This is true even though the Book of Esther does not so much as mention the name of God. As in everyday life, God’s intervention is everywhere visible in the Book of Esther, even though His presence is concealed. The essential conflict between the two kingdoms – the empire of Ahasuerus ad the kingdom of God – plays itself out in the lives of flawed and unexpected individuals, as God delivers His people once again from the threat of extinction. Meanwhile, in the Book of Ruth, the Great Redeemer shows His love and compassion to the embittered Naomi as well as to the foreign daughter-in-law, Ruth. His grace brings home the disobedient prodigal daughter with empty hands, so that He can astonish her with unexpected fullness. In both stories, the grace of God to the undeserving and the outcasts is prominently on display. Both stories thus constantly point us forward to Christ as the one in whom that grace will fully and finally come to aliens and strangers, redeeming rebellious sinners and making them into God’s new people.

The Book of Esther is set during the reign of King Ahasuerus (also known as Xerxes) – the Persian ruler who reigned from 485-465 B.C. and is best known for his wars against the Greeks. The action thus takes place about fifty years after the decree of Cyrus, which allowed the Jews to return home from their exile in Babylon. Many of the most committed Jews did so, including Haggai, Zechariah, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Others opted not to be part of the rebuilding process – especially those who already had comfortable jobs and living situations in the heart of the Persian empire. They preferred comfortable assimilation to the foibles of the Persian empire over the hard path of obedience of the Lord’s call to rebuild Jerusalem and its surroundings. One such family was that of Mordecai, a descendant of King Saul’s family, and Esther, his orphaned cousin. She also had a Jewish name, Hadassah, but publicly went by her Persian alias. These two insignificant nobodies would never have dreamed that they might have a significant part to play in God’s plans; they were just trying to get by in life, even if that meant compromise with the empire.

The main purpose of the book of Esther is to show that God is able to take care of His people, using these very imperfect human agents, while remaining hidden from direct view. In the book of Exodus, God’s work is full of dramatic interventions that expose the emptiness of the Egyptian gods. There are great heroes like Moses and Aaron to lead the people and a trail of miracles to attest to God’s presence with them. In the book of Esther, however, there are neither dramatic miracles nor great heroes – just apparently ordinary providence moving flawed and otherwise undistinguished people into exactly the right place at the right time to bring the empire into line ant to secure the future of God’s people, when it seemed certain they would be eliminated.

Getting Started Questions:

Can you think of some instances or occasions that have made you very aware that, as a Christian, you do not quite belong – in a town, a club, or a group? How were you tempted to respond? Why is this awareness difficult?

How do Christians in your community tend to think and talk about governing authorities? Are they critical, to the point of being disrespectful? Do you ever see allegiance to nation or country that seems to be stronger than allegiance to Jesus Christ?

2 Thessalonians 3:16-18 With His own Hand

After the end of the Civil War, a Union cavalry troop was riding along the road from Richmond, Virginia, to Washington, D.C. Suddenly a soldier in tattered gray stumbled out of a bush. “Can you help me?” he called out. “I am starving to death. Can you give me some food?” The Union captain questioned why he was starving. “Why don’t you just go into Richmond and get what you need?” he asked. The soldier answered that if he went to Richmond, he would be arrested. “Three weeks ago I became discouraged because of our losses that I deserted and I have been hiding in the woods ever since.” He had broken the law of his country, and if found he would be shot. “Haven’t you heard the news?” the captain asked. “Why, the war is over. Peace has been made. General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox two weeks ago.” “What!” cried the soldier. “Peace has been made for two weeks, and I have been starving in the woods because I didn’t know it?”

There is an analogy between that soldier, who feared the just punishment of death for his crime of desertion, and the sinner, who fears God’s justice. Like the deserter, hiding in the woods and starving, the unbelieving sinner hides from God, suffering a spiritual death as one cut off from the resources of life. The Christian faith, however, declares news similar to that of the cavalry captain. Peace has been declared through the saving conquest of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. It is for this reason that Paul concluded his letters to the Thessalonians with a benediction of peace: “Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way” (2 Thess. 3:16).

It was essential that Paul’s letter, as a message declaring the peace of Christ, be validated as an official apostolic writing. As was common in the ancient world, Paul seems to have dictated his letter to a secretary and then taken up the pen himself for the final verses. “I, Paul,” he says, “write this greeting with my own hand.” He explains further that this was his normal procedure: “This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write” (v. 17).

This is an interesting statement, since scholars are agreed that Paul’s Thessalonian letters were among his earliest known writings. It seems that Paul had other letters that have not been preserved by the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the problem of false letters made it imperative for Paul’s letters to be authenticated. 2 Thess. 2:2 mentioned “a letter seeming to be from us” that falsely stated that the Lord had returned. By writing the final verses in his own handwriting, Paul provided the church leaders with a basis for comparison with 1 Thessalonians and perhaps with earlier samples of his writings.

It isn’t merely that Paul wrote with his own hand, but also with the context of these final verses. Here, the apostle identifies peace as the ultimate answer to his readers’ needs. We may summarize his final message as setting forth the peace that is from God, that meets our every need, and that is granted by the grace of Jesus Christ. Paul generally concluded his letters with a benediction, and these prayers often referred to “the God of peace.” In this way, Paul indicates that peace is a quality of God’s inner being.

Unlike the worldly idea of peace, God’s peace does not merely consist of the absence of strife but involves harmony, wholeness, and prosperity. Paul’s conclusion makes it clear that true peace comes only from God: “Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace” (v. 16). Our great need of peace is not met, therefore, by something we can do but rather by receiving the peace that originates with God and that He alone can give. This is what God’s peace provides: a blessed life forever.

The root of mankind’s lack of peace is the warfare that exists between man and God. Sinners have rebelled against God by violating His law and refusing His lordship. Paul summarized the problem in Romans 1:21: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.” To honor God is to recognize His right to rule your life by His Word and accept your duty to worship, obey, and glorify Him in all things. The worst news is that because of our war against God in refusing these things, God is also at war with us. Romans 1:18 says that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” Even worse, we ourselves are unable to end our warfare with God, since our very nature has been corrupted by sin. When we diagnose the problem of sinful mankind in a biblical way, we see that man can be saved only through a peace that come from God.

The good news of the Christian gospel is that God gives us the peace that meets our very need. We see this in Paul’s prayer for God to “give you peace at all times in every way” (v. 16). His point is that God provides peace to His people in every circumstance of life. Paul warns against those who have a false hope for “peace and security,” because they rest their anxieties on worldly resources such as money and power. Those who seek peace in the world will experience “sudden destruction” when Christ returns, “as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (1 Thess. 5:3).

In speaking of the peace that God gives “at all times in every way,” Paul adds the prayer, “The Lord be with you all” (v. 16). In all circumstances, peace results from the presence of Christ, which Jesus promised through the ministry of the Holy Spirit: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth…You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17). Jesus saw the Spirit working in us primarily by means of His Word: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth…He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13-14). Moreover, Paul asserts in Romans 8:16-17 that the Spirit bears an inward testimony to believers of the privileges of our adoption in Christ. With Christ’s Spirit testifying to us by the Scriptures and bearing witness in our hearts to God’s fatherly love, believers experience the peace of God that results from union with Christ in faith. Paul prayed (2 Thess. 3:16), knowing that Christ’s presence brings the peace of God for the blessing of His people.

Having prayed for the peace that only God can give, the peace that meets all our needs, Paul concludes in the final verse by declaring that peace is granted by the grace of God in Jesus Christ: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all” (v. 18). Grace is God’s loving favor to those who deserve His hostility and wrath. Therefore, when Paul concludes with a prayer for God’s grace, he notes that the divine peace that we can never earn or win by any efforts of our own, since we are condemned by our sin and unable to earn God’s favor, God grants as a free gift through His grace in Jesus Christ. As Paul sees it, a Christians is someone who is at peace with God through saving grace in Christ.

In concluding his letter, Paul wrote out the final verses in his own hand. The words for which he took up the pen express the heart of his gospel: God’s peace through the grace of Jesus Christ. This reminds us that while Paul’s own hand completed this letter, it was Christ, by His own hand, who secured that peace by His gift of grace. Jesus extended His hands upon the cross, gaining the peace of forgiveness with God through sin-atoning death.

Our hands, as well, have a role to play. First, we receive saving grace by opening our hands in humble faith, believing God’s Word and receiving Jesus Christ as the giver of peace with God. Then, like Paul, we should surely reach out our hands to others who do not yet know God’s peace in the grace of Christ for all who believe in His gospel.

2 Thessalonians 3:16-18 Study Questions:

Will you open your hands in faith to receive this precious gift? And will you reach out your hands to others, offering the priceless good news about the peace of God that is freely given from heaven by the grace of Jesus Christ?

In context in which the Thessalonians were living, why is the grace of the Lord Jesus so important?

Where do you and your Christian community feel the need for the grace of the Lord Jesus now?

2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 Willing to Work

In 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul responded to a false report that Jesus had already come or that the day of the Lord was upon them. In chapter 3, he deals with an erroneous response to that false report. The Thessalonians had stopped working and carrying on their lives because they expected Jesus at any moment. Paul complains, “We hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies” (2 Thess. 3:11). This is the problem that the apostle confronts in the final section of his second letter to this church. Instead, the way to respond to the thought of Christ’s return is to go on working in the callings that God has given us. Paul summarizes: “As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good” (v. 13), even if today might be the last day that we have to live on this present earth.

Paul urges his Christian readers to consider the manner of their walk, that it would be “worthy of the calling” in Christ. As Paul sees it, Christianity is not something that takes up just a corner of our lives but instead involves the whole manner by which we live. It is a life style that says Yes to some things and No to other things, because of the truths that we believe and that govern our walk.

The book of Hebrews stresses that this biblical tradition of lifestyle does not substantially change from one generation to the next. The reason is that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). This means that the Bible’s teaching of salvation and morality is not irrelevant to modern or postmodern man. In the face of the world’s complaint that ours is an outmoded creed, we reply: “Jesus Christ is the same.” This means that Christians are now to live in a manner that would be recognizable to those who came before us in the faith. Our forerunners have passed down to us a body of doctrinal truth and a pattern of life received from Jesus. Paul therefore commands Christians to walk “in accord with the tradition that you received” (2 Thess. 3:6).

Nonetheless, for all the commitments that Christians are bound to keep, there remains a need for correction and church discipline. In this matter, just as in Paul’s description of a true Christian lifestyle, his writing is perfectly suited to our contemporary needs. In this case, church discipline is directed to the sin of sloth: “Now we command you brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us” (v. 6).

It is necessary for church discipline to exercise spiritual authority rightly. Paul speaks here directly on the authority of Christ: “We command you…in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is because Christ is the Lord of all believers that those granted authority by Christ are to be obeyed. Paul held his authority as an apostle. Today it is the elders of the church who wield Christ’s authority in church discipline, so that when they insist on biblical standards of faith and conduct, they are acting in Christ’s name. The key passage on this topic is Matthew 18:15-20, in which Jesus requires believers to “listen…to the church” (Matt. 18:17).

The primary purpose of church discipline is to restore a member who has fallen into serious sin. Paul identifies the purpose of his action to be “that he may be ashamed,” so as to repent and thus rejoin the church fellowship (2 Thess. 3:14). To this end, he directs sanctions to be taken against the idlers who are refusing to obey. In this case, the unrepentant sinners are to be shunned by their Christian friends: “keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition” (v. 6); “take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him” (v. 14).

The main pastoral problem in Thessalonica was the unwillingness of some church members to work. Paul writes; “For we hear that some among you walk in idleness” (v.11). The word translated as “idleness” (Greek ataktos) more generally means to “be unruly.” Originally it was a military term that described a soldier who got out of line. Here it applies to professing Christians who are not living up to their obligations. Specifically, they were not working hard so as to provide for their own needs, but instead were relying on gifts from the church and from other Christians. Because of their sloth, other Christians were being wrongly burdened and the gospel was suffering disgrace in the society.

Paul responds to this problem with a command, and example, and a precept. His command was simple: “Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (v. 12). First, Christians are to apply themselves to their work. Christians have various callings in the workplace and in the home. Men and women have professions or trades, mothers have a calling to their children and to the home, and students have a calling to their studies. The duty of Christians is to labor in these callings. Paul adds that we should do this “quietly.” His meaning seems to be that we should work without disrupting others – the very opposite of what the busybodies were doing in their idleness. In this way, hardworking Christians will fulfill their obligations in life, will avoid depleting the church’s resources, and will gain the respect of watching unbelievers in the surrounding society.

Paul’s command reflects the general Christian attitude toward work that often conflicts with a low view of work in secular society. Many people today approach work by doing only enough to avoid being fired. In contrast, the Bible teaches that man’s basic calling before God is to work: “The Lord God took man and put him the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). Work is not a punishment but a gift from our Creator by means of which we may bear His image in doing His will.

Work was not caused by the fall, though Adan’s fall into sin caused work to become painful and frustrating (Gen. 3:19). But when all is redeemed in the eternal age of Christ’s glory, Christians will revel in the privilege of working with and for the Lord. According to Jesus’ parable of the talents, His reward for faithful service in this life is the privilege of greater work in the age to come: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21, 23).

I’ll conclude this study with a biblical perspective on reasons that Christians should work hard, as well as motives that should shape our attitude to the work that we do. The first reason Paul gives for working hard is to provide for ourselves so as not to be a burden to others. Then we can also rejoice in gaining the resources that we can use to provide for others in genuine need. Paul saw this desire to work hard in providing for ourselves and others as a mark of Christian redemption (Eph. 4:28). Christians should therefore work hard in order to make money. We should also be wise in investing and saving our money, so that it may be used in providing for those placed under our care and for those who truly cannot help themselves.

A second reason to work hard is that we may do good in the world through our talents, training, and labors. This aspiration should shape the kind of work that we seek to do. Most people today evaluate work strictly in terms of the money they make. But Christians will desire to expend their labor in worthy causes, as part of sound organizations. Whether your work is admired by the world or considered menial, Christians should rejoice in every opportunity to serve others.

Finally, Christians should realize that the primary purpose of all that we do, including our work, is to serve and glorify God. This is Paul’s ultimate reason for writing, “As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good” (v. 13). Christians should not allow resentment over the idle, or over government redistribution of wealth, to harden our hearts when there are real needs that call for mercy. Moreover, our work ethic provides a compelling testimony that will often provide openings for a gospel witness.

In Jesus’ own teaching about His second coming, He emphasizes the value and significance of the work that we have done on His behalf. When He returns, Jesus will point to our work of mercy, provision, and service, saying: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40). Then we will have the privilege of marveling not only at how Jesus was blessed by the diligent, faithful work we have done in His name, but also at how Jesus has blessed others, many of them with eternal life that came about at least in part through the work that we did for Him.

2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 Study Questions:

Looking at verses 4-13, what seem to be some challenges or problems that the Thessalonian church is facing as it attempts to live as a “family”?

How did Paul model among the Thessalonians the kind of communal life that he expected them to follow?

How would the exhortations that Paul gives in verses 12-13 have helped the Thessalonians to live a godly life together when there were obviously some among them who were not living as would be expected in a spiritual family?

Describe the kind of discipline that Paul encourages in verses 10 and 14-16.

What sort of things are likely to happen in a fellowship that does not include a measured, loving exercise of authority?