Study On The Book Of 1st & 2nd Thessalonians
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*The Material for these studies is from Reformed Expository Commentary by Richard D. Phillips, P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, New Jersey; and N. T. Wright For Everyone Bible Study Guides by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.
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?
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?
The book of Acts contains the record of Paul’s ministry, describing enough opposition and suffering to discourage anyone from following in his steps (see Acts 13:3, 50; 14:5-6, 19; 16:22-24). All these events took place before Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica, where his preaching caused a riot in which several believers were arrested and beaten, and the apostle himself had to flee (Acts 17:5-9).
In light of these ceaseless trials, the last thing we would expect from Paul is confidence about his ministry. Yet he writes to the Thessalonians that “we have confidence in the Lord about you” (2 Thess. 3:4). Indeed, throughout his letters Paul exudes confidence in the success of his ministry enterprise. If we wonder at the source of this optimism, we find it in the apostle’s appeals for prayer. “Finally, brothers,” Paul begins the final section of his letters to the Thessalonians, “pray for us” (v. 3:1). Here is the secret not only of Paul’s success in ministry but especially of his confidence in the face of ministry trials: his confidence that God answers prayers.
Paul begins his final section not by writing just about prayer in general but specifically seeking prayer for the ministry of the gospel. As the apostle sees it, prayer is necessary for gospel ministry, so that “the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored” (v. 3:1). If anyone could seem to get by without prayer, that person would be the apostle Paul. Nonetheless, throughout his letters Paul solicits the prayers of fellow Christians.
For his own part, Paul was devoted to praying for others. It seems that he made it his practice to pray for someone whenever he heard or thought about the person. In the same spirit, Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). We find this same commitment to prayer in practically every Christian who has been greatly used by the Lord. Paul realized that the success of God’s Word does not rely on natural factors such as oratorical ability and a dynamic personality. Rather, since the gospel aims to bring spiritually dead unbelievers to saving faith, it relies on God’s power to convey spiritual life to those who hear and believe. Since the gospel requires the Holy Spirit’s working to open the hearts of those who would otherwise never believe, Paul knew that prayer is needed for the gospel to speed ahead and glorify God.
Another reason why Paul urgently desired prayer was to counter opposition to his ministry: “that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith” (2 Thess. 3:2). In Corinth, Paul was “opposed and reviled” by Jews who opposed the gospel (Acts 18:5-6, 12-13). He may well have these specific people in mind when he speaks of “wicked and evil men.” The word translated as “wicked” is better rendered as “unreasonable” or “wrongheaded” (Greek atopos). To be “unreasonable” and “evil” go together in hatred of the gospel.
Paul mentions “not all have faith” to point out that faith is God’s sovereign gift and that opposition to the gospel is inevitable. We should never be dismayed when people rise up in anger at the message of God’s grace or when worldly powers misrepresent the gospel as something narrow or bigoted. Without the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, no one has faith and everyone hates the light that Jesus shines. Jesus explained: “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19). The reality of this opposition urges us not to despair but to prayer.
Even as Paul appeals for prayer in light of the slow advance of his preaching in Corinth and the serious opposition against it, he simultaneously expresses his confidence in this very ministry. “We have confidence in the Lord,” he writes (2 Thess. 3:4), just as we should have confidence in our own prayers for gospel ministry. If we ask why Paul was so confident in prayer for the gospel, one answer is found in verse 3 where he declares that “the Lord is faithful.” The apostle states this to form a decisive contrast. Our problem is that “not all have faith.” “But the Lord is faithful,” and this is what really matters. Like Paul, we should pray for gospel success in preaching, in witnessing, and raising our children, not because we trust our own labors or because we see spiritual promise in those whom we seek to reach, but solely because we trust God to be faithful to bless and empower His gospel for salvation of those whom He will call.
Paul expresses confidence not only in God’s faithfulness to his present ministry of the gospel but especially in God’s saving work among the Thessalonians: “We have confidence in the Lord about you: (v. 4). The key phrase is “in the Lord.” Paul knows that his readers possess union with Christ through saving faith; he is confident about them because they are “in the Lord.” This is the second source of our confidence: the decisive difference it makes to be in Christ and to have Christ in us, experiencing saving faith and the reality of the new birth. However unpromising Christians may seem, we know that great things are in store. We might come to Christ with great problems, character defects, and crushing failures in life. Yet Paul wrote that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). For this reason, whenever someone is “in the Lord,” we anticipate supernatural power for change and spiritual growth. God’s faithfulness does not relieve us from needing to persevere in prayer. Instead, confidence in God will keep us praying until God has sped forth the gospel and overcome spiritual opposition.
Verses 3-5 presents a brief description of what God does in saving us through faith in Christ. First, Paul rejoices that God is faithful to “establish you and guard you against the evil one” (v. 3). This is the apostle’s way of describing a true conversion to faith in Christ. Fatih does not involve a bare profession of faith, but our being rooted in Jesus Christ. In terms of Jesus’ parable of the soils, true salvation is not like the seed that falls amid the thorns of worldly cares and desires, which choke faith to death, or like the seed that falls in shallow soil, where the heat of tribulation causes it to wither (Matt. 13:20-22). Instead, saving faith is like the seed that falls in good soil, so that it “bears fruit and yields” (Matt. 13:23).
Second, God enables believers to obey His Word. Paul writes: “We have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things that we command” (v. 4). Contrary to the easy-believism practiced so widely today, biblical evangelism includes obedience to the Bible. Jesus’ Great Commission tells us to “make disciples…, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). We must therefore pray for the obedience of those who profess faith in Christ, trusting God’s faithfulness and the Holy Spirit’s power to train them to a life of practical godliness.
Third, in verse 5, Paul speaks of God’s bringing believers to spiritual maturity: “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.” Growing in our knowledge of God’s love, we mature in our love for God. Relying on Christ’s faithfulness as our Savior, we persevere through steadfast faith in Him. Paul particularly notes that in maturing us, God directs our hearts to spiritual maturity. This is something that we should pray for: “O God, direct my heart!” We can be confident that God will answer. In the words of Hebrews 13:21, He will equip us “with everything good that [we] may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever.”
So how can we learn to pray with greater confidence in the Lord? First, we will gain confidence in prayer by increasing in our knowledge of what God is like. Knowing God comes only through study of the Bible. The Bible assures us that through faith in Christ we become God’s dearly beloved children. As a faithful Father, God is certain to receive our prayers with love and concern. As God’s children, Christians pray with confidence. Jesus promised: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9).
Second, we grow confident in prayer through positive experiences in which we clearly see how graciously God has intervened. As we start praying about our needs, and especially for ministry situations, is that we will learn how powerful prayer is in the hands of our gracious God.
Third, we gain confidence as we pray for the things that our Lord desires in our lives. Jesus said, “Whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you” (John 16:23). “In Jesus’ name” means “in accordance with Jesus’ will.” We do not
know whether God wants us to have a certain job or improved health. But we do know that God wants us to repent of sins, grow in godly character, and offer ourselves for the spread of the gospel. When we pray for these and other priorities of Christ, we can be certain of a positive answer. Praying in confidence thus starts with seeking from God the things that God is seeking in and through us. As we grow spiritually and become more committed to Christ’s work of salvation in our lives and in the lives of others, our confidence in prayer soars through God’s power.
2 Thessalonians 3:1-5 Study Questions:
For what reasons does Paul ask for prayer in verses 1-3?
Why might Paul need prayer to be rescued from evil and wicked people?
Think about Christian leaders you know and the opposition that may result when they shine God’s light, even with God’s love, in dark places. How can you pray for them as the Thessalonians did for Paul?
On the night of His arrest, Jesus expressed concern for His disciple Simon Peter, who faced a threat that was too great for him. Peter had boasted that he would be more faithful than the others, not knowing what was in store for him that very night. Jesus warned: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat” (Luke 22:31). Under this diabolical pressure, Simon Peter failed utterly that night, denying Jesus three times before the rooster crowed (Luke 22:34, 54-62).
The apostle Paul’s converts in Thessalonica faced a similar threat under persecution for their faith. So far, they had done well, and Paul had boasted of their steadfastness (2 Thess. 1:4). There would be greater tribulation yet to come, however, because of the Antichrist’s opposition. How would believers hold firm in faith when beset by supernatural evil attacks?
Paul’s answer to the Thessalonians’ need was the same as the answer that Jesus gave to Peter on his dark night of the soul: “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:32). Though Peter stumbled, he did not ultimately fall because Jesus interceded on his behalf. In the benediction of 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17, Paul likewise appeals to Christ’s intercession on behalf of His church. The final verses of chapter 2 are a benediction, a “good word,” uttered by the apostle in the authority of his office. These verses express not merely a personal prayer desire but an apostolic declaration of Christ’s intersession and the resulting blessings that flow from the Father. Jesus told Peter, “I have prayed.” Similarly, Paul declared to his needy friends, “Christ will pray for you.” His benediction therefore consists, first, of a reminder of the God to whom he prays, second, of the saving love that ensues our blessing, and third, of his desire for them to persevere despite trials in a life of practical godliness.
Paul begins his benediction by reminding the Thessalonians of the God to whom he prays. In doing this, he incidentally makes a striking assertion of the deity of Jesus Christ: “Now may the Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father,” he begins (v. 16). Note that Paul lists Jesus together with God the Father, praying with equal respect to both persons. Moreover, the apostle lists Jesus’ name first, which would be blasphemy if he did not believe in the full deity of Christ. The probable reason for this unusual ordering is Paul’s emphasis in the preceding verses on the victory of Christ in His return.
Another reason that Paul named Jesus first might be that Christians pray to the Father through the Son. As the incarnate Christ, Jesus is the Mediator between man and God (1 Tim. 2:5), The Bible teaches, therefore, that the trajectory of prayer is “through [Christ]” and “to the Father” (Eph. 2:18). The question now comes to you: Does your faith accept the Bible’s teaching of Jesus as the Son of God? Without this belief, you cannot be a Christian. The apostle John wrote: “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23).
Having identified the recipients of his prayer, Paul continues by noting the ground of his petition. He prays for God’s help in the future on the basis of God’s act of salvation in the past: “who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace” (v. 16). This brief statement contains some of the greatest claims ever made. First, the apostle says that he prays to God “who loved us.” It makes sense that he would do this, since we naturally turn for help to those who have loved us previously. Let the impact of Paul’s words sink in. God loves you, if you are in Christ. Does that truth shape all the rest of your thinking about life and God? It should, because the Bible over and over declares God’s love.
God’s love for us is the spring of every comfort and encouragement that flows to those who trust in Christ. Paul goes on to note the “eternal comfort” that God has given His people. Because God’s comfort to those who trust in Christ is eternal, it will “outlast the afflictions of this age and the judgment to come.” In this life, the trials of the world oppress and threaten us. But God has given us comfort that reaches into the age to come and provide us with the resources of heaven to endure in faith.
Paul adds God’s gift of “good hope” (v. 16). Eternal comfort speaks to our present blessing with God, whereas “good hope” speaks to our confidence for the future. Since God has loved us by sending His Son to secure our salvation, Christians are optimistic about what the future holds, even when persecution rages against us. Paul’s “good hope” relates specifically to the return of Christ, who comes “to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted” (2 Thess. 1:6-7). If the future holds the overthrow of all evil and the consummation of our entry into eternal glory with Christ, then Christians have every reason to live in hope for the future.
Paul has set before us God’s love and His gifts of eternal comfort and a good hope. So far, all of this is still the preface to his actual prayer request. These blessings in Christ are the ground on which Paul stands as he turns to God to meet the needs of his afflicted readers. God’s love and saving gifts, eternally confirmed to all who believe in Christ, are the soil in which bold confidence in prayer may flourish and the Rock on which Paul may stand to pronounce that God is certain to meet His people’s needs. To this end, Paul prays that God will “comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word (v. 17).
Paul focuses not on the great events in his reader’s outward circumstances, but rather on God’s work in the hearts of the persecuted believers so that their lives may honor Him. First, Paul prays that God would “comfort your hearts.” This is the same word for comfort that he used in verse 16, with emphasis on “encouragement.” Earlier, Paul reminded us that God had given us reasons for eternal encouragement; now he prays that God would work these gospel truths into our hearts so that we receive the inward benefit of them.
Paul’s prayers, recorded across the span of his ministry and throughout his epistles, clarify the priority for our lives as Christians. We are to be established in our knowledge of God’s love for us – a love declared in the past but now applied inwardly to our hearts by the Holy Spirit – and encouraged so that we have spiritual motivation to live for Christ. We keep expending our efforts to gain positive settings, not realizing that God sometimes keep us in trials so as there to glorify Himself in us. Therefore, Paul prays for God to give “eternal comfort and good hope through grace” in order to “comfort [our] hearts and establish them in every good work and word.”
Paul concludes his benediction by praying for us to be established “in every good work and word” (vv. 16-17). The apostle is referring to a lifestyle of practical godliness, with works and words that follow the teaching and example of Christ. In concluding his end-times teaching with an appeal for practical godliness, Paul matches Jesus’ emphasis in teaching on the same subject. Jesus concluded His Olivet Discourse on the second coming by telling of the praise He will give to His sheep when they are gathered to Him in the final judgment (Matt. 25:35-36). Jesus then indicated that the glorified believers will be surprised that He noticed such seemingly unimportant works. But the Lord responded by saying how much our daily godliness and love mattered to Him (Matt. 25:40). By Jesus’ own reckoning, in light of the awesome events planned by God for history, the thing that matters most is the daily love of God shown in the works and words of the people who claim His name. The supportive visit, the welcoming meal, the fervent prayer, and the timely word of truth are esteemed so highly by our returning Lord that He takes them as offered to Himself.
Paul has offered a benediction – a good word – reminding us of God’s love and praying for God to apply His gospel grace to our lives. His purpose is that we would become a living benediction to the glory of God through “every good work and word” (v. 17). The apostle’s benediction for us is designed to become a benediction in us so that Christ may speak a benediction to us on the day of His coming.
2 Thessalonians 2:16-17 Study Questions:
Is your life a benediction for the blessing of others and the glory of Christ?
In the midst of all the problems with deceiving words the Thessalonians had heard, or prospects of being troubled by the lawless one and Satan, in verses 13-17 what does Paul want them to focus on about God?
How do you see God’s power being exercised precisely by your standing firm and holding tight?
In 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15 the apostle’s doctrine of salvation is thoroughly Trinitarian. Considering first the sovereign will of the Father, he urges us to be seated in the truth of God’s election to salvation. Moving to the Spirit’s sanctifying work, he urges us to walk in holiness and truth (vv. 13-14). Continuing to the glory that believers share through union with Christ, God’s Son, Paul urges us to “stand firm” in the gospel truth committed to us through the apostles (v. 15).
It is significant that Paul begins a passage with the word But. Realizing this, we note the connection between Paul’s confidence of salvation here and his alarming portrayal of the Antichrist in the preceding verses. The apostle’s point is that while there is great evil in this world that poses a deadly threat, there remain the strongest reasons for confidence when it comes to true believers in Jesus Christ. “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers” (v. 13), Paul writes, going on to note the mighty work of the triune God that secures salvation for His people.
Paul’s first ground for confidence against the evil afoot in the world is the sovereign election of the Father: “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers by the Lord, because God chose you…to be saved” (v. 13). Believers are secure in salvation because their destiny was decided by God’s choice of them before any decision on their part. The Bible teaches that from God’s perspective our salvation began in eternity past, when He chose us to be saved through faith in Christ. Romans 8:30 begins a chain of saving links – similar to Paul’s teaching in Thessalonians – with reference to God’s sovereign predestination: “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Opponents to election reply that God merely chose that whoever believes in Jesus will be saved. Or they argue that God did not choose any particular people before their faith, but only foresaw who would believe in Jesus and predestined that by believing they would be saved. The problem with these views is what the Bible actually says! Second Thessalonians 2:13 says not that God chose a principle of salvation but that “God chose you…to be saved.” Election is of persons to salvation. Moreover, God did not choose the elect because He foresaw their faith, but simply because of His sovereign love for them. Paul declares, “In love he predestined us” (Eph. 1:4-5). This is consistent with how Jesus described election in His High Priestly Prayer to His Father, saying that He had received authority “to give eternal life to all whom you have given him” (John 17:2).
The doctrine of election is rooted not only in eternity past but also in the unconditional love of God. It is not incidental that Paul identifies his readers as “brothers beloved by the Lord” (2 Thess. 2:13). We see the same affection in Ephesians 1:4-5, where Paul notes that we are predestined “in love.” Love is the foundation of a believer’s security, despite the awful threat posed by Satan and his antichrists. God said of old: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore, I have continued my faithfulness to you” (Jer. 31:3). It is God’s loving faithfulness to His elect people that secures us for salvation in the face of evil and spiritual danger.
The Christian’s salvation is rooted in eternity past but lived out in the power that comes from the Holy Spirit. The image of walking in the Spirit’s sanctifying power is Paul’s second ground for the believer’s confidence. Whereas 2 Thessalonians 2:13 begins by saying that believers are saved by God’s electing grace, Paul continues to see us as saved “through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.”
The word sanctification often refers to the believer’s subjective transformation from sin into holiness. Yet the idea of sanctification also has a broader, objective meaning, which Paul has in mind here. God chose His people in eternity past, but in the present, He set them apart for service to Himself. This is the apostle’s second reason for rejoicing that his readers will not be made captive by Satan: God has set them apart once and for all to be holy to Himself.
The believer’s security from the coming evil is experienced by being seated in God’s eternal election and by walking in faith through the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. In 2 Thessalonians 2:14, Paul turns to glorification of God the Son, Jesus Christ – a transformation to which Christians are called through the gospel. By standing with Christ in His glorification, believers are made secure against the coming onslaught of the evil one.
Paul connects believers to Christ by our calling through the gospel. This completes the Trinitarian outlook on salvation. According to these verses, the Father elects His people, who are then sanctified by the Holy Spirit and called through the gospel to salvation in Christ. Paul refers here to what theologians define as the effectual call, which is the preaching of the gospel as it goes forth with God’s power to open the heart to saving faith in Christ. This saving call joins the believer to Christ as he or she trusts and begins following Him. Levi the tax collector rose up when Jesus said, “Follow me,” leaving his seat of sin and becoming the disciple Matthew (Matt. 9:9). The Savior’s call in his life had an immediate effect. Likewise, everyone who is saved is called by God to believe in and stand with Jesus before the world. The effectual call is always “through [the] gospel” (v. 14), the good news of Christ’s saving work for sinners.
Whenever God’s sovereign grace in salvation is emphasized, as it certainly is in verses 13-14, there is a tendency for some readers to draw the conclusion that nothing is therefore required on our part as believers. Paul makes it clear, that this is far from the truth. It is God who saves us, to be sure, but the gift of salvation requires a wholehearted commitment to Christ and His saving truth. “So then, brothers,” Paul concludes, “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter’ (v. 15).
How then, do Christians “stand firm” against enemy attack in the victory won by Jesus? Paul explains by urging us to “hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (v. 15). Far from being able to relax as Christians, we must lay hold of the gospel truth in the same way that a man at sea braces himself against the mast in the thrashing winds of a storm. “Stand firm!” Paul cries. “Hold fast!” This is how we withstand the present course of evil working through intimidation, temptation, and false teaching in the world.
Paul specifically calls us to hold hast to “the traditions.” Here we see the Bible’s emphasis on a body of doctrinal truth that Christians receive and believe. Similarly, Paul urged Timothy to “follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me” (2 Tim. 1:13). These statements refute the idea that Christians do not need to know theological terminology (“sound words”) and doctrinal truth (“the traditions”) that are handed down to us. On the contrary, it is valuable for churches to profess creedal statements in our public worship, thereby holding “to the traditions” of biblical Christianity. It is vital, however, for us to distinguish between apostolic tradition and traditions that are merely fabricated by men. Any doctrine that we embrace must therefore be based on and built upward from the written record of the Bible.
What difference does it make to us, beset in a world of darkness, idolatry, and empty unbelief, to believe in the gospel? Jesus put it this way: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). According to Paul, eternal life is grounded in God’s sovereign election “from the beginning” and comes to life in us as we answer the call to believe the gospel and follow Jesus Christ. If we are seated in God’s sovereign grace, walk in the Spirit’s power, and stand firm with Christ against unbelief, holding fast to the truth, not only will we be freed from the evil powers of sin and death, but we will also “obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 2:14) so that God’s saving blessings are forever glorified in us.
2 Thessalonians 2:13-15 Study Questions:
In verses 13-14, Paul thanks God for His activity in the Thessalonian believers. What progression of the spiritual life and journey do you see in these verses?
How would holding “tight to the traditions” enable the Thessalonians to stand firm in the face of troubled times?
What can you do to hold tight to the traditions taught by the apostles in order to face the web of lies that threaten and the troubles that challenge us in the world?
Paul wasn’t surprised by the reality of apostasy. Paul had notified the Thessalonians that there would be a great rebellion against the gospel before Christ’s return. “Let no one deceive you in any way,” Paul wrote. “For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first” (v. 3). One of Satan’s chief goals, especially through the future “man of lawlessness,” is to induce people to abandon Christianity. Paul therefore knew that some people who profess faith in Jesus Christ will later renounce that faith, to their own destruction.
The Greek word translated in verse 3 as “rebellion” is apostasia. This word refers to the turning away from a former position or the abandonment of prior loyalties. It can be used of a political rebellion, however, in the Bible the word is used to describe a turning away from the true faith. Apostasy reflects an evil heart that embraces unbelief after previously professing faith. Does apostasy, however, describe a person who once truly believed and was saved, and who then, by losing his or her faith, lost salvation as well? The answer to this question is No. The Bible clearly teaches that those who possess a true and saving faith cannot be lost, for the simple reason that genuine faith results from the grace of God, and God never loses any of those whom He has saved. Jesus said of His true sheep: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).
If believers in Christ can never be lost for salvation, then what is an apostate? An apostate is a professing believer and outward member of the church who, having never truly believed, falls back into unbelief and condemnation. John explained: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that they might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19). How then, do we tell that a professing believer is really an apostate? In most cases, it is difficult if not impossible to tell until he or she actually abandons the faith. It seems, for instance, that the other disciples never suspected Judas Iscariot of his falseness even up to the night on which he betrayed Jesus to His death.
If professing believers may fall away, how can a Christian know that his or her faith is genuine and therefore eternally secure? Should believers worry that their faith is actually false and that sometime in the future they might apostatize? John addressed this issue in his first epistle, when he wrote “that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). According to John, there are three tests of a true, saving faith. One is a doctrinal test, focused on faith in the person and work of Jesus: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” (v. 1). Another is a moral test: “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (2:5-6). This doesn’t mean that true Christians never sin or are as perfect as Jesus is. Yet true Christians have taken up the calling to follow Jesus in practical godliness, turning from sin and pursuing holiness. Third is the test of love: “everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him” (5:1). True Christians are drawn to other believers and gain a love for the church that reflects the family love of God. According to the Bible, these three tests – dealing with theology, ethics, and love – provide Christians with a testimony from God’s Word as to the assurance of their salvation.
This understanding of apostasy shows why Paul was so pleased with the news that the Thessalonians were holding fast to the gospel and embracing a lifestyle of godliness and love (2 Thess. 1:3). They were steadfast in faith under persecution, as their worldly goods and even their lives were threatened (v. 4). According to Paul, this confirmed that they were “worthy of the kingdom of God” (v. 5); that is, their lives manifested a true and saving faith in Jesus.
Yet the day will come, Paul warns, when a great apostasy will fall upon the church. Christ will not return “unless the rebellion comes first” (2 Thess. 2:3). Having understood the doctrine of apostasy, we learn from verses 9-12 that a great apostasy will occur in the end, both by the working of Satan and by God’s sovereign judging of unbelief. In verse 3, Paul had linked the great apostasy to the coming of “the man of lawlessness,” often known to Christians as the Antichrist. In 2 Thessalonians 2:9, the apostle makes it clear that the rebellion is the work of this evil person: the great apostasy by which multitudes of professing believers abandon the Christian faith and turn against the church results from “the activity of Satan” in “the coming of the lawless one.”
Paul makes three statements relating the coming Antichrist to the great apostasy that he inspires. First, the man of lawlessness comes as a counterfeit of Christ. Paul indicates this by applying to the Antichrist the same word that he has frequently used of Christ’s coming. Just as God the Father has ordained the coming of His Son, Jesus, back to earth, Satan has planned the “coming of the lawless one.”
Second, Paul says that these false signs employ “all wicked deception for those who are perishing” (v. 10). If we wonder how people can be deceived by false miracles, we need only consider the many examples that abound today. For example, in 1858 a Roman Catholic woman named Bernadette Soubirous claimed that the virgin Mary had appeared in the French village of Lourdes. Today, five million pilgrims journey to Lourdes each year, seeking miraculous healings, so that the town of fifteen thousand residents boasts 270 hotels, second in France only to Paris. In light of the power of many imaginings and frauds that happen today, consider how great will be the deception of the Antichrist when he appears with satanic power, performing genuine wonders so as to deceive the unwary, foolish and needy. Paul’s warning of Satan’s deception points out how perilous it is for anyone to neglect the saving truth revealed in God’s Word. Jesus stated that these wondrous deceptions will be so powerful that “if possible, even the elect” would be persuaded (Matt. 24:24). How much success then, Satan will have with those who have rendered themselves vulnerable by rejecting biblical truth.
Paul’s third statement regarding the satanic strategy in apostasy states that his victims are deceived “because they refused to love the truth and so be saved” (v. 10). Though Satan is unable to undo the salvation of true believers, his targets inevitably accept the deception because that is all that is left to them once they have rejected the truth. When Paul points out that Satan’s targets refused to love the truth, he inevitably includes worldly malice toward Jesus Christ Himself, who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). They hated the gospel because it offended their self-righteous pride and threatened their lifestyle of cherished sins. For those who reject the gospel truth of Jesus Christ, there is no salvation from God but only a path leading away from Him, to Satan, and with Satan to eternal condemnation.
When Paul considers God’s purposes in the great apostasy, he says that in the coming of the Antichrist, “God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (vv. 11-12). Here Paul observes that the unbeliever not only refuses to love the saving truth that God sent through the blood of His Son, but also delights in the things that transgress God’s law and give offense to God’s holy person.
The Bible’s prophecies of the end fit the pattern both of what the early Christians faced and of the tendencies that will challenge the church throughout her history. John wrote: “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18). The coming of the lawless one will put an exclamation point on what takes place throughout the present era, which Hebrews 1:2 calls “these last days.” Thus, Paul’s teaching about the great apostasy and the man of lawlessness warns all Christians and provides an agenda for our watchfulness in faith.
2 Thessalonians 2:3, 9-12 Study Questions:
Paul connects the “man of lawlessness” with the presence of Satan. Describe how Satan works in the world in verses 9-12.
What is another name for “the man of lawlessness” often known to Christians?
What is the relationship between God’s activity and mankind’s choice that is alluded to in verses 9-12?
In our previous study of the chapter’s opening verses, we saw that Paul’s eschatology agrees substantially with Jesus’ Olivet Discourse. In considering the Antichrist, we should note as well the correspondence between Paul and the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. Remembering that Scripture is always the best interpreter of Scripture, it may be helpful to consider the general portrait given by those prophecies as a safeguard for our interpretation of Paul’s portrait.
During Israel’s Babylonian exile, Daniel was shown a vision of beasts that symbolized four great empires in ancient history (Dan. 7:1-8). This succession of beasts led to the appearing of “one like a son of man,” who conquered and “was given dominion and glory and a kingdom…that shall not be destroyed” (Dan 7:13-14). In this way, Daniel saw how wicked earthly kingdoms will rise up one after another, only to have their idolatry and violence swept away by Christ’s glorious appearing.
Reading Daniel, it might have been tempting to believe that Rome was the last of the beasts to come upon the earth. Yet the book of Revelation employs similar imagery, at one point describing “a beast rising out of the sea” (Rev. 13:1) that combines features from all four of the beasts from Daniel’s vision. Like the beasts of Daniel, Revelation’s beasts are violent rulers that destroy and oppose God’s kingdom. As a composite of Daniel’s four beasts, Revelation 13:1’s beast depicts the phenomenon of violent worldly powers that recurs throughout history and finds ultimate expression in the final days. Paul speaks of “the lawless one” who is empowered “by the activity of Satan” (2 Thess. 2:9). Revelation likewise states that the “beast” receives authority from “the dragon,” an obvious image of Satan (Rev. 13:4).
The book of Revelation was probably written over forty years after Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, accurately describing what the early Christians would endure under the regimes of Roman emperors. Like the beasts of Revelation, the emperors wielded terrible violence against the church, exhibited satanic evil, and demanded worship of themselves as gods. Through its portraits of the dragon and his beasts, Revelation accurately describes the combination of government persecution and idolatrous demands for worship that would try the faith of Christians in the years after Paul’s letter.
Revelation’s dragon and his beasts not only depicted what Christians faced in the late first century and would continue to face all through history, but also supported the futurist understanding that these events will come to an ultimate expression when the final Antichrist arises before the return of Christ. Not only does Paul summarize Revelation’s later portrait of the Antichrist, with his violent persecution and idolatrous demands, but Paul also makes it particularly clear that the final Antichrist must be taken as an individual human being in service to Satan.
Focusing on this final, ultimate, and individual Antichrist, Paul offers four descriptions. First, he is “the man of lawlessness” (2 Thess. 2:3). In Satan’s cause, the Antichrist will rise up against the ruling rights of God as expressed in His law. Daniel 12:9-10 foretold that in the end “the wicked shall act wickedly,” and Paul indicates that the Antichrist will be their champion in flouting God’s rule. Second, the Antichrist is “the son of destruction” (v. 3). Jesus used the same description for Judas Iscariot, who alone of His twelve disciples would be lost (John 17:12). This comparison suggests that Paul’s Antichrist is doomed to hell.
Third, the Antichrist is not content with rebellion and destruction, but demands worship: he “opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or worship…, proclaiming himself to be God” (v. 4). In place of God, the man of lawlessness demands religious veneration for himself. The word that Paul uses for opposes (antikeimenos) is also used in 1 Timothy 5:14 to describe Satan as “the adversary” of the church. The man of lawlessness opposes true and saving faith so as to secure worship for himself. This is precisely what Roman emperors of the early church demanded, as their Christian victims would have recognized in reading the book of Revelation. More recently, imperial worship finds its analogy in the deified secular state, whether in the Communist tyrannies of the East or the Socialist democracies of the West. The spirit of antichrist demands that its subjects look to the state and its ruler for provision and deliverance rather than to God. Today’s anti-Christian politicians employ science and popular culture to push God and His rule out of society. This same historical impulse will come to a final and ultimate expression in the tribulation imposed by the Antichrist.
The fourth description shows that the Antichrist will seek not only to persecute but also to control the church from within. Paul takes up the language earlier used by Daniel and then by Jesus in His Olivet Discourse, saying that the Antichrist “takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God” (v. 4). The question is raised as to what Paul means in saying that the Antichrist “takes his seat in the temple of God.” Dispensationalists take this statement to refer to a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, which the Antichrist will physically occupy for personal veneration. The problem with this view is that not once in all his writings does Paul use the word temple to describe a rebuilt temple structure.
A second view believes that Paul’s reference to the Antichrist seated in the temple is metaphorical. The point would be that just as one might go into the temple and physically take the place of God, the Antichrist will similarly demand worship for himself. While this is a possible interpretation, a third view makes better sense of Paul’s usual use of the word temple. Paul sometimes speaks of the individual Christian as a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). But predominantly Paul refers to the temple in terms of the Christian church as a whole. The church, he says, is “built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets” and “grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:20-21).
With this in mind, we note that Paul’s forth statement regarding the Antichrist indicates that he will pursue his idolatrous agenda not only through government power but also from within the formal Christian church. Paul concludes: “Do you not remember that when I was still with you, I told you these things?” (v. 5). According to the apostle, it was important for Christians to realize the pattern at work in history and to be aware of how the great tribulation of the end will take place. Empowered by “the activity of Satan” (v. 9), the Antichrist will rebel against God by seizing both worldly power and religious authority, using them to bring tribulation on believers and gain worship for himself on Satan’s behalf. We cannot now be certain how the Antichrist will manipulate religious authority, but it is likely to involve the worldly corruption of church offices, and it will certainly involve the spread of false teaching. Christians can thus oppose him now by upholding biblical standards in the ministry, the spiritual focus of the church, and above all the defense of sound biblical doctrine.
Paul’s description of the Antichrist, who not only will appear before Christ’s return but will be represented in the spiritual warfare of every age, along with the insights that we have gained about Satan’s approach to war, points to some applications for us today. First, Christians are forewarned not to be surprised at opposition to the gospel both from the world and within the church. Contrary to postmillennial eschatology, which sees Christ returning only after a golden age in which the church has triumphed over the world in Christian faith and culture, Paul’s teaching on the Antichrist urges us to anticipate such a concentrated expression of satanic power that only the sudden appearing of Christ can save the church from destruction.
Second, since Satan aims to provoke apostasy from Christ and idolatrous worship for himself, Christians must never swerve from the gospel and an exclusive devotion to God alone through faith in Jesus Christ. Third, Christians should face every form of spiritual opposition – whether it is outward persecution or inward corruption in the church – with a joy that flows from complete confidence of victory in the soon appearing of Jesus Christ. We should make every effort to absorb what Paul and other biblical writers say, while at the same time modestly admitting that full clarity about the Antichrist is not provided to us in Scripture. But when it comes to the return of Christ, we have detailed knowledge of the sure salvation that He is coming soon to bring: He will raise the dead, gather His people, overthrow all evil and darkness, justify those who have believed His gospel and condemn unbelievers in the final judgment. And in the eternal reign that follows, “we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17).
The issue, therefore, is not what we know about the Antichrist but where we stand with respect to Jesus Christ. Are we worshiping false gods such as money, pleasure, power, or self? However the events are moving forward to the Antichrist, Satan always seeks to lure the unwary into worshiping things over which he wields influence, rather than honoring God alone by surrendering our lives in faith through Jesus Christ. Despite all present evil and dark clouds of darkness on the horizon, the way to live in joyful security is to commit yourself in trusting service to Jesus Christ, who will come on the clouds to save all whose hearts are devoted to Him.
2 Thessalonians 2:3-10 Study Questions:
What events described in verses 3-8 does Paul see ahead in the future?
In this context, what are the characteristics of the “man of lawlessness” Paul describes?
What parallels or examples do you see in our own society of people or institutions living out the characteristics of the “man of lawlessness”?
Together with the book of Revelation and Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 21), Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians provide the most detailed New Testament teaching about the events preceding the second coming of Christ. As we begin our study of 2 Thessalonians chapter 2, it may be helpful to recap Paul’s teaching so far on this subject.
The apostle first mentioned Christ’s return because of believers who had died. He taught his readers “not [to] grieve as others who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13), since all believers will be rejoined with Christ forever when He returns. His second point taught that Christ will return “like a thief in the night”; the second coming will be unexpected by the world but anticipated by His people (1 Thess. 5: 1-5). Third, Paul began his second letter by encouraging Persecuted believers to trust Christ to “repay will affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you” when He comes again in power (2 Thess. 1:6-7). Christ’s return, Paul insisted, is the ringing of good news for His people and the knelling of doom for the evil world.
Paul’s fourth and final teaching on Christ’s return came in response to false report that the Lord had somehow already come: “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ…, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind and alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come” (2 Thess 2:1-2). Word had spread, perhaps by a misinterpretation of Paul’s first letter or a message falsely ascribed to him – Paul indicates that he does not know exactly how this word has spread – saying that Christ had already returned. The apostle therefore wrote to assure his readers that they had not missed out on Christ’s coming and the consummation of their salvation.
From this statement, we learn that the Thessalonians suffered not only from outward persecution but also from false teaching from inside. False doctrine disturbs God’s people, which is why it must be corrected by true biblical teaching in order to bring believers to peace. Paul’s concern on this occasion points out a problem common to end-times teaching, namely, that many are “shaken in mind” and “alarmed.” This effect happens when end-times schemes make Christians fear that they might somehow miss out when Jesus returns, having failed in some way to rightly anticipate the end. One way to avoid being wrongly disturbed about Christ’s return, Paul emphasizes, is to know the Bible’s teaching about the events associated with the second coming.
Since we are told by our Lord Jesus to expect Him soon, we can understand why Christians are anxious to be certain about their salvation when Christ returns. Paul describes Christ’s coming as the time of “our being gathered together to him” (2 Thess. 2:1). What a tragedy it would be to live for Christ and even suffer for His gospel, but somehow to miss out on Christ’s return and not be gathered into His glory! The primary answer to this concern is the inseparable link between faith in Christ now and our future gathering to Him on the day of the Lord. Jesus made it clear that to believe on Him in this life is to gain eternal life in the next (John 6:37-40). Therefore, a true and saving faith in Christ now assures the believer of being gathered to Christ for salvation on the day of His return.
Paul asserts that we can be certain that Christ’s coming has not yet happened by knowing the signs that precede Christ’s return. He explains: “Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction” (2 Thess. 2:3).
In considering Paul’s teaching on the events preceding Christ’s return, we see that he is drawing on Jesus’ Olivet Discourse. Jesus gave this teaching shortly before His crucifixion. Seeing His disciples gaping at the splendor of the temple buildings, Jesus predicted their destruction. In reply, the disciples asked, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (Matt. 24:3). Jesus’ answer followed the order of these questions, first predicting the fall of Jerusalem and then telling about His second coming.
Paul begins the material in 2 Thessalonians 2 with a concern that the believers should not be “quickly shaken in mind or alarmed” (v. 2) by false reports of Christ’s coming. He points out the signs of Christ’s coming that had not yet been fulfilled. In concluding this introduction to Paul’s teaching on the delay of Christ’s return, we can note additional dangers and draw applications on how rightly to await the return of our Lord.
The first danger when it comes to the signs that precede Christ’s coming is the wrong idea that we can be certain when He will return. Jesus warned the Jewish leaders that it is easy to miss the signs of His coming (Matt. 16:3), which shows that the signs might not be obvious in their first appearing. We should observe, by way of analogy, how hard it would have been to make precise sense of the prophecies of Christ’s first coming: He would be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2), “out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos. 11:1), and “he shall be called a Nazarene” (Matt. 2:23). Similarly, a precise calculation of the events preceding Christ’s second coming is impossible before their fulfillment.
With this in mind, our first attitude in awaiting Christ’s return must be patience. Just as many great Christians (i.e., Augustine, Martin Luther, the Puritans, Jonathan Edwards) were mistaken in the certainty that Christ would come in their time, the same conviction today is potentially mistaken. And yet, on the other extreme, we should never assume that Christ is not coming simply because certain signs seem yet to be fulfilled.
Another danger pertaining to the signs of the end involves our need to be prepared. Thus, in addition to a posture of patience, Christians must maintain readiness for Christ’s coming. It might or might not be possible for us to immediately recognize the final events before Christ’s coming, but we can know how we should always respond to such occurrences. Christians must never betray our Lord despite persecution; we must never follow any false christs who claim to have come; and we must never worship any government or church leader in the place of Jesus our only Lord. The message is that we must always keep our faith vibrant, in communion with Christ through the Holy Spirit, by means of God’s Word and prayer. “Watch therefore,” Jesus said, “for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matt. 25:13).
Can we know when Christ is coming? No, although we learn much form His prophecies about what to expect both now and at the end: signs of salvation through the spread of the gospel; signs of judgment through wars, famines, and disasters; signs of opposition through persecution and apostasy. Christ’s people should expect all of these without dismay. And while we patiently wait for our Savior to come, He calls us to maintain the readiness of a living faith and to occupy the time He has given us in the work of His kingdom. By being faithful to Jesus, we can be certain to hear from Him, whenever He returns: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34).
2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 Study Questions:
What do verses 1-2 suggest might be the reason that Paul writes this second letter to the Thessalonians?
Obviously, if by “the day of the Lord” (v. 2) Paul meant “the end of the world,” the Thessalonians wouldn’t have had to be informed by letter that such an event had already occurred. The Old Testament prophets used “the day of the Lord” to refer to catastrophes that befell Jerusalem within continuing history. So, what might Paul be referring to by using this Old Testament phrase?
The apostle began his second letter to the Thessalonians by expressing thanks for their “steadfastness and faith…in the afflictions that [they were] enduring” (2 Thess. 1:4). Paul asserted that God would “repay with affliction those who afflict you” (v. 6), punishing them with “eternal destruction” (v. 9). Christ’s return would also bring eternal glory to His faithful servants who suffered in His name during this life. Paul concluded with words teaching that Christ “comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed” (v. 10). By knowing this great deliverance, still future to the beleaguered church of Christ, believers are emboldened to live with a heavenly purpose while still on earth.
Paul’s teaching on the return of Christ in 2 Thessalonians 1 culminates in the glorification of Christ by the people whom He has come to save. It is difficult for believers now to imagine how greatly we will praise our mighty Savior on the day of His coming. We can best anticipate this rejoicing by looking to descriptions in the Bible. For instance, Isaiah chapter 11 tells of the Lord’s coming, using language that the New Testament applies to the return of Christ (Isa. 11:4; 12:6). How greatly Christ will be glorified in the hearts of His adoring people on the day of His unveiling before all!
Paul adds that Christ will “be marveled at among all who have believed” (2 Thess. 1:10). We may consider this in several ways. First, we will marvel to see true manhood glorified. We will likewise behold the glory of Christ in His return and marvel that the Lord is our brother and fellow man. We will marvel at the perfection of Jesus’ manhood; it will be the glory of His deity that shine upon us. A vision of Christ’s divine glory was granted to His disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration. We will give the same honor when Jesus returns to reveal His divine glory to our eyes. Our worship of Jesus in the radiance of His unveiled glory will provide the ultimate satisfaction for our souls, of which our present worship on earth is the closest foretaste.
Moreover, on the day of Christ’s coming, His people will marvel at His mediatorial glory in His office as Redeemer and head over the church. The exalted Jesus revealed Himself in this way to the apostle John in the book of Revelation, dressed in the garb of the heavenly high priest: “clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest” (Rev. 1:13). This is why the scenes of worship in the book of Revelation show that it is the Lamb upon the throne who is worshiped with great awe and joy.
While the Bible’s teaching on the return of Christ points to the future, its purpose is found in the present, to inspire and inform practical Christian living. Paul reasons that if we are sure of Christ’s coming, then instead of fretting over our present troubles, we will employ ourselves in preparing for the glory that will be revealed. Paul made clear the relevance of the present work of the church by noting in 2 Thessalonians 1:10 that Christ will be glorified in His saints “because our testimony to you was believed.” The connection between faith and witness shows that emphasizing the sovereign glory of Christ in salvation does not minimize the significance of gospel preaching and evangelism today. Christ will be glorified among the Thessalonians because Paul preached the gospel to them and because by God’s power they had believed.
When we think of Paul’s ministry, we think of both his preaching of the gospel and his fervent prayers for the believers. “To this end we always pray for you,” the apostle adds in 2 Thessalonians 1:11, pointing out that he asks God to protect and nurture their faith. This combination of witness and prayer makes effective evangelists. Paul tells us not only that he prayed, but also what he prayed for. If most of us were praying for other Christians who were suffering intense persecution for their faith, some of them to the point of death, we would likely spend almost all our time asking God to remove the outward afflictions. Paul indicates a different approach, however, by praying for their spiritual maturity and growth in faith: “that our God may make you worthy of his calling” (v. 11.).
In verse 12, Paul states that his goal is that “the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you.” The “name” of the Lord is not only who He is but also what He has promised to do. Christ has put His name on us, and by His Spirit, through the ministry of the Word and prayer, He desires us to be sanctified so that His reputation will be exalted through our lives. Christ is “glorified in his saints,” that is, His “holy ones.” Therefore, if we want our lives to glorify His name, we will pursue holiness in this present life, knowing with joy that when Christ returns, our holiness will be perfected through our resurrection into glory.
Paul adds a fourth way in which we prepare for the glory that is coming, saying that God will “fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power” (v. 11). Remember that the apostle was writing to persecuted Christians, yet he directed them to the work that God had given them and that God would empower them to do. This work undoubtedly involved duties in the home and in the church, as well as in the world. The Thessalonians were using their time well, even while they placed their hope in the coming of Christ (see 2 Cor. 8:1-5).
In his final statement of chapter 1, in which Paul has sought to encourage the steadfast faith of the persecuted believers, he adds not only that Christ’s name will “be glorified in you,” and also “you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 12). Having shared in the suffering of Christ in this life, believers share in His glory for all the unending ages to come after He returns. In Romans 8:17, Paul reasoned that if we are “children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” It is not that Christ gains His great inheritance and each believer gets his or her own little inheritance in glory, but rather that together with Christ, as His coheirs, we inherit the whole of the glory of God. Then Paul adds: “provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17).
Paul’s statement that Christ is glorified in you “and you in him” echoes the request that Jesus made in His great High Priestly Prayer on the night of His arrest: “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). Jesus did not say merely that he wills for His people to enter into heaven, but that they may be “with me.” He longs for fellowship with His people and for us to enter into the glory that reflects His own love relationship with the Father. It is for this that He is returning to take us to Himself and into His glory.
Jesus will return to be glorified in us, and we in Him, and this is only by “the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 12). While no sinner can ever earn the glory of Christ, God has ordained it for all who believe the gospel to which Paul gave testimony and that the Bible declares today. Everyone who wishes to be saved must therefore receive the gospel, trusting the death and resurrection of Jesus to deliver us from our sins. If we refuse to believe, rebelling against the gospel that God has revealed concerning His Son, we must “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction” (v. 9) on that day when Christ returns. If we believe, surrendering our lives now in preparation for the glory to be revealed, we can know through faith that the grace of God has ordained that we be glorified together with Christ, His Son. On “that day,” the day of Christ’s coming and of judgment for the world, believers will marvel at the glory of Christ in order for that glory to enter into us.
The next chapter (2 Thessalonians 2) will provide further details about the second coming of Christ, dealing with the problem of a false report stating that Christ had already returned. As we conclude chapter 1’s teaching on Christ’s appearing, we should remember the Thessalonians’ context of a suffering and persecuted church. Jesus taught that “because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you…If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:19-20). In light of this fact, our concern should not be how to avoid persecution and affliction, but how to respond to it. Paul’s teaching in this chapter yields surprising but vitally important answers, which we may sum up in three brief practical applications.
First, Paul reasons that Christians should not lament but rather rejoice in persecution for Jesus’ sake. This is not to say that we enjoy trouble and suffering – we do not – but rather that we know the joyful truth of what suffering for Christ brings. Enduring under persecution both proves and improves our faith (1 Pet. 1:6-7), yielding a crop of godly character (see rom. 5:3-5). Second, whatever our circumstances are in this life, our great concern must be to promote the glory of Christ’s name, not only by our conduct now but also on that day when He comes “to be glorified in his saints” (2 Thess. 1:10). Finally, remembering Paul’s statement that Christ would be glorified in His saints “because our testimony to you was believed” (2 Thess. 1:10). We must all put a premium on our calling to spread the gospel to others. Christians do not conquer by avoiding troubles or by rising high in the structures of worldly power. They conquer in affliction by the blood of Jesus, which offers forgiveness to every sinner who believes, and redemption from sin in the power of God. They conquer “by the word of their testimony,” even at the cost of their lives.
2 Thessalonians 1:10-12 Study Questions:
What is the substance of Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians in verses 11-12, knowing that they are facing persecution and suffering?
What does it mean for God to “complete every plan he has to do you good, and every work of faith in power” (v. 11)?
Which part of this passage strikes you powerfully right now and why?
There is a very real phenomenon in churches today: the disappearance of hell. In the older days, preachers such as Jonathan Edwards spoke often of hell. A preacher who spoke of hell today would be considered unbalanced by many of his hearers, even in supposedly Bible-believing churches. It is no longer open deniers of the Bible who reject the doctrine of hell, but supposedly evangelical scholars as well. Some onlookers undoubtedly consider this development a sign of maturity on the part of professing believers.
The problem with such a revision of the doctrine of hell is the standing testimony of the Holy Scriptures. In Matthew 10:28 for example, the text in which Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” In keeping with the words of Jesus, the apostle Paul also taught about hell in his second letter to the Thessalonians. The context of his remarks was the suffering of the believers under persecution from the world. They were to be comforted by knowing that God would exact vengeance on their oppressors” “God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you,” Paul said, by “inflicting vengeance” through “the punishment of eternal destruction” (vv. 6-9). Out of this pastoral concern for the perseverance of believers under persecution, the apostle provides some of the most potent teaching about hell that is found in all of Scripture.
The first thing for us to know about hell, Paul explains, is that it is God’s just punishment on His enemies. Earlier, the apostle mentioned God’s vengeance on “those who afflict you” (v. 6), speaking of his readers’ persecutors. Now he broadens the scope, with God inflicting “vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (v. 8). Here, Paul is setting forth the two sides of damning unbelief: rejecting the knowledge of God and refusing the gospel message of salvation.
We know from Romans chapter 1 that there is no one who truly does not know God. “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived,” Paul explains, “ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20). It is the designed purpose of nature to bear testimony to God, so that, “what can be known about God is plain to them” (Rom 1:19). How then, can people “not know God?” The answer is that unbelievers will fully reject the knowledge of God that they have. “By their unrighteousness,” Paul declares, they “suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18). Moreover, “although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him,” but instead “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (Rom. 1:22-23). For this grave sin of idolatry God will punish those who have lived as practical atheists, whatever actual creed they might have professed.
Matters become worse when the unbeliever hears but rejects the gospel. God sent His own Son to bring salvation to rebel humanity. Those who despise the death of Jesus for sins, refusing to repent and believe, have grievously offended God and merited His just condemnation. Paul’s description of unbelief as “not obey[ing] the gospel” reminds us that the message of Jesus is not merely a warmhearted invitation to sinners but also a sovereign summons to repent and believe.
The judgment of those who reject God and His gospel will involve God’s full and just punishment that these sins deserve. The Bible makes it clear that God’s judgment will condemn sinners not only for unbelief but also “according to what they had done” (Rev. 20:12). God will punish every last sin committed against His law. Still, Paul describes condemned sinners as “those who do not obey the gospel” (v. 8), since it was by refusing the gospel that they forfeited the only way of forgiveness for their sins. John 3:36 thus warns that “whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
In Paul’s teaching about God’s wrath in Romans 1, the apostle emphasized the way that sin is punished in this life, as God gives “them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (Rom. 1:28; see also 1:24-26). Second Thessalonians differs by focusing on the judgment that God will inflict when Christ returns. Thus, 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 provides some of the Bible’s clearest teaching on the punishment of hell. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word sheol, translated in Greek by the word hades, describes the place of the dead generally, regardless of their status before God. In the New Testament, however, hades, translated in English as hell, is used exclusively of the place of final judgment for unforgiven sinners.
We may summarize the Bible’s teaching on the punishment of hell with three adjectives, the first of which is that it is an eternal punishment. Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction.” The point is that sinners who rejected God and His gospel in this life will face in the afterlife an unending punishment for their transgressions. Not only does Paul teach that hell is eternal, but second, he describes it in terms of conscious punishment. When he says that the condemned are cast “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (v. 9), this implies a conscious experience of alienation. And when he warns that they will “suffer punishment,” he uses an active verb (tino) that means that they will actively render payment for their sins.
Third, we may summarize the Bible’s teaching of hell by noting that in addition to eternal and conscious suffering, it involves the bodily punishment of those condemned by God. The Bible reveals that in the coming of Christ, all the dead – godly and ungodly – are resurrected so that souls are rejoined forever to their bodies to stand before the Lord (Rev. 20:12). Jesus will say to those who rejected God and despised His offer of mercy in the gospel: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). By speaking of the fires of hell, the Bible plainly indicates bodily punishment for the ungodly. In fact, the clearest testimony to bodily torment in hell comes from Jesus Himself who warned that in hell “their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48).
There is no sin in admitting to difficulty in accepting the Bible’s teaching on hell. Surely, a fully biblical position on hell will impact our hearts as well as our minds. In believing the biblical doctrine of hell, we should experience the tears shed by Jeremiah when he preached judgment on Israel and the broken heart of Jesus as He called out, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” and lamented the unbelief of the Jewish people (Matt. 23:37).
As we seek to apply the implications of the biblical doctrine of hell, first we must realize how vital it is that we teach this doctrine without compromise. We may imagine that we are improving or updating the Bible by smoothing over matters to which our generation objects. In reality, however, we are denigrating God’s Word and corrupting all the doctrines that are inseparably related. By softening the idea of hell’s sufferings, we minimize the sacrifice offered by Jesus Christ on the cross, where God’s Son voluntarily embraced the eternal experience of separation from the Father as He suffered for us in His Spirit.
Instead of toning down the Scriptures when it comes to difficult matters, we need to elevate the capacity of our faith to accept whatever God has revealed. Doing this will require us to bow before God and submit our minds to His Word. If we recoil against God’s eternal punishment of sin, then we must not have embraced the Bible’s emphasis on the heinous offense of sin and the infinite holiness of the God who responds with such terrible justice. Furthermore, we have surely failed to grasp that the supreme purpose of all things is to glorify the sublime perfection of all of God’s attributes, including both His glorious love in the gospel and His glorious wrath in the punishments of hell. It is instructive to us to read how heaven rejoices over the glory of God in the judgment of hell. Gazing out from heaven onto hell, the angels cry, “Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever” (Rev. 19:3).
Here on earth, however, where Jesus wept for sin, the truth about hell calls us to a passionate witness to the gospel of salvation from sin. How can we read of the terrors of hell, into which will go all “who do not know God” and “do not obey the gospel” (v. 8), and fail to do everything possible for them to know and believe the grace of God in Christ? How can we fail to pray for greater zeal in evangelism and for God’s power to open the unbelieving hearts to which we speak? If the Scriptures teach and the church confesses the reality of hell, then for God’s sake we must tell people. And in speaking about hell, we must never fail to declare the way of forgiveness at the cross of Christ, where God sent His own Son to pay with His blood the debt of sin, “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 Study Questions:
In Scripture, there are many moments of judgment, which are at the same time moments of deliverance for those who have clung to the God of justice and mercy, and have refused to be sucked into the prevailing culture of lies and wickedness. What are ways the culture today tells lies about what is evil?
How can we cling in strength and courage to the God of justice in face of this?