Saturday, March 1, 2008

Second Thessalonians

In the New Testament, this is portrayed as a later letter of Paul to the Jesus community at Thessalonica, about which we have already been informed. However, the weight of scholarly opinion is that things are not as simple as that. Since the outset of the historical-critical study of the NT in the late 18th century… biblical scholars have become skeptical about Paul’s authorship of the letter. 20th century scholarship provided evidence that Hellenistic writers sometimes wrote “letters” in the name of revered teachers either to honor them or to enable their teaching to be applicable to a new situation…. Scholars have noted that the outline of 2 Thess essentially follows that of 1 Thess, including the oddity of both texts have two thanksgiving sections. The vocabulary of 2 Thess echoes that ft 1 Thess, but its style is far more wooden than the vivid style of Paul’s own letters…. There is also a clear difference between the expectation of an imminent return of Christ (the parousia)… and the expectation of the parousia in some unknown and apparently far distant future…. By the end of the 20th century the majority of biblical scholars had concluded that 2 Thess is a missive written in the style of 1 Thess by a disciple of Paul who wanted to update Paul’s teaching on the parousia, the future coming of Christ. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible) If this is the case, the letter “was not written to a particular congregation, but is written to the church at large in the form of a letter of Paul to Thessalonica” (People’s New Testament Commentary). As we have noted before, the fact that Paul may not be the author of this work does not diminish its standing as a part of our New Testament. “The church heard in it an authentic witness to the meaning of Christian faith and included it in the New Testament canon” (People’s New Testament Commentary).

II Thessalonians 1:1-2: This beginning is almost exactly the same at the beginning of I Thessalonians. The author does a good job of making this a letter of Paul.

II Thessalonians 1:3-4: As with I Thessalonians, thanks is given for a Christian community. If the letter was written to Christians more generally, these are the kind of things over which all Christians can be thankful – a growing faith, increasing love. The new twist to this section is mention of steadfastness in faith in the face of persecutions and afflictions. If the letter is a later letter from a disciple of Jesus and Paul, then persecutions likely increased since the originally letter to Thessalonians.

II Thessalonians 1:5-10: The thanksgiving is interrupted to reflect further on the situation of persecution, and it uses an apocalyptic perspective. Recall that apocalyptic literature had as its central conviction that God’s deliverance will arrive after a time of intense suffering. That is the most important theme. Beyond the symbolic language and metaphoric timetables, there is a deep conviction of faith “namely, what has begun in Jesus will triumph, despite the tumult and resistance of this world” (Crossan and Borg, The Last Week, 83). Here the writer sees persecution as evidence of God’s on-going work in the world. Enduring suffering will contribute to the qualities that belong to God’s kingdom. It is also common for apocalyptic literature not only to assert the triumph of the purposes of God but also the punishment of those who have persecuted God’s righteous people. The author uses vivid language to describe such retribution. “The description is not objectifying language about what God will do to unbelieving persecutors, but functions as encouragement and warning to the believers addressed by the letter: vengeance is a matter for God in the age to come, not something we may take into our own hands now” (People’s New Testament Commentary). This represents “reinterpreting Paul’s idea of the lordship of Jesus into that of an avenging Lord” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). “The Paul of the undisputed letters does not dwell on the fate of unbelievers” (People’s New Testament Commentary). That says to us that differences of opinion on some of these difficult issues is o.k. It also says that the important point for our faith is hanging on in the midst of difficulty – living and witnessing our faith and inviting others to the Jesus way of life. We do that without spending a lot of time wondering about what finally “happens” to those who refuse our invitation.

II Thessalonians 1:11-12: The thanksgiving is continued. Prayer is offered that God will continue to work in the lives of Christians – that God’s power will help fulfill every “good resolve and work of faith.” When that happens, Jesus is glorified. This is the work of God’s grace.

II Thessalonians 2:1-12: The writer returns to the theme of the coming of Christ. Behind the letter seems to be a concern in the early church that Jesus had not come yet. Paul and many others expected the final coming of Jesus and Christ and Lord in their lifetimes. They expected that God would make the world right very soon. When it did not happen, it created concern. The author again uses apocalyptic language and thinking to respond to this “crisis of faith.”

Apparently, there arose a teaching that “the day of the Lord” had either happened already, perhaps in the experience of the believing community, or, given the intense persecution being suffered, was just around the corner (that all the signs were fulfilled and the coming was very near). The writer categorically rejects these options, instead uses typical apocalyptic thinking to argue that the parousia will come and that the current difficult situation is a part of the pattern. Apocalyptic descriptions usually affirm the idea that God has control of history. Thus human history falls into distinct periods, and there is a timetable to fulfill before the Day of the Lord comes. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). We will encounter this again when we read Revelation.

Crossan and Reed note that this apocalyptic scenario stands in tension with Paul’s own thought in I Thessalonians 4 where he argues that the coming of Christ will be as a thief in the night. The apocalyptic scenario “is like saying that the night thief will not come unless there is first the sound of breaking windows and smashing doors” (In Search of Paul, 171). However, they note that the language here has a particular context. “It is probably the theology of Roman imperialism and the ideology of emperor worship that, one way or another, lies behind” this passage (p. 172).

The typical apocalyptic scenario included the persecution of God’s people, and an increasing power of rebelliousness and lawlessness. This is a faith interpretation of what the people were experiencing, and the author is convinced it will get worse before it gets better. In the end, however, Jesus as Lord triumphs. That is the basic message. Perhaps another important part of the message is the seductiveness of powers that work against God’s purposes. Consider how many evils have been perpetrated under the guise of good – Hitler claimed to be restoring the glory of the Roman empire (reich); Stalin claimed to be creating a worker’s paradise. These are extreme examples, but the point is important. Things which work against God’s intention for the world are often cloaked in power, signs and wonder. The message for that time and for ours is be discerning and stay strong in the faith.

II Thessalonians 2:13-16: The thanksgiving is continued and concluded. The Christians are those who are participating in God’s sanctifying Spirit work. The writer encourages the letter’s readers to hold on in the midst of troubled times. He encourages them to keep the traditions they were taught – taught by Paul in person and by letter. The thanksgiving ends with a delightful prayer, one that can be used for our own lives – that God might comfort our hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word; or in the words of The Message: put a fresh heart in you, invigorate your work, enliven your speech.

II Thessalonians 3:1-5: Prayers are requested by the author for the work of the gospel. Then the focus is once again on the readers. God will be faithful in their lives and the writer asks, “may the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.” Yet another nice phrase that we could consider for our own lives.

II Thessalonians 3:6-14: The writer addresses some situations that seem to be plaguing some early Christian communities. “Idleness” is better translated “disruptiveness” or “disorderliness.” One concern of the writer is that some in the communities which Paul helped found are departing from the faith as Paul taught it. Another concern may have been the presence of wandering Christian teachers who went from place to place claiming that for their teaching, the community should provide for their support. Paul worked and paid his own way, and so should others, according to this author. These disruptive people should work quietly and earn their own living. If they don’t work, they should not eat. Unfortunately, this passage has often been ripped out of context to argue against social spending to help those who cannot find work are unable to work. The text encourages wholesome work, and while that has applicability in a variety of contexts, we should not lose sight of the original context. We are not to grow weary in doing what is good, and sometimes that may include caring for those who do not have some of the resources at present to care adequately for themselves. The final concern expressed in this section is that some may not take the words of the letter seriously enough. Such persons are to be warned as believers, not completely shunned as enemies. Such an attitude toward those who read the Scriptures of our faith could be applied today, though I would use even gentler language than this author. We should see each other as fellow believers and be careful not to treat each other as enemies.

II Thessalonians 3:16-18: The author’s final words contain words of blessing and an assertion of Pauline authorship. Its strong assertion may, ironically, be an indication that the letter is not from Paul. Paul’s own letter to Thessalonica did not include the note mentioned here. May the Lord of peace give you peace at all times and in all ways. May it be so.

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