As a church in Houston, Texas, a proverbial ‘notch’ on the Bible belt, it’s difficult for us to understand what it felt like to be a follower of Jesus in ancient Thessalonica. The early Christians were seen as an alien counter-cultural movement. Although Christians did not intentionally upset the apple cart, they inevitably did so because they ceased worshiping the numerous gods of the ancient world. These Gentile converts were formerly very much involved in Greco-Roman religion(s). They were accused of being atheists because they only worshiped one God and not the many on offer, including the gods of their cities and the Roman Empire. They were a strange and dangerous minority: their religious practices made no sense, were sometimes offensive and threatened the societal norms. It’s a long way from our Christian experience today, even with socially distant church!
Read 2 Thessalonians 2
Here we get into the ‘meat’ of 2 Thessalonians and there’s a lot of gristle with which to contend. As I said last week, there’s plenty in this letter that leaves us in the dark and this is especially true of today’s passage. The small but growing Thessalonian church had gone awry with the truth, possibly because of Paul’s first letter to them (v. 2). Paul knows the specifics of what they have erroneously believed. The Thessalonians did too. Yet sadly we do not! What we can deduce is this: they had started to believe the end of the world was already upon them. It was happening right there and then. The present struggles were interpreted as indicators that Jesus was coming back. So Paul is reassuring them:
the day is not yet
. He is not introducing new information or laying out new teaching. He’s correcting their understanding of events on basis of things they already knew.
This leaves us with a number of unanswered questions: who is the ‘man of lawlessness’ (vv. 3
4)? Who (or what) is the restrainer (vv. 6
7)? What is the powerful delusion that God is sending (v. 11)? I have to confess, I don’t know the answers. The description of the man of lawlessness draws from other passages, Daniel 11:26 and Ezekiel 28:2, in which political leaders, Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the King of Tyre respectively, claimed a god-like status and showed a level of hubris unmatched by your typical ancient emperor or ruler. They would often try and co-opt the temple, Jewish religion or its leaders for their own gain and power. Yet it’s unclear for what purpose Paul was making this analogy. In other passages where this kind of language is used, God is often bringing judgment on political empires, not the end of human history (see Isaiah 14, Mark 13, Revelation 12
13 and 17
18 for more on this). Indeed, some say the ‘day of the Lord’ here in 2 Thessalonians is talking about an experience of God’s judgment, not the definitive and final return of Christ, for which there is some evidence. What we
know is that the lawless figure will be one that Satan works through effectively, and that people will fall prey to his deception.
The other thing we do know is this: Jesus will defeat this lawless one by ‘the breath of his mouth’ (v. 8), language which draws on Isaiah’s prophecies of a Messiah figure (Isaiah 11:14). It’s a different take on the image of Jesus we often have from Sunday School. Here is Jesus in His role as judge of all, exacting punishment on the lawless one and those with him and deceived by him (vv. 11
12). While this all might sound pretty harsh and scary to us, it’s important to remember Paul was writing this to
the persecuted minority that was the Thessalonian Church. It might sound one way to us, but as Gordon Fee notes in his commentary, it was “
to reassure a persecuted minority that God has not forgotten either them or their persecutors.” (
The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians)
Strange though it might seem to us, these are words of hope to bolster Paul’s reminder to not be shaken or be alarmed (v. 2).
So what better way for Paul to conclude from this correction that the day of the Lord
arrived, but would not come till later, than for him to remind the church of its purpose in Christ and his thankfulness that these Thessalonians had been chosen for this purpose (vv. 13
15). So what was the main thing Paul wanted to draw their attention back to? That our focus should be on working out our
salvation, which comes through two things. The Spirit’s work in us making us holy (v. 14a) and growing in our belief and trust in what is true (v. 14b), in contrast to those who follow the delusions of the lawless one and refuse to love the truth (v. 10).
Questions for Reflection
- What are the advantages / disadvantages as a Christian of living in a ‘notch’ in the Bible belt?
- What was your initial reaction when you read through 2 Thessalonians 2? How does that differ now that you know it was written to a minority church facing injustice and distress thinking that the End was coming?
- What worries you? Where do you need reassurance to not be alarmed but trust the Big Picture to God?
- Throughout history, Christians have periodically thought that the ‘End is nigh!’ because of present turmoil and suffering. Why do you think this is?
- Why is it so easy to get distracted from the main purpose of our faith (vv. 13–15)? What distracts you? Why?
- Paul says “Let no one deceive you in any way” (v. 3) and makes a clear distinction between those who reject truth (v. 10) and those who grow in it (v. 14b). In a world of instant communication from unidentified sources, whether it is text, email, social media or other sources, how can we be ‘faithful in the small things’ when it comes to discerning whether what we read is true (and whether or not we pass it on to others)?
- It’s easier to look at where others are misled than our own delusions. If you’re ready to, pray and ask the Spirit to reveal where you are refusing to love the truth. Name any areas that you are aware of where you may have not shown discernment.
A prayer for the week
Lord Jesus, we thank You that even in the midst of the struggles of this life, we are still able to worship freely and without persecution, unlike so many Christians around the world and throughout history. Help us, whose distractions are many even if our sufferings are few, to not lose sight of the purpose for which You have called us. By Your Spirit, change our hearts that we might love truth more than falsehood, holiness more than our sin, and so work out the salvation You have won for us through Your death and resurrection. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Suse E. McBay
Associate for Adult Christian Education and Prayer Ministries