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- 2 Thessalonians
by Adam Clarke
For an account of Thessalonica, and St. Paul's labors there, the reader is requested to consult the preface to the preceding epistle. That this second epistle was written shortly after the first, and from the same place too, is very probable, from this circumstance, that the same persons, Paul, Silvanus, and Timotheus, who addressed the Church at Thessalonica in the former epistle, address the same Church in this; and as three such apostolic men were rarely long together in the same place, it is very likely that the two epistles were written not only in the same year, but also within a very short time of each other. It appears that the person who carried the first epistle returned speedily to Corinth, and gave the apostle a particular account of the state of the Thessalonian Church; and, among other things, informed him that many were in expectation of the speedy arrival of the day of judgment; and that they inferred from his epistle already sent, 1 Thessalonians 4:15, 1 Thessalonians 4:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:4, 1 Thessalonians 5:6, that it was to take place while the apostle and themselves should be yet alive. And it appears probable, from some parts of this epistle, that he was informed also that some, expecting this sudden appearance of the Lord Jesus, had given up all their secular concerns as inconsistent with a due preparation for such an important and awful event; see 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13. To correct such a misapprehension, and redeem them from an error, which, if appearing to rest on the authority of an apostle, must in its issue be ruinous to the cause of Christianity, St. Paul would feel himself constrained to write immediately; and this is a sufficient reason why these epistles should appear to have been written at so short a distance from each other. What rendered this speedy intervention of the apostle's authority and direction the more necessary, was, that there appear to have been some in that Church who professed to have a revelation concerning this thing, and to have endeavored to confirm it by a pretended report from the apostle himself, and from the words already referred to in the former epistle; see here on 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2 (note): "We beseech you, brethren, be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by Spirit, nor by Word, nor by Letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand." As the apostle, in this epistle, 2 Thessalonians 3:2, entreats the Thessalonians to pray the Lord that he and his companions might be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men, Dr. Macknight supposes that the epistle was written soon after the insurrection of the Jews at Corinth, in which they dragged Paul before Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia, and accused him of persuading men to worship God contrary to the law; Acts 18:13. This argument places it also in the year 52, or 53, in the twelfth or thirteenth of Claudius the successor of Caius.
As there have been some eminent Christian writers who have entertained the same opinion with those at Thessalonica, that not only St. Paul, but other apostles of Christ, did believe that the day of general judgment should take place in their time, which opinion is shown by the event to be absolutely false; it appears to be a matter of the utmost consequence to the credit of Divine revelation, to rescue the character of the apostles from such an imputation. Dr. Macknight has written well on this subject, as the following extract from his preface to this epistle will prove: -
"Grotius, Locke, and others," says he, "have affirmed that the apostles believed that the end of the world was to happen in their time; and that they have declared this to be their belief in various passages of their epistles. But these learned men, and all who join them in that opinion, have fallen into a most pernicious error; for thereby they destroy the authority of the Gospel revelation, at least as far as it is contained in the discourses and writings of the apostles; because, if they have erred in a matter of such importance, and which they affirm was revealed to them by Christ, they may have been mistaken in other matters also, where their inspiration is not more strongly asserted by them than in this instance. It is therefore necessary to clear them from so injurious an imputation.
"And first, with respect to Paul, who was an apostle of Christ, and Silvanus, who was a prophet, and a chief man among the brethren, and Timothy, who was eminent for his spiritual gifts, I observe that the epistle under our consideration affords the clearest proof that these men knew the truth concerning the coming of Christ to judge the world; for in it they expressly assured the Thessalonians that the persons who made them believe the day of judgment was at hand were deceiving them; that, before the day of judgment, there was to be a great apostasy in religion, occasioned by the man of sin, who at that time was restrained from showing himself, but who was to be revealed in his season; that, when revealed, he will sit, that is, remain a long time in the Church of God, as God, and showing himself that he is God; and that, afterwards, he is to be destroyed. Now, as these events could not be accomplished in the course of a few years, the persons who foretold they were to happen before the coming of Christ certainly did not think the day of judgment would be in their lifetime. Besides, St. Paul, Romans 11:23-26, by a long chain of reasoning, having showed that, after the general conversion of the Gentiles, the Jews, in a body, are to be brought into the Christian Church, can any person be so absurd as to persevere in maintaining that this apostle believed the end of the world would happen in his lifetime?
"Next, with respect to the Apostle Peter, I think it plain, from the manner in which he has spoken of the coming of Christ, that he knew it was at a great distance; 2 Peter 3:3, 2 Peter 3:4, 2 Peter 3:8, 2 Peter 3:9 : 'Knowing this first, that scoffers will come in the last days, walking after their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of his coming? For, from the time the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as at the beginning of the creation. But this one thing, let it not escape you, beloved, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord, who hath promised, doth not delay, in the manner some account delaying.' Now, seeing Peter has here foretold that, in the last age, the wicked will mock at the promise of Christ's coming, on account of its being long delayed; and, from the stability and regularity of the course of nature during so many ages, will argue that there is no probability that the world will ever come to an end; it is evident that he also knew the coming of Christ to judgement was at a very great distance at the time he wrote that epistle.
"The same may be said of James; for, in the hearing of the apostles, elders, and brethren assembled in the council of Jerusalem, he quoted passages from the Jewish prophets, to show that all the Gentiles were, at some future period, to seek after the Lord; Acts 15:17. But, if James looked for the general conversion of the Gentiles, he certainly could not imagine the end of the world would happen in his time.
"Lastly, the Apostle John, in his book of the Revelation, having foretold a great variety of important events respecting the political and religious state of the world, which could not be accomplished in a few years, but required a series of ages to give them birth; there cannot be the least doubt that he likewise knew the truth concerning his Master's second coming; and therefore, to suppose that he imagined the day of judgment was to happen in his own lifetime, is a palpable mistake.
"Upon the whole, seeing the apostles and other inspired teachers of our religion certainly knew that the coming of Christ to judgment was at a great distance, every impartial person must be sensible they have been much injured, not by the enemies of revelation alone, but by some of its friends; who, upon the strength of certain expressions, the meaning, of which they evidently misunderstood, have endeavored to persuade the world that the apostle ignorantly believed the day of judgment was at hand. These expressions may all be applied to other events, as shall be showed in the next section, and therefore they ought to be so applied; because candour requires that sense to be put on an author's words which renders him most consistent with himself." As the term coming of Christ has several acceptations in the sacred writings, and the applying any one of these to the subject to which in a given place it does not belong, may lead to very erroneous if not dangerous conclusions, as it appears to have done at Thessalonica; it is necessary to consider the different senses in which this phrase is used, that we may know its specific meaning in the different places where it occurs. Dr. Macknight, in the fourth section of his preface, intitled, Different Comings of Christ are spoken of in the New Testament, has treated this subject also with considerable judgment, as the reader will at once perceive.
"In this article I propose to show that there are other comings of Christ spoken of in Scripture besides his coming to judgement; and that there are other things besides this mundane system whose end is there foretold; and that it is of these other matters the apostles speak, when they represent the day of their Master and the end of all things as at hand.
"First, then, in the prophetic writings of the Jews (2 Samuel 22:10, 2 Samuel 22:12; Psalms 97:2-5; Isaiah 19:1) great exertions of the Divine power, whether for the salvation or destruction of nations, are called the coming, the appearance, the presence of God. Hence it was natural for the apostles, who were Jews, to call any signal and evident interposition of Christ, as Governor of the world, for the accomplishment of his purposes, his coming and his day; accordingly, those exertions of his power and providence, whereby he destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, abrogated the Mosaic institutions, and established the Gospel, are called by the apostles his coming, and day; not only in allusion to the ancient prophetic language, but because Christ himself, in his prophecy concerning these events, recorded Matthew 24:30 etc., has termed them the coming of the Son of man, in allusion to the following prophecy of Daniel, of which his own prophecy is an explication; Daniel 7:13, Daniel 7:14 : 'I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days. And they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom; that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away; and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.' This prophecy the Jewish doctors, with one consent, attribute to the Messiah, and of that temporal kingdom which they expected was to be given him. Farther, they supposed he would erect that temporal kingdom by great and visible exertions of his power for the destruction of his enemies; but they little suspected that themselves were of the number of those enemies whom he was to destroy; and that his kingdom was to be established upon the ruin of their state. Yet that was the true meaning of the coming of the Son of man in the clouds of heaven. For, while the Jewish nation continued in Judea, and observed the institutions of Moses, they violently opposed the preaching of the Gospel, by which the Messiah was to reign over all people, nations, and languages. Wherefore, that the everlasting kingdom might be established effectually, it was necessary that Jerusalem and the Jewish state should be destroyed by the Roman armies. Now, since our Lord foretold this sad catastrophe in the words of the prophet Daniel, Matthew 24:30, 'And they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory;' and after describing every particular of it with the greatest exactness, seeing he told his disciples, Matthew 24:34, 'This generation shall not pass till all these things be fulfilled;' can there be any doubt that the apostles, (who, when they wrote their epistles, certainly understood the true import of this prophecy), by their Master's coming and by the end of all things, which they represent as at hand, mean his coming to destroy Jerusalem, and to put an end to the institutions of Moses? It is no objection to this, that, when the apostles heard Christ declare, 'There shall not be left here one stone upon another that shall not be thrown down,' they connected the end of the world or age with that event; Matthew 24:3 : 'Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, και συντελειας του αιωνος, and of the end of the age?' For as the Jewish doctors divided the duration of the world into three ages; the age before the law, the age under the law, and the age under the Messiah; the apostle knew that the age under the law was to end when the age under the Messiah began; and therefore by the end of the age they meant, even at that time, not the end of the world, but the end of the age under the law, in which the Jews had been greatly oppressed by the heathens. And although they did not then understand the purpose for which their Master was to come, nor the true nature of his kingdom; nor suspect that he was to make any chance in the institutions of Moses; yet when they wrote their epistles, being illuminated by the Holy Ghost, they certainly knew that the institutions of Moses were to be abolished; and that their Master's kingdom was not a temporal but a spiritual dominion, in which all people, nations, and languages were to be governed, not by external force, but by the operation of truth upon their minds through the preaching of the Gospel.
"Farther, that the apostles, by the coming of Christ, which they represented as at hand when they wrote their epistles, meant his coming to establish his spiritual kingdom over all people, nations, and languages, and not his coming to put an end to this mundane system, is evident from what Christ himself told them, Matthew 16:28 : 'There be some standing here who shall not taste of death till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.' And, agreeably to this account of the coming of Christ and of the end of all things, I observe that every passage of their epistles, in which the apostles have spoken of these things as at hand, may with the greatest propriety be interpreted of Christ's coming to establish his everlasting kingdom over all people, nations, and languages, by destroying Jerusalem, putting an end to the law of Moses, and spreading the Gospel through the world. Thus, 1 Corinthians 11:11 : 'These things - are written for our admonition, upon whom τα τελη των αιωνων, the ends of the ages are come,' means the end of the age under the law, and the beginning of the age under the Messiah. Philippians 4:5 : 'Let your moderation be known to all men: the Lord is nigh;' namely, to destroy the Jews, your greatest adversaries. Hebrews 9:26 : 'But now once επι συντελειᾳ των αιωνων, at the conclusion of the ages, (the Jewish jubilees), hath he been manifested to abolish sin-offering by the sacrifice of himself.' Hebrews 10:25 : 'Exhorting one another daily; and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching,' the day of Christ's coming to destroy Jerusalem and the Jewish state. Hebrews 10:37 : 'For yet a little while, and he who is coming will come, and will not tarry.' James 5:7 : 'Wherefore, be patient, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord.' James 5:8 : 'Be ye also patient, strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord (to destroy the Jews, your persecutors) draweth nigh.' James 5:9 : 'Behold the Judge standeth before the door.' 1 Peter 4:7 : 'The end of all things (the end of Jerusalem, and of the temple, and of all the Mosaic institutions) hath approached. Be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer.' 1 John 2:18 : 'Young children, it is the last hour of the Jewish state; and as ye have heard (from Christ, in his prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem) that antichrist cometh, so now there are many antichrists, whence we know that it is the last hour of the Jewish state.'
2. "There is another coming of Christ spoken of by the apostles, different likewise from his coming to judge the world, and to put an end to the present state of things; viz. his coming to destroy the man of sin. 2 Thessalonians 2:8 : 'Him the Lord will consume by the breath of his mouth, and will render ineffectual by the bright shining of his coming.' This singular event, which will contribute greatly to the honor of God and the good of his Church, being accomplished by a visible and extraordinary interposition of the power of Christ in the government of the world, is, agreeably to the Scripture style, fitly called the coming of the Lord, and the bright shining of his coming; but this coming is nowhere in the Scriptures said to be at hand.
3. "There is likewise a day or coming of Christ, spoken of by Paul, different from his coming to judgment, and from both the former comings; I mean his releasing his people from their present trial by death. 1 Corinthians 1:8 : 'He also will confirm you unto the end, without accusation, in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.' Philippians 1:6 : 'He who hath begun in you a good work, will be completing it until the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.' It is true, the release of Christ's servants from their present trial by death is accomplished, for the most part, by no extraordinary display of his power; yet it is fitly enough called his day and coming, because by his appointment all men die, and by his power each is carried to his own place after death. Besides, his servants in particular being put on their duty, like soldiers, must remain at their several posts till released by their commander: and when he releases them, he is fitly said to come for that purpose.
4. "Besides all these, there is a day or coming of the Lord to judge the world, and to put an end to the present state of things. This coming Christ himself has promised. Matthew 16:27 : 'The Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his holy angels; and then shall he reward every man according to his work.' Now this, being a real, personal appearing of Christ in the body, is, more properly than any other of his comings, called the day and coming of Christ. And the purposes of it being more important than those of his other comings, the exertions of his power for accomplishing them will be most signal and glorious. Hence this coming is, with great propriety, termed the revelation of Jesus Christ, and the day of his revelation, when he shall be glorified in his saints, and admired of all them who believe.
"Thus it appears that, when the apostles wrote, there were four comings of Christ to happen, three of them figurative, but the fourth a real appearance; that these different comings are frequently spoken of in Scripture; and that, although the coming of Christ to destroy Jerusalem, and to establish his everlasting kingdom, be represented by the apostles as then at hand, no passage from their writings can be produced in which his personal appearance to judge the world is said, or even insinuated, to be at hand. The truth is, if the different comings of Christ are distinguished as they ought to be, we shall find that the apostles have spoken of each of them according to truth; and that the opinion which some Christians have unadvisedly espoused, to the great discredit of the inspiration of the apostles, has not the least foundation in Scripture." The epistle naturally divides itself into three parts, and each is contained in a separate chapter.
Part 1. 2 Thessalonians 1:1-12 - Contains the address, and motives of consolation in their afflicted and persecuted state.
Part 2. 2 Thessalonians 2:1-17 - Is partly prophetical, and partly didactic. It contains the doctrine concerning Christ's coming to judgment, and a prophecy concerning some future but great apostasy from the Christian faith.
Part 3. 2 Thessalonians 3:1-18 - Is wholly hortatory; and contains a number of important advices relative to Christian virtues, and a proper behavior in those situations in life in which it had pleased God to call them.
This is the shortest of all St. Paul's epistles to the Churches, but is of very great importance, and in many places very sublime, especially in the second part; and in this there are several very great difficulties, and some things hard to be understood. After all the pains and labor of learned men, it would be hazardous to say, the meaning of every part is now clearly made out. What increases the difficulty is, that the apostle refers to some private communication with themselves, no part of which is on record, and without which it would require St. Paul's inspiration to be able to fix the sense and meaning of all we find here. May the Father of lights give the reader a wise understanding in all things! Amen.
the Fifth Week after Easter