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Bible Commentaries
2 Thessalonians

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

- 2 Thessalonians

by Charles John Ellicott

The Epistle to the Thessalonians.

Canon of Canterbury.


WE may confidently assert that this Epistle was written by St. Paul from Corinth during his residence there of a year-and-a-half, within a few months of the first Epistle: that is, in the year 53. Not only are all its main features so like those of the First as to suggest a very close connection in time, but it is despatched by the same apostolic group—Paul, Silvanus, and Timotheus; and, as we have remarked in the Introduction to the First Epistle, we have no reason to believe that Silvanus was in St. Paul’s company later than the departure from Corinth in 54. It suits well with this date that the Apostle is in fear of certain “monstrous and depraved persons” (2 Thessalonians 3:2), who may well be the Jews who brought him before Gallio.

The circumstances which called forth the Letter were as follows. Since the First Epistle had been despatched St. Paul had been able to receive fresh tidings of the state of the Thessalonian Church, concerning which he was naturally anxious, as it was so young when he had been forced to leave it to itself and to God. The tidings were both good and bad. On the one hand, there was marked progress in some of the points which had before caused solicitude. St. Paul uses enthusiastic language (2 Thessalonians 1:3) of the advance made in faith (comp. 1 Thessalonians 3:10), and in individual brotherly charity (comp. 1 Thessalonians 4:10), and also of their steadfastness in persecutions which were still afflicting them (2 Thessalonians 1:4)—persecutions in which, apparently, both Jews and Gentiles joined. (See Note on 2 Thessalonians 1:8.) We may also gather, from the silence of the present Letter, that St. Paul’s instructions on the state of the departed faithful had taken good effect: this being, perhaps, the special increase in faith mentioned above. We find, moreover, that there is no further need of warnings on the subject of purity or of submission to ecclesiastical authority. On the other hand, there were three great faults to find.

(1) The tendency to disorders and idleness, which had been censured both directly and indirectly in the former letter, had become stronger instead of receding. Some considerable number of the little Church had become mere “busybodies”—had left off work, expecting maintenance at the public expense of the community while they indulged themselves, probably, in what seemed more religious pursuits.

(2) We can trace more clearly in this Epistle than in the former the doctrinal ground on which such disorders were justified by those who were guilty of them. They had been “shaken from their reason.” and were still “in trepidation” (2 Thessalonians 2:2), from a belief that “the day of the Lord” was already upon them. Panic and exultation alike had the effect of making the Thessalonians think it not worth while to attend to the things of a doomed world.

(3) This belief had been, if not created, yet confirmed by some audacious forgeries and fictions (2 Thessalonians 2:2). Even in the First Epistle St. Paul gives signs of uneasiness, as though he were not sure of the honesty of some of his correspondents in their use of his name and writings (1 Thessalonians 5:27). Now it is clear that, in more than one way, persons (who might be only half conscious of their fraud) had attempted to impose on their brethren. They had pretended to a direct inspiration or angelic visitation, which had revealed to them the immediate nearness of the Advent. They had misrepresented the oral teaching given by St. Paul during his stay at Thessalonica. They had, perhaps, wrested the words of his First Epistle, which had certainly given a colourable pretext for what they now taught. More probably still, from the precaution given in 2 Thessalonians 3:17, they had actually written a letter, or letters, purporting to be from the Apostle, in which the doctrine was definitely taught.

To all these three faults the writer opposes the authority of what they knew to have genuinely proceeded from himself. He has nothing to unsay. They are to “hold fast the traditions” (2 Thessalonians 2:15) which, written or unwritten, were his. (1) He reminds them not only of his example (as in the First Letter), but of his teaching levelled at their dissipated religiousness: “Withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which they received of us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6); “Even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any has no mind to work, neither let him eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). (2) He recalls the very definite instructions which showed that the end was not by-and-by. The Roman empire was still standing, and therefore the Man of Sin could not be revealed as yet, and therefore Christ could not be on the point of coming. “Remember ye not, that. when I was yet with you, I told you these things?” (2 Thessalonians 2:5.) (3) He enforces, against their forgeries, his present Letter, even at the risk of provoking an open rebellion: “If any man obey not our word by this Epistle, note that man, and have no fellowship with him” (2 Thessalonians 3:14).

The style of the Epistle (except in the studied obscurity of the prophetic passage) is clear and easy, like that of the First; and the structure is also very simple, as will be seen from the following analysis and marked by the same characteristic feature as the First: i.e., the prayer which leads on from one section of the Letter to another:—


THE SALUTATION (2 Thessalonians 1:1-2).


THE RETROSPECTIVE PORTION (2 Thessalonians 1:3-12).


Thanksgiving for progress made (2 Thessalonians 1:3-4).


Hopes thus afforded against the Advent Day (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10).


Prayer for continuance in so happy a state (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12).


THE INSTRUCTIVE AND HORTATORY PORTION (2 Thessalonians 2:1 to 2 Thessalonians 3:18).


On the date of the Advent.


Caution against believing the Advent close at hand (2 Thessalonians 2:1-3).


What must happen first (2 Thessalonians 2:3-10).


Terrible fate of the apostates (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12).


Thanksgiving that the Thessalonians’ fate is so different (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14).


Exhortation and prayer (2 Thessalonians 2:15-17).


On the necessity of work.


Request for prayers for himself, which skilfully serves to predispose the readers to obey the ensuing commands (2 Thessalonians 3:1-4).


Prayer for the same purpose (2 Thessalonians 3:5).


Commands to make all work, and to excommunicate the refractory (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15).


Prayer for tranquility (2 Thessalonians 3:16).


Final benediction, with attention drawn to the autograph (2 Thessalonians 3:17-18).

The genuineness of this Letter, like that of the First, is practically uncontroverted. We seem to have very early testimony to its use—St. Polycarp appearing in two places to quote it, though anonymously, according to his custom; and St. Justin, speaking of the Man of Sin in a manner which might indeed be explained by saying that that doctrine was common to the Catholic Church not special to St. Paul, but which is more simply referred to this Epistle. The objections of a few modern scholars (Baur, Schrader, &c.) are chiefly drawn from the prophecy in 2 Thessalonians 2:0, from supposed contradictions between this Epistle and the First—especially in regard to the date of the Advent; from fancied allusions to the persecution of Nero; from a mistaken notion that the doctrine of an Antichrist (which was in reality pre-Christian) was only invented by the Montanists.

Doubts have been entertained by a few critics, who acknowledged the genuineness of both, which of these Letters is the earlier in date. Ewald, the greatest of these critics, placed the Second Epistle first. It was, he thought, placed second in the Canon because, as a rule, the shorter letters in the Canon follow the longer. The arguments, however, which he adduces are scarcely worth considering, in face of the fact that in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 we have an allusion to a former Epistle. All the historical portion of the First Epistle (especially 1 Thessalonians 2:17; 1 Thessalonians 3:11) bears evident tokens of being the earliest communication that had passed between St. Paul and his spiritual children since he had left them.

[In preparing the following Notes the chief books consulted have been those already mentioned in 1 Thessalonians:—the patristic commentaries, especially St. Chrysostom; Hammond, Lünemann, Ellicott, and others; and the posthumous edition (which appeared too late for use in annotating the First Epistle) by the Presbyterian Professor Eadie. His notes are, however, little but a reproduction of Bishop Ellicott’s, without their concentration. In the Excursus’ on the Man of Sin, I have stated my obligations to Dr. Pusey’s Lectures on Daniel.]

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