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Bible Commentaries

The Pulpit Commentaries
2 Thessalonians

Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3

Book Overview - 2 Thessalonians

by Joseph Exell

Introduction.

§ 1. THE AUTHORSHIP OF THE EPISTLE.

THE external evidence in favour of the authenticity of the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians is even stronger than that in favour of the First Epistle. In consequence of the prediction of the "man of sin," contained in the second chapter, which prediction made a great impression on the early Church, it is more frequently referred to and quoted by the Christian Fathers. The testimonies of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clemens of Alexandria, and Tertullian may all be appealed to. Justin Martyr unquestionably alludes to this Epistle when he says, "When also the man of apostasy, who speaketh great things against the Most High, shall dare to commit unlawful deeds against us Christians". And the following direct quotations are found in the writings of Irenaeus: "And again in the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, speaking of antichrist, Paul says, 'And then shall that wicked one be revealed whom the Lord Jesus shall slay with the spirit of his mouth, and destroy with the presence of his coming' (2 Thessalonians 2:8)" ('Adv. Haeres.,' 3:7, 2). And again: "Concerning whom the apostle in the Epistle which is the Second to the Thessalonians thus speaks: 'Except a falling away come first, and the man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition: who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God or that is worshipped' (2 Thessalonians 2:3, 4)" ('Adv. Haeres.,' 5:25, 1).

Nor is the internal evidence by any means deficient. The character of Paul is impressed upon this Epistle; his lively sympathy with his converts, his gratitude to God for the increase of their faith and love, his joy in their spiritual welfare, his tenderness when censuring them, his assertion of his apostolic authority, his reference to his former instructions, his request for an interest in their prayers, — all these characteristics of the apostle are found in this Epistle. The style is undoubtedly Pauline. We have the same form of salutation at the beginning and of benediction at the close, the same parallelisms, the same digressions and expansions, the same expressions and peculiarities of diction, which are elsewhere found in Paul's other Epistles. The prophetic portion in the second chapter has indeed been adduced as an evidence of spuriousness. But this objection is partly founded on a mistaken interpretation of the prediction; and although it is admitted that there is here a striking peculiarity, yet this peculiarity relates only to the matter, not to the phraseology, which is undoubtedly Pauline. "The passage in question," observes Dean Alford, "will be found on comparison to bear, in style and flow of sentences, a close resemblance to the denunciatory and prophetic portions of the other Epistles. Compare, for instance, ver. 3 with Colossians 2:8, 16; vers. 8, 9 with 1 Corinthians 15:24-28; ver. 10 with Romans 1:18, 1 Corinthians 1:18, and 2 Corinthians 2:15; ver. 11 with Romans 1:24, 26; ver. 12 with Romans 2:5, 9 and Romans 1:22." And although this passage has been much objected to by modern critics, yet hardly any scriptural passage has been more frequently referred to by the early Fathers, and that without any doubt that it formed a part of a genuine Epistle of Paul.

The undesigned coincidences noticed in this Epistle are few and unimportant. The obscurity of the prediction concerning antichrist has been adverted to as a proof of genuineness. No author, it has been remarked, writes unintelligibly on purpose; but it is to be observed that what is almost unintelligible to us was not unintelligible to the Thessalonians. They had a key to the interpretation of the passage in the oral instructions of the apostle given when he was at Thessalonica: "Remember ye not, that, when I was with you, I told you of these things? And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time" (2 Thessalonians 2:5, 6)? In the Epistle Paul observes: "Neither did we eat any man's bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable unto any of you" (2 Thessalonians 3:8). The apostle here asserts that he received nothing in the way of maintenance from the Thessalonians; and this fact is confirmed by a statement in the Epistle to the Philippians, wherein it is said that his wants in Thessalonica were at least partially supplied by the Philippians: "Now ye Philippians know also that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no Church communicated with me as concerning giving and receiving, but ye only. For even in Thessalonica ye sent once and again to my necessity" (Philippians 4:15, 16). And the motive which induced the apostle to decline support from the Thessalonians, namely, to give them an example of honest labour and diligence in work (2 Thessalonians 3:9), was the same which actuated him to pursue the same course of conduct at Ephesus (Acts 20:34, 35). There appears also to be in this Epistle a reference to the First Epistle, where the apostle says, "Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or in our Epistle" (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

§ 2. THE OCCASION OF THE EPISTLE.

The persons to whom this Epistle was written were "the Church of the Thessalonians" (2 Thessalonians 1:1), or the Christian converts in the city of Thessalonica. We have already fully discussed this point in the introductory remarks to the First Epistle.

In order to understand this Second Epistle, we must endeavour to ascertain the condition of the Thessalonian Church when the apostle wrote to them. Paul had been compelled to leave the Thessalonians only partially instructed in Christianity; they were defective both in the knowledge of its doctrines and in the practice of its precepts. He had written them an Epistle to correct abuses and to supply what was lacking in their faith (1 Thessalonians 3:10). The intelligence brought back to the apostle by the bearer of the First Epistle, or through some other channel, was the occasion of this Epistle. The apostle received a good report of the Thessalonians, and is enabled to express his joy and thankfulness to God that their faith grew exceedingly, and the love of every one toward each other abounded (2 Thessalonians 1:3). But still the erroneous views concerning the advent, and the consequent disorders to which he had adverted in the First Epistle, bad rather increased than diminished. The Lord Jesus Christ had left the world only twenty years before. He had promised to return at an uncertain date, and therefore nothing was more natural than that the Church in general should have expected his immediate return. Various circumstances, both in the Church and in the world, heightened this expectation. Such a view of an immediate advent had taken possession of the minds of the Thessalonian converts. Their anxiety for the loss of their deceased relatives, who, they thought, would lose all the benefits occurring at the advent, had indeed been assuaged by the former Epistle, but the expectation of the immediate advent itself had grown in strength. The Thessalonians, it would seem, from misapprehending some passages of the First Epistle, considered that the day of Christ was at band (2 Thessalonians 2:2). Mistaken and enthusiastic men had also nourished this deception by appealing to visions and to the traditionary sayings of the apostle; and it would even appear that an Epistle had been forged in the name of the apostle. The Church was thrown into a state of wild excitement; an impatient and fanatical longing for the instant when Christ would come seized upon one portion, whilst fear and consternation at the awfulness of the event overwhelmed another. The consequence was that many of the Thessalonians were neglecting their secular business and living idle and useless lives, conceiving that there was no use of working in a world which was so soon to be destroyed, or of performing the duties belonging to a state of things which was so soon to terminate. Their only duty they felt was to be in readiness for the immediate coming of their Lord.

Accordingly the design of the apostle, in writing this Epistle, was to correct the error which the Thessalonians entertained concerning the immediate advent, and to rectify those abuses to which that error had given rise. The main object of the apostle was to warn the Thessalonians against thinking that the day of the Lord was imminent. The apostle reminds them of his former instructions on this point, and tells them that a series of events — the manifestation and destruction of the man of sin — would intervene. "Now we beseech you concerning the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together unto him, that ye be not soon shaken from your mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is present" (2 Thessalonians 2:1, 2). And, along with this correction of error, was the correction of the disorders occasioned by it. There were among the Thessalonians some who walked disorderly, working not at all; them he enjoined to return to their employments, to do their work with quietness, and to eat the bread of honest labour (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12).

With regard to its contents, the Epistle is divided into three parts, nearly corresponding to the three chapters in our version; the first part is eucharistic, the second apocalyptic, and the third practical. The apostle, after saluting the Thessalonians, renders thanks to God for the good report which he had received of them, for the increase of their faith and love, and for their great patience under prolonged persecution; he comforts them under their sufferings by the prospect of rest and recompense at the advent of the Lord Jesus, and prays for their continuance in the faith, and for the glory of Christ's name through their steadfastness and holiness (ch. 1.). He then proceeds to the principal object which he had in view — the correction of their error in supposing that the day of Christ was imminent. He admonishes them not to suffer themselves to be led away by excitement as if Christ would immediately appear, he reminds them of his former conversations with them on this subject, and he describes the coming of the man of sin which must precede the coming of Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12). He then exhorts them to attend to the admonitions he had given them, whether by word or by his Epistle; he prays that the Lord might direct their minds to a patient waiting for the advent of Christ; he especially warns them against that unsteadiness and idleness which prevailed among them; he enjoins them to discountenance and admonish all those who would not be persuaded by his injunctions; and he concludes his Epistle by appending with his own hand his apostolic benediction, as a token of its genuineness (2 Thessalonians 2:13-3:1).

§ 3. THE DATE OF THE EPISTLE.

This Epistle was evidently written shortly after the First. Silas and Timothy, as in the First Epistle, are conjoined with Paul in the salutation, and were consequently still in his company when he wrote this Epistle. But when Paul left Corinth, we are not informed that these two fellow workers accompanied him (Acts 17:8); nor, from what appears, were they ever afterwards both together with him. Timothy, we are informed, rejoined Paul at Ephesus (Acts 19:22); but there is no further mention of Silas in the Acts of the Apostles. Besides, the relations and wants of the Church are similar to those which are presupposed in the First Epistle; similar commendations, warnings, instructions, and prayers are contained in both Epistles; the only difference being what the lapse of a few months might effect in the character and conduct of the Thessalonian Church. A closer indication of time is supposed to be contained in 2 Thessalonians 3:2, where the apostle entreats the Thessalonians to pray for him that he might be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men — evidently from his unbelieving Jewish opponents — from which it has been inferred that the outbreak of Jewish hatred and fanaticism, when the apostle was dragged before Gallio, was about to take place. At all events, time must be allowed for further information concerning the Church of Thessalonica to have reached the apostle, for the progress which the Thessalonians made in faith and love, and for the further development of the error concerning the advent. We cannot be wrong in fixing the time of the composition of this Epistle to the later part of Paul's residence in Corinth, or to the close of A.D. 53. Calvin is undoubtedly mistaken when he supposes that this Epistle was written during the last journey of Paul to Jerusalem, supposing that the "unreasonable and wicked men" were the Judaizing Christians who dogged his steps.

Some — Grotius, Ewald, Laurent, Baur, Davidson (2nd edit.) — reverse the order of the Epistles, and suppose that this Second Epistle was in reality the First. But the reasons which they give for this opinion are without weight. The mark of genuineness, at the close of the Epistle, was given in consequence of the existence of a spurious Epistle (2 Thessalonians 2:2), and not because it was the first Epistle which the apostle wrote. The Second Epistle presupposes the First. The First Epistle describes how the Thessalonians received the Word of God, whilst the Second Epistle mentions their progress in faith, love, and patience. The First Epistle treats of the uncertainty of the advent; the Second Epistle corrects the misapprehension of the Thessalonians concerning that uncertainty. The First Epistle adverts to the spirit of disorder, the germs of which the apostle saw in the Thessalonian Church; the Second Epistle rebukes this spirit still more sharply, as these germs had developed and borne pernicious fruit. The First Epistle had given the Thessalonians commandments to be obeyed; and, in the Second Epistle, the apostle exhorts them to hold the traditions which he had delivered to them, whether by word or his Epistle.

The place of writing was Corinth. The note at the end of the Epistle, "The Second Epistle to the Thessalonians was written from Athens," although found in very ancient manuscripts, is undoubtedly erroneous; so also are other statements which refer the composition of this Epistle to Beroea, Laodicea, or Rome. This, then, is the second of Paul's extant Epistles.

§ 4. THE PECULIARITIES OF THE EPISTLE.

The great peculiarity of this Epistle — that which distinguishes it from all Paul's other Epistles, and imparts to it a peculiar importance, and at the same time renders its exposition a matter of great difficulty — is the prediction of the man of sin, contained in the second chapter (vers. 1-12). This section is distinguished from all the other writings of Paul, and is closely allied to the prophecies of Daniel and the apocalyptic visions of John. Here the apostle glances into the future, and predicts what is to happen in the latter days. There are other portions of his Epistles in which he refers to what will occur in the last days, and at the period of the manifestation of the sons of God (2 Timothy 3:1-5; Romans 8:19-24), and he also foretells the full conversion of both Jews and Gentiles to the faith of Jesus (Romans 11:25); but this is the only passage in all his Epistles where a detailed prophecy is given. This prediction of the man of sin, as already observed, had peculiar attractions to the early Church suffering from persecution; and it has been the subject of numerous dissertations in modern times; its very obscurity being one cause of the interest attached to it, and of the amount of ingenious labour expended on its elucidation.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, November 13th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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