Background Scripture 2 Thessalonians 2. Devotional Reading: Psalms 33:4-12.
Biblical scholar William Barclay says of 2 Thessalonians 2, “This is undoubtedly one of the most
difficult passages in the whole New Testament.”
I’m glad I’m not alone in thinking that. Nevertheless, it is the passage selected by the 61-person committee representing some 18 denominations that use the Uniform Bible Lessons.
Why do I think it is a difficult passage? As Barclay puts it: “…because it is using terms and thinking in pictures
which were perfectly familiar to those to whom
Paul was speaking but which are utterly strange to us.”
These scenarios were a popular world view known among a variety of peoples and religions throughout the Mediterranean world, particularly Jews, Christians, and Persians (but not all Jews, Christians, and Persians).
The writings are called apocalyptic, a Greek term meaning “revelation” and we find examples in certain Old Testament prophetic books: Isaiah 24 to 47; Jeremiah 24:1-3; Ezekiel 1 to 37; Zechariah 12 to 14; Joel 2:28 to 3:17, and the whole book of Daniel. Jesus himself sometimes spoke apocalyptically, for example: Matthew 25:31-46. There are apocalyptic references in the various New Testament epistles, and the book we call The Revelation of John is just as truly known as The Apocalypse of John. THE APOCALYPTIC
This view of history was generally pessimistic (“things are bad and are going to get worse and worse, until … ”), deterministic (“the way it’s going to happen is all laid out”), included super humans (“angels and demons”), climaxing in a cosmic struggle between the forces of light/Good and darkness/Evil and God’s final triumph. Christ’s return and the resolution of “last things” are still pillars of our faith, but the images of the 1st century, while appropriate then, are no longer reflective for us of the 21st century AD.
Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians as an encouragement to a congregation that was besieged with opposition, persecution, and cultural opposition. He goes on to remind them that, despite what they were experiencing, when Christ returns God will prove victorious over all the forces of evil and the followers of Christ will share in that victory.
Apparently there were some in Thessalonica who, believing the Day of the Lord had already come or would come very soon, were sitting around waiting for that great day – some at ease, others in near hysteria. They no longer were doing something with Christ, but simply waiting for him.
In 19th century America the Millerites, a Christian sect, believing the Day of the Lord to be at hand, abandoned their productive lives and, clothed in white robes, waited on hilltops for Christ’s return…Thus Paul implores all Christians: “ … we beg you, brethren, not to
be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or
by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the
effect that the day of the Lord has come”
(2:1, 2). AN APPEAL TO FEAR
In mentioning a “letter purporting to be from us,” he implies that a false letter in his name was sent to Thessalonica. So this was not an accidental misunderstanding, but a deliberate plot to subvert Paul’s authority and teaching. Those who forged this letter to incite fear among God’s people would be liable to his judgment on Christ’s return. And is this not a warning for us in our churches today?
So, Paul reminds us all that the times and the means of the apocalypse are firmly in God’s hands: (2:16, 17). Yes, the Thessalonians are facing persecution, but God will not forsake them. Yes, our materialistic, amoral culture threatens today to choke off the Good News of Jesus Christ, but the end of this epic is already set and secure in God’s hands. Our churches and denominations may flounder, but not the eternal plan of God.
So we concentrate, not on a mysterious apocalyptic schedule, but on God’s faithfulness and purpose. That which will bring us through our tribulations is not knowing the “secrets” of the apocalypse, but trusting in him in whose hands it is secure.