by Robert W. Christman
The following summary, written later, is in
support of the position taken in the article prior.
In the first half of the second chapter of Paul’s Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, we learn that the great rebellion will be crushed and the Man of Lawlessness will be dethroned once and for all at the coming of the Lord Jesus, but not until. What does this mean to the saints walking the earth until that Day? As usual, St. Paul’s explanation is an appeal to the believer as a believer. In the face of great doom, we are to see ourselves bathed in a special light. The strong delusion is not for us. Our truth emits from Christ, not from what is fashionable in the world and popularly understood to be without spiritual dimension. Only our faith can school us in the deep truth of life, and only the word of Christ establishes it in our hearts. The apostle explains:
2 Thessalonians 2:13–14
But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he has called you through our Gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Gospel’s deliverance from grinding doom is God’s love for his beloved. God, the Thessalonians learn, has chosen them for salvation—the obtaining of glory with Christ—at the head of a line that will extend behind them through the rest of history. They and all the saints will be saved through sanctification of the Spirit, which amounts to this, that the Holy Ghost, in the message from the Father to sinners that tells of his Son, binds them to God in thought, word, and deed. Secondly and at the same time he reaches them through belief in the truth, so that they cling to it instead of to the lie. Paul mentions sanctification first here, because it was on the field of it that the battle lines were forming.
Upon this disclosure he bases his advice, that is, his evangelical and apostolic command. (Though command is a word we shy away from, the New Testament is not afraid of it. See Matthew 28:20.)
2 Thessalonians 2:15
So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the tradition that you were taught by us, either by spoken word or by our letter.
Tradition is another word that we probably would not choose. By tradition the apostle does not mean habits worn down by repetition through the generations. Tradition here is our Lord Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law and the prophets, which he accomplished first in himself, and now is bent on carrying out step by step in his brothers, in whom he lives. It is genuinely good thoughts, words, and deeds.
So, since everything he is talking about depends on God, that is, his grace, Paul is moved at this point to pronounce a rich blessing of the kind usually reserved for the end of his epistles.
2 Thessalonians 2:16–17
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.
They must not and we must not yield to a sense of doom, as though we are sure to be caught in the swirl of the ubiquitous rebellion and crushed by the moral tyranny of the Man of Lawlessness. The Lord Jesus himselfis intent on taking care of us. God our Father, too, who loved us, can be counted on to work on our behalf. He does this by giving his people eternal comfort and good hope through grace, not merit. May he address your heart with comfort and establish it in every good work (first of all) and every good word (as well). May God nip our inner lawlessness in the bud.
There is one more matter that Paul must address, but not abruptly, for it is essentially a rebuke. Criticism, no matter what its intention, stirs up the old Adam. It was capable, therefore of driving from the heart every good effect of what Paul has been preaching. Sin is never more assertive than when it fends off attacks. This then is how Paul introduces it: he asks for the Thessalonians’ prayers, for which he in fact yearns. As it comes from his evangelical heart, it can strike the Thessalonians as a great compliment, which it in fact was.
2 Thessalonians 3:1–5
Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith. [At this point he turns a corner.] But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one. And we have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things that we command. [At this point he turns another corner.] May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.
The Thessalonians were in a position to pray hard about these things, since their experience paralleled their request. They heard and believed by the grace of God, and they had to contend with wicked and evil men.
“What we command,” Paul says. It sounds legalistic, yet it isn’t. But in order to fend off the temptation to embrace a popular and highly lauded sin, supported everywhere by specious argumentation and a distorted understanding of personal liberty, two things were essential. The first is firm trust in the Lord, which we notice gets great emphasis in the lines just quoted: “He will establish you,” and, “We have confidence in the Lord about you.” The other is determined continuance on the strait and narrow road: “That you are doing and will do the things we command you.”
In the end he returns to their trust in God. “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and the steadfastness of Christ.” Both of these, the love of God and the steadfastness of Christ, stand at the center of saving faith, and both are meant to be reflected as well as reflected on. From the love of God comes love forGod. From the steadfastness of Christ comes an undying devotiontoChrist. The Man of lawlessness and the great rebellion do not reflect a love for God or a steadfast adoration of the Savior.
Straight out of this paragraph, with nothing intervening, comes a short sermon on the importance of avoiding idleness and working for a living, toward which, we
immediately realize, Paul has been working. It speaks for itself.
2 Thessalonians 3:6–12
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were among you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even [or “to be sure”] when we were with you, we would give you this command: If any is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
Notice the repeated use of the word command and the reference once again to tradition. The opposite of these is lawlessness, not at its peak but embryonic and in a position to grow. See also that any sense of top-down legalism is thoughtfully and gently mitigated by the way Paul provides a running example of the effort he expends to lead gently rather than bark orders. And though he uttered a draconian word, “If any will not work, neither shall he eat” (KJV), the Thessalonians should be able to understand that he did it to shore up his “nice” words and keep the truth from being trampled in the mud.
Paul now has one more word for those who were not idlers and those who were, God grant it, in the process of getting over it.
2 Thessalonians 3:13–15
As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.
The brothers should act as brothers in heart and soul. They should let it be known that lawlessness was not the route to heaven. Indeed, as Paul so emphatically taught in his discussion of the rebellion and the Man of Lawlessness, it moved in the direction of hell.
But this is the problem we face. We all live close to the line. So when one of us crosses the line and openly, brazenly, and without apology makes his law-breaking, when he begins to establish his action as a new template, the rest of us must address the problem. But in doing so, we should avoid two extremes. We cannot accept the lawlessness, knowing that any movement in the wrong direction can catch on quickly and spread in the church. For our brother’s sake and for the souls poised to follow him, we should help our straying brother to feel the shame of his action. But at the same time, and given our real purpose in this, we should not treat him as an enemy, but rather as a brother still capable of benefiting from our warning. We pray he does. This is a balancing act. But the allure of extremism (it’s so neatly black and white) should be rejected.
With this the Thessalonians have been put on their mettle. They are likely to become nervous and anxious. The peace that might replace their inner turmoil is hardly the first kind of peace one would think of as coming from God. But it is part of the package, and our heavenly Father should be approached in quest of it. Thus Paul assures the readers of his day and today:
2 Thessalonians 3:16
Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all.
One needs great blessing from on high every day to play the Christian well.
Finally, in view of the fact that some had been shaken by letters “as from us” (2:2, KJV), Paul the faithful apostle, before adding one more blessing, takes a moment to authenticate his epistle.
2 Thessalonians 3:17
I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
(Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations in the above article are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)