A Commentary by John Stott
2 Thessalonians. Introduction.
It was Henry Ford in the witness box, during his libel suit against the Chicago Tribune in July 1919, who declared ‘History is bunk’. Somebody else once suggested that ‘the most accurate chart of the meaning of history is the set of tracks made by a drunken fly with feet wet with ink, staggering across a piece of white paper. They lead nowhere and reflect no pattern of meaning’. Similarly, Rudolf Bultmann wrote that ‘the question of meaning in history has become meaningless’.
Christians who look to Scripture as their authority profoundly disagree with these gloomy assessments. For the God of the Bible is the God of history. He has entitled himself ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ (E.g. Ex.3:6). He chose Israel out of the nations to be his covenant people and took about two thousand years to prepare them for the fulfilment of his promise to Abraham in the coming of their Messiah. Above all, he came to us in Jesus Christ when Augustus was emperor of Rome, and ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried’. Then on the third day he rose again and, having sent his Spirit, has for two further millennia been pushing his church out into the world to take the good news to its furthest extremities. One day (known only to the Father), when the gospel has been ‘preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations’ (Mt.24:14), the end will come. For Christ will return in glory, terminate the historical process and perfect his reign.
The Christian view of history, therefore, is linear, and neither circular nor cyclical. We believe that it will come to a planned end, a grand finale, consisting of the Parousia, the resurrection, the Judgment and the Kingdom. That these events are history’s goal is plain in both Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. They contain between them four of the most important New Testament passages about eschatology, the culmination of all things. In particular, the vivid descriptions in the second letter of the coming of Christ (2 Thess. 1) and of the previous appearance of Antichrist (2 Thess. 2) justify the sub-title of this exposition *A Christian perspective on history*.
This is not to claim, of course, that the apostle sat down with the deliberate intention of writing an essay on ‘Christianity and History’. No, 2 Thessalonians, like all the other letters, is an *ad hoc* document, which was called forth by special, local circumstances to which he was responding. He mentions three groups of people, who were disturbing the peace of the Thessalonian church, and he addresses himself consecutively to the situations which they had created.
First, there were the persecutors. Already three times in his first letter Paul had alluded to the opposition which the Thessalonians were having to endure (1 Thess.1:6; 2:14; 3:3). Since then, probably only a few weeks or months later, news reached him in Corinth that matters had got worse. So in chapter 1 we read of their ‘persecutions and trials’ (2 Thess.1:4). They seem moreover to have been asking questions about the rationale of their afflictions. Why were they having to suffer so much? In his answer Paul does more than comfort them. He offers them a theodicy, a vindication of the justice of God. In fact, the emphasis of his first chapter is on ‘the righteous judgment of God’ (1:5, RSV).
Secondly, there were some false teachers, who seem to have been responsible for circulating a forged document (a ‘prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us’, 2:2), to the effect that ‘the day of the Lord’ had ‘already come’. Paul has a head-on collision with this serious error. ‘Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way’, he writes (2:3). He then proceeds to explain how the Parousia cannot come until ‘the Rebellion’ has taken place, and that the Rebellion will not happen until what is holding it back has been removed. Meanwhile, the Thessalonians must stand firm in the teaching they have previously received from the apostle. That is the focus of chapter two.
Thirdly, there were the idlers, the *ataktoi*, whom we met in the first letter, and whom some commentators dub ‘loafers’. Their profile becomes clearer in chapter 3 than it has been before. These irresponsible ‘busybodies’ were ignoring the teaching Paul had already given, both in person and by letter. So he is obliged now to issue some sharp, authoritative instructions, which border on excommunication.
It would be a mistake, however, to understand Paul’s second letter in terms merely of confronting the persecutors (chapter 1), contradicting the false teachers (chapter 2) and rebuking the idlers (chapter 3). For he turns these negative situations to positive advantage. He focuses on the Parousia, when wrongs will be righted and Christ’s judgment and salvation will be fulfilled; on the Antichrist, called here ‘the man of lawlessness’ (2:3), whose appearing is anticipated by ‘the secret power of lawlessness…already at work’ (2:7) and who will be decisively overthrown by Jesus Christ; and meanwhile, before these two ‘comings’ or ‘appearings’ take place, on our Christian responsibility to live according to the teaching of Christ’s apostles, not least in relation to earning our own living. Here, then, is a straightforward analysis of Paul’s second letter, his ‘Christian perspective on history’:
1). The revelation of Christ (2 Thess. 1).
2). The rebellion of the Antichrist (2 Thess. 2).
3). The responsibility of Christians (2 Thess. 3).
Tomorrow: 2 Thessalonians1:1-12 The Revelation of Christ.
|The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 2 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.|