A Commentary by John Stott
2 Thessalonians 3: Reflections on the authority of the apostles.
Paul has clarified the three distinct media which he has used in instructing the Thessalonians. First, he had taught them the apostolic *tradition (paradosis)* verbally, and they had received it from him (6; cf. 10 and 2:15). Secondly, he had set them an *example*, which they were to imitate (7-9; cf. 1Thess.1:6; cf. also 1 Cor.4:16; 11:1; Gal.4:12; Phil.3:17). Thirdly, he confirmed and elaborated his teaching by *letters* (14; cf.1 Thess.4:16), which he autographed personally (17) in order to distinguish them from forgeries (2:2). Thus it was by a combination of verbal teaching, visual example and written instruction that he directed the affairs of the Thessalonian church.
We have already noted that five times Paul resorts to the language of ‘command’ and ‘obedience’. Moreover, these five verses may be divided into two categories according to whether he is addressing the obedient majority (‘you’) or the disobedient minority (‘them’). He begins by saying in effect ‘we command you and are confident of your obedience’ (4, 6, 10), and then adds ‘we also command them [sc. the idlers] and tell you what to do in case of their continued disobedience’ (12,14). Further, in issuing these instructions Paul dares to claim that his authority in teaching and commanding is the authority of the Lord Jesus himself. This is plain beyond question in what he writes to both the majority and the minority groups. To the former he says ‘In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ we command you’ (6) and to the latter ‘Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ’ (12). It is also clear in his opening expression of confidence from its combination of noun and pronouns: ‘*We* have confidence in *the Lord* that *you* are doing and will continue to do the things *we* command’ (4). It is truly astonishing that he says he is trusting the Lord Jesus to ensure that the Thessalonians will obey him. By these ‘blunt commands…he appears to canonize his own doctrine and writings’.
Now these are not the wild ravings of a demagogue. They are not the petulant reaction of a tinpot leader whose authority is being challenged and who over-compensates by reasserting it. Paul betrays no personal pique or anger, and no petty arrogance. On the contrary, he keeps his cool, continues to call them his ‘brothers’ (6,13, cf.15), and does not require of them an obedience which he is unwilling to give himself (6-10). Yet he makes the explicit claim that his commands are the Lord’s commands, for he issues them ‘in’ and ‘in the name of’ the Lord Jesus Christ himself, that is, as his personal representative. It is another clear example of his self-conscious authority as an apostle of Christ. In an earlier letter he has commended the Galatians for welcoming him as if he ‘were Christ Jesus himself’ (Gal.4:14), and in a later letter he will refer to his insistence that Christ was ‘speaking through’ him (2 Cor.13:3).
Nobody in the church today has this kind of authority or dares to use this kind of language. True, infallibility is still claimed by and for the Pope when he is speaking *ex cathedra* and (since Vatican II) in association with the college of Roman Catholic bishops. Yet, politely though firmly, we must reject this pretension. Indeed, even the Pope, although in his announcements he uses the plural apostolic ‘we’, never uses the vocabulary of commandment and obedience which Paul used. At the other end of the theological spectrum there are some very authoritarian leaders of the charismatic and house church movements, who claim to be ‘apostles’ and who, in the exercise of their so-called ‘shepherding’ ministry, lay down the law and require obedience. But we must emphatically reject their pretensions too. There is nobody in the church who has an authority which even remotely resembles that of the apostles of Christ; nor has there been since the last apostle died.
This fact was clearly recognized in the immediate post-apostolic church. The church leaders of those days knew that the apostles had no successors, and that they lacked their authority. Take Ignatius as an example. He was Bishop of Syrian Antioch at the beginning of the second century, and was condemned to die in Rome for his Christian faith. On his way there he wrote seven letters, in which his high view of the episcopate is evident. Yet in his letter to the Romans he wrote: ‘I do not give you orders like Peter and Paul. They were apostles; I am a convict.’ He was a bishop. But he was not an apostle, and he lacked an apostle’s authority to issue commands.
How then can we submit to apostolic authority today? Only by submitting to the New Testament. For the authority of the apostles (which is the authority of Christ) is undiminished. It is not, however, exercised through their supposed successors (whether Catholic bishops or charismatic leaders), since in their unique historical role as eye-witnesses of the risen Lord they have had no successors, but rather through the New Testament which preserves their teaching and through which they continue to instruct the church.
To be sure, there is an important work of interpretation and application to be done, in order that the apostles’ teaching may be related to contemporary situations and cultures. Nevertheless, their essential teaching retains a permanent and universal validity. For if Christ spoke through them and they spoke in the name of Christ, to disagree with their teaching is to disagree with him (Cf. Mt.10:40; Lk.10:16). The well-being of the church, in the twentieth century as in the first, depends on our listening to Jesus Christ and obeying him as his word comes to us through his apostles in the New Testament.
|Tomorrow: 2 Thessalonians 3:16-18. Conclusion: a threefold blessing.|
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.