A Commentary by John Stott
2 Thessalonians 1:1-12. The Revelation of Christ.
Paul’s epistolary greeting need not delay us, since it is almost identical with the opening words of his first letter.
Paul associates the same missionaries with him, for they were well known in Thessalonica, having shared in the original evangelization of the city: *Paul, Silas and Timothy*. He describes the church there in the same way as before, indicating that it owes its existence to and draws its life from God the Father and the Son. It is *the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ*, although three verses later he is able to reverse the order and write of ‘the churches of God’ (4, RSV) in various places. And he sends them the same greeting, more theological than conventional, wishing them those greatest of all gifts, *grace and peace*, although this time adding a reference to the single source of these two blessings, and thus repeating the words *God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ*.
The NIV rightly divides the rest of 2 Thessalonians 1 into three paragraphs, which I am calling (1) a thanksgiving for God’s grace (1:3-4), (2) a defence of God’s justice (1:5-10), and (3) a prayer for God’s power (1:11-12).
1). A thanksgiving for God’s grace (1:3-4).
Both letters begin with an expression of heartfelt thanksgiving to God for his blessing on the Thessalonian church; they therefore invite comparison. Both thank God for the same triad of Christian graces, and both see in these qualities evidence of God’s activity in and among his people. But three differences, although minor, are noteworthy.
First, in 1 Thessalonians 1 Paul wrote simply ‘we always thank God for all of you’, while here he expresses his sense both of obligation and of propriety in doing so: *We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so* (3a), or ‘as is fitting’ (RSV). Perhaps Paul’s stronger language of thanksgiving and his sense of its propriety express his recognition of the Thessalonians’ spiritual growth, while his sense of obligation attributes their growth to God’s grace.
Secondly, in 1 Thessalonians 1 Paul remembered gratefully that their faith, love and hope were productive (their ‘work produced by faith’, ‘labour prompted by love’ and ‘endurance inspired by hope’, 1:3); now, however, he emphasizes rather that these qualities are progressive: *your faith is growing more and more*, luxuriating like a tropical plant, *and the love every one of you has for each other (NEB, ‘each for all and all for each’) is increasing* (3b). It is evident that his earlier prayer that their love might ‘increase and overflow’ (1 Thess.3:12) and his vision that they would love each other more and more’ (1 Thess.4:10) were being fulfilled. It is the two verbs in verse 3 which are emphatic. ‘The words *hyperauxanei* and *pleonazei* are carefully chosen’, wrote Bishop Lightfoot; ‘The former implying an internal, organic growth, as of a tree; the other a diffusive or expansive character, as of a flood irrigating the land’. Although Paul does not go on to mention ‘hope’, the third grace, he does refer to *perseverance* or ‘endurance’ (*hypomone*) which in 1 Thessalonians 1:3 he had written was ‘inspired by hope’. Again, although he does not say that their perseverance is growing like their faith and love, he seems to imply it because he could *boast* about it among God’s churches*, and it was flourishing even *in all the persecutions and trials* which they were *enduring* (4).
Yet this idea of spiritual growth is foreign to many people, not least in the areas of faith and love. We tend to speak of faith in static terms as something we either have or have not. ‘I wish I had your faith’, we say, like ‘I wish I had your complexion’, as if it were a genetic endowment. Or we complain ‘I’ve lost my faith’ like ‘I’ve lost my spectacles’, as if it were a commodity. But faith is a relationship of trust in God, and like all relationships is a living, dynamic, growing thing. There are degrees of faith, as Jesus implied when he said ‘You of little faith’ and ‘I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith’ (Mt.8:26, 10). It is similar with love. We assume rather helplessly that we either love somebody or we do not, and that we can do nothing about it. But love also, like faith, is a living relationship, whose growth we can take steps to nurture.
Thirdly, in 1 Thessalonians 1 Paul saw their faith, love and hope as evidence of God’s love and election (‘For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you’, 1:4); here he implies that their progress is due to God’s active grace within them (Cf. 2 Cor.8:1). True, he does not use the word ‘grace’. Yet he attributes their spiritual health to God. For, instead of congratulating them on their faith, love and perseverance, he thanks God for these things, and indeed acknowledges that he *ought always* to do so. True again, he admits candidly that he was ‘boasting’ about them, which at first hearing introduces a jarring note. For ‘thanksgiving’ and ‘boasting’ appear incompatible, since thanksgiving gives the credit to God, while boasting gives it to human beings. Yet there is one kind of boasting which is perfectly compatible with thanksgiving, because in reality it is a synonym; it is ‘boasting in the Lord’ (E.g. 1 Cor.1:31). In that sense thanking and boasting are two sides of the same coin. When talking to God, we *thank* him for his grace; when talking to human beings, we *boast* of his grace (Cf. 1 Thess.2:19).
There is an important practical lesson to learn here. What should our attitude be to Christians who are doing well in some aspect of their discipleship? Some people resort to congratulations: ‘Well done! I think you’re marvellous. I’m proud of you.’ Others are uncomfortable with this and see its incongruity. It borders on flattery, promotes pride and robs God of his glory. So, although they may thank God privately in their prayers, they say nothing to the person concerned. They replace flattery with silence, which leaves him or her discouraged. Is there a third way, which affirms people without spoiling them? There is. Paul exemplifies it here. He not only thanks God for the Thessalonians; he also tells them that he is doing so: ‘We ought always to thank God for you…we boast about you’. If we follow this example, we will avoid both congratulation (which corrupts) and silence (which discourages). Instead, we can affirm and encourage people in the most Christian of all ways: ‘I thank God for you, brother or sister. I thank him for the gifts he has given you, for his grace in your life, for what I see in you of the love and gentleness of Christ’. This way affirms without flattery, and encourages without puffing up.
|Tomorrow: 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10. 2). A defence of God’s justice.|
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.