Sunday, October 27, 2013

This is the sixth entry in the Second Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians Bible Junkies Commentary. You can find the first entry hereIn the first entry I discussed introductory matters, such as the origin of the Church in Thessalonica, its early history with Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, and also introductory matters of scholarship, including the structure of Paul’s letters, modeled on the Hellenistic letter form, and noting such issues as whether the letter was written by the Apostle Paul. In the second entry, I gave an overview of the content in 2 Thessalonians. In the third entry, I started the process of commenting on the text itself, discussing the salutation, based on the New Revised Standard Version in English and the Greek text which underlies all translations. The fourth entry commented on the Thanksgiving and the apocalyptic themes found there. In the fifth entry, we began looking at the claim that a letter purported to be from Paul is circulating in Thessalonica and an involved description of the apocalyptic events which must take place before the return of Jesus Christ. The sixth entry will complete the examination of the apocalyptic themes in chapter two.

4. Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians:

c) Body of the Letter (2:1-3:15): i) Theological Teaching (2:9-17): Proper Understanding of the Second Coming. Second part.

9 The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, 10 and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, 12 so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned. 13 But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14 For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter. 16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, 17 comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word. (NRSV)

Paul, Silvanus and Timothy have stated in 2:7 that “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it (ho katechôn) is removed” (2:7).  It seems that since the “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work” the revelation of the lawless one is a process and not simply an event, though this revelation appears to be the culmination of the process. This reading is borne out by 2:9-10 where the authors write that “the coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved” (2:9-10). The mix of present and past tenses (aorist) indicate that, indeed, lawlessness is at work even now.

The “coming” of the lawless one is a powerful phrase because the word used in Greek for “coming” is parousia, the same word used to designate the return of Jesus Christ, by Christianity in general and by this letter in particular (earlier in the chapter at 2:1). The word, apart from Christian use, generally indicated the arrival of a King or Emperor. The “lawless one” was clearly intended to point to a particular ruler figure, whether human, and under the spirit or control of Satan, or some sort of spiritual being.

Even if the “lawless one” has not yet returned, or arrived, it seems the spirit of the lawless one is present the activity of Satan (lies, power, signs, though it is difficult to identify what these might indicate in specific). More significantly, this activity is made manifest in “those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved” (2:10). It is not clear if these “who are perishing” are people who have troubled the Church, those who have not responded to the Christian message, or all those outside of the Church, but it seems likely that it refers to those who have in some way rejected the Church’s teaching since “they refused to love the truth.”

It is at this point where a serious theological issue arises since “for this reason (dia touto) God sends them a powerful delusion (energeian planes), leading them to believe (eis to pisteusai) what is false, so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned (krithōsin – will be judged)” (2:11-12). The theological issue, which students always notice immediately, is why would God “condemn” these people if a “powerful delusion” has been sent upon them? Do they have a choice?

There are three ways to look at this. The first, God has sent a powerful delusion and those who have rejected the Gospel are unable to resist it; God is directly responsible for their rejection of the Gospel. The second way of reading it is to look at 2:10 more carefully and  see that God has sent a powerful delusion “because they refused to love the truth and so be saved,” that is, due to their own sinfulness (the phrase “for this reason,” dia touto, is causal and could be translated “on account of this”). The third way is to translate the Greek with a bit more nuance. The “powerful delusion” might be seen more as an “active error,” which indicates that they have played a part in bringing about this error through their own actions (as in the second option above). When this is combined with translating krithōsin as “judge” instead of “condemn,” it does not seem that the outcome is predestined. The “judgment” of those who have rejected the truth might seem set in stone now, but it is not as harsh or as foregone a conclusion as “condemned.” I opt for the third way because I am not convinced the Greek is as strict as the NRSV translation suggests. The lot of those who have rejected the Gospel is not, for Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, a positive situation, but I am not certain their fate is already sealed. There is certainly some sense of divine causality, however, due to God’s active presence.
This divine causality becomes clear for the members of the Church as well. Paul, Silvanus and Timothy offer a second thanksgiving in which the focus is on the “chosenness” of the members of the Church. They write that they “always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose (eilato) you as the first fruits (aparchên) for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth” (2:13). As with those who have been engaged in error, and rejected the Gospel through their own choice, those who have been chosen have also responded to the Gospel through their own choice. That is, to be chosen is dependent as well upon the choices which one makes for or against God’s Gospel. How these choices are connected with the graces offered to the individual is a larger question which this letter does not consider.

They have been chosen “through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2:14). In the same way, I would argue, that the condemnation of those who have rejected the Gospel is not final, neither is the salvation of those who have been called and chosen: it remains dependent upon their continued response to the “sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth.”

This is why the final verses in this chapter focus on encouragement to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions (paradoseis) that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter” (2:15). This specifies that traditions were handed on both through the oral tradition as well as the letters of Paul, Silvanus and Timothy. The extent of these traditions seems impossible to determine simply on the basis of this letter, though it will include practical and not just theological dimensions, as we will see in chapter three. The maintenance of these traditions is essential for the continuation of the Christian life. The Thessalonians are not on their own, however, for the authors stress that “our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope” (2:16) will “comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word” (2:17). God was not just active in calling them to the Christian life, but in aiding them in maintaining and growing in the Christian life.

It almost seems as if the second thanksgiving here is leading directly to the end of the letter, but it is more that it is the climax or crescendo of the comparison between those who have rejected the Gospel and those who have grasped it: Paul, Silvanus and Timothy have stressed in chapters one and two that however difficult life in Thessalonica might be now, God is with them and will be with them until the end of time when they receive their just reward.

Next week, when we begin 2 Thessalonians 3, we will see the practical implications of the Thessalonians fidelity to the Gospel . In this chapter, Paul and his co-workers focus on instructions that emerge from their willingness to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions (paradoseis) that you were taught by us” (2:15).  

John W. Martens

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