Sunday, November 3, 2013

This is the seventh 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 completed the examination of the apocalyptic themes in chapter two. The seventh blog post examines most of chapter three, including Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy’s request for prayer and the exhortation to keep away from idle believers.

4. Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians:
c) Body of the Letter (2:1-3:15): ii) Ethical Exhortation (3:1-15):
1) “Pray for us” (3:1-5):

1 Finally, brothers and sisters, pray for us, so that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified everywhere, just as it is among you, 2 and that we may be rescued from wicked and evil people; for not all have faith. 3 But the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one. 4 And we have confidence in the Lord concerning you, that you are doing and will go on doing the things that we command. 5 May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.

2) “Keep away from believers who are living in Idleness” (3:6-15):

6 Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8 and we did not eat anyone's bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9 This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11 For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13 Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right. 14 Take note of those who do not obey what we say in this letter; have nothing to do with them, so that they may be ashamed. 15 Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as believers. (NRSV)

In 3:1-5, Paul, Timothy and Silvanus ask for prayers so that the “word of the Lord” might be spread “rapidly” and “everywhere” and that they might gain relief from “wicked and evil” people “for not all have faith” (3:1-2). It seems likely that the “wicked and evil” people, those without faith, are those who are not followers of Jesus, but the claim that “not all have faith” seems redundant for those outside of the Church. Could it be that they are actually speaking of opponents within the Church? While this is possible it does not seem likely. The group mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 1:6-8 is a likely possibility for specific mention, but this does not seem like a group of Christians. It is not that Paul does not have opponents within the Church, but the prayers are requested within the context of broader evangelization so it would be most probable that this is a prayer request for preservation from opponents outside the Church.

Paul and the others then contrast the faithlessness of the opponents with the faithfulness of God (3:3). Paul, Silvanus and Timothy are confident that God will remain faithful and “strengthen you and guard you from the evil one” (3:3).  This takes us back to the Thanksgiving and chapter two as it brings the warning of the apocalyptic enemy to completion. One can translate the Greek ponêros as “evil” or “evil one,” but with the article, as we have in this passage in Greek, “the evil one” is most likely and the best translation. Combined with the apocalyptic context of the whole letter, such as the Restrainer and the Lawless One, it makes it most probable that we have a reference to the source of evil, the Devil or Satan.  Finally, they close this section by stressing that they “have confidence in the Lord concerning you, that you are doing and will go on doing the things that we command,” and so maintain the apostolic traditions which were just mentioned in 2:15 (3:4). They end the prayer request with the wish that “the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ” (3:5). This is not, however, the end of the letter, but the beginning of the final exhortation to Christian behavior in Thessalonica.

The practical implications of the Thessalonians’ fidelity to the Gospel is their willingness to live out the instructions from Paul, Silvanus and Timothy to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions (paradoseis) that you were taught by us” (2:15).   In this context it seems that the mistaken notion that the resurrection has already occurred has led some believers to have stopped working (3:6, 11-12). The word used in 3:6 and 3:11 is ataktōs  (the verb atakteō is used in 3:7) which could mean either “idleness” or “disorderliness.” Either is possible, but I opt for “idleness” because 3:12 asks that “such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.”  When this command to work is combined with the claim in 3:10 that “anyone unwilling to work should not eat” and in 3:7-8 that the apostles worked and did not burden anyone, it seems clear that the issue is more of idleness than disorderliness within the Thessalonian church. [1]

The fact that some people are not earning a living is due to their belief that “the day of the Lord” has already arrived and work is no longer essential. They have become dependent upon Thessalonians who are still working.  The command that “anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (3:10) should not, though, be construed as an argument against charity, the support of those in need, or, in a modern context, welfare or social programs. Paul, Silvanus and Timothy are upset by those who are able and capable of working who have concocted a false theological reason to live in idleness. The ancient Church supported those in need and we can see this in Paul’s own letters, such as 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans.

Once again, as in 1 Thessalonians, Paul and his co-workers call upon the notion of “imitation.” Just as the apostles worked to support themselves (3:7-10), so must the Thessalonians. While Paul calls on imitation here, in this case it is the model of working for a living, a form of imitation which will also be found in 1 Corinthians 9; in 1 Thessalonians Paul referred to suffering as imitation of the apostles and Jesus himself (1 Thess. 2:14). The issue in imitation, though, is that the apostles are models for the members of the Church, in both practical and theological matters.

Paul, Timothy and Silvanus state that those who do not obey the commands of this letter be noted and that the Thessalonians should “have nothing to do with them, so that they may be ashamed. Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as believers” (3:14-15). What is the purpose of this “shunning”? What is the purpose of shaming the idlers? The closest parallel comes in the later letter of 1 Corinthians 5:5,[2] in which the Church is to hand a man having sex with his stepmother “over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” That is, the goal of this exclusion and shaming would seem to be to bring the idlers back to the Church, since they are to be treated as believers (“brothers” in Greek) not enemies (3:15). As the purpose in 1 Corinthians 5 is to bring the sexual sinner back to the Church, the purpose here seems to be to save the Spirit of the one who has disobeyed the teaching of the Church.  The secondary reason might be to get rid of the sin in their midst, as in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul treats sin as a sort of yeast, which affects everything it touches. This is not mentioned in 2 Thessalonians, but I think it remains a possibility.

While these commands might seem harsh, it is important to keep in mind the spiritual goal of reconciliation which Paul and his co-workers claim. Almost as importantly, one must keep in mind the small numbers which belonged to the Church at this time, the familial structure in which they lived and worshipped, and the fact that people truly did know each other’s business. While this knowing of each other’s imperfections can have negative implications, positively it means that people really did know of each other well enough to be able to name each other’s sins and to desire to correct them. At its best, the desire to correct each other can be a manifestation of love, a love that hopes we might all achieve eternity together.

Next week, we wrap up 2 Thessalonians and offer some comments on the letter as a whole.

John W. Martens

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[1] It is possible, of course, to see idleness as a form of disorderliness, but I think a choice should be made here which makes the most sense of the letter.
[2] If 2 Thessalonians is a letter of Paul, as I have argued, it is earlier than 1 Corinthians.
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