2 Thessalonians 2 Commentary

vv.1-12 A subject that Paul felt no need to write about in the first letter — when the Day of the Lord would occur (1 Thess. 5:1) — he does write about in the second letter. He does so because at least some members of the Thessalonians congregation had become persuaded that the Day had already arrived. In response, Paul basically says that is impossible because certain events that must first occur have not yet occurred, and thus the Day cannot have already arrived.

So far, so good. But at this point we begin to encounter difficulties, not so much because of what Paul said, but because of what he did not say. That is, in communicating with the Thessalonians, Paul took for granted information that both he and they already knew, and consequently he did not spell it out in his letter. No doubt his meaning was clear to his readers. But because he did not spell out certain critical details, his meaning is not clear to his later readers. The passage, therefore, presents a major obstacle: How does one bridge between the original meaning and contemporary significance when the original meaning at some points cannot be determined? [1]

Framing the question in this way (i.e., in terms of what we don’t know) may not be the most effective way to approach the task of bridging contexts. Rather than worry initially about the information we lack, it may be more productive first to focus on the information we do have and what we do know about the meaning of the passage, which is considerable.

(1) To begin with, even though we do not know the cause or source of the Thessalonians’ (mis)understanding of the Day of the Lord (nor, so it seems, did Paul; cf. 2:2), we do have a good idea of what the problem was: Apparently some of the Thessalonians thought that the “Day of the Lord” had already arrived. While unusual, this view is not without parallels today (e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Christ’s coming occurred on October 1, 1914, but that it was invisible rather than public and involved a change of location in heaven) — though in Christian circles, one is unlikely to encounter this view. Instead of arguments among Christians today about whether the Day of the Lord has already come, one is much more likely to encounter arguments about when it will come.

(2) Paul’s answer is relatively straightforward: The “day of the Lord” and “our being gathered to him” will not come until after certain other things happen. These things (which could be two sequential items, but more likely are components of a single complex event) are “the rebellion” and the revealing of “the man of lawlessness” (2:3). What is interesting about this answer is that in speaking to the Thessalonians’ uncertainty about whether the Day had come, Paul speaks directly to the question of when it will come. Thus even though the issue in Thessalonica is different from the dominant question today, Paul’s answer speaks to both.

(3) Although Paul says nothing more about the first item (the rebellion), he does say a fair amount about the character and activity (though not the identity) of the “man of lawlessness.” From the description given — a lawless individual doing the deceptive work of Satan, who not only opposes God but actually seeks to push God aside and exalt himself in God’s place — it is clear that Paul has in mind the same figure referred to in 1 John 2:18 as the “antichrist” and in Revelation 13 as the “beast.”

Thus, to summarize the key elements in (2) and (3), Paul lays out a clear sequence of events. First comes the “rebellion” and the appearance of “the man of lawlessness,” and then the return (parousia) of the genuine Christ and the gathering up of believers to be with him.

(4) An important implication can be drawn from what Paul says here about the sequence of events: Believers ought to be prepared to experience persecution and distress for the sake of the gospel during the time of the rebellion and Antichrist’s appearing. Indeed, believers ought to be prepared to experience such things even before the appearance of the Antichrist, because, as Paul points out in 2:7, “the secret power of lawlessness is already at work.” This explains (at least in part) why Paul took it for granted that believers “would be persecuted” (1 Thess. 3:4) — a truth that the Thessalonians certainly were ready and able to confirm in light of their own experience. To put the matter a bit differently, the “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13) for which we wait is not, as some contend, a “rapture” or escape from persecution. Rather it is, as Titus 2:13 makes clear, “the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” — an appearing that will bring vindication and relief to God’s people in the midst of persecution (2 Thess. 1:5 – 10; 2:8).

(5) The mention of vindication brings us to an important point Paul makes in this passage, one that is even clearer than what he says about the sequence and timing of events: in the end, Jesus wins (2:8). In the midst of all the details about the man of lawlessness and his activities, we must not miss what Paul says about the lawless one’s ultimate fate. Paul first hints at this in 2:3, where he describes him as a “man doomed to destruction,” and he states his point clearly in 2:8: Jesus will “overthrow” and “destroy” him. Despite his strenuous efforts to deceive and mislead, despite “counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders” of all sorts, despite his efforts to proclaim himself God over all, the man of lawlessness will eventually fail. The outcome of the struggle between Christ and Antichrist is certain beyond any shadow of doubt: in the end, Jesus wins! [2]

A broader perspective. I. H. Marshall makes an important observation with regard to 2:12.

The effect of v. 12 is to generalise to some extent what Paul has been saying. We do not have to wait until the point when we can, as it were, identify the arrival of the final climax of evil in order to see the outworking of the divine process of judgment. It is true at all times that sin consists in delighting in what is wrong. … It follows that the primary significance of the passage is not that we should be trying to calculate whether or not the End is near but that we should be concerned about the moral and spiritual issues which are involved.

In other words, Paul’s final generalizing comment returns the focus from the future to the present: Our fate then will be determined by how we respond to the truth of the gospel now. [3]

vv.11-12 “On the basis of verse 11, God is sometimes charged with deceiving people. But verse 10 sets the critical context: ‘They perish because they did not accept the love of the truth … For this reason’ they experience delusion. As in Rm 1:24–25 (‘God delivered them over … They exchanged the truth of God for a lie’), so here: The delusions certain people experience reflect God’s response to a prior decision on their part.”[4]

v.13 “Salvation is always the result of the active grace of God. No one earns it on the basis of works or beliefs. Salvation is the result of God’s choice to make salvation available. Yet the fact that God chooses is not presented as an act that limits the availability of salvation. There is no direct statement in the New Testament to the effect that the option of salvation is unavailable to certain persons or that God has chosen some for damnation. But sadly, the passage overall gives ample evidence that some people will choose not to avail themselves of God’s salvation.”[5]

[1] Holmes, Michael W. “Bridging Contexts” In The NIV Application Commentary: 1 and 2 Thessalonians. By Michael W. Holmes, 237-243. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, © 1998.

[2] Holmes, Michael W. “Bridging Contexts” In The NIV Application Commentary: 1 and 2 Thessalonians. By Michael W. Holmes, 237-243. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, © 1998.

[3] Holmes, Michael W. “Bridging Contexts” In The NIV Application Commentary: 1 and 2 Thessalonians. By Michael W. Holmes, 237-243. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, © 1998.

[4] Cabal, T., Brand, C. O., Clendenen, E. R., Copan, P., Moreland, J., & Powell, D. (2007). The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith (1796). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.

[5] Martin, D. M. (2001). Vol. 33: 1, 2 Thessalonians (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (251–252). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

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