Monday, November 28, 2016

2 Thessalonians 2

You can read the text here.

Paul continues to encourage the Thessalonian Christians. Apparently communication (oral or letter) had arrived in Paul's name claiming that the day of the Lord had come and gone or they had badly misunderstood 1 Thessalonians.[1] Either way, this shook the church and must have raised questions about why they were still facing persecution and had not yet been vindicated.[2] Paul claims the time had not come and gives his expectation of what must happen first. It seems clear to me that Paul expected it to come soon.[3]

Who did Paul have in mind when talking about this man of lawlessness? It sounds like Paul is talking about something concrete he is expecting to be done by someone alive at that time.[4] Whoever he is, Paul is expecting that he too will succumb to the power of the Messiah Jesus when he returns to judge. And so will all who follow him in his Satan led deception.[5]

Because of this, the Thessalonians have nothing to fear. God is on their side because they have received the Spirit that sanctifies them, which is God's proof of their election; a purposeful election - their glory. All they need to do is to hold fast in fidelity to what they were taught. Paul concludes wishing them comfort once more. The Thessalonians must have been truly shaken.

To expand on one point in the last paragraph a bit, there is a very clear pattern to salvation here. God's grace is prior to any activity on the part of the Thessalonians. God's grace also empowers them to live lives of holiness. However, nowhere is there any suggestion that there is no requirement on the Thessalonians for their final vindication. They are clearly charged with cooperating with God's grace both in trust and by living in accordance with God's rule, in a word, fidelity. The whole passage makes clear that those who are loyal to God will be saved on the day or judgment, while those who rebel against him will parish. It does leave one wondering what will happen to those "in the middle," but we need to be careful not to go beyond what Paul actually is trying to argue here.

[1] Fee has a nice overview of the possibilities here.

[2] I think Occam's razor requires this solution to what troubled them given the information that we actually have (i.e., 2 Thes. 1). This conclusion is in line with Fee's interpretation as well.

[3] Do we also have to wrestle with failed prophecy given that it didn't happen soon (and the temple was destroyed)? Gaventa pushes back against the claim that the reference to the temple here is necessarily the temple in Jerusalem, but if Paul indeed is the author, the temple was still standing and seems the most likely referent. See the discussion in Malherbe for the range of possible interpretations.

[4] Though see Malherbe for the argument that Paul is drawing on Daniel.

[5] Malherbe argues well that God's activity here follows/is a consequence of resisting him. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

2 Thessalonians 1

I have a small gap in my reading/study/writing schedule, so I've decided to slot 2 Thessalonians in. I'm planning to cover the whole book in three posts, hopefully all before the end of the year.

You can read the text here.

Paul [1] opens his second letter to the Thessalonians with a wish of grace before going into his customary thanksgiving section. He has much to be thankful for. The Thessalonians are growing, especially in their love for one another and their faith/faithfulness/fidelity.[2] Standing firm in their commitment was not easy given the persecution they faced. They are a church in need of encouragement, so Paul affirms them, essentially calling their witness exemplary.

Next, Paul goes on to offer further encouragement, here offering hope for a beleaguered church in the final judgment. There are a couple of points of emphasis.[3] First is that the judgment of God is just, or in keeping with people's deeds. Those who persecuted the Thessalonians would receive appropriate condemnation from Jesus on the last day because of their opposition to him.[4] Second we need to remember that this reminder is given by Paul to help them to stand firm in their faithfulness. Steadfastness through persecution prepares them for salvation and gives them an opportunity to demonstrate costly loyalty to God. In exchange, God will avenge them on the last day, and they just needed to stay on course.

This section concludes with Paul moving into a description of his constant prayer for the Thessalonians. He wants them to remain faithful to the end so that they are rewarded by God for their fidelity,[5] and to that end he prays for God to continue to bestow the grace needed to sustain them. What does God get out of this arrangement? Glory, as the Thessalonians honor him with their lives.

[1] I feel reasonably confident that Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians. See, e.g., the extended discussion in Malherbe.

[2] I think it's hard to know what exact nuance is intended here, but I typically prefer fidelity (a concept which encompasses faith and faithfulness) unless there is a clear reason to limit the scope to on or the other. In vs. 3, Fee and Gaventa leans towards 'faithfulness' while Malherbe opts for 'faith.' Given the inclusio formed by vs. 11 I prefer either faithfulness or fidelity. I lean towards the latter especially given the emphasis on steadfastness in the following verse and the rest of the chapter.

[3] I think the challenge for any Pauline interpreter is to stick to his points of emphasis and try not to develop his thought beyond that.

[4] Fee makes clear that the emphasis is not on God as avenger as it is on the judged getting their due. As for the nature of the judgment to say much more than it is catastrophic and a complete separation from God is reading too much into the text. It could fit either annihilation or eternal conscious punishment depending on what one brings to the text or emphasizes within it. I would issue similar warnings about those who completely generalize vs. 8. The goal of this text is too specific to warrant a broad generalization here. In intense passages rhetorical overplays to make a point are common.

[5] Judgment according to works is at play again here.