For Sunday, January 6 we’re studying two somewhat similarly-themed texts: 2 Thessalonians 3:1-5 and 2 John 4-11. It seemed like a good idea to focus on one at a time. Notes on 2 John will appear in a separate post. Here are my notes on the verses from 2 Thessalonians:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: There’s no question that 2 Thessalonians is a letter. It follows the form of a first century CE Greek letter, with a greeting, a body, and a concluding formula.
The letter is addressed to the church at Thessalonica, a major city in Macedonia that, according to Acts, was an early stop on the Apostle Paul’s second missionary journey. About all we know about this church comes from the evidence presented in the letters to the Thessalonians. Based on this, the members of the church seem to have experienced some hardship as a result of their embrace of Christian faith, but to have been doing well as a church, at least for the most part.
1 Thessalonians is the earliest letter of Paul’s we have. No one disputes this. Scholars have questioned whether 2 Thessalonians was, in fact, written by the same individual, however. Reasons for this questioning include elements of the letter’s style and vocabulary, repetitions of wording that would seem strange for the same author, a less personal tone in the second letter than the first. The scholarly opinion seems to be about evenly split on this question of authorship.
[How much does any of this really matter for regular Christian readers who are approaching the Bible as lay theologians? The main consequence of the uncertainty seems to be that we might have to wonder more about when this letter was composed, and so, what its larger historical context presumably is, than we might otherwise. Or perhaps the main consequence is that we have to admit we really don’t know all there is to know about this text, for sure; that’s probably a good thing to remember anyway.]
The verses we’re focusing on come near the end of this rather short letter. The author has praised the community for its faith and endurance in the face of trials; has corrected an error about the coming of the “day of the Lord” or end times [it has not already happened! (v2); there are a few things we’ll need to expect before it does come]; exhorted the community to remain steadfast; and has prayed for their comfort and strength (vv16-17).
They come before, and lead up to, an instruction to exercise discipline in the community. People should not quit their jobs – which some may have done because they expect the day of the Lord to come really soon, if it hasn’t come already, so what’s the point of going to work? [This, at least, seems to be what most readers think is going on here.] The community should take steps to stop this. This context seems significant, and interesting.
CLOSER READING: If there is any plain text in the Bible, this surely must be some of it, eh? It’s hard to have any questions about what any of this means, isn’t it? It seems like these words could almost have been written yesterday, or this morning …
The NRSV’s brothers and sisters translates a Greek word that can mean “brothers” or “brothers and sisters,” depending on context. Earlier translations sometimes leave out the sisters. This assumes that all the members of the community might be asked to pray.
pray for us strikes us as something we still get asked to do, and still do; this request has a two-fold specific purpose, the rapid spread, literally running, and glorification or honoring of the word of the Lord – in this context, “Lord” probably means Jesus Christ – and the rescue of the author from wicked – literally, “out of place” and evil – literally, sick or rotten, but it’s a common metaphor for worthless and bad – people. This is almost the same request that Jesus tells people to make in the Lord’s Prayer; it uses the same word for rescue or deliver, in any case.
The clause that not all have faith seems to suggest if everyone did have faith there wouldn’t be any wicked and evil people to be rescued from. That would be nice. I notice that I have a hard time sharing this optimism – maybe this comes from being a contemporary reader.
The clause sets up a rhetorical contrast between the non-faith of some, and the faithfulness of the Lord, which has two results, strengthening (which can have the sense of establishing or confirming) the audience, and guarding them from the evil one. So there is an evil one. We will probably assume this one is identical to the Satan of 2 Thessalonians 2:9, who is tied up in the “mystery of lawlessness” that is connected in a hidden way to the unfolding of the end times (see 2 Thessalonians 2:7-12), which in turn is (a) a component of the core message of the letter and (b) linked explicitly to the discernment of truth from falsehood. Such that it seems possible that being guarded from the evil one here will involve being kept safely in truth.
That set of linkages may also relate to the author’s “confidence in the Lord” that hinges on doing what the author commands. There are some additional concrete commands coming up related to the problem of work and fellowship (see 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15).
V5 is a prayer that the Lord will direct – which can mean something like give directions, like to a destination, or actually to lead or “make straight” the path to that destination – their hearts to the love of God and the steadfastness or constancy of Christ. This might mean the love they have for God, or it might mean the love God has for them. Or both. And it might mean something like taking comfort or refuge in Christ’s steadfastness, or acquiring something of the same steadfastness and constancy that Christ demonstrated. Or both. At any rate, this love and steadfastness has something to do with the journey of the heart, the place of thought and deep feeling within the person.
The commands that follow this prayer involve the exercise of discipline within the new group – that is, we think this church is fairly new, especially if 2 Thessalonians was written close to the time of 1 Thessalonians. Not to give food and fellowship to people who have stopped working and are waiting around for the end times. So this might raise, for us, the larger discussion of what the love of God and the steadfastness of Christ looks like, concretely, in our interpersonal relationships. From this context, it seems, not like indulgence of every behavior. Our questions may revolve more around which behavior(s) would fall into this category, or where to draw the lines.