Lesson 4 of 6
In Progress

Introductory Issues in 2 Thessalonians


The structure of 2 Thessalonians and the topics it addresses closely resemble the structure and topics of 1 Thessalonians, yet the two books appear to speak to two starkly different sets of circumstances, especially as they address believers’ outlooks on the return of Christ. Some interpreters, therefore, conclude that Paul (or one of his associates, Silvanus or Timothy) recalled 1 Thessalonians when composing this letter. This position supposes that Paul deliberately mimicked the format of the earlier letter as he wrote to address changes that had suddenly come upon the Thessalonian Christians, caused by an intensification of persecution or perhaps by misunderstandings of his previous teachings. Other interpreters, however, consider the two letters’ perspectives on “the day of the Lord” to be so radically different that they must have come from different generations. This would suggest that someone, writing after Paul’s death, imitated the style of 1 Thessalonians to speak to a new state of affairs in Thessalonica or even elsewhere, using the reputation of the Thessalonian community and Paul’s original letter to them as a kind of test case. That unknown later author, this position holds, wove a Pauline perspective into the letter, drawing upon the weight of Paul’s authority and renown. New Testament scholars are deeply divided over this issue and whether a later author might have been deceptively writing in Paul’s name or candidly addressing his audience in a way that merely claimed his words were continuous with Paul’s legacy. Another possibility, although supported by just a small number of interpreters, is that 2 Thessalonians was actually written prior to 1 Thessalonians. Because of scholars’ disagreements about how to relate this book to 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians belongs among the “disputed” letters attributed to Paul. Those who conclude that Paul or one of his contemporary associates wrote 2 Thessalonians point to verses that express anxiety about letters that falsely claim to be from Paul (2:2; 3:17). Why would anyone besides Paul write such things unless in an effort to deceive readers? Those who propose that 2 Thessalonians comes from someone writing a generation after Paul emphasize the differences between the letters’ literary styles and theological outlooks. The question of who wrote 2 Thessalonians resists an easy answer. As with all of the disputed epistles, no single piece of evidence is decisive; readers must carefully interpret the entire letter before they can consider the data and reach a conclusion, although it’s important to remember that the question of Who wrote 2 Thessalonians? resists easy answers.

A harsh and vindictive letter? 

A comparison of the two letters may suggest that 2 Thessalonians lacks the pastoral warmth that so pervades 1 Thessalonians. Some interpreters take this as one among several indications that 2 Thessalonians comes from a later generation, written by someone other than Paul. None of the undisputed Pauline epistles makes promises about opponents facing divine retribution as a means of reassuring beleaguered believers. Yet it may be the case that Paul considers the Thessalonians’ circumstances to be so dire as to warrant such language. In any case, the book’s tone presses the question of how the gospel leads believers to regard those who are outside of their fellowship. Even though this letter may be less tender than 1 Thessalonians, and no matter who wrote it, it remains loaded with concern for its audience. Numerous prayers, encouragements, and benedictions (1:1-4; 2:13-17; 3:5, 16-18) convey a pastoral perspective.

Identities of “the lawless one” and “what is now restraining him” 

The description of apostasy, lawlessness, and deception that must assail the world before Jesus Christ returns (2:3-10) has confused interpreters since ancient times. The letter reads as if its original audience might have understood who or what are the forces mentioned in this passage, as if they were active participants in the sociopolitical landscape of the first century; if so, their exact identities are no longer apparent. In any case, the brevity and incoherence of the passage should be an encouragement not to treat it as a roadmap or codebook for discerning the precise conditions that will announce Christ’s return.

The relationship between 2 Thessalonians and 1 Thessalonians

Despite differences in the vocabulary they use, the two letters speak in similar voices, as if one imitates the other’s style and wording. For example, each begins and ends with an almost identical sentence (1 Thessalonians 1:1; 5:28; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-2; 3:18), each contains a long statement giving thanks to God for the Thessalonians’ reputation for persevering in faith and love despite persecution (1 Thessalonians 1:2-10; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12), and each includes an appeal for the Lord to strengthen the hearts of the addressees (1 Thessalonians 3:13; 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17). The two letters also speak to the same themes, although from differing perspectives and with different rhetoric. For example, both speak about dealing with troublemakers within the community of faith, with 1 Thessalonians briefly calling for people to admonish “idlers” who create disorder (5:14). By contrast, a comparatively long portion of 2 Thessalonians rails against “believers who are living in idleness” and calls on other Christians to shun such people on account of their disruptive behavior (3:6-15). The complex relationship between the two letters makes it all the more important and interesting to read them in light of each other and to consider their distinctive contributions.

Waiting for the coming day of the Lord

First Thessalonians tells its readers that Jesus’ return is imminent, but will nevertheless come with an element of surprise, “like a thief in the night.” Second Thessalonians 2:1-12 offers a substantially different outlook. It tempers any expectation of immediacy. The letter counsels against speculation “to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here” (2:2) or that this day is in the process of manifesting itself. Chapter 2 also deemphasizes the element of surprise by suggesting that a sequence of calamitous events (rebellion, the emergence of “the lawless one,” and assaults on the truth) must precede the coming of Jesus Christ. These teachings aim to curb readers’ strong, reckless enthusiasm about Jesus’ return. Given the audience’s experiences of persecution, it is easy to imagine how people might be especially eager. They are told, however, that more distress is yet to come.

Reading letters whose authorship Is disputed

Several letters in the New Testament attribute themselves to the Apostle Paul, but scholars have identified reasons why they might have been written by other people who wrote in Paul’s name (Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, and Titus). There are similar disputes about authorship concerning the books of James, 1-2 Peter, and Jude. The various debates about all of those writings rely on complicated hypotheses that examine the language, rhetorical style, and theological perspectives on display in the books. For the most part, the debates center around questions of where each book might have come from and what circumstances surrounded its composition. Debates about a book’s authorship are not the same thing as debates over whether the messages and instructions contained in a book are worth reading. In other words, people of good faith can disagree about who wrote a letter, even as they can decide that we simply cannot know who wrote a book (as is clearly the case with the Gospels, the book of Hebrews, and most of the Old Testament). Disputing the authorship of a book is different from disputing its authority. If someone suspects that Paul did not write 2 Thessalonians, that does not mean that they want the book removed from the Bible. Consider the debates about authorship as a reminder that the early decades of the church were a time of lively theological reflection and self-definition involving many voices. The debates remind us that not every biblical book says the same thing or inhabits the exact same theological outlook as other books. What makes the Bible valuable, instructive, and finally authoritative for Christian faith and life is not where it came from; rather, it resides in what the Bible says and what happens when people read it together.