The MOST Theological Collection: Commentary on the Pauline Epistles (The Thought of St. Paul)
"Chapter 3. Second Letter to Thessalonika"
As we mentioned in comments on First Thessalonians, many today deny that Paul wrote Second Thessalonians. There are two kinds of evidence for authorship, internal and external. Internal consists in things said or implied in the work itself; external consists in statements by early writers. There are several statements of early writers, saying that 2 Thessalonians is by Paul: St. Irenaeus (c.140 - c.202) who had listened to St. Polycarp tell his recollections of the preaching of St. John, quotes from both 1 Thessalonians and 2 Thessalonians as Paul's (PG 7.1061 and 1138). Similarly Tertullian (c.160 - 222 or later) and St. Epiphanius (c.315-403) quote both Epistles as Paul's. Some try to disregard all this early evidence by merely pointing to 1 Thessalonians 4:3-18, and claiming that shows Paul expected to be alive at the end. But we saw the passage can very easily be taken as not implying any belief on the part of Paul that he would live to the end.
Paul seems to have written 2 Thessalonians soon after 1 Thessalonians, after hearing that many there were upset, thinking the end was very soon, and even quitting work. Paul writes to correct this false notion, chiefly by pointing out, in chapter 2, that two signs must come before the end -- the antichrist and the great apostasy. But neither was in sight at the time.
Summary of 2 Thessalonians, Chapter 1
Paul and his companions Silvanus and Timothy wish grace and peace to the Thessalonians. We should thank God always for the great growth of your faith and love. We can even boast about you in the other churches. You hold up in all persecutions -- this situation is a sign that a just judgment of God is coming, for justice calls on God to repay those who trouble you, and to give relief to you who are troubled, along with us. He will do this when the Lord Jesus appears from the skies, with the angels or messengers of His power, in a fire that gives punishment to those who do not know God or obey the Gospel. They will pay the due penalty, which is eternal ruin, when He comes to be glorified in His holy ones and to cause wonder to all the faithful. So we always pray that God may judge you worthy of the call to the Church that He has given you, so the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and you in Him.
Comments on Chapter 1
Paul is proud of the way they are holding up under persecution from the Jews. The fact that they suffer thus shows that there must be a just judgment coming, to reward them, to punish the enemies of Christ. Jesus will appear with His angels in a flame of fire to bring eternal ruin to those who persecute His faithful ones.
"His messengers" means His angels -- the Greek word is angeloi. Some today say we are not certain there are angels, or even deny their existence flatly. But it is a basic rule of Scripture study that we should understand the Scriptures as the original readers would have understood -- not reading them as if written by a modern writer. If we read in this way, there is no doubt that the readers, and the early writers of course too, of Scripture, understood that angels are beings distinct from God. Further, Vatican II, On the Church §12, tells us that if the entire Church, people and authorities both, has ever believed a truth (considered it revealed) that belief is infallible. Surely, the whole Church has long believed in angels. So this is an infallible doctrine.
The mention of fire in this passage is, however, a touch of apocalyptic genre, which we explained in commenting on 1 Thessalonians 4:l3-18. We do not mean to deny the Scripture on fire of hell. This refers to something different, the fire of His return.1
We notice too that Paul speaks of the punishment as eternal ruin, that is, it will not end. So Paul does teach the eternity of hell.
Paul also prays that they may continue to be worthy of the call God gave them to full membership in the Church. The mere fact that they have entered does not mean they have it made, are automatically secure forever (Luther's mistake).2 Faith means much more than a confidence that the merits of Christ apply to me.
Summary of 2 Thessalonians, Chapter 2
Paul begs them not to be shaken by any spirit, or word, or letter supposedly from him as if the end were near. It cannot come, he says, unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of sin is revealed. He, the antichrist, will exalt himself over God, or anything that is worshipped. He will even sit in the temple of God to receive worship. Paul tells them he said this to them when he was there, so that they know what is holding back the appearance of this antichrist. The mystery of sin is already working, until the person or thing holding back his appearance is out of the way. Then the lawless one will appear. But Jesus will destroy him with the spirit of His mouth at His coming. The coming of the antichrist will be accompanied by great wonders, through Satan, to deceive those who are on the road to destruction, who did not accept love of truth that would have saved them. Since they did not accept the truth, God lets them be deceived. All who do not believe the truth but consent to wrongdoing will be judged. But Paul thanks God that He has chosen them for salvation in holiness. So he urges them to stand and hold fast to the traditions they had been taught, by his word, or by his letter. He prays that Jesus and the Father may console and strengthen them in all good works.
Comments on Chapter 2
Here Paul gives only two signs of the end. There are others, as we will see presently. The first sign is a great apostasy, a falling away from the faith. It is true that Jesus desired there might be one flock and one shepherd: John 10:16. But He really meant He wanted both Jews and gentiles to be part of the one flock. But at the end there will not be such a picture: Jesus also said (Lk 18:8): "When the Son of Man comes, do you think He will find faith on the earth?" Of course, He had promised the Church will last -- but at the end there will be little left to it, because of the great apostasy. He also said (Mt 24:12): "Because lawlessness (sin) will reach its full measure, the love of the many will grow cold." (This is another instance of the theme of filling up the measure of sins, which we saw in the comments on chapter 2 of 1 Thes). Similarly 2 Timothy 3:1-7 gives a dreadful litany of the vices of men in the last days, and 2 Timothy 4:3-4 says "A time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine; they will accumulate teachers to tickle their itching ears; they will turn from the truth to fables." (Some think this last text is fulfilled today. It surely seems so. However, there is a pattern of multiple fulfillment of prophecies in Scripture -- something can go through more than once.3
The second sign is the man of sin. By the man of lawlessness or sin, Paul means the antichrist, even though he does not use the word. The chief passages on the antichrist are: Mt 24:5 & 11 & 24; Mk 13:22; 1 Jn 2:18-22; 1 Jn 4:3; 1 Jn 7. In some of these texts we find the singular, antichrist, in others the plural, antichrists. In some both are found. This seems to be part of a well established Hebrew pattern in which an individual stands for, and in a sense is even identified with a group -- in this case the group would be all the forces of evil. There are to be lesser false Christs before the end (cf. Mt 24:5 & 11). But before the end will come the great antichrist. The Fathers of the Church sometimes say his time will be three and a half years before the end. That number would be a symbolic one, yet it does seem that the period of his power will be relatively short, as Matthew 24:22 seems to indicate.4
Other signs in Scripture for the end are these:
If we compare Luke 21:24, the similarity of language is remarkable: "Jerusalem will be trodden by the gentiles until the times of the gentiles are fulfilled." We compare these last words with "until the fullness of the gentiles enters," from above. It seems to mean Jerusalem will be a gentile, not a Jewish city, until the times of the gentiles are fulfilled -- probably the period providentially designated for the conversion of the gentiles. We note the language "the fullness of the gentiles enters...the times of the gentiles are fulfilled." Then also the time set by God for the conversion of the Jews would be approaching -- but we remember with Him, one year is as a thousand days, a thousand days as a year.
(2) Daniel 12:7 says: "And when he shall finish (or complete) the scattering of the power of the holy people, all these things will be accomplished." (For this translation, we take Hebrew kalah to mean finish, complete -- a common dictionary meaning. Most versions ignore this, and change the text instead. But the New Revised Standard Version substantially agrees with our translation). So again, we would be led to think the time for conversion of the Jews is near, in the sense indicated. Further, 2 Maccabees 2:4-8 tells how Jeremiah hid the ark of the covenant, and when his followers tried to find it, said it would be hidden until God would again gather together His people. But this item is unclear, since verse 1 of the same chapter says: "You will find it in the records" that Jeremiah did this. Hence inspiration does not guarantee that Jeremiah did it, only that the "records" say it.5
(3) The return of Elijah the prophet: Sirach 48:10. Malachi 3:23-24: "Lo I will send you Elijah the prophet before the day of the Lord comes...to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so I may not come and strike the land with doom."6
(4) Some think that Enoch will also return, for Genesis 5:24 says that he "walked with God, and he was not here any longer, for God took him." See also Hebrews 11:5. But neither text says he will return. Some have speculated he will be one of the two witnesses mentioned in Rev (Apoc) 11:3-13, but there is no proof of this, and many suggest other names for the two witnesses, e.g., Peter and Paul. Others think they are Moses and Elijah. The Fathers generally think the two are Elijah and Enoch.
(5) It is possible that Joel 3:1-5 refers to the end. It speaks of old men dreaming dreams and young men seeing visions before the day of the Lord. However St. Peter took it to refer to the first Pentecost, in Acts 2:17-21. But we could also have here another case of multiple fulfillment of prophecies, of which we spoke above in commenting on the great apostasy.
(6) Matthew 24 has two chief sets of signs. First, in verses 6-8: "You will hear of wars and reports of wars. Do not be disturbed. These things must happen, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be pestilences and earthquakes. These are the beginnings of the birthpangs." Clearly, these signs are quite vague, and in a way have happened in every century. But in 24:29: "Right after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be moved." There are two great difficulties in interpreting this verse: First, most of it is a quotation from Isaiah 13:9-10. But Isaiah is merely foretelling the fall of Babylon. Americans tend to exaggerate, Hebrews did more of it, and a poet-prophet like Isaiah could go still farther. We see similar strong imagery in Isaiah 34:4, which seems to mean God's judgment on Edom, and in Ezekiel 32:7-8, which seems to refer to the judgment on Egypt. Secondly, this is apocalyptic imagery, which most likely needs to be reduced to find the sober content.
(7) Matthew 24:4: "And this Gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world, for a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come."
After reviewing these signs, we can easily agree with St. Paul that the end will come like a thief in the night, for most of these signs are rather vague, except the few that seem to refer to the period just before the end -- namely, the return of Elijah and the conversion of the Jews.
Mark 13:32 reports Jesus Himself as saying: "About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." The Fathers of the Church in the first centuries wrestled mightily with this text. For a long time we find two kinds of statements by many of them: one set says He really did not know; the other set insists that He did know. Both types of statements commonly are found in the same Father. The difficulty was finally resolved by Eulogius and Pope St. Gregory the Great (DS 474-76): "He knew it in His humanity, but not from His humanity." That is, the fact registered on His human mind, but the information did not come from His humanity.7
Paul also says that God will send the working of error to those who have not believed. Is this a positive blinding -- which would be just -- or is it merely that the laws built into the nature of things automatically bring about that blinding, in line with the words of St. Augustine (Confessions 1.12): "You have ordered it, and it is true: Every disordered soul is its own penalty?" For a further explanation of the process, see this author's book Our Father's Plan.8
Summary of 2 Thessalonians, Chapter 3
Paul asks their prayers for the spread of the Gospel. He tells them that since God is faithful to His promises and covenant, He will confirm them in the faith.
He commands them to avoid close association -- not all association -- with any Christian who does not live as he should. As part of this, he tells them to imitate him in working for their food. If someone does not want to work, he should not eat. But even if they avoid close association, it is not to be permanent, nor should they consider him an enemy: it is to bring him to his senses.
Finally, Paul writes a bit in his own hand -- he had been dictating the letter it seems.
Comments on Chapter 3
We notice Paul repeats the fact that since God is faithful to His promises, He will offer them the grace of perseverance.
He orders them to avoid a Christian who lives immorally. But we notice he speaks of close association -- he does not mean to drop all association. Really, this is a matter of prudential handling, and may need to be adjusted to different concrete situations, e.g., if a son or daughter enters an invalid marriage -- how should one handle him or her? Surely there must be some restraint, to give a continuing signal that the child is in sin. Thus one avoids the close association that would otherwise have been present. But not all association need be avoided. And it is for the purpose of bringing the erring one to his/her senses. Some are vehement in saying no parent may go to such a wedding. Others advise a parent to go (while making clear that the child is in the wrong), for to break then may be an irreparable break, and remove chances for later conversion.
Since some of the Thessalonians have been quitting work, expecting the end, Paul tells them to get to work. If someone does not work, he should not eat. Clearly Paul would not disapprove of what is called Workfare, the requirement that someone on relief should work if possible.