Between the dates of the two epistles to the Thessalonians there could have been an interval of no great duration, both having been written during the apostle's second missionary journey; for the tide of persecution, which had run so strong at Thessalonica, had not yet turned (2 Thess. 1:5-7); and Silvanus, or Silas, who was still with Paul (2 Thess. 1:1), is not mentioned as working in his company during any part of his third missionary tour.
In the first epistle to the Thessalonians the apostle had corrected an error into which they had fallen regarding the sleeping saints. In this letter he corrects a mistake which was operating prejudicially on those then alive. They thought the day of the Lord* was present (even enesteke), not merely "at hand," as the Authorized Version renders it. (2 Thess. 2:2.) He meets this error, first by showing in chapter 1 that could not be the case, for they were still upon earth; and, secondly, by reminding them, in chapter 2, of the apostasy, which must be developed ere that day can come.
*The day of the "Lord" is the right reading, not the day of "Christ." It is called the day of Christ (Phil. 1:6, 10; Phil. 2:16) where it especially concerns the saints, Here it is the day of the "Lord," because it concerns the world.
Commencing with a recognition of their continued faithfulness to the truth, he tells them the effect that had on his soul. He could give thanks for them; for their faith grew exceedingly, and the love of every one of them towards each other abounded, so that he could boast of them in the churches of God for their patience and faith in all their persecutions and tribulations which they endured. (3, 4.) Their work of faith, their labour of love, their patience of hope, he had written of on the former occasion with commendation; here he can acknowledge the continued growth of their faith, the undiminished fervour of their love, and their patience and faith in all that they endured. It may have been, as has been suggested, that their patience of hope was not so marked a feature as it once had been. His desire about it, expressed in 2 Thess. 3:5, would seem to confirm that. But if that was the case, the love of God at all events had not cooled towards them. This letter was a proof of it, and was surely calculated to strengthen, as probably was needed, that patience of hope in the Lord Jesus which formerly had so characterized the Thessalonian assembly.
What power the truth had over these saints! They could contrast their former condition when idolaters with their present circumstances as Christians. Then, as regards the world, perhaps it had been well with them; certainly persecution they had not known, and tribulation, which now harassed them, had not been their lot. Why not give up Christianity, and enjoy present ease and freedom from persecution? Such may have been, to some doubtless it was, the burden of the siren voice of the tempter. But none of them had listened to it. In an unbroken phalanx they maintained a front towards the enemy. He had not succeeded in detaching one of these simple but real souls from Christian ground, and from open and unflinching profession of the truth. "The love of each one of them toward the other abounded." A band of men, as firm through grace as a rock, had resisted all the efforts of Satan to penetrate their line of defence. No wonder that Paul gloried in them in the churches of God. It was a spectacle of no common kind; rare probably then, but how much rarer now!
Their present condition was patent to all. What did it portend? God, whatever men might be, was righteous. Their heathen friends might point to their sufferings as proof of the righteous displeasure of the gods whose altars they had forsaken, and whose worship they condemned; and they might taunt them with the apathy of their God to interpose on their behalf. The apostle drew from their sufferings a very different conclusion, and here presented it to them. Their sufferings proved that they were God's people, and that rest would be their portion, with Paul and the others of God's saints then on earth, when divine judgment from heaven should overtake the ungodly in the world. So before enlarging on the signs which must precede the day of the Lord, he encouraged them with the assurance that it had not then come. If that day had really come, they would not have been still upon earth. Would Paul and the other faithful workers for Christ be involved in a judgment, which is to overtake those who have rejected God's testimony concerning His Son? Impossible, all will at once exclaim. The faithful when that day comes will be at rest. Hence the very sufferings of these saints were a proof that divine wrath would not overtake them. The day of the Lord is no myth. It will come, and judgment, unsparing judgment, will characterize it; but the judgment will be inflicted on the enemies of God, and not on His people. They knew whose they were. Thus, from their sufferings the apostle draws for them consolation of the most cheering kind; for their God was a God who judgeth righteously, and therefore would recompense tribulation to them that troubled them, and rest to His faithful though then persecuted saints, "when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ." (8.)
Two classes of ungodly ones are here described; first, Gentiles who have not been evangelized; and next, those who, professedly God's people, have rejected the gospel of His grace. Suffering as they were from Jews and Gentiles, the apostle reminds them that both these classes will be objects of divine displeasure, and that for ever, being punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power, when He shall come to be glorified in His saints, and to be wondered at in all them that have believed, amongst whom these saints were reckoned, because they had believed Paul's testimony. With that hope in prospect the apostle prays that God would count them worthy of that calling, and fulfil all the good pleasure of His goodness, and the work of faith with power, that the name of the Lord Jesus Christ might be glorified in them by the constancy of their faith, and they in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
How the snare of the fowler was broken! Persecuting the saints because they were faithful, the devil attempted to ensnare them by the thought that they were involved in the fearful troubles of the day of the Lord, whereas their very sufferings were a witness to the contrary, and a proof, than which none could be stronger, that the day had not dawned on the earth. The effect of imbibing that error would be seen in carelessness of walk, of which some had already given proof by ceasing to work for their living, and casting themselves on the saints for support. (2 Thess. 3:11.) The watchful eye of the apostle detected, and pointed out the incoming of this evil; and knowing how deceitful the heart of man is, after setting them free from all fear that the day had come, or would come and involve Christians in the outpouring of the divine wrath, he prays for them to be kept on the road to the end. (2 Thess. 1:11, 12.)
After this he enters on the subject of the apostasy, which must precede the day of which he had been writing. So he entreats them, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by their gathering together unto Him, of which He had written unto them in the previous letter (1 Thess. 4:14-17), not to be shaken in mind, or to be troubled by spirit (i.e. a pretended revelation by the Holy Ghost), by word or by letter as from Paul, that the day of the Lord was present. One learns how the hope of the rapture is a safeguard from the mistake into which they had fallen. But he does not rest contented with simply correcting it; he goes on to remind them, and thereby to instruct us, as to the characteristic features of the antichrist, who will be the soul of the apostasy on earth. There will be a man, an instrument of Satan, whom Paul here styles "the man of sin," "the son of perdition," and "the wicked," or rather "lawless one," who must be revealed ere the day of the Lord can come. Opposing and exalting himself against all that is called God, or that is worshipped, he will sit in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God; and energized by Satan with all power, and signs, and lying wonders, he will effectually deceive those who perish, because they received not the love of the truth that they might be saved. This is the antichrist of whom John writes in his epistle (1 John 2:22), and describes at length in the Revelation. (Rev. 13:11-17.) Of this same person Isaiah (Isa. 30:33), Daniel (Dan. 11:36-40), and Zechariah (Zech. 11:15-17) had previously written; and to him the Lord Jesus Christ referred. (John 5:43.) The prophets and the Lord viewed him in his relation to Israel; for he will be their king, and will be received by the ungodly part of them as their long-expected Messiah. By John and by Paul he is viewed in his relation to Christendom; for he will be concerned with both. As king of the Jews he will be reigning outside the bounds of the Latin Empire, that part of the old Roman Empire within which the imperial power will again for a time as such have sway.* But though outside the limits of the old Latin Empire, he will be the instrument for upholding over the Jews as a protection the sheltering power of the beast (Rev. 13:1-10), who will be the political head of the revived Roman Empire, and also its last ruler. In Christendom he will appear as the false prophet, the leader of the revolt against all that men have venerated or worshipped, setting up the image of the beast in the temple at Jerusalem for all to worship. (Dan. 9:27; Dan. 12:11; Matt. 24:15; Mark 13:14.)
*The reader may remember that the revived Latin Empire will consist of the beast and the ten horns. Antichrist, the two-horned beast, is distinct from these, his kingdom being really outside that revived empire.
It is of this one, the false prophet, that Paul writes to the Thessalonians, and not of the first beast; for he will work miracles by Satanic power, which the political head of the empire will not do. As the anti-christ he will personify Christ. So he will turn men's eyes to one greater than himself, as the Lord on earth spoke of the Father; and will work miracles in support of his teaching, as the Lord Jesus did. Such is the one who is to come, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of His mouth, and destroy with the brightness of His coming. Clearly, then, till this one appears the day of the Lord cannot come. He had not appeared when Paul wrote. He has not appeared yet, so that day is still future.
But how is it that nearly 2000 years have rolled by, and still the appearance of antichrist is an event to be awaited? The mystery of iniquity, or lawlessness, was working when Paul wrote. Why has the lawless one, by whom it will be brought to a head, been so long in coming? The Thessalonians knew; for Paul had evidently told them. (v. 6.) But by none of them, as far as we know, has that knowledge been handed down. Yet we may surely understand what it is of which he writes. He writes of a power (to katechon) "what withholdeth," and of a person (ho katechon) "he who letteth." We believe the power and the person here spoken of are one and the same - the Holy Ghost, by whose continued presence in the assembly of God the development of Satan's plans are delayed. But taken out of the way as He will be, when He goes with the Church at the rapture of the saints, God will cease for a time to dwell on earth, to hinder by His presence the full power of Satan being displayed. The Church must be taken out of this scene of judgment, as the Lord promised the Philadelphian saints ("I will keep thee out of (ek) the hour of temptation," Rev. 3:10), ere the antichrist can openly display himself as the tool of the enemy.
The day of the Lord, then, will be a day of judgment, in which those will be involved whom antichrist has deceived, and willingly deceived. But what were those really to whom Paul wrote? They were beloved of the Lord, chosen by God from the beginning to salvation by sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth, and called by the gospel to the obtaining the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thess. 2:13, 14.) How marked is the difference between them and those in Christendom who will be involved in the coming judgment, as the contrast between verses 10-12 and 13, 14 shows. Could the beloved of the Lord be objects of His unsparing judgment? The refutation of the error was complete. Exhortations only were wanting, and such he gives them.
They were to stand fast and hold the traditions (paradoseis) which they had been taught, whether by word or by his epistle. It was apostolic teaching, derived direct from the apostle, whether orally or in writing, which they were to hold. Men in later years have invented traditions about that which the Church held, or taught. It was not of such that Paul wrote. The traditions to which he points them are the truths, the teaching he had delivered to them. (2 Thess. 3:6.) An instance of such we have in 1 Cor. 11. He delivered (paredoka) to them that which he had received of the Lord. The institution of the supper, as there set forth, was a tradition the Corinthians received from the apostle. The injunction too that no one should give way to idleness, instead of supporting himself, was a tradition the Thessalonians had already received. Such were apostolic traditions. Such they were to keep. Besides that, he desired on their behalf an interest in himself and his work, which would be evidenced by prayer for him; and that they should be led into the love of God, so needful and helpful in times of trouble (Jude 20), and into the patience of Christ, they waiting on earth for that for which He was waiting in heaven.
Next brethren walking disorderly are noticed. Such were those who walked not after the tradition received from Paul. Insubjection to apostolic precepts characterizes such; illustrated in this assembly by those who cast themselves on the bounty of their brethren, instead of labouring for their own support. From such he commands the saints to withdraw. Such too he commanded to cease from their ways. (2 Thess. 3:6, 12.) Putting out was not here called for. Withdrawal from them was the suited action which he both inculcated, and would have enforced. Would any among them refuse compliance with the apostle's commands and exhortations (2 Thess. 3:14), with such an one they were not to keep company, but were to mark him that he might be ashamed, and an admonishment administered to him as a brother would be the suited treatment for such a character in their midst. We should observe that the treatment prescribed in verse 14 would apply both to the one who walked disorderly, and to any who did not withdraw from him as well. Then closing with prayer that they might have peace always in every way the gift of the Lord of peace, he authenticates this epistle by his salutation, the token by which they would know each one of his letters. Was the token the formula, "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all," written with his own hand? With this all his epistles are marked, either amplified, as in 2 Cor. 13:14, or contracted, as in Heb. 13:25; and during his life no other writer in the New Testament closed his communications in the same way. It had been needful to authenticate his writings (2 Thess. 2:2), so he did it with his own hand. C. E. Stuart.