The Global Message of 2 Thessalonians
The global message of Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians is that amid suffering, believers must remember the sovereign grace that has rescued them in Jesus Christ. Everything in 2 Thessalonians contributes to these twin themes of endurance through suffering and the eternal scope of divine grace.
Second Thessalonians and Redemptive History
Second Thessalonians does not contain any explicit quotations from the Old Testament. Yet, as is true of all Paul’s letters, it uses Old Testament language and themes throughout. Even such common New Testament words as “grace,” “peace,” and “Christ” cannot be properly understood apart from the Old Testament. Ideas such as “the righteous judgment of God” (2 Thess. 1:5), “the kingdom of God” (1:5), and “the firstfruits” (2:13) also have their roots in the Old Testament.
As is the case with all New Testament books, 2 Thessalonians reflects on who Christ is and how his coming has affected human history (2 Thess. 1:5–7; 2:1–2, 13). Paul directs his readers to the future and to the past, reminding them of how these two time-horizons affect the present.
The future. As was true of 1 Thessalonians, the second coming of Christ is of particular importance in 2 Thessalonians. Again Paul is lifting his readers’ eyes to the future horizon when their present suffering will come to an end. God will “grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven” (2 Thess. 1:7). Jesus will be worshiped and praised in that day, and his enemies will suffer the horrific fate of righteous condemnation before God (1:5–12).
The past. Yet as in 1 Thessalonians, it is not only the future that is in view. Paul directs his readers also to eternity past. He reminds them that “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved” (2 Thess. 2:13). God’s steadfast love for his people stretches back to even before the dawn of time (see also Eph. 1:4–5, 11). We therefore have “eternal comfort and good hope through grace” (2 Thess. 2:16).
The present. All of this affects the way believers live in the present. If we have been chosen by undeserved grace, and if we are destined to be vindicated gloriously when Jesus comes again, then we are strengthened to endure adversity (2 Thess. 1:4). We stand fast against the Evil One (2:15; 3:3). We persist in well-doing (1:11; 3:13).
Universal Themes in 2 Thessalonians
Justice at Christ’s return. As in his previous letter to the Thessalonians, Paul speaks throughout this letter of the second coming of Jesus. In 2 Thessalonians, however, the focus is specifically on the judgment of God’s enemies that will take place on that day. This emphasis is perhaps because of the persecution the Thessalonian believers were experiencing (2 Thess. 1:4–5; note also Acts 17:1–9). Paul says therefore that Jesus will appear “in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction” (2 Thess. 1:8–9). This cosmic judgment will extend to every corner of creation, including all people groups and tribes who have not bowed the knee to Jesus Christ.
Opposition to Christ. The Old Testament predicted final opposition to God and God’s people, and in chapter 2 of 2 Thessalonians Paul indicates that this opposition has already begun (2 Thess. 2:1–12; and note 2:3–4, with reference to Dan. 11:31, 36). “The mystery of lawlessness is already at work” (2 Thess. 2:7). Believers around the world face a fierce enemy, Satan himself (2:9). Satan stirs up unbelievers to join him in his hostility toward us. Even the work of Satan, however, is ultimately under the sovereign hand of God (2:11; see also Job 1:21–22; 2:10; Acts 2:23). Amid such hostility believers are called to “stand firm and hold to the traditions” that have been handed down to them through the Bible and those who faithfully teach it (2 Thess. 2:15).
Warning against laziness. The third chapter of 2 Thessalonians contains many exhortations but the central theme is that of working diligently for the Lord. Paul says he has heard that some of the Thessalonians are proving slack in their efforts (2 Thess. 3:11). Perhaps this was because of mistaken understandings about the timing of the day of the Lord (2:1–2). The Thessalonians are commanded to stay away from those who are idle (3:6). Instead, they should imitate the intense efforts of Paul and his companions (3:7–8). Paul’s exhortations land with force on the global church today as there is much need that we “not grow weary in doing good” (3:13) in light of the staggering needs around the world. One thinks not only of the fundamental need for all people everywhere to hear the good news of the gospel, but also of all kinds of earthly needs, such as basic human rights and the kind of legislation that supports such rights.
The Global Message of 2 Thessalonians for Today
Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians delivers strong medicine for the global church today. Never before in world history has the church been as widely persecuted for its faith in Christ. When Paul speaks to the Thessalonians of “the afflictions that you are enduring” (2 Thess. 1:4), he is describing an experience familiar to many Christians around the world today. Even where persecution is not carried out publicly or systemically, it is the universal experience of faithful believers, as Jesus said, that “you will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Matt. 10:22).
Yet whatever kind of hostility Christians are enduring, the great promises of the gospel of grace hold true and provide solid footing. God has chosen us through a definitive act of cleansing by the Holy Spirit (2 Thess. 2:13). He has summoned us to himself through the gospel, leading us ultimately into the very glory of Jesus himself (2:14). God “loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace” (2:16).
As believers around the world find themselves embroiled in conflict due to their faith, whether locally or all the way up to nationally, we can take heart at the great promises of the gospel. In the midst of battles for human rights, the sanctity of life, human dignity, and for ending the many deplorable modern-day forms of slavery, we press on with hope. For although “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work” and “the activity of Satan” seems overwhelming, “Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing” the hostile forces of hell that spur on the earthly evils we see all around us (2 Thess. 2:7–9).