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New Testament | 2 Thessalonians | Summary

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Summary

  • Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy send their letter to the ekklēsia (church community) at Thessalonica, praising them for their endurance in faith.
  • At the parousia or second coming, Jesus will arrive "with his mighty angels 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" (2 Thessalonians 1:7–8).
  • The Thessalonians should not "be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed" or "deceived" by anyone who teaches that the time has already come.
  • The end will not come until after the "lawless one," who is an ally of Satan, and other evil forces have been destroyed.
  • The letter warns the Thessalonians to avoid believers who are "living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us" (2 Thessalonians 3:6).
  • Paul encourages idle members of the community to work.

Analysis

This letter contains extensive structural similarities to the canonical letter 1 Thessalonians. The general outline of a prescript, thanksgiving, section about the parousia, second thanksgiving, and paraenesis maps almost exactly onto a similar outline of sections in 1 Thessalonians. Admittedly, most ancient letters follow a standard outline, or epistolary form. However, the inclusion of a second thanksgiving is atypical and stands out in both of these letters (cf. 1 Thessalonians 3:9 and 2 Thessalonians 2:13).

The letters also share much of the same vocabulary. Key repeated terms include "persecutions" the Christ-believers face (1 Thessalonians 1:6; 3:3 and 2 Thessalonians 1:4) and the advice to "stand firm" in the face of them (1 Thessalonians 3:8 and 2 Thessalonians 2:15).

However, the view of the parousia in this letter is strikingly different from what Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul seeks to reassure the Thessalonian community that although some of their members have died and the risen Jesus has not yet returned, they should not worry. The expectation behind that consoling message is still that the parousia is imminent.

2 Thessalonians, in contrast, addresses a very different type of problem: apparently, some Thessalonians have become convinced that the parousia already happened. The author needs to remind them that there are certain circumstances that must come to pass first, before the parousia. Most important among these is the destruction of the so-called "lawless one." This figure is not ever mentioned in the letters that scholars accept as authentically Pauline.

Some other features of the letter lead New Testament scholars to suspect pseudepigraphy, or false attribution to another author. Many scholars read a passage such as 2 Thessalonians 3:17 as a heavy-handed attempt to prove the letter is authentic: "I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write." This assertion is demonstrably false (see Romans, for example), but it is the kind of thing an author might say to try to convince readers of his fictional identity.

Similarly, the author cautions his addressees not to be fooled by teachings that do not match his own, even if those teachings arrive in the form of a letter written "as though from us" (2 Thessalonians 2:2). Although Paul frequently mentions rival teachers and rival teachings in his letters, the specific warning against forged letters is unusual and suggests the author of 2 Thessalonians is aware of pseudepigraphic Pauline Letters—presumably including his own.

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