Both Brent and I have offered some ideas in previous posts concerning interpretations of the Apostle Paul’s remarks in Second Thessalonians two. Brent noted that the passage is among the most difficult scriptures to define and that it is also in that group of the most widely misused portions of the scriptures. I agree. Books have been written with theories hinging upon this single short letter. It possesses all the elements necessary to allow people to be carried off into confusing and contradictory multiple interpretations. It speaks to end times and to the second coming of Christ; and that puts it in the strict company of Daniel, Zechariah, Revelation and other portions of the scriptures.
But, the question still begs an answer: does it have to be so obscure? Is it in some way understandable or is God serving up confusion? I suggest that we should be able to agree on one thing: the understanding of this passage does not need to affect our salvation. If it does that, we would then be in the same mess in which some of the Christians in Thessalonica found themselves.
When you look beyond what we will not ever be able to define, the end point of the Apostle’s instruction to the church there was that they should not allow themselves to be distracted from what God had already given them. God neither changes, nor offers multiple options. He is not a trickster.
To move in the direction of identifying the central point behind the passage, let’s take a few clues using a tried and true standard — answering the applicable questions of the journalistic canon.
Who composed the letter and to whom it was written are both clearly stated. The Apostle Paul was the writer, and the letter was posted to the Christians assembled in Thessalonica. Through time it has gained a much wider study audience, but its intent was to be understood immediately by the Christians there. As has been noted by one of the members here during our study — when we read the letters in the New Testament “we are reading someone else’s mail.” We do well to remember that.
What occasioned its dispatch?
There were certain questions that had arisen within the assembly and some doctrines had been brought in from outsiders that were troubling them. The question causing the greatest difficulty – had what Paul taught as “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together to Him” already begun to unfold during the lifetimes of the Christians of that time? Was the “end” already happening or beginning around them?
When did the issue occur and when did the events take place?
Things had been brewing since the beginnings of the church there. Paul had begun addressing some of these issues in his first letter, which had been posted shortly after the church had been established by him, Silas, and Timothy, all of which occurred sometime around or just following the mid first century (1 Th. 4:13 – 5:10, 11).
How did the problem arise?
Some teachers were teaching new things. Paul in his letters was responding to some news he had received that they were being taught about the disposition of those who had died, and following that, teaching the Day of the Lord was already upon them. Apparently there was some concern by members that these loved ones who were already dead were not a part of the second coming (1 Th. 4:15 — 17, and 2 Th. 2:1, 2). How did the Apostle handle this? How did he fashion his argument and teach the truth so as to oppose these doctrines? Paul was direct and simple. He explained what they had already been taught; how the resurrection on the Last Day would proceed. It would, of course, center upon the coming of Christ, with that yet in the future. He urged them to be resolute.
He prophesied more in the second letter that some events would have to have occurred and some markers already passed before “the Day of the Lord” could ever begin to unfold in answer to the second issue. This is where the theories and comments mostly center. But we are too far removed and the information is sketchy and impossible to nail down. Paul however, countered some of the false notions by reminding them that they would be raised and gathered together with those already gone; and they would all be caught up in the air at the Last Day; and that they would all be together forever in Christ.
To the other issues: Without Christ’s return you cannot have a final “Day of the Lord” or “the Coming of Christ.” The heart of the false teaching was that the “The Day of the Lord had come” that it had already commenced while these folks were living. If that had been true, then the poor Thessalonians must have missed something or the facts had changed. Had the resurrection begun without them? Had Christ come and gone and forgotten them, and had things already been resolved passing some of them by? Had Paul, Silas, and Timothy taught them incorrectly?
This would certainly be confusing if you bought into it, and it could have dashed their faith. That would mean they and their dead loved ones had been left behind or they had been misled. If you were alive, that meant you had been taught bogus information; or worse, your religion was vain, and it was all just a waste of time. If you were dead, it meant you were lost or in some in between state. Further, these things came with some credentials claiming Paul’s or some other apostolic authority. It may have been that the “new” teachers were making a claim to be teaching through Paul, suggesting, like the Bibles of today, a revised version. But no apostle could or ever would abrogate his authority or could ever give his duties over to others. Paul even said they should not pay attention to these things even if they were being offered as if coming from him.
As these folks were teaching that the Day of the Lord had already been initiated (1 Th. 4:16 – 18, and 2 Th. 5:10), and that was contrary to what Paul had taught; therefore this notion was at the bottom of it all. Paul’s doctrine then must have been in need of an upgrade, and the other fellow’s (those “false apostles”) must have been the real deal. What I infer from those considerations is that the false teachers were letting everyone who would listen to them know that the Apostle Paul’s doctrine had been superseded or was now “found” to be somehow wrong and a correction was being issued. They were right and he had been mistaken, and they (and not him) had been sent out with the proper version of things. How clever.
To oppose this Paul cautioned the Thessalonian saints not to allow themselves to be led away or confused by uninspired teachers, claiming any form of inspiration, coming around in his absence teaching new things. He urged them to be calm, steadfast and to recall what they had been taught and had already believed, and by whom they had been taught, all of which had been accompanied with signs and wonders done in their presence, while they had been together with Paul and the other disciples working with him (1 Th. 5: 1, 2 and 2 Th. 2:5).
Why did Paul feel compelled to address these things?
He taught against them because they were destructive and contrary to the truth, and distracted people from the truth. It could prevent them from seeking out and performing God’s will. It could be found to overthrow their hope of salvation in Christ. These sought to overturn the people’s faith and replace it with a false faith based on their own teaching and doctrine instead of on the inspired Word of God. There is no salvation in such things; not then and not now. They were also branding the changes with what they claimed to be the authority of Paul. The apostles were the chosen vessels of Christ; and they did nothing without the full assurance of heaven. They did not teach what they chose, and it did not change once it was put out. It is not subject to revision.
Salvation must hinge on making godly and righteous choices. They could not, and we cannot accept and adhere to spurious doctrines or believe in false reports handed off as the truth and still be counted among the righteous. These false teachings were the opposite of the apostle’s doctrine and therefore were opposed to the Word of God. To allow things to continue without being countered would have sanctioned false teachers to sow discord and increase the destructiveness of what was already being done. It would also have opened the door to more heresy. And false teaching, no matter how minor, always centers upon men, can only cause destruction, and would (and will) result in a loss of souls. God demands that we follow his instructions exclusively — not anyone else’s. And his instructions are not subject to updates (that is the great fallacy inherent in Catholicism). To view it elsewise is contrary to the scriptures and would result in following after false gods.
We, as said, already know that we can never satisfy everyone by identifying the exact details, as to whether Paul was prophesying of the Roman Catholic world of Popes or of Emperors, or perhaps of other forgotten and long lost things. But then we don’t need to. All we need to see is the forest.
If the Thessalonians accepted anything other than “what (they had already) received” they would be lost. If you or I accept anything other than what we have received the same applies. We must pay attention to what has been given to us, and by whom it has been given, received from the apostles (which is the gospel of Christ, offered only once); and we should leave the rest for the lost to fret over to their eventual destruction. No other source material, no other teaching matters. We must hold to the one and reject all comers. To do otherwise would be to put our souls in jeopardy.
What exactly is different then than now?
“And for this reason God will send them strong delusion that they should believe the lie that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
“But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth, to which He called you by our gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
“Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle. Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and our God and Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting consolation and good hope by grace comfort your hearts and establish you in every good word and work.” (NKJV)