Sunday, January 31, 2010

2 Thessalonians – “As I Was Saying, and I Repeat”

We’re all familiar, I think, with the notion of re-work. Especially in business circles, this phenomenon drives normally sane people into fits of despair, or has the potential to. Especially around the house too, it troubles us. It’s like those times when we’ve done a load of washing and then we’ve forgotten to hang it out. By the time we get to it the next morning it’s gotten a bit smelly in the bowl and we need to start all over again. Re-work costs us individually on a very significant scale and nationally in the order of billions of dollars per year.

The same principle is said to hold for 2 Thessalonians. The church at Thessalonica had attentively catered for many of the issues Paul raised in his first letter. Yet, there were at least two issues they still required reminders on.

These two subjects were: 1) the last things—the end times; and 2) the approach required for those who were “idle”—a growing and distractive concern that Paul alluded to in his first letter. A third theme is common to both 1 and 2 Thessalonians, a theme common to all the epistles, and beyond to the faith itself; that of persecution—and how to deal with it.

It is likely that Paul followed up his first letter with the second only a few weeks (or at most, months) apart while he was still in Corinth with Timothy and Silas (Acts 18f).

This article seeks to explore the first two subjects raised above, even in context together, as well as discussing generally the matter of re-work and the necessity to repeat and reinforce those important things in life, especially in clearing up confusion and misunderstandings common in communication.

The Last Things

Of all the churches Paul evangelised with, the church at Thessalonica was most easily and fervently won to the subject of the ‘day of the Lord.’ This is most probably in response to Paul’s initial teaching in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11, due to the believers of that church’s concern about the fate of their recently deceased. It appears there were the usual sorts of rumours and innuendo rife—and extrapolated assumptions—that sent some of the influential believers there into a tailspin concerning what they felt was a rapidly approaching period of ‘end times.’

Yet, if we were to consider living in 50 C.E. (a.k.a. “A.D. 50”) and so soon—only twenty years—after Christ was crucified, we too might be sorely tempted to believe his second return was rapidly imminent. It’s easy for us, 1,960 years on, to scoff at these early believers’ wrong conception of Paul’s preaching and teaching.

Notwithstanding, Paul systematically defuses the tension with a reasoned argument of how the last things will occur (2:1-17). Certain things must take place and they had not begun yet. And even though Paul does them the courtesy of explaining what is yet to come in great detail it’s really not the point as far as Paul’s agenda is concerned.

He’s much more focused on this next issue—that of idle trouble-making within the church. Always seeking to build up the church in the relevancies of the day, Paul doesn’t really want to tackle things that are taking the church off course, but he does (in the above way) which is a credit to his patience and compassion for the fledgling church.

How Paul tends to the “re-work” in the midst of his ministry is an inspiration to us in how to quietly and patiently go about righting wrongs; in love, God’s grace and his abiding hope.

But now—and not before time—onto the next, most important issue:

Advice Given Regarding the Idle

There is a dire, stern warning here—one that will protect the obedient from the disobedient. The wolves that’ve slipped in with the sheepfold seem intent as ever on diluting and muddying the message of grace by their insolence.

Paul implores the church to re-consider and re-align with his (and his fellow ministers’) example. Paul and his cohort have set the benchmark to follow; it is not the teaching of the idle the church is to adhere to.

Paul’s ministry example was flawless. Even though he fought hard to win the rights for the preacher to be fed and kept for his ministry work alone (1 Cor. 9:14), Paul went beyond his own standard very often working ‘day jobs’ in his craft of tent-making, and preaching as the opportunity arose. He must have been tireless (2 Cor. 6:5; 11:27); working two fulltime jobs. So we can see, of all people, Paul had the qualified right to both deal with and dispense with the idle.

Paul’s advice to the church is to be prepared to expunge the idle and not associate with them; not as an enemy, but warning them as we would any brother or sister (3:15).

Not unlike in his first letter (1 Thess. 4:9b-12; 5:14), he reminds the church, albeit less gently the second time around. Reminders have that about them, don’t they? Reinforcement is often necessarily more direct than initial communications in order to clarify.

To the “Busybody”

It is most interesting that the passive “idle” is actually rendered more literally ‘the disorderly’ in the Greek i.e. τακτως, ataktōs. The conduct of the “idle” is hence by extraction some far more heinous. They are ‘walking idly’ and hence, disorderly—by nature and influence.

What does the busybody look like? Essentially, they “neglect their own business to mind other people’s.” (Bruce).

Archetypically, they loaf about, doing next to nothing, presuming Christ to re-appear in next to no time. In their boredom they begin to meddle in others’ affairs and as a result get involved in gossip. Lastly, they’re existing “off” the good nature of contributions made to the church—‘making merchandise of Christ’—set aside for more genuine believers; actual servants of the church.

It would be bad enough to have a busybody on staff; even worse that they too are a false teacher. (Satan always finds work for idle hands!) And, further, he or she who cannot live the genuine honest-working life cannot in genuine justification, teach. They disqualify themselves by their lack of diligence and integrity, and by virtue of their hypocrisy.

On the contrary, effective ministers do none of the above. They are busy at their ministry of helping others; they work for their bread; they actively obliterate gossip not promoting it and certainly do not buy into it. They do not have either the time or inclination to meddle in others’ affairs, unless it is proving destructive in innocent lives.

Overall Message – 2 Thessalonians

Bringing both speculation of the last things and a rebuke to the idle together, we can say with some justification, that idle waiting and heavenward gazing for signs of Christ’s return are not the preferred activities of the Thessalonians (or today’s Christians for that matter). This is what Paul is saying. Perhaps the heavenward gazing was simply a worn excuse for the idle busybody to lie about and eat food he or she had not worked for? The payment of our bread is the very motive to keep us straight and on path; no one likes to go hungry.

The ‘last things’ are a genuine concern for all Christians, though it’s neither here nor there regarding the second coming of Christ. The timing is rather inconsequential—the matter is we must be alert, watchful and ready (cf. Matt. 24:42).

While we wait we must remain busy and alert for opportunities to serve within Christ’s kingdom, now. We are false in our faith when we allow significant but small details to explode the total view, leaving a compartmentalised approach that tends to only part of the picture.

It is critically important to segregate those who’d come in and disrupt church balance by not living for Christ. There’s cliché upon cliché—e.g. ‘a little yeast works its way through the dough’—that remind us that we are to be wary that their negative influence doesn’t take us off our godly course.

Most of all, we are to “never tire of doing what is right,” which cross-references beautifully with Galatians 6:9—one of my all-time favourite verses of Scripture:

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (NIV)

Like the Thessalonians needed a reminder of slipping in these ways, we too will always need a gentle goad every now and then; to re-focus on Christ; to work diligently; to concern ourselves with today and not tomorrow (Matt. 6:34); to not think eschatologically to the detriment of today’s Christian service of love to our fellows.

© 2010 S. J. Wickham.


J. Philip Arthur, Patience of Hope (1 and 2 Thessalonians) – Welwyn Commentary Series (Durham, England: Evangelical Press, 1996), p. 97-148.

G. K. Beale, 1–2 Thessalonians (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), p. 181-269.

F. F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Thessalonians – Word Biblical Commentary 45 (Dallas, Texas: Word, Inc., 2002), S. 205.

D. A. Carson & Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1992, 2005), p. 532-53.

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