[Text: 2 Thessalonians]
Generally when people visit Paul’s brief second epistle to his friends in Thessalonica, the main attraction that sets us wondering is the “man of lawlessness” described in chapter 2. We want to know his identity, or at least pin him down in time – was Paul speaking cryptically about a Roman leader who would soon have his way in the Temple at Jerusalem? Or was he prophesying about a world ruler who would emerge in the Last Days (in which we’re certain we’re living)?
Sorry to disappoint, but I have no new revelation about him. But I did notice three prominent themes in this little letter that I think are worth savoring a little: Afflictions, Judgment, and Idleness, all of which are relevant to today’s believers, whether or not the “man of lawlessness” has anything to do with us. Here are some observations that I hope will get you thinking.
On Afflictions: In particular, the kind of afflictions that come from those who want to destroy the people of God. These afflictions exist precisely because the people of God persevere steadfastly in faith. If they gave it up and threw in the towel, they would no longer be targets. So the faith of this community must be both strong and visible in order for their persecutions to rise to the level that they have.
It’s notable that the chief evidence of the Thessalonians’ faith, which is the subject of Paul’s boasting “in the churches of God about you,” is the believers’ love for one another. If you think about how easily hardship and suffering isolate us from one another, as each of us tends to our own needs and wounds, a robust and visible mutual care during a time of persecution seems a wonder.
But it’s God’s pleasure always to work his kindness out in the world through community, undermining the fallen human tendency toward self-protection and wall-building. Where you find a believing community compassionately involved in one another’s lives – especially in the foul-weather times – you’ve found the Spirit of God in action.
On Judgment: The temporal distance between the present situation of suffering and a future day of cosmic justice seems diminished in this letter, as Paul vividly describes the second coming of Christ and the final separation of believers from the condemned. With his apocalyptic language (think: angels, flaming fire, and eternal punishment) he evokes visions of the End that seem no less certain for their being set in the future.
Along with descriptions of the punitive justice that will fall on those who have rejected the gospel of Jesus, Paul’s picture of God’s ultimate justice includes the rewarding of those who have endured in the faith to the end. Curiously, he expresses this thought in terms of the assessed value of the believers, insisting (and praying) that at the end they will be “considered worthy of the kingdom of God” through their suffering, and that they’d be in the meantime “worthy of [God’s] calling” in their conduct.
Since we know Paul’s emphasis elsewhere on the gracious gift of salvation, something that is undeserved, this stress on being found worthy of the kingdom may seem a troubling contradiction. Yet in his letters Paul is not hesitant to look to the fruit of a life lived out for evidence of true faith. Those who claim to be believers, then, ought to show outwardly – in patient endurance of suffering, steadfast belief despite persecution, and visible acts of mutual care – the inward activity of the Spirit.
On Idleness: Our third chapter of this letter dwells much on the theme of idleness, the irresponsible shirking of work to the extent that one is dependent on others for handouts. Perhaps you’re familiar with the admonition, “If a man will not work, neither should he eat,” and perhaps you remember Paul’s exemplary (and literal!) “tentmaking” missionary strategy, by which he supported himself so that he was never a financial burden to those he evangelized.
I quoted the KJV translation of the verse above (3:10) because that may be the construction of this phrase that we’ve read or heard most often. Actually, though, this translation is somewhat misleading, and it unfortunately has resulted in an attitude of condemnation towards any able-bodied person who does not work and who instead relies on the generosity of others (or on the government). A more accurate and helpful translation (such as in the ESV or NIV) brings out that it’s the desire to work that’s in view here: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”
Mark that small difference, because it’s important – and in fact it opens up the possibility of developing truly compassionate understanding of our fellow travelers. It’s likely that, even in the first century, some Christian believers faced real and discouraging roadblocks in their efforts to support themselves and their families. Perhaps there were no living-wage jobs available where they lived, or perhaps their education hadn’t provided them with the necessary training for the trades that had openings. Maybe they lacked child care or transportation. Maybe they had funny-sounding foreign names and so were passed over in favor of native applicants. Maybe they’d been in prison and couldn’t shake off the stigma.
From a distance it might be easy to judge these people, too, as being among the idle: after all, in their unemployment they don’t look a whole lot different than those who aren’t working because they’re lazy. In a community of believers, though, the particular obstacles faced by individuals would be known by their brethren, who would also recognize their willingness to work. And once again, God’s kindly corporate arrangements come into play, and in this case actually provide for the welfare of the unemployed – for anyone who can heed Paul’s admonition about idleness should “not grow weary in doing good” but rather (as he writes elsewhere) “do honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”*
Perhaps this sharing looks like handouts, or like hand-me-downs; perhaps it looks like developing actual paid work opportunities for our brothers and sisters. We can be creative with this ongoing, open-ended task of interdependence, and maybe take turns being the givers and the receivers.
Once again, we see that the heart of God is all about us loving one another.
*Except where noted, all quotations are taken from the ESV (2 Thess.). This one is from Ephesians 4:28.\
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