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American Journal of Biblical Theology
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The beginning of chapter 3 of the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians marks a significant change in the content of the letter. Paul has been encouraged by the news that this church in Thessalonica had grown in faith since he, Timothy, and Silas had started this church on his second missionary journey. After sending at least one letter to the church, he was aware of a couple of issues that still needed addressing, particularly concerning some false teaching that was being proclaimed in the fellowship. This second letter addresses these teachings in an attempt to bring this faithful fellowship out of error and help them to enjoy the blessing of their salvation. Paul encouraged them to fully embrace the security of their salvation, and to hold fast to the original gospel that Paul had communicated to them. Having completed this task, Paul moves to the close of the letter.
PAUL’S PRAYER FOR US.
2 Thessalonians 3:1-2. Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified, even as it is with you: 2And that we may be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men: for all men have not faith.
Recognizing the faithfulness of the Thessalonians, Paul seeks their prayers on his behalf. Here Paul sets an example for those of us who are shy about asking for prayer from others. All faithful Christians find themselves in need as they are always attempting a God-sized task when they lean on the leadership and protection of the Holy Spirit as they minister to others. James taught that the prayers of the faithful are powerful and Jesus taught that prayers would have power when they are consistent with His will. Paul deeply desires that the gospel would continue to be spread and that the LORD would be glorified in all that he does, so he brings this request to the church.
Furthermore, Paul is all-too familiar with the dangers of sharing Christ in a wicked world, having been a persecutor of Christians himself, and then experiencing no little persecution for his work at the hands of faithless people. He has experienced many occasions where the spread of the gospel has been hampered by faithless men, both outside the fellowship of the church and within. Those outside the church fellowships persecute those who share the gospel, and those within the fellowships spread false doctrine. Rather than ask to be delivered from persecution or imprisonment, Paul asks that those who are working to share the gospel would be protected from those who seek to destroy their work so that the gospel can continue to be spread.
We may note an important central theme to Paul’s request: that the gospel be spread throughout the region as it was in Thessalonica, that the work of the evangelists would be empowered, and the work of the unfaithful would not impede the gospel. When we do ask for prayer from others, what do we typically ask for? When sharing prayer requests in a group, it seems that the overwhelming subject of those requests centers around personal health issues. Our prayers are very self-centered and “me” oriented. We do not seem to find this pattern in the prayers of the first-century fellowship.
Why do we, when we share prayer requests focus so much on our own needs and almost ignore the spiritual needs of our community? One place that those of us who are timid about sharing their faith in the lost community can start to impact that community is through the avenue of prayer. Pray fervently and regularly for those who are lost, particularly those in your own sphere of relationships. If the leadership of the first-century church is to be our example, following the similar example of Jesus Christ Himself, our prayers should first be focused upon the spiritual needs of others, and then only secondly upon our own needs and desires.
PAUL’S CONFIDENCE IN US.
2 Thessalonians 3:3. But the Lord is faithful, who shall stablish you, and keep you from evil.
This statement is a continuation of the last, which basically states that not all people are people of faith, but the LORD is always faithful. Paul turns his prayer from his own needs and the needs of his team of evangelists to the needs of the Thessalonian congregation. Paul states two promises that would serve to encourage the fellowship.
1. The word for “stablish” implies the building of a secure foundation. Where the foundation under the faithless is temporal and crumbling, God has provided a solid and eternal foundation for those who have placed their faith and trust in Him. Though Paul has already noted, and will continue to note areas in the Thessalonian fellowship where there is a need for more spiritual growth, he still recognizes that these are people of faith, and the promises that God gives the faithful are given to all the faithful without regard to their spiritual maturity. The foundation of grace that they all enjoy is solid, and will hold them firmly in the center of God’s grace forever.
2. The word for “evil” is also used to refer to satan, who Jesus often referred to as “the evil one.” We may sometimes wonder just how protected we are from the wiles of satan when our lives are still so vexed by sin. We may be reminded that the lost are powerless against satan since, until an individual turns to God in faith, they share with satan the similar fate of an eternity apart from God. The only eternal power in the life of the lost is satan, one who exercises only the powerlessness of a prince, a false power that exists only among those who give it to him. Satan has no power over the faithful who have been given the Holy Spirits’ true power. A single word, breathed in a sincere prayer will drop satan in his tracks. The Spirit of God protects us from the destruction that is promised to all who reject God. However, in order to be fully protected against satan’s efforts to influence the lives of the faithful, Paul has identified for us the “full armor” that protects us from his evil intentions. It is always Paul’s prayer, and it should always be the prayer of the faithful that each would put on the full armor of God so that satan’s attacks can be withstood. Certainly the Thessalonian church, like every church fellowship was familiar with satan’s attacks, some of which Paul refers to in his letters to the church.
2 Thessalonians 3:4-5. And we have confidence in the Lord touching you, that ye both do and will do the things which we command you. 5And the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God, and into the patient waiting for Christ.
It is encouraging to know that, despite our shortcomings and our seeming unfaithfulness, that Paul expresses a great confidence in the church in Thessalonica. He recognizes that, because of the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, the LORD’s positive influence on their lives never ends, and because of that power, they are continually being and doing God’s will in their fellowship.
When we do look our shortcomings, we may come away with an opinion that we are little better than those who do not know the truth. Paul demonstrates that this is a lie, a position that can only come from the evil one who seeks to discourage us and keep us from enjoying the full measure of joy that salvation is promised to bring. The truth is that the regenerated life of those who have placed their faith and trust in God has been transformed by God’s power, not our own. Consequently, even the fact that the faithful are discouraged by their own sin is a very positive indication of God’s working in their lives. As one matures in the faith, one will never be sinless, but one will sin less. One’s desire for the LORD grows, as does their concern for the lost. Those who love the LORD cannot help but share God’s love as the fruit of the Spirit of God flows from their heart. It is a fruit of grace that simply cannot be held back because of the new nature that salvation brings to the heart of the believer. The faithful should be very encouraged about what God is doing in their lives, and should never let the evil one be able to land the fiery darts of discouragement on us when the shield of faith is protecting us from them.
Rather than listen to the false message of the discouragers, Paul presents a message of encouragement that we can rely on. It is easy for us to place ourselves into situations that promote such discouragement. It is easy for us to place ourselves into situations that would turn us away from our faith and back to the character of this wicked world. Recognizing this, Paul provides us with some very practical advice.
PAULS CONCERN FOR PURITY.
2 Thessalonians 3:6-7. Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us. 7For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you;
Paul turns to some quite firm words as he provides the following advice. We see the word, “command,” and he states that what is to follow is consistent with the name of Jesus Christ, meaning that it is consistent with who Jesus is. Consequently, what he is about to say is of great importance. It is paramount that we have a good understanding of Paul’s command.
At a first literal reading we might come away with the idea that the faithful are to have nothing to do with the unfaithful. Not only is this a gross misinterpretation, the very act of shunning the lost is contrary to every command to share the love of God with the lost and look for every opportunity to establish a relationship with the lost that can lead to their salvation. Knowing this context, we can gain a better understanding of what Paul is referring to.
One of the problems of the church in Thessalonica, and a great problem in the church today is evident in the combination of the words that Paul uses when he refers to “withdraw yourselves” and “after the tradition…” Paul is not instructing the Thessalonians to shun the unfaithful. He is instructing them not to “walk” with them and adopt for themselves the nature of their pagan ideas and pagan traditions, all of which serve only to water down the gospel and introduce into their culture all manner of false doctrine. The question is answered well in the seventh verse when Paul states that the faithful “ought to follow us.” The Thessalonians were wandering into some dangerous doctrinal waters by adopting ideas that were brought to them from sources other than the true Word of God. It is important to establish relationships with the lost with the intent of giving them opportunity to learn for themselves the joy of salvation. However, while establishing those relationships, it is important that the faithful keep themselves pure and maintain the true gospel without compromise. One can interact with the pagan community without adopting their traditions.
Paul illustrates that he was able to enter the pagan Thessalonian culture and not be affected by it, but rather be a godly influence in it. Doing so does take some manner of wisdom. One needs to recognize which are pagan traditions that must be avoided, and which are simply legalistic preferences that could actually impede the spread of the gospel.
I experienced an example of this conflict when I and my wife entered the home of a Belorussian family who we would be hosting us for ten days. The first thing that took place at the dinner table as we all sat for our initial greeting was the hosts’ service of that greeting. Their tradition involved the two men raising a toast with a small amount of vodka. As a “teetotaler” this brought immediate questions to my mind. I do not speak Russian, and my host does not speak English, and had only shortly before communicated clearly that he did not us to bring religion into his home. I have no way of communicating to him my preference to abstain from alcohol consumption, and to snub his greeting would be an offense that I might not be able to overcome for the next ten days. Consequently, my secondary thought was … “this is really going to burn going down; I hope I don’t flinch!” I took part in the toast.
After five days of visitation we shared the gospel with them, and gave them Bibles. By the day we left they requested reading assignments. After we hosted their children in our American home, two families came to know the LORD. Paul stated “I become all things to all people that I might win some.” One can immerse themselves in the pagan culture without adopting their traditions so that some can come to know the love of God. However, Paul reminds us that it is paramount that such immersion does not include the adoption of practices that are contrary to God’s Word.
2 Thessalonians 3:8-13. Neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you: 9Not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us. 10For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. 11For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies. 12Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread. 13But ye, brethren, be not weary in well doing.
This passage is yet a continuation of the last. Paul is addressing a specific problem that seemed to be characteristic of the Thessalonian fellowship, a problem that was bringing no little conflict to the body: some of its members were taking advantage of the fellowship by accepting support that they did not truly need, and these same people were bringing disruption and conflict to the fellowship. Paul does not give specific reasons for the refusal of these people to support themselves, but the context of the letters does give us enough detail to make some defensible conclusions. Paul’s direction in his letters concerning discipline is framed by discussions of eschatology: the doctrine of last things. Many contend that their belief that the second coming (perousia) was so imminent, that the act of labor was no longer a valid use of their time. Instead, they were using their time to direct the fellowship to prepare for the coming King.
The Greek word that describes these people is commonly used to describe disruptive behavior, including the panic of a military retreat. Their demand of an imminent perousia, and their direction of the fellowship to follow their lead created no little conflict in the body. Their demand for their physical support by the body was keeping that support from going to those who were truly needy, and those for whom the support could be used to communicate the love of God.
Paul’s words concerning those who would not work was clear: the ministry support structure of the church is intended to be provided to those who are truly in need. This support is not intended to allow the able-bodied and socially productive members to divert it to themselves. There is an indication that the idle members were demanding support so that they had their full time to minister to the body in this time of crisis. Paul reminds them that neither he, nor the other evangelists, required support when he was with them.
Paul also teaches that the church is to support those who have accepted God’s call to minister to them, and to do so liberally. This passage is not referring to people who God has called to minister to the fellowship. These people have appointed themselves based upon their false doctrine and are making demands upon the fellowship for their support.
We may not be as experienced with this particular problem in our own church fellowships. However, it does remind us of the responsibility we have to provide ministry to those who need and deserve it. Paul calls upon the faithful to be diligent workers, providing for their own needs, and demonstrating generosity as they support the ministries of the fellowship.
It is reasonable to assume that there was no little frustration in the fellowship when they saw their generosity and good will being extorted by some of their members. It is not unreasonable that their work for the gospel was exercised with difficulty outside of the borders of their fellowship, and it is disappointing that they also found difficulty within. Paul exhorts them (and us) not to tire of doing good. We may become frustrated when we do not see fruit or find a reward in ministry. The good that we do for the LORD does not seek to be rewarded by those to whom ministry is given. Doing good is like casting bread on the water, allowing God to do the work and expecting nothing in return. Paul encourages us never to tire. Keep doing the good work for the good of the gospel.
2 Thessalonians 3:14-15. And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. 15Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.
Note that Paul does give some instruction concerning how to relate to those who are not contributing to the work of the gospel in the fellowship. He is specifically referring to individuals who take a stand against Paul’s teaching. These are those who will attempt to discredit Paul and seek to advocate his doctrine as false. Paul first advises the fellowship to specifically identify who these people are. The Greek words rendered “no company” may probably be taken rather literally. To serve “in company” with another is to be a yoke-fellow, sharing the same burden, and taking that burden in the same direction. We might also understand Paul to advise that we not share the yoke with one who is driving the team in the wrong direction. The one who is leading the group in falsehood takes great self-satisfaction in their success, and will be greatly affected when those who he has been leading choose to reject his leadership. The leadership of the false teachers is to be summarily rejected.
At the same time, Paul reminds us that all of the faithful, both those who are following his lead and those who are not, are still brothers in Christ. Paul’s teaching always demands that faithful Christians interrelate with one another and those outside of the body with unconditional and consistent agape love. The purpose is not to tear down and destroy the misinformed leader, but rather to restore that individual to sound doctrine and practice.
PAUL’S DESIRE FOR OUR BLESSING.
2 Thessalonians 3:16. Now the Lord of peace himself give you peace always by all means. The Lord be with you all.
Paul closes his letter with a prayer for peace, that true peace that comes only from the LORD who is the author of real and lasting peace. The reading of Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians might lead us to believe that their experience was anything but peaceful. It may be assumed that, should they take Paul’s advice and respond to those in the body who are creating conflict, such peace may be hard to find for a while. Yet, despite all of our issues, despite all of the pride that we so often exercise, and despite all that we do that serves to discourage the spread of the gospel, the LORD still works to bring us that peace. Paul’s prayer for peace is, therefore, also a prayer that the Thessalonians will overcome the consequences of their subjection to false teachers, for true peace will never be found by all until the fellowship expresses its faith in unity.
However, we may also note that the peace and joy that the Holy Spirit brings into the heart of the faithful is empowered by His grace, not by our own work. Consequently, that peace and joy transcends the circumstances of this world, and can be experienced by any and all believers apart from those circumstances. It is Paul’s prayer that the Thessalonian Christians would find this peace, a peace that would strengthen them and embolden them to take action where action is needed.
2 Thessalonians 3:17-18. The salutation of Paul with mine own hand, which is the token in every epistle: so I write. 18The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
As was common in ancient near-eastern culture, another individual (Silas) would write the letter as Paul spoke it. However, in order to add a personal touch, Paul wrote the final salutation in his own hand, something that would be evident only in the original manuscript, a document that has been long since lost. It is also evident that Paul did this in each of his letters. This was a common and necessary practice in ancient times, one that assured the authorship of the letter. It was also common in ancient culture to write letters in the name of those whom the author respected, borrowing from their notoriety, and such pseudoepigraphies could serve to confuse one who was not sure of the original source.Finally, Paul closes with a prayer that the grace of God would abound in the Thessalonian fellowship. Grace, charis, may be simplistically defined as the receipt of God’s favor without merit. Neither we nor the Thessalonian Christians deserve any favor from God, yet because He loves us, He chooses to save us. It never hurts to be reminded that we do not deserve what God has done for us so that we might spend an eternity with Him. For this we praise God and seek to honor, glorify, and obey Him as we look forward to that day when we see Him face-to-face. That day could be tomorrow, and it is wise to live in expectation of that event. However, that expectation necessitates preparation, not cessation. We are to continue to live for God and love for God in all that we do until He does return. This is God’s purpose, and the product of His love and grace.