Facebook has been criticized for disseminating fake and misleading stories that are indistinguishable from real news. US President Obama said that these bogus news stories were a threat to democracy. Because Facebook’s algorithm is designed to determine what its individual users want to see, people often see only that which validates their existing beliefs regardless of whether the information being shared is true. Seven projects are underway to stop the spread of misinformation among Facebook’s 1.79 billion users. But deception isn’t new because Paul faced it almost 2,000 year ago.
The letter of 2 Thessalonians was written to Christians who were deceived by false teachings which were alleged to come from Paul. This post addresses the highlights of this letter where we see the need to stand firm against false teaching that twists the plain meaning of scripture to something inconsistent with the original meaning.
Paul visited Thessalonica for a short time and in response to his preaching a church was established. After he left, he wrote them the letter of 1 Thessalonians to encourage them in the Christian faith. But some time later Paul saw a need to encourage the believers in Thessalonica once again as they were still being persecuted. Besides this, some of them thought the tribulation described in Revelation had already arrived and some had stopped working. So Paul wrote them another letter (2 Thessalonians) in about 51 AD.
Because some were deceived by false teachings, Paul urged them to “stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we have passed on to you” (2:15NIV). This letter can be divided into three sections: encouragement during trials and suffering; standing firm against false teachings; and don’t be lazy. God allows Christians to go through trials, suffering and persecution. Now Paul shows how we can cope in difficult times.
Chapter 1: Encouragement during trials and suffering
Paul thanked God for their increasing faith and love (1:3-4). Faith keeps us in contact with God and this leads to love for one another. In the first letter faith, love and hope are mentioned together, but here “hope” is left out maybe because they needed correction concerning the second coming of the Lord (1 Th. 1:3; 5:8). Their hope was not clear. So Paul writes to correct the situation.
They were doing so well that Paul boasted about their spiritual progress to other churches. Despite tough times of persecution and trial, their faith remained strong. By mentioning this in the letter, Paul is affirming their faith, love and perseverance.
Their endurance in the face of persecution was evidence that God was at work among them (1:5-7a)! They were being persecuted because of their Christian faith, but God knew that they could bear it (1 Cor. 10:13). People who are under pressure give up easily unless something is strengthening them. God provided strength so they could endure their suffering and persecution.
Paul points out three things about their suffering. First, it showed they were “worthy of the kingdom of God”. They had been made worthy by faith in Christ and this was evident in their endurance under suffering. The pattern is one of suffering followed by future glory. It is the same one that Jesus followed. The Old Testament prophets predicted; “the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow” (1 Pet. 1:11), but they didn’t understand that these events would be separated by at least 1,900 years. The Jews expected the Messiah to come in great power and glory, but instead He came in a humble way and suffered greatly. Whereas at His future appearing He will come in great power and glory. This pattern also applies to believers: Paul wrote: “… if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:17-18).
Second, their suffering showed that their persecutors deserved to be judged. Because God is just, He will punish the persecutors—“He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you”. The Greek word translated “trouble” (1:6) means to suffer due to the pressure of circumstances or under antagonism (Vine). We know that God judges unrepentant sinners, both on earth when He “gives them over” to suffer the consequences of their sins (Rom. 1:24,26,28) and at the Great White Throne (Rev. 20:11-15).
Third, their suffering showed that they deserved relief for their undeserved persecution. Because God is just, the punishment will be balanced with relief. The Greek word translated “relief” means relief from persecution. But, when will this all happen? It will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven (1:7b-10). Christ is now hidden and many people even deny His existence. But when He appears visibly, He will be seen by all, so that no one will be able to deny or avoid Him.
When will the Lord Jesus be “revealed from heaven in blazing fire with His powerful angels”? As this hasn’t happened in the last 1,900 years, it is still future. Obviously, it’s a reference to the second coming. When Jesus ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives, two angels said, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). The second coming of the Lord is a series of events over a period of time. In fact there are two main comings, the rapture when Christ returns to the air to take all believers, both dead and alive, to be with Him in heaven (1 Th. 4:13-17) and the appearing when He returns to the earth in great power and glory to remove unbelievers for judgement (Rev 19:1-21).
The timing of these events is evident from the sequence of topics in the book of Revelation: at present the church is on earth (Rev. 2-3); then church in is heaven, which implies that the rapture has occurred between chapters 3 and 4 (Rev. 4-5); then there is tribulation on earth (Rev. 6-18); which is followed by the appearing (Rev. 19:11-21); and then the millennium (Rev. 20:1-7); and finally the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21-22).
Further evidence that the rapture and the appearing are separate events is shown by their relationship to the tribulation. Christians are said to be “saved from God’s wrath” (Rom. 5:9) and kept from “the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth” (Rev. 3:10); for “God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th. 5:9). Of course, God’s “wrath” may refer to the tribulation (Rev. 6:16-17; 14:9-10, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19) or to His eternal punishment of unbelievers. According to 1 Thessalonians 5:9, the context is the tribulation. This is consistent with the rapture occurring before the tribulation—believers will be in heaven while the tribulation is occurring on the earth. This understanding is known as the pre-tribulation rapture.
On the other hand, the appearing occurs at the end of the tribulation. The tribulation is described in Matthew 24:3-28, and then the appearing in v.29-31. It is a time of awesome power and punishment of Christ’s enemies (Is. 66:15-16; Rev. 1:7).
When Paul writes about when this will happen (1:7b, 10), he means when it will be visible to all. From the story of the rich man and Lazarus we know that when a believer dies they obtain relief and all their suffering and persecution has ended—they are with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). So, after death, believers enjoy relief in heaven, while unbelievers suffer in hades.
Two classes are marked for punishment. First, “those who do not know God” – these have rejected the knowledge of the true God that is revealed to everyone through creation and conscience (Rom. 1:19-20; 2:12-16). Of course, they may never have heard the gospel. But God has revealed Himself clearly to everyone that He is God. He is in charge of the world. Second, those who “do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” – these have heard the gospel of salvation through a relationship with Jesus Christ, but sadly they have rejected it.
These people are punished because God’s justice demands punishment for sin. The punishment is “everlasting destruction”, which means eternal ruin; and being “shut out from the presence of the Lord”, which means without Him forever. They will reap the consequence of their choice to ignore God.
The appearing will be a time of great glory and amazement. The Lord Jesus will be glorified and the spectators (those saved during the tribulation) will be amazed at what God has done in the salvation of believers—“glorified in His holy people”. God will reveal to the world what He has been doing with His people through all these years. So, not only is Jesus Christ revealed, but His followers will be revealed as well.
Paul prays that the believers may live lives that are worthy of their calling to participate in the appearing and to reign in the millennial kingdom (1:11-12). He asks for God’s power to enable them to obey every desire to do good and to carry out every deed prompted by faith. Here we see that God prompts such desires and deeds.
These are also difficult days and some are going through tough times. Let’s remember how Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to persevere at such times. Be encouraged that if you hold out against the pressures and temptations of this life it is evident that God is at work in your life in developing character and maturity.
Like the Thessalonians, we can be so occupied with suffering or persecution that we forget about our hope for the future. Do we have a clear view of what we are waiting for? Present suffering will be replaced by glory in future. Do we have a vision of the rapture and the appearing? There will be great power and glory when the Lord and His followers are revealed for all to see. It will be amazing and spectacular.
We can help believers who are going through tough times of trials, suffering or persecution by reminding them that in future things will be set right and the truth will be evident to all. Be encouraged that God is going to punish the persecutors and those guilty of wicked deeds. There will be retribution. Give them a reality check. Help them see the big picture; the eternal perspective. Remind them that “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us”. This helps them to cope.
Not only were the believers in Thessalonica suffering physically, but they were being attacked by a false teaching which didn’t match what Paul had told them. A rumor was spreading about the end of the age.
Chapter 2: Standing firm against false teachings
Paul now addresses a misunderstanding that had arisen in Thessalonica (2:1-2). Because of the persecution they were enduring, some thought that they were in the tribulation—the first part of the day of the Lord (1 Th. 5:1-11). If this was so, then the rapture must have already occurred and they had been left behind. False teachings such as this are unsettling and alarming—they introduce doubt and uncertainty about the truth and can destroy the unity within a church. Paul now addresses this false teaching. Firstly, he says that it didn’t come from him and secondly, he corrects it.
There was a rumor that the idea that they were in the day of the Lord came from Paul. Paul says that these were only allegations; they were not true. He also refers to the rapture: “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to Him”. The Greek word before this clause is translated “concerning” in most bibles, but a better translation is “because of” or “by” (see BRG, Darby, DRA, GNV, KJV, PHILLIPS, WYC). It is clear from 1 Thessalonians 4:13 – 5:11, that the rapture and the day of the Lord are different events; in fact they have been divided into separate chapters in this instance. The word “concerning” implies that 2 Thessalonians 2 is about the rapture, but this is not the case. Instead, Paul is saying that because of the rapture they should not think they were in the day of the Lord. By the rapture they will be taken to heaven before the day of the Lord occurs on earth. The false teaching said that they were in the tribulation period, which was not the case as the church was still present on earth.
Paul then helps them not to be deceived again on this topic (2:3-5). He says that two things need to happen before the day of the Lord is present. First, there is a “rebellion”. This Greek word, which is also used in Acts 21:21, means “defection from the truth” or “apostasy”. This seems to indicate a major rejection of faith in God during the tribulation. During a time of great persecution many will turn away from the faith rather than suffer and die (Mt. 24:10-12). Instead of love there will be betrayal, hate, wickedness and false prophets.
Then the “man of lawlessness” will be revealed. He is the antichrist, because he sets himself up as God and no other form of worship will be allowed. He even has an idol of himself in the temple in Jerusalem (Rev. 13:14). This event, which marks the middle of the tribulation period, had been described earlier by Daniel and Christ (Dan. 9:27; Mt. 24:15). Furthermore, the antichrist is a “man doomed to destruction”, because he is destined to be tormented forever in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10). Paul had previously told them about these things, but they had forgotten them.
Paul says that the antichrist will not be revealed until that which is holding him back is taken away (2:6). He will certainly be revealed when he displays miraculous power through signs and wonders (2:9).
It is evident that the antichrist and the power of evil are being held back by a person or a group of people (2:7). The Greek word for the restrainer means to “hold fast or down” and is used as a metaphor. Paul doesn’t say who the restrainer is; some have suggested it the principal of law and order as found in human government or the Holy Spirit or believers as indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit indwelling believers seems to fit best. Jesus said, “When He comes, He will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (Jn. 16:8). Also, when he wrote about testing false teachers, John said “every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:3-4). Those who do not acknowledge that Jesus was divine are following the spirit of antichrist. But believers can overcome such false teachers because the Holy Spirit helps them detect error.
Believers are like salt and light in this world: in this sense they hold back the “power of lawlessness” (Mt. 5:13-14). Salt preserves and light removes darkness. Their influence on the world through the indwelling Holy Spirit will be removed at the rapture and the restraint on lawlessness will be gone (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). We see that the power of lawlessness was already at work in Paul’s time and we know that evil is present in our world today (2:7). But it will be fully revealed during the tribulation. This universal evil will be present on earth until the restrainer is removed—then it will be judged. For example, the great flood didn’t come until Noah’s family were safely in the boat and Sodom was not destroyed until Lot’s family were safely away from the city. So, God will not judge the evil in this world until He has taken His people to safety in heaven.
So we see that the antichrist will be revealed during the tribulation (2:8), and his reign of terror is described in the next section. At the end of this period, the antichrist will be destroyed when the Lord appears in great power and glory (Is. 11:4).
The antichrist will work like Satan works (2:9-12). He will be able to do miracles and people will be amazed at his signs and wonders. Many will be deceived and believe that these miracles prove that he is divine (2:10). But this is a lie; Satan and demons can also perform miracles. In that day, God will send a powerful delusion so that those who deliberately rejected the truth will believe the lie that the antichrist is the Messiah (2:11); God on earth. As most people rejected the real Messiah, most people in the tribulation will accept the false Messiah. This shows how much Satan and sin have affected humanity.
Those deceived are described as: “perishing”, “they refused to love the truth”, they “have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness”. Because of their unbelief, they will be condemned by God—their names will not be written in the book of life (2:12; Rev. 20:15).
So how does this evil work? In the unseen spiritual world—that’s how Satan works. It can use counterfeit miracles. Deceptively—things that seem to be good finish up being destructive. And in those who have no time for God or the Scriptures.
After describing the antichrist and his followers, Paul now contrasts them with the Christians at Thessalonica (2:13). This change from bad news to good news is indicated by the word “but”. He thanks God for saving them. This salvation involves the past, the present and the future. In the past, God chose them to be believers in the early church. In the present, the Holy Spirit convicts people of sin and the need to accept the gift of salvation. In the future, Christians will share in the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, because they will be with Him and like Him forever (2:14). That’s a summary of God’s work throughout history and in our world today.
Both God and humanity play roles in this salvation. The three members of the trinity are involved; God chose them, the Lord loved them and the Spirit sanctified them (2:13). On the human side, the Thessalonians were called to be believers when God used Paul to preach the gospel to them (2:14). Also, the people needed to believe (2:13) and act on the truth of the gospel.
Paul says that despite the hard times they were going through, they should “stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you” (2:15). In those days doctrine was taught verbally by apostolic and prophetic messages and written in letters. But we now have the teachings of the apostle Paul and the other inspired authors written in the Bible, which should be the foundation and anchor of our faith. So, the defense and remedy against false teachings is to follow and obey the instructions and principles in God’s Word. Paul urged them not to quit or give in to evil but to draw on the resources that God had given them to handle the pressures of life.
Then he prayed that God would encourage and strengthen them inwardly in order to produce good deeds and good speech outwardly (2:16-17). Their greatest resource was God Himself. Paul also mentions three things about God: He loved them, He gave them “eternal encouragement”, and He gave them “good hope”. Likewise, because of the gift of His Son for us, our sin has been forgiven and so believers have the eternal encouragement now and the hope of a future with the Lord. So our source of encouragement and hope should be God’s promises in the Bible. Also, note that the Christian life is not just words to know, but deeds to do. All the principles of God’s word need to be put into practice. Otherwise, we are hypocrites if we say the right words but never apply these to ourselves.
We need maturity in order to distinguish good from evil and to avoid being blown off course by false teachings (Eph. 4:13-14; Heb. 5:14). False teachers could be recognized by their false view of Jesus (1 Jn. 4:1-3), their false gospel (Gal. 1:6-9), and their bad fruit (Mt. 7:15-20). Don’t welcome false teachers or false teachings into your house or the local church (2 Jn. 7-11), instead keep away from them and have nothing to do with them (Rom. 16:17-18; 2 Tim. 2:21; 3:5-9).
Paul taught the young believers at Thessalonica about future prophetic events. This gave them an eternal perspective and helped them endure suffering and persecution. Likewise, we should include prophecy when teaching young believers.
But the Thessalonians had forgotten what Paul had told them about the future. This shows the importance of being reminded of the truths of scripture. Just because we have heard or read them in the past, doesn’t mean that we will remember them in the future. We can be reminded by personal Bible study and by listening to teaching from the Bible.
Two of our greatest resources are God and the truths of scripture. Like the Thessalonians we should also “stand firm and hold fast” to the principles of God’s Word. Let’s live by the true teachings, so we won’t be deceived by the false ones. This will lead to maturity and being able to distinguish between what is true and what is false.
When we hear new teachings, don’t ignore them. Instead check with the Bible as we may have forgotten what we have learnt from it. If you are uncertain about a particular teaching consult with someone who is “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2).
Chapter 3: Don’t be lazy
There are different attitudes to work. Some work long hours, while others work as little as possible. Is work a vital part of our lives or just a consequence of the fall into sin? Next we see how Paul addressed laziness at Thessalonica. The third problem in Thessalonica was that some had stopped working because they thought the Lord was returning soon. Instead of working they were being lazy and disruptive in the local church. Paul had told them in his first letter to return to work, but evidently his directions had not been obeyed.
Paul now balances God’s provision for the Thessalonians with their responsibility to keep doing the things that Paul had commanded. It’s not good enough to relax and think that because God will look after us, then we can be lazy and ignore His commands. Christians need to be active, not passive. It’s doing the things God has commanded and continuing to do these things.
Ever since the days of Adam, people must work for a living. Adam had to work and take care of the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15). After the fall into sin this work became arduous (Gen. 3:17-19).
Paul now addresses the third major problem in the church at Thessalonica (3:6-13). It seems as though some of the Thessalonians thought the Lord was returning soon, so they stopped working and relied on others to support them. So they were idle instead of working and this lead to them interfering with other people’s affairs. What is a Paul’s solution to this problem? First, he says these people are out of line with what he had taught them (3:6).
Paul, Silas and Timothy had worked hard while they preached in Thessalonica so they would not be a burden to others (1 Th. 2:9). Paul was a tent maker by trade. Although he could have relied on the support of others for food, accommodation and money, he worked night and day to pay his expenses and not be dependent on them. When he was not preaching, teaching and shepherding the new believers, he was probably making and repairing tents. Paul was self supporting; he didn’t seek funds from those to whom he was preaching the gospel. The reason he worked was so he wouldn’t be a burden to those who were poor and persecuted and he didn’t want to hinder the gospel message in any way.
Now he urges those who had stopped working to follow his example (3:7-9). Although he had the right to financial help, Paul “did not use this right” of support in Corinth so that the gospel would not be hindered (1 Cor. 9:12, 14). Instead, he offered the gospel “free of charge” (1 Cor. 9:18). He then gives another reason for supporting himself: Paul wanted to be a model for them to imitate; an example to be followed.
Next Paul gives further instructions about these people who were minding everybody’s business but their own (3:11-12). When they could no longer find any meaning in their work, they started messing in other people’s business, criticizing, grumbling, gossiping, and trying to control others. Paul commanded and urged them to get back to work to support themselves and their families. How they behaved would have affected their witness for the Lord. How could they urge people to get their spiritual lives in order, if they couldn’t get their physical lives in order?
Now we will look at how Paul advised then to deal with those who refused to obey his instructions (3:10). Paul said don’t help them by feeding and supporting them; instead let them experience the consequences of their behavior. This is addressed to those who are “unwilling to work”, not those who cannot work. If an able-bodied Christian refused to work, neither should they eat. This rule was to stop them becoming busybodies that disrupt the local church. Does this conflict with the fact that Christians should be kind and loving? No, it is a tough love that draws a boundary against encouraging laziness. That’s why this section is titled, “Don’t be lazy”.
This was followed by further instructions on how to deal with those who refused to obey his instructions (3:6, 13-15). Finally, Paul commands them in Christ’s name not to socialise with believers who refused to work and who were disrupting the local church. The Greek words used mean to “withdraw” from or “avoid” and to not keep company with them. It was to be a more distant relationship instead of a close one. This let them know that this behavior was not acceptable. The purpose of this discipline was to awaken their conscience to make them feel ashamed of their behavior and give them a reason to change it. They can still have some of the benefits of the church family, but their part is restricted until they repent and are restored to the close relationship.
Paul warns them not to take it too far, so they feel like an enemy. Don’t make them feel like an unbeliever, as they don’t deserve to be expelled from the church. In the case of expulsion, people are to be treated as an unbeliever; as though they are not in the family (Mt. 18:17). Note that the instruction was addressed to the behavior of fellow believers, not to the behavior of unbelievers.
Paul finishes reminding them of the Lord’s peace, presence and grace (3:16-18). They could have “peace at all times and in every way”, including when they faced the problems created by those who refused to work for a living. They needed this peaceful attitude as they addressed these problems. The Lord of peace was with all of them, including those who were idle and disruptive.
Paul worked hard night and day to support himself while he preaching the gospel. He was an example to be followed. Are we? What sort of a witness is our work? Do we support our families? Work is important because it gives a sense of worth and meaning in our lives. But there were believers at Thessalonica who refused to work and were disruptive busybodies in the local church. Are we idle?
Today we don’t face the problem that people are so ardently looking forward to the Lord’s return that they abandon their daily duties. Instead we are so busy with our business and money-making that we forget that the Lord could return at any moment. Nevertheless, the same principles apply in cases of disobedience. What would Paul say to us? Would it be that we work too much instead of not enough? Are we so busy with our things that there is little time for God’s things? Are we lazy, busy or too busy supporting our families?
Paul wasn’t lazy. Are we lazy or busy for God? Let’s be like Paul by being busy for God and busy supporting our families.
Lessons for us
Like 1 Thessalonians, this letter is occupied with the second coming of Christ and the day of the Lord. The anticipation of this time when justice will prevail, alleviates our suffering. It helps to know about the future. Let’s remind ourselves of the time when the Lord is going to return to right all the wrongs and end all the suffering. An eternal perspective can help us get through our daily life.
Paul also warned them not to be deceived by false teaching that twists the plain meaning of scripture to something inconsistent with the original meaning. How do we distinguish between what is true and what is false? Let’s compare any new teachings with what the Bible says. Using reliable exegesis (interpretation) of scripture – see “Understanding the Bible”. And distinguishing between what a Bible passage meant when it was written and its application today.
What is “the lie” that Satan is spreading today? You can run your own life. You can do whatever you want to without any adverse consequences. It’s called humanism; the worship of humanity. It is opposite to the gospel, which says we should hand our life over to the Lord, who will encourage and strengthen us to live with Him.
Written, November 2016