Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The Epistle to the Thessalonians.
THE REV. A. J. MASON, M.A., D.D.,
Canon of Canterbury.
INTRODUCTION TO THE SECOND EPISTLE OF PAUL THE APOSTLE TO THE THESSALONIANS.
THE SECOND EPISTLE OF PAUL THE APOSTLE TO THE THESSALONIANS.
WE may confidently assert that this Epistle was written by St. Paul from Corinth during his residence there of a year-and-a-half, within a few months of the first Epistle: that is, in the year 53. Not only are all its main features so like those of the First as to suggest a very close connection in time, but it is despatched by the same apostolic group—Paul, Silvanus, and Timotheus; and, as we have remarked in the Introduction to the First Epistle, we have no reason to believe that Silvanus was in St. Paul’s company later than the departure from Corinth in 54. It suits well with this date that the Apostle is in fear of certain “monstrous and depraved persons” (2Thessalonians 3:2), who may well be the Jews who brought him before Gallio.
The circumstances which called forth the Letter were as follows. Since the First Epistle had been despatched St. Paul had been able to receive fresh tidings of the state of the Thessalonian Church, concerning which he was naturally anxious, as it was so young when he had been forced to leave it to itself and to God. The tidings were both good and bad. On the one hand, there was marked progress in some of the points which had before caused solicitude. St. Paul uses enthusiastic language (2Thessalonians 1:3) of the advance made in faith (comp. 1Thessalonians 3:10), and in individual brotherly charity (comp. 1Thessalonians 4:10), and also of their steadfastness in persecutions which were still afflicting them (2Thessalonians 1:4)—persecutions in which, apparently, both Jews and Gentiles joined. (See Note on 2Thessalonians 1:8.) We may also gather, from the silence of the present Letter, that St. Paul’s instructions on the state of the departed faithful had taken good effect: this being, perhaps, the special increase in faith mentioned above. We find, moreover, that there is no further need of warnings on the subject of purity or of submission to ecclesiastical authority. On the other hand, there were three great faults to find.
(1) The tendency to disorders and idleness, which had been censured both directly and indirectly in the former letter, had become stronger instead of receding. Some considerable number of the little Church had become mere “busybodies”—had left off work, expecting maintenance at the public expense of the community while they indulged themselves, probably, in what seemed more religious pursuits.
(2) We can trace more clearly in this Epistle than in the former the doctrinal ground on which such disorders were justified by those who were guilty of them. They had been “shaken from their reason.” and were still “in trepidation” (2Thessalonians 2:2), from a belief that “the day of the Lord” was already upon them. Panic and exultation alike had the effect of making the Thessalonians think it not worth while to attend to the things of a doomed world.
(3) This belief had been, if not created, yet confirmed by some audacious forgeries and fictions (2Thessalonians 2:2). Even in the First Epistle St. Paul gives signs of uneasiness, as though he were not sure of the honesty of some of his correspondents in their use of his name and writings (1Thessalonians 5:27). Now it is clear that, in more than one way, persons (who might be only half conscious of their fraud) had attempted to impose on their brethren. They had pretended to a direct inspiration or angelic visitation, which had revealed to them the immediate nearness of the Advent. They had misrepresented the oral teaching given by St. Paul during his stay at Thessalonica. They had, perhaps, wrested the words of his First Epistle, which had certainly given a colourable pretext for what they now taught. More probably still, from the precaution given in 2Thessalonians 3:17, they had actually written a letter, or letters, purporting to be from the Apostle, in which the doctrine was definitely taught.
To all these three faults the writer opposes the authority of what they knew to have genuinely proceeded from himself. He has nothing to unsay. They are to “hold fast the traditions” (2Thessalonians 2:15) which, written or unwritten, were his. (1) He reminds them not only of his example (as in the First Letter), but of his teaching levelled at their dissipated religiousness: “Withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which they received of us” (2Thessalonians 3:6); “Even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any has no mind to work, neither let him eat” (2Thessalonians 3:10). (2) He recalls the very definite instructions which showed that the end was not by-and-by. The Roman empire was still standing, and therefore the Man of Sin could not be revealed as yet, and therefore Christ could not be on the point of coming. “Remember ye not, that. when I was yet with you, I told you these things?” (2Thessalonians 2:5.) (3) He enforces, against their forgeries, his present Letter, even at the risk of provoking an open rebellion: “If any man obey not our word by this Epistle, note that man, and have no fellowship with him” (2Thessalonians 3:14).
The style of the Epistle (except in the studied obscurity of the prophetic passage) is clear and easy, like that of the First; and the structure is also very simple, as will be seen from the following analysis and marked by the same characteristic feature as the First: i.e., the prayer which leads on from one section of the Letter to another:—
I.THE SALUTATION (2Thessalonians 1:1-2).
II.THE RETROSPECTIVE PORTION (2Thessalonians 1:3-12).
(a)Thanksgiving for progress made (2Thessalonians 1:3-4).
(b)Hopes thus afforded against the Advent Day (2Thessalonians 1:5-10).
(c)Prayer for continuance in so happy a state (2Thessalonians 1:11-12).
(1)On the date of the Advent.
(a)Caution against believing the Advent close at hand (2Thessalonians 2:1-3).
(b)What must happen first (2Thessalonians 2:3-10).
(c)Terrible fate of the apostates (2Thessalonians 2:11-12).
(d)Thanksgiving that the Thessalonians’ fate is so different (2Thessalonians 2:13-14).
(e)Exhortation and prayer (2Thessalonians 2:15-17).
(2)On the necessity of work.
(a)Request for prayers for himself, which skilfully serves to predispose the readers to obey the ensuing commands (2Thessalonians 3:1-4).
(b)Prayer for the same purpose (2Thessalonians 3:5).
(c)Commands to make all work, and to excommunicate the refractory (2Thessalonians 3:6-15).
(d)Prayer for tranquility (2Thessalonians 3:16).
(e)Final benediction, with attention drawn to the autograph (2Thessalonians 3:17-18).
The genuineness of this Letter, like that of the First, is practically uncontroverted. We seem to have very early testimony to its use—St. Polycarp appearing in two places to quote it, though anonymously, according to his custom; and St. Justin, speaking of the Man of Sin in a manner which might indeed be explained by saying that that doctrine was common to the Catholic Church not special to St. Paul, but which is more simply referred to this Epistle. The objections of a few modern scholars (Baur, Schrader, &c.) are chiefly drawn from the prophecy in 2 Thessalonians 2, from supposed contradictions between this Epistle and the First—especially in regard to the date of the Advent; from fancied allusions to the persecution of Nero; from a mistaken notion that the doctrine of an Antichrist (which was in reality pre-Christian) was only invented by the Montanists.
Doubts have been entertained by a few critics, who acknowledged the genuineness of both, which of these Letters is the earlier in date. Ewald, the greatest of these critics, placed the Second Epistle first. It was, he thought, placed second in the Canon because, as a rule, the shorter letters in the Canon follow the longer. The arguments, however, which he adduces are scarcely worth considering, in face of the fact that in 2Thessalonians 2:15 we have an allusion to a former Epistle. All the historical portion of the First Epistle (especially 1Thessalonians 2:17; 1Thessalonians 3:11) bears evident tokens of being the earliest communication that had passed between St. Paul and his spiritual children since he had left them.
[In preparing the following Notes the chief books consulted have been those already mentioned in 1 Thessalonians:—the patristic commentaries, especially St. Chrysostom; Hammond, Lünemann, Ellicott, and others; and the posthumous edition (which appeared too late for use in annotating the First Epistle) by the Presbyterian Professor Eadie. His notes are, however, little but a reproduction of Bishop Ellicott’s, without their concentration. In the Excursus’ on the Man of Sin, I have stated my obligations to Dr. Pusey’s Lectures on Daniel.]
Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:(1) Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus.—The company which despatched the First Epistle is not yet broken up. This proves that the Second Epistle was written before the end of the second missionary journey, for after that time we do not read of Silvanus being in the company of St. Paul. The salutation is precisely the same as in the First Epistle, save for the last clause of 2Thessalonians 1:2, which is wrongly added in that place, but stands rightly here.
We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is meet, because that your faith groweth exceedingly, and the charity of every one of you all toward each other aboundeth;(3) We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren.—The thanksgiving is regarded as a positive debt incurred, which it would be a dishonesty not to pay.
Because.—This assigns the reason for saying that it was “meet,” and does not merely follow after “thank God:” in which case, the words “as it is meet” would have been rather weak, as containing no more than is involved in “we are bound.” The best paraphrase would be: “We feel the obligation to give thanks for you; and, in point of fact, it is but meet that we should, because,” &c.
Groweth exceedingly.—An enthusiastic word in the original: “is out-growing all bounds.” It is a metaphor from vegetable or animal growth. This was one of the very points about which St. Paul was anxious the last time that he had written: then there were deficiencies in their faith (1Thessalonians 3:10).
Charity.—Here, too, St. Paul remembers what he had said to them in the last Epistle, in which he had devoted a whole section to the love of the brethren “toward each other.” “Of every one of you all” is a very noticeable expression, as showing the individual solicitude of the Apostles for their converts. Just as the apostolic instructions were given to each Christian privately (1Thessalonians 2:11), so news has been brought how each several Christian is progressing. The differences which had called forth such passages as 1Thessalonians 3:12; 1Thessalonians 4:6-10; 1Thessalonians 5:12-14, had apparently all ceased, and mutual love was multiplying.
So that we ourselves glory in you in the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that ye endure:(4) So that we ourselves.—Why was it less likely that St. Paul and his companions should thus glory in them than other friends did, or perhaps than the Thessalonians themselves? Possibly, because it seemed almost like self-praise to praise their own converts; but much more probably, because the writers had before felt and expressed misgivings on the point: this suits the thought of 2Thessalonians 1:3 better.
Glory in you in the churches of God.—Not only in thanksgiving to God (though, perhaps, outbursts of praise in the public services of “the churches” may be included), but also in talking to other men, at Corinth and elsewhere: so, in return, St. Paul “boasted” to the Thessalonians about the Corinthians (2Corinthians 9:2).
Your patience and faith.—It was well proved that St. Paul had no more cause for misgiving, and that the tempter’s tempting by persecution had not made the apostolic labours to be in vain. (See 1Thessalonians 3:5.) “Patience,” in the New Testament, does not mean a meek submissiveness, but a heroic endurance. The “faith” here becomes almost equivalent to “hope,” except that it introduces the ground of such hope: viz., confidence in the living God; it also includes the notion of faithfulness.
Persecutions and tribulations.—The difference-between the two words is, that while “tribulation” is quite general, and implies no personal enmities, “persecution” means that a certain set of persons were organising active measures for the annoyance of the Church. Such persecution they were still “enduring” when the Letter was written.
Which is a manifest token of the righteous judgment of God, that ye may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which ye also suffer:(5) Which is . . .—In the fervid eloquence of the original these connecting words are omitted, and the clause added in a kind of apposition to the words “in all your persecutions;” the effect is the same as when we in English put a dash: “which ye endure—a manifest token,” &c. The indication of God’s righteous judgment consisted not so much in the vitality and growth of the Thessalonians’ faith and love as in the very fact of their being persecuted; such persecution was an actual indication how the fair judgment of God would go in the last day. No undue stress is to be laid upon the epithet “righteous,” as if it were “a token of the righteousness of God’s judgment;” the point is only to indicate already what a fair judge was likely to decide.
That ye may be counted worthy.—This expresses the result, not of the future judgment of God, but of the patient sufferings which reveal what that judgment will be. The “counting worthy” (or rather, perhaps, the “declaring worthy”) is, in fact, the “judgment” or sentence itself. “You suffer in such a manner that we can forecast the fair verdict of God: viz., so as to be then declared (the Greek tense points to a distinct moment of forming the estimate) fit to receive God’s kingdom.” The word “counted worthy” has in this place nothing to do with the theological question of merit.
The kingdom of God.—Which had formed a prominent feature of the first preaching at Thessalonica. (See Introduction to the First Epistle to the Thessalonians.) Are the Thessalonian Christians, then, not yet in the kingdom of God? Yes; but only as its subjects: hereafter they are to be counted worthy not of admission into it, but of it itself—i.e., to inherit it, to become kings of it. (Comp. the parallel argument in 2Timothy 2:12.)
For which ye also suffer.—St. Paul is very fond of this “also” in relative clauses; it tightens the coupling between the relative and antecedent clauses, and so brings out more clearly the vital connection between suffering and reigning. They suffer “for the kingdom,” not merely for the sake of winning it, but on its behalf, in defence of it, in consequence of being its citizens, to extend its dominion.
Seeing it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you;(6) Seeing it is.—Literally, if so be it is fair: a form very common in St. Paul, when he wishes to argue from some fact which he knows his readers will recognise (e.g., Romans 8:9). “Your persecution is a clear indication what God’s fair verdict will be—that He will pronounce you fit—unless indeed you deny (as you will not) that it is fair to recompense the persecutors with tribulation and the persecuted with rest.” The context shows that St. Paul does not mean that all suffering deserves a requital with bliss, but he does put it as a matter of common fairness that when men have suffered for the kingdom’s sake God should so reward them hereafter.
With God.—Such a system of requital commends itself as fair to men: is it likely to seem less fair in the eyes of God? Holy Scripture always sets forth the power of the human conscience to recognise God’s principles of action: whatever is righteous for men is so for God, and vice versâ.
And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels,(7) Rest with us.—Why “with us”? It shows sympathy in their present trials, for it implies that the writers themselves had earned or were earning (see Acts 18:12) that rest by the like trials. The word “rest” (or relaxation) is the opposite of the “strain” at which the persecution kept them. Such “rest” is not to be expected in its fulness till the judgment day.
From heaven.—St. Paul seems to delight in calling attention to the quarter from which “the Lord Jesus” (the human name, to show His sympathy with trouble) will appear. (See 1Thessalonians 1:10, 1Th_4:16.)
With his mighty angels.—Literally, with the angels of His power—i.e., the angels to whom His power is intrusted and by whom it is administered. The angels do not attend merely for pomp, but to execute God’s purposes. (See Matthew 13:41; Matthew 13:49; Matthew 24:31.)
In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ:(8) In flaming fire.—Most critics agree to change the punctuation here, by omitting the comma after “angels” and inserting it after “fire.” The flaming fire here is not the instrument of the vengeance—i.e., hell-fire—but the common pictorial attribute of the Divine Presence (Exodus 3:2; Exodus 19:18; Daniel 7:9).
Taking vengeance.—The expression in the original is one which is said to be found nowhere else in Greek literature, save in Ezekiel 25:14 (though in Hebrew there is an almost exact equivalent in Numbers 31:3), so that it is difficult to assign the correct meaning. It certainly does not mean “taking vengeance” in the sense of “taking His revenge,” as though our Lord had conceived a personal grudge and were wreaking it. What it does mean would seem to be “assigning retribution:” appointing, that is, to each man what satisfaction of justice he must make. The very word for “vengeance” can only mean vengeance exacted on some one else’s behalf. (Comp. 1Thessalonians 4:6, and Psalm 79:10.)
On them that know not God.—According to the Greek, the word “them” should be repeated also in the next clause. The effect will then be to mark off the culprits into two classes: “them that know not,” and “them that obey not.” A comparison of Ephesians 4:17-18, 1Thessalonians 4:5, shows that by the first class are meant Gentiles; a comparison of Romans 10:16; Romans 10:21 (and many other passages) will show disobedience to be the characteristic of the Jews. The Greek negative particle here is one which shows that the ignorance of the one set and the disobedience of the other were just the points for which they were to be punished: therefore, of course, only those Gentiles whose ignorance was voluntary, who chose (Romans 1:28) to be Gentiles when they might have been joined to the true God, are objects of wrath. Here, as the context shows, St. Paul is thinking chiefly of those Gentiles and Jews who actually persecuted the truth.
Obey not the gospel.—A noteworthy phrase; see the reference. The gospel, the “glad tidings,” contains not only a statement of facts, but also a call to obey a law which is the outcome of the facts. Even the acceptance of evangelical promises requires a submission. (Comp. Luke 24:47; Acts 11:18; Revelation 22:3.) It is here called specially the gospel “of our Lord Jesus Christ,” because the sin of the Jews (who constitute this class of sinners) consisted precisely in the wilful rejection of Jesus as the Christ.
Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power;(9) Punished with everlasting destruction specifies the “vengeance” to be taken. But the word “destruction” does not stand absolutely and alone as a synonym for “annihilation.” This passage, in itself, gives us no reason to suppose that the lost will be “destroyed” in the ordinary sense of the word. They are to be “destroyed from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power”—i.e., cut off from it for ever. The “presence”—or, more literally here, ”the face—of the Lord,” as well as “the glory of His power,” is a metaphor from the courts of Oriental kings, where only honoured courtiers are admitted to spend their time in the immediate and familiar presence of the sovereign. Familiar contact with Christ hereafter, which will be accorded to all the saved, was God’s ideal intention for the lost as well, therefore it is a positive “destruction” to be banished from it. But to the Jews, who looked for a Messiah who should keep regal state, the punishment was peculiarly appropriate. The word is used besides in 1Corinthians 5:5; 1Thessalonians 5:3; 1Timothy 6:9. As for the word rendered “everlasting” (or eternal, for it is the same which is used, e.g., Hebrews 6:2), it would certainly convey to St. Paul’s readers the notion of incessant duration in time; it is, of course, only an adaptation to human language to speak of time at all in such a case, as we cannot tell what may take the place of time in the next dispensation; however, so far as the actual words go, there is nothing in these passages (Matthew 18:8; Matthew 25:41; Matthew 25:46; Mark 3:29; Hebrews 6:2; Jude 1:7) to suggest any future alteration in the state of the lost. In this, as in some other doctrines, there seem to be two distinct sets of passages, the logical reconciliation of which in our present state seems almost impossible.
When he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe (because our testimony among you was believed) in that day.(10) When he shall come.—Not simply a repetition of the temporal date which was mentioned in 2Thessalonians 1:7—“when the Lord,” &c—but an introduction of the contrast which will be presented “in that day” by the spectacle of the glory of the saints. Thus the penalty of 2Thessalonians 1:9 is made to appear greater, while at the same time the readers’ minds are turned back to a more wholesome subject for meditation.
To be glorified in his saints.—This is not exactly the purpose, but the effect of His coming. A comparison of John 13:31-32; John 14:13; John 17:10; 2Thessalonians 1:12; shows that the saints are the objects on which and by which the glorious perfection of Christ is exhibited: to see what the saints will be exalted to “in that day” will make all observers acknowledge, not the holiness or greatness of the men, but the divine power of Him who was able so to exalt them. As the persecutors were divided into two classes to be punished, so the saved are described under two aspects: in contrast with “them that know not God” they are “saints,” i.e., fully consecrated to God; in contrast with “them that obey not the gospel” they are “they that believed” (for the past tense is the better reading), i.e., accepted the gospel. As the profane Gentiles, looking on the saints, recognise the “glory” of the God whom they knew not, so the disobedient Jews, seeing the faithful, are aptly filled with “wonder” (Acts 13:41), before they perish, at the glory to be attained by obedience to the law of suffering.
Because our testimony.—Introduced to show why the writers had said specially “in all them that believed” (the past tense is employed because it looks back from the Judgment Day to the moment when the gospel was offered and the divergence between believers and unbelievers began); the reason was, because among “all them that believed” the Thessalonians would be found included.
In that day.—Added at the end to make the readers look once more (as it were) upon the wonderful sight on which the writer’s prophetic eyes were raptly fixed.
Wherefore also we pray always for you, that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfil all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power:(11) Wherefore.—Literally, whereunto—i.e., to their being found among the blessed. The “also” serves to emphasise the “pray”: we do not content ourselves with merely hoping, but we direct actual prayer to that end. The word “whereunto” seems grammatically to depend upon the word “calling”—“of the calling whereunto, we pray also for you always, that our God would count you worthy.”
Count you worthy of this calling.—The word “this” would, perhaps, have been, better left out; the “calling” of which St. Paul is thinking is the calling “in that day,” such as is expressed in Matthew 25:34, and the act is the same as that of 2Thessalonians 1:5. But had they not been called to glory already? Yes (1Thessalonians 4:7), and had obeyed the call; and God was still calling them hourly (see Notes on 1Thessalonians 2:12; 1Thessalonians 5:24); but that was no security that they would remain worthy of that last decisive call. “Many are called, but few chosen.” In the original there is some, emphasis laid on the pronoun: “count you”
Fulfil all the good pleasure of his goodness.—Rather, fulfil every purpose of goodness; or, “everything which beneficence deems good.” Most modern commentators take the “goodness” to be the goodness of the Thessalonians themselves, thus making the clause logically antecedent to the foregoing:” May count you worthy of His calling, and (for that purpose) fulfil every good moral aspiration you may entertain.” But this seems unnecessary. The “beneficence” is used absolutely, in almost a personified sense; it is, of course, in reality, God’s beneficence, but is spoken of as beneficence in the abstract. Thus the clause preserves its natural place as an explanation of the preceding:” May finally call you. and there accomplish upon your persons all that beneficence can devise.”
And the work of faith with power.—This work, too, is God’s work, not the work of the Thessalonians. It is used in the same sense as a like phrase in Cowper’s well-known hymn—
“Thou shalt see My glory soon,
When the work of grace is done.”
It means, not “perfect your faithful activity,” as in 1Thessalonians 1:3, but “bring to its mighty consummation the work that faith was able to effect in you.” Faith, therefore, is here opposed as much to sight as to unbelief. The “beneficence” and the “power” thus exerted upon (rather than through) the Thessalonians. produces upon all spectators of the judgment, both angels and men, the effect described in the next verse.
That the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and ye in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.(12) That the name . . .—This verse gathers up what has been said in 2Thessalonians 1:8-10. Seeing the favours bestowed upon the Christians in the last day, all, the lost as well as the saved, will be forced to acknowledge the glory (i.e., the divine perfection) of the Jesus whose Christship had been rejected, and the glory (i.e., the true dignity) of the Christians who had been despised for their allegiance to Him. It stands to reason that Christians must share Christ’s “glory” (i.e., full recognition; comp. Note on 1Thessalonians 2:6) in that day, for when the lost recognise what He is, it is ipso facto a recognition that they were right and wise to follow Him. The words “according to the grace” belong only to “and ye in Him:” it is the gracious will (for “grace” here has hardly its strict theological sense) of God, in which Christ concurs, that we should be thus “glorified in Him.”