Commentaries on 2 Thessalonians
The First Letter to the Thessalonians taught us the importance of looking forward to the coming of Christ in Paul’s preaching.
The hope for the Day of Christ was a powerful incentive for preserving the faith of the first Christians. Yet it could lead to an unhealthy nervousness. The Church of Thessalonica was the first example of those minorities and persecuted groups in whom the expectation of the end of the world distorts the normal development of Christian life.
In this letter, written a few months after the first one, Paul tries to reassure the community.
• 1.1 We again encounter the same ideas we have explained in 1 Thessalonians. A persecuted community. The basis of Christian life: faith, hope (or endurance), love. The day of Christ.
• 6. When the apostles preached to the pagans, they insisted on the judgment of God (Rom 1:18; Acts 17:31). In fact, these pagans never thought they would be judged at the end of their lives. For almost a century there has been a tendency among us Christians not to mention judgment in reaction to several centuries when it was over emphasized and with it the fear of punishment. Actually, the evangelization of modern pagans, in whom conscience has not even been awakened in the family, demands that it be spoken of as in Paul’s time.
To know that good and evil exist, that life prepares for definitive salvation (or the loss of it) and that God will judge us is an essential basis for Christian life. It is precisely from this truth that many turn away, saying for example that God is all-love, or imagining successive existences where we can catch up for our mistakes.
Indeed it is just that God repays with affliction. Let us not forget that the letters to the Thessalonians are the earliest of Paul’s letters. Even if it was his duty to remind them of the judgment, as did the prophets, and Jesus himself—certainly he had not yet totally purified his thirst for justice of every trace of violence. This violence against the wicked has been (and still is in many religions) a support for faith, but Jesus has invited us to get rid of it (Mt 13:29).
Coming from heaven… he will do justice. In the early years of the apostles, it was believed that the Day of the Lord would soon come and judgment (the Last Judgment) would inaugurate the reign of God the Father (1 Cor 15:24). We now suppose—perhaps mistakenly—that it is not imminent, and we prefer to think of judgment as coming at the death of each one: individual judgment.
• 2.1 Do not be alarmed. What happens in Thessalonica is what frequently occurs in a persecuted community: people tend to withdraw from real life. There are rumors that the Lord’s coming is imminent and hope verges on hysteria. This is why Paul reminds them of certain truths, some of which are not new, for the Old Testament had more than once spoken of crises that would precede the Judgment. We cannot take as literally true all that the prophets have said on this subject, for they spoke with images proper to their time. They did agree in announcing difficult times for believers and almost a triumph, to begin with, for God’s enemies. Jesus did not disagree.
The apostasy must come first. Before Christ’s return, there must be a “general apostasy,” or a worldwide religious crisis. An “antichrist” must come. It is true that there are antichrists in all times (see 1 Jn 2:18). Yet, at the end, there will be a more typical antichrist than all the previous ones. Christ will return in glory at the time the Church seems crushed.
You know what prevents him (v. 6). For us, this phrase is obscure. For Paul the apostasy is that of the nations already converted to the Gospel and the force of evil was already at work within them (v. 7). It is probable that Paul follows the thinking of the “apocalyptic” authors (some of their works are part of the Bible, among others Ezekiel 38–39 and Daniel 2–10). Everything happens at the time fixed by God and every person in history lasts the time needed to carry out the good and the evil that he has within himself.
Therefore, there cannot be apostasy or antichrist as long as two preceding events have not taken place: the Gospel has to be proclaimed to all the nations (Mk 13:10), and judgment passed on the Jewish nation. The fact that these events have not been realized, especially the second (1 Thes 2:16), is perhaps for Paul the reason why the coming of the antichrist is not imminent.
Paul had no idea that the time of the nations mentioned in Luke (21:24) would last for so many centuries; for him, it was a matter of years. Let us keep in mind his way of foreseeing the end of the world. All that is in human history must mature; history will end with a last adventure inspired by diabolical pride; faith or the rejection of the Gospel will be at the heart of the worldwide confrontation.
God will send them the power of delusion. Once again we have the Hebrew turn of phrase that should be translated: God will allow the forces of deceit to act. The same people who do not take into account decisive arguments in favor of the faith, later follow doctrines and opinions without foundation.
Paul invites the Church, as he did in 1 Thessalonians, to follow his instructions and rules. He is more severe in insisting that they have an obligation to work: if everybody works, their faith will be more peaceful.
• 13. Note the word traditions used by Paul. The traditions are the customs, rites and teachings that people pass down from one generation to another. They are also the usages and lifestyles which are adopted upon joining a community. Jesus condemned the exaggerated importance the Pharisees gave to their own traditions, to the point that they prevailed over God’s commandments (see Mk 7:5). Yet Jesus himself, while he was with his apostles, taught them a certain way of praying, of doing, and of living in fellowship. It is in this sense that Paul here speaks of traditions: see Traditions and Tradition in the commentary on Mark 7:1.
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