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An Introduction to the New Testament



Occasion. The eagerness and zeal with which the Thessalonians had welcomed the gospel (I Thess. 1:5-9) had actually run away with some of them. These persons were so convinced that a new age had dawned that they had given up work and were absorbed in waiting for the return of the Messiah on the clouds of heaven. This threw a heavy burden upon their more practical brothers in the church, who felt obliged to provide for their material wants. Paul had been warned of the danger of this development before he wrote I Thessalonians and had touched upon it in I Thess. 4:11, 12, hoping to prevent it from becoming acute. But a few months later it developed into more serious proportions.

It had its origin in the idea which had sprung up in Thessalonica, perhaps from something Paul had said or was reported to have said, that the Day of the Lord, foretold by the prophets, had now come. In a sense this was true. For if the great messianic Day was to be that on which the Christ came to the earth, one might well think it had come, since he had come, in the person of Jesus.

The group at Thessalonica thought of it in other


terms, however. They believed the messianic age had begun, and that the messianic reorganization was now so imminent that they might better give themselves to religious reflection and contemplation than to mundane matters like earning their daily bread. This threw a heavy strain upon their more practical fellow Christians, who had to support them as well as themselves. This was not all. Not all of those who had given up earning their living devoted themselves to spiritual exercises. There was just as much human nature in the first century as there is now, and leisure as well as labor has its temptations. So the Thessalonian drones became a cause of scandal in the community, not only because they let their Christian brothers support them but because they were getting to be loafers and busybodies.

News of this situation soon came to Paul at Corinth, and he dealt with it promptly and energetically in a second letter to Thessalonica, written not long after I Thessalonians, probably in the year 50. There was no place in his practice or teaching for such a proceeding. His own life was a marvel of efficient, independent energy. He earned his living by his trade and preached the gospel in his leisure hours. So far from looking to the Jerusalem church to support him in his missionary travels and labors, he himself used to raise money to send back to them for their Christian poor. He was about the last man in the world to have any sympathy for the present course of these Thessalonian adventists.

Of course, he was an adventist too; he believed in the speedy return of Jesus in messianic splendor, to


judge the world and adjust its wrongs. He also believed that the Messiah had already come, but he held that as he had not performed the characteristic messianic function of judgment, he must come again to perform it. That would indeed be the Day of the Lord, foretold by the prophets, for with them that Day had always been described as a Day of Judgment.

Of the use to be made of the short interval between these two messianic comings, the coming of Jesus and the Day of Judgment, Paul and the Thessalonian adventists took opposite views. They thought it had better be spent in reflection, religious exercises, and self-preparation. Paul thought it should be spent in making the Christian salvation known as widely as possible in the Greek world. His aim was to become everything to everybody, so as by all means to save some of them. The Thessalonian idlers looked within and saw their own sinful hearts, all unready for the messianic advent. Paul looked without and saw a world of men and women who might be saved in time.

Paul had already written the Thessalonians that the Day was coming without any warning and like a thief in the night, I Thess. 5:2. In the stress of the new situation, however, he somewhat modifies that opinion. Out of his Jewish inheritance, which had already given him his doctrine of the coming of the Messiah to judge the world and usher in the Day of the Lord, he now brings forward another apocalyptic doctrine—the Antichrist.

It is true the word "Antichrist" is not used by Paul, either here or elsewhere in his letters, nor has it ever


been found in earlier literature, Jewish or Christian. Its first recorded occurrences are in I and II John (I, 2:18, 22; 4:3; II, 7), which were written probably sixty years later than II Thessalonians. But Jewish messianic thought dramatically pictured the long conflict between right and wrong, good and evil, as culminating in a gigantic duel between the two embodiments of the rival forces. Evil would indeed wax worse and worse, until at length the champion of wickedness, the Antichrist, would appear and assume control. And then the Christ would come and in a great conflict with Antichrist overthrow him and his whole regime. This Antichrist some believed would arise out of the tribe of Dan; it is a curious fact that in Rev. 7:4-8 Dan is not included among the tribes of Israel. The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Dan 5:6,10 (100-50 B.C.), also rather suggest this: "I have read in the book of Enoch, the righteous, that your prince is Satan, .... And there shall arise unto you from the tribe of Judah and of Levi the salvation of the Lord, and he shall make war against Beliar." We should compare also Gen. 49:17, Jer. 8:16, and Dan. 11:36. But the fact remains that the classical passage for this Antichrist doctrine is the second chapter of II Thessalonians.

To this very Jewish idea Paul now appeals to convince the Thessalonian idlers that the Day of the Lord has not come, at least in the sense that they suppose. For the Antichrist has not yet appeared and made the triumph of evil really complete. It is true his work is developing, and he is soon to come, but just now for


a time something and someone are holding him back. When these restraining forces are withdrawn, he will come in all his pretension and deception and for a time prevail, only to be destroyed by the Messiah at his coming.

But since this Embodiment of Disobedience has not yet unmistakably appeared, and since his appearance must, according to the messianic program, precede that of the Messiah, then evidently the final coming of the Messiah cannot have taken place.

This curious doctrine is worked out with Paul's usual trenchant boldness in II Thessalonians, chapter 2. He proceeds in chapter 3 to draw from it some practical inferences.

Contents. As in the first letter, Silvanus and Timothy are associated with Paul in writing II Thessalonians, 1:1, 2. The opening expression of thanksgiving for the Thessalonians' faith, love, and steadfastness in persecution leads to denunciation of their persecutors, who will be terribly punished in the approaching messianic judgment, 1:3-12.

They must not suppose that the Day of the Lord has come; that will not be until the Embodiment of Disobedience appears, for his coming is to precede that of the Messiah who is to overthrow him. He is, in fact, already at work but is being temporarily held in check. Presently he will make his appearance, with all his pretended signs and wonders, only to be destroyed by the Lord Jesus, the true Messiah, when he in turn makes his appearance upon the scene, 2:1-12. After renewed thanksgiving for their divine election


and an exhortation to steadfastness, the main part of the letter closes with a benediction, 2:13-17.

Paul asks them to pray for his work in Corinth and expresses his confidence in them, 3:1-5. The practical side of their situation is then dealt with: they are not to countenance idlers in their number. They must remember Paul's own course. He ate nobody's bread without paying for it. He worked night and day to keep from being a burden to any of them. He might as their teacher have claimed the right to be supported by them, but he would not do this, for he wanted to set them an example by his own conduct. He repeats the rule he had given them when he was at Thessalonica: "If anyone refuses to work, give him nothing to eat." In the most solemn way he charges the idlers to go to work again and earn their own living. The brothers who have been supporting them are not to get tired of helping the really needy. But any who will not obey Paul's order, they are to have nothing to do with. Not that they are to look upon them as enemies; they are still to warn them as brothers, 3:6-16. Paul's autograph greeting concludes the letter, 3:17, 18.

Problems. Two objections have been brought against the authenticity of II Thessalonians. One is the apocalyptic objection. It is pointed out that in I Thessalonians Paul declares that the Day is coming without any warning at all; it will be like a thief in the night. Everyone will be saying "What peace and safety!" when suddenly destruction will be upon them. All anyone can do is to be vigilant and composed. But now, in II Thessalonians, he declares that


there will be some warning, in the coming of the Antichrist with his pretended signs and wonders and his claim of being God himself. Some scholars feel that the inconsistency between these two positions is so great that they cannot have been held by the same man.

If we were to view Paul's writings dogmatically and to assume that he could never alter his position under the stress of circumstances, but must always and everywhere have agreed with himself, this objection might be valid. But if we view Paul historically, as a man of great power and sincerity and strength, grappling vigorously with immediate personal conditions that were constantly changing, we shall find no difficulty here. Paul's letters are not to be viewed like a textbook on mathematics or even dogmatics. And it is precisely the best and wisest of men who honestly and sincerely shift their ground as circumstances may demand. Moreover, this is simply another piece of that same Jewish apocalyptic messianism—the Messiah coming on the clouds of heaven to execute judgment and usher in the Day of the Lord—with which Paul was clearly saturated.

The idea of a restraining influence, that is now holding the Antichrist back, is another important element in the situation. The way in which it is mentioned—now as impersonal, 2:6; now as personal, 2:7—somewhat suggests that the Roman Empire and emperor are thought of as holding the forces of evil in check for a time, until this restraining force is overridden by the powers of evil. Paul shows in Romans that he believes in obeying the emperor and his governors, 13:1-10.


But after Nero's outbreak against the church in Rome, in August of 64, it is difficult to see how anybody could any longer have conceived the Empire as a beneficent force restraining the full triumph of evil. Even I Peter, loyal as it is, takes a comparatively chastened view of it.

We must not be content to set aside an ancient writing as not authentic; some better place in the history of early Christian literature must then be found for it, for we are seeking to interpret these documents, and to do that we must discover their place in history—the date and circumstances of their composition. No one has found a better place or date for II Thessalonians than Corinth about A.D. 50. In view of these considerations most serious students of II Thessalonians now give little weight to the apocalyptic objection.

But another objection has been raised of a very different kind; in fact, it is almost the exact opposite of the apocalyptic objection. It is the psychological objection. The two letters, we are told, are too much alike to have been written by one man, especially a man so full of originality and freshness as the author of Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans. Not only are the letters alike in plan with a sonorous benediction, perhaps two-thirds or three-fifths of the way through, marking the close of the doctrinal part—I Thess. 3:11-13; II Thess. 2:16, 17—but many sayings of the first letter are repeated in the second. Thus I Thess. 2:9 is practically repeated in II Thess. 3:8, and in both letters much is said about thanking God for the Thessalonians, I, 1:2; 2:13; 3:9; compare II, 1:3; 2:13.


References to Jesus' messianic return are met with in both letters, I, 1:10; 3:13; 4:13-17; 5:23; compare II 1:7-10; 2:1, 8, 14. In both letters the church is suffering ill-treatment and persecution, I, 2:14; compare II, 1:4-6.

But in writing again within a few months to the same group, some repetition would be inevitable, and the contrasting character of II Thessalonians, chapter 2 certainly makes the second letter anything but a feeble copy of the first. The second letter has too much of the characteristic Pauline trenchant vigor (see chap. 2) to be dismissed as an imitation, and the developed situation above described sufficiently accounts for such resemblances as there are. So the psychological objection, like the apocalyptic, fails to disturb the authenticity of II Thessalonians.

Paul must, of course, have written many private letters before I and II Thessalonians, but they are the earliest of his letters that have been preserved. The Thessalonians read them and valued them so much that they preserved them, perhaps with the rolls of the Greek Old Testament which were their first scriptures . But forty years were to pass before these letters were published and made any impression upon the general Christian thought of the first century. To the Thessalonians they were just private letters to them from their great teacher, worth preserving, indeed, and occasionally re-reading but never meant for a wider circulation. So these letters, like all of Paul's, fell into the soil of the early church, did their work, and for a time disappeared.


The fact that our earliest Christian writings are personal letters carries with it two considerations that bear upon their interpretation and use. For one thing we must expect to find them difficult to understand. Professor Grenfell once remarked that of all papyrus documents private letters were the most difficult to understand and interpret. This is entirely natural, of course, for they necessarily assume a common background of situation and information possessed only by the writer and the particular person or group to which he writes. On the other hand, such letters are also the most trustworthy of all historical sources, for they are written not to be published but simply for the people addressed in them. They actually reflect immediate historical situations. If, then, there are in Paul's letters some things hard to understand, as II Peter long ago pointed out, [1] we shall be more than compensated by the original, first-hand character of their contents, which constitutes them historical documents of the first order.


Bousset, W. The Antichrist Legend: A Chapter in Jewish and Christian Folklore, trans. A. H. Keane (London, 1896).

Brooke, A. E. The Johannine Epistles (New York, 1912), pp. 69-79.

Dobschutz, Ernst von. Die Thessalonicher-Briefe (Gottingen, 1909).

Frame, James E. Epistles of St. Paul to the Thessalonians; (New York, 1912).

Milligan, George. St. Paul's Epistles to the Thessalonians (London, 1908).

[1] II Pet. 3:15, 16.

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