First and Second Thessalonians

I. Introduction

The Derveni Krater

The Derveni Krater
Early 4th Century BCE

The two letters to the Thessalonians revealed differing views of the eschaton. First Thessalonians saw the Second Coming as sudden and salvation as instantaneous. Second Thessalonians envisioned the end times as a drawn out struggle where evil escalated and became embodied in an all powerful figure, the "Man of Lawlessness"; in the latter view, the future would get worse before it got better. The tension between the view of First Thessalonians (definitely Paul's work) and that of Second Thessalonians (where Paul's authorship was questionable) created a lively debate within scholarly circles as to the development of Christian thought on the end times.

First Thessalonians

II. Dating: late 51 CE at Corinth

See the commentary on 3:1-5 for more details.

III. Structure

The overall structure is ABCCBA. The two central divisions are also ABBA:

1 Thessalonians Directory

A. Step A1: Address and blessing (1:1)
B. Step B1: Thanksgiving and prayer (1:2-3)
C. Step C1: The visit and afterglow (1:4-3:13)
D. Step C2: Anticipation of and preaching on the Day of YHWH (4:1-5:22)
E. Step B2: Prayer for the end times (5:23-24)
F. Step A2: Closing: Request for prayer, greeting, and blessing (5:25-28)

As an aside, I should give credit for the Scripture text. The translation used in the text comes from the World English Bible, a version in the public domain (not copyrighted).

IV. Synopsis and Commentary

A. Step A1: Address and blessing (1:1)

1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the assembly of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul began his letter to the community at Thessalonki in his typical way; he included two companions in his greeting, Timothy and Silvanus (1 Thes 1:1).

B. Step B1: Thanksgiving and prayer (1:2-3)

2 We always give thanks to God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers, 3 remembering without ceasing your work of faith and labor of love and perseverance of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, before our God and Father.

Paul continually thanked ("eucharisteo" in Greek) God when he remembered the efforts of the community, defined in terms of the three theological virtues: faith, hope and love (1 Thes 1:2-3; 1 Cor 13).

C. Step C1: The visit and afterglow (1:4-3:13)

Visit Links

1. Chiasmus a1: Ready faith of the Thessalonians (1:4-10)
2. Chiasmus b1: Family relationship
between Paul and the community (2:1-20)

3. Chiasmus b2: Paul worried and sent Timothy (3:1-5)
4. Chiasmus a2: Paul rejoiced and prayed for the community (3:6-13)

1. Chiasmus a1: Ready faith of the Thessalonians (1:4-10)

4 We know, brothers loved by God, that you are chosen, 5 and that our Good News came to you not in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and with much assurance. You know what kind of men we showed ourselves to be among you for your sake. 6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all who believe in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For from you the word of the Lord has been declared, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone out, so that we need not to say anything. 9 For they themselves report concerning us what kind of a reception we had from you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead: Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come.

Paul focused upon the ready faith of the community. Chosen by God, they converted when they saw the gospel proclaimed in power and in the Spirit, as well as the deep faith of the apostle and his companions. They mimicked (the literal Greek word) Paul and his entourage despite great opposition. Their reputation spread as far as the northern (Macedonia) and western (Achaia) Aegean basin; they became models of Christian living, both in their willing hospitality towards Paul and their great piety, awaiting the Second Coming (1 Thes 1:4-10).

2. Chiasmus b1: Family relationship between Paul and the community (2:1-20)

1 For you yourselves know, brothers, our visit to you wasn't in vain, 2 but having suffered before and been shamefully treated, as you know, at Philippi, we grew bold in our God to tell you the Good News of God in much conflict. 3 For our exhortation is not of error, nor of uncleanness, nor in deception. 4 But even as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the Good News, so we speak—not as pleasing men, but God, who tests our hearts. 5 For neither were we at any time found using words of flattery, as you know, nor a cloak of covetousness (God is witness), 6 nor seeking glory from men (neither from you nor from others), when we might have claimed authority as apostles of Christ. 7 But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother cherishes her own children.

8 Even so, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not the Good News of God only, but also our own souls, because you had become very dear to us. 9 For you remember, brothers, our labor and travail; for working night and day, that we might not burden any of you, we preached to you the Good News of God. 10 You are witnesses with God how holy, righteously, and blamelessly we behaved ourselves toward you who believe. 11 As you know, we exhorted, comforted, and implored every one of you, as a father does his own children, 12 to the end that you should walk worthily of God, who calls you into his own Kingdom and glory.

After rough treatment in Philippi (1 Thes 2:1-2; Acts 16:11-10), Paul proclaimed the Good News to the Thessalonians not out of vanity or greed, but because of a divine commission (1 Thes 2:3-6; Gal 1:11-12). In fact, they did not impose upon the people there, but treated them gently, like a nursing mother, developing relationships and building a deepening fellowship of faith (1 Thes 2:7-8). He worked hard despite the hour to evangelize the people there and to encourage them to live moral lives, like a father encouraging his children (1 Thes 2:9-12). Notice the parenting motif; the developed a close sense of community like that of a family.

[Excluding 2:13-16?]

13 For this cause we also thank God without ceasing that when you received from us the word of the message of God, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, God's word, which also works in you who believe. 14 For you, brothers, became imitators of the assemblies of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus; for you also suffered the same things from your own countrymen, even as they did from the Jews 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and drove us out, and don't please God, and are contrary to all men, 16 forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved, to fill up their sins always. But wrath has come on them to the uttermost.

Some scholars question 1 Thes 2:13-16, asserting it was inserted after Paul wrote the letter. Thematically, 1 Thes 2:13 matched the previous passage; the Good News Paul preached came only from God and had an affect in the community. But, 1 Thes 2:14 turned towards the subject of severe persecution by the Jewish leadership on the churches in Judea; little historical evidence existed to make the claim. In Acts 12:1-23, the persecution of Herod Agrippa ended with his death in 44 CE while the letter was written six years later. Possibly the apostle applied the memory of the oppression by Herod as an analogy for the present opposition the Thessalonian faithful faced and employed the image to bind the congregation to himself. After all, exhorted the faithful to mimic the oppressed churches in Judea (notice he used the same word that he used in 1 Thes 1:6); like the incidents in Thessalonki, Jewish leaders tried to suppress evangelization. However, we must consider three details about the passage that might reveal later editing. First, the term "the Jews" in 1 Thes 2:14 was used in the same way John's gospel employed it, to imply separation and opposition; while Paul certainly did face oppression from non-believing Jews and "Judaizers," he did not express any sense of separation, considering himself a faithful son of Abraham. Second, the 1 Thes 2:16 took a sharp turn: "But the wrath arrived upon them in the end." The persecution mentioned in 2:14-16 referred to the chaotic conditions and random acts of violence that occurred in Palestine between the Jewish revolt in Jerusalem in 66 CE and the fall of the city to Roman forces in 70 CE (the "wrath arrived"). Third, if we read 2:1-12 the 2:17-20 (without 2:13-16), the passage flows smoothly. But, whether original or a later addition, the passage pointed to the steadfast spirit of the oppressed churches in Judea as an inspiration for the Thessalonian community.

17 But we, brothers, being bereaved of you for a short season in presence, not in heart, tried even harder to see your face with great desire, 18 because we wanted to come to you—indeed, I, Paul, once and again—but Satan hindered us. 19 For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Isn't it even you, before our Lord Jesus at his coming? 20 For you are our glory and our joy.

In 1 Thes 2:17-20, Paul returned to the affection he felt for the community there. He so desired to return to them but faced restricting circumstances he called evil ("Satan"). He loved them so that called them his "glory and joy" for they stood as his boast even before the Lord at the Second Coming.

3. Chiasmus b2: Paul worried and sent Timothy (3:1-5)

1 Therefore when we couldn't stand it any longer, we thought it good to be left behind at Athens alone, 2 and sent Timothy, our brother and God's servant in the Good News of Christ, to establish you and to comfort you concerning your faith, 3 that no one would be moved by these afflictions. For you know that we are appointed to this task. 4 For most certainly, when we were with you, we told you beforehand that we are to suffer affliction, even as it happened, and you know. 5 For this cause I also, when I couldn't stand it any longer, sent that I might know your faith, for fear that by any means the tempter had tempted you, and our labor would have been in vain.

In 1 Thes 3:1-5, Paul expressed his concerns for the faithful in Thessalonki and for his efforts there. He was willing to be alone in Athens (Acts 17:16-34), and sent Timothy (implicitly in Acts 17:14) to "strengthen and exhort" the community so they could withstand the pressures of opposition. Having warned the faithful about enemies, he explicitly worried about their steadfast spirit.

4. Chiasmus a2: Paul rejoiced and prayed for the community (3:6-13)

6 But Timothy has just now come to us from you, and brought us glad news of your faith and love, and that you have good memories of us always, longing to see us, even as we also long to see you. 7 For this cause, brothers, we were comforted over you in all our distress and affliction through your faith. 8 For now we live, if you stand fast in the Lord. 9 For what thanksgiving can we render again to God for you, for all the joy with which we rejoice for your sakes before our God, 10 night and day praying exceedingly that we may see your face and may perfect that which is lacking in your faith?

The return of Timothy and his glowing report about the conditions of the community in Thessalonki (1 Thes 3:6; Acts 18:5) relieved Paul's concerns. In addition, the apostle felt a mutual affection; they longed to see him and he them. That sense of family ties and shared faith strengthened him in his endeavors, no matter how difficult. How could he thank God for their faith and relationship? How he longed to return to them and teach them more about the faith? (1 Thes 3:6-10)

11 Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus Christ, direct our way to you. 12 May the Lord make you to increase and abound in love toward one another and toward all men, even as we also do toward you, 13 to the end he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

Because of their mutual relationship, Paul asked for God's blessings in two passive benedictions. In the first, he prayed for safe return to the city; "May our path to you" (1 Thes 3:11). In the second, he petitioned the Lord to deepen their mutual affection: "May the Lord increase and cause to overflow love...for all" (1 Thes 3:12). As a result of the benedictions, he desired that they stood fast in faith and morals at the Second Coming (1 Thes 3:13).

When we compare 1 Thes 3:1-2 with Acts 17:14, Acts 17:16 and 1 Thes 3:6 with Acts 18:1, Acts 18:5, we can focus upon the place and date Paul penned his first letter to the faithful at Thessalonki. He wrote it from Corinth during his second missionary journey in late 51 CE.

D. Step C2: Anticipation of and preaching on the Day of YHWH (4:1-5:22)

Day of YHWH Links

1. Chiasmus a1: Living the Christian life (4:1-12)
2. Chiasmus b1: Description of the Second Coming (4:13-18)
3. Chiasmus b2: Preparing for the Day of YHWH (5:1-11)
4. Chiasmus a2: Exhortation of relations
with leaders, each other, and God (5:12-22)

1. Chiasmus a1: Living the Christian life (4:1-12)

1 Finally then, brothers, we beg and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, that you abound more and more. 2 For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 3 For this is the will of God: your sanctification, that you abstain from sexual immorality, 4 that each one of you know how to control his own body in sanctification and honor, 5 not in the passion of lust, even as the Gentiles who don't know God, 6 that no one should take advantage of and wrong a brother or sister in this matter; because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as also we forewarned you and testified. 7 For God called us not for uncleanness, but in sanctification. 8 Therefore he who rejects this doesn't reject man, but God, who has also given his Holy Spirit to you.

Paul exhorted the community in three areas: personal chastity, relations with other believers and daily living (1 Thes 4:1, 1 Thes 4:10). First, he warned the faithful about sexual immorality, as if the Lord Jesus himself instructed them (notice the notion of direct revelation, connecting Paul's teaching with his Damascus vision; 1 Thes 4:2). He compared the immorality of the pagans to the self control expected of the Christian; that chastity acted not only as a means to keep passions in check and grow in "sanctity" but to dissuade scandal in the community (1 Thes 4:3-6). He reminded them about their calling in the matter and how they would suffer from God's wrath if they ignored his instructions. For Paul, sexual immorality proved a lack of the Spirit in the life of the believer (1 Thes 4:6-8).

9 But concerning brotherly love, you have no need that one write to you. For you yourselves are taught by God to love one another, 10 for indeed you do it toward all the brothers who are in all Macedonia. But we exhort you, brothers, that you abound more and more; 11 and that you make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, even as we instructed you, 12 that you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and may have need of nothing.

Next, Paul commented on mutual love between believers. He noticed the community acted as a model for shared affection to all in the Macedonian region (1 Thes 4:9-10).

Finally, Paul urged the faithful there to live quiet lives, avoid gossip and apply themselves to their trade. In this way, they could evangelize by example and be self-sufficient (1 Thes 4:11-12).

2. Chiasmus b1: Description of the Second Coming (4:13-18)

13 But we don't want you to be ignorant, brothers, concerning those who have fallen asleep, so that you don't grieve like the rest, who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. 15 For this we tell you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will in no way precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with God's trumpet. The dead in Christ will rise first, 17 then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. So we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.

Besides expressing his longing to return to Thessalonki, Paul wrote his letter to the community to answer some questions about the Second Coming, possibly ones that Timothy related upon his return from the city. The faithful had concerns about fellow Christians who had died (1 Thes 4:13). Just as Christ died and rose, so would they (1 Thes 4:14). And, at the divine sound, they would rise before the Lord. Notice Paul described the single sound (thunder) with three different military images: the command cry commencing the battle, the voice of a heavenly messenger of high rank and the trumpet blast that executed the command; also notice these images were not sequential but described the same event. Upon the command, those who died in Christ would rise before others (1 Thes 4:16). Notice the events Paul described did not occur sequentially (1 Thes 4:15) but simultaneously. The living who remained and the newly risen would be "snatched up" together "at the same time" to meet the Lord "in the air" and live in his presence (1 Thes 4:16). This future event referred to a general ascension that paralleled those Luke recorded (Luke 24:50-53, Acts 1:9-11); it assumed the ancient world view of the three tier universe (heaven, earth, underworld) where the clouds, planets and stars represented the heavenly realm. Paul gave this message to the Thessalonians for their mutual encouragement (1 Thes 4:17).

3. Chiasmus b2: Preparing for the Day of YHWH (5:1-11)

1 But concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need that anything be written to you. 2 For you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night. 3 For when they are saying, "Peace and safety," then sudden destruction will come on them, like birth pains on a pregnant woman. Then they will in no way escape. 4 But you, brothers, aren't in darkness, that the day should overtake you like a thief. 5 You are all children of light and children of the day. We don't belong to the night, nor to darkness, 6 so then let's not sleep, as the rest do, but let's watch and be sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep in the night; and those who are drunk are drunk in the night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let's be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet, the hope of salvation. 9 For God didn't appoint us to wrath, but to the obtaining of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him. 11 Therefore exhort one another, and build each other up, even as you also do.

Here Paul invoked two teachings about the Second Coming: timing and arrival. They did not know either the flow of events ("chronos" in Greek) or the exact moment of the end event ("kairos" that means "right time" in Greek; 1 Thes 5:1; Acts 1:7). Instead, the Lord would return unexpectedly, like a thief in the night (1 Thes 5:2; 2 Peter 3:10, Matt 24:42-44). Paul implied he already stressed these points when he evangelized the Thessalonians.

Paul proceeded to present a series of back-to-back images. He continued with the thief analogy but also added the image of child birth; those who lived comfortably would endure sudden tragedy like the onset of birth labor (1 Thes 5:3), so the faithful in the community should not be shocked when the day of the Lord came "like a thief" (1 Thes 5:4). He shifted to the image of light and darkness; believers were "children of light, children of the day...not of the night or the darkness" (1 Thes 5:4-5 paralleled in John 12:36; Dead Sea Scroll 1QS 3). Then, he turned to images of "sleep" as a metaphor for ignorance and death, of "drunkenness" for immorality. The faithful should remain awake and sober, not asleep (ignorant) or drunk (immoral); people did the latter in the darkness of the night (the time of ignorance and immorality; 1 Thes 5:7). He counter balanced the theme of the night with that of the day then quickly moved to a metaphor for military preparedness ("breastplate of faith and love" and our hope as a helmet for salvation" in 1 Thes 5:8, a reference to Isa 59:17). Since most ancient armies fought during the day as a matter of honor, Paul envisioned the final battle between the forces of light and darkness as a daytime engagement on the Day of YHWH. So, the theological virtues of faith, hope and love prepared the believers for their part in the cosmic face off between heavenly and demonic powers; these "righteous warriors" would not face defeat since they were not destined for divine wrath (1 Thes 5:9). But, because Christ died for them, they would rise up in his presence on the last day, whether "awake" (the knowledge of intimacy with the divine) or "asleep" (physically dead) in the Lord (1 Thes 5:10). These teachings should comfort them (1 Thes 5:11).

In the past two sections, Paul introduced the early Christian apocalyptic vision. Read from back to front, the vision began with preparation for the end times, described in the analogy of military readiness. Christians should "don the battle dress" of the theological virtues; the Essenes also lived a highly moral existence as a way to prepare for the apocalypse. The faithful were "sons of light, sons of the day," language not unlike that used by the Essenes in their self identification (compare the War Scroll 1QM with the Community Rule 1QS). The themes of preparation and self-identity, along with the description of the Day of YHWH as a military battle were part of the apocalyptic sub-culture within first century Judaism, shared by the disciples of the Nazarene and the inhabitants of Qumran.

However, the Christian outlook of the final battle diverged radically from that of the Essenes. While the Essenes foresaw victory as the restoration of the righteous to an earthly Israel (1QM), Christians envisioned it exclusively in terms of a risen afterlife. While the Essenes expected to fight a protracted land war (1QM), the followers of Jesus anticipated an instantaneous victory. For Christians, when the attack of divine forces happens, it would be sudden and unannounced "like a thief in the night" (1 Thes 5:2), catching the forces of evil off-guard. It would be instantaneous; at very moment of the military trumpet blast, the Lord would raise the righteous from the grave and take them along with the living faithful into the heavenly realm (1 Thes 4:16-17). The suddenness of the end times and singular preoccupation with resurrection marked the distinct outlook of Christian apocalypticism.

We should address one last question before we leave this passage: did Paul write it as a summary of his early preaching? Two details provided us with clues. First, 1 Thes 5:1-2 indicated he already preached the suddenness of the Second Coming, but it also implied he previously presented the other material in 5:1-11. Second, the compressed series of images (light and darkness, day and night, awake and asleep) also pointed to the familiarity of the audience with his message. If we assume this was the case, we can see much of Paul's kerygma during his second missionary journey consisted of his apocalyptic message, sans any controversy over circumcision or any apologia over his status as an apostle.

4. Chiasmus a2: Exhortation of relations with leaders, each other, and God (5:12-22)

12 But we beg you, brothers, to know those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to respect and honor them in love for their work's sake.

Be at peace among yourselves. 14 We exhort you, brothers: Admonish the disorderly; encourage the faint-hearted; support the weak; be patient toward all. 15 See that no one returns evil for evil to anyone, but always follow after that which is good for one another and for all.

16 Always rejoice. 17 Pray without ceasing. 18 In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus toward you. 19 Don't quench the Spirit. 20 Don't despise prophecies. 21 Test all things, and hold firmly that which is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.

In this section, Paul returned to the subject of Christian lifestyle with a series of exhortations. Respect the community leaders (1 Thes 5:12-13). Work towards community cohesion through admonition, encouragement and equanimity (1 Thes 5:14-15). Pray in joy and thanksgiving (1 Thes 5:16-18). Live in the Spirit but test all prophecies (1 Thes 5:19-21). Reject evil (1 Thes 5:22).

E. Step B2: Prayer for the end times (5:23-24)

23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

24 He who calls you is faithful, who will also do it.

Paul petitioned God for divine peace among the faithful and their purity until the Second Coming (1 Thes 5:23-24).

F. Step A2: Closing: Request for prayer, greeting, and blessing (5:25-28)

25 Brothers, pray for us.

26 Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss. 27 I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all the holy brothers.

28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.

Second Thessalonians

V. Dating: 70-90 CE?

Modern scholars argue over two different dates for the composition of Second Thessalonians, either closely after the First Thessalonians was written or towards the end of the first century CE. Dating depends upon a scholar's underlining assumption about the content of the second letter. Did the teaching in it represent a fully realized view of the end times that complimented the doctrine found in the first letter? Or did the focus on outside forces, especially the "Man of Lawlessness" represent a development in thought closer to that found in Revelation? To answer those questions, we must consider who the "Man of Lawlessness" meant to the readers of the letter and how Second Thessalonians compared to First Thessalonians in structure, grammar and theme.

1. The identity and impact of the "Man of Lawlessness."

a. The Emperor.

Vespasian (r 69-79)

Vespasian (r 69-79)

Let's begin our investigation into the "Man of Lawlessness" by comparing the sudden and instantaneous victory pictured in 1 Thes 4:16-5:2 with the progression of evil leading up to the Second Coming in 2 Thes 2:1-12. In the former, believers could not predict the end times. In the later, they could with the rise of increasing immorality led by a powerful leader. The phrase "Man of Lawlessness...Son of Destruction" (anthropos anomias...huios apolesias; 2 Thes 2:3) indicated this figure symbolized the immorality the author found in the general pagan culture. The leader was a law unto himself and did not heed the Law of God (hence, lawless). He had cache in society, politically, culturally and economically. And, he used that power to destroy, especially the Christian community (hence, "son of destruction," a term not unlike the Essenes' "son of darkness"). The only person who could incorporate such power in the Empire was the emperor.

Why did the emperor have such power? A hierarchy of clans surrounding the regent (in this case, the emperor) formed ancient society. This hierarchy created a pyramid; the imperial family sat at the top, next the rich aristocracy existed on the level beneath and, then, proceeding downward to the bottom, the poor who formed the base level. Social, economic and political arrangements between the levels glued the levels together, but ultimately the power of these arrangements flowed upward. While individuals defined themselves by their place within their clan and by their place of birth (not unlike many in the Middle East today) their loyalty and taxes belonged to the emperor. In many ways, a relationship with the emperor defined well-being. If a city desired an act of imperial largesse (in terms of infrastructure spending or tax relief), it had to assert its loyalty to the emperor. Thus, many pagan cities had temples dedicated to him and his family; a citizen would make an incense offering to the bust of the emperor both as a recognition that the gods themselves deigned his rule and as a patriotic act of allegiance to his rule. Sometimes for this quid pro quo, the emperor expected and ordered displays of such loyalty.

b. The Emperor and the Jews.

Titus (r 79-81 CE)

Titus (r 79-81 CE)

As a matter of general policy, Rome suspended the obligation of the incense offering for Jews in exchange for a daily sacrifice in the Temple petitioning YHWH for the efforts and well being of the emperor. But, about 40 CE, the emperor Caligula ordered a statue of his likeness built in the Temple. For Jews, this echoed the blasphemy of Antiochus Epiphanes IV who personally plundered the Temple in 169 BCE (1 Maccabees 1:20-23), ordered a suppression of the Jewish practices (1 Maccabees 1:41-50). In 167 BCE, he ordered the Temple to be rededicated as a shrine honoring Zeus. Idols of the gods adorned the building; Gentiles offered pagan sacrifices there and even celebrated ritual prostitution on the Temple grounds (2 Macabbees 6:2-5). While Caligula died before officials could enforce the order, his decree sparked images of a dark time from the past and fears that such an event could happen in the future. Indeed, in response to the Jewish uprising in the Great Jewish War (66-70 CE), Titus, son of the emperor and Vespasian and future emperor himself, plundered the Temple and destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE.

This background shaded relations between Jews and their Roman rulers, which were tenuous in the 50's CE. The imperial government rotated an increasing number of corrupt and unpopular governors into Judea during the decade. As already mentioned, Claudius most likely banished many Jews and Christians from Rome because fights broke out between the groups over the assertion of Jesus as Lord (49 CE). The government began to notice Christianity as a unique sect growing out of Judaism. In response to this situation, Paul urged the community in Rome to pay taxes and honor those in authority (Rom 13:1-7; later writings echoed the sentiment in 1 Tim 2:1-2 and 1 Pet 2:13-17). Jews and their Christian co-nationals like Paul seemed of two minds. On the one hand, they remembered the blasphemies of the past and the possibility of their occurrence in the near future. On the other hand, they had to live peacefully within the confines of Roman rule to survive and thrive.

c. The Emperor and Christians.

Memories of past injustice and the need to get along, however, did not explain how the notion of the "Man of Lawlessness" came to be. Yes, Jews did identify individual demons as the embodiment of evil, whether Satan or Belial (for the Essenes), but they did not associate a human figure as the representative of such demonic leaders. The notion that a particular human embodied evil grew exclusively out of the Christian movement, no matter whether the person was the "Man of Lawlessness" or the second "Beast" of Revelation (Rev 13:11-18).

Nero (r 54-68)

Nero (r 54-68)

2 Thes 2:6-8 foresaw the emperor-like leader rising up in the future. Who could this figure be? Many scholars hold the number of the Beast, 666 (Rev 13:18), was a numerological symbol for "Nero Caesar" in Aramaic. Even after the death of that emperor in 68 CE, many expected him to rise up again; several rebels pretending to be Nero led revolts and such writing as the Sibylline Oracles and those of Dio Chrysostom (40-115 CE) referred to the "Nero Redivivus" (Nero Reborn) legend.

The emperor figure would lead the rebellion not only against the social order, but against the divine order. The defeat of such a leader (2 Thes 2:8, Rev 19:18-20) changed the reason for the Day of YHWH. 2 Thes 1:5-10 shifted the notion of divine judgment as escape from present immorality of culture (1 Thes 4:13-18) to retribution, not unlike the theme found in Rev 16:5-7 and Rev 19:2. God would not only save the faithful from the evil, but would purify his creation from such pollution with a fiery judgment.

The idea of a human as the embodiment of ultimate evil evolved. In the second century CE, the church fathers Irenaeus and Hippolytus combined the "Man of Lawlessness," the Beast in Revelation (Rev 13:11-18) and the Antichrist in letters of John (1 John 2:18; 1 John 2:22; 1 John 4:2-3; 2 John 1:7) into our traditional view of the Antichrist as the ultimate evil human being.

d. The Emperor and the Destruction of the Temple

Up to this point, we've considered the "Man of Lawlessness" as an emperor figure. Yet, we must still answer the problem of the Temple which that man would blaspheme. The verses in question are:

3 Let no one deceive you by any possible means. For the apostasy should not come and (he) should not be revealed, the man of lawlessness, the son of destruction, 4 opposing and exalting (himself) over (that) being called (a) god or object of worship, so to seat himself in the Temple of God, that he is God.

2 Thessalonians 2:3-4

2:3b-4 This long sentence had two main clauses, "apostasy should not come" and "(he) should not be revealed." Note the negative subjunctives of each clause implicitly indicate future action. The subject of the second clause ("he") was " the man of lawlessness, the son of destruction" but, since the verb of clause is in the passive, the implied subject was actually God. The Lord would reveal the figure as evil.

Notice the participial phrase "opposing and exalting" was in the present tense, active mood. In other words, the figure was already opposing and exalting. The revelation of the lawless figure did not depend upon his arrogance as he sat on the divine judgment seat in the Temple. He committed blasphemy in the present; his divine unmasking would occur at the end of time.

2:4 "being called (a) god...Temple of God, that he is God" The noun "theos" (God) lacked the definite article ("the"). So, it could be translated as "being called God or object of worship, so to seat himself in the Temple of God, that he is God." Or as "being called (a) god or object of worship, so to seat himself in the temple of (a) god, that he is (a) god."

"to seat himself" The throne represented the power to legislate and judge. To seat oneself on a throne indicated arrogance summed up in the phrase "to cease the throne." To seat oneself in a temple equated one to the gods.

The phrase "Man of Lawlessness, Son of Destruction" had meaning beyond Christian circles. To Jews, it summed up the activity of the Flavian dynasty during the Great Jewish War. As mentioned above, Vespasian (ruled 69-79 CE) rose to power during his campaign in Palestine, only to have his son and future emperor, Titus (ruled 79-81 CE), complete the conquest, including the sack of Jerusalem. Not only these men individually, but the emperor as a symbolic figure represented an institution which had no respect for the Law of YHWH and left destruction in its wake, truly the "man of lawlessness, son of destruction."

Zeus on Temple Throne

Zeus on Temple Throne
St. Petersburg, Russia

While the emperors in the first century CE did not personally identify themselves as divine, they did not discourage imperial worship cults and the building of temples in the East to that cult. The Greeks had adopted ruler worship from the Persians, based upon the assumption that society was not only economically and culturally hierarchical, but also morally and ontologically. In other words, the common people saw the ruling elite not only as their betters, but closer to the gods, even equal to the divine. After all, the elite ruled based upon divine will. Hence, it made sense to worship rulers. Some pagans within the Empire had no problem hailing the emperor figure as "dominus et deus" (lord and god).

From a Roman point of view, the Great Jewish War represented more than the suppression of a civil uprising and shoring up the Empire's eastern flank. It was a test of the gods. The god of the victor which inspirited imperial troops defeated the god of the vanquished. In the case of the war, Roma, the patron goddess of imperial city, crushed YHWH; her power and that of pagan deities flowed through Vespasian and, by extension, his son, Titus.

Temple Menorah Plundered

Temple Menorah Plundered
Titus Arch, Rome

In 75 CE, the Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote a pivot moment in the Great Jewish War. In the late summer of 70 CE, Roman troops breached the walls of Jerusalem and set fire to the Temple. Titus entered Temple to inspect is contents:

And now, since (the future) Caesar was no way able to restrain the enthusiastic fury of the soldiers, and the fire proceeded on more and more, he went into the holy place of the temple, with his commanders; and saw it, with what was in it: which he found to be far superior to what the relations of foreigners contained; and not inferior to what we ourselves boasted of, and believed about it.

(Josephus "Jewish War" 6.265)

This passage summed up 2:4 for Christians and Jews. The future emperor who some hailed as "dominus et deus" entered the burning Temple to assess its booty which he would plunder, thus asserting dominance not only over its contents but over its God. Metaphorically, he, not YHWH, "sat on the throne" of the Temple. This image, memorialized in the destroyed edifice and on the inside reliefs of the Titus Arch in Rome, declared presence of the pagan divine will in him.

In a sense, then, 2:4b had been fulfilled. The emperor figure, in the form of Titus, had entered God's Temple (lawlessly blaspheming the holy space), arrogantly asserted his power ("sat down" on the divine throne), and, in an act of destruction, symbolically proclaimed himself the finger of pagan divinity. For that moment, frozen in time midst the Temple ruins, the pagans thought he was God.

Thus, 2 Thes 2:3-4 did not depend upon a rebuilt Temple. The reality of the blasphemy already existed in the rubble of Jerusalem.

2. Stylistic similarities and differences between Second and First Thessalonians.

Second Thessalonians shared a very similar structure with that found in First Thessalonians. Both share a ABCCBA chiastic form. Both have almost word-for-word greetings (1 Thes 1:1; 2 Thes 1:1-2). But, besides the petition for the Lord's peace (1 Thes 5:28; 2 Thes 3:18), they had dissimilar themes in their farewells; 1 Thes 5:23-27 implicitly expected the immanent return of the Lord and prayed for the faithfulness of the community; 2 Thes 3:16-17 lacked any such expectation or prayer.

Second Thessalonians subtly expanded the position of Christ from First Thessalonians. It attributed power to Christ (2 Thes 2:16; 2 Thes 3:5) normally held only by the Father, thus making them co-equal; 1 Thes 3:11-13 was the only instance where one could find such equal footing.

Unlike the rest of the Pauline corpus (with the exception of the Pastoral letters), Second Thessalonians lacked the abrupt changes, apologetic stances and diatribes the apostle usually wrote; its author composed it with a single eschatological focus in mind. And that theme did not find its way into the letter to the Ephesians which did sum up authentic Pauline subjects. Finally, Second Thessalonians contained unique phrases and wording not found in any other New Testament book.

3. Conclusion.

Besides a similar structure to First Thessalonians, only two passages from Second Thessalonians created a strong case for Paul's authorship. First, 2 Thes 1:1 identified the subjects of the letter as "Paul, Silvanus and Timothy." If we assume the Greek "Silvanus" in Thessalonian letters and the Latin "Silas" in Acts were the same person, we could date the letter during the same missionary journey as First Thessalonians (Acts 17:1-15; Acts 18:5; early 52 CE). Second, the author identified himself as "I, Paul, (who) write the greeting in my (own) hand, which is thus (my) sign in every epistle (I compose)" (2 Thes 3:17). This personal signature only occurred in First Corinthians, Galatians, Colossians, Philemon and Second Thessalonians.

Besides likeness in structure and these two passages, nothing in letter indicated Paul's authorship. The shift in subject indicated an evolving view of the eschaton from the personal and immediate to the adversarial and long term; belief in the end times shifted from inside the community to outside. The vision of an emperor-like figure who embodied evil fit the environment of the late first century CE; even the pagan populace speculated that the Nero who persecuted the Christians in Rome during the summer of 64 CE (Tacitus' "Annals") would return in glory. Paul's tolerant attitude towards emperor was missing in the letter. The tone and terms differed from any other epistle attributed to Paul.

So, did Paul write Second Thessalonians and present a message that expanded his end time message? Or did another author forge the apostle's name on a later work? While dating the letter remains highly controversial, I lean towards the latter theory, placing composition as pseudographia approximately between 70-90 CE.

VI. Structure

The overall structure is ABCCBA.

2 Thessalonians Directory

A. Step A1: Salutations (1:1-2)
B. Step B1: Judgment at the Second Coming 1:3-12
C. Step C1: The "Man of Lawlessness" and the end times (2:1-15)
D. Step C2: Mutual prayers (2:16-3:5)
E. Step B2: Exhortation to work and shun the idle (3:6-15)
F: Step A2: Benediction and signature (3:16-18)

VII. Synopsis and Commentary

A. Step A1: Salutations (1:1-2)

1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the assembly of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The salutation of 2 Thes 1:1-2 matched that of 1 Thes 1:1. Paul, Silvanus and Timothy greeted the community and wished peace upon them. It included the phrase "God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."

B. Step B1: Judgment at the Second Coming 1:3-12

1. Chiasmus A1: Boast of steadfast faithfulness (1:3-4)

3 We are bound to always give thanks to God for you, brothers, even as it is appropriate, because your faith grows exceedingly, and the love of each and every one of you toward one another abounds, 4 so that we ourselves boast about you in the assemblies of God for your perseverance and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions which you endure.

The author began his remarks with a compliment to the church at Thessalonki. In the face of outside opposition, their assembly flourished, both in steadfast faith and cohesiveness (2 Thes 1:3-4).

2. Chiasmus B: Comfort and retribution at the Second Coming (1:5-10)

5 This is an obvious sign of the righteous judgment of God, to the end that you may be counted worthy of God's Kingdom, for which you also suffer. 6 For it is a righteous thing with God to repay affliction to those who afflict you, 7 and to give relief to you who are afflicted with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, 8 punishing those who don't know God, and to those who don't obey the Good News of our Lord Jesus, 9 who will pay the penalty: eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes in that day to be glorified in his saints and to be admired among all those who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.

The author insisted that the growth mentioned above proved God would right the scales of justice in the end (2 Thes 1:5). At the Second Coming, God would avenge the faithful for the suffering they endured and would give them relief (2 Thes 1:6-7). Those who did not have an intimate relationship with God ("know" him) or heed the Good News would suffer eternal hell fire (2 Thes 1:8-9). The saved would receive glory because they took the testimony of the author to heart (2 Thes 1:10).

Notice the shift in tone from 1 Thes 4:13-5:2 and this section. In the former passage, Paul described salvation as sudden and divisive; the Lord would sweep the living and risen saints into heaven, yet did not mention the fate of the non-believers. In this passage, the author considered the fate of the lost in everlasting flames of punishment; he painted the saved as those who endured and finally received glory. The focus turned from just those in the community to their relationship with hostile neighbors.

3. Chiasmus A2: Prayer for faithfulness (1:11-12)

11 To this end we also pray always for you that our God may count you worthy of your calling, and fulfill every desire of goodness and work of faith with power, 12 that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The author prayed that God would empower the community and its activities so the reputation of Christ (verbal "glory") would intensify ("you in him and he in you") and implcitly spread (2 Thes 1:11-12).

C. Step C1: The "Man of Lawlessness" and the end times (2:1-15)

1. Chiasmus A1: Caution to news of Second Coming (2:1-2)

1 Now, brothers, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to him, we ask you 2 not to be quickly shaken in your mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter as if from us, saying that the day of Christ has already come.

The author cautioned believers in the community in the face of rumor, spread either by letter or by word of mouth (2 Thes 2:1-2).

2. Chiasmus B: Man of Lawlessness (2:3-12)

3 Let no one deceive you in any way. For it will not be unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction. 4 He opposes and exalts himself against all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, setting himself up as God. 5 Don't you remember that when I was still with you, I told you these things?

In this passage, the author continued with his focus on the non-believers when he introduced the "Man of Lawlessness" (the Greek "anthropos tas anomias" in the earliest manuscripts) or "Man of Sin" ("anthropos tas harmantias" in later but more numerous texts). He not only addressed the fate of unsaved but poured all the evils of the non-believers into a single figure who would lead the masses in a rebellion against God and commit the highest of blasphemies: declaring himself to be the highest God in the Temple of YHWH (2 Thes 2:3-4). The author insisted this figure was part of the kerygma he previously preached to them (2 Thes 2:5).

6 Now you know what is restraining him, to the end that he may be revealed in his own season. 7 For the mystery of lawlessness already works. Only there is one who restrains now, until he is taken out of the way.

Like 1 Thes 4:13-5:11, the author began with the end times then moved backwards to consider the present concerns of the community in light of the teaching. But, instead of focusing on the moral "training" of the faithful, he set his sights on the immorality of the outsiders. The revelation of the "Man of Lawlessness" was restrained until the time "he is taken out of their midst" (2 Thes 2:6-7; Dead Sea Scroll 1Q20 1). This was a curious passage. Who or what restrained the "Man of Lawlessness"? The Spirit or the socio-political situation in the Empire? And, what did the phrase "he is taken out of their midst" mean? Who was taken out? The "Man of Lawlessness" or the agency that restrained his coming? These questions have tied the opinions of scholars in knots, but the underlining message remained clear. The appearance of the "Man of Lawlessness" was delayed, but the underlining power of wickedness was at work (2 Thes 2:7).

8 Then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will kill with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the manifestation of his coming; 9 even he whose coming is according to the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, 10 and with all deception of wickedness for those who are being lost, because they didn't receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. 11 Because of this, God sends them a powerful delusion, that they should believe a lie, 12 that they all might be judged who didn't believe the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.

When the "Man of Lawlessness" did arrive, he would reveal his presence in demonic signs and wonders which would lead non-believers astray (2 Thes 2:9-10). God would allow such a deception that permitted people to reveal their true character, some as those who "delighted in evil" (2 Thes 2:11-12). In the end, the Lord (Jesus) would destroy the "Man of Lawlessness" and any evidence of his existence with the power of the Good News ("the breathe of his mouth"; 2 Thes 2:8).

3. Chiasmus A2: Thanksgiving and exhortation (2:13-15)

13 But we are bound to always give thanks to God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief in the truth, 14 to which he called you through our Good News, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold the traditions which you were taught by us, whether by word or by letter.

The author thanked God for his brothers, beloved by God and "first fruits" of salvation. Notice the language of sacrifice that led to glory; these fellow believers were saved by the activity of the Spirit (calling them "through our gospel") and by their faith (2 Thes 2:13-14). In the face of opposition, he exhorted the faithful "to stand firm and hold onto the traditions" he taught them, either verbally or by letter (2 Thes 2:15).

D. Step C2: Mutual prayers (2:16-3:5)

16 Now our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, 17 comfort your hearts and establish you in every good work and word.

1 Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified, even as also with you, 2 and that we may be delivered from unreasonable and evil men; for not all have faith. 3 But the Lord is faithful, who will establish you and guard you from the evil one. 4 We have confidence in the Lord concerning you, that you both do and will do the things we command. 5 May the Lord direct your hearts into God's love and into the perseverance of Christ.

The author prayed for the community's comfort and ethical productivity (2 Thes 2:16-17). Then he asked for a reciprocal petition, that the Christian message spread by word-of-mouth ("the word of God may speed ahead and be glorified") and that he might find relief from opponents (2 Thes 3:1-2). He had confidence in the faith of the community; he ended the passage with a prayer directing them to God's love and Christ's faithfulness (2 Thes 3:3-5).

E. Step B2: Exhortation to work and shun the idle (3:6-15)

6 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw yourselves from every brother who walks in rebellion and not after the tradition which they received from us. 7 For you know how you ought to imitate us. For we didn't behave ourselves rebelliously among you, 8 neither did we eat bread from anyone's hand without paying for it, but in labor and travail worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you. 9 This was not because we don't have the right, but to make ourselves an example to you, that you should imitate us. 10 For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: "If anyone is not willing to work, don't let him eat." 11 For we hear of some who walk among you in rebellion, who don't work at all, but are busybodies. 12 Now those who are that way, we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ, that they work with quietness and eat their own bread.

13 But you, brothers, don't be weary in doing what is right. 14 If any man doesn't obey our word in this letter, note that man and have no company with him, to the end that he may be ashamed. 15 Don't count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.

This passage paralleled the author's commendation on the community's adherence to the Christian message about the Second Coming (2 Thes 1:3-4). But some in the community took the message too far. In their desire to see the coming of the Lord, they stopped working, depended upon others to support them and filled their time with gossip. The author gave them two pieces of advice. First, excommunicate the idle for they did not follow the "tradition" set by the author's example; in this case, "tradition" did not consist of the Good News itself, but in the lifestyle he modeled (2 Thes 3:6-9). Second, insist the idle work for their food and, thus engaged, cease their gossip (2 Thes 3:10-12). Notice the tension between anticipating the Second Coming too literally and the necessity to make a living; this struggle has surfaced from time to time throughout the history of Christianity, even as late as the year 2000.

F: Step A2: Benediction and signature (3:16-18)

16 Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in all ways. The Lord be with you all.

17 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand, which is the sign in every letter. This is how I write. 18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

The author ended the letter with a brief benediction and a signature of authenticity.

VIII. Conclusion

The two views of the end times represented differing ends of the spectrum. In First Thessalonians, Paul summed up his early kerygma and sought to calm the concerns of the community about their fate and that of their deceased loved ones. In Second Thessalonians, the author expanded the vision of the eschaton to include social and political forces, declaring both ungodly. This shift paralleled other changes the Church experienced in the apostolic era in language, demographics and the concentration in urban life. But the easiest way to explain the shift lie in the status of the Church in the post-apostolic era (>70 CE). The Empire realized it was no longer a movement within Judaism, but a new religion whose beliefs and practices challenged the social order. As such, communities of the faithful experienced prejudice and rejection at best, persecution at worst. Instead of seeing salvation within an evil environment, now many Christians saw institutions of the Empire as the enemy, including the emperor himself.


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Photo Attributions

Titus Arch with Plunder. By Dnalor 01 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 at,

The Derveni Krater from Fourth Century BCE Thessalonica. Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]

Bust of Nero. cjh1452000 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Zeus on Temple Throne. Sanne Smit [Public domain]

Bust of Titus. Sailko [CC BY 3.0 (]

Bust of Vespasian. Originally uploaded by user:shakko [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]