The Apostle Paul wrote this letter to a group of Christians who lived in the Greek city of Thessalonica, known today as Thessaloniki. Paul traveled there to share the good news of Jesus, having just been released from prison in Philippi. It was in Philippi that Paul and Silas were beaten and locked up without a trial. But once city officials realized that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were released and told to get out. So Paul and Silas travelled 100 miles on the Ignatian highway to preach the gospel in Thessalonica.
The city of Thessalonica was a prosperous place and capital of one of the four Roman provinces. It was a free city where citizens were able to choose their own rulers. As soon as Paul arrived, he preached that Jesus was the Savior who had suffered and died for our sins and was raised to life. After three weeks, many people believed, but others were enraged, and a mob started a riot. Paul was chased out of Thessalonica too, but he left behind a new community of believers.
Out of deep concern for them, Paul wrote two letters which are now part of the New Testament. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul addressed issues of increased persecution the new believers experienced, and their confusion over the timing of Christ’s return. This is not a mystical prophecy written in secret code. Simply put, this is a letter, written by a pastor, trying to comfort God’s people, and keep them from coming unhinged as they experience suffering.
Apart from the greeting (1:1-2) and the benediction (3:16-18), the pericopes are probably best aligned with the chapter divisions. Each has a logical flow of thought, and is marked by clear transitions. For example, chapter 2 begins with “Now concerning the coming of our Lord….” Chapter 3 starts with “Finally, brothers….” As a result, three of the following four series outline examples treat each chapter as one preaching pericope.
Text: 2 Thessaloians 1:1-12
Title: God Promises Relief for His People
Big Idea 1: When you face trials and endure in faith, you can see God was right, you belong to him.
Big Idea 2: You can endure, relieved by the fact that Jesus will be revealed.
Text: 2 Thessalonians 2:1-17
Title: God Offers Stability to His People
Big Idea 1: If God’s people are disturbed, it is usually because they have been deceived.
Big Idea 2: If you are in emotional turmoil, ask yourself: “What lies am I believing?”
Hold on to these glimpses of the future so you will not be deceived.
Text: 2 Thessalonians 3:1-18
Title: God Requires Productivity from His People
Big Idea: Just because others are not using their time wisely, or are busy but not productive, don’t let that keep you from doing good (kalapoieo is a verb not used anywhere else in the NT).
Text: 2 Thessalonians 1:1-12
Title: How Injustice Is Repaid at Jesus’ Return
Big Idea 1: You must know that God is just.
Big Idea 2: Not everyone will get what they deserve, because of Jesus.
Text: 2 Thessalonians 2:1-17
Title: How to Avoid Confusion About Jesus’ Return
Big Idea: You must love and believe the truth.
Text: 2 Thessalonians 3:1-18
Title: How to Live Effectively Until Jesus’ Returns
Big Idea: You must keep busy doing what is right.
Text: 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4
Title: Identity of the Troubled
Big Idea: As God’s people, we gather in the peace and protection of the Father and the Son.
Text: 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10
Title: Encouraging the Troubled
Big Idea: We live in a bad news world, but we serve a good news God.
Text: 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12
Title: Praying for the Troubled
Big Idea: We ask God, not for the absence of trials, but that we would glorify him through them.
Text: 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12
Title: Returning for the Troubled
Big Idea: We must live in calm confidence that the Lord will prevail.
Text: 2 Thessalonians 2:13-3:5
Title: Comforting the Troubled
Big Idea: We must trust in the faithfulness of God to stay encouraged.
Text: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-18
Title: Exhorting the Troubled
Big Idea: We must lovingly warn Christians who are persistently and stubbornly disobedient.
Text: 2 Thessalonians 1:1-12
Title: Truth for Discouraged Believers
Big Idea: Being under fire because of Christ is evidence of true faith.
Text: 2 Thessalonians 2:1-17
Title: Truth for disturbed believers
Big Idea: Deception and evil do not negate the certainty of God’s plan.
Text: 2 Thessalonians 3:1-18
Title: Truth for Disorderly Believers
Big Idea: Laziness and disobedience have no place in those whose hope is in Christ.
Chapter 1—God’s justice someday is my relief today.
Chapter 2—The more unstable our world seems; the more stable God’s people should be.
Chapter 3—Waiting for Jesus’ return means I must pray and work.
In the greeting, Paul identifies God as “our Father,” not simply the Father of Jesus. And he names God the Father and the Son as equals. Grace and peace come from one source, the Father and the Son. This was especially important for the Thessalonian Christians to remember, because they lived in a culture that viewed the emperor as a god. Coins minted in that city bore the image of Caesar with the word Theos inscribed over his head. Paul is reminding this church that they are not meeting to worship Caesar. The emperor is not the ultimate source of their peace and protection. No, as God’s people you gather in the peace and protection of the Father and the Son.
This message did not go over well with the Roman authorities. Thessalonica had many gods and different religions. When Christians wouldn't worship any god but Jehovah, they were seen as arrogant and called atheists. Because they worshiped Jesus as King, and didn't worship the government, the emperor, or the nation—Christians were seen as rebels, traitors, subversives, disloyal, unpatriotic. As a result, Christians were blamed when things went wrong. If there was an earthquake, or the economy went bad, the reaction was: “The gods are punishing us because of those Christians.”
The suffering experienced by the Thessalonian Christians certainly included harassment and physical threats. But it seems some had already been martyred for their faith, since 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15 equates their suffering with the killing of Jesus and the prophets (“you have suffered the same things … as they did”). The untimely deaths of these believers might be the cause for concern and confusion that Paul addresses in 1 Thessalonians 4:13ff. It is possible that “those who have fallen asleep” were martyred for their faith, and the young church does not know how this fits into Paul’s teaching about the return of Jesus for his people. When applying the eschatological portions, it is important to keep this in mind. The revelation of prophetic details should be a source of encouragement in our current struggles, comfort for our grief, and motivation for right living.
Persecution and danger had only intensified by the time Paul wrote this second letter. His purpose was to encourage and motivate these believers to keep going through tough times, and not to fall victim to erroneous information. He does that by giving them a certain glimpse into the future God has promised. This is a message we still need to help us keep life together in our day. There is no shortage of misinformation. While our own country experiences no physical persecution as compared to other countries, the need for spiritual stability remains.
Here are a few suggested points of application from the entire letter:
The gospel is our certain hope of relief from injustice.
Spiritual growth comes from God, but you have to put yourself in a position to grow.
We must pray for the spread of the gospel, protection from evil, and patient endurance.
Mention is clearly made of the three-persons of the God-head, and the deity of Christ (1:1-2; 2:13, 16-17). This elevation of Christ could be the catalyst for the persecution the church experienced. Their willingness to suffer for Christ, and the promise of future glory, speaks to his divinity.
The results and promises of salvation are evident in several passages. For example, the believer’s identity in Christ (1:1), the glorification of those who believe (1:10), those chosen to be saved (2:13), and called through the gospel to obtain glory (2:14). For those not in Christ, the end is “eternal destruction” (1:9), which is judgment without end or relief. Eternal exclusion from the presence of God.
The authority and inspiration of Scripture is inferenced (2:15, 3:6, 17). The use of the term paradoseis (translated “traditions”) is one of the evidences of Pauline authorship, since he uses this in 1 Corinthians 11:2 and Galatians 1:14. Paradoseis refers to the original teachings of the apostles. This is the message of Christ passed along in verbal or written form. That is the message God has preserved for us in Scripture. Its usage in 2 Thessalonians suggests that the teachings Paul and his associates passed on to them already carried the weight of Scripture.
The Day of the Lord and the revelation of Christ (1:7-8; 2:1-2) are presented to comfort, encourage, and motivate believers. 2 Thessalonians is more apocalyptic than the first letter, and clearly points to the time when God will bring both punishment and reward. Paul gives several features of the final rebel (2:3-9), describing him as lawless, godless, limited, doomed, and miraculous.
My Encounter with 2 Thessalonians
I preached through 2 Thessalonians in 2010. The series may have been prompted by some undercurrent of apocalyptic fervor. Making news was the purported end of the Mayan calendar in 2012. The Hollywood movie 2012 had premiered the previous year. Closer at hand were Harold Camping’s predications that the Rapture would take place on May 21, 2011. This atmosphere, both in the culture and among some Christians, bore similarity to what Paul addressed in 2 Thessalonians 2.
The series title was Future.org.
2 Thessalonians 1—Recovery Files. The main point here was that if you belong to Jesus, the day of recovery is coming. Stop trying to settle your own scores. Stop looking for human systems to solve your struggles. Stop seeing money as the way out of your mess. Stop trying to get your own payback. Stop grieving the loss of things you can never recover. Stop being overwhelmed by whatever wrong seems to be winning. Instead, look up. The real recovery is still on the way. God’s justice someday, is my relief today.
2 Thessalonians 2—Fwd: Fwd: Spam. The Thessalonians had been forwarded a false message, accepted misinformation, and misunderstood the Lord’s return. So Paul directly addresses this issue and gives them a glimpse of the future. His purpose was to get the young church focused on the right things, and call them to a place of stability and assurance in a time of trouble and uncertainty. How can God’s people today get that same stability? Some specifics from the text are: Make sure your identity is in Jesus. Be light in the darkness around you. Stand firm on the solid rock of Christ. Love the truth. The more unstable our world seems; the more stable God’s people should become.
2 Thessalonians 3—Standby Mode. In light of the promise that Jesus is going to return and bring justice to our world, this is how his people should live. Along with the spiritual dimension of being God-dependent, there is a human-responsibility side to life. There are things we must do and must not do in living to please God. The standby mode for God’s people awaiting the return of Christ is to avoid extremes and never get tired of doing good. Live responsibly until the moment Christ returns. Waiting for the return of Jesus means I must pray and work.
These sermon titles seemed more relevant and relatable in 2010 than they do today. The early decades of the internet brought the incessant curse of forwarded emails spreading erroneous information or fantastical stories. This phenomenon has been largely replaced by other social media platforms doing the same thing in different ways. But this renders the Fwd: Fwd: Spam title virtually obsolete. The titles “Recovery Files” and “Standby Mode” are most closely related to a desktop computer world. Today we are far more phone and/or tablet oriented. All that to say, I would likely not use these titles again.
The series did accomplish a number of very practical and important purposes.
It challenged those who are prone to becoming unsettled to anchor themselves in Christ.
It comforted those who are keenly aware of injustice, with the reminder that the God of justice is coming.
It presented the strong gospel message, and the absolute necessity of Christ alone as the Savior from the wrath to come.
It interested those with a prophetic bent, since the letter is more thoroughly apocalyptic than 1 Thessalonians.
It confronted those who lapse into a “do-nothing” faith, or a “build-a-bunker” mentality, and called them to actively serve Jesus until he returns.
It calmed the frenetic Y2K, apocalyptic, millennial fever that ebbs and flows among some of God’s people in every generation.
Although I’ve been preaching for decades, I never cease to be amazed at how relevant the ancient text is to the modern world. My personal encounter with 2 Thessalonians affirmed again that God’s Word is alive and powerful. The issues that Paul addressed to his initial audience are still relevant to the issues faced by the audience of today. This teaching encouraged me as a pastor and as a man to stand against alarmist and defeatist behavior; and to live productively, with a calm assurance anchored in Jesus.
Howard I. Marshall, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: The New Century Bible Commentary. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1983.
John R. W. Stott, The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians: The Bible Speaks Today. InterVarsity, Downers Grove, 1991.
Ben Witherington III, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2006.
Paul Karl Donfried, Paul, Thessalonica, and Early Christianity. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2002.
Although not a commentary, I recommend the following volume for background and academic discussion. The discerning reader can gain nuggets of insight about 1 and 2 Thessalonians that aid interpretation and application.
John Henry Beukema is pastor of Cypress Bible Church in Cypress, Texas, and author of Stories from God's Heart (Moody). He served as associate editor of PreachingToday.com.