Introduction to the Bible - 53 - 2 Thessalonians

The Second Epistle to the Thessalonians

by Louis Berkhof


 The contents of the letter naturally falls into three parts:

 I. Introduction, ch. 1. The apostle begins his letter with the regular  blessing, 1, 2. He thanks God for the increasing faith and patience of  the Thessalonians, reminding them of the fact that in the day of  Christ's coming God will provide rest for his persecuted church and  will punish her persecutors; and prays that God may fulfil his good  pleasure in them to the glory of his Name, 3--12.

 II. Instruction respecting the Parousia, ch. 2. The church is warned  against deception regarding the imminence of the great day of Christ  and is informed that it will not come until the mystery of iniquity has  resulted in the great apostacy, and the man of sin has been revealed  whose coming is after the work of satan, and who will utterly deceive  men to their own destruction, 1--12. The Thessalonians need not fear  the manifestation of Christ, since they were chosen and called to  everlasting glory; and it is the apostles wish that the Lord may  comfort their hearts and establish them in all good work, 13--17.

 III. Practical Exhortations, ch. 3. The writer requests the prayer of  the church for himself that he may be delivered from unreasonable and  wicked men, and exhorts her to do what he commanded, 1--5. They should  withdraw from those who are disorderly and do not work, because each  one should labor for his daily bread and thus follow the example of the  apostle, 6--12. Those who do not heed the apostolic word should be  censured, 13--15. With a blessing and a salutation the apostle closes  his letter, 16--18.


 1. The main characteristic of this letter is found in the apocalyptic  passage, 2:1-12. In these verses, that contain the most essential part  of the Epistle, Paul speaks as a prophet, revealing to his beloved  church that the return of Christ will be preceded by a great final  apostacy and by the revelation of the man of sin, the son of perdition  who, as the instrument of satan, will deceive men, so that they accept  the lie and are condemned in the great day of Christ. II Thessalonians,  no doubt, was written primarily for the sake of this instruction.

 2. Aside from this important doctrinal passage the Epistle has a  personal and practical character. It contains expressions of gratitude  for the faith and endurance of the persecuted church, words of  encouragement for the afflicted, fatherly advice for the spiritual  children of the apostle, and directions as to their proper behavior.

 3. The style of this letter, like that of I Thessalonians, is simple  and direct, except in 2:1-12, where the tone is more elevated. This  change is accounted for by the prophetic contents of that passage. The  language clearly reveals the working of the vigorous mind of Paul, who  in the expression of his thoughts was not limited to a few stock  phrases. Besides the many expressions that are characteristically  Pauline the Epistle contains several that are peculiar to it, and also  a goodly number which it has in common only with I Thessalonians. Of  the 26 hapax legomena in the letter 10 are not found in the rest of the  New Testament, and 16 are used elsewhere in the New Testament but not  in the writings of Paul.


 The external testimony for the authenticity of this Epistle is just as  strong as that for the genuineness of the first letter. Marcion has it  in his canon, the Muratorian Fragment names it, and it is also found in  the old Latin and Syriac Versions. From the time of Irenaeus it is  regularly quoted as a letter of Paul, and Origen and Eusebius claim  that it was universally received in their time.

 The Epistle itself claims to be the work of Paul, 1: 1; and again in  3:17, where the apostle calls attention to the salutation as a mark of  genuineness. The persons associated with the writer in the composition  of this letter are the same as those mentioned in I Thessalonians. As  in the majority of Paul's letters the apostolic blessing is followed by  a thanksgiving. The Epistle is very similar to I Thessalonians and  contains some cross-references to it, as f. i. in the case of the  parousia and of the idlers. It clearly reveals the character of the  great apostle, and its style may confidently be termed Pauline.

 Nevertheless the genuineness of the Epistle has been doubted far more  than that of I Thessalonians. Schmidt was the first one to assail it in  1804; in this he was followed by Schrader, Mayerhof and De Wette, who  afterwards changed his mind, however. The attack was renewed by Kern  and Baur in whose school the rejection of the Epistle became general.  Its authenticity is defended by Reuss, Sabatier, Hofmann, Weiss, Zahn,  Julicher, Farrar, Godet, Baljon, Moffat e. a.

 The principal objections urged against the genuineness of this letter  are the following: (1) The teaching of Paul regarding the parousia in  2:1-12 is not consistent with what he wrote in I Thessalonians 4:13-18;  5:1-11. According to the first letter the day of Christ is imminent and  will come suddenly and unexpectedly; the second emphasizes the fact  that it is not close at hand and that several signs will precede it.  (2) The eschatology of this passage 2:1-12 is not Paul's but clearly  dates from a later time and was probably borrowed from the Revelation  of John. Some identify the man of sin with Nero who, though reported  dead, was supposed to be hiding in the East and was expected to return;  and find the one still restraining the evil in Vespasian. Others hold  that this passage clearly refers to the time of Trajan, when the  mystery of iniquity was seen in the advancing tide of Gnosticism. (3)  This letter is to a great extent but a repitition of I Thessalonians,  and therefore looks more like the work of a forger than like a genuine  production of Paul. Holtzmann says that, with the exception of  1:5,6,9,12; 2:2-9, 11, 12, 15; 3:2, 13, 14, 17, the entire Epistle  consists of a reproduction of parallel passages from the first letter.  Einl. p. 214. (4) The Epistle contains a conspicuously large number of  peculiar expressions that are not found in the rest of Paul's writings,  nor in the entire New Testament. Cf. lists in Frames Comm. pp. 28-34,  in the Intern. Crit. Comm. (5) The salutation in 3:17 has a suspicious  look. It seems like the attempt of a later writer to ward off  objections and to attest the Pauline authorship.

 But the objections raised are not sufficient to discredit the  authenticity of our Epistle. The contradictions in Paul's teaching  regarding the parousia of Christ, are more apparent than real. The  signs that precede the great day will not detract from its suddenness  any more than the signs of Noah's time prevented the flood from taking  his contemporaries by surprise. Moreover these two features, the  suddenness of Christ's appearance and the portentous facts that are the  harbingers of his coming, always go hand in hand in the eschatological  teachings of Scripture. Dan. 11:1--12: 3; Mt. 24: 1-44; Lk. 17:20-37.  As to the immediacy of Christ's coming we can at most say that the  first Epistle intimates that the Lord might appear during that  generation (though possibly it does not even imply that), but it  certainly does not teach that Christ will presently come.

 The eschatology of the second chapter has given rise to much discussion  and speculation regarding the date and authorship of the Epistle, but  recent investigations into the conditions of the early church have  clearly brought out that the contents of this chapter in no way  militate against the genuineness of the letter. Hence they who deny the  Pauline authorship have ceased to place great reliance on it. There is  nothing improbable in the supposition that Paul wrote the passage  regarding the man of sin. We find similar representations as early as  the time of Daniel (cf. Dan. 11), in the pseudepigraphic literature of  the Jews (cf. Schfirer, Geschichte des fiidischen Volkes II p. 621 f.),  and in the eschatological discourses of the Lord. The words and  expressions found in this chapter are very well susceptible of an  interpretation that does not necessitate our dating the Epistle after  the time of Paul. We cannot delay to review all the preterist and  futurist expositions that have been given (for which cf. Alford,  Prolegomena Section V), but can only indicate in a general way in what  direction we must look for the interpretation of this difficult  passage. In interpreting it we should continually bear in mind its  prophetic import and its reference to something that is still future.  No doubt, there were in history prefigurations of the great day of  Christ in which this prophecy found a partial fulfilment, but the  parousia of which Paul speaks in these verses is even now only a matter  of faithful expectation. The history of the world is gradually leading  up to it. Paul was witnessing some apostacy in his day, the musterion  tes anomias was already working, but the great apostacy (he apostasia)  could not come in his day, because there had been as yet but a very  partial dissemination of the truth; and will not come until the days  immediately preceding the second coming of Christ, when the mystery of  godlessness will complete itself, and will finally be embodied in a  single person, in the man of sin, the son of perdition, who will then  develop into a power antagonistic to Christ (anti-christ, ho  antikeimenos), yea to every form of religion, the very incarnation of  satan. Cf. vs. 9. This can only come to pass, however, after the  restraining power is taken out of the way, a power that is at once  impersonal (katechon) and personal (katechon), and which may refer  first of all to the strict administration of justice in the Roman  empire and to the emperor as the chief executive, but certainly has a  wider signification and probably refers in general to "the fabric of  human polity and those who rule that polity." (Alford). For a more  detailed exposition cf. especially, Alford, Prolegomena Section V;  Zahn, Einleitung I p. 162 if.; Godet, Introduction p .171 if.; and  Eadie, Essay on the Man of Sin in Comm. p. 329 if.

 We fail to see the force of the third argument, unless it is an  established fact that Paul could not repeat himself to a certain  degree, even in two Epistles written within the space of a few months,  on a subject that engaged the mind of the apostle for some time, to the  same church and therefore with a view to almost identical conditions.  This argument looks strange especially in view of the following one,  which urges the rejection of this letter, because it is so unlike the  other Pauline writings. The points of difference between our letter and  I Thessalonians are generally exaggerated, and the examples cited by  Davidson to prove the dissimilarity are justly ridiculed by Salmon, who  styles such criticism "childish criticism, that is to say, criticism  such as might proceed from a child who insists that a story shall  always be told to him in precisely the same way." Introd. p. 398. The  salutation in 3:17 does not point to a time later than that of Paul,  since he too had reason to fear the evil influence of forged Epistles,  2: 2. He merely states that, with a view to such deception, he would in  the future authenticate all his letters by attaching an autographic  salutation.


 1. Occasion and Purpose. Evidently some additional information  regarding the state of affairs at Thessalonica had reached Paul, it may  be through the bearers of the first Epistle, or by means of a  communication from the elders of the church. It seems that some letter  had been circulated among them, purporting to come from Paul, and that  some false spirit was at work in the congregation. The persecution of  the Thessalonians still continued and had probably increased in force,  and in some way the impression had been created that the day of the  Lord was at hand. This led on the one hand to feverish anxiety, and on  the other, to idleness. Hence the apostle deemed it necessary to write  a second letter to the Thessalonians.

 The purpose of the writer was to encourage the sorely pressed church;  to calm the excitement by pointing out that the second advent of the  Lord could not be expected immediately, since the mystery of  lawlessness had to develop first and to issue in the man of sin; and to  exhort the irregular ones to a quiet, industrious and orderly conduct.

 2. Time and Place. Some writers, such as Grotius, Ewald, Vander Vies  and Laurent advocated the theory that II Thessalonians was written  before I Thessalonians, but the arguments adduced to support that  position cannot bear the burden. Moreover II Thess. 2:15 clearly refers  to a former letter of the apostle. In all probability our Epistle was  composed a few months after the first one, for on the one hand Silas  and Timothy were still with the apostle, 1: 1, which was not the case  after he left Corinth, and they were still antagonized by the Jews so  that most likely their case had not yet been brought before Gallio,  Acts 18:12-17; and on the other hand a change had come about both in  the sentiment of the apostle, who speaks no more of his desire to visit  the Thessalonians, and in the condition of the church to which he was  writing, a change that would necessarily require some time. We should  most likely date the letter about the middle of A. D. 53.


 The early Church found no reason to doubt the canonicity of this  letter. Little stress can be laid, it is true, on the supposed  reference to its language in Ignatius, Barnabas, the Didache and Justin  Martyr. It is quite evident, however, that Polycarp used the Epistle.  Moreover it has a place in the canon of Marcion, is mentioned among the  Pauline letters in the Muratorian Fragment, and is contained in the old  Latin and Syriac Versions. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian  and others since their time, quote it by name. The great permanent  value of this Epistle lies in the fact that it corrects false notions  regarding the second advent of Christ, notions that led to indolence  and disorderliness. We are taught in this Epistle that the great day of  Christ will not come until the mystery of iniquity that is working in  the world receives its full development, and brings forth the son of  perdition who as the very incarnation of satan will set himself against  Christ and his Church. If the Church of God had always remembered this  lesson, she would have been spared many an irregularity and  disappointment. The letter also reminds us once more of the fact that  the day of the Lord will be a day of terror to the wicked, but a day of  deliverance and glory for the Church of Christ.