If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.
11 October. 2 Thessalonians chapters 1-3
I wrote yesterday that Paul’s message to the believers in Thessalonica was essentially one of encouragement – to continue living in the good ways that they had already established, and to remain faithful to the gospel in difficult times.
This time, the overall theme as expressed at the beginning and end is much the same. But there is a darker and more urgent theme in the middle section. In the first letter, the difficulties mentioned were local persecution, opposition from Jews, and the normal temptations of worldliness. In chapter 2 of the second letter, Paul appears to be setting out an apocalyptic vision of an imminent time just before the second coming of Jesus when a mysterious figure described as the “man of lawlessness” sent by Satan would set himself up as a god, by implication persecuting those who believe in the true God, and deceiving people with false teaching and false miracles.
Following that time of general persecution, Jesus would return. This is definitely not the Jesus of the Gospels, not even where he tells his disciples that he would return again. The vision of Jesus here is of one all-powerful, coming “with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel” (1:7-8). This Christ figure is probably derived from Paul’s own vision on the Damascus road when Jesus appeared in a blaze of glory, blinding Saul (as he then was) and condemning Saul’s persecution of Christians, before then appointing him as an apostle.
As with all such apocalyptic, it is pointless to try to identify the “man of lawlessness” with any one historic person, although there was certainly a general persecution of Christians by various Roman emperors in the following few centuries. What matters is the effect this would have had on the readers. If you believe that life will go on more or less the same into the future, there is no pressure to spread the faith or to repent personally. But if you believe that some time very soon (for the early Christians believed this would happen in their lifetimes) society would be turned upside down by the presence of evil, leading to a final judgement for heaven or hell, then you will be highly motivated to be on the right side by repenting and joining in the fight against evil, and to do so now.
That is also why Paul warns in chapter 3 against the sin of idleness. If everything is about to fall apart, there is no place for slackers, just as if a ship is in distress every able-bodied person is expected to help save it. “Comfortable Christianity” has no place in Paul’s theology – you are either fighting against evil and heresy, or you will be overcome by them.