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To God Be the Glory -- an Introduction to 2 Thessalonians

Pray that we would all live worthy of our calling as Christians.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12

In this introduction to 2 Thessalonians, Paul reintroduces many of themes we covered in his previous letter: faithfulness in persecution and trust in God's judgment on the Day of the Lord. As we wait for Christ's return, our every thought should be on how we can live worthy of Jesus, relying on His power to do His good work.

so that the name of our Lord Jesus will be glorified by you, and you by him (1:12)


Getting Started: Things to Think About

Fake News, Misinformation, and Social Media

I'm using this opening discussion idea both to get the brain moving and also as a "public service announcement".


So, you might have realized that "fake news" is a real problem. I use Google News to skim headlines (and I would love to know the algorithm that tells it which news I would find important ("Comedian Dave Chapelle Attacked Onstage"?)). For a while now, Google News includes a gray box at the top of the page called "Fact Check". Seriously -- a major news site starts with identifying current fake news.


That can't be good.


I used "fake news" as a getting-started discussion topic last year (The Cross Is Christ's Victory and Our Forgiveness -- a study of Colossians 2:4-15), but there I focused on image manipulation and deep fakes. I think that we could easily have a topic based on straight-up fake news.


Does "fake news" seem like it's getting worse? What "fake news" stories have you heard going around social media?


One of the biggest problems with social media is that it makes "fake news" really easy to spread -- people will retweet or share without doing the work to make sure the tweet or post is accurate in the first place. And before you know it, a story that's completely false has spread so far that people assume it must have been true.


Certainly, some such fake news is basic misunderstanding or taking things out of context. But I've learned that it isn't always so "innocent". There are bad actors out there who deliberately push false information for the intent of causing trouble. I read an article that gave this handy chart to explain "information pollution".

Some people use fake and misleading headlines to get clicks for advertising revenue -- disingenuous, but simply selfish. For example, when I was looking up the YouTube video I wanted to use to introduce 2 Thessalonians, these "recommended videos" popped up:

My guess is that these videos won't provide the "payoff" the title suggests, but I didn't click on them to find out.


[To be fair, there's a lot of "ridiculous" news that turns out to be true. One of the newsletters I read includes a weekly segment called "Three headlines and a lie". This kinda works the opposite of the above -- I read them hoping that they will all be fake news, but three of the four are true. This exercise keeps me humble. Here's their latest quiz:

  1. Freelance fashion photographer evaded Met Gala security by claiming he had Billie Eilish’s heartburn medicine

  2. Chicago launches “Chicagwa” canned drinking water campaign

  3. Less than a month after I met my soulmate, I ended my 14-year marriage

  4. Canada says astronauts are no longer allowed to murder each other

The fake headline? #1.] [Aside: if you sign up for that newsletter, use me as a referral so I can get their sweet rewards merch 😎.]


But some people use fake and misleading headlines precisely because they know it will stir up controversy and be destabilizing. We've heard plenty about Russians using Twitter and Facebook to create chaos in the US, but there are many others.


I found a very interesting website that explains "fake news" pretty clearly.

It helpfully points out that fake news isn't anything new. Newspapers and radio have used sensationalism and exaggeration to drive up "ratings" for generations.


How do you spot fake news? If I see a headline that really gets my attention, I've trained myself to assume it's not entirely true (even if it's on a reputable website). I like to use Snopes as a quick fact-check, though there are many more such sites.

Here's where I'm going with this. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul has to refute a letter that has been making the rounds that says it was written by Paul, but Paul didn't write it. It's created confusion and concern, and all of it completely unnecessary because it was a lie.


If fake news causes trouble today, and we have the tools to fact-check it instantly, how about 2,000 years ago when it might be weeks or months before you could corroborate a message?


Obvious Mother's Day Connections

If you read this in the future, this lesson happens on Mother's Day. You have several great ways to connect this week's passage to the day (and no, not the everlasting punishment your mom may have rained down on you). God has a very high standard and expectation for your life, but He is there to help you attain it and the grace and mercy to overcome your failures. At least for the moms I know, that's the way they feel about their children. Also, as to what those goals are, my desires for my children are that they bring glory to Jesus. That's exactly what Paul desired for these church members. Sprinkle that in as you see fit.

 

This Week's Big Idea: Introducing 2 Thessalonians

2 Thessalonians is one of the more straightforward letters to introduce, and I can't make things any clearer than this great video from Bible Project:

There are a few places I'll take a slightly different angle than they do, but I wholeheartedly endorse this video.


If you want to learn more about Thessalonica, check out the introduction to 1 Thessalonians:

Remember that Paul was only there for a few weeks before he was chased out of town by some Jewish zealots, and the church had to survive on its own in the midst of persecution and minimal formal discipling. And they didn't just survive, they thrived! Their reputation for being loving, caring, and out-reaching traveled faster than Paul did!


While Paul was in Corinth, Timothy caught up to him with a good report from Thessalonica. They had a few questions (addressed in the first letter) Paul wanted to answer, but mainly Paul just wanted to praise and encourage them for their faithfulness.


HOWEVER.


Probably not very long after 1 Thessalonians was delivered, Paul received a disturbing update. We don't know for certain, but I'm guessing it has been a few months. We assume that Paul is still in Corinth because that's the last time we know Paul and Timothy and Silas were together. Three things have happened:

  1. Persecution has gotten worse

  2. Lazy believers have gotten lazier, and

  3. A fake letter in Paul's name has been circulating

My guess -- and again, this is just a guess -- the tipping point for the need to write a letter so soon is this fake letter. Paul had to refute that asap. The other things probably could have waited, at least until Paul would be able to make a visit in person (which never happened, btw -- Paul did not return to Thessalonica).


[Aside: if you read enough commentaries, you will find some who think that someone other than Paul wrote this letter. They claim that the different details about the Day of the Lord, the harsher tone, and the slightly different vocabulary prove that. I don't see any problems within any of these complaints. The details are not incompatible, Paul's harshness is directed at the church's opponents, and the vocabulary is close enough. The complaint I find the most enjoyable, though, is that the letters are too similar -- why would Paul repeat himself so much? Well, does that mean Jesus shouldn't have repeated Himself?]


Outline of the Letter

  1. Continued encouragement in persecution (chapter 1)

    1. Trust God's judgment (1:3-10)

    2. Pray for God's help (1:11-12)

  2. Clarification about the Day of the Lord (chapter 2)

    1. Events that happen before (2:1-12)

    2. Stay focused on the main things (2:13-17)

  3. Exhortation to the Lazy (chapter 3)

 

Part 1: Thankful (2 Thessalonians 1:3-4)

3 We ought to thank God always for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, since your faith is flourishing and the love each one of you has for one another is increasing. 4 Therefore, we ourselves boast about you among God’s churches—about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and afflictions that you are enduring.

Verses 1-2 are almost identical to the opening of the first letter. This makes me wonder if Paul kept his own copy of these letters, or if he was just that locked in on his style.


Here's my suggestion for a study technique: compare this letter with the first. For example,

2 Thess 1:3-4 // 1 Thess 1:2-7

How does what Paul say in this second letter compare/contrast with what he said in the first?


If anything, he seems to be even stronger in his encouragement. And that only makes sense, if the persecution is increasing. How often have you heard (or felt) something like "I feel like I'm doing what God wants me to be doing, but things just get harder and harder. Am I wrong? Does God really care?"


In my experience, the "newer" a Christian is, the quicker they are likely to be discouraged by opposition/obstacles. And that should only make sense! They don't have the well of experience of all the times "God came through" (whatever they think that to mean).

You might remember the old song "He Never Failed Me Yet" (here's a church choir recording if you don't). The first time I used this in a church, a choir member asked me if the wording implied that God might fail at some point in the future. Great question! The song was written from the perspective of a longtime Christian who has seen it all and known God's presence through it all. The longer you have been a Christian, the more meaningful that "yet" becomes. But these Christians in Thessalonica have been saved for probably less than a year, and they don't know any longtime Christians who can give them this kind of encouragement. So, it's absolutely critical for Paul to encourage them thus.


When we were going through the pandemic, this kind of encouragement was so important for church members. But now, we're in a frightening economy, a major war is going on, we don't trust our news, and our society is clearly drifting away from the biblical values we know would be best for everyone. Seems like we still need encouragement!


But before we make this another encouragement-fest, take a look at what Paul is encouraging them about. What are the three things Paul uses as the basis for his encouragement?

  1. Faith

  2. Love

  3. Perseverance

(He "thanks God" for their faith and love, and he "boasts" about their perseverance and faith.)


First question: what do these three characteristics mean (specifically in the context of this church)? Second question: what about these characteristics does Paul key in on?


Paul is not offering a "generic encouragement". Paul knows their situation, Paul knows their actions, and he ties his encouragement directly to it all. Wouldn't something specific be more meaningful to you as an encouragement? It would to me.


But here's my point about this! I mentioned above that Christians need encouragement right now (and we do). But let's investigate our own lives to see what we're doing that can be the basis for our own encouragement. Paul is not big on the "woe is me" "pity party" attitude. In fact, this is the "if you don't work, you don't eat" letter!


Paul's encouragement is rooted in the fact that they have been persevering in faith and love in spite of their obstacles; he wants to assure them that God has been with them every step of the way. This might fit in the "small consolation" category, but Paul has even been boasting to others about how many obstacles they have faced. (It's never good when your doctor says "I've been telling my doctor friends about your case", but it's possible to take consolation in that.)


So -- as we look for how this encouragement can help us through the tough times we're facing right now, let's also make sure that we are living in ways for Paul's particular encouragement to apply to us.

 

Part 2: Avenged (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10)

5 It is clear evidence of God’s righteous judgment that you will be counted worthy of God’s kingdom, for which you also are suffering, 6 since it is just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you 7 and to give relief to you who are afflicted, along with us. This will take place at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with his powerful angels, 8 when he takes vengeance with flaming fire on those who don’t know God and on those who don’t obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will pay the penalty of eternal destruction from the Lord’s presence and from his glorious strength 10 on that day when he comes to be glorified by his saints and to be marveled at by all those who have believed, because our testimony among you was believed.

Parallel verses to read are 1 Thess 2:13-16, 3:6-13. Particularly:

13 May he make your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. Amen.

How did Paul use the Day of the Lord to give encouragement in the first letter?


I mostly saw Paul taking the positive view, that Christ's return would be salvation for His people. But he didn't ignore the corollary:

5:3 When they say, “Peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, like labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.

In this letter, Paul balances the two outcomes more deliberately.


First, like he did in the first letter, he does what he can to assure them that (based on the evidence he has about them) they will find salvation at Christ's return. They don't have to be afraid of the terrible consequences that loom on the horizon!


Verses 6-7 introduce the scenario:

  1. God will afflict the afflicters

  2. God will relieve the afflicted

And then the rest of 7-10 spell this out in more detail.


Some people's reaction to this is "How does this jive with 'God does not want any to perish but all to come to repentance?'" (2 Pet 3:9) That's an example of not paying attention to context! The very next verse is "But the day of the Lord will come like a thief; on that day the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, the elements will burn and be dissolved, and the earth and the works on it will be disclosed." (2 Pet 3:10)


God does not enjoy vengeance. But God's holiness and man's sin demands God's judgment against sin. I've said this before: God loves you and every human (and all of His creation). And God hates everything that harms His creation. But human sin falls squarely in the category of things that cause harm. Therefore, God loves all people, but God will judge all sin. And if you stand before God without "the blood of Jesus" to cover you, you will be condemned.


In this case, Paul uses God's judgment of the wicked to encourage the persecuted. This a common theme in the Psalms. (Cf. Psalm 73, 83, 88, 94, 109) "God, how long before you defend me?" "God, how long before you judge my enemies?" Really, it's a common theme in the Bible. It wasn't that long ago that we studied Ecclesiastes, a book which dwells on the observation that the wicked seem to get away with it.


There are two things that should keep us in check when we think about "the wicked":

  1. God's judgment is righteous

  2. God's judgment is final

This passage is rooted in both of those. God's judgment being "righteous" means that no one "gets away with it". God's judgment will always be right by the only standard that really matters -- His own perfect righteousness.


It's also final. There are no second chances after God passes judgment. You wanting God to judge your enemies is cruelly selfish. What if God had come for you in judgment before you became a Christian? In Jesus' morality, the whole purpose of "turning the other cheek" is to give further opportunity for a non-Christian to repent and believe. Those opportunities go away when Christ returns in judgment.


Again, this is intended to be encouraging to persecuted believers. God will hold accountable all those who have afflicted them (I believe that "those who afflict you" and "those who don't know God" and "those who don't obey the gospel" all refer to the same group). But what would be better than those enemies being judged? Those enemies repenting and being saved.


This is why we let God handle justice. Vengeance belongs to the Lord.


About Hell

So, in this passage, Paul mentions "powerful angels" "vengeance with flaming fire" "penalty of eternal destruction". Paul doesn't say the word "hell", but that's where this is leading.


Paul alludes to several Old Testament passages:

  • Pour out your wrath on the nations that don’t recognize you and on the families that don’t call on your name, for they have consumed Jacob; they have consumed him and finished him off and made his homeland desolate. (Jer 10:25)

  • Look, the Lord will come with fire—his chariots are like the whirlwind—to execute his anger with fury and his rebuke with flames of fire. (Isa 66:15)

  • People will go into caves in the rocks and holes in the ground, away from the terror of the Lord and from his majestic splendor, when he rises to terrify the earth. On that day people will throw their worthless idols of silver and gold, which they made to worship, to the moles and the bats. They will go into the caves of the rocks and the crevices in the cliffs, away from the terror of the Lord and from his majestic splendor, when he rises to terrify the earth. (Isa 2:19-21)

In those passages, the image is that God's enemies will attempt to hide from Him and His fiery destruction by escaping into caves and other deep places of the earth. Paul realizes that this just points to a much darker, eternal condition. They won't hide from God -- God will sever them from His presence in a place of eternal destruction.


Greek speakers had three names they could use to identify this place:

  • Hades (Matt 11:23, 16:18; Acts 2:27, 2:31; Rev 20:13-14) which was generally understood to be a "holding place" for the unrighteous dead where they awaited judgment. Hades will be destroyed in fire. That's not what Paul is talking about here.

  • Tartarus (2 Pet 2:4) which was where defeated gods (out of the Greek/Roman pantheon) were punished.

  • Gehenna (Matt 5:29-30, 10:28, 18:18; James 3:6) which was the name of a valley where children had been sacrificed to the god Molech. Most scholars think that Gehenna is what Jesus had in mind when describing the place of everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt 25:41).

We're probably talking about Gehenna, but in any case it is a place of eternal destruction. Here are some passages from the Gospel of Matthew that relate:

  • But the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (8:12, cf. 22:13, 25:30)

  • But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to fall away—it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea. (18:6)

  • He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (24:51)

A lot of people today dismiss the idea of a literal "hell" because they don't believe such a horrible place could exist. These are the same people who don't believe that the atrocities committed around the world every day are really that bad.


We should not desire that anyone go to hell. We should desire -- and act -- that everyone have a chance to hear and understand the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ.


In any event, vengeance belongs to God and God alone.


You might remember from last week that Paul had previously written,

See to it that no one repays evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good for one another and for all. (5:15)

That might suggest that some church members were being tempted to retaliate against their persecutors. But they don't need to retaliate -- God will deal with the unrighteous.


Back to the passage.


Verses 9-10 emphasize glory. The Jewish concept of glory (which Paul would have had in mind) is kavod, which actually means "heavy". To give someone glory fundamentally means "to recognize their weight" (and no, please no eating jokes here). It means to recognize their importance to society -- when something is "weighty", it is foundational and not easily moved.

The more we have learned about gravity, the more we can appreciate just how apt this definition of glory is. "Weighty" objects literally warp space-time around them for all other objects. The more massive the object, the greater the warp.


Nothing is more massive than God.


[Yes, I know that God doesn't actually have "mass" in the physical sense. You know what I mean. Work with me here.]


God's presence reshapes existence. God's enemies, or sin of any kind, cannot exist in His presence -- all of that will be destroyed. (This does not mean "annihilated", which implies an end -- no, this destruction continues for eternity.) When we, God's people, stand in His presence, we cannot help but give Him glory and marvel at Him.


The song "I Can Only Imagine" tries to put this possible experience into words. Have you ever wondered what it will be like in God's presence?

 

Part 3: Worthy (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12)

11 In view of this, we always pray for you that our God will make you worthy of his calling, and by his power fulfill your every desire to do good and your work produced by faith, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus will be glorified by you, and you by him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Just when we thought we had covered the heavy stuff for the week, we get this passage. In light of everything Paul has said about Christ's return and God's judgment on His enemies, Paul prays that the Thessalonians will live up the standard God has for them.


Wait, what? Didn't I just say that God's standard is perfect righteousness?


Yes, but as I've said before, what do you want Paul to pray for these Christians? "I pray that God makes you nice people"? No! Paul truly desires for them that they would live in such a way as to live worthy of the gift Jesus has freely given them. He went much further in detail about this in Ephesians (which we studied 3 years ago):


When we get a good job, a grant, a project, a degree program, a course, we should desire to live up to the expectations therein. Those expectations should motivate us. That's what Paul is saying here. We've been given the best position on earth: "Child of God". God's patience and mercy should not give us excuses to fail His calling but rather give us boldness to follow His calling. And God will give us His power to succeed in that!


You can see much of these verses echoed in 1 Thessalonians. One passage sticks out:

5:23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely. And may your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will do it.

Paul is not calling these Christians to an impossible mission. (Well, for them it would be impossible.) Paul is simply inviting these Christians to join God on the mission God has empowered them for!


So here's my closing discussion idea: what legacy do you want to leave? We've talked about this a bunch, but it's the sort of thing that helps us keep perspective. If you're not sure what this means, perhaps ask "what do I want on my tombstone?". I tumbled into a real rabbit hole when I Googled "tombstone quotes". My earnest hope and prayer is that many of the pictures I saw were doctored (I'm practicing my fake news skepticism -- "We finally found a place to park in Georgetown"). There are quite a few websites available to help you "craft the perfect tombstone epitaph".

(just to give some examples) We've all seen memorable tombstones. If we didn't know the person, the tombstone quote gives us a lasting image of whoever they were.

As you might guess, I am drawn to the thoughtful quotes, like these:

But Charles Spurgeon gives us the best perspective on this:

A good character is the best tombstone.

That's the direction Paul is going. Paul prays for these Christians that "the name of our Lord Jesus will be glorified by you and you by Him". What an epitaph would that be! "He glorified Jesus by his life." I can't think of anything better for the people who knew me to think appropriate for my tombstone.


But it's one thing to put something on a tombstone -- it's a very different thing for that to be true. I can want my tombstone to say "He glorified Jesus by his life". But what really matters is if I live my life in such a way that that's true. Make sense? that's Paul's prayer -- that they actually live the life that brings glory to God.


That's my prayer for you. I hope you will pray the same for me!


Spend your closing time of prayer working through that very weighty idea -- how you can encourage one another to live the life that brings glory to God. If anyone in your group has a question of what that means, take the time to talk it out together.

 

Closing Thoughts

To wrap up the "fake news" topic, I found one website that believes churches are being targeted by fake news because it's an easy way to tear a church apart. I can't argue with that -- why should God's enemies worry about churches if they're busy destroying themselves?


Here's their advice. Six Steps:

  1. "Develop Critical Mindset. Why was this story written? Is it trying to give me information, or is it trying get me to do or feel something?

  2. Check The Source. Only share from trusted locations. Watch for spelling errors, lack of citations, strange website extensions.

  3. Who Else Is Reporting the Story? Has anyone else picked up the story? Are other sites with the story legit (fake news often get "laundered" from less good sites, so if you find it on click-bait or foreign-focused sites, watch out)? Is it on Snopes.com?

  4. Think About The Evidence. Credible news stories will try to include facts, quotes, and specific citations, especially on anything controversial. Does the evidence stack up?

  5. Don't Accept Images at Face Value. Fake news often uses real images out of context. Use Google Reserve Image Search to learn where images came from and if they have been altered. Look for strange shadows, odd color blocks, and jagged edges for warning signs of doctored photos.

  6. Listen to Your Gut. Research shows that most Americans can spot fake news if they pause to think about it. Fake news is designed to play on your hopes and fears. Its creators want you to be angry or worried. They want you to stop trusting American institutions and your neighbors."

For my part, I'm much more interested in the implications of that last one. Do you feel like fake news is out there for the purpose of creating mistrust? If so, is it working? What can you do to counter the effects?

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