PMT 2013-042 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
In my previous blog I began a brief analysis of one of Paul’s most difficult passage. I noted widespread statements by church fathers and contemporary scholars confessing its difficulty. Then I noted that despite this, dispensationalism employs this passage as one of its foundations for its distinctive temple-theology. A theology built on difficult passages is not a stable system.
In this article I will begin a study analyzing the text itself. But before I do that, I will offer a few words regarding:
Paul’s Historical Setting
When Paul visits Thessalonica he preaches to the Jews that Jesus is the Messiah (Ac 17:1–3). Though some Jews believe him, others explode in mob action against the Christian message (17:4–5). They drag “some of the brethren to the rulers of the city” complaining: “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too. Jason has harbored them, and these are all acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king — Jesus” (17:6–7). After taking security from Jason and the others, the civil rulers let them go (17:9). This allows Paul to depart safely to Berea. The Jews are not so easily quieted, however, for “when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was preached by Paul at Berea, they came there also and stirred up the crowds” (17:13). This results in Paul’s immediate departure to Athens (17:14–15).
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This explains the strong language against the Jews in the Thessalonian epistles, and helps uncover some of the more subtle concerns therein. In his first epistle he writes: “For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus. For you also suffered the same things from your own countrymen, just as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men, forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved, so as always to fill up the measure of their sins; but wrath has come upon them to the uttermost” (1Th 2:14–16).
This Jewish context is important for grasping the situation Paul confronts. Interestingly, he alludes to the Olivet Discourse throughout. The Olivet Discourse prophesies the destruction of the temple and the judgment of the Jews for rejecting Jesus as the Messiah (cf. Mt 23:35 –24:2; Lk 19:41–44; cf. Ac 17:3; 18:5).1
Paul’s Present Concern
2 Thessalonians 2:1–2. Paul’s reference “concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him” (2Th 2:1) is the crux interpretum of this passage. Paul here refers to the AD 70 judgment on the Jews — the very judgment Christ emphasizes in the first portion of his Olivet Discourse, John focuses on in the Book of Revelation, and other writers consider in several other Scriptural passages.2
Though Paul speaks of the second advent just a few verses before (1:10), he is not dealing with that issue here. In 2 Thessalonians 1:10 he even employs a different word for the coming of Christ (elthe) from what he uses in 2:1 (parousia). In chapter 1 the second advent brings “everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord” (1:9); here this coming results in temporal “destruction” (2:8). There the second advent includes “his mighty angels” (1:7); here the temporal judgment mentions nothing about these angels (2:1–12). Thus, the second advent provides an eternal resolution to their suffering; the AD 70 Day of the Lord affords temporal resolution (cf. Rev 6:10).
Furthermore, the “gathering together to Him” Paul mentions in 2 Thessalonians 2:1 seems to reflect Matthew 24:31. The word translated “gather together” here is episunagoge. Its cognate verb form is found in Matthew 24:31, where Christ ties the gathering to “this generation” (Mt 24:34). It signifies the elect’s calling into Christ by means of the trumpeting in of the archetypical Great Jubilee (cf. 2Th 1:11; 2:14).3 Here it functions the same way. With the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, Christians will henceforth be “gathered together” in a separate and distinct “assembly” (episunagoge; the church is called a sunagoge in Jas 2:2). After the temple’s destruction God will no longer tolerate going up to the temple to worship (it will be impossible!), as Christians frequently do prior to AD 70.4
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Paul consoles them by denying the false report that “the day of Christ had come” (2Th 2:2). Apparently, the very reason for this epistle, which Paul writes so soon after the first one, is because some unscrupulous deceivers are forging letters from him. In them they are claiming charismatic insights into eschatological concerns. In his earlier letter he corrects their grief over loved ones who die in the Lord, as if this would preclude their sharing in the resurrection (1Th 4:13–17). Now new eschatological deceptions are troubling the young church (2Th 2:1–3a): some believe that the Day of the Lord had come5 and, consequently, they quit working (2Th 3:6–12).
The word “trouble” (throeo; 2:2) is in the present infinitive form, signifying a continued state of agitation. This is the same word Christ uses in the Olivet Discourse (Mk 13:7; Mt 24:6). And he uses it in a similar theological context: one warning of deception and trouble regarding the coming of the Day of Christ (Mk 13:5–7). And its present form shows that he is speaking of present problems the Christians are suffering.
In my next study I will show how Paul refers the Man of Lawlessness to contemporary issues his friends were facing. Stay tuned.
- Sydney Page attempts to draw the parallel with Revelation 20, comparing the restraint and deception of Satan and the flaming coming of Christ there with the deception, restraint, and coming here. (“Revelation 20 and Pauline Eschatology,” JETS 23:1 [March 1980]: 31–44.)
- For an excellent analysis of such texts see: Peter W. L. Walker, Jesus and the Holy City, passim.
- J. M. Kik, An Eschatology of Victory, 144–150. David Chilton, The Great Tribulation, 25–28.
- Ac 1:4; 1:8; 18:21; 20:16; 24:11. Even in this early post-commission Christianity, believers continued to gravitate toward the Jews: engaging in Jewish worship observances (Ac 2:1ff.; 21:26; 24:11), focusing on and radiating their ministry from Jerusalem (Ac 2–5), frequenting the temple (Ac 2:46; 3:1ff.; 4:1; 5:21ff.; 21:26; 26:21), and attending the synagogues (13:5, 14; 14:1; 15:21; 17:1ff.; 18:4, 7, 19, 26; 19:8; 22:19; 24:12; 26:11).
- Greek: enesteken. A. M. G. Stephenson, “On the meaning of enesteken he hemera tou kuriou in 2 Thessalonians 2:2.” Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geshichte der altchristlichen Literatur 102, 442–451. BAGD, 337. See: Leon Morris, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 215. Note the agreement among the following translations: NASB, NKJV, NEB, TEV, Moffatt’s New Translation, Weymouth, Williams, Beck.