15. The Perseverance of the Saints and the Purity of the Gospel (2 Thessalonians 2:13-3:5)Related Media
October 3, 2010
2:13 But we ought to thank God always for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. 14 He called you to this salvation through our gospel, so that you may possess the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 Therefore, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold on to the traditions that we taught you, whether by speech or by letter. 16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good thing you do or say. 3:1 Finally, pray for us, brothers and sisters, that the Lord’s message may spread quickly and be honored as in fact it was among you, 2 and that we may be delivered from perverse and evil people. For not all have faith. 3 But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one. 4 And we are confident about you in the Lord that you are both doing – and will do – what we are commanding. 5 Now may the Lord direct your hearts toward the love of God and the endurance of Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:13-3:5).1
A couple of years ago I was invited to speak at a conference in a part of the world where Christians were experiencing a great deal of persecution for their faith in the Lord Jesus. There were several reasons why I had to decline, but I remember thinking, “What could I possibly say to these people? They are suffering greatly for their faith, but I live in relative safety and ease. What can a person like me have to say to people like them?” I now know what biblical text I would use to encourage persecuted saints – our text, for it was written by the Apostle Paul to minister to those who faced a great deal of persecution.
And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, when you received the message with joy that comes from the Holy Spirit, despite great affliction (1 Thessalonians 1:6).
14 For you became imitators, brothers and sisters, of God’s churches in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, because you too suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they in fact did from the Jews, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets and persecuted us severely. They are displeasing to God and are opposed to all people, 16 because they hinder us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they constantly fill up their measure of sins, but wrath has come upon them completely (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16).
For in fact when we were with you, we were telling you in advance that we would suffer affliction, and so it has happened, as you well know (1 Thessalonians 3:4).
4 As a result we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and afflictions you are enduring. 5 This is evidence of God’s righteous judgment, to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which in fact you are suffering (2 Thessalonians 1:4-5).
We know that the Thessalonian church was a persecuted church, but it might be good to remind ourselves of what the Bible says some persecuted saints experienced, as indeed they still do in many parts of the world.
32 But remember the former days when you endured a harsh conflict of suffering after you were enlightened. 33 At times you were publicly exposed to abuse and afflictions, and at other times you came to share with others who were treated in that way. 34 For in fact you shared the sufferings of those in prison, and you accepted the confiscation of your belongings with joy, because you knew that you certainly had a better and lasting possession (Hebrews 10:32-34).
. . . But others were tortured, not accepting release, to obtain resurrection to a better life. 36 And others experienced mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, sawed apart, murdered with the sword; they went about in sheepskins and goatskins; they were destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (Hebrews 11:35b-37).
I was right to question my ability to speak to persecuted saints about their suffering, when I have experienced none of the hardships they have faced. But the author of our text is eminently qualified, for he experienced more persecution than nearly anyone else:
19 But when her owners saw their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are throwing our city into confusion. They are Jews 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us to accept or practice, since we are Romans.” 22 The crowd joined the attack against them, and the magistrates tore the clothes off Paul and Silas and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had beaten them severely, they threw them into prison and commanded the jailer to guard them securely. 24 Receiving such orders, he threw them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks (Acts 16:19-24).
But although we suffered earlier and were mistreated in Philippi, as you know, we had the courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of much opposition (1 Thessalonians 2:2).
23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am talking like I am out of my mind!) I am even more so: with much greater labors, with far more imprisonments, with more severe beatings, facing death many times. 24 Five times I received from the Jews forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with a rod. Once I received a stoning. Three times I suffered shipwreck. A night and a day I spent adrift in the open sea. 26 I have been on journeys many times, in dangers from rivers, in dangers from robbers, in dangers from my own countrymen, in dangers from Gentiles, in dangers in the city, in dangers in the wilderness, in dangers at sea, in dangers from false brothers, 27 in hard work and toil, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, many times without food, in cold and without enough clothing. 28 Apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxious concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not burn with indignation? (2 Corinthians 11:23-29)
This is the second epistle that Paul has written to the Thessalonian saints. Intense persecution forced Paul to leave Thessalonica, and in spite of repeated efforts to return to them, Paul had been prevented from doing so.2 Consequently, Paul sent Timothy to Thessalonica, and he returned with glowing reports as to how these saints had not only persevered, but were growing in their faith, love, and hope.3 After challenging these saints to press on in the process of their sanctification (4:1-12), Paul put their minds at ease by assuring them that at the Second Coming those who had died in faith would be raised from the dead, to enjoy eternal fellowship with their Lord and with their fellow-believers (4:13-18). He also urged the Thessalonian saints to be alert and ready for the Lord’s return, and not caught by surprise, like those who are outside the faith (5:1-11).
Things had apparently gotten worse after Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians, and so he penned a second epistle to them. In 2 Thessalonians 1, Paul sought to encourage the saints by showing them how enduring persecution served God’s purposes, both for His saints and for the unbelievers who were the source of their persecution. Persevering in the midst of persecution proved that the saints were worthy of the glory that was to be revealed at the Second Coming.4 Persecution likewise proved that those who abused and oppressed the saints were deserving of God’s eternal punishment (1:4-10).
In 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul set out to deal with false teaching pertaining to the Day of the Lord. To add insult to injury, this false teaching was deceitfully presented as coming from Paul, with his approval and authority:
1 Now regarding the arrival of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to be with him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, 2 not to be easily shaken from your composure or disturbed by any kind of spirit or message or letter allegedly from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2).
Paul refuted this error by reminding the Thessalonians of what he had taught them earlier.5 There were certain things which first had to take place, and only then would the Day of the Lord come. The first of these was the great apostasy (or rebellion), and the second was the appearance of the “man of lawlessness.”6 This was something that would be very public, and thus known to all, for the “man of lawlessness” would exalt himself as God, and would demand men’s worship. This usurper would be easily dispatched at the Second Coming (by the breath of our Lord’s mouth).7 Until it was God’s time, lawlessness would be divinely hindered by the “restrainer,” but a time would come when this restraint would be removed, and then the “man of lawlessness” will appear. With his deceitful words and amazing works, he will deceive many, who are blinded by their own rejection of the truth.8
Our text serves as the conclusion to Paul’s dealings with this false teaching regarding the Day of the Lord. It is intended to remind the Thessalonian saints (and all other saints) of the solid footing on which they may stand firm, so that they will not be shaken by teaching which is untrue, harmful, and deceitful (since it claims to be from Paul). Paul sees this treacherous teaching as an attack on the gospel itself, and so he deals with it by the use of two different forms of imagery. The first is that of a solid and immovable foundation, on which the saints stand securely (2:13-17). The second is that of a rapidly advancing message (something like a runner), which brings salvation to lost sinners and the defeat of Satan and his schemes.
I believe that these are some of the most powerful and encouraging words in the Thessalonian epistles, so let us listen well to these words to persecuted saints, from one who endured more persecution than we can even imagine.
The Gospel: How Firm a Foundation
1 Thessalonians 2:13-17
1. “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said—
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?
2. “Fear not, I am with thee, oh, be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My gracious, omnipotent hand.
3. “When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee thy trouble to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
4. “When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not harm thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
5. “The soul that on Jesus doth lean for repose,
I will not, I will not, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”
The words of the Apostle Paul provide us with a firm foundation for they summarize the pure message of the gospel by which we are saved, and in which we stand:
13 But we ought to thank God always for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning9 for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. 14 He called you to this salvation through our gospel, so that you may possess the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 Therefore, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold on to the traditions that we taught you, whether by speech or by letter. 16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good thing you do or say (2 Thessalonians 2:13-18).
In verses 13 and 14, Paul summarizes the message of the gospel. It is a selective summarization of the gospel. It does not emphasize sanctification10 or the changes which should occur as a result of coming to faith in Jesus. This is because Paul is emphasizing the sovereignty of God in our salvation, rather than man’s sin and hopeless state without Christ. In so doing, he underscores the certainty of our salvation and the security of every saint, which is the key to perseverance in the midst of persecution.
13 But we ought to thank God always for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit11 and faith in the truth. 14 He called you to this salvation through our gospel, so that you may possess the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14, emphasis mine).
The origin of our salvation. Salvation is the result of the sovereign choice of God in eternity past, a choice made long before we were born, long before we did anything good or bad.
3 Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms in Christ. 4 For he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that we may be holy and unblemished in his sight in love. 5 He did this by predestining us to adoption as his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the pleasure of his will – 6 to the praise of the glory of his grace that he has freely bestowed on us in his dearly loved Son (Ephesians 1:3-6, emphasis mine).12
The means employed to secure our salvation. God saves lost sinners through the proclamation of the gospel, through the sanctification of the Spirit, and through His divine (and irresistible) call. Salvation is not the result of our works, but is of His doing.
1 And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom all of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath even as the rest… 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, 5 even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you are saved! – 6 and he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 to demonstrate in the coming ages the surpassing wealth of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 it is not from works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:1-9).
God set us apart for salvation, and then His Spirit worked in our hearts, bringing us to life and prompting us to trust in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary, whereby He bore the penalty for our sins and provided His righteousness in their place. Over and over again in the New Testament, we read that salvation is the sovereign work of God. While men must choose to accept God’s offer of salvation,13 it is God who first chose them:
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44).
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that remains, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you” (John 15:16).
When the Gentiles heard this, they began to rejoice and praise the word of the Lord, and all who had been appointed for eternal life believed (Acts 13:48, emphasis mine).
13 On the Sabbath day we went outside the city gate to the side of the river, where we thought there would be a place of prayer, and we sat down and began to speak to the women who had assembled there. 14 A woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, a God-fearing woman, listened to us. The Lord opened her heart to respond to what Paul was saying (Acts 16:13-14, emphasis mine).
5 He saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us in full measure through Jesus Christ our Savior. 7 And so, since we have been justified by his grace, we become heirs with the confident expectation of eternal life (Titus 3:5-7).
28 And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose, 29 because those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified (Romans 8:28-30).
While Paul does not overlook the fact that men must respond in faith to the gospel message, his summary is a God-centered view of salvation. Why is it so important for Paul to remind the suffering saints of Thessalonica that salvation is the work of God? Because our security, like our salvation, is ultimately the work of God, and His work never fails. What he teaches here in our text, Paul clearly reaffirms elsewhere:
For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).
33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how fathomless his ways! 34 For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? 35 Or who has first given to God, that God needs to repay him? 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen (Romans 11:33-36, emphasis by underscoring mine).
1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us, 2 keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2, emphasis mine).
1 From Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace and peace to you! 2 We thank God always for all of you as we mention you constantly in our prayers, 3 because we recall in the presence of our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and endurance of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 We know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 in that our gospel did not come to you merely in words, but in power and in the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction (surely you recall the character we displayed when we came among you to help you) (1 Thessalonians 1:1-5).
The goal of our salvation. Paul not only emphasizes the means of our salvation; he likewise calls attention to the goal of our salvation. It is true that salvation brings about the forgiveness of our sins, so that we are declared righteous in Christ, and thus we will not face God’s eternal wrath. But that is not what Paul wants us to see as the ultimate and final goal of our salvation. He puts it simply and plainly here in our text:
He called you to this salvation through our gospel, so that you may possess the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:14, emphasis mine).
We think of the goal of our salvation as heaven, and we think in terms of those “streets of gold,” of no more suffering and sorrow and death. We look forward to heaven so that we can be reunited with loved ones. But Paul does not describe the goal of our salvation in these terms; he speaks of it in terms of the glory of God. He has just spoken in similar terms earlier in 2 Thessalonians 2:
9 They will undergo the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his strength, 10 when he comes to be glorified among his saints and admired on that day among all who have believed – and you did in fact believe our testimony. 11 And in this regard we pray for you always, that our God will make you worthy of his calling and fulfill by his power your every desire for goodness and every work of faith, 12 that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 1:9-12, emphasis mine).
The goal of the gospel is a salvation which enables us to share in the glory of God for all eternity, while those who reject the gospel spend eternity away from God and His glory. No wonder Paul writes,
So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
What I want you to see here is that Paul found it necessary to reiterate the gospel because the false teaching he is correcting is ultimately an attack on the gospel. It is a very subtle attack, but that is only an indication of the deceitfulness of Satan and his servants. These false teachers do not attack Paul directly, but they seek to revise and undermine Paul’s teaching by claiming that their doctrine comes from Paul, directly from God (by a revelation), or with Paul’s approval. They do not deny the deity of our Lord or the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of our Lord on the cross of Calvary; they attack the gospel by diminishing the goal of the gospel.
This may not be immediately obvious. If one can attack any part of the gospel, one has attacked it all. The false claim that the Day of the Lord had come was an attack on the outcome of the gospel. The saints at Thessalonica gladly endured persecution for the sake of the gospel. This was because of the hope which the gospel brought, a hope that Paul reiterates over and over in both Thessalonian epistles.
9 For people everywhere report how you welcomed us and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus our deliverer from the coming wrath (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).
19 For who is our hope or joy or crown to boast of before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not of course you? 20 For you are our glory and joy! (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20)
11 Now may God our Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12 And may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we do for you, 13 so that your hearts are strengthened in holiness to be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13).
13 Now we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also we believe that God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep as Christians. 15 For we tell you this by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not go ahead of those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
23 Now may the God of peace himself make you completely holy and may your spirit and soul and body be kept entirely blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:23).
6 For it is right for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to you who are being afflicted to give rest together with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels. 8 With flaming fire he will mete out punishment on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will undergo the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his strength, 10 when he comes to be glorified among his saints and admired on that day among all who have believed – and you did in fact believe our testimony (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10).
You may be asking, “But how did this claim that the Day of the Lord had come undermine the gospel?” It does so by depreciating the hope of the gospel. Think about it for a moment. The Thessalonian saints have put all their eggs in one basket – the gospel basket. They have chosen to forfeit present pleasures for future promises of glory, as Moses did many years earlier:
24 By faith, when he grew up, Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to be ill-treated with the people of God than to enjoy sin’s fleeting pleasure. 26 He regarded abuse suffered for Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for his eyes were fixed on the reward (Hebrews 11:24-26).
This is the hope which Peter speaks of with such great certainty:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he gave us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 that is, into an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. It is reserved in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are protected through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 This brings you great joy, although you may have to suffer for a short time in various trials. 7 Such trials show the proven character of your faith, which is much more valuable than gold – gold that is tested by fire, even though it is passing away – and will bring praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 You have not seen him, but you love him. You do not see him now but you believe in him, and so you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9 because you are attaining the goal of your faith – the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1:3-9).
The Thessalonians’ eyes were likewise fixed on this “living hope” – the hope of glory.14 And then along come those who claimed that the Day of the Lord had come. But in spite of the promises of glory that Paul had conveyed (and the Thessalonians had believed), nothing glorious seems to have happened. Indeed, things may have only gotten worse. The saints are still being persecuted, the wicked are not punished, and the dead in Christ have not been raised. The Thessalonians who believed this false claim had to be asking, “What glory?” If one believed the false teaching that the Day of the Lord had come, then you must also confess that the promises of future glory Paul promised have not been fulfilled. And if the goal of the gospel is no better than this, all their suffering was in vain. Paul’s argument is similar regarding the resurrection of the dead:
12 Now if Christ is being preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is futile and your faith is empty. 15 Also, we are found to be false witnesses about God, because we have testified against God that he raised Christ from the dead, when in reality he did not raise him, if indeed the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless; you are still in your sins. 18 Furthermore, those who have fallen asleep in Christ have also perished. 19 For if only in this life we have hope in Christ, we should be pitied more than anyone (1 Corinthians 15:12-19).
And so Paul first refuted the claim that the Day of the Lord had come, and then he moves on to summarize the pure gospel of salvation in a God-centered way. Viewed as Paul conveyed it, the gospel is God-centered, and thus the Christian can be assured that everything God promised, He will fulfill. Now, the Thessalonians have three good reasons for rejecting this false teaching: (1) It wasn’t what Paul taught in the first place; (2) the prerequisites necessary for the coming of the Day of the Lord had not yet been met; and, (3) the goal of the gospel is far more glorious than what they were presently experiencing. And with this foundation laid, Paul now calls upon the Thessalonians to stand firm in their faith, love, and hope, rather than to be shaken and disturbed by false teaching.
Notice Paul’s call to spiritual stability (rather than being shaken and disturbed – 2:2) in verse 15:
Therefore, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold on to the traditions that we taught you, whether by speech or by letter (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
We should first observe that Paul speaks of the truth to which they should cling as “the traditions that we taught you.” There are at least two kinds of tradition in the New Testament. The first kind is bad tradition – those traditions of men which are contrary to the Word of God:
He answered them, “And why do you disobey the commandment of God because of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3)
8 Be careful not to allow anyone to captivate you through an empty, deceitful philosophy that is according to human traditions and the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ (Colossians 2:8).
These man-made traditions are not what Paul is referring to in our text. His “traditions” are the teachings which God has revealed through His apostles which are to be observed and passed on:
I praise you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I passed them on to you (1 Corinthians 11:2).
6 But we command you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from any brother who lives an undisciplined life and not according to the tradition they received from us (2 Thessalonians 3:6).
Paul is therefore exhorting the Thessalonians to hold fast to His (apostolic) teaching, rather than to embrace the false teaching of those who claim to speak for Paul. How would the Thessalonians be able to discern between Paul’s genuine instruction and the false teaching of those who would lead them astray? Paul tells us here. They are to cling to those “traditions” which they heard from Paul’s mouth, rather than those things which allegedly come from him “second-hand.”
There was also a sure way to discern whether a writing that was purported to be from Paul was actually authored by him. Paul authenticated all his epistles by signing them (at the least) with his own signature, in his own hand. Look at what Paul writes at the end of this epistle:
I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand, which is how I write in every letter (2 Thessalonians 3:17).
Paul signed every correspondence with his own hand. All they needed to do was to check the handwriting on any letter and see if his signature was on it. And so if they had heard it directly from Paul or had seen it in his own handwriting, they knew they were receiving a true apostolic tradition. Truth like this gave them stability, rather than to shake their faith:
11 It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God – a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature. 14 So we are no longer to be children, tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind of teaching by the trickery of people who craftily carry out their deceitful schemes (Ephesians 4:11-14).
Beyond Belief to Intimacy with God
2 Thessalonians 2:16-17
16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good thing you do or say (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17).
When I say beyond belief above, I do not mean that belief in the gospel is somehow left behind as no longer relevant. Bible doctrine is to Christian living what a marriage license and wedding ceremony is to marriage – it is the beginning of a new and wonderful relationship. Here, I am trying to call attention to the relationship with God that begins when the truth of the gospel is believed, resulting in salvation. The gospel is truth, just as our Lord is the truth.15 The truth of the gospel serves as the foundation upon which a wonderful relationship is built.
In our worship time this morning, Tom Wright called attention to the fact that when God saves us, He draws us into the perfect relationship that has eternally existed within the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When we are saved by faith in Jesus, we enter into that perfect unity and fellowship. And when the tests and trials of life come our way, it is not just the truths of the gospel which sustain us (which they do); it is the relationship which we have with the Holy Trinity. And so it is that in verses 16 and 17, Paul prays that God the Father and God the Son will personally comfort, encourage, and give hope to the saints. While sound doctrine gives us stability of mind,16 an intimate relationship with God encourages our hearts.
Look and see how this works in Psalm 73. Asaph (a choir director and the author of the psalm) is very distressed because God does not seem to be fulfilling His promise to bless the godly. Instead, the wicked seem to be enjoying the blessings of the good life while the godly suffer (at their hand?). This causes Asaph to contemplate giving it all up (Psalm 73:1-14). This psalmist then comes to the sanctuary of God and sees these things from an eternal perspective. He realizes that the prosperity of the wicked is short-lived. They have no relationship with God in the present, and they face eternal judgment for all eternity (verses 16-20). Asaph also sees his own circumstances very differently. He realizes how foolish he was to feel as he did because God is near to him in his earthly trials, and he is likewise assured of being with God for all eternity after his death (verses 21-24). That brings him to this conclusion:
25 Whom do I have in heaven but you?
I desire no one but you on earth.
26 My flesh and my heart may grow weak,
but God always protects my heart and gives me stability.
27 Yes, look! Those far from you die;
you destroy everyone who is unfaithful to you.
28 But as for me, God’s presence is all I need.
I have made the sovereign Lord my shelter,
as I declare all the things you have done (Psalm 73:25-28).
God ministered to Asaph on two levels. On the one hand, Asaph saw that in his time of rebellion he was beastly, senseless, and ignorant (verses 21-22). In other words, he was not thinking straight. Seeing things from God’s eternal viewpoint straightened out his thinking. But God ministered to Asaph on another, more intimate, level. In his time of mental anguish and doubt, God ministered to him personally, intimately. Asaph came to realize that intimacy with God was his highest good (“God’s presence is all I need,” verse 28). And so, just as we see Paul stressing pure doctrine (especially related to the gospel in this instance) and intimacy with God, we see the same thing happening to Asaph.17 God ministers to our minds and our hearts. This is what gives us stability in difficult times.
Prayer, Purity, and the Advancement of the Gospel
2 Thessalonians 3:1-3
1 Finally, pray for us, brothers and sisters, that the Lord’s message may spread quickly and be honored18 as in fact it was among you, 2 and that we may be delivered from perverse and evil people. For not all have faith. 3 But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one (2 Thessalonians 3:1-3).
One can easily see how 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17 relates to the error related to the Day of the Lord, but I would contend that verses 1-3 of chapter 3 are also closely tied to Paul’s instruction in chapter 2, providing a kind of closure for the matter. This is indicated by the “Finally” which Paul uses at the beginning of verse 1. This “finally” informs the reader that Paul is now concluding the argument of chapter 2.
Several changes occur when we leave chapter 2 and come to these introductory verses in chapter 3. (This is not to say that 2:13-17 and 3:1-5 are unrelated!) First, there is a change in Paul’s imagery. In 2:13-17, Paul deals with the gospel as a firm foundation, which gives the Christian stability in times of trouble. In 3:1-5, the gospel is in motion, hastening forth effectively to those who are lost (evangelism). Furthermore, the pronouns change from “you” and “your” to “us.” In 2:16-17, Paul is praying for the Thessalonians saints; now in 3:1-2, he is asking the Thessalonians to pray for him and his associates.
Like me, you might initially conclude that Paul is asking for prayer so that God would deliver him and his associates from suffering persecution at the hands of their opponents. Several things strongly indicate otherwise. First, why would Paul praise the Thessalonians for enduring persecution, and encourage them to continue to persevere, only to ask them to pray that he and his associates escape it? Secondly, Paul’s concern is not for himself, but for the gospel. He wants it to progress and be honored, like it was among the Thessalonians. This happened when both Paul and the Thessalonians suffered persecution. Third, Paul’s statement, “For not all have faith” (verse 2), doesn’t seem to make any sense when applied to those who persecute them. Of course, unbelievers do not have faith. So who is Paul talking about here? That, my friend, is the critical question.
The key is found in Paul’s description of these men from whom he wishes to be delivered as “perverse and evil people” (verse 2). What kind of people are “perverse” people? This word originally meant “out of place.”19 I think that one might even render it “out of line” when it occurs in a text like this:
40 But the other [thief on the cross] rebuked him, saying, “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we rightly so, for we are getting what we deserve for what we did, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom” (Luke 23:40-42, emphasis mine).
You might paraphrase the words of that thief on the cross this way: “We’re getting what we deserve, for we broke the law; but Jesus is innocent because He never crossed the line (stepped outside the boundaries prescribed by the law).”
Think about the context for a moment and this word describing these men from whom Paul wishes to be delivered will make sense. There were those who were falsely teaching that the Day of the Lord had already come. These were not the persecutors of the church. These were folks in the church, or who claimed to be genuine believers. They had not denied Paul’s apostolic authority; they had claimed Paul’s authority for what they taught.
Now Paul’s words (“For not all have faith.”) make perfect sense. He is saying that not everyone who claims to be a believer actually is. Not all who profess to be Christians are Christians. False teaching often comes from just such people:
12 And what I am doing I will continue to do, so that I may eliminate any opportunity for those who want a chance to be regarded as our equals in the things they boast about. 13 For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is not surprising his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will correspond to their actions (2 Corinthians 11:12-15).
1 I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 Preach the message, be ready whether it is convenient or not, reprove, rebuke, exhort with complete patience and instruction. 3 For there will be a time when people will not tolerate sound teaching. Instead, following their own desires, they will accumulate teachers for themselves, because they have an insatiable curiosity to hear new things. 4 And they will turn away from hearing the truth, but on the other hand they will turn aside to myths (2 Timothy 4:1-4).
1 But false prophets arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. These false teachers will infiltrate your midst with destructive heresies, even to the point of denying the Master who bought them. As a result, they will bring swift destruction on themselves. 2 And many will follow their debauched lifestyles. Because of these false teachers, the way of truth will be slandered. 3 And in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words. Their condemnation pronounced long ago is not sitting idly by; their destruction is not asleep (2 Peter 2:1-3).
3 Dear friends, although I have been eager to write to you about our common salvation, I now feel compelled instead to write to encourage you to contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. 4 For certain men have secretly slipped in among you – men who long ago were marked out for the condemnation I am about to describe – ungodly men who have turned the grace of our God into a license for evil and who deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ (Jude 3-4).
And so we see that Paul is not asking the Thessalonians to pray that he will escape from persecution. He is asking them to pray that God would protect them from those who seek to associate with them who are not true believers, but are false teachers (just like those who teach that the Day of the Lord has come) who seek to corrupt and distort the truth. He asks the saints to pray this so that the gospel will not be hindered, and thus might go forth in power so that many will be saved (as the Thessalonians were).
In contrast with those who do not have faith and who pervert the truth of the gospel, Paul reminds his readers that God is faithful, and that He will strengthen and protect them from the evil one.20 Is it any wonder that Paul now speaks of Satan as the ultimate deceiver, the one who is behind all deception?21 But Paul will have his readers know that God’s truth will prevail, for God is faithful to preserve His truth and to protect and strengthen those who proclaim it. Satan is already a defeated foe, whose doom is certain:
17 And Jesus answered him, “You are blessed, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven! 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matthew 16:17-18).
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels!” (Matthew 25:41)
“Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out” (John 12:31).
“. . . and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned” (John 16:11).
A Word of Encouragement and a Benediction
2 Thessalonians 3:4-5
4 And we are confident about you in the Lord that you are both doing – and will do – what we are commanding. 5 Now may the Lord direct your hearts toward the love of God and the endurance of Christ (2 Thessalonians 3:4-5).
Paul now encourages the Thessalonian saints by publicly expressing his confidence that they will continue to heed the Lord’s commands through the apostles, rather than to embrace the false teaching of the deceivers. This confidence does not ignore the Thessalonians’ past faithfulness and continued growth and perseverance, but it affirms that ultimately Paul’s confidence is in God, who sovereignly brought about their salvation, and thus will bring them safely to the end (their death or the Lord’s return). That is why Paul tells these saints that they are confident about them in the Lord.
Now comes Paul’s benediction, a prayer on behalf of these saints as it relates to those teaching false doctrine about the Lord’s return. The basis for Paul’s confidence is God’s sovereignty in the salvation and sanctification process. Some have charged that too much emphasis on the sovereignty of God discourages human participation in matters like prayer. That is not the way Paul sees it at all! Paul is greatly encouraged to pray, because he knows that God keeps His promises and finishes what He starts.
But there is even more for us to see in verse 5. Paul prays that the Lord will “direct your hearts toward the love of God and the endurance of Christ.” As you think through 1 and 2 Thessalonians (not to ignore the other epistles of Paul), the three benchmarks of spiritual health are faith, love, and hope.22 I believe that Paul has emphasized the love, faithfulness, and sovereignty of God because these are the basis for the believer’s faith, love, and hope. We love because of God’s love for us.23 We have faith in God because He is faithful and thus trustworthy. We have hope because God is sovereign, and thus He has the ability to fulfill all of His promises. Now I see one of the reasons why Paul’s Thessalonian Epistles are so God-centered. Not only is this true to who God is; it is also the foundation for the Christian’s stability, so that we need not be shaken or disturbed in our faith and Christian walk.
As we conclude this lesson, let us pause to reflect on what Paul has said here.
First, Paul has devoted this chapter to disproving the false teaching that the Day of the Lord has come. He’s done this because this teaching is not true. The Day of the Lord cannot come until after the great apostasy and the revealing of the “man of lawlessness.” But he has also refuted this error because it distorts and dilutes the gospel, diminishing the believer’s hope because the blessings of salvation are minimized, or denied altogether. The Day of the Lord will not come apart from the resurrection of those saints who died prior to His return for His own (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Furthermore, the Day of the Lord must be accompanied by the deliverance and rewarding of the saints and the punishment of the wicked (2 Thessalonians 1). To believe that the Day of the Lord has come without the fulfillment of God’s promises undermines the Christian’s hope, and this diminishes the good news of the gospel. To refute this false teaching related to the Day of the Lord is to affirm the gospel Paul preached and the hope it promises.
Second, Paul has reiterated the pure gospel because any distortion of the gospel negatively impacts the proclamation and progress of the gospel. A distorted gospel is a gospel robbed of its purity and power. Paul desires the gospel to spread quickly to those who are lost, and thus he defends it from distortion and asks the Thessalonians to pray that counterfeit Christians will not infiltrate the church and thereby hinder the gospel with their teaching. Behind it all is Satan, who was defeated at the cross, and whose destruction will follow the return of our Lord in power.
Third, the pure gospel is God-centered and reflects the character of God. It is His love, faithfulness, and sovereignty that are the basis of the believers’ strength and standing.
When I think about the teaching of those who would distort the gospel by claiming that the Day of the Lord had come, I believe we can sum it all up this way:
BIG MEN; little god
When I think about Paul’s teaching in Thessalonians (in general) and especially his teaching on the nature of the gospel (in particular), I believe it can be summed up this way:
BIG GOD; little men
Whenever we exalt men rather than God, we are already in big trouble. What a comfort it is to have a BIG GOD. When we gather as a church, let us do so by focusing on how big our God is, and let us never forget how small (weak, foolish) we are. Let us keep in mind that the Word of God is not nearly as interested in making us feel good about ourselves as it is in calling us to delight in the greatness of our God.
When we (Community Bible Chapel) gather to worship every Sunday, we celebrate the Lord’s Table. We do this because we believe this is the instruction of our Lord (Luke 22:14-20; especially verse 19).24 It is also the practice of the early church.25 The primary purpose of the gathering of the church is to worship God and edify believers,26 not the evangelization of the lost. This is a wonderful thing when it happens,27 but the gospel needs to be proclaimed to believers every week when they gather because this is the basis for our stability and security. It is what enables us to endure persecution as it encourages us regarding God’s sovereignty and the certainty that His promises will be fulfilled.
As we study this text, let us never lose sight of the fact that it was written to persecuted saints. Let us bear in mind that persecution is the norm and that our life of relative peace and comfort as American Christians is the exception.28 Let us not conclude this message without pausing to remember the persecuted saints around the world. November 14 is the day that is set aside to pray for the persecuted saints around the world, but let us begin now to pray for our brothers and sisters who are experiencing the things which the Thessalonians saints (and Paul) experienced long ago. And let us prepare ourselves for the day when their experience may be our own. These truths may mean much more to us then than they do now.
And let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and on the hope which lies before us, confident that He who began a good work in us will complete it, and will preserve our future hope for us, and us for it, to His glory and our good.
Copyright © 2010 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 15 in the series Paul’s Epistles to the Thessalonians, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on October 3, 2010. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.
1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at:
2 1 Thessalonians 2:17-18.
3 1 Thessalonians 3:1-8.
4 I understand this to be something similar to God’s purpose for allowing Satan to afflict Job (see Job 1 and 2).
5 2 Thessalonians 2:5.
6 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4.
7 2 Thessalonians 2:8.
8 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12.
9 I agree with the translators of the NET Bible (along with the NASB, NIV, CSB, KJV and NKJV) who have chosen this rendering over “as the firstfruits to be saved” (ESV).
10 A subject which Paul has addressed earlier in 1 Thessalonians, especially 4:1-12.
11 While we rightly think of sanctification as the process that begins with salvation and continues until death or our Lord’s return, I believe that “sanctification” here refers to those whom God has set apart for salvation because He has chosen them for salvation.
12 See also Romans 9:6-13.
13 See Romans 10:5-17. If Romans 9 presents salvation as the sovereign work of God, Romans 10 presents the gospel as the message which men receive by faith.
14 Romans 5:2.
15 John 14:6.
16 In 2 Thessalonians 2:2, Paul instructs the saints not to be shaken in mind (literally). Here in verses 16-17, he speaks of being comforted and strengthened in heart.
17 I believe that we can see this elsewhere in the Bible. For example, consider how God ministered to Moses (Exodus 32-34), as well as to Elijah (1 Kings 19). The Word of God is often the means by which God ministers to our spirit (see Psalm 119; Hebrews 4:12-13).
18 Literally glorified.
19 Greek = atopos. Topos = place; a = not. Thus, not in place.
20 Some might be inclined to render this simply “evil,” as we find the KJV doing (it is noteworthy that the NKJV corrects this), but most see this as a reference to Satan, “the evil one,” as we see elsewhere in Matthew 6:13; 13:38; and John 17:15.
21 See 2 Thessalonians 2:9-10; 2 Corinthians 11:13-15; Revelation 12:9.
22 See 1 Thessalonians 1:7; 3:6-8; 5:8; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-4. In some of these texts, only two of the three terms (faith and love) are listed, but the context may suggest hope as well.
23 1 John 4:19.
24 The command, “This do in remembrance of Me” would be more literally translated, “This be doing (present active imperative) in remembrance of Me.”
25 See Acts 2:42; 20:7; 1 Corinthians 11:17-32.
26 Acts 2:42; 1 Corinthians 14.
27 See 1 Corinthians 14:23-25.
28 See John 15:18-25; Acts 14:21-22; 2 Timothy 3:12-13.