The Struggles and Growth of a Church
In 1 Corinthians 10:13, the apostle Paul reminds us that the temptations and trials of life are common to man, or typically faced by others. The same applies to churches. Every church goes through various struggles and growth pains, and while they are in many ways common to other churches and we should never think of them as totally unique, these struggles do have a way of developing their own character and makeup as a study of the seven churches of Asia Minor illustrates (Rev. 2-3).
I have had the privilege of being part of the leadership of a number of churches in various places in the country. Three of these were new ministries that began with ten to fifteen families with new people coming into the church from week to week. This meant a conglomeration of people not only from all walks of life (teachers, carpenters, students, doctors, farmers, salesmen, and you name it), but from a large mixture of political, religious, social, and even cultural backgrounds. As these new ministries were birthed and grew, there were people from a variety of denominations, and while many of the beliefs of these various denominations were similar, many were very different. Some people were out of the Jesus Movement, and some were saved and came out of the occult and other religions. Some were from broken homes, some had been abused, some had been on drugs, some had been in jail, and on the list goes. And people do not leave their ideas and backgrounds at the door. Each brings his own perspective about life, God, man, and society into the life of the church. This results in a virtual hodgepodge of beliefs with varying responses and understanding of what the Bible really teaches about God, man, salvation, sanctification, prophecy, and other themes.
While the body of Christ is made up of many members with a variety of spiritual gifts given by the Spirit for its growth and health and ministry in the world, the Scripture teaches we are all to be transformed in our thinking and beliefs by the Word of God (Rom. 12:1-2). This forms our authoritative index for a belief and practice that is in keeping with sound doctrine which protects and delivers the church from the delusions and false belief systems of the world (Eph. 4:12-16; note especially vs. 14). God does not want to make us into a group of look-a-likes so we look like we have been cut from the same mold, but He does want us to know, believe, think, and live with the mind of Christ. In the process of this growth—a process that never really ends—every church goes through a variety of struggles and growing pains.
As a part of this process, there will sometimes be those who come into the church with their own agendas seeking to promote their own brand of theology or viewpoint about life. We once had a young man show up in one of our ministries who claimed to be Michael the Archangel from the fifth dimension. He wanted to speak to our flock and claimed he had new revelation from God that we needed to hear. On another occasion years later, I noticed a new couple sitting in our congregation. They were in their late sixties or early seventies. After the service, I went up to greet and welcome them. He immediately said, “We were very pleased to see that none of the ladies were wearing pants, because if we had we would have immediately left.” After talking with him for a few minutes, it was quite obvious that he was there to spread his brand of legalism. When he found out where we stood on such issues, he did just that, he left immediately. Here was not just a weak Christian loaded with legalistic scruples, but one who was set on spreading his legalism. These are extreme cases and all are not as obvious as this, but eventually, some may begin to promote certain doctrinal viewpoints or beliefs that can create problems of various sorts and degrees in any body of Christians.
But there is also, of course, the deep satisfaction and joy that comes from the spiritual change that comes to those who trust in the Savior and grow in the sufficiency of His life. Such joy is seen in both 1 and 2 Thessalonians in the light of the spiritual growth seen in the church at Thessalonica.
Such, then, was the case with the Church at Thessalonica. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul had dealt with certain misconceptions and fears regarding the coming and presence of the Lord, but while the church had continued to grow and was still enduring even greater persecution, certain problems had grown and others had been introduced by the arrival of false teachers claiming new revelation by the Spirit or a pretended letter from the apostle Paul. This brings us to the background portion of the study of 2 Thessalonians. As always, it is the truth that sets us free and Paul writes to set forth the sanctifying truth of Christ (John 8:32; 17:17).
Author and Title
As with 1 Thessalonians, this letter was written by Paul (cf. 1 Thes. 1:1; 3:17). However, Paul’s authorship of this epistle has been questioned more often than that of 1 Thessalonians, even though it has more support from early church writers. There is no evidence among the writings of the early church fathers that his authorship was ever doubted. In fact several fathers seem to mention Paul as the author of this epistle in their writings.
Possible references to it are found in the Didache and Ignatius, and Polycarp has two passages that are almost assuredly from the Epistle. Justin Martyr also clearly refers to it. In addition, the witnesses cited for 1 Thessalonians (cf. p. 232) add their support to the Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians and an early recognition of its canonicity (Milligan, pp. lxxvi-lxxvii).1
It was not until as late as the 19th century that certain questions were raised about the authorship of this epistle. The doubts came from rationalistic critics who likewise refused to accept the Bible’s claim to divine inspiration. Regardless, external and internal evidence support Paul as the author.
Objections are based on internal factors rather than on the adequacy of the statements of the church fathers. It is thought that there are differences in the vocabulary (ten words not used elsewhere), in the style (it is said to be unexpectedly formal) and in the eschatology (the doctrine of the “man of lawlessness” is not taught elsewhere). However, such arguments have not convinced current scholars. A majority still hold to Paul’s authorship of 2 Thessalonians.2
In keeping with his parental love for these believers (1 Thes. 2:1ff), Paul’s concern for these converts did not terminate with the first Epistle. He continued to disciple and build them in their faith and the truth of the Savior. Since this second letter was written only a short time after the first letter, the background of 2 Thessalonians is basically the same as that of 1 Thessalonians.3 While still in Corinth, Paul somehow received new information about the condition of the church at Thessalonica and wrote this epistle to address the issues there.
Because the historical circumstances are very similar to those of 1 Thessalonians, most believe it was written not long after the first letter—perhaps about six months. While conditions in the church were similar, the persecution seems to have grown (1:4-5), and this, with other factors, led Paul to write this letter from Corinth sometime in A.D. 51 or 52 after Silas and Timothy, the bearers of the first letter, had returned with the news of the new developments.
Theme and Purpose
Second Thessalonians was evidently prompted by three main developments in the report Paul received from an unknown source. He wrote: (1) to encourage them in view of the report of the increasing persecution which they were facing (1:4-5); (2) to deal with the reports of a pseudo-Pauline letter and other misrepresentations of his teaching regarding the day of the Lord and the rapture of the church (2:1f); and (3) to deal with the way some were responding to belief in the imminent return of the Lord. This belief was still being used as a basis for shirking their vocational responsibilities. So the apostle wrote to deal with the condition of idleness or disorderliness which had increased (3:5-15).
To meet the needs that occasioned this epistle, the apostle wrote to comfort and correct. In doing so he pursued three broad purposes. He wrote: (1) to give an incentive for the Thessalonians to persevere by describing the reward and retribution that will occur in the future judgment of God (1:3-10); (2) to clarify the prominent events belonging to the day of the Lord in order to prove the falsity of the claims that the day had already arrived (2:1-2); and (3) to give detailed instructions covering the disciplinary steps the church should take to correct those who refused to work (3:6-15).
The key words or concepts are “judgment,” “retribution,” and “destruction” with each of these related to the return of the Lord in the day of the Lord. In fact, in this epistle, 18 out of 47 verses (38 percent) deal with this subject. In 1 Thessalonians, the focus was on Christ coming for His Church (4:13-18), but in 2 Thessalonians the focus is on Christ’s coming with His Church in judgment on an unbelieving world (1:5-10; 2:3, 12).
- 2:1-5. Now regarding the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered so as to be with him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, 2:2 that you not be easily shaken from your composure or be 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. 2:3 Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not be here unless the rebellion comes first and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction. 2:4 He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, and as a result he takes his seat in God’s temple, displaying himself as God …
- 3:1-5. 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, 3:2 and that we may be delivered from perverse and evil people. For not all have faith. 3:3 But the Lord is faithful and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one. 3:4 And we are confident about you in the Lord that you are both doing, and will do, what we are commanding. 3:5 Now may the Lord direct your hearts toward the love of God and the endurance of Christ.
- 3:16. Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with you all.
Lessons We Can Learn From This Background Information
(1) Helping believers grow requires constant diligence and commitment to people. The first epistle had been sent to encourage and correct the problems at Thessalonica, and one might think the problems had been covered and all would now be well. While we do not know where or how Paul received his report about the continuing and growing difficulties at Thessalonica, it seems obvious from what we know about the apostle that he continued to inquire and pray for this church. The apostle and his team remained committed to the needs of this church even though separated from them. In keeping with this is a second and related lesson.
(2) Helping believers grow is a continual process that requires a great deal of patience and realistic expectations. Someone has said, idealism without realism leads to cynicism. Because their expectations are totally unrealistic, church leaders and those who disciple others can become quickly discouraged or impatient. No matter how carefully and accurately one has taught others, that does not guarantee the kind of results he or she might expect. Elijah had clearly proclaimed God’s Word on Mt. Carmel and God had worked mightily to demonstrate He was the only true God. The results, however, were not what Elijah expected and he ended up in severe depression.
(3) There will always be struggles and growing pains. Because of the influences of the world in which we live and with Satan always on the prowl, we should never be surprised by struggles and the ever-present reality of growing pains people face (including ourselves!). In this world, we will always have tribulation or pressure and this includes the pressure and frustration that often goes along with godly concern for believers and their growth in Christ. The reality of this can protect us from false expectations. Certainly we can expect God to work and for His Word to work powerfully in the lives of men (1 Thes. 2:13; Heb. 4:12), but this never occurs without struggle and the need to resist the work of Satan (Eph. 6:10f; 1 Pet. 5:8).
(4) If faithfully proclaiming God’s Word, as was Paul and his team, there will also be growth (often a great deal of it) both qualitatively and quantitatively. There is thus the need to recognize this and to be thankful to God for His grace and what He has done, is doing, and will accomplish. It’s far too easy to become occupied with the problems and miss the blessings! The problems must be dealt with, but let’s not lose sight of the blessings.
Thus, when news of the problems that had continued reached the apostle, he not only demonstrated patience and love, but he set about to address the issues and minister to these needy believers.
Apart from the salutation and benediction, the book easily divides up into three sections:
I. Christian Greetings, the Salutation (1:1-2)
II. Commendation and Comfort in the Face of Persecution (1:3-12)
III. Correction and Challenges Regarding the Day of the Lord (2:1-17)
A. In Relation to the Present (2:1-2)
B. In Relation to the Apostasy (2:3a)
C. In Relation to the Man of Lawlessness (2:3b-4)
D. In Relation to the Restrainer (2:5-9)
E. In Relation to Unbelievers (2:10-12)
F. In Relation to Believers (2:13-17)
IV. Commands and Challenges Regarding Idleness (3:1-15)
A. The Confidence of the Apostle (3:1-5)
B. The Commands of the Apostle (3:6-15)
V. Concluding Benediction and Greeting (3:16-18)
3 See the Introduction to 1 Thessalonians: An Exegetical and Devotional Commentary on our web site at www.bible.org.