Paul’s letters to the church at Thessalonica pressed that church to think of life in terms of the end of this present history when Christ comes again. Vindication of suffering saints, a display of perfect justice such as has never been seen in this world, and the transforming appearance of the glory of Christ will settle every question. Every mouth will be stopped about everything. Everyone will have a Job experience pressed to the infinite—“Now my eye seeth thee” (Job 42:5). This startling revelation of the groaning world’s final event (Romans 8:18-21) stirred much enthusiasm and also led to false inferences both in thought and conduct. In both letters to this church, Paul expanded his discussion of this event in several contexts.
The subject of 2 Thessalonians 2:1, 2 is “the day of the Lord” (2). Paul described that day more broadly as “the coming of our Lord Jesus and our gathering together to Him” (1). The report had come to this church, probably since the writing of the first letter, that Christ’s return was pressing in soon, hovering just over the next moment, or the next. To them, it seemed feasible that Paul would give such urgent instruction in light of his attention to Christ’s return in 1 Thessalonians 1:3,10; 2:19, 20; 3:13; 4:13-18; 5:1-11, 23. In his closing statement in the previous letter (5:24), Paul had seemed to press its immediacy when he wrote, “Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.”
But the pseudo-Pauline urgency came from a false teacher, a wannabe apostle. Paul reminded them not to listen to those who are inconsistent with what Paul taught—“as if from us” (2). “Let no one in any way deceive you” (3). This false message had caused alarm. Some were teaching (by feigning Paul’s authority) that the Lord Jesus Christ was returning from heaven to conclude all things virtually immediately. Earthly life in this age was soon to be ended. Consternation and discomposure were not caused by lack of desire to be in the presence of the Savior, but by the intimidation of the appearance of unsurpassed greatness and power (see 1 Thess. 4:14-18). Though the coming of Christ will be marvelous to Christians (2 Thess. 1:10) and gives a healthy sense of hope (1 Thessalonians 1:10), it still is a sobering, solemn, and awe-inspiring prospect. The display of the judgment of the unrighteous to eternal destruction will make all fall down in worship and confession of the justice of the verdict. The sensory shock of absolute righteousness, immutable holiness, infinite glory—every knee bows—creates an aura of mystery and the disablement effected by deep anticipation. Paul said that this false and sensational report had shaken and disturbed them. It was not healthy spiritually, emotionally, or physically to live on the edge of finality. The hope generated by this event will purify the believer (1 Thessalonians 5:4, 5; 1 John 3:3), but to penetrate each moment with the expectation of the immediate termination of the age enervates the sense of ongoing long-term responsibility (1 Thessalonians 3:2-5; 4:11,12). This false excitement probably was behind the cessation of work on the part of some of the believers (3:11, 12).
Under the impression that they spoke by the Spirit, some were predicting a virtual immediate return of Christ. That is the reason that Paul told them to examine prophetic utterances carefully (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Paul is giving in this passage an apostolic word (again!) by which such unwarranted enthusiasm should be curbed. False teaching produces false living.
Others reported that some message existed to the effect of an immediate return of Christ. This message supposedly would have been a word spoken by Paul, or perhaps another apostle viva voce, and passed along as revealed truth. Again, Paul says do not fall for that ruse. Some even went to the extent of composing a pseudonymous letter personating Paul. Paul was not happy about that and would never accept the validity of any written document passed off under such false pretenses. Note 2 Thess. 3:17.
Do listen to Paul (2, 5). Paul reasserts his apostolic authority and the truth of the message that he delivered. He spoke by the Spirit, preached audibly from Scripture, and wrote letters. He did not reject any of these methods of communication, but the specific content of what they had heard. The first century church received revelation from three ways in which truth was delivered from church to church. The Spirit did reveal truth to the churches through the local prophets as through Paul. Words or sayings given during the life of Christ or by apostles in their ministries were reported (Hebrews 2:1-4). These messages were given to perpetuity by their written form in letters. Paul confirmed both the spoken and written word in verse 2:15. Each of these, however, could be abused and care had to be taken when such things were set forth in the absence of apostolic authority. If the apostolic word was ignored, the messenger of such information was to be disregarded (1 Corinthians 14:36-38). In verse 5, after beginning his response, Paul breaks off before finishing a sentence. He seemed a bit impatient with their susceptibility to believe these untested sources of teaching. “Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things?” If you had listened well enough and taken my words to heart as deeply as you should have, you would not now be confused by these erroneous teachings. We will look at the content of Paul’s reminder in following articles. But for now, we should receive the admonition to know clearly that what we receive has clear verification as revealed truth.
Dr. Tom Nettles is widely regarded as one of the foremost Baptist historians in America. He joined the faculty of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary after teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was professor of Church History and chairman of that department. Previously, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. He received a B.A. from Mississippi College and an M.Div. and Ph.D. from Southwestern. In addition to writing numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles has authored or edited nine books including By His Grace and For His Glory, Baptists and the Bible, and Why I Am a Baptist.
Courses taught: Historical Theology of the Baptists, Historical Theology Overview, Jonathan Edwards & Andrew Fuller.