Commentary on 2 Thess 2:1-3, 14-16
The coming of the Lord and the prelude to it.
In the First Letter to the Thessalonians (the earliest extant letter of Paul that we have) Paul seemed to be saying that the second and final coming of the Lord was imminent although he was careful not to specify a particular time.
Apparently replying to further questions, Paul (or the actual author) in this second letter does not repeat all that was said in the first letter about what would happen to the living and the dead. What is being written here is supplementary to Paul’s oral teaching and the instructions contained in the earlier letter. All he is concerned with is to emphasise that the coming is not imminent, and that it cannot take place till certain specific signs have preceded it.
Although the Second Coming is a major theme of this letter, Paul (or the author of the letter) warns the Christians not to “be shaken out of their minds” or alarmed by predictions (false prophecies) or rumours or spurious letters supposed to have come from him suggesting that the “day of the Lord” is already on them.
“Shaken out of their minds” translates a verb often used of a ship adrift from its moorings and suggests a lack of stability. Here it suggests a kind of panic at the supposed imminence of the Lord’s coming. The Christians are not to be deceived by such false alarms.
The expression “the day of the Lord” comes originally from the prophet Amos (5:18). In the Old Testament it is a time when God will come and intervene with judgement and/or blessing. In the New Testament the thought of judgement continues, but it is also the ‘day of redemption’, the ‘day of God’, or of Christ, and the ‘last day‘, the ‘great day’ or simply ‘the day‘. It is the climax of all things. There will be some preliminary signs but the coming will be as unexpected as that of “a thief in the night”.
In the second and final part of the reading, the author reminds the Christians to focus on the Gospel which has been preached to them and which has as its final purpose a sharing in the glory of Jesus Christ as Lord.
Jesus “has called you through our gospel”. “Our” gospel, that is, the gospel preached by Paul, Silas and Timothy and that they themselves had received by faith. It is, of course, first of all God the Father’s because it originates from him, and Christ’s because it springs from his sacrificial death.
Let them forget about worrying when this sharing in glory will actually take place and concentrate on living out the “traditions”, i.e., the teachings which they had received from Paul and the other apostles, either orally or in writing. This refers to what Paul taught them when he was in Thessalonika. What he had written to them since he returned from there, include, in the message of the Good News, the principles on which a Christian should lead his life.
Until the New Testament took its final form, essential Christian teaching was passed on in the “traditions” (a word which comes from the Latin ‘to hand on‘ or ‘hand over’), just as rabbinic law was and it could be either oral or written. The four gospels which we have now are basically built up from such written and oral ‘traditions’.
The passage ends with a lovely Pauline prayer, very similar to one in the same place in the first letter and which also includes the words ‘encourage’ and ‘strengthen’ (1 Thess 3:11-13). The prayer is for inner strength that will produce results in both action and speech.
It is a prayer we could say often for each other and for all those we know and love (or find it difficult to love):
May our Lord Jesus Christ himself,
and God our Father who has given us his love
and, through his grace, such inexhaustible comfort
and such sure hope,
comfort you and strengthen you
in everything good that you do or say.
At every age in the Church’s history, including our own, there are people who are convinced that the end of the world is “nigh” and that Christ is coming in Judgement at any moment. Certain key periods, such as the end of a century or, even more, the end of a millennium, produces a veritable rash of such warnings. So far, they have never proved accurate.
We would be better off listening to the advice of today’s letter and focus our energies on living out the Gospel each day in truth and love. This is the best possible preparation we can make for that time which will come “like a thief in the night”.
And, as has been said more than once in these reflections, a much more realistic end for us to consider is that of our own life than that of the universe or our planet. In either case, however, the recommended advice is the same: live the Gospel day in and day out and the rest will take care of itself.