Reflection on 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
by Karen Georga Thompson
This week's lectionary text from the Epistle to the Thessalonians is problematic on a number of fronts. There are problems for the contemporary reader of the text as the letter in 2 Thessalonians is laden with apocalyptic imagery and discourse on the parousia and what will happen when "the day of the Lord comes."
If that is not enough, there are repeated references to "the lawless one" who is described in part--but goes unnamed and unidentified. There are also the problems of the early church which prompt the letter to the Thessalonians. This was a church facing affliction and persecution, the details of which are missing.
Who is the author?
There are even problematic elements in ascribing the authorship of the letter with certainty. Some scholars say Paul was the author of both letters to the Thessalonians, while others say the second is not written in the style that was attributed to Paul and consistent in other letters written by Paul.
Although not clearly stated, there are issues in the church which are urgent enough to cause the writer, who could be Paul (or one writing in his name), to write beseechingly to the church and provide words of encouragement and assurance to them regarding their faith.
Waiting for the parousia
Reading the text provides its fair set of challenges. Immediate attention in the text is drawn to the concerns of the Thessalonians that the parousia has occurred and they missed it. Whether this idea of the second coming came from their misinterpretation of teaching or their reading of a letter is not clear. The writer, however, believes that this is a clear case of deception by false teachers usurping the relationship between him and the congregations.
The writer cautions the church not to "be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us" (v.2 a). The writer implores the church with these words and begs them not to be deceived by anyone that "the day of the Lord is already here" (v.3).
The pastoral concerns
Beverly Gaventa provides her concerns for a reading of the text in this century: "Because it also contains apocalyptic imagery and expectations that may be elusive and complex, contemporary readers may miss the urgent pastoral worries that drive the passage" (Texts for Preaching Year C). There is a need to read these verses and rest in the desire of the author to address the concerns of the people.
The writer does not focus on the apocalyptic but on the people and on moving them beyond the anxiety and fear. This understanding of the text challenges us to read the pericope in the context provided rather than focus on the notion of end times, and move beyond as the writer does to find ways to address the impact and damage caused by the misinformation and deception leveled at this first-century church.
The people are afraid
The writer of the letter is not present, but is well-known to this church. As with other epistles, this letter addresses a specific situation happening in the church. The people are afraid. Their faith is shaken. Their recent experiences have caused them to be susceptible to erroneous teaching and to those who would willingly deceive them.
The letter itself begins with a thanksgiving prayer for the church before it segues into addressing the problems the church is facing. The prayer itself is couched in apocalyptic expectations that lay the framework for the discussion of perceptions around "the missed parousia."
Images of apocalypse
The reassurance that all is well is followed by the writer's exposition on events that are expected to precede the parousia. The imagery of the lawless one or the antichrist is familiar in Jewish apocalyptic literature. Carl R. Holladay asserts that some kind of political upheaval would "precede the Eschaton" and some antichrist figure was a common feature of Jewish apocalyptic literature, and was usually portrayed as excessively arrogant, assuming for themselves the role of God (Preaching through the Christian Year C).
The writer provides this explanation by way of reassuring the people that the end times had not occurred. The focus of the text is not on this figure but on the people and what they need to survive during the times of persecution, affliction, and deception.
Read the scriptures and this entire reflection here.