After working with 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 a bit, I caught myself thinking that it would have been okay with me if this particular text had never made it into the biblical canon! It could be like the letter Paul alludes to in 1 Corinthians 5:9 that served its purpose in the first century but wasn’t preserved for future generations. Then after reading the self-confessed cluelessness of many commentators (and some who would have been better off adopting such a position), these thoughts were only reinforced.
But it is part of the biblical witness. God has seen fit to preserve it for His people. In light of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and other passages, we are to pursue, to the best of our ability, an understanding and application of this text to our lives so that’s what we’ll do.
In sharing the good news of Jesus with the Thessalonians, Paul had spoken about His return. This prompted a watchful attitude (1 1:10) as well as some questions (1 4:13-5:3). The latter is not surprising. Whenever the subject comes up, people always have questions they seem to have been carrying around with them for some time. This is all how it should be.
When we get to Paul’s second letter then, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that the Thessalonians were still working out their understanding of the return of Jesus. And, as we often do, they had stumbled over certain issues. It appears that some of them were under the impression that Paul, Silas, and Timothy were teaching that the Lord had already returned (2 2:2).
Initially, this is mind-boggling. How could they possibly have thought Jesus might have returned and yet they somehow didn’t know about it—especially in light of what he had told them in 4:15-17? It would be like someone suggesting today that all the oxygen had vanished from earth’s atmosphere overnight—I think we would know about it. It makes no sense at all.
Unless . . .
. . . Someone had suggested Jesus had returned spiritually rather than physically. Then things start to come together. Paul will later speak of two disciples who had gone off the rails by saying that “the resurrection has already taken place” (2 Timothy 2:17-18). This appears to be exactly the kind of thing that was going on at Thessalonica.
Interestingly, Paul doesn’t take the tack of telling them they had heard misunderstood the nature of Jesus’ return (as he does in 1 Corinthians 15 in regard to the resurrection body). Instead, he responds to their error by talking about some things that must happen before Christ returns. Why he chooses such an approach is anyone’s guess. But his answer does allow him to elaborate on the coming crisis which was something he had previously spoken to them about (2 2:5ff), so maybe that is part of his reason.