2 Thessalonians: What Is the Same and What's Different?
Topic: Expository Passage: 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4
2 Thessalonians 1:1-5
Good morning! Welcome to Sunday school! Turn in your Bibles to 2 Thessalonians 1. I am excited this morning to be cracking a new book of the Bible with you, and I hope that you are excited, as well!
This study is obviously a continuation of our recent study in 1 Thessalonians; so, for many of you, today’s lesson should feel like picking up right where we left off. But for those of you who are new, I think that you’ll be able to jump on pretty easily, as well.
As we do most anytime we begin a new book study, I’d like to start with some background information about the book of 2 Thessalonians. Now, because 2 Thessalonians follows close on the heels of 1 Thessalonians, this should be a review for many of you. But review is always good for us; and this will also help those who are new to catch up to speed more quickly. So let’s begin by reviewing some background information with regards to 1 and 2 Thessalonians.
What can you tell me about the books of 1 and 2 Thessalonians or the city of Thessalonica?
Those are all good responses. Let me see if I can fill in some more details. We’ll start with geography. Here’s a map that shows Thessalonica. You can see that it’s a port city that connects to the Aegean Sea. It’s currently the second-largest city in Greece, so it’s pretty important, and it was important in Paul’s day, too, primarily because of its location. Not only did Thessalonica contain a good port, but it was also located on the Via Egnatia, which was the primary Roman road connecting east and west. Leaving Thessalonica, you could travel this ancient highway straight across Macedonia, catch a boat across the Adriatic, and then follow the Via Appia straight on to Rome. Or, if you left Thessalonica headed east, you could follow the Via Egnatia all the way to Byzantium. In terms of the United States, think of the Via Egnatia like Route 66; or, to use a more modern example, 1-10 or 1-40. Cities located along important highways such as these tend to be more important, especially if they’re also next to a major port.
All of this brings up an interesting point about Paul’s church planting strategy. Did Paul tend to focus on small towns or big cities? Why? Because cities are like hearts. Just like your hearts suck in blood and then pump it back out, cities tend to suck people in and then pump them back out again. If you can establish a gospel presence in the city, you can often reach many people in the surrounding areas, as well.
So that’s the geography of Thessalonica; now let’s take a step back now and look at its history. Thessalonica was located at the heart of the ancient Macedonian Empire that had its heyday under Alexander the Great. Greece and its great city-states like Athens and Sparta used to overshadow Macedonia; but that all changed when Philip of Macedon conquered Greece–a task that was completed by Philip’s son, who turned out to be one of the most brilliant and successful generals of all time. Does anyone know his name? (Alexander the Great) Alexander was from this region, and he conquered the known world in the 4th century B.C. But Alexander didn’t live very long, and after he died, his kingdom was split up. Then, the Romans came along.
During the days of the Roman Republic, Macedonia and Rome were bitter rivals. They fought three wars that culminated with Rome crushing Macedonia, looting it, and setting up measures to ensure that Macedonia would never rise again. However, in the two hundred years between the Macedonian wars and Paul’s missionary journeys, Thessalonica had managed to regain Rome’s favor. Because they had supported Antony and then later Octavian, Rome granted Thessalonica the coveted free city status, which included exemption from taxes and military occupation as well as the right to self-government.
So when you look at Thessalonica, you’re looking at an region with a long and glorious history, followed by bitter suffering and subjugation, and then a shrewd and calculated return to power and prestige. And by the way, after New Testament times, Thessalonica continued its upward momentum until it eventually became the second-most important city in the Byzantine Empire.
Now let’s talk about Paul’s history with the Thessalonians. Paul’s connection with this region began during his second missionary journey, and it can all be traced back to the Macedonian call. You can read about it in the book of Acts, but basically, Paul wants to head northeast toward the Black Sea, but then he receives a night vision of a man pleading with him, “Come over into Macedonia and help us.” Immediately, he knows God is calling him to Macedonia, so he crosses the Hellespont, and the gospel advances into Europe.
The first major city Paul visited in Macedonia was Philippi. Pastor Kit is preaching through Philippians right now. Can anyone tell me something significant that happened in Philippi? This was where Paul and Silas were thrown into prison, God sent an earthquake, and the Philippian jailer got saved. You can read about that in Acts 16. Later, Paul and Silas were released from prison, and together with Timothy, they journeyed on to Thessalonica. Let’s go ahead and pick up the story there. Please turn if you would to Acts 17 (Acts 17:1-10a).
So as usual, Paul starts his ministry in the Jewish synagogue, where he preaches the gospel. And as a result, several Jewish people trust Christ. They are joined by many Gentile adherents to Judaism and even some of prominent women from the city, and the Thessalonian church is born!
However, no sooner was it born than Satan rose to crush it. The Jews who had not trusted Christ as Savior became jealous, started a riot, and attacked the house of Jason, Paul’s host. Thankfully, the men couldn’t find the missionaries, but they dragged Jason before the city rulers and accused him of harboring men who were defying Caesar by saying there was another King named “Jesus.” The rulers, who were not interested in troubling Rome or losing their free city status, forced Jason to post bond in order to guarantee the good behavior and perhaps even departure of his guests. That same night, Paul’s team left for Berea and later moved on to Athens and then later, Corinth.
So Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica was short–much shorter than he had expected. There were still many things he had hoped to teach them. But Paul continued to pray for the Thessalonians, and he continued to be concerned for their wellbeing. (We read about this in the book of 1 Thessalonians.) Also, we learn from 1 Thessalonians 2-3 that Paul attempted multiple times to retrace his steps and revisit the Thessalonians right away, but Satan kept him from doing so. In the end, Paul gave up on his plan to visit Thessalonica in person and sent Timothy instead.
After travelling to Thessalonica, Timothy returned to Paul with mostly good news, and in response, Paul penned 1 Thessalonians, which was probably the second of his letters that are published in the Bible. (Some people actually think 1 Thessalonians was the first of Paul’s letters, but I think Galatians was probably first.) And in that letter, Paul seeks to comfort and encourage the church, answer questions and clarify doctrines, and give some basic Christian life instructions. Then Paul sent the letter of 1 Thessalonians back to the Thessalonica (most likely with Timothy) while he continued ministering in Corinth, which was probably where he was at the time.
That is all background to the writing of 1 Thessalonians. Any questions?
The next question we need to answer is how did we get a book of 2 Thessalonians? That answer is really quite simple. Whoever delivered the book of 1 Thessalonians (I think there is a good chance it was Timothy) probably spent some more time there ministering in the city. (This would be Timothy’s third visit to Thessalonica, if you are keeping track. He passes through the first time with Paul then leaves shortly after Paul leaves the city. Then Paul sends Timothy back a second time to check on the Thessalonians, and Timothy returns with a good report. So Paul writes a letter to the Thessalonians and sends Timothy back a third time to deliver it. Timothy stays a while and then returns with an update for Paul.)
Paul then responds to that update by writing the letter of 2 Thessalonians. And if he sends Timothy to deliver that letter (which he may or may not have), that would be Timothy’s fourth visit to Thessalonica in just a short period of time. Both the book of 1 Thessalonians and the book of 2 Thessalonians are written during Paul’s 18-month stay in Corinth at the tail end of his second missionary journey.
Does that make sense? Are there any questions about that?
So, in many ways, 2 Thessalonians is just a continuation of 1 Thessalonians written a short time later. That leads me to the question, “Now that some time has elapsed, what is the same and what is different in the church?” Because churches are always changing, right? Just like people are always changing!
Have you ever left a place that you love and then come back some time later? Maybe you move out of state and then come back to visit your old church. Or a child goes away to college and then comes home for Christmas break. Have you ever had the experience of walking into a place like that and thinking, “Ah, nothing has really changed!” But that’s never totally true, is it? If you are a child coming home from college, usually Mom will have at least rearranged the furniture, or maybe your parents got a new TV, or painted one of the rooms.
So when it comes to the Thessalonian church, now that some time has elapsed, what is the same and what is different? Let’s answer that question by reading the first four verses of this book (2 Thessalonians 1:1-4).
2 Thessalonians–What Is the Same?
When you read the first verse of 1 Thessalonians and then you read the first two verses of 2 Thessalonians, one of the first things that stands out to you is that they are almost word-for-word identical! In fact, let’s take a look at that really quick! The only difference between 1 Thessalonians 1:1 and 2 Thessalonians 1:1-2 is the word “our” before “Father” in that second section in 2 Thessalonians 1:1.
Now, there are formal aspects involved in letter writing that contribute to these similarities. When you write a friendly letter, you probably start with the word “dear,” no matter who you are writing to. But the similarities between these two openings also point to some of the things that stayed the same between the writing of 1 Thessalonians and the writing of 2 Thessalonians. Here is a list of some of things that stayed the same:
The Authors – The authors are still Paul, Silas, and Timothy. And remember, we said for 1 Thessalonians that all of them seem to have had a part in the writing of the book, although Paul was certainly the main author.
The Recipients – Paul is writing to the same church.
The Father – They serve the same Father–God. Isn’t it a comforting thing to know that no matter what changes, our heavenly Father always remains the same?
The Lord and Messiah – The title, “the Lord Jesus Christ” says more about Jesus than we might at first realize. The word “Lord” means “Master.” When we become born again, we go from being slaves to sin to being slaves to righteousness, to God, and to Jesus. He is our master now, and we must obey Him. And the word “Christ” means “Messiah.” Jesus is the promised Messiah of the Old Testament–the one whom the Jews had been waiting for! He is the focus of the church’s worship, and He remains the same.
The Theology – The theology in even these first two verses of 2 Thessalonians is very encouraging! First, Paul says that the Thessalonians are “in God” and “in Christ.” We don’t normally talk that way, do we? We don’t normally say that one person is “in” another person. So what does this mean? I believe what Paul is referencing here is the very important New Testament doctrine of union with Christ.
In the moment I become born again, I am connected with Jesus (and thus also with the Father and the Spirit)–I am connected to the Trinity with an inseparable bond. No one can ever break that connection. That glue will never come loose. And it is because I am connected to Christ in this way that all of His blessings flow to me. It is also because I am connected to Him in this way that I am connected to His people, the church. They are in Christ, and I am in Christ, so I am united to them! No matter how we treat one another or regardless of whether or not we even know each other, there is a fundamental spiritual unity that exists between all true believers, living and dead. Of course, we will not fully experience the results of this unity until we get to heaven, but it is true nonetheless.
So you see right away, Paul is referencing some heavy theology. And notice it’s the same theology that he referenced at the beginning of 1 Thessalonians, too. In other words, this “in Christ” stuff wasn’t just some hobby horse Paul had got on for a while before moving on to something else. It was a truth from God that was important when Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians, and it was important when he wrote 2 Thessalonians. And guess what? It’s still important for us today. The theology never changes because God never changes.
Another spot where theology peaks through here in the opening is in v. 2 when Paul mentions the words “grace” and “peace”. “Grace to you and peace” is one of Paul’s favorite greetings, and those words often show up in his closing comments, as well. What is the significance of the words, “grace” and “peace”?
Well, they are very significant. The word “grace” is the Greek word “charis.” It means “God’s riches at Christ’s expense” and also includes the idea of divine enablement. Grace is Paul’s one-word summary of all that God has done, is doing, and will do for us through Jesus. Grace is Christmas for the Christian; it is God’s overwhelming kindness to us through Christ. Grace is a beautiful word.
You say, “Then where does ‘peace’ come in?” “Peace” is related to the Old Testament concept of “shalom.” It is the unique wellbeing that God’s people enjoy. Because God is for us, we can be truly happy. We don’t have to live in fear. We can have confidence. We live the good life. Now, that is not to say that we don’t go through trials here on earth. This isn’t the health and wealth gospel. Christians will suffer. Paul is very clear about this is 1 Thessalonians 3:3. He says we are appointed to suffering. And yet, when it comes to eternity, God does plan to bless us with health and prosperity! We will have glorified bodies! We will live in heaven! But it’s not just about heaven, either. It’s about the joy and peace we experience even now. It’s about freedom for guilt and shame!
God’s kindness to us as Christians can be summed up with the word “grace.” And the blessings we experience as a result of that kindness can be summed up with the word “peace.” That’s why, “Grace and peace to you” is such a great greeting!
I saw a t-shirt yesterday with the word “blessed” written across the front of it. I like that shirt! As Christians, we should go through life with the word “blessed” written all over our faces. Because God has truly been good to us!
Paul’s Thankfulness – Paul began the letter of 1 Thessalonians with gushing praise for the Thessalonians. He complimented their evident faith, hope, and love; he talked about the way that they joyfully embraced the gospel in the midst of suffering and turned from dead idols to serve the living God, he mentioned their evangelistic zeal and how they had become examples to all of the other churches, especially in their region; and he rejoiced in the steadfastness of their faith. He had a lot to thank God for when it came to the Thessalonians! And Paul just keeps the praise right on coming in his second letter to this church (vv. 3-4)! So another thing that remains the same is that this is a church for which Paul is very thankful.
The Thessalonians’ Faith, Hope, and Love – You might remember how in 1 Thessalonians, these three Christian virtues played a dominant role. They play a dominant role throughout the book of 1 Thessalonians, but the mention of them all three together in 1 Thessalonians 1:3 is especially striking (1 Thess 1:2-3).
Faith, hope, and love are the three cardinal Christian virtues. And what stands out to Paul in 1 Thessalonians is not only that the Thessalonians have these virtues, but that it is evident that they do! Their faith works. Their love motivates them to labor for Christ and for others. Their hope produces in them a steadfastness that endures, even in the midst of suffering.
So now fast forward to 2 Thessalonians. Is the church still noted for these virtues (vv. 3-4)? Both faith and love are mentioned in v. 3. Hope is not explicitly mentioned, but Paul has already talked about how hope is the motivation behind their endurance, and they are certainly still enduring! So we would assume that they are still hoping, as well! This has not changed, either.
The Thessalonians’ Persecutions and Afflictions – In 1 Thessalonians 1:6, Paul noted how the Thessalonians received the gospel in the context of persecution. He says in 1 Thessalonians 2:14 that the Thessalonians suffered the same things from their countrymen that the Judean Christians suffered from the unbelieving Jews. What did the Judean Christians suffer? Well, Paul should know a lot about that, shouldn’t he? After all, he was the one at whose feet the men laid their coats when they stoned Stephen! He was the one who was hauling people off into prison!
And so we are to assume that this young church at Thessalonica was suffering major persecution! We don’t know exactly what that looked like, but we do know that even before Paul left, unbelievers in Thessalonica had gotten violent, which was why Paul had to leave town so quickly. So these people weren’t just facing American “persecution,” where, for instance, if you talk about Jesus, someone might laugh at you. These people were really suffering for their faith!
If you were to go back and read the first part of 1 Thessalonians 2, you would learn that this was the primary reason Paul was so concerned about the Thessalonian church, why he wanted to go back there, and why when he couldn’t, he sent Timothy, instead! He was worried that these baby Christians couldn’t cut the persecution and that they may abandon the faith and go back to their old way of life. So when he learned from Timothy that they were still standing, you can understand why Paul was so happy!
Has the persecution blown over by the time that Paul writes 2 Thessalonians? No. You don’t have to get any farther than v. 4 to know that that is not the case. These Christians are still suffering.
2 Thessalonians–What Is Different?
We’ve covered a lot of things that were the same, but very quickly before we close, I’d like you to see two things that were different. “If nothing had changed, why write a second letter, Paul?” Well, some things had changed–some for the good and some for the bad. As well, there was at least one thing that had not changed that should have changed, and these were all reasons for Paul writing a second letter. We’ll get to that more in future lessons, but for right now, I want you to notice two things that had changed, based on this passage.
Greater Faith and Love (v. 3) – As I said, in 1 Thessalonians 1:3, the thing that stands out to Paul about the Thessalonians faith and love is that it is evident. In 2 Thessalonians, what strikes him about their faith and their love is that it is growing. It wasn’t that they didn’t have it before! In fact, Paul praised them for those virtues! But what also did he pray? Paul said in 1 Thessalonians 3:10 that he wanted to come and visit them in order to perfect what was lacking in their faith. He prayed in 1 Thessalonians 3:12 that God would make the Thessalonians to increase and abound in love to one another and to all, “just as we do to you,” he said. Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:1, “Just as you have received from us how you ought to walk and to please God” “we urge you that you should abound more and more”! He says in 1 Thessalonians 4:9-10, “But concerning brotherly love, you have no need that I should write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do so toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, that you increase more and more”! And then he concludes his letter with the prayer, “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
You see, godliness is not simply an on-off switch. It is a dimmer switch. Sanctification is a gradual process of growth. And the goal of sanctification (Christlikeness) is so high that no matter how well you’re doing, you still have a long way to go! The question is, were the Thessalonians growing in Christlikeness? The answer is a resounding “Yes” (v. 3)!
But it wasn’t just the Thessalonians’ faith and love that was growing, according to chapter 1. They were also facing increased persecution.
Increased Persecution – When you study 1 Thessalonians 1, which we will do over the next few weeks, you get the distinct impression that far from simmering down, the persecution in Thessalonica had instead ramped up. And that made the Thessalonians’ faithfulness all the more impressive.
Do you find it ironic or at least interesting that the Thessalonians’ growth in godliness and the intensity of their trials seem to be directly related? Doesn’t that seem backward? In 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul feared that the persecution might snuff out the Thessalonians’ faith. But in fact, just the opposite occurred! As the fire got hotter, their faith got purer–just like gold when it is refined.
Why did it go that way with them? Because they had genuine faith. Brothers and sisters, that is the way it almost always goes with genuine believers! Tertullian famously said that the blood of the martyrs is seed. The more they attack us, the more we grow, not only numerically (as Tertullian suggested), but in terms of our individual journeys in sanctification.
Brothers and sisters, do not fear the fire; and if you are in it, do not focus all of your efforts on escaping as quickly as possible. Because it is during these times of testing that you and I grow.
But if we are going to grow in the midst of testing, there are certain truths that we must keep in mind. And that, Lord-willing, is where we will go next week.