The greeting is almost identical with that of 1 Thessalonians, and suggests that the two letters must have been written from the same place and within a short time of each other. They are indeed very similar—so similar, in fact, that it has often been doubted whether they could originally have been intended for the same congregation, or even whether they could both have been written by the same author: for how, it is said, could anyone have written two letters within a short space of time to the same people, and used whole paragraphs in the second letter which are taken almost verbatim from the first? At the same time, there are notable differences between the two letters. The treatment of questions about the end of the world runs on somewhat different lines, and in the second letter the tone is throughout a little more severe. The problem is to explain both the similarities and the differences.
Various explanations have been proposed. One is that Paul, soon after writing the first letter, received news from Thessalonica which caused him to write off again at once, while phrases from the first letter were still running in his mind. Another is that the two letters were originally written to go by the same messenger to two different (though probably neighbouring) congregations. A third is that the letter was written by an imitator who was anxious to give circulation to a somewhat stricter doctrine of the coming judgement than Paul himself had expressed.
All these explanations are plausible, but none of them is fully convincing. It is not impossible, in any case, to take this letter as what it purports to be, Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians. He had heard (not long after writing his previous letter) about the irresponsible behaviour of some members of the Thessalonian church (3.11), and deemed it necessary to correct some mistaken ideas which were current about the coming of Christ (2.1-2); and the fresh news he had received may sufficiently account for the different tone of the second letter. As for the similarities, it is important to notice that they are concentrated in two contexts: first, in the greetings and prayers—for which a fairly conventional and stereotyped vocabulary was already emerging; and secondly, in the section on the necessity (felt even by the apostle) to work for a living—a topic to which Paul reverts a number of times in his letters, and for which he tends in any case to use a standard terminology.
The initial section of thanksgiving and prayer contains echoes of the first letter: the Thessalonians' faith and love (1)—though the triad is not completed with 'hope'—are again singled out. But the section is much shorter, and a reference to persecutions (4) leads Paul off into a discourse on the justice of God's judgement. This judgement follows the pattern laid down in the first letter. It is described in traditional language, with free use of the Old Testament. Christ will have the central position, accompanied by his own (10) and surrounded by the traditional fire of divine judgement. This judgement will balance the account (7), at present so intolerably upset by those who, with apparent impunity, persecute the church. For they, along with all those who will not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus (8), will receive the punishment the prophets foretold (compare Isaiah 2.10, 19-21; 66.5 with the details of this passage). The view that all who reject the gospel will inevitably be damned was not often expressed so crudely either by Paul or by the church at large; but the language here may be the result of a particularly intense experience of persecution.
And now, brothers, about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and his gathering of us to himself (1). This doctrine was discussed, in much the same terminology, in the first letter, and was presumably now common ground between Paul and the Thessalonians. But it had apparently undergone a new and dangerous interpretation: some people were alleging that the Day of the Lord is already here (2). One can see how the teaching of Paul, and indeed that of the church as a whole, could easily have given rise to such an interpretation. The Day was proclaimed to be imminent; signs of its coming had already appeared; Christians, under the influence of the Spirit, were having experiences which were recognized as a foretaste of the age to come. It would not have been difficult to promote the view that the decisive event—the Day—had already happened. A sudden surge of those remarkable experiences of the Spirit which were a feature, say, of church life at Corinth, or a sensational increase in the membership of the church, might easily (in conjunction with some oracular utterance or some letter purporting to come from Paul) have tipped the balance for those who had only a limited and parochial conception of the Day; then, thinking that the final act of history had been completed, they would presumably abandon their normal occupations and wait for God to bring down the curtain on the drama.
Paul's answer is not (as might have been expected) that the present bears 110 resemblance to tin- conditions which will prevail on that climactic Day; instead, lie explains tli.it the I )ny ninnol have- nnne vet, since certain things have got to happen first. He had already given some teaching about these things in the course of his original preaching at Thessalonica (I told you this while I was still with you (5))—and this is the cause of most of our difficulties. The language used on such matters tends in any case to be somewhat cryptic, and when, in addition, Paul is not attempting to give any fresh teaching, but is merely reminding his hearers of something he has told them already, it is hardly surprising if we are now unable to follow him.
The background to the paragraph is not too hard to reconstruct. The Day is a day of judgement; and one reason why the judgement cannot yet come is that it is not yet sufficiently clear on whom the judgement should fall. The reception or rejection of the gospel is a preliminary criterion. As we have seen, those who reject it and persecute the church have already secured their condemnation. But this criterion is not sufficient; it leaves too many borderline cases. If men, confronted by the good (in the form of the gospel), merely remain indifferent, it could be that they have not yet been put seriously to the test; their indifference is hardly decisive proof of their guilt, in which case they are not yet ready for judgement. It is envisaged, therefore, that there will be an intensification of evil, a stepping-up of calamities, under which men will more quickly show their true nature. In particular—and here a concept is borrowed, perhaps, from popular Jewish mythology—men will be exposed, not merely to the challenging truth of the gospel, but also to a positive force of deception—all the powerful signs and miracles of the Lie (9)—which will lead astray all who are not fully committed to the truth, and so will draw a clear line between those who will be saved and those who are lost. When this process is complete, the time will be ripe for them all to be brought to judgement (12).
So much is reasonably clear; but Paul fills out his picture of the future with a more complex mythology, only part of which is familiar from contemporary Jewish writings. It was a frequent theme of so-called "apocalyptic" writers that immediately before the End there would be a final and decisive confrontation between the forces of good and the forces of evil, in which evil would be represented by a single supernatural individual and would reach, in that individual, an unprecedented pitch of intensity. This is the context of such phrases as the final rebellion, the man doomed to perdition, the Enemy (3,4); and it is probable that the threat of the Emperor Caligula, in the year 40, to set up a statue of himself in the holiest part of the Jewish temple had given fresh actuality to the old prophecy (Ezekiel 28.2; Daniel 11.36) that this personification of wickedness even takes his seat in the temple of God. Furthermore, there are faint traces in the Old Testament (Amos 9.3; Job 7.12) of an ancient myth (not uncommon in other middle-eastern religions) that this evil monster had existed since the beginning of the world, and was held in imprisonment (or "restraint") until the proper time (6); and this idea reappears elsewhere in the New Testament (Revelation 20.2). But even if this myth was in Paul's mind (which is far from certain) it does not take us very far, for we are still left without any clue to the meaning of the cryptic expression, the restraining hand (6), and its more personal complement, the Restrainer (7). Since early centuries it has been suggested that Paul is referring to the rule of law maintained by the Roman empire. But Paul is deliberately expressing himself in a way that only the Thessalonians could have understood. Without the explanation he had given them, we shall never know for certain what he meant.
The thanksgiving and the prayer which follow (13-17) are strongly reminiscent of the previous letter (especially 1 Thess. 3.11-13). On the concept of being chosen from the beginning of time (13), see above on Ephesians 1.4.
We hear that some of your number are idling their time away (11). Whether this was the result of the particular misapprehension about the End which was dealt with in chapter 2, or whether it was merely a manifestation of ordinary human nature, Paul takes the opportunity of appealing once again to the example he set himself: he always preferred to work for his own living rather than be a burden (8) (a phrase which is almost a cliche in this context: compare 1 Thessalonians 2.9; 2 Corinthians 11.9), and his motive for so doing was not because we have not the right to maintenance (9)—a point on which he was sensitive—but to set an example. To clinch the matter he presses into service what looks like an old proverb: the man who will not work shall not eat (10).
On greetings in Paul's own hand (17) see above on Galatians 6.11. The reference earlier (2.2) to 'some letter purporting to come from us' perhaps explains his anxiety to authenticate his own letters in this way.