Pentecost 24: 7 November 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
The author, probably someone writing in Paul's name, rather than Paul himself, needs to address a problem. Some of his hearers are frightened by predictions that the second coming of Jesus is about to happen. It may not be our worry, but it worried many people at critical times. It is a joyfully tinged worry, that then makes people look rather silly when the predictions fail. There are many ways in which Christians can make themselves look silly. In the case of 2 Thessalonians it appears that some have been using Paul as an authority to make such claims (2:2). A loose interpretation of 1 Thessalonians could lead to such belief. In some garbled way people have found such ideas and worked themselves into a fever pitch.
We are entering a strange culture with its own language. The writer is clearly at home with such speculations about the future. They have their roots in writings like Daniel. From within this context of thought he reassures his hearers by reminding them of some stock beliefs which belonged to that tradition. Before the end of time there would have to be a time of great apostasy (2:3). In Judaism it was a falling away from observance of the Law. In Christian Judaism it was a falling away from faith. In both it also included wickedness in general. Then there still had to be the appearance of Christ's opposite: the anti-God or anti-Christ (2:4). People imagined a human being. Antiochus Epiphanes IV, Seleucid ruler, was such a figure. In 167 BCE he set up a Zeus altar in the temple. This inspired the coded subversion and hope of the book of Daniel, which inspired subsequent generations and is reflected in Mark 13 and the Book of Revelation. Such a figure, committing blasphemy against God, a desolating abomination (Mark 13:14) was sure to come. Only then would the end come.
The omitted verses (2:6-12) expand the theme using the same world of thought. That included the notion that these days would not rush headlong to completion because there would be a restraining one, a restraining force (2:6,7). Behind this is the notion that God keeps some control so that things don't go completely to the dogs. This is all very speculative and mysterious. The writer deliberately uses mysterious language. Finally would come the great confrontation and Christ would slay his opposite, the anti-Christ (2:8). This is the world of the Book of Revelation. The agent of Satan, the evil one, would perform miracles and wonders (2:9). People would fall under his spell. Somehow God remains in control and even engineers things so that people fall for the false claims (2:10-11). Ultimately they will all be condemned (2:12).
The strange world of mysterious and veiled predictions, apocalyptic (revelatory) language, leaves us on the outside as spectators. It is the nature of such language that it invites further speculation. People have filled the enticing ambiguities with ever new speculations, all of which have some grain of truth. This is so because underneath the passage is an assumption: there are fundamentally irreconcilable contrasts working themselves out in human history and Christians need to recognise them. They are frequently connected with the 'god' status which political regimes like to claim for themselves, whether overtly as in Roman Emperors calling themselves sons of god, or Antiochus called by the divine name, Epiphanes, or leaders in the present claiming to embody God's will, even as protectors of true religion, with or against terror. Recognising the false gods remains a fundamental task. We can easily fall under their spell.
The reassuring words of 1:13-14 echo the beginning of the letter. The final verses of the chapter are typical of writings from that period in the early church when the need arose to keep people in touch with the tradition they had received and to remain faithful to their heritage. It was consolidation time, a time for conservation of the old (2:15-16). Writing in Paul's name and so appealing to the authority of his heritage are part of this. Paul's letters become important (2:15). Stability is the theme. Grace is the basis (2:16-17).
We are not usually worried by those who predict the second coming. We can however relate to those who perceive what is really going on in the trends and politics of our world. It is still very easy to lose touch with what faith is all about. It is still good to be called back to reaffirm what ultimately matters - against the gods.
Gospel: Pentecost 24: 7 November Luke 20:27-38
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