Read 2 Thessalonians 2-3 here.
Let’s finish up this letter today and move on to a new topic later this week. In the last post, we looked at Paul’s view (or whoever wrote 2 Thessalonians) that the Antichrist would have to appear before Jesus could return. For a brief but very informative description of where the idea of this evil figure originated, have a look at the PBS / Frontline website and its discussion of the apocalypse – some very interesting information about the historical context in which the idea of an Antichrist arose, and how the original ideas were re-interpreted during Medieval times into the narrative we have today.
Basically, the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem was an unimaginable terror to the Jewish people, including those who had adopted Christianity. The reaction in this country to the events of 9/11 might be a kind of parallel – the fear, the disbelief, the insecurity. Many first century Christians and Jews were sure that the end must be near, and drew upon the apocalyptic literature from earlier chaotic times – the writings of Daniel and 1 Enoch during the Greek occupation, for example – to explain the events occurring at the time. In fact, apocalyptic writings were widespread throughout the Mediterranean for 2-3 centuries leading up to the time of Christ. Our fascination with ‘end of the world’ stories continues today in the form of novels and Hollywood movies.
Paul closes out the 2nd chapter of this letter by admonishing his followers to ‘hold fast’ to the teachings he has given them, either by letter or in person. He also uses a new term that is fairly important in many Christian circles – sanctification. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and the Romans will explain this idea more fully – which could be evidence that this letter was really written later – so a short explanation will suffice here.
Justification is what happens at the moment of salvation. The sinner realizes he is guilty before God, and takes the grace offered him by the atoning death of Jesus. At that moment, God accepts Christ’s righteousness in his stead, and the sinner enjoys divine communion with God. However, the old sins and customs the sinner has practiced for years may still have a strong influence on his life, and the new saint needs to conform his life to that of Christ. This is the process of sanctification. You’ve accepted the gospel of Christ, but it may take some working of the Holy Spirit in your life before you completely escape your old habits and desires. The more fervently you believe in the truths of the gospel, the more complete this process becomes.
I often come across good Christian people who can’t stop beating themselves up over this process. The problem is, so much of what the New Testament says is contrary to what one finds to be true in daily experience. The struggle to believe something that is often of so little help in real life leaves people discouraged and confused. Jesus healed the deaf and blind in the Bible, but he won’t take my friend’s cancer away. Paul says I should stay single, but I’m really lonely and would be happier if I had a husband / wife.
I read a recent blog by rabidmongoose in which he details the struggles he’s going through because he doesn’t really believe in the resurrection of Christ. Instead of just admitting what his natural, rational intelligence informs him of – that it most likely didn’t happen – he continues to beat himself up because he feels his faith is not strong enough. Sad. The only way to really believe all this stuff is to ignore everything else, hang out only with others who believe, and spend most of your social time talking about your faith. Sanctification, in essence, is a kind of social engineering designed to make your life conform to the teachings of the church.
The final chapter is just a few verses long, mostly blessings, prayers, asking for prayers and the like. But one short passage really stands out, and forms one of the major tenets of American life, both religious and secular. Apparently, some of the Thessalonians had decided that Jesus was coming back so soon, that there was no reason to do more than just get by until he returned. So they stopped working, and began to look for handouts from others to support themselves. Paul disapproves of this and advises everyone to avoid idleness, with the famous phrase, “if any would not work, neither should he eat”. This King James rendering is the way I always heard it as I was growing up, but I think I prefer the NIV rendering, “the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat”, because it seems to insinuate that the willing but unable must still be fed.
Nobody likes a freeloader, not today, not two centuries ago. This lies at the heart of the debate over entitlements in the US today. We don’t like to see welfare recipients become generational – that is, those who are on welfare today producing children and grandchildren who remain on welfare in the future. It lies at the heart of the Protestant work ethic that the lazy and shiftless are not chosen of God, and they have no earthly inheritance.
I can’t say that I disagree – I am an American, after all. But I need reward for my work other than the heavenly. I do think we need to have a discussion about what constitutes ‘work’. For a few decades now, we’ve admired Wall Street robber barons whose sole purpose seems to be taking money away from the financially unsophisticated – you and me – and enriching themselves at our expense. A spate of articles in the news recently describe how the 401k system, which was meant to replace the old company-sponsored retirement benefits with shiny new self-managed accounts, have mostly failed – except in their ability to enrich the companies that manage them. Much of what financial institutions proudly describe as their ‘work’ is high tech highway robbery.
So, in short, 2 Thessalonians contains a couple of ideas that are quite powerful in American thought – God rewards those who follow him, often financially, and has unimaginable punishment awaiting those who do not. The spirit of the Antichrist is already among us, and the political and economic systems we love and cherish are going to go through some pretty scary transformations before Jesus comes back to make everything right.
In the meantime, keep your nose to the grindstone.