By Peter Amsterdam
June 6, 2023
This third chapter of 2 Thessalonians is the final chapter of Paul’s epistles to the Thessalonian believers.
Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith.1
Paul begins with the word finally, which indicates that he is moving on to a new section of the letter, and in this case, coming to the end of the letter. As he did in his first letter to the Thessalonians, he asks the believers to pray for him and his partners.2 His request for their prayers follows his prayer for the Thessalonians in the previous two verses:
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.3
His first prayer request was that God’s Word would spread rapidly. The word of the Lord refers to the gospel which Paul and his companions proclaimed.4 This request for the word to spread echoes Psalm 147:15, He sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly. Paul used running the race as a metaphor for the mission of spreading the message of Christ.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air.5
The second request is that the word of the Lord may be honored, as happened among you. Paul likely had in mind the recent acceptance and honor of the gospel in various cities of the Roman Empire. The book of Acts tells us that the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region.6 The combination of “run” and be honored points to Paul’s seeing God’s Word as a runner participating in a race and winning the prize and thus receiving honor.
Paul goes on to ask the Thessalonians to pray for the security of his team, that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men.7 At other times, he asked the believers to pray that he would be delivered from those who opposed him.8 Paul and his companions knew that God was their only hope, considering the strong opposition to their message. The people they needed God's protection from were said to be wicked and evil. Wicked is the opposite of “good” or “kind,” and means that they are morally evil. The second description, evil, is almost synonymous with wicked. These two words indicated a high degree of aggression from these people. Paul and his partners experienced antagonism from both their Jewish opponents and the Gentile persecutors.
The opposition that Paul and his companions experienced was due to the rejection of the gospel: For not all have faith. Here, faith likely refers to the positive response to the message of the gospel; and those who reject the message had earlier been described by Paul as the ones who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.9
But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one.10
Having asked the Thessalonian church to pray for him and his companions, Paul once again focused on the Thessalonian believers. They were suffering persecution at the hands of unbelievers. Paul reminded them that the Lord is faithful. God’s faithfulness is connected to the protection of the Thessalonians in their suffering. In this verse, the Lord is seen as a protector/patron in His faithfulness to the believers who are suffering persecution. As another translation of this verse says, the Lord will strengthen and protect you (NIV). God would establish them in the midst of their trials.
The verb guard means to “watch over,” which expresses that God protects His people. While the Thessalonian church had no social power, the Lord was with them, so they were not without defense, and the evil one was unable to triumph over them.
We have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things that we command.11
Having shown confidence that God would establish the Thessalonians in the midst of their persecution (v. 3), Paul trusted in the Lord that the Thessalonian believers would continue to be obedient to the moral instruction he had given them. Despite the problems the church faced—the hostility and persecution,12 and some believers’ rejection of Paul’s teaching about work (covered in the next few verses)—the believers continued to live the Christian way of life.
May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.13
Paul now presents the second prayer, in the form of a wish, before moving on to his teaching about work. The prayer asks Jesus to direct their hearts. As seen earlier in 2 Thessalonians 2:17 and 1 Thessalonians 3:13, the heart is the center of the believers’ lives: The Lord guides their hearts, resulting in His purposes being accomplished through them.
Paul’s request is that the Lord will direct the Thessalonian believers in a way that will show love and perseverance, imitating the virtues of God the Father, who loves them, and Jesus, who suffered for them. The call is to “act as God acts.”
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.14
This verse signals a change of topic when Paul uses the word “brothers” at the beginning of this text. At this point, Paul’s instruction is not a suggestion which the church could choose to follow or not, but rather a command. He repeats this style of command two more times in this chapter.15 The authority behind the command is not Paul’s own, but is rooted in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul didn’t need to emphasize that he had the Lord’s backing in what he was teaching; however, now he considered it important to make that point. What he was telling them was authoritative, and he expected the Thessalonian community to obey.
Paul instructed the church in how to respond to the disorderly, those believers who walked in idleness. In his first letter to the church, he had also addressed the idle believers: we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle.16 The word idle here doesn’t mean “lazy,” but rather identifies people who were disorderly because they didn’t follow the rule of the community. The rule they ignored had to do with work. Paul pointed out that those walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition were disobedient. They had received Paul’s instruction regarding work, and had seen that Paul and his companions worked, but they paid no attention to it.
Paul instructed the church to keep away from those who refused to work. Later in this chapter, he instructs the believers not to treat the person as an enemy or somehow outside the church, but says that they should “warn him as a brother.”17 They could continue to be members of the church, but they were subject to the correction and discipline of the community. They had heard Paul’s teaching more than once, and had chosen to be disobedient, which called for stronger measures to be taken.
Social separation was the way the early church corrected members who didn’t keep the moral teaching of the faith. For example, in Romans, Paul wrote: I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.18
For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you.19
In these verses, Paul reminds the Thessalonian church of the example he and his team gave them regarding the believers’ responsibility to work. Earlier, Paul spoke about the Thessalonian church becoming imitators of the Lord, of the churches in Judea, and of the apostles. Now he states that the church should imitate his and his team’s conduct regarding work. They worked with their own hands, and they didn’t become clients of any benefactors, which set an example to these new believers.
He went on to explain that he and his companions were not a burden on the Thessalonian believers and paid for their own food (bread). Paul and his team supported themselves through their own work and with offerings sent to them from the Philippian church.
You Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again.20
In 1 Corinthians, Paul taught that receiving financial support for Christian service was an acceptable practice, though he didn’t make use of that privilege.
Do we not have the right to eat and drink?21
… Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living?22
… If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.23
Elsewhere he wrote:
One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches.24
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”25
Having explained how they took care of themselves without becoming clients of the Thessalonians, Paul commented on the fact that they had the right to be given support from the church, but that they didn’t make use of that right.
It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.26
Paul stated that he and his team refrained from having patrons in order to be an example for others to follow. He and his team set the example for the members of the church who were disorderly and who refused to work.
(To be continued.)
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 2 Thessalonians 3:1–2.
2 1 Thessalonians 5:25.
3 2 Thessalonians 2:16–17.
4 1 Thessalonians 1:8; 4:15.
5 1 Corinthians 9:24–26. See also Galatians 2:2, Philippians 2:16.
6 Acts 13:49.
7 2 Thessalonians 3:2.
8 Romans 15:31.
9 2 Thessalonians 2:12.
10 2 Thessalonians 3:3.
11 2 Thessalonians 3:4.
12 2 Thessalonians 1:4–7.
13 2 Thessalonians 3:5.
14 2 Thessalonians 3:6.
15 2 Thessalonians 3:10, 12.
16 1 Thessalonians 5:14.
17 2 Thessalonians 3:15.
18 Romans 16:17.
19 2 Thessalonians 3:7–8.
20 Philippians 4:15–16.
21 1 Corinthians 9:4.
22 1 Corinthians 9:6.
23 1 Corinthians 9:12.
24 Galatians 6:6.
25 1 Timothy 5:17–18.
26 2 Thessalonians 3:9.