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Deeper Commentary


3:1- see on Lk. 18:1.

Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run swiftly and be glorified, even as also it is with you- Paul's frequent requests for prayer show his need, vulnerability and equality with his converts. We ought to unashamedly ask others for their prayers if we too believe that the prayers of third parties really can influence our path and the success of our preaching work. The word of the Lord was glorified when people believed it (Acts 13:48), but Paul believed that the prayers of others could somehow influence whether individuals believed it or not.

There is an idiom in Scripture which concerns running. To ‘run’ is sometimes used to describe a man’s response to God’s word (Ps. 119:32,60; 147:15; Amos 8:11,12; Hab. 2:2; Jn. 8:37 RV; 2 Thess. 3:1 Gk.)-  it must be a running, active, speedy response. Dan. 12:4 seems to imply that in the last days, God’s word will be clearly understood by the brotherhood and therefore many will “run to and fro” in response. The more clearly we understand and perceive God’s word, the faster we will ‘run’ in response. We cannot separate our Bible study from our actions. This is why we should not only do our Bible readings daily, but study and pray and strive to understand… so that we will be the more motivated in practice. It is all too easy to be apparently zealous for good causes, as are many unbelievers, because of the needs of the moment, because we are in a situation where we would feel awkward not to enthusiastically respond… but the only true and lasting motivation for good works is an understanding, a purely personal understanding, of God’s will for us. When the shepherds were told that Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, they “quickly” went there- for they believed what they had understood (Lk. 2:16). Paul “immediately” went to preach in Macedonia after seeing the vision suggesting he do this (Acts 16:10), just as he “immediately” began his initial preaching commission after receiving it (Gal. 1:16).

The word of the Lord was glorified in the Thessalonians- so Paul sincerely felt. But he goes on to speak of weakness amongst them. But he sees the cup half full rather than half empty, and never seeks to give the impression that he is addressing only some within the community he is enthusing about.

3:2 And that we may be delivered from unreasonable and evil men. For all do not have faith- These surely refer to the Judaists, whose schemes to stop the spread of the Gospel were Paul's constant headache. "All do not have faith" may be a way of saying that this group of people appeared to have faith but did not; they were the false brethren who posed as converts of Gal. 2:4.

3:3 But the Lord is faithful, who shall establish you and guard you from the evil- Mt. 13:19 describes the evil one taking away the word out of our heart. However can we resist that evil one? Paul had his eye on this question in 2 Thess. 3:1,3, where he speaks of the word being with them, and also of the Lord keeping them from the evil one. Paul knew that the Lord (Jesus) will help us in keeping the word in our hearts, if we allow him to; he saw the Lord's power as greater than the schemes of the Judaizers to upset their faith (see on :2).  

"Establish you" translates Greek meaning ‘to turn in a direction, to confirm’. The Lord confirms us in the path we wish to go; He has the ability to turn human hearts by His direct operation upon us (:5; Prov. 21:1). The theme continues in :5, where we read that the Lord directs our hearts; and see on 2:17. But this turning or establishing of the human heart is often done by the Lord through a human mechanism; the same word for “establish” is found in Lk. 22:32, where Peter is told to “strengthen” his brethren, in Rom. 1:11 where Paul speaks of his strengthening of the Roman believers through his personal presence with them and teaching the Gospel to them (Rom. 16:25), and in 1 Thess. 3:2 where Timothy’s visiting of brethren would strengthen them (Paul goes on to say that the Lord would strengthen them, 1 Thess. 3:13- working through Timothy to do so, we can conclude). Likewise in :5 when we read that the Lord will “direct” their hearts, the only other time Paul uses this word is in 1 Thess. 3:11 where he speaks of how God will direct his journey so that he visits the Thessalonians. God’s confirming of His children in their way to Him can operate through the agency of our pastoral efforts for others, our physical presence with them through visiting them, our sharing of the Gospel with them.

They could be 'guarded' or 'kept' from the forces of evil, the Judaizers associated with "the man of sin" in chapter 2. This implies direct psychological action upon them by the Lord Jesus; and clearly He uses His Spirit to achieve this. Thus the same word is used of "the Holy Spirit which dwells within us" empowering Timothy to keep or guard what had been entrusted him (2 Tim. 1:14).

3:4 And we have confidence in the Lord concerning you, that you both do, and will do, the things which we command- Why "confidence in the Lord", rather than 'confidence in you'? The Greek strictly means 'to be persuaded'. Paul was persuaded of their current and future obedience because they were "in Christ". Time and again, this was the basis for his positivism about others. They were in Christ and counted as Him. And so he assumes their current and future compliance with His will, knowing that the Spirit would be working to make them in reality what they were counted as by status.

3:5- see on Jn. 5:42.

And so may the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God- Paul was confident God would act directly upon their hearts due to his prayer for them of 2:16,17. Here we have a clear statement to the effect that God is able to work directly upon the human heart, guiding it to a position or understanding. If we are simply intended to read the Bible and figure out things for ourselves, then Paul not only would state this explicitly, but there would be no point in him praying and wishing for such 'direction' of their hearts, if the direction of the human heart is purely down to our unaided efforts, and by our own intellectual processing we are intended to as it were squeeze the Spirit out of the pages of the book called the Bible.

Into the patient waiting for Christ- Gk. ‘the patience of Christ’. His characteristics should be our aim, and Paul knew that God can work directly on the human heart to make us more like His Son. Note that He is even now patient; John spoke of how he was sharing in the patience / endurance of Christ (Rev. 1:9). This is the same idea as in Colossians 1 and Rom. 8 [see notes there]- we are counted righteous by reason of our status in Christ, but God’s grace doesn’t simply count us that way, but works through the Spirit within our hearts to actually change us into the “Christ” which we are counted as being. That work of the Spirit is through mechanisms, such as God’s word which is Spirit and life (Jn. 6:63), and through the ministering of men like Paul who aim to present us “perfect” or completely in Christ, in the last day (Col. 1:28). But God is also sovereign and can clearly work directly on human hearts; for historically, not all believers have had access to Bibles and the majority have been illiterate.

3:6 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw yourselves from every brother that walks disorderly- "Disorderly" is the same word translated "unruly" concerning those who ought to be "warned" at the time the first letter was written (1 Thess. 5:14). If the warning hadn't worked, then the Thessalonians were to withdraw themselves from these individuals who were demanding financial support from the church whilst refusing to work (:11). The "tradition" received from Paul may have been a verbal or written statement directly from the Lord, to the effect that there were not to be handouts for those who refused to work and who saw church membership just as a means of income, confirming them in their laziness. In every age and society, there are those who wish to join the church in the hope of material benefit. Paul here does not advocate a totally non-judgmental approach; he is quite insistent that this should not be allowed. And his motive was clearly because he wanted to see human salvation in Christ; and going through the motions of joining Christ simply in order to attain some secular advantage was not going to help the people concerned. 'Withdrawing' means more to keep away from, rather than religious excommunication; in this context it could simply mean that the church was not to give them financial support. But "withdraw yourselves" is also translated "avoid", literally meaning 'to arrange around' (as in 2 Cor. 8:20). The idea may not be formal excommunication, but some other form of church discipline- or simply, an exclusion from the list or "number" of those who received support as in 1 Tim. 5:9. Verse 10 is translated in some Bibles as "don't give them food", supporting this idea; but the force of "withdraw yourselves" seems to suggest that Paul wasn't merely warning the ecclesia not to give food as welfare support to these people, but to not associate with them, and therefore, not to eat with them in a religious sense.

The whole passage in 2 Thess. 3:6-12 seems to criticize sloth and sponging off others in remarkably strong language, insisting that those who are think they can get an easy ticket through life at others' expense must be separated from. But the language is so strong, that we wonder whether this really is all that in view. We recall that the feeding miracles of Jesus and His general attitude to assisting the sick and needy never incorporated any kind of "means test", a checking out of whether actually every single person in the crowd of 5000 males was in fact genuinely in need of food. Rather does He give, so superabundant in His grace that there were large carrier baskets full of the crumbs afterwards. When we encounter human need, it could probably often be argued that the need could have been avoided by harder work by someone somewhere; but surely the need is the call, to action on their behalf. For any hard hearted "God helps those who help themselves" attitude seems to me at variance with the gracious giving of the Lord to us. We from our distance are unaware of exactly what was going on in the ecclesia to which Paul wrote, and we don't fully know the false teaching and exact forms of misbehaviour which he was up against. But the evidence above is surely enough to conclude that whatever the details, Paul wasn't arguing so strongly for the utter exclusion of lazy spongers. There seems to have been far more to this group of people than simply that. I suggest on :10,11 and :14 that these who refused to work and demanded support were in fact Judaizers, who in line with Paul's dire warning against them in chapter 2, needed to be excluded from the church.

And not after the tradition which they received from us- It seems from 2:14,15 that Paul taught them the Gospel, and then gave them “traditions”, ‘that which is passed on’, i.e. from Christ, concerning practical Christian living; exactly in accord with how the great commission requires us to preach the basic good news of a risen Christ, baptize people, and then teach them further all things He commanded and passed on to us (Mt. 28:19,20). But the context goes on to say that they were to follow Paul's example; as if his personal example was the tradition he had set for them to follow. He repeatedly states that he had consciously lived as he had in order to set them an example, and he is now declaring this as the "tradition" they are bound to follow.

3:7 For yourselves know how you ought to imitate us. For we ourselves did not behave disorderly among you- As suggested on :6, the "tradition" received may have simply been in Paul's example, which the Lord intended his converts to imitate. The idea of consciously modelling, of having some characters as your heroes, your inspiration towards a closer following of God, was very much in Paul's thinking; and it would have been especially appropriate to an illiterate church who didn't have access to the completed New Testament and had been likely cast out of the synagogue where the Old Testament scrolls were located. This is why Paul realized that he was to be their example of Christian walk, and encourages them to follow his example. He several times uses the word 'mimicking', Greek mimicos, normally translated "follow" in the AV. This Greek word is used almost exclusively by Paul. "You became followers of us and of the Lord.... you know how ye ought to follow us... an example unto you to follow us" (1 Thess. 1:6; 2 Thess. 3:7,9; the implication could be that that in the gap between 1 and 2 Thessalonians, they stopped following Paul as they initially did straight after his conversion of them).

3:8 Neither did we eat bread for nothing at anyone's hand; but we ate our bread as the result of our own labour and toil, working night and day, that we might not financially burden any of you- Paul paid Jason for the meals provided; as he was only three weeks in town, and would not have had time to set up his own tentmaking business. He would therefore have had to do odd jobs for low pay, working at night as well. And he did so having recently been severely beaten in Philippi, with the marks of the wounds clearly all over him and likely with broken or fractured bones. "Labour and toil" are words which mean pain, weakness, weariness. He performed his work, perhaps carrying water or shifting building materials or merchandise in the market, with difficulty because of his physical state. See on 1 Thess. 2:9.

Note the allusions here to the LXX of the account of the curse on man in Eden, to 'eat bread' as a result of 'labour and toil' (Gen. 3:17-19). Paul is saying that he accepted the curse and didn't seek to get around it, as some in the church were trying to. It could be argued that living "disorderly" is alluding to the common Rabbinic statements concerning the "order" established for man in early Genesis. The same Greek  word is used in Greek translations of the Rabbinic interpretatins of the curse in Genesis. So perhaps these people were caught up in a false teaching that the curse in Genesis has been lifted- and therefore they were free from the obligation to work. We too live in a world where man constantly seeks to avoid the curse in Genesis, rather than accepting our humanity and fallen position and working within those ties that bind, towards the ultimate freedom of God's Kingdom. See on 2 Thess. 2:2.

3:9- see on Acts 19:31.

Not because we do not have the right to do so, but to make ourselves an example to you- that you should imitate us- Here we have an example of choosing to live on a higher level than the minimum; Paul could have asked for material support from the Thessalonians, but he chose not to in order to set them an example and to avoid establishing a wrong precedent. He was deeply aware that he was the living example of Christianity to them, the only template they had to copy in practice; see on :7. Many of our choices come down to a decision between living on a higher or lower level; and the pattern of the Lord Jesus inspires us to live as high as we can, whilst showing understanding to those who like us all, in many areas of life, live on lower levels.

3:10 For even when we were with you, this we commanded you: If any will not work, neither let him eat of your food- Paul's example, as noted on :8 and 1 Thess. 2:9, was absolutely congruent with his commandment to them. He was the word made flesh in this sense. It is clear from 1 Thess. 4 that there were gaping holes in their theological knowledge, given the brief time Paul was with them; but his focus was more on the practical issues which are very much the Gospel as preached by the Lord Jesus in the gospel records.

But what may lie behind Paul's tough line against those who refuse to accept that "if any will not work, neither shall he eat" (3:10)? "If any will not work, neither shall he eat" is a quotation from a Jewish Targum [paraphrase] on the curse upon Adam in Eden; especially the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Gen. 3:19. The language of Gen. 3:17-19 about working and eating bread is alluded to several times in 2 Thess. 3:6-12. When Paul speaks of how he "worked in toil and hardship" because he couldn't eat others' bread for nothing (3:8), he clearly has in mind the curse upon Adam. Paul's comment that such persons shouldn't be 'given anything to eat' in 3:10 would then be an allusion to how the serpent gave food to Eve, and she then gave the food to Adam. And the serpent is set up as typical of the Judaizing element that sought to destroy the church (2 Cor. 11:3; Rom. 16:20). Genesis 3 is arguably the most used and yet most misunderstood chapter in the Bible, and thus it has ever been. So many of the false teachings circulating in first century Judaism involved misinterpretations of this chapter.

My suggestion would therefore be that there was a teaching going around that actually we are no longer under the effects of the curse in Eden. We don't need to work, we bear no responsibility for our sins nor do we suffer from the effects of Adam's sin. And they believed this to the point that they expected more wealthy Christians to as it were fund their belief by providing for them materially. Now this all involves something far more than the laziness and occasional irresponsibility which at times we all struggle with. They were "disorderly", ataktos, not in "order". The word is used in a military context for soldiers falling out of line in marching. By claiming to be more than human, these people were unacceptive of their humanity, their place in the ranks of the rest of humanity. Interestingly, ataktos is derived from the Greek verb tassein, "to order", and this verb is several times used by the Septuagint in the context of the "order" decreed by God at the beginning (Lev. 18:4; Dt. 27:1; Job 38:12); it's also used in Jewish writings about the "order" established by God at the time of Adam's sin (M.J.J. Menken, 2 Thessalonians (London: Routledge, 1994) p. 131 provides examples). Sirach 7:15 speaks of how Adam's sin led to "toilsome labour and agriculture, ordered by the Most High". The disorderly walk of some in Thessalonica was therefore in refusing to accept their own humanity and the consequences of being human; in this sense they were disorderly in that they refused to accept that we must work if we are to eat, and sought to get around it, with the implication being that they had not sinned and didn't deserve to suffer under such a curse. And hence they walked around as walkers around up to no good ["which walk... as busybodies" disguises a play on words in the Greek original]. This walking around up to no good sounds very much like the serpent in Eden; and Paul elsewhere fears lest the churches, whom he likens to innocent Eve in Eden, should be misled by such serpents (2 Cor. 11:3). And other New Testament letters suggest that misinterpretations of Eden were being used in the early churches to justify various moral, especially sexual, misbehaviours. All this leads to the same conclusion as noted on :14; that these who would not work were in fact Judaizing false teachers.

3:11 For we hear of some that walk among you disorderly, that do not work at all but are busybodies- "Busybodies" is literally 'working around'; we have here a word play, literally ‘not busy, but busy’. Human beings have to do something with themselves all day. One blessing which came out of the Edenic curse of working in order to procreate and survive is that most people are thereby kept ‘busy’ and don’t fall into major sin. With the unequal distribution of wealth which there is in many societies and the attempts of social welfare systems to redistribute it, there has arisen a subclass of the very rich and of the very poor who don’t have to work; and the amount of work others are required to do has in some ways been lessened by technological advances and the concept of retirement. The result of this is that people become “busybodies”- their busy-ness becomes focused on destructive meddling in others’ lives, often through the internet under the guise of social networking. I suggested on 1 Tim. 5:13 that the busybodies of Ephesus were in fact false teachers; it was these women who were forbidden from going around teaching their Judaist ideas in the house churches (1 Tim. 2:12, see note there).

3:12 Now those that are such we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work and eat their own bread- He has already warned them about such behaviour (1 Thess. 5:14), and now makes yet another appeal to them before having to advocate the discipline of :14. We should live “quietly”, and we are exhorted to do this “by our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 3:12). Our imagination of who He was and how He would have lived must be our pattern. We are in this sense in the grip of a personality cult based upon Him. Thus His patience is to be ours (see on :5). "Quietness" literally means "silence"; a strange thing to say if the only problem was laziness. I have suggested throughout this section that there is more to these lazy folk than may meet the eye, and that in fact the reference is to Judaizing false teachers who refused to work but demanded payment for their false teaching. Here then we would have a command that they should be silenced, they should not teach and not demand payment for it, but should instead work for their own bread. See on :10.

3:13 But you, brothers, be not weary in doing good- Not referring so much to outstanding ‘good deeds’, but to the workaday life of :12. It is this patient continuance in the workaday life, lived in the Spirit of Christ, which is so hard to maintain, and so easy to weary from. The Greek for not being weary is found in Lk. 18:1 about not being weary in the life of intense prayer (see note there). 2 Cor. 4:16 teaches that this not being weary is inspired by the gift of the Spirit, which is constantly renewing our inner man. Likewise in Gal. 6:8,9, it is "of the Spirit" that we shall not weary in well doing. This inner power to keep on keeping on cannot come merely from the flesh, for we shall simply lack the endurance. It is of the gift of the Spirit which we must be open to.

3:14 And if anyone does not obey our word by this letter, note that man, that you have no association with him- "Note" or marking the person is literally 'to set a mark upon', with clear allusion to Cain; Jn. 8:44; 1 Jn. 3:12 and Jude 11 present Cain as a prototype of the Judaizers. These people refusing to work but demanding material support would then refer to the Judaizers, who demanded payment for their false teaching. This feature of them is noted many times in Paul's letters, and cements their association with those seeking dishonest gain from religion. This would better explain Paul's apparently very strict attitude to those who were refusing to work. If they were simply lazy, we wonder why he would make such a major issue about them. If in fact they were Judaist false teachers, we can better understand his approach, especially in light of the prediction in chapter 2 that the 'satan' of the Jewish plot against Paul was to join hands with Roman civil power in order to seek to destroy the Christian community; see on :10. The call to "have no association" is strong, and I suggested above is not simply a reaction against laziness of itself, but is rooted in the fact that these busybodies were in fact Judaist false teachers. The term is only elsewhere used about not associating with brethren who were idolaters, sexually perverted and so forth (1 Cor. 5:9,11). Laziness seems of a different order, until we join the dots and see the picture, that the group referred to were in fact Judaist false teachers.

So that he may be ashamed- Even the lazy, or as I suggest, the Judaist false teachers, could repent; and it was Paul's hope they would. Shame is the outcome of condemnation at the last day, and Paul wanted them and us all to go through that process now rather than then. Paul had warned these people in 1 Thess. 5:14, and now was asking for them to be shamed. We recall how he tells the Corinthians that he is warning and not shaming them (1 Cor. 4:14), as if these were two distinct parts of a church discipline procedure. Many churches have no sense of church discipline; somebody is tolerated unchallenged, and the only discipline known is excommunication. But there were a range of disciplinary actions reflected in the New Testament. Even this 'being ashamed' may not be the final step, because :15 encourages the person to continue to be warned as a brother. So the avoidance / shaming did not include a total breakoff of relationship with him.

3:15 But do not count him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother- See on :14. Paul did count some as enemies, using the same word about some false brethren in Acts 13:10 and Phil. 3:18. The Jews who rejected the Gospel were 'enemies' (s.w. Rom. 11:28). Chapter 2 has warned of how the Judaizers were going to collude with the Romans to bring about a time of terrible persecution of the Christians. Paul sees these busybodies as under Judaist influence, but he doesn't feel they have gone so far as being all out enemies of the Gospel. Likewise he states clearly in 2:3-7 that the final apostasy has not yet come. We must ever remember that we were enemies of the Lord, but were reconciled to Him (Rom. 5:10; Col. 1:21 s.w.). Our attitude to the unreconciled must be the same as His has been to us; and His patience and seeking to work with us by all means has to be our pattern.

3:16 Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in all ways. The Lord be with you all- The Lord Jesus is presented as the source of peace. This means that peace is not brought about merely by our own submission of our mind to God's ways and living according to our own conscience. Such peace would therefore be as it were self-created. But the peace here comes from the Lord Jesus, a gift from Him. The allusion is surely to the gift of the Spirit given by Him, and the Lord's being 'with' us through His Spirit. This is the specific teaching of Jn. 14:27; 16:33 about the Lord's gift of the Comforter, which is the Holy Spirit, who would be so within our hearts that truly the Lord Jesus is 'with' us and gives us peace. See on :18.

3:17 The salutation of me Paul with my own hand, which is the token in every epistle. So I write- This was particularly significant in the light of the falsified letters being sent in Paul's name; see on 2:2.

3:18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all- "Grace" often refers to the gift of the Spirit, the power of new life within the heart of the believer which is given by the Lord Jesus. "Be with you" can as well be translated "be within you", for this is where the Spirit most essentially operates. And such spiritual mindedness was Paul's greatest wish for all believers. He wished it for "all" of them, including those who wouldn't work or were lazy, despite his example of working night and day when weak to support himself; and including those influenced by anti-Paul doctrine. He truly wished the Lord's grace and Spirit to be with them all. For he wished the Lord's glory.