2 Thessalonians 1:3-12, our Scripture for this week, is the thanksgiving section of the letter. In ancient letters, the thanksgiving section was generally very brief. It usually followed the letter opening and the greetings and went like this: “I thank the gods for your good health,” or “I make remembrance of you all before my gods.”
In contrast, Paul’s thanksgiving section in this letter is long. The reason for this unusual length is that both Paul and his Thessalonian believers were facing a situation in which there was little reason to give thanks. Paul was in prison and the Thessalonian believers were being brutally hunted down and abused. How could one give thanks in such an ugly and discouraging circumstance?
Paul felt compelled to take time to explain why they ought to give thanks (v. 3). His basic reasoning is that thanksgiving is the hallmark of Christianity: True Christians give thanks in all circumstances, especially when the going gets tough.
This section is divided into three parts. The first part extends from v. 3 to v. 5, and deals with the issue of “worth.” The second part goes from v. 6 to v. 10, and deals with the issue of “justice.” And the third part goes from v. 11 to v. 12, and offers a ‘synthesis’ of the two sections.
In vv. 3-5, Paul deals head on with the problem of the loss of self-worth that results from suffering. Suffering and pain rob our lives of meaning and worth, even when they come in the form of religious persecution. Suffering is suffering, and pain is pain regardless of where or how they originate. It makes little difference whether it is a long illness, relentless beating, or cruel exclusion from society. The end result is the same. They rob us of worth. Therefore, in this first part of thanksgiving, Paul points out that, for Christians, suffering creates worth and that it is therefore good.
To make this point, Paul begins his thanksgiving in v. 3 with the statement “it is worthy” (my translation). It is most unfortunate that this important Greek phrase (axion estin)is variously translated as “as it is meet” (KJV), “as it is right” (NRSV), or “and rightly so” (NIV). Such obscuring of this key phrase deprives the English readers of the opportunity to see the richness of the passage. The pronoun it in this phrase refers to the phrase that follows. So, for example, we say in English: “It’s really nice that you’ve come” or “It’s good that you know this.” In these sample sentences, the phrase “that you’ve come” or “that you know this” is what the pronoun it refers to.
The pronoun it in 2 Thess 1:3 has the same function, so the verse reads as follows: “it is worthy that your faith is flourishing.” The sense here is: “This is the worth you are gaining, that your faith is flourishing … and your love is increasing.” Our worth as God’s people increases during suffering because faith (v. 3), love (v. 3), and patience (v. 4) are the very worth that we gain when we suffer in the Lord.
Paul reiterates this point in v. 5. He states that the present suffering “is intended to make you worthy of the kingdom of God.” Thus in vv. 3-5, Paul’s intent is to point out that for true Christians, suffering is a powerful “value building” time. To reinforce this idea, he “bookends” the opening and closing portions of this first part of his thanksgiving section with the word “worth.” The word also appears in v. 11. This experience of gaining in worth and dignity, then, is the first reason why one should give thanks in their suffering.
In vv. 6-10, the second part of the thanksgiving, Paul offers the second reason for giving thanks: We know how everything will end – with God’s glorious triumph over his enemies, namely, with justice. If the present time of suffering is a “value building time,” the end will be a “glorious payback time.” This language of “payback” as a metaphor of justice may bother many because of the violence it implies. Yet the passage has a starkly violent picture of the end. Verse 6 plainly declares “He will pay back” (NIV). Verse 8 tells us that Christ will come “in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance” (NRSV). And v. 9 states that the wicked “will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction” (NRSV).
The reason for this language is that it is the truth. This is how everything will end, with great violence and destruction for those who oppose the saints of God. Indeed, the language of the end being a fiery time of destruction for the wicked is a common occurrence in the NT (a theme surprisingly infrequent in the OT by comparison). As such, this end time language of fiery destruction must have originated from Jesus himself (Mat 5:22; 7:19; 13:40-42, 49-50; 18:8-9; 25:41; Mark 9:43-48; Luke John 15:6). It is noteworthy that this language occurs most often in Matthew, the only book of the NT that tells us to love our enemies (5:44).
The concept of justice behind the metaphor “payback” is simply that God will cause the persecutors who inflict violence on the people of God to taste their own medicine. Positively, however, the end will also be a time of glorious “relief” (v. 7) to those who were persecuted.
Therefore, the purpose of 6-10, the second part of the thanksgiving section, is twofold; (1) to remind the readers of the power of God; and (2) to shield the readers from the temptation to adopt the behaviors of those who are persecuting them because they seem powerful by comparison.
Paul wants to remind his readers of God’s amazing power because it is easy to think that God is weak, especially because his people are afflicted with troubles and because his values like love, patience, and faith appear to be weaker than the values of the oppressors, such as arrogance, threats, lies, and violence. Paul reminds us, we know how it will all end. The powerful people who represent such destructive power will be destroyed, and God’s way of love and peace will win out in the end. Therefore we ought to give thanks and endure patiently, Paul reminds us, knowing that we are on the winning side.
In the final part of our passage (vv. 11-12), Paul presents a synthesis of the above two sections. He reminds his readers that the present is a time that allows the saints to increase their worth by becoming filled with “goodness” and “power” (v. 11) and that the point of all this is to bring glory to the name of Jesus (v. 12).
In arranging the story this way, Paul leaves out the beginning of the story, how it all began. He begins from the middle of the story, where the believers are at presently, and then swiftly moves to the end when all things will end with God’s fiery judgment. The purpose of this apocalyptic letter is to give assurance to the people that they will not fail.
The people in Thessalonica must have been on the verge of giving up hope because of relentless persecution and the delay of the Second Coming, the parousia. They could no longer see the story of redemption as a whole. At the same time, they were losing interest in the constant reminder of the wonderful things that happened in the past (that Christ died for them, rose and ascended to heaven) because the depressing realities of the present occupied them.
In this powerful thanksgiving section, Paul reminds us that there is a beginning, middle and end to the story of redemption, and that the believer’s present experience of faith constitutes the important middle link that connects the cross and the Second Coming.