The closing words in the passage from 2 Thessalonians that appear in this Sunday’s lectionary offerings (2 Thess 3:6–13) exhort the believers in Thessaloniki to “do what is right”. It concludes a section telling them not to be idle, but to “do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (3:12), which itself has picked up the direction given in the earlier letter to Thessaloniki, “to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess 4:11–12).
This could well be another instance in 2 Thess where a later writer, a follower of Paul, has mined the earlier letter of 1 Thess, authentic to Paul, to shape a letter drawing on the apostle’s authority to reinforce teachings for his own time. A clear way in which the letter deviates from Paul’s authentic thought is its apocalyptic content.
Paul himself (like Jesus) did have an apocalyptic view of the world. He affirms that “the appointed time has grown short” (1 Cor 7:29), “the night is far gone, the day is near” (Rom 13:12), and looks to the coming “day of the Lord” (1 Cor 1:8; Phil 1:10; 1 Thess 5:2), the “the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom 2:6; 1 Cor 3:13).
He foresees that “the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Cor 15:52) and asserts that “the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thess 4:16–17).
However, this letter develops from those views in ways most uncharacteristic of Paul—more like the kind of hardline developments that we find in Jewish apocalypses of the general time. The “righteous judgment of God” (2 Thess 1:5) will be “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (1:7–8), bringing “the punishment of eternal destruction” (1:9). This is an extreme position, beyond the hope for a return of Jesus to reconcile believers with God; this presses the notion of divine judgement into callous retribution.
Further consideration of that day of judgement is given in chapter 2; we had excerpts from this chapter in last week’s lectionary—but the critical verses, 2:6–12, were omitted in that offering! There, we read that this day “will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction” (2:3). The Greek word translated as “rebellion” is apostasies, from which we get apostasy. It was used to describe those who wandered from the keeping of the Torah (1 Mac 2:15).
The writer continues, declaring that “the lawless one” (2:8) who brings “a powerful delusion” (2:11) will result in “all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned” (2:12). This portrayal resonates strongly with scenes in Jewish apocalyptic literature of the late Second Temple period, or soon thereafter, attributed to (but not actually written by) great luminaries in the history of Israel; see 4 Ezra 4:27–5:13; 2 Baruch 27; 1 Enoch 91; and also, in the Dea Sea Scrolls, 1QpHab 2:1–10.
On other ways that the letter indicates a later, non-Pauline authorship which goes well beyond Paul’s thinking—see
To return to chapter 3; here we find a set of instructions, buttressed by Paul’s authority, in which the Thessalonians are encouraged to maintain “the tradition” they received from Paul (3:6), the “command” which he had given them (3:10), and are admonished to “have nothing to do with … those who do not obey what we say in this letter” (3:14).
A key verse in this section (3:13) draws strongly on a theme running through Hebrew Scripture, to “not be weary in doing what is right”. The Psalmist, for instance, sings that those who may abide on God’s holy hill are “those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart” (Ps 15:2), and in a later psalm, sings that “I have done what is just and right; do not leave me to my oppressors” (Ps 119:131). Yet another psalm questions the gods: “do you indeed decree what is right, you gods? do you judge people fairly?” and immediately provides the answer, “no, in your hearts you devise wrongs; your hands deal out violence on earth” (Ps 58:1–2). The alignment of doing what is right with the Lord God of Israel is clear.
Accordingly, that deity is depicted in some of the foundational stories of Israel as requiring people to do what is right. At Marah in the wilderness, the Lord God tells the people, “if you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you” (Exod 15:26).
Likewise, when reminding the people “not to put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah” (referring to Exod 17:1–7), Moses instructs them to “do what is right and good in the sight of the LORD, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may go in and occupy the good land that the LORD swore to your ancestors to give you” (Deut 6:18). That message is reinforced later in the long speech of Moses, when he gives instructions relating to the discovery of a murder whose perpetrator is unknown, concluding that “you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, because you must do what is right in the sight of the Lord” (Deut 21:9).
The same instruction that is attributed to Moses is given by the prophet Ahijah the Shilonite, when Jeroboam led a rebellion against King Solomon: “if you will listen to all that I command you, walk in my ways, and do what is right in my sight by keeping my statutes and my commandments, as David my servant did, I will be with you, and will build you an enduring house, as I built for David, and I will give Israel to you” (1 Kings 11:38). The equation of “doing what is right “ with “keeping [God’s] statutes and commandments” in this passage, as also in the account of the incident at Marah (Exod 15:26), indicates the centrality of this command within the life of Israel.
Two prophets reinforce the importance of this command. Ezekiel declares that, “if the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die” (Ezek 18:21; see also 18:27; 33:14, 19; 45:9). Likewise, the opening oracle of the unnamed post-exiled prophet whose words are collected at the end of the scroll of Isaiah begins with the declaration, “maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed” (Isa 56:1). This important text equates “do what is right” with divine justice; the two prophetic texts indicate that “doing what is right” is the prerequisite for life (Ezekiel) and salvation (Trito-Isaiah).
Finally, we note that the story of Tobit ends with his prayer of blessing to God (Tob 13:1–17), including the admonition, “turn back, you sinners, and do what is right before him; perhaps he may look with favor upon you and show you mercy” (Tob 13:6); followed by his farewell words to his son, Tobias, and the seven sons of Tobias, in which he declares, “so now, my children, I command you, serve God faithfully and do what is pleasing in his sight; your children are also to be commanded to do what is right and to give alms, and to be mindful of God and to bless his name at all times with sincerity and with all their strengths (Tob 14:9). This final passage explains that “doing what is right” includes both central religious activities (bless God) and helpful social activities (give alms).
To Jewish listeners, the simple instruction, “do not be weary in doing what is right” (2 Thess 3:13) evokes central aspects of faith: obedience, following God’s way, keeping the commandments, speaking the right words, enacting the required behaviours, receiving the gift of life, being assured of salvation, and doing justice. Beyond the authority of Paul, reinforced a number of times in this chapter, the resonances of Hebrew Scripture voices sound loudly.