2 Thessalonians 1

By Samuel M. Frost, ThM

I will be using the Greek text from the Fifth Edition United Bible Society – the standard text for Greek scholars and researchers. In this, also, we will explore the methods of Hermeneutics (interpretation), and will note what others who have gained the respect of academia have said on this particular passage. This is a technical paper, not a “quick read”. I will try and define the terms as much as possible because I know that there are readers who are not familiar with the Greek language as it appears in this letter. Also, I will document as thoroughly as possible the reasons for my translation of the text in question, justifying it by appealing to settled “rules” of translation and interpretation. One may not “agree” with my assessments, but one will not be able to question the principles upon which I have made my case, since they are documented principles shared by scholars across the board, Liberal and Conservative alike.

It is often understood that Paul is envisioning in his letter to the Thessalonians, in this section, (2 Th 1.4-ff), that Jesus would “return” in their lifetime and “relieve” the Thessalonian Christians of all their “sufferings and tribulations” in a moment at some time in the very near future (5, 10, 15 years?). This “relief” from the Lord would bring about a complete and entire cessation of their sufferings and tribulations by removing those who were causing these things. From that moment onward, the Thessalonian Christians would no longer suffer, nor would they have to endure any more tribulations while they continued to live in Thessalonika until they died.

First off, Paul writes, “Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring” (v. 4). The word, “afflictions” there is thlipsis in Greek. Often it is translated as “tribulation”. This is a rarely used word in English, except when talking about the dread “Great Tribulation” – which is some supposed three and half year time of total chaos. The word – a very common one in Greek literature – simply means “affliction”, like, say cancer is an affliction. The death of a loved one, perplexing situations, or financial stress – all situations in which the word is found in Greek writings. “Stress” would be a good, modern English term. We may note, too, that “tribulations” is in the plural here.

Further, we may note that the Thessalonians themselves were “presently” suffering these “tribulations” that had come upon them – in whatever ways they were coming upon them. They were “enduring” them; putting up with them. These sufferings and tribulations that were happening to them are “evidence” or “proof” (v. 5) of God’s “righteous judgment” which so that they would be “counted worthy” God’s Kingdom – “for which you are suffering” (Present Active Indicative). It might strike us as odd that suffering is an “evidence” of being worthy. But, in Paul’s mind, the suffering of tribulation for the sake of the Kingdom “works endurance” (Ro 5.3), and this increases “hope” (5.4, Ro). Hope in terms of entering the Kingdom upon one’s death. That is, rather than succumb to the pressure and leave the Faith, one endures through these things all the while praising and worshiping the God of Glory.

So, what is causing this suffering? Well, it would be the Kingdom of God. That is, because one is hanging on to the hope of the Kingdom and not living in terms of the kingdoms of the world, suffering and persecution may come one’s way. This is because of what a person believes is in conflict with what the world believes, and the world can make this a harsh place to live in areas when their agenda is not followed. God’s people suffer at the hands of those who find their beliefs stupid. And this, Paul says, is endigmatic of God’s blessing (endeigma is the Greek word for “proof”) . It is also endigmatic of God’s “righteous judgment” – not on the Thessalonians, but upon those who are causing the suffering. The Thessalonians are being blessed in their sufferings, whereas the wicked are being judged.

Then Paul states, “since it is a righteous thing before God to give recompense; to the ones tribulating you, to give tribulation to them.” That is, God will also give them trouble. This is not to be understood here as something God will do in some distant future when “the Just and the Unjust” are raised to receive Judgement before the Throne. This is describing what God does in this life, too. Leon Morris is apt: “there are not wanting passages which indicate that is may operate in the here and now” (NICNT, First and Second Thessalonians, page 200). There are literally scores of passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that show God acting in terms of judgment, paying back in the here and now, his enemies. There are consequences for persecuting God’s people and it is in the form of the “wrath of God” displayed in various ways in time and space – and the “sufferers” have to “endure” through these times when God displays his storms, disasters, financial collapses, chaos in the streets, and wars abroad. Paul is thoroughly rooted in his Hebraic traditions here. The Greeks would have understood this language as well. Having translated passages from Pindar’s Odes a few months ago, it became obvious that the Pantheon of Zeus and the gods occasionally rained down their displeasure on the mortals of earth in forms of earthquakes, natural disasters, storms, volcanoes, and invading marauders. They did so “quickly” (en tachei – a phrase also used often in the LXX/OG). Paul, thus, has so far said nothing about any “arrival” of the Lord to stamp out the Tribulators. All that he has stated is that God will repay them with “tribulation”.

“Tribulation” in verse 6 is in the Accusative Case, which is the Direct Object of a verb or participle in Greek. ‘God will repay’ is the verb “to the ones tribulating you – tribulation”. “The ones tribulating you” is in the Dative Case (Indirect Object), “tribulation” (Direct Object) is what they will get. This is followed with, “and to you”, which is in the Dative Case. What will God “give” to the ones suffering, while they are suffering? The noun in the Accusative Case that follows answers that: anesis. Not only that, but Paul includes himself and the others like him, “with us”. Thus, God is giving “tribulation” to the Tribulators, and “rest” to the Sufferers. How can one “rest” if, in fact, “tribulations and sufferings” are upon them? How can one have any hope in such dire circumstances? Would hope get them through such tribulations? Would hope be the vehicle that would “work endurance” through tribulations and sufferings? We know the answer to that.

Paul is not saying that “rest” would come in terms of God’s causing a cessation of tribulation. That would be like saying, “well, endure the hell now, because later on God will give you rest.” Rather, the test is to find comfort while enduring the very thing that causes unrest. There is no indication here that God would end tribulation and suffering once and for all for the Thessalonians. Yet, that is how some have read this text, and their translations have followed as a result.

We must never lose sight of the fact that these Thessalonikan Christians were suffering through tribulations then and there, and Paul is saying to them that God “avenges” those who are his. It is a “righteous thing” before God to do so. Paul, then, sees God not as some impersonal, out there Deity that “one day” will settle all scores. Rather, God is personally involved and personally defends the cause of the Righteous in the here and now, as well as “one day” in the future. The ‘rest’ that Paul has in mind, then, is that in resting in the fact that God is counting them worthy for the Kingdom, that their suffering is working for them the greater Hope.

The word anesis, which is translated as “rest” here, means just that: rest. We will explore this term in depth. We will note, also, the syntax (sentence structure) in which it occurs. The first consideration, taken from the Greek translation(s) of the Hebrew Bible that were done before Paul’s lifetime, is found in 2 Chron 23.15. “They cleared a passage for her and she came to the entrance of the Horse Gate to the royal palace.” “cleared a passage” is the word anesis. The Hebrew term is “place”or “set” – they “placed their hands on her”. The idea, though, is “loosened” or “set free” – let her come “through the ranks” (verse 14) without harm, freely, with liberty – rest without commotion. The Greek translators, thus, used anesis. “Let her come undisturbed…”

The second occurrence is found in 1 Esdras 4.62, where we find, “and he (God) has given to them (Dative Case) rest (Accusative Case)”. This is the exact construction we find in Paul, “in order to repay to them (Dative Case) tribulation (Accusative Case), and anesin (Accusative Case) with us”. This is also in keeping with the idea of Paul: God gives “rest” to those who serve him. In the case here, the Jews were given “liberty” to go up and build the Temple.

Ezra 4.22 uses it for “being lax” or “careless” for the Hebrew word, “ease”. Here the word demonstrates a sense of mental relaxation, or laziness about a matter, being at “ease” when one should be “on guard”. Sirach 15.21 also uses it for “license” or “liberty” to sin. “To give anesin to sin” where the noun is in the Accusative after the verb, “give”. We find it often occurs in the Accusative Case. Sirach 26.13 uses it in the same manner, “lest she finds rest to her own peril”. These verses show us a mental aspect of relaxation, being at ease in mind so as to be free to sin – to be at liberty.

In the LXX Odes 12.10 (8.10) we find, “I am weighted down with many an iron fetter, so that I am rejected because of my sins, and I have no rest” – this is mental anguish. “for I have provoked your wrath and have done what is evil in your sight, setting up abominations and multiplying offences.” The reason he has no “rest” is because he has acted wickedly. His conscience is tormenting him.

Acts 24.23 uses it with the meaning of “liberty”. “my spirit was not at rest because I did not find my brother Titus there” (2 Co 2.13). Here, again, is mental stress – my spirit was not at rest. The Greek, interestingly enough, reads, “I had not had rest in my spirit” where the Locative Case is used with the preposition (lacking here) that would usually have en (“in”). He did not have rest, where? In my spirit. In 2 Co 8.13 we find two words of interest: thlipsis and anesis together: “I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened” – or, in Greek that anesiv (Accusative) “to you” (Dative) not come, or “tribulation” (translated, “burden”) to others. Here it is used in the action of Paul so that there be no unequal burden or stress. As we can see, a common word. “our flesh had no rest, but we were troubled on every side; without were fightings, within were fears” (2 Co 7.5); where, again, “tribulation” (‘trouble’) is used – and “within” (in the mind) there were “fears” as they were enduring their “tribulations”. These “fears” here are in contrast with “rest” (anesis). Paul follows with, “But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us.” Here we can see where “rest” and “comfort” are used in the same idea. God comforted us, gave us rest, “in the presence of Timothy” (7.6).

What we have found, then, in this survey is that anesis often occurs in the Accusative case with the Dative or Locative. The word can range from “liberty”, “rest”, “release”, “loosen” or “ease” – and we find this confirmed in the Lexicons. This leads us, then, to consider in what way did Paul mean it here in 2 Th 1.7? If tribulation was upon them, stress – which undoubtedly is a source of anxiety – in what ways could they find rest while “in” such circumstances? How could God “give to them rest with us” – where “us” includes Paul who himself had “tribulation” on all sides, fears within, and having no rest in his his flesh?

In the same letter, 2 Corinthians, Paul states that they had tribulation; “persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;” (4.9); yet, “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (4.6). The Light of the Knowledge of God shined “in” his heart, “in” the face of Jesus Christ. That this “knowledge” is “in the manifestation of the truth” (4.2). And it in this manifestation of the truth that Paul, in spite of his suffering and tribulation, “finds comfort” from Him “who is comforting us in all our tribulation, for our being able to comfort those in any tribulation through the comfort with which we are comforted ourselves by God” (2 Co 1.4). “But whether we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or whether we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which worketh in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer” (1.6). We can see here that all of the key words, “tribulation”, “suffering”, “salvation”, “endurance” are used in 2 Th 1.4-ff., which we are considering.

We must, also, continue to briefly consider the normal usage of the term as found in Greek literature. In the standard Liddel-Scott Lexicon we find a variety of usages which basically state what has been said above. It is used for “relaxing” a string on a bow (”¬†tightening and relaxing of the strings” in Plato’s Republic); Aristotle used the term (Rhetoric) for the “relaxation” in the sense of enjoying entertainment. Herodotus used for a “relaxation” of evil – an abatement or ease of evil deeds. It is also used for relaxation of the soul – ease of mind in Athenaeus.

The next prepositional phrase italicized we now turn, “in order to repay to them (Dative), tribulation (Accusative), and to you (Dative) with us, rest (Accusative) in the revelation of Jesus Christ from heaven…” As we have seen above, “in” (the Locative Case) is the normal function of the preposition “in”. This “rest” relieves the stress of “tribulation” – not by removing tribulation and suffering – but through and while one is enduring it. Indeed, Paul, at times, “had no rest in my spirit” – and tribulation can certainly do that, and it is precisely IN those times that the comfort of the Spirit in the knowledge of Jesus Christ is most needed to get THROUGH those times. And for Paul, this knowledge resides in the mind, the spirit.

It is at this time that many will turn to the majority of translations where it is found stating, “when he is revealed from heaven”. First off, the word “revealed” is a noun, not a verb (even though certain nouns retain an idea of a verbal meaning, they are still nouns). Second, “en” (in) is translated as “when” under the idea of “temporal usage” for the preposition. I was trained in Greek to understand that when a special use of a word is utilized it is not necessarily the case; it is a translational issue involved with an interpretational one. That is, “translation always involves interpretation” – and we can find this emphasized in every Greek grammar. When we encounter an issue like this it is always stated to take the term(s) in their normal usage first – and that “en” in this case is not “changed to mean” something else (and never means “when”) but that it is used to convey the meaning (interpretation). “En” means “in”. “In time I will do the dishes” – “when I do the dishes”. “When are you going to do the yard?” “In the afternoon” (when afternoon arrives). Robertson noted its used in expressions of time when used with words denoting time (pp. 586-587, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in Light of Historical Research, Broadman Press, 1934). That is, “in the last day”; “in the sabbath”, “in the third day”, “in those days”, etc. In other words, “when” is temporal because the terms beings used have to do with time. I can say, “in three days” and mean, “when the third day happens”. These subtleties of the Greek are often missed, and what happens is that the English translation becomes the literal meaning without question as if there is no questions to be asked whatsoever concerning the actual Greek text! Thus, you often here, “but the ESV says when” and a reader of Greek says, “yeah, but the Greek says en“! Well, are all those translations that have “when” wrong? Yes. There are some translations that have “in” correctly – are they “wrong”? Then someone might say, “well the majority has ‘when’.” To which it can be replied, “ad populum is a fallacy if you are seeking to prove your case.” There have been multiple times where translations of the past have been overturned by translations in the present. Welcome to Greek.

The only thing I need to consider is whether or not my translation can be argued for. It can, and not a single “rule” is broken in the process. One may not “agree” with me, and they can site all sorts of “commentaries” (i.e., interpretations) and such, and I can find a few of my own. The fact of the matter is that one has proceeded correctly when it comes to an appeal to strict grammatical function. And, this may – and often times does – does not “prove” a matter conclusively in particular instances, but it does demonstrate that an interpretative choice(s) are available, and has demonstrated at least this point.

Thus, Paul is stating that God repays tribulation to those who are causing tribulation, and to the saints he gives rest in the comfort of the revelation knowledge of Jesus Christ; a knowledge which comes “from heaven” – “where he is” (Col 3.1) – as does “every good gift is from above from the father…” (Ja 1.17). The description Paul gives of Jesus is quite detailed: “in the revelation of Jesus Christ from heaven (who is) with his angels of power in flaming fire giving (Present Participle) retribution to those not knowing God.” Paul is describing (using a participle here) what has been revealed to the saints concerning the function of Jesus “in heaven” as he now is. He is “with his angels in flaming fire giving retribution – repaying – those who do not follow him.” Rest in this fact, think on these things above, set your minds on this fact, on him “who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” (1 Pe 3.22). Peter goes on, “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” Think like this.

What a powerful comfort in times of tribulations and sufferings. When the world is thrown into chaos and confusion, when your own countrymen are slandering you, hurling insults and mocking your faith; God will cause them trouble! He will give you rest because you have the revelation of Jesus Christ from heaven; you know him who is at the right hand with the angels in flaming fire, who is sending tribulation among those who show themselves as unruly, unlawful, and disobedient to his truth! Yes, you suffer during these times, but your suffering is being county worthy of his kingdom. Their suffering will only reap the reward of flames unless they repent. Is this not the message of Paul consistently through his letters? Is this not found repeatedly in the Hebrew depictions of God? Paul is not talking about the Second Coming here. He is talking about the Reign of God in Christ as it now is – and as it now is the world cannot see what the saints see – to what the saints have been revealed – the things of the Kingdom, veiled to the world, but active and operative to the saints of God. Think on these things and set your minds above, where he is, at the right hand of the Father! Well, who is he “with”? Read Daniel 9.9-ff! Read Revelation 1 and 5! Read Colossians 1! God is active in the son of man who has ascended to his right hand, and the nations have been given to him. The Son of Man has all power, and all command of the angels in firey flames, and he actively, personally, operationally REIGNS over all the nations with a sharp two-edged sword, with a rod of iron in his hands, dashing and breaking the nations and kings of the earth! He rides with a white horse, a shining face of glory in the heavens, striking and crushing the kings of the earth, the ungodly, and the wicked, while bringing many out of their ungodliness and wickedness in the revealing power of the Spirit who reveals Who He Is!

I rest my case.