2:1-12. Paul’s Work in Thessalonica. After mentioning the “character” of his work in 1:5, Paul now proceeds to describe it in this section, perhaps as a defense against his slanderous countrymen who would drive a wedge between him and his converts. His service among them was characterized by tenderness and selflessness. So he addresses them as brothers and sisters, as family in Christ who are all “loved by God” (1:4) and share his love among themselves. That his coming to them was not purposeless or without result was evidence that they had been convinced of his earnestness. He cites the mistreatment received in Philippi and the courage in our God as proof that the appeal made in his message to turn to God did not come from error or impurity or with deceit. (NLT sharpens this connection between verses 2 and 3.) An insincere preacher out for money would not have continued under the persecution that Paul received. Such courage showed he was approved by God to declare his gospel and his motives were not to please people but God, because he remembers that is it God who examines our hearts. The Lord sees at this moment why we do what we do, which means that he will judge our intentions and actions in the last day. People’s opinions last but briefly, and gaining their approval is an exercise in futility, but God’s approval counts for time and eternity. People judge actions, but God examines the heart; only he is able to judge fully and fairly.
As he often does, Paul calls his message the gospel of God (2:2, 8, 9), which may mean the gospel about God or the gospel which comes from God. Perhaps Paul means both, since the good news comes from God and is about the salvation which he provides in Christ. Here, Paul signals that his message is not one he created or adapted to win acceptance by the Thessalonians, but one he has received and has been commissioned to deliver, as is, regardless of human reaction.
Paul did not use the orator’s tools of flattering speech nor did he show a philosopher’s false friendship for a price, as a pretext for greed. His motives were neither money nor glory; desire for recognition and adulation never moved him to pander to people’s baser impulses. He refused to throw his weight around as authoritative apostles of Christ. Instead, he proved himself to be – and here Paul uses three mixed metaphors to indicate tenderness — like little children who pose no threat, like an affectionate nursing mother caring for her own children, and like a father who treats his own children with concern by exhorting and encouraging them to live in a way worthy of God.
Those who serve in the gospel have in this text a powerful catalog of what their conduct should not involve: heavy-handedness, deception, people-pleasing, flattery, greed, recognition, and burdening converts; as well as an example of positive behaviors: effectiveness, courage, purity of motivation, awareness of God’s judgment, tenderness, affection, sacrifice, hard work, dedication, holiness, righteousness, blamelessness, encouragement, and instruction.
More than that, the passage is permeated by a consciousness of God. Courage is in our God. The gospel is God’s (three times). They have been approved by God. They seek to please God. God is their witness (mentioned twice). Converts should live worthy of God. When Paul thinks of his service in the Kingdom, working to evangelize others, he surrounds it with references to God as recognition that, while he works among people, he works for God and by God and under God.
Paul’s sharing of the gospel involved not only the transmission of a message, but the sharing of our own lives. Perhaps here is the key to his effectiveness. Preaching is not a job, but a sacrifice of self, following the example of Christ, so that others may be saved. Rather than making money off of the church, Paul’s attitude was that of expending himself in their favor: “Now I will most gladly spend and be spent for your lives!” (2 Corinthians 12:15). Who is equal to such a standard?
Although Paul insisted on the right of support of those who labored in the gospel, he himself refused to make use of that right when he deemed it an obstacle to the acceptance of the message (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 9:1-23; also, Galatians 6:6).
2:13-16. Reception in the Midst of Opposition. The effectiveness of his ministry among the Thessalonians (2:1) was shown in that they received the preaching of the word of God not as a mere human message, but, as it truly is, God’s message. Not only was Paul convinced of the inspiration of Scripture, and of his own writings to the churches, but he knew his words were not his own when he preached orally as an apostle of Christ. Both the preacher’s life and message combined to produce powerful results, and served as yet another motive to constantly thank God. This message or word is at work among you who believe. Just as God still calls men into the glorious kingdom, his word still works effectively among believers. God continues his active seeking of mankind and his work of empowering his people for service.
Scholars sensitive to anti-Semitism have conjectured that this diatribe against the Jews must have been an interpolation, since Paul would never have spoken so harshly. But the text is both factually correct and theologically accurate, reflecting his recent experience in Thessalonica and Berea, as well as showing the pattern of rejection evident in their treatment of the prophets. (Compare Stephen’s speech in Acts 7.) The opposition of the Jews to all people is seen in that they hinder us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. At cross-purposes with the mission of God, the Jews showed in this latter resistance to God’s will that they no longer manifested his heart and had answered his question to Jonah in the negative (Jonah 4:11). The full measure of their sins means that judgment is certain, as Paul uses an OT metaphor of the cup of wrath (Psalm 11:6; Jeremiah 25:15-29). God’s patience has worn out and now wrath has come upon them completely. Thus, this section ends, as did 1:10, with a reference to God’s wrath, so distinctive that Paul need not name its source. Perhaps he is thinking of the destruction of Jerusalem that would take place in A.D. 70., as a sign of the final punishment that was now certain.
2:17-20. Paul’s Absence. This passage begins a new section which continues in chapter 3, recounting the sending of Timothy to Thessalonica and his return to Paul with good news. Paul’s departure from the city had been abrupt, because of Jewish persecution. The Thessalonians themselves sent Paul and Silas away “at once, during the night” (Acts 17:10), after the uproar of the mob. His physical absence did not lessen his feelings of concern and affection for them. How short the time of his separation was cannot be determined. In spite of repeated attempts to return to Thessalonica, Satan thwarted him. If on the one hand Paul is ever conscious of God in his service, he also is aware of Satan’s efforts to frustrate his movements and impede his progress. “We are not ignorant of his schemes,” he tells the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 2:11). He recognizes as well that, in spite of personal integrity, Satan may, through the use of other people or situations, cause difficulties, create delays, and put God’s servants in danger (2 Corinthians 11:3, 13-15). No one is immune from his influence, indirect though it may be. Paul does not dwell, however, on the devil’s action, but offers only a brief comment. Neither does he desist from action himself, for he sends Timothy to Thessalonica when he cannot go. Nor does he doubt the sovereignty of God, or the divine purpose, because, in spite of Satan being the “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4), the Lord is “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Timothy 6:15) who can demolish the devil in a moment. “The God of peace will quickly crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20).
Paul is fervent in his great desire to see them, because he considers them his hope and joy and crown to boast of (see Philippians 2:16; 4:1; 2 Corinthians 1:14). They are the sign of his faithful service to the Lord. They show he has served well. His glory is that God has used him to save others by the gospel of Christ. This glory will be most evident at the coming of the Lord Jesus. No greater gift can be received than salvation and none greater can be given. This, too, will be the glory, on the last day, of all who toil in the fields of God and share his life with those who have no hope.