Connections 11.17.2019: Keep On Keeping On

2 Thessalonians 3:1-13

I was born and raised in Barnesville, Georgia, which was (and is) about forty miles from the Smyth & Helwys and NextSunday Resources world headquarters here in Macon.

In the year I was born (1958), a fellow named Bill Powell went to work as an announcer at WMAZ radio in Macon. I remember neither event, but they’re both in the public record.

As I was attempting to grow up, my parents, and thus I (it was a small house), would listen to Powell’s morning show as they got ready for work and I for school.

Mr. Powell’s catchphrase was, “Keep on keeping on.” I can still hear him saying it.

Being a child who was already developing the healthy cynicism that has continued to evolve until the present time, I thought it was corny. But hearing Mr. Powell say it comforted and encouraged me, even in its corniness.

Our lesson text offers similar comfort and encouragement to the Christians in Thessalonica. It encourages them to keep living as they should. It encourages them to keep on keeping on.

Notice, though, that Paul expresses confidence not so much in the people, but rather in the Lord.

“The Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one” (v. 3).

“And we have confidence in the Lord concerning you, that you are doing and will go on doing the things that we command” (v. 4).

“May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ” (v. 5).

Paul is confident that the Lord will help the Thessalonians keep on keeping on. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t to do all they can. They certainly are. But it means that as they go, the Lord will give them the strength, protection, persistence, love, and faithfulness they need.

We need to keep on keeping on, but it’s good to know we don’t have to keep on keeping on in our strength. Our Lord empowers us to do so.

And our Lord is faithful to keep on helping us keep on.

Discussion

  • How does Paul ask the Thessalonians to pray for him and his missionary companions (vv. 1-2)? Do we still need to pray for Christian leaders in these same ways? Why or why not?
  • What does it mean to us to know that “the Lord is faithful” (v. 3)? Should it mean more than it does? How do we count on the Lord’s faithfulness? Should we count on it more than we do?
  • Why is Paul concerned that some Christians in Thessalonica aren’t working (v. 10)?
  • What does working have to do with our calling to keep on keeping on (vv. 6-12)?
  • Paul encourages the Thessalonian Christians and us, “Do not be weary in doing what is right” (v. 13). How do we know what it right? What can cause us to be weary in doing right?

Reference Shelf

For the third time in the prayer section, the writer addresses the Thessalonians as “brothers and sisters” (2:13, 15; 3:1), which stresses his connectedness to them and to their sufferings. Having offered prayer for the Thessalonians, he asks for prayer for himself and his fellow workers. (Paul characteristically appeals to his readers for their prayers. See Rom 15:30; 2 Cor 1:11; Phil 1:19.) Here the writer requests petitions for the success of his apostolic work in the midst of serious opposition and for personal deliverance from those who oppose the gospel. The request for prayer for himself shifts at v. 4 to a form of entreaty to the letter’s recipients. Apparently the author cannot think of his situation apart from that of his fellow Christians. His task of encouragement in writing the letter is brought again to the fore.

The writer asks the Thessalonian Christians to pray that the gospel will “spread rapidly and be glorified everywhere, just as it is among you” (v. 1). As in many Pauline prayers, the request is not for the writer, but for the success of his message and mission. Here, the author compliments the Thessalonians asking, in effect, that they pray that others will receive the message with the same speed and eagerness with which they did. The LXX used “spread rapidly”…for the runner who carried messages in battle. It was applied to the prophets who, as the authorized messengers of God, were God’s “runners” (see also Ps 147:15; Wis 7:24). The word also connotes Greek runners in the games (see 1 Cor 9:24; Gal 2:2; 5:7). The dual reference vocabulary carries the idea of the swift and winning spread of the good news.

The second half of the prayer request is somewhat less Pauline since the apostle usually does not pray for his own needs or safety. The author of 2 Thessalonians, however, hopes that he will be delivered or rescued…from “wicked and evil people” (v. 2)…. The word translated “wicked”…is found only here in the New Testament in reference to persons but was used in the papyri for those who behaved inappropriately or in outrageous ways. The author wants to be delivered from the wicked and evil not, admittedly, for his own sake, but so that the gospel can continue to spread (cf. Jer 15:21). Although he understands lack of faith as the reason for the hostility toward him, “for not all have faith” at the end of v. 2 is more an introduction to what follows than an explanation of what preceded it (cf. Rom 10:16).

Not all people have faith, but the Lord is faithful (cf. 2:16). The estin [“is”] should be understood as emphatic. At v. 3 the author’s concern shifts once more to the Thessalonians and to the task of reassuring them. God will strengthen them and protect them. “Strengthen” or “make firm”…may well have been in the author’s mind from 2:17. “Guard”… is not used by Paul for divine protection (but see Pss 121:7; 141:9). Although “evil”…is neuter here, the NRSV translates it “the evil one,” thereby echoing the discussion in 2:1-12, especially the reference to Satan in 2:9. (The same translation issue exists in Matt 6:13. Translating 2 Thess 3:3 “the evil one” would be consistent with 1 Thess 2:18.)

The Thessalonians can be confident that the Lord will strengthen and protect them, and therefore the writer of the letter can be confident about the faithfulness and obedience of the Thessalonians themselves. In both v. 3 and v. 4 the grounds for confidence is Christ’s faithfulness. But as in 2:15, 3:6 and 3:14, in 3:4 the writer is anxious that the Thessalonians follow his commands and traditions. “Commands”…was used in 1 Thess 4:11 for ethical and ecclesiastical advice, and it will introduce the next section of the letter (in which the verb appears three times, at 3:6, 10, 12), which warns against idleness.

The section closes in v. 5 with a prayer that the Lord direct their hearts, that is, their very beings, to the love of God and the steadfastness of Christ. “Love of God”…can mean either the human’s love for God or the love God shows humans. The same translation issue occurs with “the steadfastness of Christ”…. Since the activity of God and of Christ seems to be held up as an example, the second reading seems preferable. The writer hopes the letter’s recipients will exhibit God’s love and Christ’s steadfastness (cf. Rom 5:5). He wants them to keep on doing what they are known for (see 1:3-4).

After requesting that the Thessalonians pray for the spread of the gospel and the deliverance of its messengers, the writer of the letter returns again to his primary task, that of encouraging the Thessalonian congregation to hold fast to their faith. He assures them that they can do so because of the faithfulness of Christ, which is not only the source of their strength and protection but of his confidence in them. Having faith, the Thessalonians must continue in love and steadfastness, which 3:6-13 will insist be manifested in purposeful action. Having sought their sympathetic concern for himself and having praised them in 3:1-5, the writer is well positioned to admonish the idle in his subsequent remarks.

Bonnie Thurston, Reading Colossians, Ephesians, & 2 Thessalonians: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007) 188-90.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan and Isabella. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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