This letter is addressed to the same church as the letter that precedes it in the canon and contains many expressions parallel to those in the First Letter to the Thessalonians, indeed verbatim with them. Yet other aspects of the contents of the Second Letter to the Thessalonians suggest a more impersonal tone and changed circumstances in the situation at Thessalonica.
The letter begins with an address (⇒ 2 Thes 1:1-2) that expands only slightly on that of ⇒ 1 Thes 1:1. It ends with a greeting insisting on its Pauline authority in the face of false claims made in Paul’s name (see the note on ⇒ 2 Thes 2:2). The body of the letter falls into three short parts, of which the second is notoriously difficult (2 Thes 2).
The opening thanksgiving and prayer (⇒ 2 Thes 1:3-12) speak of the Thessalonians’ increasing faith and love in the face of outside persecution. God’s eventual judgment against persecutors and his salvation for the faithful are already evidenced by the very fact of persecution. The second part (⇒ 2 Thes 2:1-17), the heart of the letter, deals with a problem threatening the faith of the community. A message involving a prophetic oracle and apparently a forged letter, possibly presented at a liturgical gathering (cf ⇒ 2 Thes 2:2 and ⇒ 1 Cor 14:26-33), to the effect that the day of the Lord and all that it means have already come, has upset the life of the Thessalonian church.
The writer counters their preoccupation with the date of the parousia (or coming again of the Lord Jesus from heaven, ⇒ 2 Thes 2:1) by recalling Paul’s teaching concerning what must happen first and by going on to describe what will happen at the Lord’s coming (⇒ 2 Thes 2:8); he indicates the twofold process by which the “activity of Satan” and God’s actions (⇒ 2 Thes 2:9-11) are working out, namely, a growing division between believers and those who succumb to false prophecy and “the lie.” He concludes by insisting on Pauline traditions and by praying for divine strength (⇒ 2 Thes 2:13-17). The closing part of the letter (⇒ 2 Thes 3:1-16) deals in particular with the apostle’s directives and model style of life and with correction of disorderly elements within the community.
Traditional opinion holds that this letter was written shortly after 1 Thessalonians. Occasionally it has been argued that 2 Thessalonians was written first or that the two letters are addressed to different segments within the church at Thessalonica (2 Thessalonians being directed to the Jewish Christians there) or even that 2 Thessalonians was originally written to some other nearby place where Paul carried out mission work, such as Philippi or Beroea. Increasingly in recent times, however, the opinion has been advanced that 2 Thessalonians is a pseudepigraph, that is, a letter written authoritatively in Paul’s name, to maintain apostolic traditions in a later period, perhaps during the last two decades of the first century.
In any case, the presumed audience of Second Thessalonians and certain features of its style and content require that it be read and studied in a Pauline context, particularly that provided by 1 Thessalonians. At the same time, and especially if the letter is regarded as not by Paul himself, its apocalyptic presentation of preconditions for the parousia (⇒ 2 Thes 2:1-12) may profit from and require recourse to a wider biblical basis for interpretation, namely Old Testament books such as Daniel and Isaiah and especially, in the New Testament, the synoptic apocalyptic discourse (Mark 13; Matthew 24-25; ⇒ Luke 21:5-36) and the Book of Revelation.
The principal divisions of the Second Letter to the Thessalonians are the following: