[K:NWTS 23/2 (Sep 2008) 40-48]
During the summer of 2005, I had the privilege of having Benji Swinburnson as my summer intern at Sovereign Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Oak Harbor, Washington. I say privilege, because it was a privilege to work with such a gifted young man exited about God’s Word, the Reformed faith and Biblical Theology. Benji was and is so enthusiastic about what he is learning. I have found him to be a true student of the Word as well as a man who catches on to things quickly. It was a joy and a tremendous encouragement to have him and his wife Christina with us for a summer in Oak Harbor.
Once we had the internship all set up and approved, Benji sent me an e-mail saying: “Pastor Rob, I have been working through 1 Thessalonians in a class here at Northwest Theological Seminary and I want to preach through the book during my internship this summer.” I wrote back and said, “Benji, I just began to preach through 1 Thessalonians and I spent all my book money buying the commentaries and the things that I need, but maybe we could take turns preaching through the book during the internship.” Benji wrote back that he did not want to take turns and then enthusiastically took on the task of preaching through another one of Paul’s letters. Nevertheless, having done all that study the previous semester in 1 Thessalonians at Northwest Theological Seminary, Benji and I had a wonderful time discussing the book, interacting about it together, and talking about what the various verses meant.
Just recently, Benji sent me an e-mail saying: “You know, I heard a number of your sermons on 1 Thessalonians, but I didn’t hear any of your sermons on 2 Thessalonians. I want to hear some of those too.” And so for this commencement address this morning, we are going to focus on a message from the book of 2 Thessalonians.
The verse to which we are going to give careful attention this morning is verse 17 of chapter 3: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine, it is the way that I write.” In doing research on this text, I found that this verse causes a lot of people to question the legitimacy of Paul’s authorship of the letter. The first part of this verse is very familiar: “I Paul write this greeting with my own hand.” The apostle concludes 1 Corinthians and Colossians with the same phrase. But it is the second phrase of the verse which raises suspicions for some, causing them to question whether Paul wrote this letter. The phrase reads: “This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write.” Nowhere else in any of Paul’s letters does he end a letter with such a phrase.
For conservatives like us, the second part of this verse allows us to conclude without a doubt that the apostle Paul wrote this letter. We believe the Bible is God’s infallible and inerrant Word. We believe Paul wrote this letter because Paul tells us he did. We look at this verse as leaving us with no doubt that this is a letter of Paul, that he wrote it and that he was inspired by God to write it.
Nevertheless, for liberals who do not hold the Scriptures in such high regard as we do, this phrase causes them to wonder and to doubt. They point out that in chapter 2:2 of this same letter, the apostle shares how some have been writing to the Thessalonians claiming that their letters are from Paul. Some letters claim “the day of the Lord” has already come and that the Thessalonians have missed it. The liberal looks at 3:17 and says, “You see! This is the sign that Paul did not write the letter! This is somebody who is not Paul, trying to write this verse in such a way as to appear to be Paul. But the author is not Paul because the apostle does not close any of his other letters this way.”
As conservatives, what we must ask ourselves as we look at this verse is: Why does the apostle conclude the letter in this particular way? What is his intention? What does he want us to know and see in this verse? And why does he conclude this letter in a way unlike any of his other letters?
To answer that question, it is important to look at the surrounding verses. You will notice at the end of verse 16 the phrase “the Lord be with you all.” At the end of verse 18, we have the phrase “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.” In these two verses, we have parallel phrases—be with you all/be with you all. We know that whenever the Bible repeats itself in such a manner, there is something important God wants us to recognize about these verses and the verse which is surrounded by the parallel phrases (v. 17). In fact, we know this wording is intentional because the apostle ends his first letter to the Thessalonians with the phrase “the Lord be with you” (v. 28). Now, in the second letter, he ends the same way, but adds the word “all”—the Lord be with you all (v. 18).
Having noticed this, we must determine the reason for it. What is the Lord telling us? What does he want us to recognize about these surrounding verses and how does it affect verse 17? To answer these questions, we have to see the chiastic structure between the first and last verses of the letter. In chapter 1:2, we have the phrase “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The apostle is expressing to the Thessalonians his apostolic salutation—grace to you and peace. At the end of the letter, in the benediction, the apostle reverses that order. “Peace” is expressed in verse 16 and “grace” is expressed in verse 18. So at the beginning of the letter, we have the order “grace and peace”; at the end of the letter, it is the reverse “peace and grace.”
Why? The apostle wants us to see that his benediction is connected with his salutation. The chiastic structure which shows one form at the beginning and the reverse at the end, indicates to us that there is a connection between the beginning and the end of the letter.
What is that connection? Let us look carefully at the first few verses of the letter. Paul begins his letter in a unique way—a way which he only uses in 1 and 2 Thessalonians. We note that the letter is sent from a trinity of apostleship: Paul, Silvanus and Timothy. You notice that there is nothing in this letter which is similar to the way Paul begins so many of his other letters—letters in which Paul begins by identifying himself as the apostle and Timothy (or whoever is with him as the lesser brother or servant). There is no mention of that here. Instead, this letter and the first letter to the Thessalonians begin with all appearing as equals in an apostleship; as if Paul, Silvanus and Timothy are in union with one another as a trinity of apostleship serving the Lord.
This is also reflected in the second part of chapter 1:1. The letter is “written to the church of the Thessalonians who are in God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.” Again we have a trinity of names that identifies the union of the church with God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. As Paul, Silvanus and Timothy are in union with one another, so are the church of the Thessalonians and the church of Christ in union with God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The church of the Thessalonians is on earth; God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ are in heaven, but they are in union with one another. Even though God the Father is in heaven and the Lord Jesus Christ is in heaven, as the church waits for his return even now it is in union with them.
Hence, in chapter 1:2, the apostle is expressing to them by way of his apostolic office, “grace and peace.” And although both the first and second letters begin with “grace and peace”, the second letter differs in that it tells where grace and peace come from—“from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2). God the Father is in heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ is in heaven; the apostle Paul has been sent by the Lord Jesus Christ and he is writing to the church of Jesus Christ. By way of his apostolic office, he is expressing to them grace and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ who are in heaven.
As we come to the benediction of the letter, we recognize from what the apostle Paul has established in the beginning of the letter that he is again expressing peace and grace. He ends the letter in chapter 3:16 with, “now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way;” and in verse 18, “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.” Now lest you think when you read Paul’s letters that this is simply his typical way of ending; lest you think to yourself, “let’s not make a big deal out of this because this is just the way Paul concludes his letters,” pause and think about this! As Reformed Christians, we have adopted the salutation and the benediction for our worship services. When you go to church on Sunday, the pastor may hold up his hands and say “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” At the end of the service, he doesn’t end by simply saying “goodbye” or “farewell” or “we are done now.” He raises his hands and he expresses the benediction, “Grace and Peace to you, as you depart from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
We see therefore a similar connection between the beginning of this letter and the end of this letter. But we must also take note that there is one huge difference. In the beginning of the letter, we have a trinity of names in verse 1—Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy. In the next phrase of verse 1, another trinity of names—to the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. In chapter 1:2, grace and peace is expressed from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. But when we come to the end of the letter, the grace and peace comes from a singular—from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of peace. Again, as we compare the benediction of 2 Thessalonians to 1 Thessalonians, we see this is intentional. Paul concludes the first letter in v. 23, “may the God of peace” and in v. 28, “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all;” two names of the Godhead are used. But in the benediction to the second letter, the focus is on the single name of our Lord Jesus Christ—“the Lord of peace (v. 16); the grace of the Lord Christ be with you all” (v. 18). Here the apostle has gone to a singular person in the Godhead, and in his focus on the singular person he is expressing something very specific with which the readers of this letter were dealing.
In the first letter, the key question is: “When is the Lord coming?” You are all familiar with 1 Thessalonians 4 where Paul describes that coming day of the Lord when the dead will be raised and they will meet him in the clouds. In 1 Thessalonians 5, the apostle writes of the day of the Lord including the question of what time the Lord will come. The key question in the second letter is: “Has the day of the Lord already come; have we missed it; and where is the Lord? We have been suffering from difficulties and persecutions in our lives, why doesn’t he come? Why is it taking so long?” Doubts are creeping into the minds of the Thessalonians as unbelievers around them are saying: “You see he is not coming; you have believed something which is not true; you need to go back to your idols and ungodliness and the worship of false gods.” But remember, in his benediction the apostle concludes with the repetitious phrase: “the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way, the Lord be with you all” (3:16). This is not as the beginning of the letter where the apostle makes it clear that God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ are in heaven and the apostle now (as his ordained servant) is expressing to them grace and peace from above. Instead, the apostle concludes in this particular way so that they know their Lord (singular) is with them at all times, even now. May the Lord of peace, in this ungodly culture which rejects the truth, be with you now. May the Lord, in this ungodly culture which has persecuted you and has turned against him, the King of all creation, give you his peace and may it be with you now. The Lord is with you now, his peace is with you now. The same thing is in verse 18: “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.” Paul’s point is that even though our Lord is still in heaven and has still not returned, his grace and peace be with you, amongst you, even now in his word.
What then of verse 17? We notice the repetitious phrase found in v. 16 and v. 18. How do we understand the meaning of v. 17? How does it fit in? The connection to the salutation and the repetitious phrase are the keys for understanding this verse. “ I Paul write this greeting in my own hand. This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way that I write.” Is Paul writing this or is someone else writing this so that we should be suspicious as to whether Paul wrote the letter? No! No! No! Is Paul simply writing this to prove that he wrote the letter? Certainly that is part of it. However, when the apostle Paul concludes with these words, and he sandwiches them between the Lord of peace who is with them and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ who is with them, he writes in the singular. Just as the apostle moved from the trinity of names in the Godhead to the singular name Jesus Christ, so has he moved from the triune apostolic names (Paul, Silvanus Timothy) to the singular name, Paul.
In the first letter, the key issue for the Thessalonians is not only when the Lord is coming back or what will it be like on that day, but another concern is what about Paul? What about the apostle Paul? He came into our city and he preached the gospel and there are some who believe, even some wealthy people who, according to Acts 17:1-4, left the synagogue and began to follow Christ. But then Paul was escorted out of the city, persecution came upon them: and, as stated by Acts 17:5-6, Jason was forcibly dragged out of his house and brought before the city authorities because he hosted the apostle and Silvanus and Timothy in his home. They are saying to him, Paul doesn’t care about you. He is not going to come back (1 Thessalonians 2). If he cared about you, he would return! And Paul is so concerned about them in 1 Thessalonians 3 that he sends Timothy to find out about their faith. And he expresses to them that he wishes he could come to them himself (3:11).
Nevertheless, at the writing of the second letter, he still has not been able to return to them and the same questions are there. But he concludes this second letter, the inspired Word of God, by saying “I Paul write this greeting with my own hand. This is the sign.” When we think of a biblical sign, we think of the sacraments. We think of the sign that the Lord left us, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. We believe that when you come and partake of the supper, the Lord is spiritually present in the sacrament. The sacrament authenticates his death and resurrection for you and seals your faith as real. The apostle here uses the word “sign”, denoting his presence in the words of this letter. “No, I have not come back to you and I do long to come back to you. But I am with you in the words of this letter. These are my words. These are the letters and words that God has inspired me to write.” Note that this verse is sandwiched between the Lord of peace and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ who is with them all. And when Paul tells them in v. 17 that he writes this greeting with his own hand, he is telling them that although he is not with them right now in the flesh, he is with them in the words of the letter.
This means that Paul the apostle has been sent and commissioned by our Lord in heaven to do such things as pronounce a salutation of grace and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ and bestow a benediction of grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. He has also been commissioned by the Lord and inspired by the Holy Spirit to write the very words of God and of Christ. And thus to see v. 17 sandwiched between vv. 16 and 18 is indicative not only of the apostle writing his own words, but of also writing the words of Christ. Therefore, not only is the apostle in these words, but Christ is in these words.
When Benji decided to do his internship in Oak Harbor, I asked him: “Why did you pick Northwest Theological Seminary? We don’t have great facilities like other seminaries you’ve visited. We do not have a large student body. We don’t have a reputation where you can show your diploma and say I went to this seminary!” Benji answered. “I picked Northwest because I put all the curricula from each of the seminaries I visited next to each other and concluded that Northwest had the best curriculum.” Benji picked a seminary for the most important reason. He picked one that would train him to preach the Word of God and one that would teach him faithfully to preach the Christ that is found in that Word.
You see, someday, Lord willing, God will call Benji to a church and he will accept that call. He will then be given the privilege and honor to put his hands up at the beginning of the service and to say to God’s people, “Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ;” and at the end of the service to pronounce the benediction “May the God of peace, may the God of grace be with you all.” And in between the salutation and benediction, as the ordained servant of God, he will preach to them the Word which are Benji’s words and sermon; but God’s people must find Christ in that sermon and in that Word.
You see, we live in the same period as the Thessalonians. We live between two worlds and ask the same questions they did. God’s people are asking, “It has been two thousand years since the Lord came; why hasn’t he returned?” God’s people are asking, “Why is the culture around us so ungodly and hostile to the gospel? Why am I suffering? Why am I experiencing difficulty in my work and in my job? Why am I undergoing pain and illness?” So when they come to church on Sunday and hear the Word, they need to hear Christ in that Word. Though they are still on earth and he is in heaven, Christ is present with them in the words of Scripture and Christ is present with them in the preaching of his servant. As they hear Christ proclaimed, what greater motivation could they have to come to church than to be with Christ? What greater motivation could a minister have in studying God’s Word, than that he can be with Christ? As the service concludes, the people are reminded that they have been with the Lord of peace, and he is with them; that they may know they have been with the Lord of grace, the Lord Jesus Christ, and he is with them. Benji, may this peace, may this grace, be yours as Christ’s servant as you preach to God’s people, so they may know the Lord of peace, the Lord of grace, is with them now and forevermore.
 A revised version of the Commencement Address delivered May 12, 2007 at Northwest Theological Seminary, Lynnwood, Washington.