In 2 Thessalonians 1:3, Paul, Silas and Timothy admit to a debt: ‘we ought always to give thanks to God for you.’ That is, ‘When it comes to thanks, we are obligated, we owe it.’ It’s similar in 2 Thessalonians 2:13.
I can see why some say this is not very warm or personal. Almost: if we have to then we will do it. It doesn’t help that the verse includes a second similar idea, ‘as is right’. This could be the I-suppose-I-should moment.
Yet this doesn’t tally with the sense of how close Paul was to the church of Thessalonica, in both 1 Thessalonians and 2 Thessalonians, as well as Acts. ‘You are our glory and joy’, Paul wrote (1 Thess 2:20).
So how can thanksgiving be both obligatory and personal? Here are two reasons.
First is that these words narrow in on Paul’s relationship with God. Paul is not trying to say to the church, ‘I am so thankful for our relationship’ (even though that would be true). Paul is saying, ‘Father God, your great work in these people make thanksgiving mandatory!’
(Credit: I found this idea here.)
Second, I believe Paul is teaching this church how to give thanks even in troubled times.
2 Thessalonians 1 shows us a church under great pressure: steadfast in persecution, enduring tribulation, suffering, afflicted, requiring relief. I’m not sure thanksgiving would have been at the top of their To Do list!
Despite knowing this, Paul says to the church: It is right and necessary to give thanks. You trust Jesus. Godly love is increasing. Jesus will be revealed and bring justice. Your steadfastness is visible to all.
Paul sympathises with this suffering church, and lovingly lifts their view to consider the magnitude of their blessing – so that both they and he would genuinely thank God. Perhaps they were tempted to bypass thanksgiving for a while. Perhaps they forgot about thanks because of the pressure. But thanksgiving was still obligatory.
Therefore, let’s learn to give thanks today. We can and should be thankful for warm Christian relationships. We also must learn to turn our minds to God and be thankful for all he does. And, by giving thanks, we learn how to live by faith even when life is far from easy.