The second letter to the Thessalonians continues the theme that is found in the first letter to the Thessalonians: living in the light of eternity. Having our eyes on eternity and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ changes how we live in this world. In his first letter to the Thessalonians he wrote to them about the expectation of the Lord’s return and our gather to him. They needed to be ready for the day of the Lord to come like a thief in the night. This preparation of the imminent return of Christ seems to have been mixed with some false teachings and severe persecution that led to the writing of the second letter just a few months later.
One of Paul’s primary concerns is the problem of suffering for Christians. Suffering is a key attack point that tempts us to give up. When we are targeted by wicked people because of our faith, it is a natural inclination to want to give up our faith. Faith under trial and pressure leads to the temptation to no longer have faith in God. We turn to self-preservation and self-pity rather than hope in God for deliverance. This is what we see Paul encouraging these Christians in Thessalonica about in the opening of this second letter.
Thanksgiving For Faith (1:3-4)
Notice the thanksgiving Paul offers for these Christians in verses 3-4. Paul says that they ought to give thanks to God for these Christians because their faith is growing abundantly and the love for each other is increasing. This is exactly what Paul asked for them to do and praised them for in the first letter (1 Thessalonians 1:3,8; 4:9-10). Now listen to what is happening to them as described in verse 4.
Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring. (1:4 ESV)
These Christians are remaining steadfast in God and strong in the faith in all their persecutions and afflictions they are enduring. This is the expectation for following the Lord. Even in the face of extreme trials and severe persecution we are to remain strong in the faith and remain steadfast in the gospel of Jesus. Paul says that they are rejoicing to the other churches about their steadfastness and faith. You can imagine the encouragement that this church is giving to other churches. The Thessalonians continue to be under severe persecution (as we see beginning in Acts 17) and Paul is proclaiming the strength of faith to other Christians in other regions so that they will have the same strength of faith. Our faithfulness toward God cannot change even in the face of persecutions and afflictions.
Evidence of God’s Righteous Judgment (1:5)
But now Paul is going to give these Thessalonians an explanation for their suffering. What is going on with all these afflictions and persecutions and what do these things mean for these suffering Christians? Listen to verse 5.
This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering. (2 Thessalonians 1:5 ESV)
Did you hear what Paul said? This is evidence of God’s righteous judgment that you may be consider worthy of the kingdom of God. Our response to trials, afflictions, persecutions, and sufferings demonstrates that we are worthy of his kingdom. If we view our suffering as part of being in God’s kingdom, if we see our afflictions as part of a just process, then we will see trials as part of the work of God in our lives. God has designed suffering to work for us and not against us. He has designed suffering to change us, burning up the impurities to refine us as gold. God supplies the grace we need to endure the trial.
Paul’s point is that the current suffering in the lives of these Christians is evidence that God has judged rightly that they are indeed his people. This is exactly what we see in the book of Job. One of the big questions of the book of Job concerns the character of Job. Is Job a true follower of God who serves God no matter the cost or circumstances? God had declared Job to be blameless and upright. The evidence of God’s righteous judgment of Job’s character is the success of Job through the trial. Job showed himself worthy of the kingdom of God by how he responded to the trial.
You see then that we are called to think differently about trials. God is not angry with us. God is not paying us back for something we have done when we go through trials and suffering. These things are the testing of our faith. The endurance of faith in trials shows that we are part of his kingdom. The trials and the suffering prove our faith. Suffering is not to be considered evidence that God has forsaken us, but evidence that God is with us. This is why the scriptures repeatedly tell us to rejoice in trials and afflictions.
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6–7 ESV)
Even Jesus shows us that suffering is the path to glory. Faith in trials is the evidence of God’s righteous judgment that you have been counted worthy of the kingdom.
Hope In Suffering (1:6-10)
So what is the hope in our suffering? Since we are destined to suffer so that our faith will be refined, what should we look forward to? What is our hope to help us through persecutions and afflictions? These Christians are suffering for the sake of Jesus. What will Paul teach them to encourage their faith?
God will repay and relieve (1:6-7).
God will pronounce a right, just verdict. Justice requires judgment. God is a just God and he will repay. Notice that the message is that your enemies are God’s enemies. God will repay with affliction those that have afflicted you. There is a divine retribution that is going to happen. There must be a judgment if there is going to be justice. We cannot look at God’s righteous judgment and justice as mean, harsh, or unfair. Rather, his justice is a grace to give relief to God’s people against evildoers.
God will repay the affliction committed against you and grant relief to those who are afflicted. But please notice when the relief comes. Highlight the word “when” in verse 7. Relief will come “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire.” Paul says that relief is coming when Christ returns. Relief is not earlier, though we think God should do something right now. But that is not God’s timetable.
This is often our problem in our Christian walk. We cannot serve the god of the quick fix. When we need to know something, we want instant access to information. When we are hungry, we want fast food. When pain hits, we want immediate relief. When wrong occurs, we want swift justice. When disease strikes, we want a speedy recovery. God must always do something right now! But God is not the god of quick fixes but of eternal judgment. His justice will bring relief when the Lord returns. Therefore we can be like Jesus as lambs led to the slaughter knowing that God will deal with our enemies and that our relief will be at the end of this life or when Jesus comes. God will be just and it will be a relief for his people.
Judgment Pronounced (1:8-10)
Paul now declares what this judgment will look like when Christ comes. The coming of Christ is an amazing picture as we saw in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Now we are granted a fuller picture of what this judgment will look like.
The Lord is going to return in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and those who do not obey the gospel of Jesus Christ. This imagery is found in Jeremiah 10:25 and Isaiah 66:4. It is a very clear picture of what the judgment will look like. Those who do not know God and those who disobeyed the gospel are the ones who will be judged when the Lord returns. This knowledge is what brings an intensity to our need to share the gospel with people we know. If you know a person who does not know God or has not obeyed the gospel, then judgment is coming when Christ returns. There is no way out of this truth. This is what is frightening about so many funerals where every person is believed to go to heaven with the Lord when they did not know God or obey the gospel. In our culture we have decided for ourselves that no one is going to experience eternal punishment. We choose to live in willful ignorance regarding the truth of what is going to happen when Christ comes. Perhaps this is why Jesus is the one who spoke the most about the eternal punishment to come. We cannot live in denial who is going to be judgment by God.
The result is also pictured. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction. But please notice what the picture is of eternal destruction in verse 9. They will be away from the presence of the Lord and the glory of his might. Being isolated from God and his goodness is the eternal punishment. We cannot begin to imagine the horror of what it is like to be separated from the presence of God. We cannot imagine a place where God and his goodness is not. But this is the picture given to us. Please notice that God does not send us to eternal punishment but that we choose to go there ourselves. If we do not want to know God or obey his good news, then we are saying that being with God and knowing him is not what we want for eternity. So God gives us what we request. We will be separated from the presence of God. What we do not realize is that is eternal punishment to be separated from him. This is very much like the teenager who thinks that his or her life would be better off they lived on their own, away from the presence of the parents. But they do not realize all the good they experience on a daily basis from the parents, even in their rebellion. In the same way we cannot begin to understand what we are saying when we declare that we want nothing to do with knowing God or obeying him. It is something that God cannot even picture to us except to say that we are separated from the presence of God, who is the giver everything that is right and good.
We must consider that the scriptures are constantly teaching the need for salvation. But what are we being saved from? It is interesting that we can think about salvation but think about how salvation means you must be saved from something. What are we being saved from? We are being saved from the punishment of eternal destruction, being separated from the Lord. If there is not an eternal punishment, then what exactly are we being saved from? It cannot be that all people go to heaven to enjoy the eternal presence of God for in this there would not be justice and there would be no need for salvation. Justice requires judgment and we need to be saved from the sins and debts we have made. But Jesus is going to come and he will be glorified by those who have believed in him (1:10).
God’s Purpose (1:11-12)
Therefore, Paul prays that God would make us worthy of his calling. God makes us worthy of his calling through the transformation that occurs in the testing of our faith. God is at work so that you will not experience God’s judgment. Our faith must be tested and grown so that we can be found ready for his coming. We live a life worthy of the call by how we handle our afflictions. The fruit we bear and the good we do is so that the name of Jesus will be honored and glorified. We do our good works of faith with our eyes on the hope of eternity and his glorious coming. We will remain faithful in the face of oppression and suffering for Christ because we know that God will be just and he will bring relief when he returns.
Please hear these words: there is no promise from God to receive relief from our afflictions, persecutions, or suffering now. Just because we suffer or experience persecution because of our faith in Jesus does not mean that God is not with us or that God does not love us. In fact, our suffering is a grace of God so that we can be made worthy of his calling, ready for his coming. We must resolve to be steadfast in the faith and continue to do good works even if we must suffer. Friends, we must make ourselves ready for endurance now. We must prepare ourselves that we will be strong in the Lord no matter what happens to us. We know that we are being prepared for eternity with God. Your continued faith is evidence of God’s righteous judgment that you are chosen to be children of God.