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The Vengeance of the Lord Jesus (2 Thessalonians 1:6–10) “Seeing it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you; And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power; When he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe (because our testimony among you was believed) in that day.” (2 Thessalonians 1:6–10, KJV 1900) Intro. The second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ is the climax of history. Though now in heaven where, having been exalted to the right hand of God since His ascension, He serves as the faithful High Priest for His people, Jesus Christ will one day return to earth in full glory (cf. Matt. 24:30; 25:31; Acts 1:11; 1 Thess. 1:10; Rev. 1:7; 19:11–21; 22:20). The return of the Lord Jesus Christ to establish His kingdom is a vital theme in Scripture: • This crucial component of Scripture brings the whole story to its God-ordained consummation. • Redemptive history is controlled by God, so as to culminate in His eternal glory. • Redemptive history will end with the same precision and exactness with which it began. • The truths of eschatology are neither vague nor unclear—nor are they unimportant. • As in any book, how the story ends is the most crucial and compelling part—so with the Bible. • Scripture notes several very specific features of the end planned by God. In the OT, there is repeated mention of an earthly kingdom ruled by the Messiah, Lord Savior, who will come to reign. • Associated with that kingdom will be the salvation of Israel, the salvation of Gentiles, the renewal of the earth from the effects of the curse, and the bodily resurrection of God’s people who have died. • Finally, the OT predicts that there will be the “uncreation” or dissolution of the universe, and the creation of a new heaven and new earth—which will be the eternal state of the godly—and a final hell for the ungodly. In the NT, these features are clarified and expanded. • The King was rejected and executed, but He promised to come back in glory, bringing judgment, resurrection, and His kingdom for all who believe. • Innumerable Gentiles from every nation will be included among the redeemed. Israel will be saved and grafted back into the root of blessing from which she has been temporarily excised. • Israel’s promised kingdom will be enjoyed, with the Lord Savior reigning on the throne, in the renewed earth, exercising power over the whole world, having taken back His rightful authority, and receiving due honor and worship. • Following that kingdom will come the dissolution of the renewed, but still sin-stained creation, and the subsequent creation of a new heaven and new earth—which will be the eternal state, separate forever from the ungodly in hell. There are several more motives for Christ to return. • The church is His bride, and He must return to take her to the wedding feast. • Nor will the true King permit the usurper, Satan, to rule the world forever; Christ will return to take back what is rightfully His. • Christ’s humiliation in His first coming also demands that He return in glory; the last view the world has of Him cannot be as a victim dying on the cross. The return of Jesus Christ is therefore the climax of all redemptive history and brings God’s purpose to culmination. • Paul reminded the Thessalonians of this great hope to encourage them to stand firm despite the severe persecution they were undergoing. • Their hope—like that of all suffering Christians—was that Jesus would return and bring them relief. • Currently, the glory of our Lord is hidden, and most people believe He is dead (cf. Acts 25:19). Even believers do not experience the fullness of His glorious presence, for as Peter writes, “Though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8). But the day is coming when He will be revealed, both to believers and to unbelievers. When Paul referred to the Second Coming in relation to believers, he favored the word parousia (“presence”; “coming”). • For believers, Christ’s return is the presence of One they know and have an eternal relationship with. • They know Him as revealed in the Old Testament prophecies, the New Testament gospel records of His life, and the elucidation of His life, death, and resurrection in the epistles. • But in verse 7 when Paul wrote the Lord Jesus will be revealed, he used a different word, apokalupsis (“revelation”; “unveiling”; “uncovering”). • That word, which has the idea of manifesting what was previously hidden or secret (cf. Rom. 2:5; 16:25; 1 Cor. 14:6; 2 Cor. 12:1, 7; Gal. 1:12; Eph. 3:3), views the return of Christ in relation to unbelievers. • The One who has been hidden will be revealed in all His sovereign glory to a world that does not know or worship Him. • He will be unveiled as Judge (v. 8). This will be the Day of the Lord • At His first coming, the reality of His deity was hidden; though Jesus was God incarnate, He was veiled in human flesh. • As a result, “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him” (John 1:10). • But there will be no mistaking the reality of who Jesus is at His second coming, for the whole world will “see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30). • Throughout history there have been (and will continue to be) false christs (cf. Matt. 24:24). • But nothing they can do comes remotely close to matching the dazzling Shekinah glory that will be manifested when Christ returns. Paul described the apokalupsis of the Lord Jesus Christ by using three prepositional phrases. • First, from heaven. Just as He ascended visibly, bodily into heaven, so Jesus will return from heaven visibly, bodily to earth: 1. And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:9–11) 2. Having ascended into heaven, Jesus has now “taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens” (Heb. 8:1; cf. 1:3; 10:12; 12:2; Acts 2:33; 7:55–56; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; 1 Peter 3:22). 3. From that exalted position of power and honor, Jesus intercedes for His people (Rom. 8:34; cf. Isa. 53:12; Heb. 7:25; 9:24; 1 John 2:1), and from that heavenly throne He will one day return to judge His enemies (Matt. 16:27; Acts 10:42; 17:31; Rom. 2:16; 2 Tim. 4:1). • Jesus will not return solo on the Day of the Lord, but with His mighty angels (lit., “the angels of His power”). 1. Angels are instruments through whom the Son’s power is delegated to accomplish His purposes, in that case, judgment. 2. Angels often appeared with God in the Old Testament. 3. In a probable reference to the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai, Moses declared, “The Lord … came from the midst of ten thousand holy ones; at His right hand there was flashing lightning for them” (Deut. 33:2; cf. Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2). In Psalm 68:17 4. David wrote, “The chariots of God are myriads, thousands upon thousands [poetic language denoting a vast, uncountable multitude]; the Lord is among them as at Sinai, in holiness.” 5. In Psalm 89:5–7 the psalmist affirmed, The heavens will praise Your wonders, O Lord; Your faithfulness also in the assembly of the holy ones. For who in the skies is comparable to the Lord? Who among the sons of the mighty is like the Lord, a God greatly feared in the council of the holy ones, and awesome above all those who are around Him? 6. The New Testament reveals that angels will accompany Jesus when He returns, just as He predicted in Matthew 16:27: “For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds.” 7. In another description of the Second Coming, Jesus said, “But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him …” (Matt. 25:31; cf. Mark 8:38). 8. When Jesus returns, “He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other” (Matt. 24:31). 9. Angels will not only gather the elect for blessing but also unbelievers for judgment:The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth …. So it will be at the end of the age; the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt. 13:41–42, 49–50) • Finally, when the Lord Jesus Christ returns from heaven with the holy angels He will return in flaming fire. 1. The fire described here is the fire of judgment (as in Isa. 66:16; Matt. 3:12; 13:30; Heb. 10:27; 2 Peter 3:7, 10). 2. It was the fire Moses saw when “the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed” (Ex. 3:2). 3. When God appeared to give the Law to Israel, “Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked violently” (Ex. 19:18; cf. Deut. 4:33; 5:4, 24–26; 18:16). 4. The fire of God’s judgment is so closely associated with God’s nature that Scripture declares, “The Lord your God is a consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24; cf. 9:3; Heb. 12:29). • These three modifying phrases provide striking confirmation of the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. 1. He will return from heaven, where He is seated on the throne of God (Rev. 3:21). 2. He will return with the same mighty angels who attend and serve only God; they are also His angels. 3. Finally, Jesus Christ will return in the same flaming fire that marked God’s glorious judgment presence. 4. By associating with the Son the realities characteristic of the Father, the apostle affirms His deity as the Second Person of the Trinity. • Paul’s description of the twofold nature of Christ’s return—relief, rest, refreshment, and peace for believers; retribution, judgment, punishment, and vengeance for unbelievers—was not new teaching. 1. Christ, Himself God, taught that His second coming would impact believers and unbelievers differently. “At the end of the age,” He declared, “the Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 13:40–42). On the other hand, when the Lord returns “He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other” (Matt. 24:31). • Christ’s return will thus produce two radically different results. Like the little book described in Revelation 10:9–10, those results will be both bitter and sweet: 1. So I went to the angel, telling him to give me the little book. And he said to me, “Take it and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.” I took the little book out of the angel’s hand and ate it, and in my mouth it was sweet as honey; and when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter. For unbelievers, the Second Coming will bring bitter retribution; for believers, sweet relief. Retribution For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you … dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, (1:6, 8–9) Ekdikēsis (retribution), meaning “to give full punishment,” is variously translated “justice,” “punishment,” “retribution,” “vengeance,” and “avenging of wrong.” In his defense before the Sanhedrin, Stephen said, “And when he [Moses] saw one of them being treated unjustly, he defended him and took vengeance [ekdikēsis] for the oppressed by striking down the Egyptian” (Acts 7:24). Just as Moses brought retribution to the Egyptian for mistreating his fellow Israelites, so also will God bring retribution to those who reject Him and mistreat His people. God’s retribution, however, is not like the unruly, hostile, selfish, sinful passion that causes people to retaliate against others, since “the God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous” (Rom. 3:5). But because sinful humans are not perfectly holy, completely just, and omniscient, they cannot render perfect judgment. Therefore, God reserves vengeance for Himself. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus forbade personal vengeance (Matt. 5:38–48), and Paul wrote in Romans 12:19, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (cf. Deut. 32:35; Isa. 66:15–16; Heb. 10:30). The Bible repeatedly teaches that God will deal out retribution to sinners. The imprecatory Psalms (7; 35; 40; 55; 58; 59; 69; 79; 109; 137; 139; 144) presuppose and even exalt God’s retribution. In strong, even shocking language, the psalmists cry out for God to take vengeance on their enemies: The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance; He will wash his feet in the blood of the wicked. (Ps. 58:10) Surely God will shatter the head of His enemies, The hairy crown of him who goes on in his guilty deeds. (Ps. 68:21) Add iniquity to their iniquity, And may they not come into Your righteousness. (Ps. 69:27) And return to our neighbors sevenfold into their bosom The reproach with which they have reproached You, O Lord. (Ps. 79:12) Let there be none to extend lovingkindness to him, Nor any to be gracious to his fatherless children. (Ps. 109:12) How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones Against the rock. (Ps. 137:9) Do I not hate those who hate You, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with the utmost hatred; They have become my enemies. (Ps. 139:21–22) Such forceful calls for God’s just vengeance on His enemies disturb some, as John Wenham notes: Earlier this year [1962] 14 church study groups in Woodford looked at the Old Testament psalms and concluded that 84 of them were “not fit for Christians to sing”; and J. C. Wansey, compiler of the useful collection of New Testament passages which have been printed for congregational chanting under the title A New Testament Psalter, commented: “These psalms and parts of many others are full of tribal jealousies, bloodthirsty threats and curses, whinings and moanings, which are shocking in themselves and time-wasting to God and man. The New Testament psalms are Christian through and through.” But to jettison half the Psalter is a dubious expedient, for, as C. S. Lewis realizes, the harsh passages and the tender passages are hopelessly mixed up, and it is not possible just to ignore the unpleasant sections. (The Goodness of God [Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 1975], 149) But imprecatory language is not restricted to the Psalms. Warned by God that the men of his hometown sought his life (Jer. 11:18, 21), Jeremiah prayed, “O Lord of hosts, who judges righteously, who tries the feelings and the heart, let me see Your vengeance on them, for to You have I committed my cause” (11:20). In response, God promised, “Behold, I am about to punish them! The young men will die by the sword, their sons and daughters will die by famine; and a remnant will not be left to them, for I will bring disaster on the men of Anathoth—the year of their punishment” (Jer. 11:22–23). Later, in an even more forcefully worded prayer, Jeremiah cried out, Do give heed to me, O Lord, and listen to what my opponents are saying! Should good be repaid with evil? For they have dug a pit for me. Remember how I stood before You to speak good on their behalf, so as to turn away Your wrath from them. Therefore, give their children over to famine and deliver them up to the power of the sword; and let their wives become childless and widowed. Let their men also be smitten to death, their young men struck down by the sword in battle. May an outcry be heard from their houses, when You suddenly bring raiders upon them; for they have dug a pit to capture me and hidden snares for my feet. Yet You, O Lord, know all their deadly designs against me; do not forgive their iniquity or blot out their sin from Your sight. But may they be overthrown before You; deal with them in the time of Your anger! (Jer. 18:19–23) In Jeremiah 19:3–9 God answered the prophet’s prayer: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, “Behold I am about to bring a calamity upon this place, at which the ears of everyone that hears of it will tingle. Because they have forsaken Me and have made this an alien place and have burned sacrifices in it to other gods, that neither they nor their forefathers nor the kings of Judah had ever known, and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, a thing which I never commanded or spoke of, nor did it ever enter My mind; therefore, behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when this place will no longer be called Topheth or the valley of Ben-hinnom, but rather the valley of Slaughter. I will make void the counsel of Judah and Jerusalem in this place, and I will cause them to fall by the sword before their enemies and by the hand of those who seek their life; and I will give over their carcasses as food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth. I will also make this city a desolation and an object of hissing; everyone who passes by it will be astonished and hiss because of all its disasters. I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and they will eat one another’s flesh in the siege and in the distress with which their enemies and those who seek their life will distress them.” Some, hearkening back to liberal theology’s false dichotomy between the supposedly harsh, cruel God of the Old Testament and the gentle, meek, loving Jesus of the New Testament, might be tempted to reject such strongly worded language as uncharacteristic of Jesus. But Jesus and the New Testament writers used equally strong language. Paul wrote to Timothy, “Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds” (2 Tim. 4:14), while in Revelation 6:10 the Tribulation martyrs cry out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” In Matthew 3:12 John the Baptist said of Jesus, “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” In contrast to a popular evangelical cliché, Jesus has a horrible plan for the lives of those who reject Him. In the parable of the wicked vinedressers (Luke 20:9–19), which pictures God’s judgment on those who reject His Son, Jesus declared, “What, then, will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy these vine-growers and will give the vineyard to others.” When they heard it, they said, “May it never be!” But Jesus looked at them and said, “What then is this that is written: ‘The stone which the builders rejected, this became the chief corner stone’? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.” (Luke 20:15–18) In Matthew 23:13–36 Jesus denounced the scribes and Pharisees and declared that they would be condemned to hell (v. 33). He promised Chorazin and Bethsaida a more fearful judgment than Tyre and Sidon (Matt. 11:20–22), whose destruction God decreed in the Old Testament (cf. Ezek. 26–28). He threatened Capernaum with a stricter judgment than even the grossly wicked city of Sodom (Matt. 11:24). Jesus declared of those who cause believers to sin, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea” (Mark 9:42). In Mark 14:21 Jesus pronounced His own curse on Judas Iscariot: “For the Son of Man is to go just as it is written of Him; but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born.” Jesus referred to the events surrounding His second coming as the “days of vengeance” (Luke 21:22), when He will say to those who reject Him, “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels …. These will go away into eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:41, 46). In John 5:29 He taught that there will eventually be a resurrection to judgment for all unbelievers. No passage outside of Revelation portrays so poignantly and powerfully the retribution that awaits sinners at the Second Coming as does that final New Testament book. There is, then, no contradiction between God the Father and Jesus the Son, or between the Old and New Testaments concerning the vengeance of God; Jesus and the apostles strongly reiterated it. The subject of divine retribution leads to three questions: why will Jesus deal out retribution, to whom will He deal it out, and how will He deal it out. why? For after all it is only just for God to repay (1:6a) Every culture, no matter what its laws, ethics, or morals, punishes criminals. People have a sense of justice, including capital punishment, because they are made in God’s image. What is imperfectly true in the human realm is perfectly true in God’s realm. When Paul wrote that after all it is only just, fitting, and proper for God to repay with retribution those who violate His law (as it is right for God to reward believers with the kingdom; v. 5), he was stating a self-evident truth. In fact, the word translated “retribution” in verse 8 is related to a word that means “just,” or “right.” God’s retribution is not petty vindictiveness or an emotional frenzy; God does not reach a certain level of exasperation or frustration, lose self-control, and explode in rage against wrongdoers. His retribution is the calm, controlled, just punishment meted out by the perfectly righteous Judge to those who have willfully violated His perfect law. It is not possible for God to be unjust, for “shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Gen. 18:25). Isaiah 45:20–25 illustrates God’s just dealing with those who reject Him: Gather yourselves and come; draw near together, you fugitives of the nations; they have no knowledge, who carry about their wooden idol and pray to a god who cannot save. Declare and set forth your case; indeed, let them consult together. Who has announced this from of old? Who has long since declared it? Is it not I, the Lord? And there is no other God besides Me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none except Me. Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other. I have sworn by Myself, the word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness and will not turn back, that to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance. They will say of Me, “Only in the Lord are righteousness and strength.” Men will come to Him, and all who were angry at Him will be put to shame. In the Lord all the offspring of Israel will be justified and will glory. God, as it were, summons people into court and demands to know why they should not be punished for violating His law and rejecting His commandment to repent and seek His gracious forgiveness (Isa. 55:6–7). No one, of course, can offer any viable reason for having done so. Therefore, God’s judgment is just and sinners are justly condemned for rejecting Him. Ezekiel 33:17–20 also declares God to be just when He condemns unrepentant sinners: Yet your fellow citizens say, “The way of the Lord is not right,” when it is their own way that is not right. When the righteous turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, then he shall die in it. But when the wicked turns from his wickedness and practices justice and righteousness, he will live by them. Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is not right.” O house of Israel, I will judge each of you according to his ways. God cannot be unjust in dealing out retribution to sinners, for “the Almighty … will not do violence to justice and abundant righteousness” (Job 37:23); He is “great in counsel and mighty in deed, whose eyes are open to all the ways of the sons of men, giving to everyone according to his ways and according to the fruit of his deeds” (Jer. 32:19). When the Lord Jesus Christ brings vengeance on those who reject Him, He will be acting in perfect harmony with God’s pure justice, for He is “Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war” (Rev. 19:11). Those who accuse the absolutely holy God of being unjust are in fact unjust themselves. He has given His law and called people to obey it and will judge those who do not. The truth is that God would not be righteous if He did not. Antapodidōmi (repay) means “to give back,” or “recompense.” It is a strong, compound word that conveys the idea of a full and complete repayment. The God who said, “Vengeance is Mine, and retribution” (Deut. 32:35), will justly repay sinners for violating His law. An incident in Luke 13 illustrates that principle. Some people told Jesus “about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices” (v. 1). Apparently, Pilate had chosen to execute some Jewish rebels at a most inopportune time—while they were offering sacrifices. Naturally, that act outraged the Jews, hence their comment to Jesus. But His reply was startling. Instead of commiserating with them or expounding on why bad things happen to good people, He solemnly warned them, Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. (vv. 2–5) The fate of the victims was exactly that which all sinners deserve—divine judgment. All sinners deserve death and hell; therefore, Jesus twice warned His hearers that they would suffer a similar fate unless they repented. The threat of God’s vengeance, retribution, and judgment is not only just but also a deterrent, a roadblock on the way to hell. Those who ignore that roadblock are without excuse (Rom. 1:18–20). who? with affliction those who afflict you … to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. (1:6c, 8b) Those who afflict believers is a broad category, including all who attack the people of God. In Genesis 12:3 God promised Abraham, “The one who curses you I will curse,” while Zechariah 2:8 warns that “he who touches [God’s people], touches the apple of His eye.” Those who trouble God’s people in effect poke a finger in His eye. In Matthew 18:6–10 Jesus warned: Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire. If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be cast into the fiery hell. See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven. Paul further describes those who will face God’s retribution by using two phrases. First, he describes them as those who do not know God (cf. Judg. 2:10; 1 Sam. 2:12; Job 18:21; Ps. 9:17; Jer. 2:8; 9:3, 6; 10:25; Hos. 4:1, 6; 5:4; John 7:28; 8:54–55; Gal. 4:8; 1 Thess. 4:5; 1 John 4:8); that is, they do not have a personal relationship with Him (cf. John 17:3; Eph. 2:12; 4:17–18; Titus 1:16). They may know the facts about Him, and even imagine that they are serving Him by persecuting His people (cf. John 16:2), but they are in reality “separate from Christ … having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). The reason they do not know God is not ignorance but wickedness that causes them to suppress the truth that they do know: For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. (Rom. 1:18–21) God has planted the knowledge of Himself around and within every person, so that all are without excuse (Rom. 1:20–21). He has written His law on every heart and in every conscience (Rom. 2:14–15). As a consequence of their sin-darkened hearts, unbelievers, though “professing to be wise,” in fact “became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures” (Rom. 1:22–23). Despite the abundant evidence all around them (and within them) that should lead them to a true knowledge of God, people refuse to believe. Hell will be populated by the willfully ignorant. The last words those who reject God will hear will be the Lord Jesus Christ’s chilling, terrifying pronouncement, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23). Paul further defines those who will face God’s retribution as those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. This description intensifies their guilt. It is damning to reject an innate knowledge of God; it is to incur severer judgment to openly reject the gospel. The hottest hell, the severest punishment, is reserved for those who do not obey the gospel. In Luke 12:47–48 Jesus taught that there are varying degrees of punishment: That slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more. The writer of Hebrews clearly states that rejecting the gospel intensifies unbelievers’ guilt: If we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Heb. 10:26–31) Whereas salvation is a gift to be received, the gospel is a command to be obeyed. “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance,” Paul declared, “God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent” (Acts 17:30; cf. 26:20). For that reason, Paul wrote that his apostolic mission was “to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake” (Rom. 1:5; cf. 15:18; 16:19, 26; 1 Peter 1:22). Therefore, those who remain disobedient to the command to believe the gospel will face God’s retribution. This judgment is not rendered by God because He is angry at unbelievers for hurting His children but rather because the persecutors did not come to the Lord Jesus Christ and embrace the gospel. Specifically, this Day of the Lord judgment comes in two phases on the ungodly: First, at the close of the seven-year Tribulation (Rev. 19:11–21), and second, at the end of the millennial kingdom (Rev. 20:7–10). It will then be the fate of all the ungodly of all ages to be judged at the Great White Throne and sentenced forever to the lake of fire (Rev. 20:11–15). how? with affliction …. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, (1:6b, 9) Fittingly, God will repay the disobedient unbelievers who afflict His people with affliction. Thlipsis (affliction) can mean “trouble,” “distress,” “difficult circumstances,” or “suffering.” Paul specifically defined it in this passage as the penalty of eternal destruction. Aiōnios (eternal) refers in the overwhelming majority of its New Testament uses to things of endless duration, such as God (Rom. 16:26), the Holy Spirit (Heb. 9:14), heaven (Luke 16:9), salvation (Heb. 5:9), redemption (Heb. 9:12), the covenant (Heb. 13:20), the gospel (Rev. 14:6), God’s kingdom (2 Peter 1:11), hell (Matt. 18:8; 25:41, 46; Heb. 6:2; Jude 7), and, most frequently, eternal life (Matt. 19:16, 29; 25:46; Mark 10:17, 30; Luke 10:25; 18:18, 30; John 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14, 36; 5:24, 39; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68; 10:28; 12:25, 50; 17:2, 3; Acts 13:46, 48; Rom. 2:7; 5:21; 6:22, 23; Gal. 6:8; 1 Tim. 1:16; 6:12; Titus 1:2; 3:7; 1 John 1:2; 2:25; 3:15; 5:11, 13, 20; Jude 21). Like all of the above-mentioned things, the destruction of the wicked will have no end but will last forever. Olethros (destruction) does not refer to annihilation, but to ruination. It does not mean the cessation of existence but rather the loss of all that makes existence worthwhile (cf. 1 Tim. 6:9). The lost will not cease to exist but will experience forever a life of uselessness, hopelessness, emptiness, and meaninglessness, with no value, worth, accomplishment, purpose, goal, or hope. They will be ruined forever; “They pass into a night on which no morning dawns” (Leon Morris, The Epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976], 120). Two conditions under which the lost will serve their eternal sentence reinforce the horror of their punishment. First, they will be forever away from the presence of the Lord (cf. Matt. 7:23; 25:41; Luke 13:27; Rev. 22:15). There is a great chasm fixed between the eternal realms of the blessed and the cursed (cf. Luke 16:26), separating the cursed from all that represents God’s presence. And since “every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17), there will be no vestige of goodness in hell. The lost will also serve their eternal sentence away … from the glory of His power. Jesus described hell as a place of darkness (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30; cf. 2 Peter 2:4, 17; Jude 13), cut off from the visible display of God’s splendor and majesty. There will be no relief from hell’s horrors; nothing of God’s glorious presence to bring any shred of beauty, pleasure, joy, or peace. The lost will share hell with the devil and his angels; it will be a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Luke 13:28), where “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night” (Rev. 14:11). Yet no words can adequately express the misery of this reality. Relief it is only just for God … to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well … when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed—for our testimony to you was believed. (1:6a, 7a–b, 10) Not only will Christ return to bring retribution to unbelievers but also to give relief to believers. Anesis (relief) expresses the idea of relaxation, loosening, easing, freedom, refreshment, restoration, and rest. The Bible promises three kinds of rest to believers. First, there is the rest that salvation brings. In Matthew 11:28–29 Jesus promised, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Salvation brings rest from the crushing burden of sin. The writer of Hebrews described salvation rest in Hebrews 4:9–11: So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience. But salvation rest is not in view in this passage. Paul has two other kinds of rest in mind—the second two kinds of rest promised in Scripture. In addition to salvation rest, the Bible promises millennial rest. When Jesus returns at the end of the seven-year Tribulation (Rev. 19:11–20:7), He will establish His earthly kingdom, in which His subjects will enjoy rest and peace. In Acts 3:19–21 Peter spoke of that millennial rest: Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord; and that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you, whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time. Paradise will be restored, and the world will be somewhat as God originally intended it to be. The authority of Jesus Christ will be absolute, and rebels will be instantly and devastatingly dealt with (Ps. 2:8–9; Rev. 12:5; 19:15). A final rest promised in Scripture is the eternal rest the redeemed enter into at death. In the presence of God believers will find rest forever—from sin, temptation, trials, sorrows, and any other form of suffering—because “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Rev. 21:4). As did the issue of retribution, the issue of rest and relief poses three questions: why, who, and how. why? it is only just for God … to give relief (1:6a, 7a) Just as God’s justice demands that He bring retribution on unbelievers, so also it is only just for Him to give relief to the redeemed. “If we confess our sins,” John wrote, “He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Why? Because Jesus paid for our sins on the cross, suffering the just judgment of God in our place (cf. Isa. 53:4–6, 12; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Peter 2:24). God is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). Addressing the question of how a just God can still be merciful and forgive sinners, A. W. Tozer wrote: [The] solution for the problem of how God can be just and still justify the unjust is found in the Christian doctrine of redemption. It is that, through the work of Christ in atonement, justice is not violated but satisfied when God spares a sinner. Redemptive theology teaches that mercy does not become effective toward a man until justice has done its work. The just penalty for sin was exacted when Christ our Substitute died for us on the cross. However unpleasant this may sound to the ear of the natural man, it has ever been sweet to the ear of faith. (The Knowledge of the Holy [New York: Harper & Row, 1975], 94) The due penalty for sin has been paid by the Lamb of God; divine justice has been satisfied by His death for sinners; believers’ eternal rest is secure. That believers’ final rest is still future does not mean they will enjoy no relief from affliction in this life. Peter wrote, “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10). Believers can “Consider it all joy … when [they] encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of [their] faith produces endurance. And … endurance [will] have [as] its perfect result … that [they will] be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2–4). Paul could exult in the midst of the most severe trials, “I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). In Romans 8:18 he wrote, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us,” while in 2 Corinthians 4:17 he added, “For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.” who? to you who are afflicted and to us as well (1:7b) God promises eternal rest to all believers, for all believers can expect to be afflicted. To Timothy Paul wrote, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12; cf. Acts 14:22). Suffering for Christ is a mark of a true Christian; those whose faith is not genuine will not survive persecution (Matt. 13:20–21). Eternal rest comes to those who counted the cost of following Christ, and willingly took up their crosses to follow Him (Luke 9:23). They are the little flock to whom the Father has gladly chosen to give the kingdom (Luke 12:32). how? when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed—for our testimony to you was believed. (1:10) When He comes, two things will happen that will bring relief to believers. First, Christ will be glorified in His saints on that day. There is coming a day in which God will be glorified through believers in a manner never before seen. Believers are called in this life to make manifest the glory of the indwelling Christ by doing “all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31; cf. Phil. 1:11). They are to obey Jesus’ injunction, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). In this life, believers can only do so imperfectly, but when Christ returns, He “will transform the body of [their] humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself” (Phil. 3:21; cf. 1 John 3:2). They will then be pure vessels through which the glory of God shines. This is the glorious manifestation of believers that Paul wrote about in Romans 8:18–19: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God.” This glorification will be the final and full redemption of all believers alive when Jesus Christ comes in glory. That requires some explanation. Some believers will already be in the glorified condition, having been raptured before the Tribulation. They will have been in heaven since then in the place prepared for them (John 14:1–3) in resurrection glory enjoying their rewards and fellowship with their Lord. They will return with Christ (Rev. 19:14) to the earth for the Millennium, to join the saints still alive on earth who will receive the earthly kingdom and reign of the Savior. Apparently at the time of Christ’s return, Tribulation saints and Old Testament saints, whose spirits have been with the Lord, will be raised and fully glorified to join those descending from heaven. This is the resurrection spoken of by Daniel: Now at that time Michael, the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people, will arise. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. (Dan. 12:1–3) All the living believers who enter the kingdom will see the glorified saints. Second, believers will be marveled at among all who have believed. Since only believers enter the kingdom, as the judgment of the sheep and goats makes clear (cf. Matt. 25:31–46; Rev. 20:6), the redeemed will wonder at the glory of Christ that is fully revealed in the resurrected saints. Lest the Thessalonians fear that they might miss out on the relief Christ will bring when He returns, Paul reminded them that they would be among the glorified saints because our testimony to you was believed. Since they believed Paul, Silas, and Timothy’s preaching of the gospel they will never face retribution but will experience the blessed relief of glory that awaits the redeemed.1
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