In Flaming Fire: 2 Thessalonians 1

“My God, where are you? My God, my God. Where are you? Evil crushes me. Grinds me into dust. O, my God. I can’t bear it. I can’t bear it. Why have you left me? Oh, God, where are you? Help me. Someone. Please help me … ”1

Deborah Roberts was a young college student who gave her summer to the Lord and His service. That service in the inner city of Chicago was interrupted when she was raped during one of her ministries.

“Why? How could you let this happen to me when I gave up my summer to serve you? What about all the slutty, sinful people on this earth? It should have been them, not me. I never deserved that. My standards for living have always been high. I have not only been good, I have served you, God. How could you let this happen to me? Why, God? Why me?”2

This heartrending cry from Deborah, as she worked through this tragedy in her life, is probably very similar to the experiences of many Christians. Why do the righteous suffer? As the psalmist questioned, “how long shall the wicked triumph?” (Ps. 94:3).

The first chapter of 2 Thessalonians addresses this issue. The believers at Thessalonica were being persecuted to the extent that some believed they were actually in the Tribulation period. This epistle not only corrected their misunderstanding about the Day of the Lord, it encouraged them in their trials and tribulations. It is encouragement that all believers need at some time in their lives.

Greetings (vv. 1–2)

This epistle was probably written from Corinth around 50 or 51 A.D., just a few months after Paul wrote his first epistle to the Thessalonians. The greeting from Paul and his co-workers, Silas and Timothy, is not unlike Paul’s salutations in his other writings.

The phrase “Grace unto you, and peace, from God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 1) is found in all of Paul’s letters. “Grace unto you, and peace” is not just a quaint phrase. It was Paul’s desire for these believers and a vital necessity in the lives of all Christians.

Grace is the power of God. We can’t earn it; rather, God freely gives it to His saints to enable them to overcome the adversities of the world and live victoriously in Him. Peace is not the peace with God that is obtained at salvation but the peace of God that can be ours on a moment-by-moment basis as we live for Him and serve Him.

Paul’s desire for the Thessalonian believers, as well as for us today, is that grace and peace will abound in our lives. If they do, our trials will end in victory through the Lord.

Gratefulness (vv. 3–5)

There are several things worth noting in Paul’s commendation of the Christians at Thessalonica. First, their faith was growing in the midst of great trials and tribulations. Satan has often tried to destroy the church through persecution, but that tactic usually brings Christians closer to the Lord and strengthens their faith. True believers are refined through the trials of life (1 Pet. 1:3–9). Although at times those trials may seem overwhelming, God is faithful and sees His children through.

Second, the persecution was producing a greater love for one another. When people of like faith are persecuted for that faith, love and compassion for other believers result. The intense tribulations the Thessalonians were experiencing produced an abounding love for each other that is not often manifested in good times.

Third, they were commended to other believers and were told of this testimony given by their admirers. It can be a great encouragement to let people know that their testimony has been used to encourage others.

Fourth, suffering in the believers’ lives demonstrated the righteousness of God and their worthiness of the kingdom. “This is a manifest token of the righteous judgment of God, that ye may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which ye also suffer” (v. 5). I am not implying, nor is this verse, that people get to heaven or are made worthy of heaven because of their suffering. Never! Jesus paid it all. This truth is summarized in Revelation 5:3–4, where John wept because “no man in heaven, nor in earth, neither under the earth” was found worthy to open the scrolls. But the angel told John to look again, because there was one who was worthy, Jesus, the Lamb of God, who has redeemed us to God by His blood.

What, then, does this verse speak about? The faith and patience of these believers, in spite of intense trials, plainly revealed God’s righteous actions in their lives. The tribulations did not come from God, but the patience and faithfulness to endure came from Him. Their perseverance and abundant victory were evidence of God’s work in their lives. His grace not only changed them, it enabled them to withstand the persecution.

Paul’s statement that they would “be counted worthy of the kingdom of God” does not mean they were made worthy but that they would be seen as worthy because of their faith in the midst of trials. This is a testimony to the glory of God and His sustaining of believers through the trials of life.

Retribution And Rest (vv. 6–7)

Believers who “live godly in Christ Jesus” are told that they “shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12). Jesus said, “The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (Jn. 15:20). But although we can expect persecution, it is not always easy to handle. We live in a moral universe, and the God who created this world is just and holy. Not only can we expect God to reward sin with punishment, it is righteous of Him to do so. To do any less would impair His holy character. This passage presents two concepts regarding God’s righteous actions toward believers and those who persecute them.

First, God will repay trouble with trouble. He may delay His punishment, but it is sure to come. A just and holy God can do no less than punish iniquity. We must understand, however, that it is God’s place to take action, not ours. Paul, when addressing the Romans, spoke to this issue: “Recompense to no man evil for evil … Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves but, rather, give place unto wrath; for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Rom. 12:17, 19).

Second, persecuted believers will someday find rest. The persecution will not last forever. The word rest, as used here, means relief from tension. This word was used to describe relaxing or loosening a taut bowstring. Persecution can produce tension and anxiety in a person’s life, but God has promised to give us relief.

The ultimate promise and fulfillment of rest for believers will come when Jesus returns. When we are in His presence, all persecution will be over—that is our glorious hope.

Jesus is our greatest example in the midst of persecution. He, “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2). We are to “consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest [we] be wearied and faint in [our] minds” (Heb. 12:3). The persecution Jesus suffered was made bearable because of the resurrection He knew would follow.

God will sustain us. Our future will be in heaven in fellowship with our Savior. Let us therefore continue “Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).

Vengeance (vv. 5–10)

The world mocks the concept of God’s judging the world. Cartoonists regularly depict bearded men wearing white sheets and carrying signs declaring, “Repent! Judgment is coming!” The unregenerate mind refuses to accept a God who will judge the world, but a day of judgment is nevertheless coming. The suffering Savior, who patiently calls for people to repent and believe in Him, will one day return as the King and Judge of the universe.

When Jesus returns at His Second Coming, it will be “In flaming fire” (v. 8), most likely a reference to the judgment He will exercise as He takes vengeance on two groups of people. God’s promise to His followers, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay” (Rom. 12:19), will be fulfilled in a terrifying and awesome way.

The first group of people judged will be those who “know not God” (v. 8)—people who have not had a clear understanding of the gospel and those who haven’t even heard the gospel. The Bible is clear that all “are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). The concept of universalism—all will someday be saved, regardless of belief or action, because of God’s love, or people can get to heaven other than through Jesus—is foreign to the Word of God. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (Jn. 14:6). Acts 4:12 is clear when it says, “Neither is there salvation in any other; for there is no other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.”

Nor is ignorance an excuse. God has revealed Himself to mankind in two basic ways: externally in creation (Rom. 1:20) and internally, so that all people are conscious of God (Jn. 1:9; Rom. 1:19). People can suppress and deny the revelation of God, but it is nonetheless certain that God has revealed Himself to mankind; thus, all “are without excuse.” If people follow the light God has given to them, He will direct them to Jesus, “the light of the world” (Jn. 8:12; 9:5).

The second group of people judged will be those who have “obey[ed] not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 5)—people who have heard and understood the gospel but have not accepted Jesus as their Savior and Lord. When Jesus comes, they will be punished with vengeance befitting a holy God.

The punishment of these two groups will be everlasting destruction, but they will not cease to exist. Leon Morris comments on the word destruction used here: “Destruction is not to be understood in the sense of ‘annihilation,’ but of complete ruin. It is the loss of all that makes life worth living … It is exclusion from the presence (literally ‘face’) of God in accordance with the typical Scriptural position that the real sting of sin is that it separates from fellowship with the Lord.”3 The punishment will be eternity in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15).

Harsh as it may seem to some, the reality is that God will judge those who have not accepted Jesus. The holiness of God demands it; the sinful rebelliousness of mankind warrants it.

When the Lord comes to judge the world, He will be glorified in those of us who have accepted Him. The suffering and persecution we may have experienced in life will pale in the light of His glory.

Prayer of Encouragement (vv. 11–12)

Empathizing with the persecution they were under, Paul prayed for the Thessalonian believers, encouraging them to continue in their faith and love of the Lord. He explained why Christians suffer and reminded them that God is faithful and will one day judge those who persecute believers. Paul wanted them to understand God’s plan in their trials, so that they would exhibit His goodness and the work of faith, even in the midst of their suffering.

Deborah Roberts came to that place in her, life. She wrote, “People have said that being a rape victim must have been harder for me in some ways because I am a Christian. I say to them, I may have had hard questions to ask, but the joy in discovering His healing in the midst of such pain is a joy that can only be experienced by one who loves and trusts God. It is only through Him that there is healing. It is only through Him that my burden is lifted. It is only through Him that I find peace.”4

God’s desire is that Jesus will be manifested through our lives and that the world will see that we are different because of Him. No matter what type of trial you may be experiencing, God is able to give you victory. Second Thessalonians was written for all believers who were going through trials for their faith. Even believers today will find faith and strength in the midst of our trials. The only way we can have that victory is to trust in God, allow Him to work in our lives, and experience His grace every day.

ENDNOTE
  1. Deborah Roberts, Raped (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Company, 1981), p. 30.
  2. Ibid., p. 965.
  3. Leon Morris, The Epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. ?Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), p. 119.
  4. Roberts, Raped, pp. 129-130.

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