Now we’ve come to the first chapter of 2 Thessalonians. This letter is the second letter written to a very, very sound and good church. Two letters to them, no condemnation at all. This was a very healthy church, a very fruitful church, a very loving church, a very God-honoring and obedient church. And so, it is a bit unusual that you would find in all the commendations of this church such a terrifying portion of Scripture as occupies part of chapter 1 and part of chapter 2 in this letter. I want to read chapter 1 to you down to verse 12 so that you have the context in mind.
“Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is only fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows ever greater; therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure. This is a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you will be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering. For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to those who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, 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, 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. To this end also we pray for you always, that our God will count you worthy of your calling, and fulfill every desire for goodness and the work of faith with power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus will be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Amazing chapter. It starts and ends with very warm commendation, very sweet memories of the reality of the life of this congregation. It is all commendation. A commendation sets for us a divine standard for commending any church, any church. And as in the first letter in the first chapter, so in the second letter and the first chapter, the virtues that are identified by way of commendation are the virtues that God would still commend in any church. They are the marks of a faithful congregation, and they’re not the typical features of popular culture in the church these days, because they have nothing to do with buildings, they have nothing to do with media, they have nothing to do with décor or music or bands or technology or branding or style or crowd size or celebrity or any of those things. The Lord commends this church in both of these letters basically for the same things; and they are virtues, spiritual virtues. Those are the only things the Lord cares about when He looks to assess a church. And this assessment is from heaven, through the Holy Spirit, to the pen of Paul, to the church of Thessalonica and then on to all other churches, including us.
This church is strongly commended, and there are four virtues that appear here, just want to refer to them as a start. The first one is true salvation. This is a truly converted church because it says in verse 1 that this is the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and, of course implied, in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is a church with a genuine union with God and with the Lord Jesus. This is true Christianity, and it results in verse 2 in the church receiving grace and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace flows through their union with the Father and their union with the Son. Peace flows through the same union. So they are commended and honored because they are a true church, true salvation.
Secondly, they are marked by increasing faith. Obviously you become a believer through faith, but faith should be increasing. And that’s exactly the case with them, verse 3, “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is only fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged.” Increasing faith, stronger belief, stronger confidence in the Lord. In fact, the Greek term here has huper at the front end of it, and that’s the word from which we get “hyper.” It means something that is excessive. They are growing at a rate that is unexpected; their faith is being enlarged at a more than normal rate.
Not only are they known for true salvation and increasing faith, but growing love. Back to verse 3. It says there that, “The love of each one of you toward one another grows ever greater.” This is a glorious revelation concerning this beloved church. Their love, agapē, the strongest, highest, noblest love of the will characterizes this church; and it is continually growing greater. Their faith is growing and their love is growing.
The third thing – and we’re not surprised to find it out – is they also are marked by persevering hope. Verse 4, “Therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure.” In other words, this is a church that accepted the difficulties, the challenges of persecution and affliction and kept their hope alive.
And he says in verse 5, “This persecution and affliction is a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you will be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering.” It’s as if he says, “All that you’re going through is preparing you for the kingdom. You are now in the kingdom, but there’s a greater kingdom yet to come.”
So here is a church identified as in God, in Christ, genuinely converted. They have ever-increasing faith, growing love, and persevering hope. And even in their affliction – and verse 5 is a very important verse – they see a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment. What is plain indication in the NAS mean? It’s a Greek word endeigma, it means “proof” or “evidence.” So your suffering and your affliction is evidence of God’s righteous judgment.
Now there are a lot of words in the Greek for judgment; some of them have to do with judgment on sin. This is not that. This is the word “crisis,” which means it’s essentially purifying or purging. God is putting you through affliction and persecution in order to purify you, so that you will be considered worthy of the kingdom for which indeed you are suffering. You’re suffering because of the kingdom and it’s making you evermore worthy of belonging to that kingdom.
Suffering and afflictions, says Paul, is a good providence. It is a good providence. It is not – listen carefully – it is not evidence that God has forsaken you, it is evidence that God has not forsaken you. It is for this true worthiness through suffering and affliction that Paul prays for them at the end of the chapter in verse 11, “To this end we pray for you always, that our God will count you worthy of your calling, and fulfill every desire for goodness and the work of faith with power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus will be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” He wants them to bring glory to God, he wants God to be honored, and he knows that that is going to take a measure of persecution and affliction and suffering. And by that, the Lord purges and purifies them, and makes them increasingly worthy to be part of His kingdom.
Now all of this is a sweet consolation to the Thessalonians, the reality of their true salvation, the fact that they are the recipients of grace and peace, that they are marked by faith and love and hope, and all of them growing and increasing, even in the midst of persecution and suffering. All of this proves that they are kingdom people and they’re being prepared for kingdom service in a greater way, and one day in an even greater kingdom. All of that is sweet and beautiful, music to their ears.
But between the beginning and the end of this chapter is horror. It’s almost as if somebody put it in the wrong place, or somebody later redacted it and injected it into the text, because this is such a positive and sweet commendation. But not so. It is the Word of God, it came at the same time at the same moments through the apostle Paul, but it is in itself terrifying.
From verses 6 to 10 you have something that is as fearful as anything you could find outside the book of Revelation. In fact, probably the most detailed and terrifying description of Christ’s return in judgment apart from the book of Revelation. Go down to verse 7. It says, “The Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution.”
Why is he saying this? Why is Paul injecting this here in this wonderful place of commendation and encouragement? He injects it to lighten up their burden and illuminate their hope. The Lord Jesus is now at the Father’s right hand, but He has not left them alone. Be encouraged you’re being persecuted, you’re being afflicted. By this the Lord is purging you and purifying you for the day of His coming, which for you will be relief, but for the world will be retribution.
So let’s focus on that statement in verse 7 as we begin to think about this; we’ll do it over the next couple of weeks. “The Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven.” Paul uses the word apokalupsis for the word “reveal.” You’re familiar with the word apocalypse or apocalyptic. It simply means an unveiling of something that was hidden. Paul uses this word because the coming of Christ is going to be the unveiling of one who has been hidden.
That is the case with our Lord Jesus. The world has not seem Him; we have not seen Him. Though we have not seen Him, we love Him because we see Him in the revelation of Holy Scripture, and we see Him with the eye of faith by the power of God. But the world does not see Him; they don’t believe in Him necessarily, they mock His coming. But there will be an unveiling. There will be a revelation of one who has, up to this point, been kept secret.
When Jesus ascended into heaven, as recorded in the first chapter of Acts, He went up into heaven. Since that time He has been there. He made a few select appearances to the apostle Paul, but for the rest of human history He has been in heaven waiting for His return. Century after century has gone by and He has not been seen. Now that would have been true; the first time He came there would have been centuries and centuries that passed by, Jews reading in the Old Testament about the arrival of Messiah, and He didn’t come and He didn’t come, and generation after generation never saw Him. But finally He did come, He came to Bethlehem; and you know the rest of the story. Well, there’s yet another story that will be recorded history; the hidden Jesus will be unveiled.
Normally when the apostle Paul talks about the return of Christ He uses the word parousia, which means “coming,” because he’s usually talking to believers and he wants them to know that Jesus is coming: He’s coming for them in the rapture, He’s coming with them to meet the righteous at the end of the tribulation and establish His kingdom. So whenever you see the idea of “coming,” it’s a happy reunion. It’s a positive term. It means the one we are waiting for is coming. This is joyful. This is always an association with believers. For us, He is coming.
But when he uses the word “apocalypse,” he’s not any longer talking about a welcomed arrival on the part of believers, he’s talking about a terrifying unveiling in the face of unbelievers. This is a supernatural invasion from outer space for sure by the only one who will ever come from outer space, and that is the Lord Jesus Himself. It emphasizes not some kind of welcoming reception, but a terrifying, terrifying judgment. He is coming back in unveiled, divine glory. He is coming back in power. He is coming back, as we read in the book of Revelation, with a sword in order to slaughter, and with a rod of iron in order to rule. He is coming back as King of kings and Lord of lords. He will subdue the earth and all the nations. He will destroy the wicked, He will gather His own into His marvelous millennial kingdom.
The first time He came, He was not hidden, but the reality of who He was hidden. He was in the world, the world was made by Him, but the world knew Him not; they saw Him, but they didn’t know Him. The second time He comes, the world will see Him and they will know Him. Matthew 24:30, “They will see the Son of Man coming in glory.” Now He is altogether hidden. People conclude that He doesn’t even exist, or that He never rose from the dead, or that He’s some spirit somewhere in space. But He will come, and when He comes the entire world will see Him.
But the next time, there will be no Bethlehem. There will be no stable, no manger, no animals, no infancy, no carpenter’s shop, no humble Nazareth village, no poverty, no dusty roads to trudge, no sinners to grieve Him, no religious leaders to fight against Him and oppose Him, no hellish demons will attach Him, no soldiers will pound nails and a crown of thorns into His body; no, not the next time. The next time He comes as King of kings and Lord of lords to conquer and to rule the world. He comes as Judge and Executioner. This is the apocalypse, this is the unveiling of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now there are three prepositional phrases that describe features of His coming – go back to verse 7: from heaven, with His mighty angels, in flaming fire. Those are details the Lord wants us to know about. From heaven: Acts 1, the angel said when Jesus ascended into heaven, “The same Jesus you’ve seen go into heaven shall so come in like manner as you’ve seen Him go. You saw Him go into heaven, you’ll see Him come back from heaven.”
Currently, Hebrews 1:3 says, He’s seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high. He’s interceding for us as our Great High Priest. He is ruling over the universe because He’s given a name, the name Lord. Every knee bows ultimately to Him. He also is the head of His church, He rules from heaven, and He lives spiritually within His church. But His place is in heaven, His seat is in heaven. He is coming, however, from heaven to earth in His second coming.
Back in 1 Thessalonians 1:10 it says that believers wait for His Son from heaven, whom God raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come. He comes from heaven to rescue His people from final wrath.
Chapter 4 of 1 Thessalonians, verse 16, even in the rapture it says, “We who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, so shall we always be with the Lord.” Before that in verse 16, “The Lord Himself will descend from heaven, the dead in Christ rise first, the rest rise with them, we meet Him in the air, we go back to heaven.”
So He is in heaven now because He is omnipresent, because He is God, He is everywhere at all times. He is uniquely in the life of His church and in the life of every believer. But He will return from heaven. He said in John 14, “I go to prepare a place for you, I’ll come back. I’m preparing a place for you in heaven in the Father’s house; I’ll come back and take you there.” He will return from heaven first to gather His church, and then seven years later He’ll return with the sword and a rod to set up His millennial kingdom on earth.
Secondly, Paul tells us that He will come from heaven with His mighty angels – literally, the angels of His power. It’s not their power, it’s His power mediated through them. The angels are the tools, you might say, the created, intelligent, capable, supernatural tools that carry His power to the various tasks and responsibilities to which they are delegated. So we are not surprised to see when the Lord comes that He’ll come with His mighty angels.
In Old Testament times there were occasions with God appeared and He appeared with angels. Some of you will remember in Genesis chapter 18 when God appeared to Abraham He appeared with two angels and they had a meal with him. Those are theophanies, those are appearances of the Divine One. This is not the only time God appeared. You find God also appearing in other places in the Old Testament. You find Him appearing with the lying down of the law at Mount Sinai, attended again by angels.
In Psalm 68 there’s a verse that may sum it up, Psalm 68, I think it’s verse 17: “The chariots of God are myriads, thousands upon thousands; the Lord is among them as at Sinai, in holiness.” The word “chariots” essentially means angels. The angels of God are thousands and thousands and thousands who appeared with Him at Sinai.
Even in the little letter of Jude that is next to the book of Revelation there’s a fascinating prophecy recorded there in verse 14: “Enoch, in the seventh generation from Adam, prophesied, saying, ‘Behold, the Lord came with many thousands of His holy ones,’ – here’s Enoch, seven generations from Adam, long before Christ ever arrived, prophesying the second coming of Christ with His holy angels – ‘to execute judgment upon all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds which they have done in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him.’” Pretty clear that ungodly is the notable adjective. He’s coming back in judgment on the ungodly and He’s coming with His angels.
Back to a verse I mentioned in the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew where our Lord is giving a sermon on His own second coming. In Matthew 24 we read this in verse 30: “And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. And 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.” He comes in glory, He comes with His angels to gather the elect.
The next chapter, Matthew 25:31, “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. And all the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” The sheep are believers, they go into the kingdom; the goats are unbelievers who are sentenced to eternal judgment.
The Lord appears in the Old Testament with His angels. Christ appears in His second coming with the same angels because they are the same angels. There were only the angels that were created at the same time, they don’t reproduce. The same angels that surrounded God in the Old Testament will surround Christ in His return, which is to say that Jesus is God or He carries the same angels with Him as the ministers of His authority.
And then it says in verse 7, the final prepositional phrase, “in flaming fire.” What does this mean? What do we mean, “He comes in flaming fire”? This is not the kind of fire that you get from lighting something with a match or a torch. This is not a wood fire. This is not a gasoline fire, this is not any kind of temporal, earthly, physical fire. It is the fire of His glory. And you see it all the way back in the third chapter of Exodus where Moses comes to the burning bush, “And the angel of the Lord appears to him in the blazing fire from the midst of the bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed.” What kind of fire is that that is burning but doesn’t consume anything? It’s the glory fire of the presence of the Lord. Moses on Sinai referred to it.
But let’s look at chapter 19 of Exodus. “It came about on the third day when it was morning. There were thunder and lightening flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain” – Mount Sinai – “a very loud trumpet sound, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.
“Now 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. When the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him with thunder. The Lord came down on Mount Sinai. And when the Lord came down there was an earthquake and there was thunder and there was fire.” Again, this is not physical fire, this is the fire of God’s glory, the blazing shekinah glory of God manifest. It is a fire, however, that consumes sinners in the spiritual sense.
In Psalm 104, just call your attention to verse 4 where God’s speaking about angels, says, “He makes the winds His messengers, flaming fire His ministers.” God comes with angelic hosts and comes in a blaze of fiery glory; the psalms affirm this. Isaiah talks about the Lord comes and fire comes before Him, devouring His enemies. Even when the Holy Spirit came down on the day of Pentecost, it was as fire. In the book of Revelation, when the sky goes dark and the Lord returns, He comes as blazing, fiery glory. You see that early in the book of Revelation. So it is the same burning glory fire that essentially is the essence of the presence of God. The same one that appeared in the Old Testament it appears again at the coming of Christ, which is to indicate that He is the very blazing glory of God.
So Paul is reminding these believers and us that no matter what happens in this life, no matter how hard life is, no matter how much persecution or how much affliction, the Lord will come and make it right, the Lord will come and make it right. Mankind is not in charge of the end of this earth. He cannot stall it off, nor can he speed it up; it is all God’s work. Paul brings this reality to the Thessalonians to encourage them to persevere and endure in the face of their suffering, because the Lord is refining them, and the day will come when He comes back and makes everything right. This is history and this is coming sooner than ever before.
Now as we look at this passage – we’ll just make a few more comments today – but as we look at it in the next couple of weeks there are two things I want you to see here, two features that come through. The whole text collects around two realities: retribution and relief, retribution and relief. Everybody is going to be in one of those two categories: retribution or relief. To put it in the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:46, “These will go away into eternal punishment, the righteous into eternal life.” You’re either going to eternal punish or eternal life. It’s either relief or retribution.
He starts with the issue of retribution right in verse 8, so let’s just pick that up, say a few things about it. “The Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution.” This is a measure of encouragement to the saints. This is a measure of encouragement to the saints. It’s sad on the one hand, but it’s right on the other hand, it’s right, dealing out retribution because it’s right. And you’re going to see that next week. If you look at verse 6 you get a hint: “After all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you.” That’s a frightening warning to the persecutors of Christians.
“The Lord will come dealing out retribution,” that is to say giving full vengeance, bringing full punishment. As Isaiah says in Isaiah 66:15, “The Lord is the avenger.” “He puts on garments of vengeance,” Isaiah 59 says. Ezekiel 25 says, “I will lay My vengeance according to My wrath and anger.” Deuteronomy 32:35 is a familiar one, “To Me belongs vengeance and retribution.” Paul picks that up in Romans 12:19, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.
Now we don’t like to hear about the fact that God is a God of vengeance; but it is necessary, that’s what holiness requires. This vengeance is not like some unruly, hostile, selfish, sinful passion that makes people do what they do out of sheer hatred. In fact, we’re not to do that. Matthew 5 says we’re to love our enemies, we’re to do good to those who persecute us; and when we do that and when we love our enemies we’re like God. We know God loves His enemies, “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son.” He loved us when we were enemies. But for those who will not receive His love and His Son and His salvation, sin must be punished. And so Paul says in Romans 3:5, and it’s an important statement, “The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous. The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous.”
There will be retribution. What is it? Verse 9, “These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His power.” That’s the vengeance. It will happen, it is right, it is deserved, it will come.
Might say that it is of His own nature that God is love. God is love because He is love. He is the purest love in the universe. He is the greatest love in the universe. He loves the unlovely, He loves those who hate Him. But God is also holy. Love is all in God. Vengeance is something prompted by what is outside of God, namely sin. It is utterly foreign to His nature and it must be dealt with.
Do not be mistaken, God will avenge. Listen to some of the things it says in the Psalms: “The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance. He will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked. God will shatter the heads of His enemies, add to them punishment upon punishment. May they have no acquittal from Thee. Return sevenfold into the breast of our neighbors the taunts with which they have taunted You, O Lord. Let there be none to extend kindness to him nor any to pity his fatherless children. Happy shall he be who takes Your little ones and dashes them against the rock. Do not I hate them that hate You, O Lord, and do not I loathe them that rise up against You; I hate them with perfect hatred, I count them my enemies.” Just some of the strong language of the Psalm in which even the psalmist calls on God to avenge the offenses against him and his people.
English writer John Wenham wrote a book called The Goodness of God. In one statement in the book he says this: “Earlier this year fourteen church study groups 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 had been printed for congregational chanting under the title A New Testament Psalter said this: “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 men.” End quote.
I understand that if you don’t know God and you don’t believe in Him, those are terrifying realities you’d like to get rid of. The problem is, the harsh passages and the tender passages are so hopelessly mixed up that you can’t extract one from the other. Even the godly in the Old Testament sought the vengeance of God. The martyrs in the book of Revelation, “How long, O Lord? How long are You going to let this go on before You avenge?”
When God reveals to Jeremiah that some are plotting his death, Jeremiah prays because he’s been a faithful prophet, and here’s his prayer: “O Lord of hosts who judges righteously, who tries the heart and the mind. Let me see Your vengeance upon them; for to You have I committed my cause.” And God replies to his prayer: “Behold, I will punish them. The young men shall die by the sword, their sons and their daughters shall die by famine, and none of them shall be left.” And that came to pass.
Later on we find an even more terrible prayer: “Give heed to me, O Lord,” – from Jeremiah – “and harken to my plea. Is evil a recompense for good? Yet they have dug a pit for my life. Remember how I stood before You to speak good for them and to turn away Your wrath from them? Therefore deliver up their children to famine, give them over the power of the sword. Let their wives become childless and widowed. May their men meet death by pestilence and their youths be slain by the sword in battle. Forgive not their iniquity nor blot out their sin from Your sight.” Those are called imprecatory psalms, they’re literally praying down punishment on the heads of the enemies of God.
They’re not the enemies of Jeremiah, they’re the enemies of God. God answers that prayer with a promise of horrifying judgments. Listen to what God said: “Behold, I am bringing such evil on this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle because they have filled this place with the blood of innocence,” – sacrificing babies – “and have built the high places to Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal. Therefore behold, days are coming,” says the Lord, “when this place shall no more be called Topheth or the valley of Ben-hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter. I will give their dead bodies for food to the birds of the airs and the beasts of the earth. I’ll make this city a horror, a thing to be hissed at. Everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its disasters. And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters.” From Jeremiah 18 and 19. And that happened in the devastation of the Babylonian assault.
There’s vengeance in the New Testament as well. You don’t know the Jesus of the New Testament unless you understand that. We like to think of Jesus as this mild-mannered, loving person who didn’t want to say anything unkind to anyone. But He talked about eternal fire. He said, “Depart from Me you cursed into eternal fire.” He talked about weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. He talked about a fire that never goes out.
He pronounced a curse on Chorazin, a curse of damnation on Bethsaida. He pronounced a curse on the Pharisees. He pronounced a curse on the scribes. He pronounced a curse on Judas. He even pronounced curses on people who tempt Christians: “Whoa to him by whom they are tempted. Better for a millstone to be put around their neck and they be drowned.” Jesus Himself said in Matthew 13 a couple of times that unfaithful, unbelieving people will be thrown into a furnace where there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth.
No text outside the detailed passages of Revelation is as potent as this one in portraying the fierce vengeance of the Lord Jesus in His coming. It’s a severe warning for us. As we enjoy the consolation and the sweet comfort and the good providence that God works in our life, we can’t forget what’s in store for the rest, right?
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