Perseverance through Persecution
2 Thessalonians 1
2 Thessalonians 1
2 Thessalonians 1. Before Paul gets into the doctrinal issue of the epistle, he seeks to strengthen the hearts of the saints. Although the technical problem was false eschatological teaching, there was a deeper result of this false teaching the needed to be addressed first. The false teaching had gotten the saints to interpret the persecution they were facing as the wrath of God. They all knew, as Paul reminded them in 1 Thessalonians 5, that the day of the Lord will come in sudden judgment on the wicked (Isa. 2 – 4:13; Jer. 30, Joel 2, 3. Amos 5; Zeph. 1 – 3). But the tribulations (plural) that the Thessalonians were facing were not the same as the Tribulation (singular); i.e. the seventieth week of Daniel. Why is this error so serious? If Satan can convince us our suffering is part of the judgment of God, it begins to erode our confidence in God and our appreciation of His love. Paul does not immediately go into a doctrinal defense of the truth, but first strengthens the hearts of the saints. The error was a doctrinal one, but there was a more urgent need, that of the heart, and this is what Paul addresses first.
1 Paul and Silvanus and Timotheus to the assembly of Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Grace to you, and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. vv.1-2 The second epistle was sent from Paul, Silvanus (Silas), and Timotheus (Timothy), which were the same three that who sent the first epistle. This would indicate that the second epistle was written shortly after the first, likely also from Corinth where Paul stayed for a period of eighteen months. It is addressed to the local assembly in Thessalonica. As usual when writing to an assembly, Paul includes with him at least one other brother, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses everything might be established. The epistle is written “in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”, showing that the content of the epistle is in keeping with the Christian revelation. Notice that in the first epistle he says “God the Father” and in the second epistle “God our Father”. It speaks of an increased closeness from the first to the second epistle. If the saints in Thessalonica were to carry on in the midst of persecution and the onslaught of false doctrine, they would need a fresh supply of “grace” or enabling power, and “peace” or a settled state of soul. Mercy is only added when an epistle is addressed to an individual, because the saints collectively are never looked at as an object of mercy, but of grace.
Suffering Persecution in Light of the Appearing (1:3-10)
3 We ought to thank God always for you, brethren, even as it is meet, because your faith increases exceedingly, and the love of each one of you all towards one another abounds; 4 so that we ourselves make our boast in you in the assemblies of God for your endurance and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations, which ye are sustaining; vv.3-4 Faith and Love. As in the first epistle, Paul speaks of how thankful he was for the saints in Thessalonica. Just as in the first epistle, he mentioned thankfulness for their faith and love. These are two of the three great moral principles of Christianity – faith, love, and hope – without which there would be no Christianity. Many times in the New Testament faith, hope, and love are put together (1 Cor. 13:13; Galatians 5:5-6; Col. 1:4-5; 1 Thess. 1:3; 1 Thess. 5:8-10). However, in the second epistle, the hope among the Thessalonians is not mentioned. And perhaps the reason why it that, as the second epistle unfolds, the Thessalonians had been troubled about the Lord’s coming. Someone might say, “Well at least they were doing well in two of the three areas. Isn’t 2/3 a passing grade?” But this suggestion fails to grasp the interaction of the three great principles. Faith and love are sustained by hope. If Satan can convince us we are suffering the judgment of God, it begins to erode our confidence in God, and our sense of His love. Nevertheless, the saints were continuing in faith and love, and even increasing “exceedingly”. The means of growing their faith was through the trials that God was passing them through. They way our faith is increased is by stretching, just like with physical exercise. Their perseverance through tribulation and persecution was something Paul would boast of to all the other assemblies; “your endurance and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations, which ye are sustaining”. But love was also evident among them, and this was especially in the context of the local assembly, where love is often the most difficult to maintain; “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35).
Does our faith grow? When the Lord told the twelve that they needed to forgive seven times a day, they thought their faith was insufficient for such a task. “The apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith. And the Lord said, If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you” (Luke 17:5-6). The point there is that faith, whether small or large, brings God into the picture, and therefore renders possible the things that are impossible with man. We cannot complaint that our faith is insufficient, as if the Lord has not given us enough. But at the same time, the trials that God allows in our lives are used by Him to increase our faith or confidence in God (2 Thess. 1:3-4). Sad are the cases where there is not genuine faith; not even as a grain of mustard seed (life in the seed). In those cases, the trials result in them casting away their confidence entirely (Heb. 10:35). But for the elect, the Lord as our High Priest is praying for us that our “faith fail not” (Luke 22:32).
5 a manifest token of the righteous judgment of God, to the end that ye should be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for the sake of which ye also suffer; 6 if at least it is a righteous thing with God to render tribulation to those that trouble you, 7 and to you that are troubled repose with us, at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven, with the angels of his power, vv.5-7 Two-fold Vindication of Persecution. The persecution was a “manifest token” or proof of two effects of “the righteous judgment of God”. First, the saints who suffer are thereby “counted worthy of the kingdom of God”. Paul could say to Timothy, “if we suffer, we shall also reign with him” (2 Tim. 2:12). So, God counts those who suffer persecution worthy of the kingdom. There are times when the kingdom of God is viewed in a present sense, and others in a future sense. Here it is clear that the context is a future sense, because the Thessalonians were already in the kingdom. In fact, they were already suffering for the sake of the kingdom of God (v.5). By this simple proof, Paul shows that their suffering could not be the wrath of God, because it was actually suffering for the kingdom. The day of the Lord will bring in the public manifestation of the kingdom of God, and that is the time when our individual faithfulness will have an effect on worthiness – when rewards are given and enjoyed in the Millennium. But there is a second aspect of the righteous judgment of God; that is, against the wicked, specifically those who persecute believers. God will “render tribulation” to those who trouble His saints. Far from being the judgment of God, the persecution the saints were facing at that time was actually proof that the judgment was still future! It is not for Christian’s to avenge themselves, because God will take care of that. But it is a matter of righteousness that they be punished, although our desire is that even our enemies might be saved. The day of the Lord cannot have already come, because when it comes, the saints will be “at rest” all together; “you that are troubled repose with us”. Paul and his companions were also suffering persecution, and they looked forward to a future state of tranquility. At the appearing of Christ, all the heavenly saints will be at rest in the glorified state, having been caught away earlier at the rapture. The coming of Christ that we are speaking of is His appearing or revelation. He will be accompanied by the angels at His appearing. It is interesting that in contrast to an “adulterous and sinful generation”, the Son of man is said to come with “the holy angels” (Mark 8:38), but in contrast to those who persecute Christians, the Lord is said to be revealed with “the angels of his power”.
8 in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who know not God, and those who do not obey the glad tidings of our Lord Jesus Christ; 9 who shall pay the penalty of everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his might, vv.8-9 The Portion of the Wicked. Here we have what will become of the wicked at the appearing of Christ. He will come in consuming judgment like a “flaming fire”. He will come in vengeance on those “who know not God”; i.e. those who do not have faith, and who have no relationship with God. This is the broader group of Gentiles (1 Thess. 4:5). But also, this judgment will fall on “those who do not obey the glad tidings of our Lord Jesus Christ”; i.e. those who reject the gospel of the grace of God, which would be those in Christianized lands. We read in 2 Thess. 2:12 of those who “believe not” the truth. We read in 2 Thess. 2:10 of those who “receive not” the love of the truth. But here we read of those who “obey not” the gospel. A person must do all three to be saved. We have to first of all believe the gospel, then receive it into our souls, then we must obey it, because God “now commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30), and because the gospel is preached “for obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5). Coming judgment is something that Paul preached. But the judgments that accompany the appearing of Christ are not the end for the wicked. Revelation 19 – 20 reveals their end. First the Lord will appear, coming out of heaven. Those who oppose Him will be judged. But in the end, the wicked will be cast into the Lake of Fire which is the eternal prison of the damned, where they “shall pay the penalty of everlasting destruction”. The word “destruction” here is used in the sense of something that is made useless for its original purpose. It does not mean annihilation, or that a person can cease to exist. The Bible is clear that the punishment of the wicked is everlasting. What does this consist of? It is called “the second death” (Rev. 20:14), because death always means separation, in this case eternal separation from the presence of God; “from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his might”. Read more… This is the awful end awaiting those who reject the gospel. You couldn’t have a clearer warning. Note: a simple proof of the distinction between the rapture and appearing of Christ is seen in v.8. The purpose of His coming (taking vengeance) and the manner of His coming (in flaming fire) is totally different from what we have in 1 Thess. 4:15-17. Further, it is a simple proof that the promised judgments were not fulfilled in 70 AD as the Preterists would teach; i.e. the Lord did not come with His angels in flaming fire in 70 AD!
10 when he shall have come to be glorified in his saints, and wondered at in all that have believed, (for our testimony to you has been believed,) in that day. v.10 The Portion of the Saints. By total contrast to the end of the wicked, the saints are destined for a glorious future with Christ, “in that day”. When the Lord comes, He will turn the tables. Presently, the righteous suffer and the wicked reign. But then, the wicked will be judged and the righteous will reign with Christ. The true relationship between the now-persecuted saints will then be made known; “I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me” (John 17:23). The manner of the public manifestation of Christ is described as the Lord coming “to be glorified in his saints”. This is a peculiar expression, but full of meaning. The idea is similar to that of 1 Cor. 11:7; “the woman is the glory of the man”. The church is the complement of Christ, and in the day of manifestation, she will be the vessel used by God to reflect the glory of Christ. We have a picture of this in Revelation 21, where the church is viewed as a city with transparent “jasper” or diamond walls, and in the middle of the city is the Lamb, shining out through those walls. In the Millennium, the saints will be the medium through which Christ’s glory will be displayed, and the universe looking on will wonder at the sight. Whatever the misunderstandings and confusion of the Thessalonians, and whatever their circumstances in suffering, their future with Christ could was glorious and sure. So it is for all those who “have believed”. This is how Paul, by the Holy Spirit, would strengthen their hearts.
Though now dispersed, the day will come
When He who made us His
Will call us hence, and take us home
To see Him as He is.
Though now unknown, we then shall be
The sons of God confessed,
Those who disown us then shall see
How richly we are blest.1
Contrast. In these verses we have the difference between the day of the Lord (vv.8-9) and the day of Christ (v.10). The stark difference between the portion of the lost and of the saved is presented. For those who reject the gospel, the worst is yet to come. In fact, the present is the best. But for the believer, the best is yet to come!
The Desired Results of Persecution in the Saints (1:11-12)
11 To which end we also pray always for you, that our God may count you worthy of the calling, and fulfil all the good pleasure of his goodness and the work of faith with power, v.11 Paul’s prayer was that the saints would live according to the mind of God. “That our God may count you worthy of the calling” doesn’t mean that the saints earn their calling by good works, but rather that God desires us to live up to our calling. Paul wanted God’s purpose in the Thessalonians to be brought to fruition; “fulfil all the good pleasure of his goodness”. God has a purpose for each one of us; to conform us to the image of His Son. We are here for His good pleasure… not our own. God has already begun a work in us, and He has the power to complete it (Phil. 1:6). But in practical terms, the success of the Thessalonians would be accomplished through the same “work of faith with power” that was seen already in them, as they endured persecution (vv.3-4). It is our part to believe (faith, though God gives it), it is God’s part to give strength (power).
12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you and “ye” in him, according to the grace of our God, and of the Lord Jesus Christ. v.12 Although the final outcome of God’s work in us is still future, there is opportunity now to glorify the Lord. We are waiting for God’s Son from heaven, but we are busy while waiting. We can glorify the name of our Lord Jesus Christ through our conduct; “for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name” (Rev. 3:8). But our role of glorifying the name of Christ now on earth will soon transition into our being glorified with Christ when He appears; “and ye in him”. How beautiful of the Spirit of God to unite the believer’s walk presently with the future day of manifestation. It is calculated to still up our hearts in faithfulness and devotion to Christ. But both outcomes, whether the Christ glorified now through the saints, or whether our being glorified with Him at the appearing, it is all “according to the grace of our God, and of the Lord Jesus Christ”. All the praise goes to Him!