Flaming Judgment

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Second Thessalonians 2

Introduction

The letter of Second Thessalonians was written shortly after the first letter. The purpose of the letter was to correct certain misunderstandings that the Thessalonians had about eschatology, and some might argue, to create some new misunderstandings for us. There are some challenges here.  

The Text

“Which 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: 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. Wherefore also we pray always for you, that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfil all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power: 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 the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 1:5–12).

Summary of the Text

The steadfastness of the Thessalonians while facing persecution was evidence given by God that He was going to judge the wickedness of the persecutors (v. 5). Their courage was a manifest token that they were going to be counted worthy of the kingdom, on behalf of which they were suffering. It was obvious that it would be righteous for God to punish those who were troubling the saints with real tribulation (v. 6). They will enter into rest, along with Paul and company, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from Heaven with His mighty angels (v. 7). That manifestation of Christ will bring the vengeance of flaming fire on those who do not know God, and who do not obey the gospel of Christ (v. 8). These people will be punished two ways—everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power (v. 9). When He comes, it will be so that He might be glorified in His saints (like the Thessalonians), and so that all who believed in response to Paul’s message might be amazed at Him (v. 10). That was the reason why Paul continued to pray that God would count them worthy of their calling, and that they might fulfill all the good pleasure of His goodness, along with His work of faith with power (v. 11). The result will be a mutual glorification, Christ in them, and they in Christ (v. 12). This would all be in accord with the grace of God and Christ.

The Man of Lawlessness Awaits

In the next chapter of this book, we are going to be dealing with one of the most complicated eschatological passages in all of Scripture. We are probably dealing with twenty percent more interpretations than we have interpreters, and the whole thing is very sad. We have a few intimations of these difficulties in this chapter, and so some words about it now are in order.

As I understand it, our fixed anchor point should be that all passages that address the general resurrection of the dead should be located at the end of history, when the Lord Jesus comes back to judge the living and the dead. That would include 1 Thess. 4:16-17, and it would also include 2 Thess. 1:7-10 and 2 Thess. 2:8. The challenge comes when we try to fit some of the surrounding statements on a timeline that appears to extend from the first century to the end of the world. Here are four basic positions:

“(1) All the preliminary signs and the day of the Lord have already occurred; (2) All of the preliminary signs have occurred, so there is now nothing preventing the coming of the day of the Lord, but the day of the Lord has not yet come. (3) Some of the preliminary signs have either occurred or begun to occur, but since all of them have not yet occurred, the day of the Lord cannot come yet, and (4) None of the preliminary signs has yet occurred, so the day of the Lord still cannot come” (Mathison, From Age to Age, p. 521).

Like Mathison, my preference would be for the third option. The day of the Lord has not yet come, and yet Paul appears to be making clear reference at places to the sorts of events that happened in the course of his lifetime. Remember that Caligula had attempted to have a statue of himself erected in the Temple at Jerusalem in 40 A.D. and only his murder prevented it. 

Take Care Not to Miss the Central Point

But it would be a great mistake to get caught up in the study of when the flaming judgment was going to come, and neglect the fact of a flaming judgment that was going to come.   

In this passage, we see who will be judged, and who will be vindicated. The Lord will appear in flaming fire, he says, and He will exact a strict vengeance when He does. This will fall on those who do not know God, and it will fall on those who did not obey the gospel (v. 8). So what will be the nature of that damnation? The punishment is described here as an exclusion. They will be shut out from the presence of the Lord, and they will be shut out from the glory of His power (v. 9).

What is the gospel that commanded their obedience, and which they refused to render? That gospel is the message that Christ died, was buried, rose again, and ascended into Heaven. From that place, He summons all men to believe in Him. The work we must do is the work of hearing and following Him on the basis of His death and resurrection.

When we contrast those who are shut out with those believers who admire Him (v. 10), we can see the very nature of damnation and salvation. These are the states where we arrive at what we have been becoming. And this means that the very fact of Christ is a great invitation.    

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Brendan of Ireland

Good piece Doug. If my memory serves me right the Church of England has removed 2 Thess 1:5-12 from its lectionary of readings because some of Paul’s sentiments were deemed too offensive for modern ears.