2 Thessalonians 1:6-12 - Coming to Judge
In the previous verses of this chapter the Apostle had spoken of the great progress these Thessalonians had made in the Christian life and how grateful he is that this work of God has proceeded so beautifully. These words were also an introduction to the main theme with which he will deal in this epistle. The readers have some mistaken notions concerning the return of Christ. He will now treat this matter in the rest of this chapter and in the following.
God is Righteous
First of all it must be established that God is righteous when He rewards both good and evil. The manner in which he expresses himself concerning this matter is one which he uses time and again. When he uses the term "if," he does not call into question whether God is righteous in doing these things. No, it is a form he uses to show that it certainly is proper for God to do so.
This fact is clearly learned from the Old Testament. Israel knew that God would indeed reward them and that He would also do battle against all those who opposed them. The same works are now ascribed to God and to the Lord Jesus Christ. Is this a little less than Christian? Some think so today. Christ has come to save! But, the New Testament makes it very clear that an important part of the salvation He brings is the judgment He pronounces on the wicked.
He will, therefore, afflict those who have brought affliction on His people. His judgment will be perfectly just. He will bring punishment according to the crime which was committed. At the same time He will give rest to those who have been afflicted here. It is a rest which they will share with Paul and the others who have ministered to them. By this rest he means the freedom from the afflictions which they have suffered before and a freedom from all the tensions under which they often labored. It means a healthy peace of heart and of mind. This is the rest that remaineth to the people of God. (Hebrews 4:9)
The Judge of All
This judgment will be made at the time of the "revelation" of the Lord Jesus from heaven. He uses the term which our word Apocalypse comes. This word means revelation. Although our Lord has been clearly revealed to us on the pages of Scripture, there are still aspects of His being which are veiled — they are still hidden. When He comes again this veil will be lifted and the Christ shall appear more glorious than anyone had seen Him before. He shall then come from heaven, naturally because He had ascended there, to show that He comes with the fullest authority. He does not usurp the place of Judge, but is fully commissioned to be the Judge of all men.
To reveal that glory which is His, the Apostle tells us that He will come with the angels of His power. Angels had at times been used to bring the message of His temporal judgments in the past and sometimes to carry out these judgments. God's people are familiar with the work and might of the angels. Now, when He shall come again, He will come surrounded by these mighty angels! They are not called to do the judging because they are only in attendance on One who is far greater than they. As He comes, He will be surrounded by flaming fire. How often this symbolism is used in the Scriptures to denote the glory and the mighty power of God! So He came down on Sinai. Fire is used as a symbol to show the presence of the Spirit of God as well as His coming at Pentecost. Truly, it will be a revelation when the Lord returns.
Vengeance on the Wicked
In the judgment which He brings He will render vengeance on the wicked. This term sounds harsh in the ear of modern man but also to the ear of a Christian. His people are warned more than once that they may not seek vengeance. Vengeance belongs to God alone. We must also note that this term does not imply vindictiveness. It is a term whereby he teaches us that righteousness will be upheld. The Judge of all the earth will do what is right! His people shall be declared innocent on the basis of the complete payment which Christ has made for their sins. Thus there is no condemnation for those who are in Him. Neither can anyone lay any charge against them. The right is perfectly satisfied.
So it is also true concerning the wicked. His sins are not covered. He is guilty and the righteous judge will not allow the guilty to go unpunished. Therefore He inflicts vengeance on them. They are the ones who know not God, i.e., who do not know Him as their God. They are also the ones who do not obey the gospel of the Lord Jesus. They are disobedient. Some have thought that two different kinds of people are meant by the author but this is not true. Those who are disobedient to the gospel do not know God! These are the same ones who have afflicted the people of God. His people are called to bear affliction and not take vengeance, but when He comes again He will judge.
Punishment to Fit the Crime
What will be the punishment meted out to those who do not know God and have been disobedient to the gospel of Christ? It will not be a sentence which is too light or too severe. The punishment shall fit the crime. Justice shall prevail as it never has before because the perfect Judge will give sentence. There is something fearful about this but it too belongs to the gospel!
A "gospel" which preaches peace and safety to those who do not know Him and obey not the gospel, is no gospel but an utter falsehood! It is not only the Apostle who has spoken of these things (although that would be enough) but our Lord Himself emphasized this truth again and again. This truth gives an urgency to the gospel. It calls men to flee from the wrath to come. The gospel should disturb the unbeliever and give him no rest until he believes! Much of present day preaching only teaches him to be a "nicer man."
Many believe that the end of man is total annihilation. Does not the fact that man is to return to the dust seem to point in this direction? Besides, the Apostle here teaches that the punishment of the wicked shall be "eternal destruction." Is he here teaching us the annihilation of the godless? We must bear in mind that the Bible speaks of destruction in more than one way. Sodom and Gomorrah were completely destroyed, which meant that there was nothing left of these cities. When Paul and Jesus speak of the destruction of the wicked it does not mean annihilation. The destruction of which they speak means that there is nothing worthwhile left, that it is utter ruin.
Many unbelievers will even comfort themselves with the hope of complete annihilation, but this is not the teaching of Scripture. It will be a destruction which removes them from the face of the Lord and from the glory of His might. It is, therefore, a separation. The Lord whom they have hated and refused to obey will banish them from His presence — and that is destruction! Physical death is the separation of body and soul; eternal death is the separation of the person from God. The future of God's people is called "eternal life"; and the future of the wicked is characterized as "eternal death." But, this is a death in the conscious state!
Blessings for the Believer
Having given a broad outline of the punishment which awaits the unbeliever, Paul now speaks of the things which shall happen to the believer in the day in which He returns. The Scriptures have often emphasized the fact that the believers are not to dread that day but should look forward to it. This now becomes clear when he speaks of the blessings of that day for the believer.
When Christ returns He will be glorified in His saints. The image of God had lost much of its lustre when man fell into sin. Christ had come to restore that image to its original beauty. This has not been fully accomplished as long as man is still in this present state. But, when He comes again, His glory will be reflected in His saints! The dead shall put on the incorruptible and those who are still alive shall be changed. Then shall they reflect the glory of the God in whose image they were made. "We shall be like him for we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2).
Not only is it a glory which is reflected in these saints, but they therein glorify the Christ who is coming. The glory of which He had emptied Himself will be restored on that day. He will also be marveled at in all them that believed. All creatures will marvel at His recreative work as it comes to expression in all believers. To this he adds a parenthetical note to assure them that they are among those believers of whom he has spoken because they have believed his testimony to them. He is not simply dealing with facts, but with such things as have real personal value.
Paul as the Pastor
No matter what the subject matter may be, Paul always remains the pastor of the people to whom he writes. Here too he reminds the people that he prays for them constantly. What is the content of his prayer? That God may count them worthy of the call wherewith He has called them. This call refers to the rest of which they are to partake with all the saints. But, is he now calling into question that which he had affirmed concerning them in the parenthetical statement at the close of the previous verse? No, he does not doubt their faith nor their justification. He is here addressing himself to their sanctification. Are they going to live a life which has the approval of their God? This indeed demands the constant prayer of the Apostle. It is not enough to have come to the faith — this faith must be lived.
Paul therefore counsels the readers to fulfill every resolve of goodness which they have made. It was their desire to live an unblameable life before their God. May that purpose be realized — that's what he prays for. Also that their every work which springs from faith may be fulfilled. He is here emphasizing the things which they themselves must do because they are not without responsibilities in the area of their sanctification. These people, together with all those who follow, must learn that faith without works is dead. However, they are not standing alone in their sanctification. God is the One who will give the power to achieve their goal. The human responsibility is real but it is never divorced from the power of the Spirit of God. Only in this light are we able to achieve a certain harmony between the works of God, which are sovereign, and the responsibility to which He calls every believer.
The blessings which await the believer at the return of Christ are indeed great. They will be distinguished from unbelievers as never before. However, are believers to live a certain kind of life in order to receive rewards? Is this not too crass? Their reward will be great, but the Apostle has an even higher goal in mind for them. They are to walk in such a way so that God will count them worthy of their calling and that the name of the Lord Jesus may be glorified in them. That is the ultimate purpose of their faith and their manner of life. It is the name which has been published abroad in the gospel. It is the name which is above every name. When that name is glorified He is glorified. Let others see their faith and its product, and, if it is the genuine article, they will glorify the name of Christ. His glory shall shine upon them when He comes again, but there is also a glory which He receives in the present.
If they conduct themselves in such a way so that the name of the Lord is glorified, then are they also glorified in Him. Their relationship to Jesus Christ is so close that the glory of the One is also the glory of the other. Their faith and walk of life is not only for Another — they derive great profit from it themselves! What He calls them to do is for their own good. Their only glory is the Lord Jesus!
This is the kind of command which the unbeliever fails to understand. The believer finds his own welfare when he glorifies the Christ! This is wholly of grace. No one has come to this conclusion by himself. It is grace which gives an entirely different outlook on life. The believer is indebted to God and the Lord Jesus Christ for this grace which he has received. It is from both. Paul uses the term grace more than almost any other word. It is grace that revealed Him to us; that gave us faith; and that caused us to live as He requires. It is grace from beginning to end.
Paul's treatment of the day when Christ comes to judge is not coldly factual but is given in the framework of the glory of Christ and the benefits for the believer. This is gospel — this is the word of life.
Questions for Discussion
People sometimes speak of "fire and brimstone" preachers of the past. What do they mean by this? Would you say that Paul was such a preacher?
What will our Lord's coming be like? Do we have sufficient answers to this question in verse 7?
The word translated "vengeance" is derived from the word meaning "righteous." Does this give any light on the nature of the vengeance the Lord renders?
Why are unbelievers resurrected? Do we really understand what eternal life and eternal punishment mean?
What do you understand by the image of God?
How is sanctification related to justification? How do they differ?
What is really our goal in life?