SYNOPSIS – The coming of Jesus will mean vindication for the righteous but everlasting loss for the wicked – 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10.
The second letter to the Thessalonians was written in the months following Paul’s departure from the city. His first epistle was positive and expressed joy at the receipt of the good news that the Thessalonians were remaining faithful despite persecution. In the second letter, the Apostle addressed three main issues – Persecution, church members who refused to work, and questions related to the “arrival” of Jesus.
In the period since his first epistle, persecution had increased. Moreover, some church members were refusing to work. In part, their idleness was due to excitement and confusion about the “coming of Jesus.”
The focus in the first chapter of the letter is on persecution and what it means in the light of the end of the age. Paul also sets the stage for the discussion in the next chapter about the “day of the Lord” and the “man of lawlessness”:
(2 Thessalonians 1:3-4) – “We ought to be thanking God at all times concerning you, brothers, according as is fitting, because your faith is greatly increasing and the love of each of you all is abounding to one another, so that we ourselves are boasting in you among all the assemblies of God on account of your endurance and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations, which you are enduring.”
Paul thanks God for the faithful perseverance of the Thessalonians. This sets the tone for the next paragraph. He refers to “persecutions” in the plural, which indicates an ongoing hostile environment in the city. The word translated “tribulations” is also in the plural number. This is the same Greek noun used elsewhere in the New Testament for the “Great Tribulation” – (Matthew 24:21, Revelation 1:9, 7:14. See alsoMatthew 24:29, Mark 13:19, 13:24).
Just Judgment of God
(2 Thessalonians 1:5-7) – “Evidence of the just judgment of God, so that you be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, on behalf of which also you are suffering, since [it is] just for God to requite affliction to those afflicting you, and relief to you, to those being afflicted with us; at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with his angels of power.”
The use of the term “tribulation” demonstrates that Paul did NOT believe Christians are destined to escape and, otherwise, avoid “tribulation.” As he wrote in his first letter, “we are appointed to tribulation” – (Compare – 1 Thessalonians 1:6, 3:3, 3:7, 2 Thessalonians 1:6).
The persecution of the Thessalonians and their perseverance constituted “evidence” of the “just judgment of God” for them. Judgment means a decision in favor of or against someone – It results in vindication or condemnation.
It is not clear whether “evidence” refers to the endurance of the Thessalonians, to their persecution, or to both. If the former, “perseverance” becomes the proof of the rightness of His decision for them to inherit His kingdom. If the latter, then the persecuting activities by their opponents validates His sentence of condemnation against them. Considering the statement – “It is just for God to requite affliction to those afflicting you and relief to you” – Probably both options are intended.
“Requite” translates the Greek verb antapodidōmi – “To give back, repay, requite, give in return.” The stress is on equal payback, to recompense someone what he or she has earned. Here, the verb refers to “recompense” by God for two different groups: To the persecutors and to the Thessalonian Christians. To the former, God will repay “affliction”; to the latter, “rest.”
The persecutors will be repaid “tribulation” or “trouble.” In contrast, believers will receive “rest with us.” This “rest” will come at a specific time, at “the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven.” The word translated “revelation” is apokalypsis, meaning, a “revealing, uncovering, disclosure, unveiling.” It is used elsewhere in the New Testament for the “coming” of Christ – (1 Corinthians 1:7, 1 Peter 1:7, 1:13).
This “revelation” will occur when Jesus arrives “from heaven.” This is precisely the same clause Paul used in his first letterto describe how Jesus will “descend from heaven with a shout” to raise the righteous dead and gather his saints – (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
In that earlier passage, Paul labeled this coming as the “arrival” or parousia of Jesus. This shows him applying both Greek terms – parousia and apokalypsis – to the same event. The terms are used interchangeably in his letters.
(2 Thessalonians 1:8-10) – “In flaming fire giving vengeance to those who know not God and to those not hearkening to the gospel of our Lord Jesus, who will pay a penalty, everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. Whenever he shall come to be made all-glorious in his saints and to be marveled at in all who believed, because our witness to you was believed, in that day.”
The clause “in flaming fire” may go with the preceding sentence, the “revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with his angels of power, in flaming fire.” However, more likely, it refers to the “fire” of destruction that will befall the wicked – (i.e., “In flaming fire giving vengeance to those who know not God”). The clause alludes to a passage from the book of Isaiah:
(Isaiah 66:15) – “Yahweh comes with fire and like a storm-wind are his chariots, to render with fury his anger and his rebuke with flames of fire.”
The vengeance of God will come upon those who do not know Him and who do not hearken to the Gospel. “Hearkening” translates a Greek compound verb, hupakouō, a term with the sense “hearken, submit, yield, obey.” It refers to a conscious refusal to submit, not simply to a failure to hear – The refusal to obey “the gospel of our Lord Jesus.”
Those who refuse to obey will receive “everlasting destruction.” This is set in apposition to “penalty” – “Everlasting destruction” is the penalty they will pay. Grammatically speaking, in this clause “everlasting” (aiōnion) refers to the length of time the results of the destruction will last. There will be no appeal or reprieve.
“Destruction” translates the noun olethros or “ruin, destruction, undoing,” the same Greek word Paul used in his first letter to the Thessalonians for the “unexpected destruction” that will come upon the unprepared on that day. This parallels the parable by Jesus portraying the judgment of the nations – (1 Thessalonians 5:3, Matthew 25:46).
This verse likely alludes to a prophecy by Obadiah – (Translated from the Greek Septuagint):
(Obadiah 12-13) – “You should not have looked on the day of your brother in the day of strangers; nor should you have rejoiced against the children of Judah in the day of their destruction [olethros] neither should you have boasted in the day of tribulation [thlipsis]. Neither should you have gone into the gates of the people in the day of their troubles.”
In the book of Obadiah, this is the pronouncement against Edom for its treachery against Israel. Paul applies it to the wicked men at Thessalonica who persecuted the church. The “everlasting destruction” cannot refer to a tribulation period before the end since it will be “everlasting” and coincides with the “revelation of Jesus from heaven” – (Matthew 7:23, 22:13, 25:41, Luke 13:27).
Those who oppose the Gospel will be excluded from the presence of the Lord and the “glory of his might.” This alludes to another saying of Jesus:
(Matthew 24:29-31) – “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken; then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming [parousia] on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”
Paul declared that one’s reward or punishment would be received “whenever he comes,” here, using the Greek verb erchomai or “come.” Elsewhere in the New Testament, this same verb is used several times or the “coming” of Jesus – (Matthew 24:30, 24:42-46, 25:31, Mark 13:26, 13:35-36, Luke 21:27).
When Jesus is “revealed from heaven,” his faithful saints will be gathered to glorify and admire him – Both believers and unbelievers are presented before him when he arrives.
In this passage, the future vindication of faithful believers is contrasted with the condemnation of the wicked. Both occur at the same time – “On that day” – A reference to the “Day of the Lord,” which Paul discusses in the next chapter.
The purpose of the letter was to encourage the Thessalonian church to persevere through persecution and “tribulation.” To accomplish this, it contrasted what awaited faithful believers when Jesus comes with the fate of the disobedient.
The vindication of the righteous and condemnation of the wicked are not separate events that require separate “comings” of Jesus. His “arrival” will result in the vindication of some and the punishment of others. Both sets of events occur at his one “revelation from heaven.”