Pastor Gary Wong, November 8, 2020
2 Thessalonians 1:5-10
5 This is evidence of God’s righteous verdict that resulted in your being counted worthy of God’s kingdom, for which you also suffer. 6 Certainly, it is right for God to repay trouble to those who trouble you, 7 and to give relief to you, who are troubled along with us. When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his powerful angels, 8 he will exercise vengeance in flaming fire on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 Such people will receive a just penalty: eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord and from his glorious strength, 10 on that day when he comes to be glorified among his saints, and to be marveled at among all those who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.
I’m a fan of old movies, particularly old westerns. I like these kinds of movies because they have simple plots and well-defined characters. Everything was black or white, including the clothing that differentiated the heroes from the villains. The bad guys, who always wore black, were thieves and murderers. The good guys, who always wore white, were honest, hardworking folks who often suffered all kinds of injustices at the hands of the bad guys. But rather than giving up, the good guys kept battling. And in the end, the good guys would win and ride off into the sunset while the bad guys got the punishment they deserved. In a classic western, justice always prevails.
Many of us can relate to these movies because their plots mirror our everyday lives. Like the heroes in those old Westerns, we sometimes struggle. We struggle with finances, health issues, and strained relationships between family members, coworkers, neighbors, and friends. What makes the struggle even harder is that things aren’t always fair. Those who try to live God-pleasing lives often suffer while the ungodly—those who lie, cheat or steal—seem to be getting along well without any problems. The bad guys seem to be gaining ground while the good guys trail behind in their dust. After a while, it’s hard to keep fighting what seems to be a losing battle.
Those were the circumstances that prompted the Apostle Paul to write not one, but two letters to the Christians in Thessalonica. Not only were these believers facing challenges similar to ours, they were suffering immeasurably more from their enemies who were persecuting them because of their faith. In describing these persecutors as “troublemakers”, Paul wasn’t doing them justice. Folks—these people were downright mean and nasty. You’ve heard the expression, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” Well, not only did these enemies hurt the Thessalonians with their slanderous lies, they were literally coming after them with sticks, stones, iron rods, bare fists and any other weapon they could find. The Thessalonians faced the real possibility of sudden, violent death at the hands of their enemies who would stop at nothing to destroy them.
How could Paul help his fellow believers who were facing such intense persecution? He sent this letter of comfort and encouragement so that they would stand firm in their faith. First, he reminded them that he had warned them to expect opposition and persecution from their enemies. After all, if Jesus, who had done absolutely nothing wrong, was mercilessly hounded, persecuted, and eventually crucified by his enemies, how can Jesus’ followers be surprised when they find themselves unfairly treated and persecuted? St. Peter, in writing to the Christians in Asia Minor who were suffering similar persecution, put it this way: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the suffering of Christ” (1 Peter 4:12).
While Paul was completely sympathetic to the Thessalonians because he had experienced the same persecution, Paul wanted to make it clear that their suffering was not because God was punishing them for their sins. Rather, their suffering actually proved that they were members of God’s family and that God loved them. “Wow!” the Thessalonians might have thought. “If suffering is the way that God shows that he loves us, I wouldn’t like to see how God treats his enemies!” We can understand why the Thessalonians might have thought that God was punishing them. After all, God is in control of all things. They knew and we know that nothing happens unless God makes it happen or allows it to happen. Following that line of reasoning, God must be responsible for our suffering.
But here is where human logic breaks down. Keep in mind that God is not evil nor is he the source of sin. The Bible teaches that God is holy and just. Therefore, we cannot blame God for the bad things that happen in our lives. Rather, we need to remember that all suffering and sadness are the consequences of sin. We also need to remember God’s promise that he works out all things—including the trials, setbacks, and suffering he sends into our lives—for our good. Our gracious God does not put us through trials because he wants us to fail; rather, he makes it so that we will pass these tests with flying colors. In the same way that a refiner’s fire removes all of the impurities, leaving only pure, precious metal, God uses our trials to strengthen and purify our faith. Indeed, our suffering and our response to the trials we endure prove that we belong to God. Paul wrote, “all this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering” (2 Thess. 1:5).
What great news Paul had for the Thessalonians and us—that God has judged us worthy of his kingdom! Yet, that judgment almost begs several questions. For instance, what does it take to be worthy of God’s kingdom? God’s Word teaches that we are to be perfect because our heavenly Father is perfect. Yet, as you and I look at our lives—the things that we say, do, and think—we have to admit that we are far from perfect. In countless ways, we are every bit as rotten as the worst villain in one of those old westerns. How so? You and I have broken God’s law. We do not do the things that God commands us to do; at the same time we do the very things that God forbids. For the countless ways and times we sin against God, we deserve his punishment. Yet, Paul assures us that God’s judgment is that we are worthy. How can that be? We are worthy of God’s kingdom, not by our own merits, but by the merits of God’s own Son. Jesus was perfectly obedient to his Father’s will and became obedient to death. Jesus was crucified on a cross to suffer the punishment that you and I deserve. Our Redeemer then credited his righteousness to our accounts. Because of Jesus, all of our sins have been forgiven and we have been given the gift of eternal life. Praise be to God for his judgment that says we are worthy for Jesus’ sake!
So, when will this judgment take place? Paul tells us: “This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels” (2 Thess. 1:5). Paul is talking about Judgment Day, the day the angels promised that Jesus will return to this earth to carry out God’s justice. Knowing that we will be found worthy of God’s kingdom gives us tremendous peace. We know that on that day, we will begin a perfect, joy-filled life in heaven. Yet, heaven seems to be a long way off. We are still living in a sinful world where we suffer all kinds of trials and injustices. Our sinful natures want to see God punish the people who cause us all kinds of grief. We want vengeance on our enemies, and we want it now! To that, the Lord says, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay” (Heb. 10:30). Paul reminds us, “God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you” (2 Thess. 1:6).
In other words, God has everything under control. We needn’t trouble ourselves with getting back at or getting even with those who are troubling us. What’s more, God’s justice is perfect. He never makes mistakes. The guilty will not escape unpunished nor will the innocent be wrongly judged. So how will God repay these troublemakers? “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power” (v.9). The punishment God has in store for those who reject him is far worse than anything you or I could ever imagine. Hell is a place of unbelievable, excruciating pain that never ends. Hell is where unbelievers are separated from God’s love for all eternity. It’s no wonder, then, that the Bible describes hell as a place where there is endless “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 8:12).
On the other hand, what God has in store for believers compared to unbelievers is as different as night and day. As horrible as it will be for those who reject Jesus, Judgment Day will be the greatest, most glorious day for all believers. On that day, God will fulfill his last and greatest promise: namely, that all who believe in Jesus will be taken up to heaven in glory. Indeed, heaven is so glorious, so awesome that the Bible’s description of it cannot possibly do it justice. In the vision that God granted the Apostle John in the Book of Revelation, John describes heaven as a place where “God will wipe away every tear from our eyes” and “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4). Yet, heaven is so much more than just the absence of things that make us sad; heaven is a place filled with incredible joy and countless blessings. Heaven is so awesome that Paul tells us that we will be spending eternity marveling at its glories!
The fact that justice will be served on the Last Day certainly gives us great comfort for the future; but what about now? It’s difficult to stay the course when the wheels are falling off and we’re being squeezed on all sides. Paul not only assures us that we will be vindicated in the end, but that God helps us with our troubles in the here and now. Not only will God repay those who are troubling us now, he gives “relief to those who are troubled” (v.7). We are relieved that God does not treat us as our sins deserve. We find relief from the gospel that assures us that God forgives our sins for Jesus’ sake; and that the Lord uses our trials and suffering to strengthen our faith and our relationship with him. Our response to God’s love that he pours out on us is to live with joy, thanksgiving, hope, and peace.
Friends, as long as we are on this side of heaven, we will suffer through painful trials. Life on this sin-filled earth isn’t fair. Yet, we needn’t despair. God is just. The gospel gives us the courage to persevere under the most severe trial we may be experiencing. The gospel assures us that God’s perfect justice will prevail. Praise the Lord that, through faith in Christ, we are worthy of the kingdom of God. Amen.
“If God Himself Be for Me” (CW 419)
If God himself be for me,
I may a host defy;
For when I pray, before me
My foes, confounded, fly.
If Christ my head and master,
Be-friend me from above,
What foe or what disaster
Can drive me from his love?
This I believe, yea rather,
Of this I make my boast,
That God is my dear Father,
My friend who loves me most,
And that, what-e’er betide me,
My Savior is at hand
Through stormy seas to guide me
And bring me safe to land.
No sin can now condemn me
Or set my hope aside,
Now hell no more can claim me; Its fury I deride.
No sentence now reproves me
No guilt destroys my peace,
For Christ, my Savior, loves me
And shields me with his grace.