The Righteous Judgment of God: Interpreting 2 Thessalonians 1:3-10
In Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, eschatological teaching appears even more prominently than in the first. The Thessalonians continue to endure severe persecution (1 Thess. 3:3, 2 Thess. 1:4). Because of this, and because of the apostle’s earlier teaching, they eagerly await the Coming of their Lord (1 Thess. 1:10). Now, however, a rumor is circulating, a rumor to the effect that “the Day of the Lord has come”— that Christ’s return is “at the very door” (Mt. 24:33). As a result, the Thessalonians are troubled, shaken from their spiritual composure (2 Thess. 2:2). Doubtless a vigorous debate has arisen in their congregations, seeing that the rumor does not square with Paul’s previous instruction (2 Thess. 3:5). Also, certain men, previously reproved for their indolence, are likely using this rumor as an excuse to dodge the responsibility of work (1 Thess. 4:11-12, 5:14). In the good providence of God, Paul gets wind of these things and again takes pen in hand.
Our text, 2 Thessalonians 1:3-10, is the first of two passages in this letter devoted almost entirely to eschatological themes (we will discuss the other, 2:1-12, next). In essence, it celebrates the Thessalonians faithfulness and endurance amidst their severe persecutions, even as it encourages them to stay the course, seeing that Christ will soon return to administer perfect justice in the form of eternal rewards and retribution. Let us briefly survey it now, paying special attention to any signs that Paul has in view the single Consummation of classic amillennial eschatology.
In verses 3-4, the apostle opens with an expression of thanksgiving. He is deeply grateful for the Thessalonian’s growth in faith and brotherly love, and especially for their perseverance amidst so many dire persecutions and afflictions (Acts 17:5-9, 1 Thess. 1:6, 2:14, 3:3). He feels he ought always to thank God for such exemplary qualities in such exemplary Christians, and proudly declares that he openly boasts about them to the other churches of God.
In verse 5-10 he goes on to encourage them to keep up the good fight. This tightly knit section may be divided into three parts.
In verse 5, Paul states his theme for the passage: the righteous judgment of God. The Thessalonians are to remember that their admirable endurance through these unjust persecutions stands as a “plain indication” (or “manifest evidence,” NKJV) that God, the Righteous Judge has already declared them to be righteous because of their faith in Christ, and so made them worthy to enter his eternal Kingdom. Implicitly, they must now continue to endure, so that they may see their righteousness fully vindicated on the Day of the Lord Jesus (Mt. 24:13, Rom. 8:17, 11:22, Col. 1:23, 1 Tim. 2:15). As Paul will later express the matter to the Philippians, the calm perseverance of believers in the midst of persecution is a sure sign: a sign of future destruction for their persecutors, but of future salvation for the believers themselves (Phil. 1:28).
God’s Righteous Judgment
In verses 6-8, Paul continues his meditation on God’s righteous judgment. Now, however, his thoughts pass on to another judgment: the final Judgment itself. He means his words to be a great encouragement to the Thessalonians. In that Day God will send the Lord Jesus down from heaven, surrounded by flaming fire (i.e., divine glory in manifestation) and accompanied by his mighty angels. When he arrives, he himself will consummately administer the righteous judgment of God, turning a morally upside down world right side up. How will he do this? By afflicting the afflicters, and by relieving the afflicted (verses 6-7). He will do it by dealing out fiery retribution to all who spurned the knowledge of God and refused to obey the Gospel of Christ (v. 8; Rom. 1:5, 28).
What Judgment is This?
Is this indeed the Last Judgment? Verses 9-10 assure us that it is. In verse 9, Paul says that the unbelieving rebels will pay the penalty of eternal destruction. From that moment on, they will experience the eternal ruin of all well-being in Gehenna, or the Lake of Fire (Mt. 13:40-43, 25:46). Note also that this judgment removes unbelievers from “the presence of the Lord and the glory of his power.” Here, Paul has the Regeneration in view. Unbelievers will never taste the powers, nor behold the glories, of the eternal Age to Come, wherein God and Christ will feast together with the saints in the new heavens and the new earth (v. 9; Luke 14:24).
Verse 10 also points conclusively to the Last Judgment. When he comes, Christ will “ . . . be glorified in his saints on that day, and marveled at among all who have believed.” Paul has in view Christ’s entire Church: all the saints, all who have believed. And how exactly will they all arrive upon the scene? The apostle need not say, for in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 he has already explained everything: On the day when Christ is revealed from heaven, he will bring with him the spirits of the departed saints, and then clothe them with their new resurrection bodies. Then he will transform the living saints. At that point, all of the saints of all time will be standing before the Lord in glory! I agree, therefore, with F. F. Bruce, when he writes, “Christian men and women are meant here. They are to share in Christ’s glory. The revealing of the Lord Jesus from heaven (v. 7) is also the day of the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19, Col. 1:3) (NBC, p. 1162)
Finally, note in verse 10 Paul’s reference to “that day.” What day does he mean? As the phrase itself indicates, there is, and can only be, one of them: the Day of the Lord Jesus. Moreover, in this text—as in so many others like it—it is plainly a day of eternal reward and retribution (1 Cor. 5:5, 2 Cor. 1:14, 1 Thess 5:2, 2 Thess. 2:2, 2 Peter 3:10f). In sum, it is the Last Day, the Day of the general Resurrection, the general Judgment, and the inauguration of the Final State for all men and angels (John 6:39, 40, 44, 54).
In conclusion, I would point out that this text is highly problematic for our dispensational brethren. For if, in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Paul was extending to his flock the hope of a secret Coming and a removal to heaven, how is it that here he is extending to that very same flock a completely different hope: the hope of an exceedingly public Coming, of final redemption for the saints, and final retribution for sinners?
No, in both of these passages Paul clearly has in mind a single Day. It is the Last Day, the Day of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Consummation, in which the glorified Lord Jesus will come to earth again, one final time, to raise the dead, judge the world in righteousness, and introduce the Kingdom of God in its glorious fullness.
So our Reformed forefathers believed, taught, and joyfully proclaimed. We do well to follow in their steps.