3. Commendation and Comfort in the Face of Persecution (2 Thes. 1:3-12)
1:3 We ought to thank God always for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith flourishes more and more and the love of each one of you all for one another is ever greater. 1:4 As a result we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and afflictions you are enduring.
Commendation for Abundant Growth in Faith and Love (vs. 3)
As is consistent with the grace-oriented thinking of the apostle Paul, he begins with an expression of thanks to God for what had miraculously taken place in the hearts and lives of these believers. We can translate this, “To be giving thanks, we are morally indebted to God always.” To make the issue of our constant indebtedness to God perfectly clear, Paul not only employed the present tense twice (which may point to continuous action) but he added the adverb pantote, “always.” “Ought” is the Greek opheilo, “owe, be indebted.” But this word implies a special, personal and moral obligation as distinct from purely a logical necessity, even though it is fit and logical.6 To further stress this, Paul added, “and rightly so.” Literally this means, “just as it is fitting, worthy.” “Worthy” is axios, “worthy, fit, in keeping with what deserves to be done.”
The missionaries never took the growth and spiritual change in the lives of those they ministered to for granted or foolishly attributed it to anything in their own ministry, i.e., their hard work or methods or plans. They were simply the instruments of the grace of God. While it is encouraging to see people blessed and grow through one’s ministry, may we guard our own hearts from foolish pride when such occurs and from undue disappointment when we fail to see the results we had hoped for by always recognizing it is only by the grace of God.
The words, “because your faith flourishes more and more and the love of each one of you all for one another is ever greater,” points us to the reason for their thanksgiving. When going through the difficulties of life we can not only lose sight of God’s design to mature us in Christ, but also of our own spiritual progress of growth. Thus, in order to encourage them even more the apostle used two words for growth or progress, one that focused on their faith and the other on the progress of their love. In the first epistle, he mentioned the triad of faith, love, and hope. Because he does not mention “hope” in this passage, some have taken it as an evidence that their hope was waning, but not necessarily. The emphasis is on their obvious progress by virtue of both faith and love. Further, Paul does mention their endurance and faith in all their affliction in the next verse (but cf. Col. 1:4-5). After all, faith is the “assurance of things hoped for” (Heb. 11:1).
“Flourishes more and more” is a word used only here in the New Testament. It is a compound of the preposition huper, “over, above, beyond,” and auxano, “to grow, increase,” especially of the natural growth process of plants and that which lives (see Mark 4:8; Matt. 6:28; 13:32; Luke 13:19; 1 Cor. 3:6f). By the addition of the preposition, the apostle painted the picture of the abundant and above normal growth of a fruit-bearing tree. Spiritual growth is the work of God accomplished through the preaching of the Word, the trials of life, and through the prayer of the saints.
In the first epistle, Paul had commended the Thessalonian believers for their faith (1:3), but a faith that fails to grow becomes stale and idle or non-productive as we are warned in the epistle of James. Thus, being concerned about the stability and growth of the Thessalonian’s faith, he sent Timothy to strengthen and encourage them, while they continued to pray earnestly for their growth in faith (1 Thes. 3:1-10). Thankfully, their faith had not only grown, but it had flourished and Paul, being encouraged by this himself, sought to encourage them by this fact as well.
A growing and abundant faith is not only needed to handle the trials of life, but it is the fountain, the source of faithfulness for showing love to others. Thus, the apostle quickly pointed to the love each of them had for one another. “Both faith and love were growing like well-fertilized plants, beyond what would have been normally expected. This was an exceptional church.”7
The growth of their love was another thing the apostle and his missionary team had prayed for (1 Thes. 3:12) and this too had been answered. Literally, the Greek text has, “the love of each one of you all for one another abounds.” The apostle both particularizes this to the individual and extends it to the entire body of believers. It seems to include even those who were disorderly.
Defection in one element does not necessarily indicate that there is defection in all the elements of Christian character, but neither does the vigour of one grace compensate for the absence of another, as some at Thessalonica seemed to think.8
The problem of the disorderly is ignored at the moment, but will be addressed later in chapter 3.
Commendation for Perseverance and
Faith in Their Persecutions and Afflictions (vs. 4)
“We ourselves” is emphatic and shows that others had evidently spoken of the faith and love and endurance of these believers in the midst of their affliction. But their perseverance and faith were such that the missionary team was constrained to boast about this body of Christians to other churches, undoubtedly as an example of how faith enables us to endure in the midst of suffering, and perhaps also to show or teach the nature and work of suffering as a tool God uses to cause us to grow. One can not truly learn to trust God in the tough places of life by simply reading or being told about suffering. We have to suffer. Suffering is a necessary tool. If even the Lord Jesus learned the meaning of obedience by the things He suffered, how much more must this be true for us (Heb. 5:8)? There is a saying by Goethe, the German poet, that “talent is formed in solitude, but character in the storms of life.”
In the vast plains of the Serengeti in southeast Africa, about the only thing that grows are gnarly old acacia bushes. These don’t provide very straight arrow shafts for the little bushmen that inhabit the plains, so they’ve formulated an ingenious process to keep their quivers full. First they go out and find a suitable branch; it doesn’t matter if it’s got a 30-degree angle in it, just so it’s the proper thickness and length. Next they’ll build a fire, and right beside the fire they’ll drive two rows of pegs into the ground, about six to eight inches apart. Then they’ll put the branch into the fire to get its juices flowing making it pliable. When it’s hot enough, they’ll fish it out of the fire and jam it between the two rows of pegs and let it cool. It’s a little straighter. Back to the fire, back to the pegs, back to the fire, back to the pegs … until finally the pegs are right next to each other, with only an arrow’s width between them. When the bushman pulls it out this last time, he’s got a perfectly straight arrow that’s useful to its maker.
We like the part about “useful to the maker,” but it’s the fire and that bending we’d just as soon avoid. If you want to be made useful, though, you’ve got to take the tough with the easy. We learn from the account of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Daniel 3 that God doesn’t always take His children around the fire—Sometimes He meets them in the middle of the furnace.9
Phillips Brooks once said,
O, do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger men! Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be a miracle.
The nature of the suffering at Thessalonica is indicated in the words used by the apostle, “persecutions” and “afflictions.” Persecutions is diogmos, a word used primarily of religious persecution, and describes the hostile actions of others. “Afflictions” is thlipsis, “pressure, stress, tribulation, affliction.”
The former is a special term for external persecutions inflicted by enemies of the gospel; the latter is more general, and denotes tribulation of any kind.10
The Thessalonian Christians were valiantly enduring these sufferings. “Enduring” is the verb, anecho, “to hold up, to bear with, endure.” The present tense aspect suggests that as the suffering was constant so also was their hanging tough day by day, week by week. The persecution that had started when Paul was expelled had continued and even increased. When enduring such persecutions and trials, whatever their nature and source, time can seem like an eternity, but Paul assured them that in God’s eternal plan, the sufferings of this life are only temporary and a glorious relief will follow. Not only can and must we learn to count or consider it all joy when we fall into the variegated trials of life (Jam. 1:2-4), but we must rest in the assurance of future blessing and reward. This truth the apostle takes up in the next section.
Comfort and Promise in the Face of the Persecution
1:5 This is evidence of God’s righteous judgment, to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which in fact you are suffering. 1:6 For it is right for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you 1:7 and to you who are being afflicted to give rest together with us when Jesus Christ is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels. 1:8 With flaming fire he will mete out punishment on those who do not know God11 and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 1:9 They will undergo the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,12 1:10 when he comes to be glorified among his saints and admired on that day among all who have believed—and you did in fact believe our testimony. 1:11 And in this regard we pray for you always, that our God will make you worthy of his calling and fulfill by his power your every desire for goodness and work of faith, 1:12 that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Future Reward and Vindication (vs. 5)
There are two key thoughts in verse 5. The first is a statement of fact: Their persecutions and sufferings were a clear evidence of righteous judgment, a judgment that thereby vindicates the work of God in their hearts (1:5a). The second is a statement of purpose: believers need to endure persecutions and sufferings that they might be considered worthy to share in Christ’s rule in the kingdom of God for which they are suffering (1:5b).
The Fact Declared: As indicated in the italicized this is, there is no break or new paragraph at verse 5. The Greek text simply has, “an evidence or sure token of God’s righteous judgment.” “Evidence” is endeigma, “evidence, plain indication, proof,” the proof as a result of a test. It is appositional, not to any one word, but as an explanatory equivalent to the general sense of the preceding clause, specifically, their endurance and faith in all the persecutions and afflictions they were enduring.
The fact that they are enduring persecution and affliction for Christ’s sake is a sure token of God’s righteous judgment, which will be vindicated in them and in their persecutors at the Advent of Christ.13
Their endurance in faith and love was an evidence, a proof brought out by the test of their trials suffered because of their faith in Christ. The present suffering itself has sometimes been taken as the evidence of the righteous judgment of God. However, the righteous judgment refers to what will happen in the future as the next clause will explain. Those who were persecuting them were doing so because they had not trusted in Christ, i.e., they had rejected the gospel (cf. vss. 8-10). On the other hand, the endurance and faith in such conditions was clearly the work of God within the hearts of these believers. In the future, each would be dealt with accordingly.
The Purpose Stated: “To make (count) you worthy of the kingdom of God” points us to the intended result or purpose. The verb used here is kataxioo, “to deem, declare, or count as worthy.” It does not mean to make worthy. In other words, their endurance demonstrates their worthiness, not to enter the kingdom, which can only be done by faith in Christ, but to share in the rule and reign of Christ as promised in other places (Rev. 3:21; 2:26; and note particularly 2 Tim. 2:12a, “If we endure, we will also reign with him.”).14
Withstanding present pressures demonstrates the rightness of God’s future judgment. Some have seen present judgment in this reference because endeixis (“sign,” “proof”), a cognate of endeigma (“evidence”), usually speaks of something already in force and because Peter views present suffering as a phase of God’s judgment (1 Peter 4:17) (Auberlen and Riggenbach, p. 115; Olshausen, Biblical Commentary, 7:463). Yet subsequent descriptions (vv. 6-10) relate so integrally to future accountability with the accompanying thought of reward for sufferers and retaliation against offenders that an understanding of present judgment is practically impossible (Hiebert, p. 285; Moffatt, EGT, 4:45; Lightfoot, p. 100). Quite clearly Paul uses a corresponding term (dikaiokrisias, “righteous judgment”) in Romans 2:5 with this future sense (Frame, p. 226). The fact is that righteous judgment in 1:5a sets the tone for five and one-half verses about what is to come. The persecuted must understand clearly its twofold nature.15
Thus, the believers at Thessalonica were being comforted by the fact that their endurance was a proof of God’s work within their hearts and a guarantee that He would keep His promises regarding their future reward in the kingdom.
“For which you are in fact suffering.” The translation “in fact” understands the conjunction kai, which normally means, “and, even, also,” to be emphatic here, “indeed, in fact, certainly.” If Paul intended the kai to have the more common meaning, “also,” he was perhaps reminding them they were not alone in their suffering for the Savior. Regardless, the clear intent was to remind them that they were suffering for the kingdom (equivalent to suffering for Christ) and that this was and is never in vain. In God’s righteous judgment, things will be made right.
Future Recompense and Relaxation (vss. 6-10)
With verses 6-10, Paul moves from the general deduction of verse 5 to an explanation of the nature of this future righteous judgment of God just mentioned. This future reckoning of God guarantees a twofold recompense, one a retribution on the wicked and one the kingdom rest for the righteous. The word recompense simply means “to repay, return what is due.”
The first reason persecutions and suffering are an evidence of the future righteous judgment of God is found in the fact of God’s absolute holiness. Because God is a holy and righteous God, it is righteous (right and just) for God to recompense tribulation to those who have persecuted believers (1:6). “Repay” is the Greek antapodidomi, “to give back as an equivalent, repay, return.” It is used in Luke 14:14 of rewards at the resurrection, and in Romans 12:19 of the repayment of God’s wrath or retribution on evil doers. In this life, we do not always see justice meted out for wickedness. The apparent prosperity of the wicked and their persecution of those who know and love God has long been a problem for God’s people (see Ps. 73; Hab. 1; Jer. 12:1). Here in verses 6-9 the verb is used of both the recompense of retribution and reward. This is a clear illustration of the truth that people will eventually reap in accordance with what they have sown. People may think they have gotten away with things or proudly think, “I did it my way,” as the late Frank Sinatra so often sang, but that is simply a figment of fallen man’s imagination.
… The Christ rejecting world will receive from God exactly what it gave to God’s people! When God recompenses, He pays in kind; for there is a law of compensation that operates in human history.
Pharaoh tried to drown all the male babies born to the Jews, and his own army was drowned in the Red Sea. Haman plotted to wipe out the Jews, and he and his own sons were wiped out. The advisors of King Darius forced him to arrest Daniel and throw him into a lions’ den, but later they themselves were thrown to the lions. The unbelieving Jewish leaders who sacrificed Christ in order to save the nation (John 11:49-53) in a few years saw their city destroyed and their nation scattered.16
The fact of the future recompense of God is begun with the declaration, “for it is right (dikaios, “right, just, righteous”) with God.” “For” is eiper, which is emphatic and means “if indeed, or since.” It introduces us to the reason or cause. Such payback stems from the absolute holy character of God. It is right and just for a holy God to judge sin and condemn the sinner who will not repent and come to Christ (see vs. 8, John 3:36). As one who is perfect holiness, God is not one who can ignore sin and rebellion. As the prophet Habakkuk put it, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong” (Hab. 1:13a). People who claim such retribution is inconsistent with a God of love and refuse to believe in a God who would punish people in this way understand neither the holiness of God nor the nature of their own sin and sinfulness. The Bible emphasizes both the holiness (actually emphasized more than any of His attributes, including His love) and the love of God. One part of God’s character will not, indeed cannot, bypass another part. For instance, Scripture tells us that “God cannot lie” (Tit. 1:2). Why? Because it is totally contrary to His holy character. Though God is love, He cannot and will not overlook sin. In His holiness He must deal justly with sin and the sinner, but because He is also love, righteousness, grace, and mercy, He provided the solution through the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Summary verses 7-10
Verses 7-10 describe in more detail just why persecutions and sufferings are evidence of the righteous nature of the future judgment of God when the Lord returns. Paul is telling them that though suffering now for their faith, God, who is faithful to His promises (see Tit. 1:2), will reward believers like them and the apostolic team with kingdom “rest” when the Lord Jesus returns with His mighty angels from heaven (1:7). This rest and bliss of the future state are a further outworking of the justice of God. At this time, God will pay back retribution to those who have persecuted the church (1:8a) and the reason God will sentence them is because they do not acknowledge God and do not obey the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ as had the believers at Thessalonica (1:8b). Furthermore, the nature of their punishment will be eternal destruction from the presence of God (vs. 9). The final accomplishment and design of the future revelation of the Lord at His return is that He will be glorified along with His saints (1:10a) and worshipped by all who believed like the Thessalonians who believed the apostolic witness. (1:10b).
Participants in God’s righteous judgment fall into two characterizations seen in the play made on the words “afflict,” “affliction,” “being afflicted.” The participants are described as (1) those afflicting believers because of unbelief in Christ and (2) those being afflicted because of their faith in Christ. As verses 8 and 10 show, the ultimate issue is knowing God through faith in the gospel. Those who persecute believers do not know the Lord and those who are afflicted do. One is the evidence of the other. The ultimate sin that brings the retribution, then, is the absence of obedience to the gospel, faith in Christ (see John 16:8f).
For one, the future holds the most severe threat. Though their domination is tolerated for the present, when the proper time comes, the roles will be reversed. The second class, though under the heel of the other for the moment, will become the overcomers who will enjoy all privileges in God’s kingdom.17
In considering the participants, there is another issue that should be discussed. Those who believe in the posttribulational view of the rapture restrict the participants to only those Christians who survive the Tribulation and are alive at the rapture. In this view, the passage only applies to the release of Christians who will be living at the conclusion of the Tribulation. But this is inconsistent with the nature of the reward or rest used as an encouragement here, along with other important considerations. Concerning the participants and the post-trib viewpoint, Ryrie writes:
If that is true, why does Paul seemingly ignore the Thessalonians, who had suffered persecution and who had already died? Death was the means of release for them. Indeed, why does he not mention that avenue of release, which some of those to whom he was writing might yet experience? To be sure, the rapture of the living will bring release from persecution, but only a relatively small percentage of believers will ever experience that means of release, since most will have died prior to the rapture. If release is Paul’s chief concern here, and if that release will come at the posttrib rapture, then Paul is offering that hope of release to a very small group of believers.18
From the writings of Paul, it is clear that he lived in view of the imminent return of the Lord, but he also knew Christ might not come in his lifetime. As mentioned in the study of 1 Thessalonians, the apostle divided believers into two classes—the living and the dead. Because Christ’s return is imminent and yet, because no man knows when it will be, Paul sometimes included himself with: (a) the dead, with those who would experience resurrection (2 Cor. 4:14), (b) sometimes with the living, with the living who would experience transformation (here and 1 Cor. 15:51, 52), (c) and sometimes in the category of either possibility (2 Cor. 5:1-8). Because of the believer’s sure and living hope through the death and resurrection of Christ, Paul looked and hoped for the return of the Lord in his day. But here in 2 Thessalonians 1 the apostle had something in mind that would apply to all believers of the past, present, and future, regardless when the rapture occurs.
The Nature of the Recompense
The recompense naturally falls into two characterization—affliction and rest. The nature of this is developed in verses 8-10.
First, the affliction is described as “punishment” or “vengeance” and then as “paying a penalty.” The penalty is then described as “eternal ruin from the presence of the Lord …” “Punishment” in verse 8 is ekdikesis, “vengeance, punishment, vindication.” This word suggests full and complete punishment. Hogg and Vine describe it as: “‘that which precedes out of justice;’ not, as is often the case with human vengeance, out of a felling of indignation, or a sense of injury. There is thus no element of vindictiveness, of ‘taking revenge,’ or of self-gratification, in the judgments of God; they are both holy and right, Rev. 16:7.”19
We must not, therefore confuse this word with man’s idea of revenge. This is a punishment or vindication that stems totally from the righteousness of God to satisfy God’s holy law and holy character.
But what is the nature of this just punishment that God will inflict? This is spelled out in verse 9. Literally the Greek text says, “Who shall pay a penalty, eternal destruction from the face of the Lord.” The pronoun “who” is a qualitative pronoun, hostis. It is often used “to emphasize a characteristic or quality, by which a preceding statement is to be confirmed.”20 “Penalty” is dike, “a penalty that which is right, just.” This word is closely associated with dikaios, “righteous.” So what is that penalty? It is “eternal destruction from the face of the Lord.” “Destruction” is olethros. The key note in this word is that of ruin. “The word does not mean annihilation, but implies the loss of all things that give worth to existence.”21
This is “the most express statement in St. Paul’s Epistles of the eternity of future punishment” (Edward Headland and Henry B. Swete, The Epistle to the Thessalonians, London: Hatchard, 1863, p. 137). The punishment of the wicked will be neither temporary nor will it be annihilation, but it will continue throughout eternity and those being punished will be conscious. It is eternal death as opposed to eternal life (Matt. 25:46).22
The nature of this ruination is seen in the clause that follows: eternal separation away from the face, the presence of the Lord. It is hard for sinful man to grasp the significance of this because of the effects of the fall and man’s alienation from God, but at the heart is the very reason for man’s creation. Man was created to have fellowship with God and to represent Him in a very meaningful, purposeful existence on this earth. Man was created to glorify and serve God and enjoy the bliss of a life full of joy, meaning, and significance. Through faith in Christ, man is not only brought back into a relationship where he can have fellowship with the living God even here on earth, but into a life of significance and purpose. But even this pales in significance with the glory to follow in the future kingdom and eternal state after the coming of Christ. Though it stretches our minds to grasp it, Revelation 21-22 gives us something of the glory and bliss of the eternal future. Thus, to be separated from this glory is truly a ruination of life. And one more point here: we should not lose sight of the fact that it is being in the Lord’s presence that will make heaven truly heaven.
Second, the reward side of recompense is described as “rest.” This is anesis, “a loosening, a relaxation.” As mentioned, some have sought to understand this as a rest brought about by the removal of the pain of affliction caused by the Tribulation. They have then used this passage to teach a posttribulation return of Christ. If this were Paul’s point, anapausis, “a stopping, ceasing” or “rest from labor,” would seem to have been a more appropriate word, but even anapausis, due to contextual considerations and its use in similar contexts elsewhere (see Rev. 6:9-11 discussed below), would not necessarily imply rest by removal from the Tribulation. Rather, anesis refers to the kingdom rest that all believers of all ages will enjoy when the Lord will deal justly with sin and sinners who have persecuted the saints and ignored, rejected, or even mocked the grace of God and His right to rule over them. This is true whether in Paul’s day, or in our day, or anytime between or after. A good illustration of this is seen in Revelation 6 and 7.
Revelation 6:9-11 speaks about the martyred believers of the Tribulation. They are here seen in the presence of God and no longer suffering in the Tribulation, but they are not resting. They are perplexed and cry out with a loud voice to God over the lack of the justice being poured on the earth dwellers who had persecuted or martyred them. They want to see the vindication of God’s holiness against sin. Note that they are told to rest (the middle voice of anapauo, “to take rest, remain quiet”) for a short time. Why? Because soon the Savior would return and would then bring justice or retribution. So the issue here is not one of rest through removal from the affliction of the Tribulation since they are in God’s presence, but an emotional or spiritual rest while awaiting the return of Christ which would bring about justice against sin and establish God’s kingdom rest for His people. This is expressed in the next chapter and in other portions of Revelation.
Then in Revelation 7:10-17 we are given a picture of a great multitude from every tribe, tongue, and nation before the throne of God in heaven, out of reach of the Tribulation and its horrors. As explained by the passage, they are those who will be martyred during the Tribulation. In keeping with the context of Revelation, a context that anticipates the coming of Christ and the establishment of His rule on earth, the focus even for these saints in heaven is on the great salvation that God is about to establish on earth. It is an anticipation of the kingdom rest that will follow with the promise of continuous protection by the Lamb. This guarantees that never again will they face such pain or sorrow, but certainly part of the rest envisioned and the praise to God offered stems from the fact God’s holiness will be vindicated by the recompense to be poured out on a Christ rejecting and rebellious world (see also Rev. 4:11; 5:8-14; 8:1-6; 15:1-8; 16:4-7). We should note especially Revelation 16:4-7:
16:4 Then the third angel poured out his bowl on the rivers and the springs of water, and they turned into blood. 16:5 Now I heard the angel of the waters saying:
“You are just—the one who is and who was,
the Holy One—because you have passed these judgments,
16:6 because they poured out the blood of your saints and prophets,
so you have given them blood to drink. They got what they deserved!”
16:7 Then I heard the altar reply, “Yes, Lord God All-Powerful, your judgments are true and just!”
The Time of the Recompense
“When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven …” (lit., “in or at the revelation of the Lord Jesus”) identifies the time of God’s righteous judgment. The coming of the Lord Jesus to earth will occasion the recompense, the time of “paying back” (vs. 6) of both those who afflict (unbelievers) and the ones afflicted (believers). See also the comments below on verse 10.
Other Circumstances Surrounding the Recompense
Two other key elements related to the recompense accomplished by the return of Christ are described, first in verses 7b-8a, “when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire,” and then in verse 10, “when He comes to be glorified among His saints and admired on that day among all who have believed—and you did in fact believe our testimony.” The first focuses on the recompense of judgment and the other on the glory that will be a central part of the believer’s rest in the coming of the Savior to the earth.
First, from the standpoint of this future judgment, two things characterize the Lord’s return to earth at the end of the Tribulation.
- He will be attended by His mighty angels. Angels are not mentioned in connection with Christ’s return for the church in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17. When He comes to earth at the end of the Tribulation, He will not only be accompanied by His saints (Rev. 19), but by His angels who have always served as God’s attendants in executing His purposes. They are described as mighty in strength and will serve as His instruments of judgment to execute His power as verse 8 explains. In fact, they are very prominent in carrying out the judgments of the Tribulation that are, of course, concluded by His personal return.
- In keeping with this focus, He will also return in flaming fire. This adds to the note of holy judgment and justice to be rendered. The flaming fire may refer to the Shekinah glory associated with the manifestations of God (see Ex. 40:34-38; Ezek. 43:4f; Isa. 6:1; Rev. 15:8), or to fire as an instrument of judgment (cf. Num. 16:35; Lev. 10:2; Ps. 50:3; 97:3) or perhaps both.
Second, following the fact of God’s judgment of retribution, verse 10 brings the glory of God strongly into focus. One of the desires of the saints of all ages and in the church is the desire to see the glory of God manifested in an undiminished way on the earth. This is related to the rest and joy of believers who long for the glory of God when the whole earth will be full of His glory, which naturally includes a time when justice, equity, and righteousness rule (see Ps. 72:19; 96:1-6; Matt. 25:31 and Isa. 11:1-2; 9:6-7; 2:1-4).
But when will all this occur? The timing of the event is marked out by the words, “When He comes” and “in that day.” “When He comes” is literally, “whenever He shall come.” “When” (hotan) is a temporal particle pointing to that which is expected to occur in an indefinite future, but not specified as to the exact time. His coming is certain and so also all the circumstances described in this passage, but the date and time has not been revealed. As stressed in the exposition of 1 Thessalonians, it is always wrong and foolish to set dates for His coming. “In that day” is placed at the end of the verse in the Greek text for emphasis. In Expositors Commentary, Robert L. Thomas explains:
“That day” is a frequent OT designation for the day of the Lord (cf. Isa 2:11, 17). In the present verse it solemnly emphasizes a time coincident with “when he comes” as it does repeatedly in the NT (Mark 13:32; 14:25; Luke 21:34; 2 Tim 1:12, 18; 4:8) (Milligan, p. 92). Earlier Paul has disclosed how the day of the Lord will encompass in its initial stage a period of wrath and tribulation. The tribulation will be climaxed when Jesus Christ returns personally to judge and to inaugurate his reign on earth. In v. 10, however, Paul has in view an event at the very beginning of the day and before the wrath—the meeting of Christ with his saints in the air (1 Thess 4:17; 2 Thess 1:7a; 2:1). This is the moment of reward for those who have faithfully persevered in all their persecutions and trials (v. 4).23
The focus, of course, is not on the when, but on the what—the glory that will accrue to the Lord Jesus. Glory refers to that which should accrue to the Lord because of who He is and what He has accomplished. It calls attention to His love, grace, mercy, goodness, righteousness, justice, and His gracious provision for sinners who deserved His wrath.
This judgment will take place when the Lord comes back to earth and is glorified through the lives of believers whom He has transformed by making saints out of sinners. This is not the Rapture (1 Thes. 4:13-18; John 14:2-3), for no judgment accompanies the Rapture. Instead, it is the revelation of Jesus Christ in power and great glory (Ps. 2:1-9; Matt. 25:31), when He will set up His earthly kingdom (Rev. 19:11-20:4). At His return He will destroy the Armageddon armies gathered against Him (Rev. 16:12-16; 19:19-21) and will then judge living Jews (Ezek. 20:33-38) and living Gentiles (Matt. 24:31-46). These judgments are the ones just described (2 Thes. 1:9).
The exact date of His return is not given, of course, but it will be a day of judgment for the lost and a day of glory and marveling for believers. Christ will be “glorified in” (not by) His saints, that is, His glory will be mirrored in them. Christians will marvel in that they will admire their Lord for what He has done in them. All believers will marvel—not just those living on the earth and those resurrected when Christ returns, but also those who return to earth with Him, those who had been caught up to be with the Lord at the Rapture.24
What an astounding truth of God’s marvelous grace—the glory of the Lord will be mirrored in believers (cf. John 17:1; Eph. 2:7). How? By His grace God lifts sinners, those who deserved His wrath, to the status of sons and saints, those set apart for salvation and His transforming power to make them like His Son, reflectors of His glory (Rom. 8:28-29).
The words, “and admired on that day among all who believe,” calls our attention to two more important facts about His return. The first is described in the word “admired.” This is thaumazo, “to marvel, wonder, be astonished.” Because His return will so fully display His glory (cf. Rev. 19), it will cause or create pure wonderment, a breathtaking admiration of the Lord. The second focus of attention is on who will do this? It will occur in all those who believe, including of course, the Thessalonians who had believed the witness or testimony of Paul and his missionary team regarding the person and work of the Savior. Those who believe the gospel have taken a totally different position from those who ignore and fail to believe the gospel message (vs. 8). This group of believers will undoubtedly include not just those who see the Lord return, but all believers including those who will return with Him. What an awesome event this will be—it defies our human imagination.
This group, Paul pointed out, would include the Thessalonian believers to whom he wrote this epistle. Because they believed Paul’s testimony they would share in this great day. Such a hope should strengthen any believer who might be buckling under the pressure of persecution by unbelievers (v. 4). This glimpse into the future undoubtedly encouraged Paul’s readers and it should encourage believers in their trials today.25
With this thought in mind, the apostle quickly moves to one of the great purposes of prophesy—living in the light of this glorious future—transformed living.
Present Requests and Sanctification (vss. 11-12)
1:11 And in this regard we pray for you always, that our God will make you worthy of his calling and fulfill by his power your every desire for goodness and work of faith, 1:12 that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Whether one is thinking about the rapture, the Judgment Seat of Christ, or this glorious event at the end of the Tribulation, the truth of the coming of the Savior, should not only comfort the heart and mind, but it should impact the hands and feet. What are we doing with the redeemed lives God has given us as His representatives on earth? With this in view, the apostle now turns to the issue of present sanctification.
Verse 11 begins literally, “unto which also we pray always …,” i.e., “with this end in view we pray for you constantly.” Again we see Paul and his team’s grace/faith perspective that recognizes true spiritual change is always the work of God. The One who accomplishes the three objectives of these verses is God Himself. We should sow and water as instruments of God, but only the Lord can give the increase. Once again we see the consistency of the prayer life of Paul and his associates.
In the Greek text, there seems to be a slight difference in the content of Paul’s prayer as seen in verse 11 and the ultimate purpose given in verse 12. This is suggested by the change from the hina clause, the first “that” which introduces verse 11, to hopos, the “that” which introduces verse 12.26 The content consists of a worthy walk, the desire of goodness, and a work of faith. Then, the great purpose is a witness that glorifies God.
Prayer for a walk that is worthy (vs. 11a)
It is important to understand what is meant by, “that God will make you worthy.” “Make you worthy” is axioo, “to deem or make worthy.” In the gospel of the New Testament, it is the grace of God that imparts worth to people by the imputed righteousness of Christ and their new position in Christ in which they are blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ (see Eph. 1:3f and Col. 2:10). We can never merit a right standing before God by our works (Tit. 3:5). We can and should, however, walk in a manner that is consistent with our calling, one which will glorify God and lead to rewards for faithful service as we live in the power of His enabling grace (see Eph. 4:1f; Phil. 1:27; and 1 Cor. 3:12f). This is evidently the focus here. The missionaries were praying that, by the sanctifying work of God through the Word and the Spirit and even through their trials, they would live in a manner that was consistent with their holy calling. This calling includes God’s purpose for us here on earth and the believer’s ultimate place in glory.
The context here is that of suffering. Trials test one’s metal, they test the condition of a person’s heart and the condition of his or her faith. They do not make a person worthy, but they can reveal what a person is made of or their spiritual state (see 1 Pet. 1:6-9). Trials may also demonstrate our faith to others and this honors the Savior.
Prayer for every desire of goodness and work of faith (vs. 11b)
The second request is that God would “fulfill by his power your every desire or resolve for goodness and work of faith.” Literally, “fulfill every desire of goodness and work of faith with or by power.” “Fulfill” is the verb pleroo, which can mean, “accomplish, make effective” (see Rom. 8:4), or even “bring to completion, finish.” Desire is eudokia, “good will, good pleasure,” or “desire, wish.” It is used mostly of God’s will, but also of people, but only of the regenerate (cf. Matt. 11:26; Luke 2:14; 10:21; Eph. 1:5, 9; Phil. 2:13 with Rom. 10:1; Phil. 1:15). Because it is prominently used of God’s good pleasure or elective purposes, some see this as a reference to “God’s elective purpose directed towards the conduct of Christians. Paul therefore prays at the same time that God’s will may be done and reach its goal.”27
But as pointed out in this quote, “… it is also possible to understand it as referring to the will of men, may fulfill every good resolve” (RSV).28 The fact that eudokia is followed by the genitive of agathosune, “goodness, uprightness,” supports this second meaning for eudokia in this passage. Agathosune is never used of God, only of regenerate men (cf. Rom. 15:14; Gal. 5:22; Eph. 5:9). The same applies to the adjective, agathos, with the exception of Matthew 19:17. This, combined with the fact “desire of goodness” is coupled with “work of faith,” suggests this is a reference to the desires of the converts themselves. But is this a desire produced by goodness, the fruit of the spirit (Gal. 5:22), or a resolve to do goodness? If it is a desire produced by goodness, it would then be a subjective genitive like the following clause to which it is connected, “a work produced by faith”. But if it is a desire in the sense of a resolve to do goodness, it is an objective genitive. Perhaps this is what some grammarians call a plenary genitive where the noun in the genitive (“goodness”) is both subjective and objective. In most cases the subjective produces the objective notion.29 Certainly both are possible and goodness produced by the Spirit is ultimately the source of a resolve for goodness.
In serving the Lord, then, two things are needed—a resolve, a willingness to do what is good as a work of the Spirit, and the doing of good works by faith (cf. Phil. 2:12). Both the desire, the motives, and godly actions of good works need to have their source in the Lord, in a Spirit-empowered life. Thus Paul concludes the request with the words, “by power.” “By power” is last in the clause which makes it somewhat emphatic.
Prayer for a witness that glorifies God (vs. 12)
As believers, we have been recreated in Christ for good works (Eph. 2:10; 2 Cor. 5:17) that we might bring honor and glory to God in all that we do whether in thought, word, or deed (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17; 1 Pet. 4:11). Since this is one of the chief ends of man and since this will occur in a maximum way when the Lord is glorified in His saints at His coming, the content of Paul’s prayer is that God would even now make the Thessalonians worthy of their calling and that God would enable them to do good works produced by faith. So Paul concludes this chapter with the prayer that the name of Christ might be glorified in the Thessalonians and they in Him.
The “name” of Christ naturally refers to all that He is in both His person and work. The verb, “be glorified,” is endoxazomai, “to be held in honor or esteem, to glorify.” To glorify His name means demonstrating to the world what the person and work of Christ is like so that He comes to be held in great honor and esteem because of who He is and all He has accomplished and will accomplish. The clause, “and you in Him” jumps forward to the future when we return with Him in glorified bodies at His glorious return. But it draws our attention to the close union that believers have with the Savior. The doctrine of the believer’s co-identification with Christ is found even in this very early epistle. Today we sit with Christ in the heavenlies at God’s right hand (see Eph. 2:6-7), but the world cannot see this. In this life, believers are often reviled and persecuted even when they demonstrate Christ-like character. Their glorious position at God’s right hand, this heavenly setting cannot be seen, but a day is coming when believers will publicly share in His glory before the world and their persecutors. What an awesome thought to know that we will one day even share in His glory. But how can this be? The clause that immediately follows, “according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” answers the question “How?” It is all attributed to the grace of God and His merciful work for us through our blessed Savior.
Knowing and resting in the fact of such a glorious future should have a triple impact, one that affects the head, the heart, and the hands. First, in case they were beginning to doubt the love of God or were questioning why they were having to suffer as God’s children, the apostolic team wanted to help them keep their thinking straight through the truth just given. Second, in view of the serious persecutions and pain the Thessalonians were enduring, the apostolic team wanted to comfort and encourage the hearts of these believers by helping them do what Paul had learned to do:
2 Cor. 4:17-18. For our momentary light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
Third, focusing on such a glorious future should also be a great incentive for living godly, Christ-honoring living on a day-by-day basis. So again, we see how prophecy is designed not only to give comfort, but to encourage and motivate us to godliness and fruitful lives. The old adage, “He is so heavenly minded that he is no earthly good” is really not true if one is truly thinking in a biblical manner. It is only when one understands the purpose of this life and its relation to the life to come that we can become truly fruitful in this life from the standpoint of heavenly treasures (Matt. 6:19ff).
6 G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, T. & T. Clark, 1973, p. 99. See also Fritz Rienecker, edited by Cleon L. Rogers, A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1976, p. 605.
14 For an excellent discussion on the distinction between entrance into the kingdom of God and receiving one’s inheritance and reigning in the kingdom, see Joseph C. Dillow’s, The Reign of the Servant Kings, Schoettle Publishing Co. Hayesville, NC, 1992, chapters 3-5, and Michael Eaton’s chapter on “Inheritance” in No Condemnation, A New Theology of Assurance, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, 1995, pp. 175f.
20 Walter Bauer, F. Wilbur Gingrich, Fredrick W. Danker, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1979, electronic media.
26 See Walter Bauer, F. Wilbur Gingrich, Fredrick W. Danker, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1979, electronic media.