Paul’s first Epistle to the Thessalonians dealt largely with the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ for His saints. Evidently some Christians in Thessalonica misunderstood the teaching in that letter. They seem to have jumped to the conclusion that since the Lord’s coming might take place at any moment, it was useless for them to work for a living. And since they were going through some very trying and distressing experiences, they thought that perhaps they were already entering the great tribulation. The apostle, who was still in Corinth, heard of these strange misunderstandings of the truth that he had sought to explain and wrote a second letter in order to correct these unwholesome views. He wanted to explain more definitely and clearly what the responsibilities of Christians are as they wait for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Apostolic Salutation (2 Thessalonians 1:1-2)
“Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). The salutation here is the same as the salutation in 1 Thessalonians. It is only in these two letters that we find a local church spoken of as “the church… in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The emphasis is on family relationship: the Christians in Thessalonica were young believers, but they knew God as Father. They were children in His family and Jesus Christ was their Lord.
The apostle wished them grace and peace. They would need grace for every step of the way and as they learned to trust in the living Father, they would enjoy the peace of God. His peace would protect their hearts and give them quiet confidence as they pursued the pilgrim journey through this troubled world.
Comfort for the Persecuted (2 Thessalonians 1:3-10)
In this passage the apostle sought to comfort and encourage these believers who were enduring great suffering and persecution for Christ’s sake. To console and hearten the saints amidst their trials and perplexities, Paul wrote, “We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is meet, because that your faith groweth exceedingly, and the charity of every one of you all toward each other aboundeth” (1:3). The English word “love” is a better rendering, I think, than the older word “charity” because over the years the thought of almsgiving has been attached to the word “charity.” Paul was speaking here of sincere affection, not of kind consideration for others—although real love is always charitable.
Paul gave the church at Thessalonica credit for two things: a growing faith and abounding love. It is a wonderful thing when Christians are characterized in this way. Too often believers who have been Christians for many years look back to the old days and ask:
Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is that soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus and His Word?
They think of early joys as they sing:
O happy day that fixed my choice
On Thee, my Savior and my God!
But they are not able to finish the verse, for it does not describe their present condition:
Well may this glowing heart rejoice
And tell its raptures all abroad.
It is a pitiable thing when a Christian’s present state is lower than it was when he was first converted. This was true of the believers at Ephesus when the Lord had to say to the church there, “I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love” (Revelation 2:4). But it was otherwise with the Thessalonian believers. Some time had elapsed since they were converted, but their faith was growing and they were abounding in love.
Perhaps we need to search our own hearts and ask ourselves some questions: Is our faith growing “exceedingly”? Do we have more confidence in God today than we had when we came to Him in the beginning of our Christian lives? Have we proved and tested Him through the years so that we know we can count on Him now in a larger and fuller way than we did when we were first brought to know Him? If we cannot answer yes, it is evident that we are in a backslidden condition. Our faith is declining and we need to turn to God and cry, “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation” (Psalm 51:12). Proverbs 4:18 tells us that “the path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day,” so we who have known the Lord for years ought to be stronger in faith than ever before. Our love should be abounding more and more each passing day.
The Thessalonian believers were passing through a time of great suffering, tribulation, and bitter anguish for Christ’s sake, but the grace of God was wonderfully evident in their lives. Their enemies could not understand how they could be so joyous and peaceful in spite of the persecutions that they were enduring. Unbelievers, who wondered how these Christians could continue in holy, happy unity, surely said, “How is it that they do not seem to be moved by our efforts to upset them? They go right on rejoicing, returning love for hatred, kindness for malice, and praying for those who persecute them. We do not understand.” Such behavior should always be characteristic of those who are redeemed by the Lord Jesus Christ.
We are made heirs of the kingdom by the new birth, but we prove that we are “worthy of the kingdom of God” by readily enduring suffering for Christ’s sake (2 Thessalonians 1:5). We are told that if we suffer with Him, we will also reign with Him (2 Timothy 2:12). All believers suffer with Him in some sense, but all do not suffer for Him in the same way. One could not be a Christian at all—could not be indwelt by the Holy Spirit—if he did not suffer with Christ. The very fact that we belong to Him and have received a new and divine nature makes us suffer as we go through this world that has rejected Him. But Paul had something more than that in mind in 2 Thessalonians 1:5. He was referring to taking so definite a stand for Christ that we become the objects of the world’s hatred. If we are prepared to endure grief and wrong because of our faithfulness to Christ, we will have the opportunity to prove ourselves worthy of that kingdom to which we are heirs.
The apostle went on to assure the suffering Thessalonians that God would rightfully “recompense tribulation to them that trouble you” (1:6). We are to love our enemies, bless them that curse us, and pray for them that despitefully use us, but in His own time God will deal with those who have persecuted His church.
When the Lord Jesus Christ comes in judgment, a great distinction will be made between those who knew and loved the Savior and those who, refusing to believe the gospel, persisted in their sins and wickedness in utter indifference to the God who created them. Those who have persecuted the church and are still alive will receive retribution at that second coming (those who have already died will be judged at the last great assize). But Christ will take care of His persecuted people when He descends “to recompense tribulation.” Paul told the Thessalonians that God would recompense rest to those the wicked have sought to injure (1:7). “When the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels,” He will repay trouble and anguish to those who deserve His wrath, but He will reward all who are His own with rest, joy, and comfort.
Second Thessalonians 1:7-8 refers not to the coming of the Lord for His own (as in 1 Thessalonians 4) but to the day of the Lord (as in 1 Thessalonians 5). Revelation 1:7 also refers to the day of the Lord when it says, “Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him.” On that day He will come as Judge to destroy those who have spurned His grace. This second coming will usher in that glorious era when the Lord Jesus will reign in righteousness over the whole earth.
On the day of the Lord, He will be revealed “in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel” (2 Thessalonians 1:8). Here Paul referred to two classes of people. In the first class are those who “know not God”; these are the heathen who have lived in ignorance of the gospel and in definite rebellion against their Creator. In the second class are those who “obey not the gospel”; that is, they have heard the truth, but have rejected it.
People ask, “Is God going to judge the heathen? Is He going to send them to Hell for rejecting Jesus Christ when they never heard of Him?” The answer is no. He is not going to send them to Hell for rejecting Jesus Christ, but He is going to judge them for their sins. We read in Romans 1 that they have been given up to uncleanness because they have sinned against their own consciences and against the God they once knew. So whether or not the Word has ever been taken to them by missionaries, they are sinning against the light that God has given them.
The guiltier class are those who “obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Men and women who live in this favored land should consider this fact with intense solemnity. When I hear people talking glibly about the heathen and what God will do with them, I feel that it would be far better for them to be thinking about themselves. What will God do with those who have heard the message over and over again and have spurned it? What will He do with those who have known of Christ all their lives and have rejected His love and grace?
One of the saddest things I know is to see young men and women living careless, indifferent lives after growing up in Christian homes. They have had examples of piety in godly fathers or mothers and the benefits of being raised where family worship was maintained, yet they leave their childhood homes saying that they had enough religion when they were young and do not want it now. How such stupid expressions reveal the rebellion of the heart and hardness of conscience! For these rebellious individuals there is nothing but judgment unless they repent, break down before God, confess their sins, and turn to the Christ whom they have rejected.
When the Lord Jesus comes in the clouds “in flaming fire,” He will punish those who have sinned with no knowledge of Christ; but with more intense wrath he will punish those who have sinned against the light and knowledge that God has given them concerning His beloved Son. The latter, we read, “shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). What solemn words! What terrible warnings God has given men in order that they might face the question of their guilt and turn to Him in repentance! Like the danger signals at railroad crossings, He is saying, “Stop! Look! Listen!”
How sad it would be to be found in one’s sin “when he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe” (1:10). What a great separation there will be “in that day.” Gathered about Christ will be those who believed the message, trusted Him as Savior, and maintained a testimony for Him on earth, but were misunderstood and persecuted for His name’s sake; these will rejoice with Him in the day of His power. On the other hand, those who spurned His lovingkindness will experience the awfulness of divine retribution.
Paul’s Prayer (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12)
The chapter closes with the apostle’s prayer for the saints: “Wherefore also we pray always for you, that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfill all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power” (1:11). We would do well to use the same expressions and pray for grace to act accordingly—grace to walk “worthy of this calling.” It is a privilege to be allowed to walk with the Lord through a world that rejects Him; it is a privilege to bear His name when that name is despised by the godless. How many of us look upon it as a privilege?
Paul ended his prayer with these words: “That the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and ye in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:12). As our love abounds there will be increased power in our lives to witness for Christ and to glorify Him.
The Christian walks a path of rejection as he goes through the world, but ahead of him is the glorious prospect of joy with Christ at His return. Ahead of the unsaved is nothing but judgment in that day when “the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven…in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel.”