2 THESSALONIANS 1: 1 – 12
Welcome to our second series of midweek lockdown meditations. In the first series we considered the 1st letter to the Thessalonians. Today we open up the second letter. It does not start very easily for us. After the opening greetings the writer, while encouraging the Thessalonian church, says some pretty harsh things about the vengeance of God. It makes for difficult reading, especially in the light of the demonstrations and riots going on n the USA currently, but we need to tackle it and we will do, head on. Then the last part of this section reports on the writers own intercessory prayers.
So let us hear what was written: –
1 Paul, Silas[a] and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
2 Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Thanksgiving and Prayer
3 We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters,[b] and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. 4 Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.
5 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. 6 God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you 7 and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. 8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might 10 on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.
11 With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. 12 We pray this so 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.[c]
THESE VERSES ANNOUNCE THE RITICAL ISSUES THAT WILL BE ADDRESSED IN THE LETTER. It Is very much an introduction announcing the themes. The first of those themes is the importance of belief. Faith is crucial and the faith of the church in Thessalonica is praised repeatedly throughout the letter. It is that faith that is the crucial factor in addressing that do exist within the church and their belief in the writer’s testimony. It provides the basis for all the arguments that will be put forward because of their trust in the writer and his testimony whilst with them. I can vouch for the importance of such an outlook. I have worked in churches that have trusted their leadership and moved forward in faith. I have also worked in churches where that trust was absent and the resultant bickering between those who supported the minister and what he was trying to do and those who opposed the minister was in danger of tearing the church apart. So belief and trust in the testimony of the leadership is crucial from the outset.
A second issue that we see is the call to stand firm. There are always voices who call for compromise and yet here the writer calls for them to be steadfast. Now the Greek is a little unclear here as to whether the author means for them to have the steadfastness demonstrated by Christ or to be steadfast towards Christ. But either way it is building on what has been said about their faith and urging them to continue in that direction.
The third theme that emerges is perhaps the most difficult. It stresses God’s continuing justice. Having commended the church for its endurance of persecutions and afflictions the writer then puts its suffering in a more comprehensive apocalyptic context, one that both defines and interprets the meaning of their suffering and contrasts the different fates of the believer and unbeliever.
How do you explain the vengeance of a wrathful God who awards the righteous and punishes the unrighteous? I continue to struggle with this idea as found in the first chapter of 2 Thessalonians. The argument is crucial to this letter and cannot be overlooked. How do you reconcile that the author of this letter is attempting to comfort troubled believers by announcing that the ones who gave them the trouble are going to experience even more trouble? How do you reconcile the fact that comfort is given at the expense of another? Am I really to feel better when I know that the perpetrator is going to “get it” in greater measure than I received it? This theology is troubling, to say the least and how does it square with the riots and protests that are spreading across the US and the UK at this time?
Think about it from God’s perspective for a moment. How do you know what side is which and when? One commentator wrote how she remembers being in Sunday school class as a girl and being troubled with this idea. She wondered how God knew whom to zap. When reading the Hebrew texts of a warrior God who preserved the innocent and punished the evildoers, she thought, even then, how does God know who is who? For example, if she asked God in prayer to zap Hilda, who had taken her boyfriend, and then Hilda, her enemy, likewise prayed to God to zap her, who had taken back the aforementioned boyfriend, then which of us is God going to zap?
Our prayers would cancel us both right off the face of the earth. With that cause-and-effect logic, neither Hilda nor she deserved to live, only the boyfriend. With our prayers, we both should have been punished and eternally damned. (However, both of us survived, including the boyfriend!)
In another manner, much less trivial and both more ancient and current, the enemy of the Jewish nation is Palestine. For the Palestinians, the enemy is Israel. In the political rhetoric of this moment, the current enemies of the western nations are Iran and North Korea. For a host of Middle Eastern sympathizers, the enemy is the west. The situation is far more serious than Hilda, the commentator, and the boyfriend. But the question is still the same—from God’s eyes here, who is the enemy? From an eternal perspective, who deserves mercy and who deserves punishment? Which ones are to be punished? Whose prayers will be answered?
In Chinese Buddhism there is the philosophy of karmic retribution, that promises that one’s enemies will be punished in another life, that justice will always take place, even though one cannot see it. The sense of future karmic retribution, enables the followers of Buddha to rest in the present moment, knowing that all will be balanced in another life. One can then live life more confidently with assurance that one does not need to take revenge in this life. The Divine will take care of that later, in a life to come. This religious thought relates to the biblical tradition of apocalyptic thought. Revenge belongs to God. And the enemies will suffer consequences brought on by God, in God’s time, with God’s hand. The believer need not plan individual acts of revenge. In essence, the role of the believer is to rest and leave all acts of retribution in the hands of God.
Perhaps the idea of rest, then, is the key to understanding this theological crisis. Perhaps the linchpin of the chapter, and perhaps the entire letter, resides in v. 7 of chapter 1: “. . . and you, the afflicted ones, might rest [relax] with us in the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with his mighty angels . . . .”
I cannot understand the actions of a God who would punish a love rival because I prayed that God would avenge my enemies. I cannot understand a God who kills nations just because I ask God to take revenge on those who persecute me. I cannot understand a God who wants blood because I need to be soothed from my troubles. What I do understand, however, is how a believer who is suffering and in need desperately needs to find rest. The hope that God will return to this world with the Lord Jesus Christ and create a world of justice where there has been injustice brings rest to the weary believer in the present moment. That is what the believer needs the most—rest.
To pray for revenge only aggravates the sense of unsettledness. To pace the floor, praying that God will save you and destroy your enemies only creates more stress. To relax, however, with the promise that the God who is capable of creating harmony out of chaos will somehow also create justice from injustice enables the believer to take a deep breath and live with peace.
You can see that kind of peace on the face o Elias Chacour, a Palestinian Christian ordained priest in the Milkite Church. He tells his story in his autobiography, We Belong to the Land: The Story of a Palestinian Israeli Who Lives for Peace and Reconciliation.4 Chacour, nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, has spent his life working to achieve peace between Israeli Jews, Christians, and Muslims. His own boyhood home was destroyed in the war by Israeli Zionists, yet he has spent a lifetime building homes and schools, libraries and summer camps for children of all religions.
While visiting the school in Ibillin a few miles north of Nazareth in Galilee, which was established with the stamina of this one man, Chacour, who has the audacity to envision peace between enemies, a friend of mine asked him to autograph his book. He looked at heer and wrote these simple but profound words on the top of the first page of his life story: “GOD DOES NOT KILL.” He signed his name under those words.
While leaving the school grounds, Alison told me how she looked back over her shoulder to see teenage girls, one Christian and the other Muslim, sitting together on a bench eating their noon lunch in the sunshine. This is what it takes. Peace comes from knowing that God is in control, that one does not need to kill or be killed, and that God is not anxious to take sides even in battle. God does not kill, simple as that. All of our complex theological meanderings of a just, vengeful God faded away. It is not complex. It is not hard. Although he has seen the tragedy of war and hostility between enemies, Chacour holds firmly to the reality, simply stated, that “God does not kill.” God does not heed my prayers for vengeance. Nor does God heed the prayers of my enemies.
To reside in Ibillin while the guns of enemies swirled overhead and say that God does not kill perhaps is a test of faithfulness that you and I will never have to take. The testimony of resting in the midst of crisis, however, was most clear in the face and faith of Elias Chacour. He continues to build; he continues to work for peace, even in the midst of apparent violence and destruction. He has faith in a God who is in control of the universe. God did not need Chacour’s avenging prayers to be motivated to work for good. Chacour was free from the bondage of revenge and retribution. Apocalyptic language helps to create space for that rest. If God is in control, which is the large, neon-sign, announcement made by apocalyptic writers, then I do not have to calculate the wins and losses of my life. God is at work to bring justice to pass.
Furthermore, I do not even need to know how it will all occur. I am asked simply to trust in the God of the universe who has created the world and who will bring the future to pass. I do not need to be concerned with retribution.
The future orientation that enables the rest is crucial here. It is not a copout to say that the books will be balanced later. Karmic retribution, in the Buddhist sense, only enables the follower to breathe deeply and meditate more confidently in the present moment. Christian apocalyptic thought, likewise, enables the believer to rest, knowing that the God of the future will bring justice to pass. The Christian believer does not need to be anxious, but to rest.
This shift brings healing. This leader knows that rest will only come if the believers in Thessaloniki can relax in the knowledge that the God who raised our Jesus from the dead, as articulated so well in Paul’s teachings, is the same God who will bring future justice to their world.
The function of the second letter is not unlike that of the first. Both strive to comfort hurting people. In the first letter, Paul comforts the ones grieving over the deaths of the loved ones, assuring them that reunion with one another and Jesus is imminent. In the second letter, he also offers comfort but with a different perspective promising that in time, perhaps a long season of time, but in due time, all will be well.
So take time today. Take time to reflect on the importance of your faith, the need to stand firm even when people ridicule you for your beliefs and rest. Rest in the knowledge that in time there will be justice, divine justice and you can therefore be at peace.
Thanks be to God.