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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
2 Thessalonians 1

 

 

Verses 1-4

Chapter 17

SALUTATION AND THANKSGIVING

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4 (R.V.)

IN beginning to expound the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, it is necessary to say a few words by way of introduction to the book as a whole. Certain questions occur to the mind whenever such a document as this is presented to it; and it will put us in a better position for understanding details if we first answer these. How do we know, for instance, that this Epistle is really the second to the Thessalonians? It has been maintained that it is the earlier of the two. Can we justify its appearance in the place which it usually occupies? I think we can. The tradition of the church itself counts for something. It is quite unmistakable, in other cases in which there are two letters addressed to the same people, - e.g., the Epistles to the Corinthians and to Timothy, -that they stand in the canon in the order of time. Presumably the same is the case here. Of course a tradition like this is not infallible, and if it can be proved false must be abandoned; but at the present moment, the tendency in most minds is to underestimate the historical value of such traditions; and, in the instance before us, tradition is supported by various indications in the Epistle itself. For example, in the other letter, Paul congratulates the Thessalonians on their reception of the gospel, and the characteristic experiences attendant upon it; here it is the wonderful growth of their faith, and the abounding of their love, which calls forth his thanksgiving, -surely a more advanced stage of Christian life being in view. Again, in the other Epistle there are slight hints of moral disorder, due to misapprehension of the Lord’s Second Coming; but in this Epistle such disorder is broadly exposed and denounced; the Apostle has heard of unruly busybodies, who do no work at all; he charges them in the name of the Lord Jesus to change their conduct, and bids the brethren avoid them, that they may be put to shame. Plainly the faults as well as the graces of the church are seen here at a higher growth. Once more, in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 of this letter, there is reference to instruction which the Thessalonians have already received from Paul in a letter; and though he may quite conceivably have written them letters which no longer exist, still the natural reference of these words is to what we call the First Epistle. If anything else were needed to prove that the letter we are about to study stands in its right place, it might be found in the appeal of 2 Thessalonians 2:1. "Our gathering together unto Him" is the characteristic revelation of the other, and therefore the earlier letter.

But though this Epistle is certainly later than the other, it is not much later. The Apostle has still the same companions-Silas and Timothy-to join in his Christian greeting. He is still in Corinth or its neighbourhood; for we never find these two along with him but there. The gospel, however, has spread beyond the great city, and taken root in other places, for he boasts of the Thessalonians and their graces in the "churches" of God. His work has so far progressed as to excite opposition; he is in personal peril, and asks the prayers of the Thessalonians, that he may be delivered from unreasonable and evil men. If we put all these things together, and remember the duration of Paul’s stay in Corinth, we may suppose that some months separated the Second Epistle from the First.

What, now, was the main purpose of it? What had the Apostle in his mind when he sat down to write? To answer that, we must go back a little way.

A great subject of apostolic preaching at Thessalonica had been the Second Advent. So characteristic was it of the gospel message, that Christian converts from heathenism are defined as those who have turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven. This waiting, or expectation, was the characteristically Christian attitude; the Christian’s hope was hidden in heaven, and he could not but look up and long for its appearing. But this attitude became strained, under various influences. The Apostle’s teaching was pressed, as if he had said, not only that the day of the Lord was coming, but that it was actually here. Men, affecting to speak through the Spirit, patronised such fanaticism. We see from 2 Thessalonians 2:2 that pretended words of Paul were put in circulation; and what was more deliberately wicked, a forged epistle was produced, in which his authority was claimed for this transformation of his doctrine. Weak-minded people were carried off their feet, and bad-hearted people feigned an exaltation they did not feel; and both together brought discredit on the church, and injured their own souls, by neglecting the commonest duties. Not only decorum and reputation were lost, but character itself was endangered. This was the situation to which Paul addressed himself.

We do not need to be fastidious in dealing with the Apostle’s teaching on the Second Advent; our Saviour tells us that of the day and the hour no man knows, nor angel; nay, not even the Son, but the Father only. Certainly St. Paul did not know; and almost as certainly, in the ardour of his hope, he anticipated the end sooner than it was actually to arrive. He spoke of himself as one who might naturally enough expect to see the Lord come again; and it was only as experience brought him new light that in his later years he began to speak of a desire to depart, and to be with Christ. Not to die, had been his earlier hope, but to have the mortal being swallowed up of life; and it was this earlier hope he had communicated to the Thessalonians. They also hoped not to die; as the sky grew darker over them with affliction and persecution, their heated imaginations saw the glory of Christ ready to break through for their final deliverance. The present Epistle puts this hope, if one may say so, to a certain remove. It does not fix the date of the Advent; it does not tell us when the day of the Lord shall come; but it tells us plainly that it is not here yet, and that it will not be here till certain things have first happened. What these things are is by no means obvious; but this is not the place to discuss the question. All we have to notice is this: that with a view to counteracting the excitement at Thessalonica, which was producing bad consequences, St. Paul points out that the Second Advent is the term of a moral process, and that the world must run through a spiritual development of a particular kind before Christ can come again. The first Advent was in the fulness of the times; so will the second be; and though he might not be able to interpret all the signs, or tell when the great day would dawn, he could say to the Thessalonians, "The end is not yet."

This, I say, is the great lesson of the Epistle, the main thing which the Apostle has to communicate to the Thessalonians. But it is preceded by what may be called, in a loose sense, a consolatory paragraph, and it is followed up by exhortations, the same in purport as those of the First Epistle, but more peremptory and emphatic. The true preparedness for the Lord’s Second Coming is to be sought, he assures them, not in this irrational exaltation, which is morally empty and worthless, but in diligent, humble, faithful performance of duty; in love, faith, and patience.

The greeting with which the Epistle opens is almost word for word the same as that of the First Epistle. It is a church which is addressed; and a church subsisting in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Apostle has no other interest in the Thessalonians than as they are Christian people. Their Christian character and their Christian interests are the only things he cares for. One could wish it were so among us. One could wish our relation to God and His Son were so real and so dominant that it gave us an unmistakable character, in which we might naturally address each other, without any consciousness or suspicion of unreality. With every desire to think well of the Church, when we look to the ordinary tone of conversation and of correspondence among Christians, we can hardly think that this is so. There is an aversion to such directness of speech as was alone natural to the Apostle. Even in church meetings there is a disposition to let the Christian character fall into the background; it is a sensible relief to many to be able to think of those about them as ladies and gentlemen, rather than as brothers and sisters in Christ. Yet it is this last relation only in virtue of which we form a church; it is the interests of this relation that our intercourse with one another as Christians is designed to serve. We ought not to look in the Christian assembly for what it was never meant to be, -for a society to further the temporal interests of its members; for an educational institution, aiming at the general enlightenment of those who frequent its meetings; still less, as some seem to be inclined to do, for a purveyor of innocent amusements: all these are simply beside the mark; the Church is not called to any such functions; her whole life is in God and Christ; and she can say nothing and do nothing for any man until his life has been brought to this source and centre. An apostolic interest in the Church is the interest of one who cares only for the relation of the soul to Christ; and who can say no more to those he loves best than John says to Gaius, "Beloved, I pray that in all things thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth."

It is in accordance with this Spirit that the Apostle wishes the Thessalonians not any outward advantages, but grace and peace. Grace and peace are related as cause and effect. Grace is God’s unmerited love, His free and beautiful goodness to the sinful; and when men receive it, it bears the fruit of peace. Peace is a far bigger word in the Bible than in common usage; and it has its very largest sense in these salutations, where it represents the old Hebrew greeting "Shalom." Properly speaking, it means completeness, wholeness, health-the perfect soundness of the spiritual nature. This is what the Apostle wishes for the Thessalonians. Of course, there is a narrower sense of peace, in which it means the quieting of the perturbed conscience, the putting away of the alienation between the soul and God; but that is only the initial work of grace, the first degree of the great peace which is in view here. When grace has had its perfect work, it results in a more profound and steadfast peace, -a soundness of the whole nature, a restoration of the shattered spiritual health, which is the crown of all God’s blessings. There is a vast difference in the degrees of bodily health between the man who is chronically ailing, always anxious, nervous about himself, and unable to trust himself if any unexpected drain is made upon his strength, and the man who has solid, unimpaired health, whose heart is whole within him, and who is not shaken by the thought of what may be. It is this radical soundness which is really meant by peace; thorough spiritual health is the best of God’s blessings in the Christian life, as thorough bodily health is the best in the natural life. Hence the Apostle wishes it for the Thessalonians before everything else; and wishes it, as alone it can come, in the train of grace. The free love of God is all our hope. Grace is love imparting itself, giving itself away, as it were, to others, for their good. Only as that love comes to us, and is received in its fulness of blessing into our hearts, can we attain that stable spiritual health which is the end of our calling.

The salutation is followed, as usual, by a thanksgiving, which at the first glance seems endless. One long sentence runs, apparently without interruption, from the third verse to the end of the tenth. But it is plain, on a more attentive glance, that the Apostle goes off at a tangent; and that his thanksgiving is properly contained in the third and fourth verses: "We are bound to give thanks to God alway for you, brethren, even as it is meet, for that your faith groweth exceedingly, and the love of each one of you all toward one another aboundeth; so that we ourselves glory in you in the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions which ye endure." It is worthy of remark that the mere existence of faults in a church never blinded the Apostle to its graces. There was much in this congregation to rectify, and a good deal to censure; there were ignorance, fanaticism, falsehood, sloth, unruliness; but though he knew of them all, and would rebuke them all before he had done, he begins with this grateful acknowledgment of a Divine work among them. It is not merely that Paul was constitutionally of a bright temperament, and looked naturally on the promising side of things, -I hardly think he was, - but he must have felt it was undutiful and unbecoming to say anything at all to Christian people, who had once been pagans, without thanking God for what He had done for them. Some of us have this lesson to learn, especially in regard to missionary and evangelistic work and its results. We are too ready to see everything in it except what is of God, -the mistakes made by the worker, or the misconceptions in new disciples that the light has not cleared up, and the faults of character that the Spirit has not overcome; and when we fix our attention on these things, it is very natural for us to be censorious. The natural man loves to find fault; it gives him at the cheapest rate the comfortable feeling of superiority. But it is a malignant eye which can see and delight in nothing but faults; before we comment on deficiencies or mistakes which have only become visible against the background of the new life, let us give thanks to God that the new life, in however lowly and imperfect a form, is there. It need not yet appear what it shall be. But we are bound, by duty, by truth, by all that is right and seemly, to say, Thanks be to God for what He has begun to do by His grace. There are some people who should never see half-done work; perhaps the same people should be forbidden to criticise missions either at home or abroad. The grace of God is not responsible for the faults of preachers or of converts; but it is the source of their virtues; it is the fountain of their new life; it is the hope of their future; and unless we welcome its workings with constant thanksgiving, we are in no spirit in which it can work through us.

But let us see for what fruit of grace the Apostle gives thanks here. It is because the faith of the Thessalonians grows exceedingly, and their mutual love abounds. In a word, it is for their progress in the Christian character. Here is a point of the first interest and importance. It is the very nature of life to grow; when growth is arrested, it is the beginning of decay. I would not like to fall into the very fault I have been exposing, and speak as if there were no progress, among Christians in general, in faith and love; but one of the discouragements of the Christian ministry is undoubtedly the slowness, or it may be the invisibility, not to say the absence, of growth. At a certain stage in the physical life, we know, equilibrium is attained: we are at the maturity of our powers; our faces change little, our minds change little; the tones of our voices and the character of our handwriting are pretty constant; and when we get past that point, the progress is backward. But we can hardly say that this is an analogy by which we may judge the spiritual life. It does not run its full course here. It has not a birth, a maturity, and an inevitable decay, within the limits of our natural life. There is room for it to grow and grow unceasingly, because it is planned for eternity, and not for time. It should be in continual progress, ever improving, advancing from strength to strength. Day by day and year by year Christians should become better men and better women, stronger in faith, richer in love. The very steadiness and uniformity of our spiritual life has its disheartening side. Surely there is room, in a thing so great and expansive as life in Jesus Christ, for fresh developments, for new manifestations of trust in God, for new enterprises prompted and sustained by brotherly love. Let us ask whether we ourselves, each in his own place, face the trials of our life, its cares, its doubts, its terrible certainties, with a more unwavering faith in God than we had five years ago? Have we learned in that interval, or in all the years of our Christian profession, to commit our life more unreservedly to Him, to trust Him to undertake for us, in our sins, in our weakness, in all our necessities, temporal and spiritual? Have we become more loving than we were? Have we overcome any of our irrational and unchristian dislikes? Have we made advances, for Christ’s sake and His Church’s, to persons with whom we were at variance, and sought in brotherly love to foster a warm and loyal Christian feeling in the whole body of believers? God be thanked, there are some who know what faith and love are better than they once did; who have learned-and it needs learning-what it is to confide in God, and to love others in Him; but could an Apostle thank God that this advance was universal, and that the charity of everyone of us all was abundant to all the rest?

The apostolic thanksgiving is supplemented in this particular ease by something, not indeed alien to it, yet on a quite different level-a glorying before men. Paul thanked God for the increase of faith and love at Thessalonica; and when he remembered that he himself had been the means of converting the Thessalonians, their progress made him fond and proud; he boasted of his spiritual children in the churches of God. "Look at the Thessalonians," he said to the Christians in the south; "you know their persecutions, and the afflictions they endure; yet their faith and patience triumph over all; their sufferings only serve to bring their Christian goodness to perfection." That was a great thing to be able to say; it would be particularly telling in that old pagan world, which could meet suffering only with an inhuman defiance or a resigned indifference; it is a great thing to be able to say yet. It is a witness to the truth and power of the gospel, of which its humblest minister may feel justly proud, when the new spirit which it breathes into men gives them the victory over sorrow and pain. There is no persecution now to test the sincerity or the heroism of the Church as a whole; but there are afflictions still; and there must be few Christian ministers but thank God, and would do it always, as is meet, that He has allowed them to see the new life develop new energies under trial, and to see His children out of weakness made strong by faith and hope and love in Christ Jesus. These things are our true wealth and strength, and we are richer in them than some of us are aware. They are the mark of the gospel upon human nature; wherever it comes, it is to be identified by the combination of affliction and patience, of suffering, and spiritual joy. That combination is peculiar to the kingdom of God: there is not the like found in any other kingdom on earth. Blessed, let us say, be the God and Father Of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given us such proofs of His love and power among us; He only doeth such: wondrous things; let the earth be filled with His glory.


Verses 5-12

Chapter 18

SUFFERING AND GLORY

2 Thessalonians 1:5-12 (R.V.)

IN the preceding verses of this chapter, as in the opening of the First Epistle, the Apostle has spoken of the afflictions of the Thessalonians, and of the Christian graces which they have developed under them. To suffer for Christ’s sake, he says, and at the same time to abound in faith and love and spiritual joy, is to have the mark of God’s election on us. It is an experience so truly and characteristically Christian that the Apostle cannot think of it without gratitude and pride. He gives thanks to God on every remembrance of his converts. He boasts of their progress in all the churches of Achaia.

In the verses before us, another inference is drawn from the afflictions of the Thessalonians, and their gospel patience under them. The whole situation is a proof, or manifest token, of the righteous judgment of God. It has this in view, that the Thessalonians may be deemed worthy of the (heavenly) kingdom of God, on behalf of which they suffer. Here, we see, the Apostle sanctions with his authority the argument from the injustices of this life to the coming of another life in which they will be rectified. God is just, he says; and therefore this state of affairs, in which bad men oppress the innocent, cannot last forever. It calls aloud for judgment; it proclaims its approach; it is a prognostic, a manifest token of it. The suffering which is here in view cannot be an end in itself. Even the graces which come to perfection in maintaining themselves against it, do not explain the whole meaning of affliction; it would remain a blot upon God’s justice if it were not counterbalanced by the joys of His kingdom. "Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you, and persecute yon, and say all manner of evil against yon falsely, for My sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven." This is the gracious side of the judgment. The suffering which is borne with joy and brave patience for Christ’s sake proves how dear Christ is to the sufferer; and this love, tried with fire, is requited in due time with an answer in love that makes him forget it all.

This is one of the doctrines of Scripture that untroubled times find it easy to dispense with. There is even an affectation of superiority to what is called the moral vulgarity of being good for the sake of something beyond goodness. It is idle to enter on any abstract discussion of such a question. We are called by the gospel to a new life under certain definite conditions, one of them being the condition of suffering for its sake. The more thoroughly that condition is accepted the less disposition will there be to criticise the future blessedness which is its counterpoise and compensation. It is not the confessors and martyrs of the Christian faith-the men who die daily, like Paul, and share in the tribulations and patience of Jesus Christ, like John-who become weary of the glory which is to be revealed. And it is such only who are in a position to judge of the value of this hope. If it is dear to them, an inspiration and an encouragement, as it certainly is, it is surely worse than vain for those who are living an easier and a lower life to criticise it on abstract grounds. If we have no need of it, if we can dispense with any sight or grasp of a joy beyond the grave, let us take care that it is not owing to the absence from our life of that present suffering for Christ’s sake, without which we cannot be His. "The connection," Bishop Ellicott says, "between holy suffering and future blessedness is mystically close and indissoluble"; we must through great tribulation enter into the kingdom of God; and all experience proves that, when such tribulation comes and is accepted, the recompense of reward here spoken of, and the Scriptures which give prominence to it, rise to the highest credit in the mind of the Church. It is not a token of our enlightenment and moral superiority, if we undervalue them; it is an indication that we are not drinking of the Lord’s cup, or being baptised with His baptism.

But the reward is only one side of the righteous judgment foretold by the suffering of the innocent. It includes punishment as well. "It is a righteous thing with God to recompense affliction to them that afflict you." We see here the very simplest conception of God’s justice. It is a law of retribution, of vindication; it is the reaction, in this particular case, of man’s sin against himself. The reaction is inevitable: if it does not come here, it comes in another world; if not now, in another life. The hope of the sinner is always that in some way or other this reaction may never take place, or that, when it does take place, it may be evaded; but that hope is doomed to perish. "If it were done when ‘tis done," he says as he contemplates his sin in prospect; but it never is so done; it is exactly half done when he is finished with it; and the other half is taken in hand by God. Punishment is the other half of sin; as inseparable from it as heat from fire, as the inside of a vessel from the outside. "It is a righteous thing with God to recompense affliction to them that afflict you." "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap."

One of the favourite pastimes of some modern historians is the whitewashing of persecutors. A dispassionate interest in the facts shows, we are told, in many cases, that the persecutors were not so black as they have been painted, and that the martyrs and confessors were no better than they should have been. Where fault is found at all, it is laid rather at the door of systems than of individuals; judgment is passed on institutions and on centuries that persons and their actions may go free. Practically that comes to writing history, which is the story of man’s moral life, without recognising the place of conscience; it may sometimes have the look of intelligence, but at bottom it is immoral and false. Men must answer for their actions. It is no excuse for murdering the saints that the murderers think they are doing God service; it is an aggravation of their guilt. Every man knows that it is wicked to afflict the good; if he does not, it is because he has quite corrupted his conscience, and therefore has the greater sin. Moral blindness may include and explain every sin, but it justifies none; it is itself the sin of sins. "It is a righteous thing with God to recompense affliction to those who afflict." If they cannot put themselves by sympathy into the place of others-which is the principle of all right conduct-God will put them in that place, and open their eyes. His righteous judgment is a day of grace to the innocent sufferers; He rewards their trouble with rest; but to the persecutor it is a day of vengeance; he eats the fruit of his doings.

It is characteristic of this Epistle, and of the preoccupation of the Apostle’s mind when he wrote it, that he here expands his notice of the time when this judgment is to take place into a vivid statement of its circumstances and issues. The judgment is executed at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven, with the angels of His power, in flaming fire. "At this moment," he would say, "Christ is unseen, and therefore by wicked men ignored, and sometimes by good men forgotten; but the day is coming when every eye shall see Him." The Apostle Peter, who had seen Christ in the flesh, as Paul had never done, and who probably felt His invisibility as few could feel it, is fond of this word "revelation" as a name for His reappearing. He speaks of faith which is to be found unto praise and honour and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ. "Be sober," he says, "and hope to the end for the grace that is being brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ." And in another passage, much in keeping with this of St. Paul’s, he says. "Inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings, rejoice; that at the revelation of His glory also ye may rejoice with exceeding joy." It is one of the great words of the New Testament; and its greatness is heightened in this place by the accompanying description. The Lord is revealed, attended by the angels of His power, in flaming fire. These accessories of the Advent are borrowed from the Old Testament; the Apostle clothes the Lord Jesus at His appearing in all the glory of the God of Israel. When Christ is thus revealed, it is in the character of a Judge: He renders vengeance to them that know not God, and to them that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Two classes of guilty men are quite plainly distinguished by these words; and as plainly, though the English alone would not enable us to lay stress upon it, those two classes are the heathen and the Jews. Ignorance of God is the characteristic of paganism; when Paul wishes to describe the Gentiles from the religious point of view, he speaks of them. as the Gentiles which know not God. Now, with us, ignorance is usually regarded as an excuse for sin; it is an extenuating circumstance, which calls for compassion rather than condemnation; and we are almost astonished in reading the Bible to find it used as a summary of the whole guilt and offence of the heathen world. But we must remember what it is that men are said not to know. It is not theology; it is not the history of the Jews, or the special revelations it contains; it is not any body of doctrines; it is God. And God, who is the fountain of life, the only source of goodness, does not hide Himself from men. He has His witnesses everywhere. There is something in all men which is on His side, and which, if it be regarded, will bring their souls to Him. Those who know not God are those who have stifled this inner witness, and separated themselves in doing so from all that is good. Ignorance of God means ignorance of goodness; for all goodness is from Him. It is not a lack of acquaintance with any system of ideas about God that is here exposed to the condemnation of Christ; but the practical lack of acquaintance with love, purity, truth. If men are familiar with the opposites of all these; if they have been selfish, vile, bad, false; if they have said to God, "Depart from us; we desire not the knowledge of Thy ways; we are content to have no acquaintance with Thee"-is it not inevitable that, when Christ is revealed as Judge of all, they should be excluded from His kingdom? What could they do in it? Where could they be less in place?

The difficulty which some have felt about the ignorance of the Gentiles can hardly be raised about the disobedience of the Jews. The element of wilfulness, of deliberate antagonism to the good, to which we give such prominence in our idea of sin, is conspicuous here. The will of God for their salvation had been fully made known to this stubborn race; but they disobeyed, and persisted in their disobedience. "He that being often reproved hardeneth his neck"-so ran their own proverb-"shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy." Such was the sentence to be executed on them in the day of Christ.

When it is said that ignorance of God and disobedience to the gospel are here presented as the characteristics respectively of Gentile and Jew, it is not said that the passage is without significance for us. There may be some of us who are sinking day by day into an ever deeper ignorance of God. Those who live a worldly and selfish life, whose interests and hopes are bounded by this material order, who never pray, who do nothing, give nothing, suffer nothing for others, they, whatever their knowledge of the Bible or the catechism may be, do not know God, and fall under this pagan condemnation. And what of disobedience to the gospel? Notice the word which is here used by the Apostle; it implies a conception of the gospel which we are apt, in magnifying the grace of God, to overlook. We speak of receiving the gospel, believing it, welcoming it, and so forth; it is equally needful to remember that it claims our obedience. God not only beseeches us to be reconciled, He commands us to repent. He makes a display of His redeeming love in the gospel-a love which contains pardon, renewal, and immortality; and He calls on all men for a life in correspondence with that love. Salvation is not only a gift, but a vocation; we enter into it as we obey the voice of Jesus, "Follow Me"; and if we disobey, and choose our own way, and live a life in which there is nothing that answers to the manifestation of God as our Saviour, what can the end be? Can it be anything else than the judgment of which St. Paul here speaks? If we say, every day of our life, as the law of the gospel rings in our ears: "No, we will not have this Man to reign over us," can we expect anything else than that He will render vengeance? "Do we provoke the Lord to anger? Are we stronger than He?" The ninth verse describes the terrible vengeance of the great day. "Such men," says the Apostle, "shall pay the penalty, everlasting destruction, away from the face of the Lord and from the glory of His might." These are awful words, and it is no wonder that attempts have been made to empty them of the meaning which they bear upon their face. But it would be false to sinful men, as well as to the Apostle, and to the whole of New Testament teaching, to say that any art or device could in the least degree lessen their terrors. It has been boldly asserted, indeed, that the word rendered everlasting does not mean everlasting, but age long; and that what is in view here is "an age long destruction from the presence and glory of Christ, i.e., the being shut out from all sight of and participation in the triumphs of Christ during that age" ["the age perhaps which immediately succeeds this present life"]. And this assertion is crowned by another, that those thus excluded nevertheless "abide in His presence and share His glory in the ages beyond." Anything more gratuitous, anything less in keeping with the whole tone of the passage, anything more daring in its arbitrary additions to the text, it would be impossible even to imagine. If the gospel, as conceived in the New Testament, has any character at all, it has the character of finality. It is God’s last word to men. And the consequences of accepting or rejecting it are final; it opens no prospect beyond the life on the one hand, and the death on the other, which are the results of obedience and disobedience. Obey, and you enter into a light in which there is no darkness at all: disobey, and you pass eventually into a darkness in which there is no light at all. What God says to us in all Scripture, from beginning to end, is not, Sooner or later? but, Life or death? These are the alternatives before us; they are absolutely separate; they do not run into one another at any time, the most remote. It is necessary to speak the more earnestly of this matter, because there is a disposition, on the plea that it is impossible for us to divide men into two classes, to blur or even to obliterate the distinction between Christian and non-Christian. Many things prompt us to make the difference merely one of quantity-a more or less of conformity to some ideal standard-in which case, of course, a little more, or a little less, is of no great account. But that only means that we never take the distinction between being right with God, and being wrong with God, as seriously as God takes it; with Him it is simply infinite. The difference between those who obey, and those who do not obey, the gospel, is not the difference of a little better and a little worse; it is the difference of life and death. If there is any truth in Scripture at all, this is true-that those who stubbornly refuse to submit to the gospel, and to love and obey Jesus Christ, incur at the Last Advent an infinite and irreparable loss. They pass into a night on which no morning dawns.

This final ruin is here described as separation from the face of the Lord and the glory of His might. In both the Old Testament and the New, the vision of God is the consummation of blessedness. Thus we read in one psalm, "Before Thy face is fulness of joy"; in another, "As for me, I shall behold Thy face in uprightness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with Thy likeness." In one of the Gospels, our Saviour says that in heaven the angels of the little ones do always behold the face of their Father who is in heaven; and in the Book of Revelation it is the crown of joy that His servants shall serve Him and shall see His face. From all this joy and blessedness they condemn themselves to exclusion who know not God, and disobey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Far from the face of the Lord and the glory of His power, their portion is in the outer darkness.

But in vivid contrast with this-for the Apostle does not close with this terrible prospect-is the lot of those who have chosen the good part here. Christ is revealed taking vengeance on the wicked, as has just been described; but He comes also to be glorified in His saints and to be admired in all them that believed-including those Christians at Thessalonica. This is the Lord’s and the Christian’s interest in the great day. The glory that shines from Him is mirrored in and reflected from them. If there is a glory of the Christian even while he wears the body of his humiliation, it will be swallowed up in a glory more excellent when his change comes. Yet that glory will not be his own: it Will be the glory of Christ which has transfigured him; men and angels, as they look at the saints, will admire not them, but Him who has made them anew in the likeness of Himself. All this is to take place "on that day"-the great and terrible day of the Lord. The voice of the Apostle rests with emphasis upon it; let it fill our minds and hearts. It is a day of revelation, above all things: the day on which Christ comes, and declares which life is eternally of worth, and which forever worthless; the day on which some are glorified, and some pass finally from our view. Do not let the difficulties and mysteries of this subject, the problems we cannot solve, the decisions we could not give, blind our eyes to what Scripture makes so plain: we are not the judges, but the judged, in this whole scene; and the judgment is of infinite consequence for us. It is not a question of less or more, of sooner or later, of better or worse; what is at stake in our attitude to the gospel is life or death, heaven or hell, the outer darkness or the glory of Christ.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 Thessalonians 1:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/2-thessalonians-1.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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