This is continuation of last week's post. You can find the full audio here if you would rather listen to it in one sitting. Today is also especially long, so pack a lunch.
Reducing the Gospel down to a mere command is probably not as helpful as it looks on the first pass – because the command to repent is itself part of the Law. Martin Luther put it this way:
The law is a light that illumines and shows, not the grace of God or righteousness and life, but the wrath of God, sin, death, our damnation in the sight of God, and hell. Such an awareness of divine judgment, which brought knowledge of oneself through the revelation of the law of God, is the basis of authentic repentance.
He says as much in greeting them: “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.” You can almost hear his relief – “Thank God! You guys are the ones who actually get it! As your faith in God grows, your love for one another grows!”
Some commentators have labeled this the “obedience of faith,” which is also one of Paul’s phrases – he uses it twice in the book of Romans. And when he lines out the particulars of the “obedience of faith,” Paul says this explicitly:
[Rom 12] Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.And in the end, it is also Jesus’ idea that somehow Love is the method of obedience for the believer:
[John 13] A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
Those of you who read this blog know this is my favorite subject: how the love of God, incarnate in the Gospel, ought to be demonstrated by the believers in the local church. It tells us something about how the Real Gospel makes Real Believers out of us. But the section we are in – the 5 verses we are covering – make a different application of that truth. Hopefully, we’ll come back to my favorite subject another day.
Today, we have to start to thread the needle of the second coming of Christ.
Paul is writing to a church that, even though it has grown in faith and love, it is suffering. It’s not suffering like a church in the English-speaking world “suffers.” It’s not suffering because it doesn’t have a full pastoral staff, or because it lacks faithful leadership, or because it has a large mortgage or needs a bigger building. It’s not suffering from the lack of teachers, or because the teachers are competing for attention. It is suffering because this church is actually being persecuted, harmed by outsiders. Paul says:
We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.Just think about this for a minute: the Apostle Paul says that he “boasts about you in the churches of God.” Whatever it is that’s happening there impresses the man who first evangelized the Gentile world. And what impresses him is not just that they love one another: it is that they are “steadfast” in these things even though there are legitimately-bad things happening to them.
This, I think, is a challenge for the rest of us. Let’s face it: there are not many of us who have true afflictions and persecutions for the faith. We are not imprisoned for our beliefs. We are not deprived of property or employment because we are followers of Christ. We are not people accused of all manner of depravity because we are hated by those who see us as a threat. But as we see it, when we suffer under affliction and persecution, either we simply paste on our stoic and staid face to gut it out, or we hope for others to be extra-sensitive toward us so that our burdens aren’t any heavier. We want to weather it out, and hope it passes. But as Paul looks upon the Thessalonians, he says, “Listen: I already boast about your faith and love to everyone I meet, but when I see your faith and love as it is demonstrated under the worst of circumstances – when it is actually made the reason other people seek to harm you – Wow! It’s something to boast about to all churches.” The King James translates it: “We ourselves glory in you.” Paul means it is a reason to rejoice.
We should think about this carefully, because this is the boast Paul is making about these people: “I taught them that God loves them enough to sacrifice his Son for them – to sacrifice his righteous son for their sinful selves – and these people really got it. They started loving each other as if the offenses they might have had against each other were forgiven in a final way, an authoritative way. But the more they love each other, the worse people outside of their camp considered them – it only made outsiders hate them more. And that hatred caused them a lot of hardship – a lot of suffering for the sake of believing that God loves, and that God’s love can be real to people. So I think they’re doing a great job of loving even though it only brings them shame and pain.”
When you put it that way, it actually seems like God may be a little unjust – that maybe he has a dark sense of humor, or maybe he’s a cruel god who is really detached from your personal concerns. It may actually seem to deny the idea that God is love and loving.
But Paul is not insensitive to this concern. We can see this immediately as he continues:
This [your suffering] is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering …That is: you Thessalonians are loving each other, and suffering for the sake of your love, for two reasons. One of these reasons is that this is how you may be considered worthy of the Kingdom of God.
What Paul is not saying is that this is how they earn their place. He’s not saying they paid the price of admission, therefore they get in. He’s saying that this is the test of the kind of stuff the Thessalonians are really made of. When you test gold to find out if it’s gold, it doesn’t earn anything by passing the test: it demonstrates its value. When you test a child to see what they have learned over a period of time, they are not earning anything in the test: they are proving what is already true. They can’t bring anything to the test which isn’t already in them. So when Paul says that the suffering these people are going through shows that they are “considered worthy,” he’s saying they are obviously already made of the stuff which belongs in the Kingdom of God – and here, under trials, they prove it.
But what about God? A lot of people would say that if God loves you, he wants you not to suffer, and not to toil, and not to come against hardships. There are churches here in Little Rock which teach this – that God blesses the true believer with health, and peace, and wealth.
This is not what Paul says at all – because his other reason for the suffering of the Thessalonians is the justice of God. That is: the Thessalonians are suffering right now in order that God can demonstrate His justice.
Let’s see how Paul works that out:
This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.In Paul’s view, the justice of God is not in question: it is utterly the point of what’s at stake. The evidence of God’s justice is precisely related to what will happen to those who are persecuting, and those who are persecuted. This is, after all, one of the major themes and promises of Jesus’ second coming.
Those who put all their faith in Christ for their justification, and who take justification seriously enough to love people because we only know what love is by the means of God’s justification of sinners – God in justice will wipe away every tear. God in justice will cast our sins away as far as the east is from the west. God in justice will say, “Well done, you good and faithful servant.” These people will have proved they weren’t just hearers of the word of God, but doers also. They will be considered worthy not because they earned a place in heaven, but because they demonstrated the value and the love already present, thanks to God. God in Justice will grant relief to those who are afflicted, especially those afflicted because they believed the Gospel, and lived as if it were true.
But there is another face of God’s justice – toward those who have done the afflicting. Paul says here in Justice, Jesus will come with fire and mighty angels to make the repayment to those who have afflicted God’s people. But consider the way Paul says it. It is not merely because those people are law-breakers. I mean: Paul says it plainly enough elsewhere than no lawless people will enter into the Kingdom of God, but here that’s not what he’s saying. He’s saying that the difference between the people God will give rest and refuge to and the others who will be punished not only for not knowing God but also for the persecutions they made is determined by their obedience to the Gospel.
This is why it was important to unpack the idea of what it means to “obey the Gospel,” because for those who do not obey the Gospel, it will be Hell. These are people who have purposefully disobeyed the good news of God’s love, doing terrible things to God’s people who were demonstrating the love of God, persecuting those who were in fact full of love. Paul says these persecuters do not know God, and they disobey what He has already demonstrated to be the greatest and highest love for people in Christ. Their disobedience causes the suffering of the saints, and that suffering will be paid back to them in justice.
There’s a modern notion about what this sort of language means – and by modern, I mean popular today. There’s an idea that this judgment of Christ is more like an intervention where Jesus sort of puts on a stern face and brings his boys around to explain it to you so you can also put on a solemn face about all the things you did wrong and then say, “you know, bro, that’s very serious.” Then after some silent meditation and a man-hug, it’s over and you can go on with your life. A recent book about Hell put it this way:
we need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us. We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way. For that, the word “Hell” works quite nicely.After all: we’re just talking about the way people behave, and God who is love must be bigger than vengeance, right?
Well, no. Paul actually says that Jesus is coming to take vengeance, in this case, vengeance for persecution, afflictions, and the disobedience to God and against the Gospel.
Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.But then he adds:
They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,
In God’s eyes, that’s a cause for punishment worthy to match the crime. The punishment is eternal, and utterly exempted from the glory in the presence of the Lord. It’s the worst thing that can happen to these people, and God himself will make it happen.
But as this happens, there is also the final act of justice toward the saints, which Paul describes this way:
when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.Paul is saying that when Christ returns, it is not merely that all the bad things which were happening because of our obedience to the Gospel will end and those evil-doers will be punished. Paul describes something tremendously positive. He says in verse 10 that Christ is coming "to be glorified in his saints and to be marveled at by all who have believed."
I was trying to come up with an example of what it means to marvel at something, to see it for the first time after hearing about it or somehow working toward it and to see the final work when it is complete.
This week, my wife and daughter were travelling while my son and I stayed home. During bachelor week at our house, he and I watched the Lord of the Rings together for the first time. One of the things that struck me as I wrote this lesson and watched those movies was the interpretation of Tolkien’s view of what happens to Frodo and Sam. The burden of sin – the burden of the ring – is nearly too much for Frodo, and at the last moment, he refuses to destroy it. Right at the moment of resolution, he chooses to keep the ring rather than destroy it – and it is only because Gollum is slightly more depraved that the ring is finally destroyed and Frodo is released. Sam and Frodo then barely escape the exploding mountain, and pass out, overcome by the end of their journey.
For what’s next, it’s better to read Tolkien than to try to describe the movie:
When Sam awoke, he found that he was lying on some soft bed, but over him gently swayed wide beechen boughs, and through their young leaves sunlight glimmered, green and gold. All the air was full of a sweet mingled scent. He remembered that smell: the fragrance of Ithilien. ‘Bless me!’ he mused. ‘How long have I been asleep?’ For the scent had borne him back to the day when he had lit his little fire under the sunny bank; and for the moment all else between was out of waking memory. He stretched and drew a deep breath. ‘Why, what a dream I’ve had!’ he muttered. ‘I am glad to wake!’ He sat up and then he saw that Frodo was lying beside him, and slept peacefully, one hand behind his head, and the other resting upon the coverlet. It was the right hand, and the third finger was missing.
Full memory flooded back, and Sam cried aloud: ‘It wasn’t a dream! Then where are we?’ And a voice spoke softly behind him: ‘In the land of Ithilien, and in the keeping of the King; and he awaits you.’ With that Gandalf stood before him, robed in white, his beard now gleaming like pure snow in the twinkling of the leafy sunlight. ‘Well, Master Samwise, how do you feel?’ he said. But Sam lay back, and stared with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer. At last he gasped: ‘Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?’What a way to say it: “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” How much more marvelous will it be when Jesus, in person, returns to us? How much more marvelous will it be that he will fulfill every promise he has made to us, and welcome us to himself because he has paid a price for us to be his own people?
At the end of it here, as we finish up today, let’s consider what it is Christ has promised us. It is at the same time a wonderful thing and a terrible thing. We must expect to be proved worthy of, and warn those who are in danger because of it, and because of their own disobedience – and it is something which, when we are on the other side of the journey, we will look back at and marvel over because something marvelous will have come to pass.