Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
Before we begin the sermon, I want to briefly mention a wonderful problem at our church right now. Over the summer, some 30 people requested to join a small group, which is a wonderful thing. The only reason that is a problem is that right now we are short-staffed and are in the early process of looking for an Associate Pastor of Connections. Currently we are calling new small group leaders to determine the details of their groups (when and where they will meet), asking current group leaders if their group might be able to take more people, and then going back to everyone who requested to join a group to see which of the groups might work best. Again, it’s a wonderful problem we’re very thankful to have. If over the next few weeks you feel that a desire you had related to small groups might have been overlooked, please help us by sending an extra email or making an extra phone call.
As we turn our attention to the Word of God, we continue our study of the letters to the church in Thessalonica. We finished up 1 Thessalonians a few weeks ago, and Pastor Ben began 2 Thessalonians last week. Before I read the passage and pray, I would like to make a special appeal to you that as we pray, you would also be praying with me. There is a beauty and joy and hope to this passage, but there is certainly a heaviness to this passage as well. As I prayerfully ask the Lord to give us hearts to hear his Word, I’m asking you now that you would join me in praying this prayer for yourself and for others. Please don’t be a spectator with this prayer and passage. Join me. Join us.
Follow along with me as I read from 2 Thessalonians 1:3–12, and then we’ll pray that God would be our teacher.
3 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. 4 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. 5 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— 6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 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 8 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. 9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 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. 11 To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, 12 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.
When I was interviewing to be one of your pastors here at Community five years ago, after I preached, we had a congregational meeting. People asked any question they thought would be helpful to get to know me and to confirm that this would be a good fit. From the back of the sanctuary a man raised his hand. He asked how many funerals I had officiated and if I had much experience with suffering people.
I told him and the church briefly about my grandfather. If I had said my grandfather had recently passed away, that would have been true but also not the whole story. My grandfather had recently taken his own life. When I got the call from my mother, I drove two hours to Phoenix to sit with my grandmother and aunts and uncles. My grandfather had been dying of cancer when he took his life.
Very few of my family members on that side of my family are Christians, so I ended up officiating the funeral service. Under a pavilion at the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona a veteran played “Taps” on his trumpet, and I attempted to honor God and my grandfather and comfort our grieving family.
At first, when I was interviewing here and the man at Community asked about my experience with suffering people and funerals, I really thought it was really a way to ask about my age and whether I had enough life experience and maturity to be a pastor here. Except in hindsight I realize that the person who asked the question was also dying of cancer, and did so not too long after I arrived here as one of your pastors.
Relentless suffering can make your mind go to dark places. That was true for the Christians in Thessalonica, and it’s true for us. A few years ago I was undergoing severe and mysterious health challenges. I lost weight. I was getting sick two, then four, then five days a month. Then it was five days a week. All that is largely behind me know, but I can say that in the lowest of lows, as I laid on the floor of my bedroom or bathroom my mind at times went to dark places.
Some of you know this well. I took just a few minutes to list things that we, as pastors of your church, are familiar with and praying for. The list is a doozy. Among us some have failing kidneys, two (that we know of) recently have lost their fathers, one of our former members recently went on hospice, another has had back surgery and because of age and other things has had to move away from attending our church regularly. I think of the two women who have recently undergone divorces from their husbands, and one of them can’t go back near her home for fear of physical harm from extended family. There are miscarriages, MS, Parkinson’s, and cancer among us. There’s an adult parent who desperately wants to help an adult daughter to thrive, but like Humpty Dumpty, no one seems to know how to put her back together again. And in these dark moments, our minds—even our Christian understanding of the world and God’s goodness—can go to dark places. Am I doing something wrong? Does God know? Does he care? Can God do anything about it? And so on.
But into the darkness, Paul shines the hope of the Second Coming—Jesus is coming again “to be glorified in his saints” (v. 10). That’s been Paul’s theme throughout the letters of 1 & 2 Thessalonians, and it’s true specifically in this passage.
1. Celebrate God’s sustaining grace, vv. 3–5
As we get into the specifics, the first thing we are going to see is the theme of celebrating God’s sustaining grace. In the midst of great difficulties, God can and does sustain his children with grace. Look with me again at vv. 3–5.
3 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. 4 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. 5 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—
Here we read of Paul always giving thanks to God for these believers. Indeed, he goes around to all the churches celebrating the great joy he has in them and the way that God is sustaining their faith amid their trials. I want to say a few more things about this, but we need to have the context more clearly before us to do so.
While Paul was traveling on his missionary journeys, he visited Thessalonica. Thessalonica was a large port city and the capital of Macedonia. It’s in the country of Greece today. Think of Thessalonica like Boston or Baltimore, modern port cities. The population of Thessalonica was, we think, 100,000. Paul preached about the good news of the life and death and resurrection and second coming of Jesus, and people were changed. But because of persecution, Paul had to keep moving on. Then, while away from them, he heard these new believers were struggling. False teachers were undermining Paul’s teaching and character and stealing away the fragile assurance of these believers.
So Paul sent his trusted gospel-ministry partner Timothy to check on them. Timothy did. He came back and reported to Paul that they were, in fact, doing well but that they still needed more instruction in the faith. So Paul wrote the letter we call 1 Thessalonians. Now look at these two verse from 2 Thessalonians, both verses we’ll come to in the coming weeks.
15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (2:15)
11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. (3:11).
That line at the end of 2:15 about “our letter” is the first letter Paul wrote to them. And that line in 3:11 about “we hear” indicates that between the two letters some sort of additional report got back to Paul about these young believers. We don’t have that report, but it would seem that the major issues in that report are likely reflected in the themes Paul address in his second letter.
Paul has three major concerns: the unremitting persecution and suffering (addressed in chapter 1), an odd view of the return of Jesus (addressed in chapter 2), and that some have become lazy and idle (addressed in chapter 3). This week, as we focus on chapter 1, we are addressing that first theme of unremitting suffering and persecution.
Now, why did I bring up all of that context? Well, not only is it common for those who are suffering to go to a spiritually dark place, it’s also common for those suffering to not feel like they have anything to offer, like they are only a burden to others.
With this in mind, look again at vv. 3–4.
3 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. 4 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.
Paul says we “ought always to give thanks to God for you.” This group of Christians needed Paul’s help. They were losing their assurance. They had a messed-up view of the end times that was, to be frank, bizarre, and some of them were getting lazy. But what does Paul do? He sees what they are doing well, and he celebrates the sustaining grace of God that is working among them. That’s what he does.
So what does that mean for us? When you and I see others among us, even specifically those who are new to Christianity and they have a ton of things wrong in their life—sins and struggles, messed up theology and messed up home lives—do we have the eyes to see what God is doing among them and encourage them nonetheless? I mean Paul didn’t have to write to them. He could have moved on and found better believers, just like God could do with you and I. But Paul didn’t forsake young believers. More importantly, God doesn’t forsake his children. And we shouldn’t either.
2. Rest in God’s final judgment, vv. 6–9
I’ve been wondering this last week if Paul had a special love for those who were suffering persecution because he himself was—before he was a Christian—a persecutor of the church. I don’t know. But we do know that for the next few verses, that’s where Paul’s attention turns, the topic of persecution. As Paul speaks about those who are afflicting these believers, he doesn’t speak so much to those who are doing the afflicting; he continues to speak to this suffering church to find rest in God’s final judgment. I’ll explain what I mean by that, but let’s read the verses first.
6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 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 8 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. 9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,
Again, Paul is speaking not so much to those doing the affliction but speaking hope to those who are receiving the affliction.
To be sure, Paul says troubling things in this passage. Paul speaks of Jesus coming in flaming fire to inflict vengeance on those who do not know God or obey the gospel. He speaks of them suffering the punishment of eternal destruction—not just temporary destruction, but hell is as eternal in its torment as heaven is eternal in its joy (cf. 1 Thes 4:17). That’s troubling. And Paul speaks of being kept away from the “presence of the Lord.” In evangelical, Christian jargon we sometimes speak of hell as a “Christ-less eternity,” meaning an eternity without Christ. That’s true, at least, hell is an eternity away from the presence of the love of Christ, the grace of Christ, the joy of Christ. Instead, hell is an eternity under the wrath of Christ. All this, again, is troubling.
But, again, I wonder if the context would help us. Look closer at verse 6:
6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you,
It’s possible from a privileged and relatively justice-filled experience of life to consider God cruel for judging those who don’t know him. But what if the pervading experience of our lives was one of injustice? For some of you, that might not be a “what if.” Some of you have experienced great injustices. I submit to you that while some of us might consider God cruel for what he says he will do in this passage, that those who first received this letter would have considered the opposite to be cruel. If God could watch your injustice and not be moved, if God could watch his people wrongly afflicted and there be no response, that would have been cruel to them. And they would have been right. We don’t know exactly what form their persecution took, but as they were excluded from society, as they were beaten, as some of them were placed in jail, they wanted to know if God was watching.
And so it is today. When there is a mass shooting, when the powerful sexually abuse the weak, when there is genocide, people ask where is God? This passage has an answer: God is in heaven storing up the winepresses of the fury of his wrath that will be poured out in flaming fire on all who do not obey the gospel. That’s where he is. He’s keeping score and when the game is over, no injustice will be unaccounted for.
At my former church, one of the police offers who attended our church was shot in the head while breaking up a robbery. He lived and is still alive today. But doctors were actually not able to take out the bullet because they feared the damage that might cause to do so. Needless to say, this offer was in critical condition for many days.
During those days, I went to the hospital many times and sat with his wife while hard decisions were made. And when the officer was better, I sat with him in hospitals. The man who pulled the trigger was caught but there was not enough evidence to convict him for the shooting, though he was convicted of other things. As you might imagine, that created as a struggle for my friend, a struggle that likely, in dark moments, remains a struggle. To my friends, as they went through this, the encouragement to rest in the final judgment of God at the Second Coming was good news. It was part of what allowed my friends to be able to forgive. They could forgive because God was the one who ultimately dealt with all sin and injustice, not them.
A quote often attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr. says, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I don’t know exactly what he meant by that or what others before him who said similar things meant, though I do know that the return of Christ has been long in coming, and when he comes, there will be justice.
3. Hope in God’s glorious return, vv. 10–12
I knew a pastor who told me about a sermon he preached in seminary. He told me that the professor told him he did a good job of taking the audience down, but he wasn’t able to bring them back up. In other words, he brought up some really, really heavy things in the introduction and throughout the sermon but he was not able to share the gospel in such a way that it was seen as the answer that was more than sufficient for all the trouble.
I wonder if you’ll leave today feeling like what was said of my friend’s sermon in seminary could be said of my sermon today. I hope not, which is why I’m glad we have the chance to share in communion together and reflect on the love of Chirst. Relentless suffering can make our minds go to dark places. But into the darkness, God shines the hope of the Second Coming—Jesus is coming again and he will make all things new and wipe away every tear from his children’s eyes.
Look at the end of the passage, vv. 10–12.
10 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. 11 To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, 12 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.
There are so many things in this passage we’re not able to cover, even in these verses. Just to mention quickly one thing, look at that phrase “marveled at” in v. 10: “when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed.” Paul is saying Jesus is awesome. And to believe in Jesus is to see his awesomeness. And to see his awesomeness is to marvel, to be in awe at the splendor of his power, the glory of his grace, the fullness of his justice, the extravagance of his forgiveness.
Think about this more. It’s often pointed out that whenever angels show up in the Bible the people who see them are afraid. After an angel shows up to Samson’s parents in the book of Judges, we read that they “fell on their faces to the ground” (13:20). They were afraid. When angels appeared to shepherds to announce the birth of the messiah, we read that the shepherds were “filled with fear” and the first words of the angels had to be “fear not” (Luke 2:9, 10). Again, when angels show up in the Bible to humans, people are afraid.
But here, in this passage, we read in v. 7 that Jesus will be “revealed from heaven with his mighty angels.” Not only is Jesus not afraid of mighty angels, but we are told that they are his mighty angels. The submissive, obedient entourage of Jesus at the Second Coming are angelic beings that by themselves would make us afraid, but he commands them. That’s one reason why believers will marvel. Believers will marvel because Jesus is marvelous, both now and then.
In a world that offers no sturdy hope for life after death, when the trumpet of God sounds, the Lord will return. Even if you have been buried in the ground for thousand years, God the Father will raise you like he raised Jesus from the dead. In a world where no medicine, no spiritual guru, no health regimen can stop your death, Jesus will come with a cry of command, the voice of an archangel, and the trumpet of God, and the dead will rise (1 Thessalonians 4:16). In this world everything good eventually ends—all our best joys, end; all our best experiences, end; and all our best relationships, end. But in a world where everything good ends, this passage encourages us when Christ comes again, we will marvel at his return because his return will be the marvelous answer to our every longing.
Let’s close by reading a passage about the Lord’s Supper from the apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 11, we read,
23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Note that last line. When we participate in communion, we proclaim the goodness of the death of Jesus for sinners, a death that saves them from the wrath that they deserve for their sins. And as we share in this supper, we proclaim that the same Jesus who lived, died, rose, and ascended will come again. And when he does on that day, it will be marvelous, because he is marvelous.