The Old Testament ends with this expectation:
Behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts. . . . Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. (Malachi 4:1–3, 5)
There was no clear prophecy in the Old Testament that this day of the Lord, with its blazing judgment against evil, and its healing and leaping for joy for those who fear God, would come in two stages separated by 2,000 years. The Old Testament prophetic perspective looked at the nearer and farther mountains in the mountain range of God’s future and saw them as temporally indistinct.
That is, God granted them to see and say many true things about these mountains of God’s future events. But God did not grant them to see how much time elapsed between each event — how wide was the valley between these two mountains, or were they two mountains? They couldn’t tell.
The day is coming, burning like an oven. . . . The sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.
So, when Jesus, the Messiah, arrived not burning like an oven and trampling his enemies, but as the sun of righteousness with healing in his wings, he created a glorious perplexity. It’s glorious because in his coming and living and dying and rising from the dead and ascending to the Father, Jesus accomplished once and for all stupendous and wonderful things that all the angels of heaven wish they could look into (1 Peter 1:12). And it’s a perplexity because the completion of the application of those accomplishments to his people and to the creation has not happened yet, and we don’t know when it will.
The purchase — the ransom — of all the elect (all who will believe, in all ages) was completely and finally paid, once and for all.
- “He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26).
- “He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:8).
- And when he cried, “It is finished” (John 19:30), that perfect obedience was complete so that Paul could say, “By the one man’s obedience the many will be appointed righteous” (Romans 5:19).
So, in the first coming of the Messiah, the punishment for sin was finished. The provision of righteousness was finished. That payment and that perfection can never be improved. If we are united to Jesus by faith in him as our Savior, and Lord, and supreme Treasure, right now, in this age, before the second coming, we cannot be any more forgiven than we are, nor any more justified than we are. His coming created a glorious perplexity.
Already, but Not Yet
But it is a glorious perplexity. The complete application of the finished accomplishments are not yet.
Though we have been saved by faith (Ephesians 2:8), our salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed (Romans 13:11).
Though we have been transferred into the kingdom of God’s Son (Colossians 1:13), we are yet to inherit the kingdom (Galatians 5:21).
Though we have been adopted into the family of God (Galatians 4:5), we wait for our adoption as sons (Romans 8:23).
Though we have been perfected for all time (Hebrews 10:14), we are now being perfected (Galatians 3:3).
Though we have been set free from the slave master of sin (Romans 6:18), and it no longer has dominion over us (Romans 6:14), yet we do what we do not wish (Romans 7:15), and must kill sin every day (Romans 8:13).
Though we have passed from death to life (John 5:24), we will die (Hebrews 9:27).
Though we have become a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), we await our resurrection bodies (Romans 8:23).
Though we have seen the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6), yet we see in glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12), and only “when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
When Christ came into the world, he set in motion a glorious perplexity. To the Old Testament saints and prophets, the future mountains of salvation for God’s people and judgment on those who reject him looked like one mountain. They didn’t know that when the Messiah came into the world, and began to recite Isaiah 61, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me . . . to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” that he would stop reciting just before the words, “and the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:1–2).
As if to say, “The rest of Isaiah 61:2 happens in 2,000 years.” There’s a big valley between these two mountains. It’s called the evangelization of the world, “the times of the Gentiles” (Luke 21:24). But actually, no, he didn’t say that. And he couldn’t. And that adds to the glorious perplexity.
Not Even the Son Knows
When it gradually penetrated Jesus’s followers that his coming was unlike anything they expected, that it was going to end painfully, not triumphantly, as they expected, and that he was leaving them behind while he returned to his Father and sent the Holy Spirit (John 14:18; 15:26; 16:7), they wanted to know: “Okay, how long are you going to be gone? When will you come again and fully establish the kingdom?”
And to their dismay, and our perplexity, Jesus said, “Concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36). So Jesus, the God-man, in his human nature, did not know the time of his second coming. He knew enough that when his followers in Luke 19 thought the kingdom was to appear immediately, he told a parable that started like this: “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return” (Luke 19:12). A far country — not a close one.
But he didn’t know. This is a very important fact. We need to keep it in mind when we read in the New Testament statements like
- “The end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7);
- “Behold, I am coming soon” (Revelation 22:7);
- “The Lord is at hand” (Philippians 4:5);
- “The coming of the Lord is at hand. . . . Behold, the Judge is standing at the door” (James 5:8–9).
If we read those statements as if the authors knew when Jesus was coming, we misread them. Not even the Son knows. To claim to know, when not even the Son knows, would not just be a mistake; it’s a moral problem.
When James says, “The coming of the Lord is at hand [ēggiken]” and he is standing at the door [pro ton thurōn]” (5:8–9), he is echoing the words of Jesus in Matthew 24:33, “So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near (eggus estin), at the very gates (epi thurais).”
So, the picture we should have in our minds when we hear “nearness” words is not that the Lord is on the way and only has a short distance to traverse before he breaks in. That’s not the picture. He is at the gates! That’s the picture. Just outside the city — of time.
So, what’s the point? The point is: Don’t presume on any gap in which you can cease to be vigilant, ready, doing your assigned task.
Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. . . . But if that wicked servant says to himself, “My master is delayed,” and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 24:46, 48–51)
The point is not distance, delay, indifference, and delinquency. The point is nearness, at the gates, spiritual vigilance, and doing our job. “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44). What keeps him out is not distance, but sovereign purposes of patience, mercy, and judgment (2 Peter 3:9).
So, the perplexity about the time of the second coming runs right through the New Testament. Jesus deals with it (Luke 19:12; Acts 1:8). James deals with it (James 5:8–9). Peter deals with it (1 Peter 4:7; 2 Peter 3:3–10). And Paul deals with it. And the place that Paul deals with the second coming most fully is in the Thessalonian letters, especially 2 Thessalonians.
Through Many Dangers
That’s where I aim to spend the rest of our time in this message and my closing message on Wednesday morning — an exposition of the second coming as Paul handles it in 2 Thessalonians. And what makes Paul’s treatment of the second coming in 2 Thessalonians so helpful is that he deals with timing issues, with the event itself and what it will be like, and with its impact on our present suffering, and its misuses by some in the church. In other words, Paul’s approach to the second coming relates to our experiences right now. Let’s read 2 Thessalonians 1:3–12.
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.
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. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 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. 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, 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.
What sets the stage for Paul’s teaching on the second coming is the persecution and affliction of the believers in Thessalonica. Verse 4: Paul boasts among the churches about the steadfastness and faith and love of these believers “in all [their] persecutions and in the afflictions [they] are enduring.” When he adds the word “afflictions” (thlipsesin) to the word “persecutions,” he broadens the troubles out to every manner of oppressing and discouraging thing that Christians must pass through on the narrow, hard (tethlimennē, Matthew 7:14) way that leads to heaven.
There is nothing unusual going on in Thessalonica. Paul had told them this was coming when he was there.
[Let] no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction. (1 Thessalonians 3:3–4)
In fact, this was what Paul said to all the churches, according to Acts 14:22: “Through many tribulations [thlipseōn, afflictions] we must enter the kingdom of God.” All Christians and all churches walk this path to heaven. Romans 8:17: “[We are] heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”
This is why what Paul says about the second coming is so relevant for us. It relates to our afflictions as it did to theirs, because these are normal, God-appointed (eis touto keimetha [1 Thessalonians 3:3]) afflictions for all believers and all churches in all times — some more, some less.
Three Ways God Works in Our Afflictions
Here is the fundamental thing Paul says about our affliction, especially affliction that comes from the sin of others against us. He says in verse 5, “This [affliction] is evidence of the righteous judgment of God.” It is a sign that God is dealing, judging, deciding, governing justly, rightly. So the question becomes: How is God showing the righteousness, the justness, of appointing such afflictions for the Thessalonians and for you? Paul gives three answers, and all three of them come to climax at the second coming.
1. God heals us from worldliness and fits us to glorify Christ.
First, verse 5b: God’s decision to ordain these afflictions is righteous and just, because it has this design, this divine purpose: “that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering” (2 Thessalonians 1:5). In other words, even though the reality of justification by faith alone (Romans 3:28; 5:1), on the basis of Christ alone (Romans 5:9, 19) is how we are accepted by God, forgiven, adopted, and have entrance already into the kingdom of God (Colossians 1:13), nevertheless, throughout the whole New Testament, God considers it just, righteous, fitting to make the ungodly justified ones godly on our way to heaven. And he does it (among other ways) through affliction.
Read it again. Verse 5 states that God’s judgment — his decision — to appoint your affliction is an evidence, or sign, of God’s righteousness and justice, because his design in it is to make you fit, suitable, worthy of his kingdom. The word “worthy” doesn’t mean deserving of. It means fitted for or suited for. This is the way the word is used in Matthew 3:8 where John the Baptist says, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Not “deserving of repentance,” which would make no sense. But as fits repentance, suits repentance, is in keeping with repentance. So in 1 Thessalonians, Paul is saying that, by afflictions, God is purifying and deepening our faith and our holiness, weaning us off the world, so that we will be fit, suited, worthy of the kingdom.
In fact, in verse 11, he turns all this into a prayer: “To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling.” How? “That he [God] may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power.” This is God’s power, working through afflictions, purifying our faith, and turning our good resolves into actual works of love. All of it, according to verse 12, so that we are fitted to glorify Christ when he comes. It’s all
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. (2 Thessalonians 1:12)
So, that’s the first way God’s judgment in our affliction is shown to be a good and “righteous judgment.” Think of the people you know (maybe even yourself) who are spiritually and emotionally utterly unfitted to do verse 12 at the coming of Christ. Or verse 10: “when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed.” What do you think the coming of Christ will be like for people, even church-going people, who are unfitted, unpracticed, disinclined to glorify Christ, and marvel at Christ, now? Brothers and sisters, our affliction is God’s infirmary to heal us from the disease of worldliness and fit us to marvel at Christ when he comes.
2. God will punish those who afflict others.
Now here’s the second way Paul explains how our affliction from sinners is evidence of God’s righteous judgment. It’s found in verse 6: “Since indeed God considers it just [or righteous, dikaion; the same word in verse 5, dikaias] to repay with affliction those who afflict you.”
In other words, the people that are causing your misery are not going to get away with it. They are not going to go unpunished. There will be a balancing of the scales of justice. That’s the point of saying the “afflicters” will be “afflicted.” Justice will be done. But it is crucial for us to see that it will not be done in this age. It is coming. But not yet.
Many accounts will not be settled in this life. You must be okay with that, or you will take vengeance into your own hands. But God said, “Leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay [anatapodōsō], says the Lord’” (Romans 12:19). When will he “repay (antapodounai) with affliction those who afflict you” (2 Thessalonians 1:6)? He will tell us in just a moment. But first there is the third explanation of how our affliction is a “righteous judgment of God.”
3. God replaces our affliction with rest.
In the first half of verse 7, Paul adds one more explanation for how it is just for God to appoint affliction as the way to make us fitted for the kingdom of God. Start in verse 6: “God considers it just [righteous] to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us.” His judgment is righteous in appointing affliction for us not only because it fits us for the kingdom, and not only because those who sin against us will not get away with it, but also, thirdly, because he will turn everything around for us as well. Their afflicting will be repaid with affliction. Our affliction will be repaid with relief — with rest.
And when we think of the indescribable suffering that millions of Christians have endured for their faith, we must not think of this “relief” or this “rest” as merely the absence of toil and pain. No, in this relief are the words of Jesus, “Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21). We must remember the words of Jesus that when we are persecuted, “your reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 5:12). And the words of Paul, “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
The Climax at His Coming
Now, when and how do these three explanations of the righteousness of God’s judgment in our afflictions come to their climax?
- These afflictions are fitting us for the kingdom;
- those who afflict us will be punished; and
- our afflictions will be replaced with everlasting relief and joy.
The answer begins in the middle of verse 7 and goes through verse 10. It happens
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. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 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.
This is a description of the most terrible and the most glorious event in the history of the world: the second coming of Christ. Paul tells us nine things about it. And I will just mention them as we move to the conclusion.
1. Jesus will be revealed.
Verse 7b: It is a revelation (see 1 Peter 1:13), an unveiling, of Jesus. “When the Lord Jesus is revealed.” For now, Jesus is hidden. But on that day he will be revealed.
2. Jesus will descend.
Verse 10a: This revelation will happen by his coming. “When he comes on that day.” This will not be a revelation by vision or dream or apparition. It will be a revelation by event! By coming. Jesus is a divine human being with a glorified body. He can move through space. And as he ascended, he will descend (Acts 1:11).
3. Jesus’s throne moves from heaven to earth.
He will come and be revealed “from heaven.” “The Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven.” This is where he reigns today at the Father’s right hand. Now he comes from heaven to earth. His throne will move from heaven to earth.
4. Jesus will return with mighty angels.
Verse 7b: He comes with powerful angels. “When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels.” They will come with him for the glory of his majesty and for the task of gathering the elect (Matthew 24:31; see 2 Thessalonians 2:1–2).
5. Jesus will come in flaming fire.
Verse 8a: He comes “in flaming fire.” Jesus had said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him . . . he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me . . . into the eternal fire” (Matthew 25:31, 41). Perhaps what Paul means that he comes with flaming fire is that the fire of God’s unapproachable purity is the very flame that ignites the justice of hell.
6. Jesus will enact justice.
Verse 8b: His coming will bring God’s vengeance: “in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance.” All the wrongs that have ever been done in the history of the world receive their just sentence. The second coming is an act of judgment and justice.
7. Jesus will judge those who do not know him.
Verse 8c: Paul specifies two groups of humans who will be the objects of this vengeance: “on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” One is those who do not know God. And the other is those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. It’s true that all people do know God (Romans 1:21). But they suppress this knowledge (Romans 1:18). So, it may be said, “Knowing him, they do not know him.” So, whether people have heard the gospel and rejected it, or have never heard, and suppressed what they have known, it will be a day of reckoning.
8. Jesus will banish those who reject him.
The vengeance is described in three ways in verse 9.
They will “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction.” The consequence of rejecting God and the gospel is eternal ruin.
This ruin will include separation “from the presence [the face!] of the Lord.”
It will include separation “from the glory of his might.” Not to be in the light of the Lord’s countenance is to be in the darkness of his displeasure. And if you are in the darkness, away from God’s good pleasure, the power of God is not glorious but terrifying.
9. Jesus’s saints will marvel at him.
The ultimate purpose, or aim, of the second coming is in verse 10: “He comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed.” Notice three things on this ninth point, as we close.
This is Christ’s purpose. Christ’s aim. Christ’s design in coming. His purpose is that he be glorified and marveled at. Christ aims at the exaltation of Christ. As all things were created by Christ and for Christ (Colossians 1:16), so all things end by Christ and for Christ. And that is the ultimate purpose of Christ in all things: the glorification of Christ.
Notice, it does not say that the aim is the glory of Christ. It says, the aim is the glorification of Christ, marveling at Christ. In other words, the ultimate aim of all creation exists most essentially in the Christ-exalting acts of the hearts of the redeemed. To be sure, we will have new bodies, a new heaven, a new earth. But they are not the essence of the ultimate end of creation. The essence is the experience of the heart of the bride of Christ, ravished by her Husband, glorifying, marveling — and thus exalting his infinite worth and beauty.
What God is mainly about in dealing with his people in this age is making you worthy of this calling. Verse 11: “To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling.” To what end? To the end of fitness to glorify Christ and marvel at Christ when he comes. And as he says it in verse 12, “that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him.”
And how does he do that? How does he make us “worthy” or “fit” to glorify and marvel at Christ? Verse 5: “[Your affliction] 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.”
By suffering, God redirects our marveling at the world, and puts it on Christ. This is a righteous judgment, and it comes to a climax in our final, all-satisfying marveling at Christ in his coming, and then forever.