A Commentary by John Stott
2 Thessalonians 1:5-10. 2). A defence of God’s justice (continued)
First, *when* will God vindicate his justice and redress the present imbalance of human experience? Answer: *This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels* (7b). The *parousia* (official visit) has now become the *apokalypsis* (unveiling) of Jesus Christ. The basic affirmation of his coming is almost identical in both letters:
1 Thess.4:16 ‘the Lord himself will come down from heaven’.
2 Thess.1:7 ‘the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven’.
According to both statements his coming will be personal (the same Lord Jesus, he himself and no other, who lived, died, rose and ascended, will come again), visible (having disappeared from sight at the ascension, he will reappear) and glorious (his first coming having been in weakness and obscurity, his second will be in power and public magnificence). Different details of his appearing are selected for mention, however. Instead of the loud command, the voice of the archangel and the trumpet call of God, we now read of *blazing fire*, a regular biblical symbol of the holy, consuming nature of God’s presence (E.g. Ex.3:2; 13:22; 19:18). And the retinue which will accompany the descending Lord, which in 1 Thessalonians was the Christian dead (4:14), is now *his powerful angels*, although both saints and angels may well be included in the expression ‘all his holy ones’ (1 Thess.3:13).
The second question relates to *who* will be punished when our Lord comes as judge. Paul writes: *He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus* (8). Since in the first letter the heathen were described as people ‘who do not know God’ (4:5), while the Jews were accused of both driving out the evangelists and hindering their spread of the gospel (2:15-16), some commentators have concluded that the two categories of people Paul mentions in verse 8 are pagans and Jews respectively. His readers could not have been expected to pick up this distinction, however. It seems more probable that both expressions describe unbelievers in general, indeed their wilful rejection of both the knowledge of God (Cf.Rom.1:28) and the gospel of Christ. The REB brings our their wilfulness by calling them ‘those who refuse to acknowledge God and who will not obey the gospel…’.
Thirdly, *what* will their judgment be? *They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power* (9). The Greek sentence reads ‘eternal destruction away from [*apo*] the presence of the Lord’. But most translators, recognizing that Paul’s emphasis is not so much on the destruction of the wicked as on the separation from God which their destruction will involve, feel the need to elaborate the preposition *apo* ‘away from’. For example, the punishment will be ‘eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord’ (RSV); they will be *shut out* (NIV) or ‘cut off’ (REB) from his presence. Do these words throw any light on the debate between biblical Christians about the nature of hell? That the final state of those who reject God and Christ will be awful and eternal is not in dispute. But the question whether their exclusion-destruction means conscious torment or ultimate annihilation cannot be settled by an appeal to this verse and its vocabulary, since the apostle does not here clearly allude to either.
In contrast to the appalling nature of hell, Paul goes on to portray the glory of heaven. For when Christ *comes*, he will not only judge those who reject the gospel, but he will also *be glorified in his holy people and…be marvelled at among all those who have believed*, which *includes* the Thessalonians who, on hearing the apostle’s *testimony* to them (the gospel), had *believed* (10). That is to say, not only will the Lord Jesus be ‘revealed’ objectively in his own splendour (7), so that we see it, but his splendour will be revealed in us, his redeemed people, so that we will be transformed by it and will become vehicles by which it is displayed. The exact purport of this depends on how we understand the repeated preposition *en*, which NIV translates first *in his holy people* and secondly *among all* believers. *En* could also be translated ‘by’ or ‘through’. So how will the coming Lord Jesus be glorified in relation to his people? Not ‘among’ them, as if they will be the theatre or stadium in which he appears; nor ‘by’ them, as if they will be the spectators, the audience who watch and worship; nor ‘through’ or ‘by means of’ them, as if they will be mirrors which reflect his image and glory; but rather ‘in’ them, as if they will be a filament, which itself glows with light and heat when electric current passes through it.
The distinction between these models is important. A theatre is not changed by the play which is performed in it. An audience is not necessarily moved by the drama enacted before it. A mirror is certainly not affected by images it reflects. But a filament is changed. For when the current is switched on, it becomes incandescent. So when Jesus is revealed in his glory, he will be glorified in his people. We will not only see, but share, his glory. We will be more than a filament which glows temporarily, only to become dark and cold again when the current is switched off. We will be radically and permanently changed being transformed into his likeness. And in our transformation his glory will be seen in us, for we will glow for ever with the glory of Christ, as indeed he glowed with the glory of the Father (E.g. Jn.14:13).
Take the Transfiguration as an illustration. On that occasion Jesus was glorified in his physical body. His face shone like the sun, while his skin and clothing glistened and became as white as light. In other words, his body became a vehicle for his glory. So will it be with his spiritual body, the church. The body of Christ will be transfigured by the glory of Christ, not temporarily as at the Transfiguration, but eternally.
Tomorrow: 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12. 3). A prayer for God’s power.
|The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 2 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.|