Come, Lord Jesus! - 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12
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A few years ago some friends were driving me one dark Friday night into the centre of Pretoria in South Africa when as we approached a set of traffic lights- or ‘robots’ as they call them, my friend said with some urgency, make sure your passenger door is locked. He then explained the need for such a precaution. Car jacking, he told me, was becoming common place. Indeed, at the very intersection we were approaching one such car jacking occurred a few months earlier in which three armed men burst into a car which had stopped at these lights. The car was being driven by a young mother, with a baby in the back together with the grandmother. At gunpoint they were taken to a side street, where the mother was shot dead, the baby raped and the grandmother beaten to a pulp, although she did survive. To my knowledge the perpetrators of this vile crime were never caught.
Now, is there not something proper when hearing of something like this, that we don’t simply say- ‘this is wrong’, but that justice is demanded, those who did this dreadful, wicked deed, should actually be punished? There are such horrendous human deeds that even the atheist is sometimes heard to exclaim, ‘Goddamnit’ and actually mean it- that God should damn such people. The Christian sociologist, Peter Berger, talks about this deep seated human desire for justice to be done, which can only ultimately be achieved by God, as ‘a signal of transcendence’ or ‘the argument from damnation.’ He writes: ‘It’s our experience in which our sense of what is humanly permissible is so fundamentally outraged that the only adequate response to the offence as to the offender seems to be a curse of supernatural dimensions.’ He goes on to say that, ‘deeds that cry out to heaven also cry out for hell.’ In other words, unless there is final and absolute justice, to which our deepest instincts testify, should be the case, then all our actions are ultimately rendered meaningless as is the concept of justice. The kindness of Mother Teresa and the wickedness of Hitler are reduced to the same insignificant level of value. Hitler liked to kill people, Mother Teresa liked to save them- so what’s the difference if there is no God to judge between the two? And so the argument goes, only an all powerful, all knowing, all just God can ensure that this will happen. And, why this will happen and when and how this will happen is answered for us in the passage we are looking at together this morning in Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonian Christians, chapter 1.
First, we have the inevitability of persecution. Now verses 3 through till verse ten is one long sentence in the original. Paul begins in verse three by saying of himself and his missionary colleagues that ‘we are bound to give thanks to God’, and you read on and wonder when he is going to get to his main point. The main point being that when Jesus returns he is going to be glorified in his people and he is going to judge- this is why Paul gives thanks. But what gets Paul on a long ramble, if I may put it like that, is the fact that Christians are being persecuted and that cries out for justice to be done- so he wants to deal with this important issue first. Look at the end of verse 4, ‘Therefore, among God's churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. 5All this is evidence that God's judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering.’ Paul talks about the persecution of Christians as being ‘evidence’- literally, ‘clear proof’ that God’s judgement is right. What’s he getting at? Well, he is saying that the fact that these young Christians- and they have only been believers for a matter of a few months- are suffering because of their faith and are enduring it, is demonstrable proof of God’s right way of doing things- which is what ‘God’s righteous judgement means.’ Way back in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus made it abundantly clear that what will mark out his true followers is that they will be given a rough time from the non- Christian world because they believe in him. The sign of a Christian isn’t that they have a cart sticker in the shape of a fish but that if you are a real believer in Jesus, then you will be treated just like Jesus was treated. And you know how that was. If they called the master of the house- Jesus- Beelzebub, then what do you think they will call his servants- anything less? If they slandered him who did nothing but good because he made the morally respectable uncomfortable and threatened the religious establishment, can we honestly expect his followers to receive better treatment than he did? Hardly. Suffering is discipleship territory. It is a sign that we are his- that he is doing things properly. How so? Well, for one thing nothing creates a greater sense of dependence upon God and confirms that we really do mean business with him than a good dose of persecution. Do you wonder whether you truly believe in Jesus? Then see what happens when you have to make a stand for him and God gives you the grace to do it- that really does confirm that you faith is genuine. In our country it may be no more than having to speak out at work about a practice you think is wrong or defending somebody you feel is being unfairly treated and so you are passed over for promotion. It may be that you are shunned by workmates or family because your faith is an embarrassment. Neither of which is pleasant. But we might be able to live with that. But what of our brothers and sisters around the world whose treatment is simply inhuman. Does not the cry go out to God then- please act in justice? I am sure many of you will have heard of the ‘Killing Fields’ of Cambodia, when in the 1970’s a third of Cambodia’s population was wiped out by the communist Khmer Rouge. Many of those who were killed were killed simply because they were Christians. Let me read you part of an account of one such Christian family, that of Haim. ‘Curious villagers watched as the Khmer Rouge ordered the family to dig their own graves. Then, consenting to Haim’s request for a moment to prepare themselves for death, father, mother and children, hands linked, knelt together around the gaping pit. With loud cries to God, Haim began exhorting both the Khmer Rouge and all those looking on from afar to repent and believe the gospel. Then in panic, one of Haim’s young sons leapt to his feet, bolted into the surrounding bush and disappeared…the Khmer Rouge and the stunned family kneeling at the graveside, looked on in awe as Haim began calling his son, pleading with him to return and die together with his family. ‘What comparison, my son.’ He called out, ‘stealing a few more days of life in the wilderness, a fugitive, wretched and alone, to joining your family here momentarily around this grave but soon around the throne of God, free forever in paradise?’ After a few tense minutes the bushes parted, and the lad, weeping, walked slowly back to his place with the kneeling family. ‘Now we are ready to go,’ Haim told the Khmer Rouge. But by this time there was not a soldier standing there who had the heart to raise his hoe to deliver the death blow on the backs of these noble heads. Ultimately this had to be done by the Khmer Rouge communal chief, who had not witnessed these things. But few of those watching doubted that as each of these Christians’ bodies toppled silently into the earthen pit which the victims themselves had prepared their souls soared heavenward to a place prepared by their Lord.’ Do you not think that they were being counted worthy of the kingdom of God? But God acts properly in another way- not only is this a way of ensuring that our faith is real, it can be used to testify the reality of that faith to others. Because the writer goes on to say that after the death of Haim and his family, ‘The rapid news of such as this, of certain Christians boldly bearing witness to their Lord in death, was gossiped about the countryside. Eventually these reports were brought across to the refuge camps in Thailand, and not always by Christians, but by typical Cambodians who, until then, had despised the Puok Yesu- the people of Jesus.’ However, the fact that God uses suffering to spread the Gospel and to authenticate it doesn’t mean that those who perpetrate such acts are going to be let off the hook- where would the justice be in that?
Which brings us to our second point: the certainty of judgement, vv6-10. Notice how Paul underscores the matter of justice in verses 6 and 7, ‘God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you 7and give relief (or rest) to you who are troubled, and to us as well.’ Paul talks about there being a ‘pay back.’ eventually taking place. On the one hand a pay back in terms of affliction, those who are afflicting Christians will be afflicted but also a payback or compensation to Christians in the form of rest or relief for all the trials they have undergone. That is justice talk isn’t it? God putting things right, a balancing of the books- we all want that deep down. So, when will this happen? Paul tells us, ‘This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.’ The very Lord Jesus who walked upon this earth 2,000 years ago, who then was not all that much to look at, as are many of his people today, is going to return as a sight which will both dazzle and terrify the world. The imagery is that of an angelic army of unimagined power lead by the Lord Jesus Christ, in a pure blaze of consuming fire, just suddenly appearing out of nowhere. The explosion of the H bombs on the atolls will seem as the putting on of the Newland Christmas lights compared to this event which is yet to happen. And that, I would imagine will scare people spitless. And what is it that is going to happen then? Look at verse 8, ‘He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power 10on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marvelled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.’
What it actually says is that Jesus will ‘inflict vengeance on all those who do not know God and do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus.’ Now Paul is only repeating Jesus own teaching here as you get it for example in Matthew 25. For us the word, vengeance tends to have a negative ring to it and that is because we mistake vengeance which is a perfectly reasonable thing with vindictiveness which is not. God is never vindictive, but he is vengeful, he is protective of his little one’s as any father would be, and what is more he has both the wisdom to see that true vengeance is done properly and the power to ensure it is done effectively. And I don’t know about you, but I am both content with that and glad that it is so. I certainly wouldn’t trust myself to be vengeful, I would either go too far or not far enough- but not the Lord Jesus Christ- he will get it right. You see artists should judge artists. Car mechanics should assess cars. And teachers, quite rightly, assess their pupils. Who, then, should judge human beings? Ideally the answer would be a fellow human being, someone who has walked this weary war-torn world of ours and has known the pull of temptation, the disappointment of love betrayed, and the grief of loved ones lost. What is needed is someone who has experienced the whole gamut of human emotions, its troughs as well as its peaks, and has had to wrestle with all the struggles common to humanity and triumphed, for only then would they be in a position to say ‘I understand exactly your situation, for I have been there too’. However, a human judge, no matter how virtuous, is not sufficient as humankind’s judge. Not only is human knowledge required whereby the person can fully identify with us, but divine knowledge is also needed so that he can fully assess us. This, too, we have in Jesus. Jesus is not only the Son of Man-human; he is also the unique Son of God-divine. And as such, his knowledge is infallible, his judgements impeccable and his wisdom inscrutable. He knows everything about us. If we have any mitigating circumstances he is fully aware of them. In the glory of his omniscience he has been following our progress from the moment we were conceived, according to Psalm 139:15: “My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body”. As man, not only does he know experientially from the inside what it is like to be human, as God he knows infallibly from the outside what it is like to be me. Therefore, can you think of anyone better qualified to judge you than a person like that? Here is someone who, in one person, combines fully the divine and human natures – all-knowing, all-wise, all-just. That is the Lord Jesus Christ, who says Paul is going to burst one more time upon the world stage of the human drama to inaugurate the last act- judgement.
So upon whom is the vengeance going to come? We are told, ‘those who do not know God and do not obey the Gospel.’ Those are not in fact two separate things- knowing God and obeying the Gospel. No, you know God by obeying the Gospel; God cannot be known apart from the Gospel, because the Gospel is about God as we have him in the Lord Jesus Christ. So to reject the Gospel is to reject God and so to keep on playing the rebel. And one of the ways we express that rebellion is by having a go at God’s people. If you can’t attack God directly then you do it indirectly by attacking his people. The relationship between Jesus and his people is so strong and intimate that to treat them badly is to treat him badly. We are the apple of his eye- and you know what a painful thing it is when someone pokes you in the eye- well, God is being poked in the eye when his people are being ill treated and Jesus will deal with that when he comes again. Now do you see why we are so passionate here at St John’s and try and explore any and everyway of making the Christian message known? Honestly we are not playing games, we really do believe this stuff and that is why we so want those who are not yet Christians here this morning to become Christians because we really do love you and want you to be spared this fate which is coming more surely than the sun is going to rise tomorrow.
And what is that fate? Look at verse 9, ‘They will be punished (literally, pay the just penalty) with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.’ Now Paul talks about the just penalty being ‘eternal destruction’ and part of what that eternal destruction consists of is being ‘excluded from the presence of the Lord Jesus.’ The misery of eternal destruction is the loss of all hope of any friendship with Jesus- to know nothing of depth of his kindness, to know nothing of the warmth of his love, to experience nothing of the shear unadulterated rapturous joy of his presence. And isn’t it the loss of a person, of a relationship, someone we miss which can hurt far more than the loss of a limb or property so that it is shear agony? J C Ryle who was the first Bishop of Liverpool in the 19th century, a godly bible man, lost his beloved wife Henrietta which simply devastated him. A year later he wrote to his eldest son, ‘Life has never been the same thing or the world the same place since my wife died.’ And no doubt there are many here this morning who would echo those sentiments- the world is never the same. Well, if that is the case with human relationships which mean so much, multiply that by infinity and then you will get the measure of what Paul is speaking of here of the loss-due penalty- which will be suffered by those who reject the one for whom they were made, who is the source of all beauty, all love, all goodness, all security, all predictability, all friendships, all the things we take for granted day by day,- and all of that is taken away as people are taken away from him who bled for them. Christ’s justice is shown not in so much what they receive but in what they can never have- the loss of Jesus Christ. Nothing can ever be so terrible or so painful. And what makes it all the more tragic is the contrasting experience of believers-v10, ‘on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marvelled at among all those who have believed.’ When Jesus return we will marvel at him, be enraptured by him, we won’t be able to take our eyes or minds off him- we will be totally transfixed and that will be our relief, our rest. Imagine a gorgeous bride walking down the aisle, her face beaming with joy, all her attendants just there to enhance her glory, the train of her wedding dress behind her, the flowers in front of her and you look at her and go ‘Wow’ what beauty- especially if she is going to be your wife, your find your heart in your throat and you can hardly believe it. Well, that is a faint picture of the shear, unbelievable joy and heart stopping thrill you will experience if you are a Christian on the day Jesus Christ returns- but he will be a trillion times more beautiful and splendid than any bride- and you will be there! His glory will be your glory. Will it have been worth it having suffered for being his follower then? Would you consider being a Christian and being part of his people to be a drag then? Why even to raise such questions reveals how absurd the thoughts are. And it is a reality which awaits us- not because we have been good but because as Paul says in verse 10, ‘we have believed the testimony’ that is, the Gospel. You grasp the truth and hold on to it as Christ grasps you and holds on to you.
But does this mean we sit around just waiting for that day? Not according to verses 11-12, there is the necessity of prayer, ‘11With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith. 12We pray this 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.’ I am not sure if this is something which comes from getting older and feeling more tired and vulnerable, but I feel more and more that I need your prayers and you need mine to get us through to the end. Yes, it is God who ensures that we do get home to heaven, but one of the ways he has chosen to make it happen is by his people praying for each other. I know I can’t make it without you praying for me and you can’t make it without me praying for you. I so want Jesus to be glorified us and for that to happen- we have got to pray so that by his power, he will fulfil his good purposes in us through every act which is prompted by our faith.
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