End Times Revelation of Christ (preaching resource for 10/30/22)
This post exegetes the first chapter of 2 Thessalonians, which is the context of the RCL Epistles reading for 10/30/22. This exegesis draws on several sources, including John Stott's commentary.
|"The Master's Touch" by Greg Olsen (used with permission of artist)|
The Christian view of the end times (the stretch of time between Jesus' first and second advents) is related to the Christian view of all history. For some non-Christians, history is a progression of moments with no meaning or final destination. For others, it is a cycle that repeats until perfection is achieved. But for Christians, history has a great meaning and a final destination, centered on Jesus Christ.
The gospel of Jesus tells us that the eternal Son of God, who existed before time, appeared in time in a specific era and locale where he suffered, was crucified, died and was buried. Then on the third day he rose again and, having sent his Spirit, has for two further millennia been leading his church joined with him in taking the gospel to the world. One day (known only to the Father), when this good news has been 'preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations' (Matt.24:14) the grand finale (the end--the consummation) will come, consisting of Jesus' return to reveal his full glory, the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment, and establishment of the fullness of the Kingdom of God in a new heavens and new earth. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul makes it plain that these events are history's goal. He does so by addressing the grand finale and how Christians are to live as they await those events.
Paul writes concerning these matters in response to three problems among the Thessalonian Christians: 1) the persecution they were encountering (2 Thess.1:4); 2) false teachers circulating what was apparently a forged document (a 'prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us', 2Thess.2:2) to the effect that 'the day of the Lord' had 'already come'; and 3) idlers who refused to work because they thought Jesus' return was going to occur immediately. In addressing these three problems, Paul offers a strong, hope-filled message, beginning in chapter 1 by addressing the 'end times' revelation of Christ--a revelation that comes to fulness in Jesus' return in glory, when all wrongs (including the persecution of Christians) will be righted and Christ's judgment and salvation will be fulfilled.
Chapter 1 begins with this greeting:
1 Paul, Silas and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: 2 Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Unfortunatly, the church at Thessalonica was viewing the "end times" in which they were living with dread. The same is true of some Christians today--with some fearing martyrdom and many fearing the uncertainty of world events. Whatever the source of fear, it is by God's grace [that]we can live secure, knowing that in these end times, and then fully at Jesus' return, God's purpose is advanced: Christ is being revealed, all to God's glory.
In chapter 1, Paul gives three ways in which Christ's revealing occurs in these end times.
Christ is revealed in God's grace (1:3-4)
3 We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. 4 Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.
By his lavish grace, God gives us what we need for our journey through these end times in which we live. Paul mentions three critical aspects of this grace, thanking God for the faith, love and perseverance that already are evident and are growing among the Christians in Thessalonica. This progress is due to God's grace at work within them, and so Paul gives the credit to God. But notice that Paul also boasts about them. Though we don't take credit credit for our progress as Jesus' disciples (since that progress is God's gracious gift to us), we should not fail to acknowledge the progress we see in others.
Christ is revealed in God's justice (1:5-10)
5 All 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. 6 God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you 7 and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. 8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might 10 on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.
Paul sees Christ revealed in the Thessalonian Christians--he sees not only evidence of God's grace at work in their lives, but also 'evidence of the righteous judgment of God' (5, RSV). But what is it in the Thessalonian situation that Paul perceives as a clear indication 'that God's judgment is right' or 'just'? Is it the fact that the Thessalonians are suffering for Christ? Or is it the faith, love and perseverance that they are displaying in the midst of suffering? Perhaps it is both.
On the one hand, Jesus had taught that suffering is the unavoidable path to glory (Mk.8:31ff). Similarly, Paul had insisted that it is only through many tribulations that we enter God's kingdom (Acts 14:22), and that only if we share in Christ's sufferings will we share in his glory (Rom.8:17). So suffering and glory, tribulation and the kingdom, belong together. Therefore, since God was allowing the Thessalonians to suffer, they could know that he was preparing them for glory. Their suffering was itself evidence of the justice of God, because it was the first part of the equation which guaranteed that the second part (glory) would follow.
On the other hand, although God was allowing the persecutors some free rein, it was evidently in the Thessalonians that he was especially at work. He was on their side, sustaining and sanctifying them--using persecution as a means through which to develop their faith, love and perseverance, preparing them for his eternal kingdom. By these qualities they were not 'made worthy' (RSV) of the kingdom, in the sense of deserving it, but were being *counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which they were suffering* (5). According to commentator Leon Morris, 'the meaning is declaratory'; they were 'deemed' or perhaps 'shown to be' worthy. The point it this: God's transforming grace (including God's use of their persecution) was fitting them for their heavenly inheritance.
Furthermore, because *God is just*, he will vindicate these followers of Jesus publicly one day. Indeed, God will reverse the fortunes of both groups, the persecuted and persecutors, when Christ returns. *He will pay back trouble* to the trouble-makers (6), and *give relief* (from affliction) to those who have been afflicted (7a).
When we see evil (particularly when it impacts us personally) we are tempted to rail against God and against the miscarriage of justice. 'Why doesn't God do something?' we complain. Paul's answer is that God *is*, indeed, doing something and will go on doing it. God is allowing his people to suffer, in order to prepare them for his heavenly kingdom. He is allowing the wicked to triumph temporarily, but his just judgment on their evil deeds is coming. In this, Paul sees that *God's judgment is right*--it is just. Paul's assurance of the righteousness of God's future judgment naturally prompts three related questions: (1) When will it happen? (2) Who will be punished? (3) What form will the punishment take?
1. When will it happen?
*This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels* (7b). Jesus' return is his full revealing--He will come 'from heaven' (by divine not human decision), 'in blazing fire' (a metaphor for His his judgment) and 'with his powerful angels' (a spectacular retinue). These are traditional apocalyptic symbols, not to be taken literally. However, the reality to which these symbols point is this: the return of Christ will be no petty, local sideshow. When Jesus returns, Isaiah's prophecy will be completely fulfilled: 'And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it' (Isa.40:5).
2. Who will be punished?
*He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus* (8). Because these unbelievers who are persecuting the Thessalonian Christians willfully reject both the knowledge of God and the gospel of Christ, Paul reassures them that they will, at Christ's return, face the consequences of their willful rebellion. The REB brings out this willfulness by calling them 'those who refuse to acknowledge God and who will not obey the gospel...'. It should be emphasized here that this punishment is not a matter of 'vengeance' (as in the KJV) or retribution. God's justice has already been addressed in Jesus' suffering and death. The punishment being meted out at Jesus' return is the result of the continuing willful rejection by some of God and his grace. This is not vengeance, but a call to repentance (and, perhaps, restoration). The point is, that willful rebellion is dealt with.
3. What form will the punishment take?
*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 the presence of the Lord'. Their destiny is not to be annihilated, but to (by their choice) excluded from 'the presence of the Lord and the glory of his might' (RSV). These rebels bring this just punishment upon themselves by willfully rejecting the grace of God which has, in Christ, been extended to all hummankind. How all this works out in the end, Paul does not say. The answer is found in other parts of Scripture. Paul's point here is that there are grave consequences for continuing to rebel against Christ, a rebellion evidenced in their continuing to persecute God's people.
Christ is revealed in our transformation (1:10-12)
...10 on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you. 11 With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. 12 We 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.
In contrast to the punishment of the rebellious, Paul portrays the glory of the reward of God's faithful people. When Christ *comes*, he will not only judge those who willfully reject the gospel, but he will also *be glorified in his holy people and...be marveled 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).
Note that the Lord will not only be marveled at because of his own glory, but will be glorified *in* his people. Not 'among' them, as if they will be the theater 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, God will be glorified 'in' them, as if they will be a filament, which itself glows with light and heat when electric current passes through it.
The distinction here is important. A theater 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 glows. So when Jesus is revealed in his glory, he will be glorified in his people. We will not only see, but share, Jesus' 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 Christ's likeness. And in that transformation, his glory will be seen in us for we will glow forever with the glory of Christ, as indeed he glows with the glory of the Father.
Our transformation will entail our glorification--a complete transformation into Christ's image. Our bodies will become at the resurrection 'like his glorious body' (Phil.3:21). Our characters will become fully Christ-like. And by thus transforming us into his own image, Christ himself will be seen, admired and adored in us. Christ will be glorified in us, and we will be glorified in him.
*With this in mind, we constantly pray for you* (11). Paul's prayer links the future to the present, the vision of what is to come with the reality of what is. Although the future of God's people in glory is secure, Paul does not presume upon it. On the contrary, we are called to glorify (reveal) Jesus even now through the progressive transformation of our lives. The same word for 'glorified' used in v12 is used in v10. The glorification of Jesus in his people, and their consequent glorification, are not a transformation which is entirely reserved for the resurrection on the last day. The process begins now. Indeed, it *must* begin now if it is to be brought to its proper end when Christ returns. That day will not suddenly reverse the processes which are going on now; rather, it will confirm and complete them.
Paul's prayer for our transformation now consists of two parallel petitions. The first is that *our God may make you worthy of his calling* (11b). We have already noted, in relation to v5, that this does not mean that we make ourselves worthy. There is no possibility of our establishing or accumulating merit in such a way as to deserve God's favor. No, when God called us to himself through Christ, he did it in his gift of free grace to the unworthy and undeserving. Since then, he has been summoning us to 'live a life worthy of the calling' with which we have been called (Eph.4:1).
Paul's second petition is this: *that by his power he [God] may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith* (11c). The Greek refers literally to 'every purpose of goodness and every act of faith', without specifying whose purpose and whose activity are in mind. Paul's point seems to be that 'purpose' and 'faith' are both attitudes of the mind and heart; he therefore prays that God will *fulfill* (bring to fruition) both by *his power*, so that they issue in good deeds.
Even the translation of thoughts into actions is not, however, the ultimate goal of Paul's prayers. He has a higher and nobler motive still, namely the revealing of Jesus Christ's glory. *We pray this*, he writes, *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* (12). That is, when by God's power God's people live a life worthy of (indicative of) his call, and when their resolve issues in goodness and their faith in works, then Jesus himself is seen and honored in them, and they through union with Jesus are seen in their true humanness as the image of God. It is a breath-taking concept that, even now, before the end, this double glorification can take place--though only according to God's grace (including his power). As always, grace and glory go together. Glory is the end; grace is the means to it. There can be no glory without grace.
We should view the end times in which we now live as an opportunity for Christ to be revealed. This revelation is entirely God's work of grace, involving the outworking of his justice and our transformation leading to our ultimate glorification. Dear friends, followers of Jesus, let us not worry about the end times. Let us not be preoccupied with prophetic speculation. Our calling is to embrace Christ where, by his grace, we are being transformed into Christ-likeness by which Jesus will be both revealed and glorified in us. Amen.