Persecution is always a terrible thing. A particular group of people are picked on and attacked viciously and repeatedly.
The obvious questions for people who are experiencing this kind of thing are: Where is God in all this? How are we supposed to stand up under it? This is the kind of thing the people in Thessalonica were experiencing, and 2 Thessalonians gives the answer.
God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you 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. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord… (2 Thess. 1:6-9, NIV).
The justice of God will often not be obvious in this world. People who do good often suffer, and people who do evil often prosper. But God is just, and even though His justice may be hidden now, it will become obvious when Jesus Christ is revealed (2 Thess. 1:7).
No one will escape from the justice of God. God knows all things, and nothing is hidden from Him. No one intimidates Him or has leverage against Him. Power and wealth count for nothing with Him. That means you can have confidence in the absolute justice of God.
2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 give us two ways that God, in his perfect justice, will punish those who do not know Him and do not obey the gospel. The words “everlasting destruction” are terrifying, but the meaning is clear—this is a destruction without end. “It is to always be dying and never to die.” And to be “shut out from the presence of the Lord” means to be without hope and without love, forever. This is one of the hardest truths in the Bible. But here is something I’ve discovered: the hardest truths can produce the most tender hearts.
If you grasp this most difficult of doctrines and place yourself under this truth, God will use it to soften your heart today. He will use it to:
1. …sustain your faith in a suffering world.
If you have suffered at the hands of other people, or if someone you love has suffered as these Christians in Thessalonica did, you will wonder: How can I really believe that God is loving and just when, so often, good people suffer and those who do evil prosper?
This doctrine helps. It tells you that you have not yet seen the end of the story. God says to suffering believers, “There is a day coming when Jesus Christ will be revealed. Then you will see the full measure of my justice. Then you will see the full measure of my love.”
2. …restrain your desire to even the score.
When someone hurts you, your immediate and natural instinct will be to want to hurt them back. How do you restrain the desire to even the score?
Romans 12:18-20 says that God will “avenge” sin, so leave room for His wrath. You don’t need to take it into your hands when you know it is in His. God will deal with this. You can leave it to him.
3. …increase your compassion for people who harm you.
If the people who harmed you were to repent, you might find it in your heart to forgive them. But if they just go on, with no awareness of what they have done, or worse, if they continue doing the same thing, it is very hard to have compassion.
Where do you begin in loving your enemies? When you think about everlasting destruction, and what it would mean to be shut out of the presence of the Lord forever, you would not wish that on your worst enemy. A deep grasp of this truth will help you to pray for those who’ve harmed you. Bitterness cannot survive for long when you begin to pray. You will be amazed at the way compassion sneaks in the back door of your heart.
4. …help you understand what happened at the cross.
Jesus Christ came into the world because there is a future catastrophe that you need saving from. He died as a sacrifice, and in the great love and mercy of God, the “Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53:6). Bearing our sins means that Jesus bore our punishment for sin. This is what was happening at the cross. Isaiah says, “The punishment that brought us peace was on Him” (53:5).
On the cross, Christ was shut out from the presence of God. That’s why he cried out, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). Christ endured hell on the cross so that you would never know what it is like. How can one man bear the sins of many? How can His hell on the cross remove our everlasting destruction? The weight of our sin is measured by the One we offended. The value of Christ’s sacrifice is measured by the One who is offered: this is the Son of God! What He suffered on the cross is able to atone for all our sins, forever.
5. …motivate your obedience to the Gospel.
What does it mean to obey the Gospel?
Your life can no longer be about you. It has to be about Jesus Christ, who loved you and gave Himself for you. God commands repentance (Acts 17:30)—a decisive turning from all that God calls sin in order to offer yourself to Christ.
In order to repent, you have to trust that Jesus is the Son of God. You trust His death on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins, and you trust that His resurrection power is sufficient for everything you face in life and death. You trust Christ because he is altogether worthy of it.
James Denney says, “Salvation is not only a gift, but a vocation; we enter into it as we obey the voice of Jesus, ‘Follow Me.’2 Christ laid down his life for you and now he lays claim to your life for him—your gifts, talents, time, money, the strength of your body, and the affections of your heart.
Maybe you have been saying to yourself, “I’ll think about Christianity someday.” Think about it today. Turn to Christ in repentance, believe in Him, and follow Him. Eternity hangs on this.
6. …deepen your joy in the mercy of God.
Think about the man writing 2 Thessalonians. He once persecuted Christians himself! Saul of Tarsus was the terror of the early church. Breathing fire and slaughter, he was on his way to Damascus on a campaign of violence. Christ stopped him in his tracks with a blinding light and an audible voice: “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me!” (Acts 9:4). Right there in the dust, this violent man repents, believes, and is transformed. Saul the persecutor becomes Paul the Apostle, with the Spirit of God giving him these words to write to the church.
That’s the power of the Gospel that we believe and proclaim. This is the Gospel by which we are saved and by which all who come to the Lord will be saved. The truth that God will bring justice for you is good news for anyone suffering persecution today.
1. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (Hendrickson, 1991), https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/2-thessalonians-1.html.
2. James Denney, The Epistles to the Thessalonians, (General Books, LLC, 2010), 298.
This article was adapted from Pastor Colin’s sermon, “God Will Bring Justice for You”, from his series, Staying the Course (When You’re Tired of the Battle).