“(4) Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. (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 majesty of his power (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” (2 Thessalonians 1:4-10, New International Version).
In a previous article I sought to show that Paul’s teaching, in 1 Thessalonians 4, about the so-called ‘rapture of the church’ was in fact nothing other than the coming of the Son of man in the clouds with his ‘angels’ of which Jesus himself had spoken – and which was to occur within the lifetimes of some of those who heard him teach. Paul wasn’t proclaiming some ‘special revelation’ given to him alone, which was entirely distinct and separate from what the Lord had taught. The ‘coming’ Paul taught was an event that he and his readers could expect to live to see. It is necessary to point this out in order to counteract the absurd fantasies of our modern ‘prophecy experts’ based on a refusal to pay close attention to what the Lord himself, and his apostles, said in the ‘New Testament’ writings.
In this article I want to point out how Paul once again encouraged his Thessalonian readers with the prospect of the ‘soon coming’ of Jesus Christ. As pointed out in that previous article, Timothy had brought Paul a very positive report on the spiritual condition of the Thessalonian believers. In verse 4, quoted above, Paul commented on the fact that he was boasting – in the churches to which he was currently ministering – about the perseverance and faith of the Thessalonian believers in the face of persecution and trial. Their persecution was largely from (or instigated by) the Jews who opposed the Good News of Jesus the Messiah. (Acts 17:5-9; 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16). In this passage in 2 Thessalonians 1, Paul assured the Christians at Thessalonica that God’s justice would soon turn the tables on their persecutors. Those Jews who troubled the Christians would reap trouble themselves – not from the Christians, but from the Lord Jesus whom the Christians served faithfully – while the Christians would find relief from their tribulations. This ‘turnabout’ would occur when the Lord Jesus was revealed from heaven “in blazing fire” to punish those persecuting Jews, according to his promise. Already indications of the coming ‘day of the Lord’ were evident. 2 or 3 years before this letter, the Roman Caesar Claudius became so fed up with the troublemaking of the Jews that he expelled them from Rome. There was no distinction made between ‘Christian’ and ‘non-Christian’ Jews, and this led to Paul making the acquaintance (in Corinth, Acts 18:1 and 2) of 2 Christian Jews – Aquila and his wife Priscilla – who had to leave Rome because of this. In 1 Thessalonians 2:13-17 Paul commented on the fact that the Jews were filling up the measure of their sins, and the wrath of God was finally coming upon them (see Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 23:32-36).
Now since the relief from Jewish persecution promised to the Thessalonian Christians was to be brought by the ‘revelation’ of Jesus Christ from heaven, it is obvious that the coming of Christ Paul was speaking of would have to be in the lifetime of the persecuted Christians. Otherwise the ‘encouragement’ was no encouragement at all! If the coming of the Lord of which Paul spoke is still future to us, we would have to assume that those 1st century Christians are still waiting to be relieved from their troubles, and their persecutors are still unpunished. I really don’t believe that those 1st century believers are still being ‘troubled’! Do you? No, Paul was again reminding the Thessalonians of the promised coming of Jesus Christ as Judge, King, and Deliverer during that generation; he pointed out in his first epistle that evidence of the promised ‘wrath’ was already visible; and in chapter 2 of this epistle he put to rest a wrong conclusion some people were drawing from that evidence – that the ‘day of the Lord’ had actually already arrived. Paul wanted them to definitely be aware that the ‘day’ was coming soon, and to be on the lookout constantly for it; but he didn’t want them to think that Claudius’ expulsion of the Jews from Rome (or any of the things they could see which Jesus said would be the ‘beginning of birth pains’, but “the end is still to come” – Matthew 24:4-8) indicated that the day of the Lord had already arrived.
But what about the ‘blazing fire’ and ‘eternal destruction’ which Paul said would be part of this ‘revelation’ of Jesus Christ? Doesn’t that sound like something far ‘grander’ and more ‘final’ than the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.? In actuality, those ideas were very much a part of the ‘coming of Christ’ and ‘day of the Lord’ that had been prophesied by Old Covenant prophets, John the Baptist, and Jesus. Consider the prophecy of Malachi (3:1-4): “(1) See, I will send my messenger who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come, says the LORD Almighty. (2) But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. (3) He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, (4) and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.” John the Baptist is identified in the New Testament as the first messenger who would prepare the way of the LORD; Jesus is the second messenger, the Lord who is the messenger of the (new) covenant, who would be like a refiners fire to purify the ‘Levites’ and the people of Judah and Jerusalem. Fire is used as a symbol of the judgment and purification God’s covenant messenger would bring.
Next notice how the first ‘messenger’, John the Baptist, used this imagery of fiery judgment. In Matthew 3:7-12, we read this of John: “(7) But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? (8) Produce fruit in keeping with repentance… (10) The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. (11) I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (12) His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn andburning up the chaff with unquenchable fire‘.” Here John warned about an approaching fiery judgment, and the ax was already at the root of the trees, ready to strike – cutting down the trees which would then be burned with fire. The fire would be ‘unquenchable’ (“eternal destruction”). The prophesied judgment was unquestionably the destruction of the Jewish nation, with all of the ‘old covenant’ trappings, brought about by the Roman armies.
Then notice how the Lord, the “messenger of the covenant” used this fiery imagery. In Matthew 13:24-29 he told a parable about a man who sowed good wheat seed in his field, but an enemy later came and sowed tares. The wheat and the tares grew up together, and the owner of the field instructed his servants to leave them until the harvest. When Jesus later explained the meaning of this parable privately to the disciples, he said (verses 39-43): “(39)… the harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. (40) As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. (41) The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. (42) They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (43) Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.” The end of the age, as shown in the Olivet Discourse (see my articles, beginning with this one), was Jesus second coming with his angels to bring judgment and destruction on the Jewish nation, and gather his elect from all over the world. (Jesus’ ministry was twofold: “to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God”, Isaiah 61:2.) This occurred before that existing generation passed away – in other words, in 70 A.D. And because it is so important to understand and always bear in mind when considering any Biblical passage about the ‘second coming’, I will again point out that Jesus gave a plain time period for that great event when he would come in judgment and give to each person what his works deserved (as imaged by throwing bad trees and tares into the fire, while the wheat is gathered into the barn). Matthew 16:27 and 28 says this: “(27) For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. (28) I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” And as Matthew 24:34 said, that grand event would occur before the existing generation passed away. In the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, Jesus again spoke of that coming and judgment: “(31) When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. (32) All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. (33) He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” The sheep (the righteous) would inherit the kingdom of God (verse 34), but the goats (the unrighteous) would be sent into ‘eternal fire’ (verse 41). As a result, verse 46 says: “Then they (the goats/unrighteous) will go away to eternal punishment (the ‘eternal destruction’ of which Paul spoke), but the righteous to eternal life.”
So the coming of Jesus Christ in ‘blazing fire’ bringing ‘eternal destruction’ to the persecutors of the Thessalonian believers, but deliverance and relief to the believers themselves, was just the same fiery judgment (with the same results of both salvation for some and destruction for others) of which Malachi, John the Baptist, and Jesus had spoken. And it either happened within the generation in which Paul lived, or we have no reason to believe it will ever happen. (The meaning of ‘eternal punishment’ is not what ‘orthodoxy’ claims. The word ‘eternal’ literally means ‘age long’, and simply means that the ‘fire’ will burn until there is no more evil to consume. Those who suffer the ‘fiery punishment’ will then come out corrected and purified. See this article for a more complete explanation of this concept of corrective punishment).
In closing, let me point out that this prophecy of ‘blazing fire’ even had a ‘literal’ fulfillment (although I believe that the ‘fire’ in Biblical prophecy is meant in a figurative sense). Josephus wrote extensively about the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman armies, and the events which led up to that destruction. He believed – and I’m convinced he was correct in this – that Jerusalem’s destruction by the armies of Rome was in fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy in Dan. 9:25-27 (the ‘Seventy Weeks’ prophecy). Here’s what Josephus had to say – and notice his reference to God’s judgment by fire:
These men, therefore, trampled upon all the laws of men, and laughed at the laws of God; and for the oracles of the prophets, they ridiculed them as the tricks of jugglers; yet did these prophets foretell many things concerning [the rewards of] virtue, and [punishments of] vice, which when these zealots violated, they occasioned the fulfilling of those very prophecies belonging to their own country; for there was a certain ancient oracle of those men, that the city should then be taken and the sanctuary burnt, by right of war, when a sedition should invade the Jews, and their own hand should pollute the temple of God. Now while these zealots did not [quite] disbelieve these predictions, they made themselves the instruments of their accomplishment. (4.6.3)
And who is there that does not know what the writings of the ancient prophets contain in them, and particularly that oracle which is just now going to be fulfilled upon this miserable city? For they foretold that this city should be then taken when somebody shall begin the slaughter of his own countrymen. And are not both the city and the entire temple now full of the dead bodies of your countrymen? It is God, therefore, it is God himself who is bringing on this fire, to purge that city and temple by means of the Romans, (8) and is going to pluck up this city, which is full of your pollutions. (6.2.1)
Those quotes from Josephus were found at this site, which gives an interesting possibility for identification of the ‘man of sin’ and ‘the restrainer’ in chapter two of 2 Thessalonians. I’ll plan to look at that chapter in my next article.