Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians was written in the months following his departure from the city. The first epistle expressed joy at the good news that the church remained faithful despite persecution. The second one addresses three main issues: Persecution, believers who refuse to work, and questions about the “arrival” of Jesus.
In the interim since his first epistle, persecution has increased. Moreover, some church members are refusing to work due to excitement about the return of Jesus in glory. Why work if the existing order is about to be overturned?
In this letter, Paul begins by discussing the persecution at Thessalonica and what it means considering the impending end of the age. In doing so, he sets the stage for the discussion in the second chapter on the “day of the Lord” and the “man of lawlessness”:
- (2 Thessalonians 1:3-4) - “We ought to be thanking God at all times concerning you, brothers, according as is fitting, because your faith is greatly increasing and the love of each of you all is abounding to one another so that we ourselves are boasting in you among all the assemblies of God on account of your endurance and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations, which you are enduring.”
Paul thanks God for the perseverance of the Thessalonians, and he referred to “persecutions” in the plural. This suggests an ongoing hostile environment. And the Greek word translated “tribulations” is also plural - (Matthew 24:21, Revelation 1:9, 7:14. See also Matthew 24:29, Mark 13:19, 13:24).
The reference to “tribulations” shows Paul does NOT believe Christians are destined to avoid “tribulation.” As he wrote previously, “We are appointed to tribulation” - (1 Thessalonians 1:6, 3:3-7).
- (2 Thessalonians 1:5-7) - “Evidence of the just judgment of God, so that you be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, on behalf of which also you are suffering, since it is just for God to requite tribulation to those troubling you, and relief to you, to those being afflicted with us; at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with his angels of power.”
The persecution of the Thessalonians and their perseverance constitute “evidence” of the “just judgment of God.” Judgment means a decision in favor of, or against, someone. It results in vindication or condemnation.
“Evidence” refers either to the endurance of the Thessalonians or to their persecution. If the former, “perseverance” becomes the proof of the rightness of His decision for them to inherit His kingdom.
If the latter, then the persecuting activities validate God’s sentence of condemnation on the persecutors. But since “it is just for God to requite affliction to those afflicting you and relief to you,” very probably, both senses are intended.
“Requite” translates the Greek verb antapodidōmi - “To give back, repay, requite, give in return.” It stresses equal payback. Here, the verb refers to “recompense” by God for two different groups: To the persecutors and to the church. To the former, God will repay “affliction,” and to the latter, “rest.”
Persecutors will be repaid “tribulation” or “trouble.” In contrast, believers will receive “rest,” and that will come at “the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven.”
The word translated as “revelation” is apokalypsis, which means “revealing, uncovering, disclosure; an unveiling.” Elsewhere in the New Testament, it is used several times for the coming or "revelation" of Jesus - (1 Corinthians 1:7, 1 Peter 1:7, 1:13).
This “revelation” will occur when Jesus arrives “from heaven.” This is the same clause Paul uses in his first letter to describe how Jesus will “descend from heaven with a shout.” Previously, he labeled his coming as the “arrival” or ‘parousia.’ Now, he calls it his “revelation.” Thus, Paul applies both Greek terms to the same event - (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
The clause, “in flaming fire,” may go with the preceding sentence, and thus, the “revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with his angels of power, in flaming fire.” More likely, it refers to the “fire” of destruction that will befall the wicked on that day.
- (2 Thessalonians 1:8-10) - “In flaming fire giving vengeance to those who know not God and to those not hearkening to the gospel of our Lord Jesus, who will pay a penalty, everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. Whenever he shall come to be made all-glorious in his saints and to be marveled at in all who believed, because our witness to you was believed, in that day.”
“In flaming fire” alludes to a passage in the book of Isaiah - “Yahweh comes with fire and like a storm-wind are his chariots, to render with fury his anger and his rebuke with flames of fire” - (Isaiah 66:15).
Divine vengeance will come on those who do not hearken to the gospel, and they will receive “everlasting destruction.” The term is set in apposition to “penalty,” that is, “everlasting destruction” is the penalty they will pay. Grammatically speaking, “everlasting” (aiōnion) refers to the length of time that the results of the destruction will endure, and there will be no appeal or reprieve.
“Destruction” translates the noun olethros, meaning, “ruin, destruction, undoing.” Paul applies the same word in his previous letter to the “unexpected destruction” that will overtake the unprepared on the “day of the Lord.” The clause alludes to a prophecy by Obadiah as it was translated by the Greek Septuagint:
- (Obadiah 12-13) - “You should not have looked on the day of your brother in the day of strangers; nor should you have rejoiced against the children of Judah in the day of their destruction [olethros] neither should you have boasted in the day of tribulation [thlipsis]. Neither should you have gone into the gates of the people in the day of their troubles.”
In Obadiah, this is a pronouncement against Edom for its treachery against Israel. Paul applies it to the persecutors of the church. And here, “everlasting destruction” cannot refer to tribulations that occur before the end since it will be “everlasting” and coincide with the “revelation of Jesus from heaven” - (Matthew 7:23, 22:13, 25:41, Luke 13:27).
Those who oppose the gospel will be excluded from the presence of the Lord and his “glorious might.” The clause alludes to a saying of Jesus in his Olivet Discourse:
- (Matthew 24:29-31) - “Immediately after the tribulation of those days… then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man arriving [parousia] on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”
Reward or punishment will be received “whenever he comes.” Paul uses the Greek verb erchomai for his “coming,” and elsewhere, the same verb is applied several times to the “coming” of Jesus - (Matthew 24:30, 24:42-46, 25:31, Mark 13:26, 13:35-36, Luke 21:27).
When he is “revealed from heaven,” his faithful saints will be gathered to glorify and admire him, and both believers and unbelievers will be presented before him. Paul is contrasting the future vindication of the faithful with the condemnation of the wicked, and both events will occur “on that day,” namely, the “day of the Lord.”