As we live in the light of Christ’s return, in his brief second letter to the Thessalonian church Paul emphasizes three ideas that drive our thinking, attitudes, and choices. The first he gets to right away: when Christ returns, no injustice will be left uncorrected (2Th 1).
Paul begins all his letters with a standard 4-part introduction. First, he names himself (and sometimes others, e.g. 1Co 1.1) as the author(s). Here, Silas and Timothy are with him (2Th 1.1a). Second, he names the recipients (2Th 1.1b). Third, he offers a benediction (2Th 1.2). If you’ll compare his epistles, you’ll find that this third section is the most consistent from letter to letter. And fourth, in most cases he offers a prayer of thanksgiving for something about them.
These prayers are instructive. There isn’t one in Galatians; Paul is taking those folks straight to the woodshed (Gal 1.6ff). But with other churches he always finds something to be thankful for; even in Corinth, where they’re taking each other to court (1Co 6.1) and getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper (1Co 11.20-21), Paul manages to thank God that they have a lot of spiritual gifts (1Co 1.4-8)—even if they’re abusing them (1Co 12-14).
Here in Thessalonica, Paul rejoices that his readers are continuing to grow in Christ, even though they’re being persecuted. The persecution had started right at the very beginning of the church (Ac 17.5-10) and had continued after Paul left (1Th 2.14-16; 3.4). Paul doesn’t speak of this as though it’s a sign that something has gone terribly wrong; he mentions it matter-of-factly, no doubt because he knew of Jesus’ teaching that persecution would surely come to his followers (Jn 16.33).
So how should they respond to the persecution? I find it interesting that there are no calls to imprecatory prayer, no combat techniques, no legal advice. Paul sets forth just two Big Ideas.
Christ’s Coming Is Going to Right All the Wrongs
First, we don’t need to wrestle with our opponents. Those who oppose God’s people are dealing with an Opponent they can never defeat, who will most certainly call them to account for their evil choices, and who will carry out justice for all the injustices done (2Th 1.6-9).
Not our job. God’s better at it anyway.
And Paul points out that in that day, we will have “relief” (2Th 1.7)—but even beyond that, we will “glorify” and “marvel at” him (2Th 1.10). You know what it’s like when your team wins. The place just explodes, and everyone’s screaming and shouting and hugging and pumping their fists in the air. The fireworks go off, and eventually the party moves out into the street and around the block, and everyone’s just beside himself with sheer delight.
It’s going to be all right. Exponentially better than all right.
Some people scoff this off as “pie in the sky.” Bourgeoisie trying to keep the oppressed happy under their thumb. Trying to crush the proletariat.
And there’s no question that that sort of thing has gone on. But to suggest that here is a category error. It is to suggest that persecution is abuse by a hostile master rather than training by a supportive coach. And it assumes, without evidence, its most fundamental premise—that both “the pie” and “the sky” are fiction.
We have every reason to believe the opposite.
We Have More Important Things to Attend To
Since God’s going to take care of the unpleasant business, we can devote our time to more important things. Paul writes,
We pray for you always, that our God will count you worthy of your calling, and fulfill every desire for goodness and the work of faith with power, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus will be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ (2Th 1.11-12).
We have a calling, you see—one that our heavenly Coach—and I say that reverently—is exercising us toward through the very persecution itself. This calling involves several elements—
- Faithful (persistent, enduring) work—with power
- Glorifying God—and being glorified by him
Wow. That’s a lot more fun than plotting the demise of my theological opponents.
I think I’ll work on that instead.