Have you ever joined a conversation halfway through and found yourself struggling to understand what on Earth is being talked about? You look back and forth at those contributing to the topic, but you have to reverse engineer their words to figure out what the topic really is! Alternatively, you join in quickly, assuming you know what is what, but just as quickly find that you have totally misunderstood what was being discussed.

In some ways, reading Second Thessalonians is a bit like coming into a conversation halfway through and assuming you know what it means or struggling to make sense of the side of the conversation we do have. The letter is early in Paul’s apostolic career, when some of his thinking wasn’t as fully developed as later letters, and this letter is a follow-up and clarification in response to issues in Thessalonica that have arisen in connection with his first letter (which we finished last week). We can deduce something of those issues from what Paul says, but Paul also writes knowing the Thessalonians are clued in to the conversation and talks about things assuming this–which leaves us occasionally in the dark! In the next few weeks, we’re going to go work through this letter and hope to shed some light and give some insight, knowing that there are elements of understanding that will inevitably be beyond our grasp.

Read 2 Thessalonians 1:1 12
Like his first letter, Paul opens by thanking God for the Thessalonian faithful: believers whose faith is actively growing, as well as increasing in love for one another (v. 3). What does this mean? They are learning to trust God with their lives by increasing measure–continuing to take the risk of putting themselves in His hands and not the things of this world. Many had given up idols (gods that represented idolatrous trust in the empire, city, family, economy and so on) and no longer participated in these local religions. They were growing in God’s way of life and way of radical, generous and unearned love, trusting He would provide. However, they were also facing strife because of it–to cease worshiping local gods had economic consequences and would not have been popular! We’re probably not talking martyrdom, but more being seen as the ‘problem’ that needs to be fixed, being excluded, maligned and mistreated. Paul doesn’t talk about the inevitable sufferings of this life here (like accidents and illness), but ones that come through faith–as a result of sticking with Jesus and bearing the brunt of holding to His name.

So what are we to make of all this suffering in Jesus’ name? When will God right these wrongs? Paul launches into an explanation of the judgement of God that will occur when Jesus returns. Notice this ‘judgement’ is both one of repayment and relief (vv. 6–7). This is part of how Jesus establishes justice: those who perpetuate harm will be held to account and those who suffer at their hands will experience rest and relief. The world’s ways will be undone. When Jesus comes to be established as Lord of earth, all will be made right. As it says in Romans 12:19, “ Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' says the Lord.” That is precisely what the Thessalonians are doing: steadfast in faith, refusing to retaliate and abounding in love. This is hard stuff! So often we want to do otherwise; we want to push back. We don’t want to trust that only Jesus can see the realities of injustice and only He is fit to judge. Perhaps we’ve learned that retaliation makes us look good. Perhaps we’ve learned that daring to hope for justice outside of ourselves is futile. Yet Paul is clear: Jesus will judge. And His judgment is right eous. We can trust Him. We can set aside our desires to react and press on with what He is calling us to do: grow in works of faith and abound in love. Why? So that “ Jesus might be glorified in you ” (v. 12). In other words, that you might be a sign–a foretaste–of God’s love revealed in Jesus!

Questions for Reflection
  1. Where can you see evidence of growth in faith (and love!) in your own life (v. 3)?
  2. When has integrity been costly or been unpopular for you / someone you know?
  3. How might God be calling us to have this kind of integrity and steadfastness (v. 4) in our faith within our own communities (in the church, city and the world at large)? What might give us the confidence to take this step of faith?
  4. How do you respond to the prospect that Jesus’ return will bring repayment for those who oppress and relief for the oppressed? Does it bring hope? Does it make you fearful? Why?
  5. Judgement is just one part of a much bigger focus of Jesus’ return: the glorious presence of King Jesus himself. What do you imagine He might say to you? What would you want to say to Him?
  6. Take a moment to listen to God and to pray. Tell God what is on your heart from the questions above.

A prayer for this week
Lord Jesus, we thank that You do not leave this world as it is, but will one day bring full and complete justice and peace. Help those around the world who are today facing persecution because of their faith in You. Give them, and us, increasing steadfastness in faith to be able to follow You even when the stakes are high. Grant that we might have the grace and strength when we are unjustly harmed not to retaliate, but instead to trust judgment to You and be free to love our enemies, just as You have loved us. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Suse E. McBay
Associate for Adult Christian Education and Prayer Ministries