Connections 11.03.2019: A Just and Merciful God

2 Thessalonians 1

I’m one of those people who has a hard time reading about the judgment of God. There’s plenty of it in the Old Testament, but I tend to think of the New Testament as being more about mercy. The truth, though, is that we find both judgment and mercy throughout the Bible. God is loving, forgiving, and compassionate, and God is mighty, vengeful, and just. When we focus on half of God’s characteristics—either the more pleasant ones or the more frightening ones—our picture of God is less complete.

No love compares to the love I feel for my daughters. It is fierce. It is intense. It is all-consuming and absolutely constant. It is grace-filled and forgiving. It is ingrained in my being and will never fade. The ache in my heart that I feel for Samantha and Natalie encompasses both consequences and compassion. It requires both justice and mercy. When they behave wrongly, part of my love for them means I have to let them suffer the results of what they have done—whether that entails a particular punishment or simply dealing with the negative effects of their actions. Part of my love for them also means I have to embrace them with forgiveness and unconditional love and second chances. This is what real love—God’s kind of love—looks like.

First Thessalonians was written to a particular church in a particular time. Its people were suffering intense persecution for their faith. They needed to hear about the justice of an almighty God. They needed assurance that their tormenters would be punished. They also needed to know that someone outside their situation was thinking of them, empathizing with their suffering, and praying for them. The writers of the letter gave their readers what they needed. They reminded the people of how God was at work through both justice and mercy.

God is just. And God is merciful. Like a loving parent, God allows people to face the consequences of their actions. Sometimes God brings punishment on those who do wrong. And God also shows mercy and grace and forgiveness to those who are sorry for what they have done and repent. May we be grateful for the way God loves us so fully and completely.

Discussion

• What are some stories or passages in the Bible that reflect God’s judgment?

• What are some stories or passages in the Bible that reflect God’s mercy?

• Why is it important that we strive for a more complete picture of who God is?

• Who do you love with a godly kind of love? How do you show your love to them?

• How has God shown both judgment/justice and mercy/compassion to you over the years?

Reference Shelf

The Evidence of the Righteous Judgment of God, 1:5-10

…Verse 5 is integral to the interpretation of the entire letter: “Evidence [endeigma] of righteous judgment of God, so that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, on behalf of which you also suffer.” The phrase is grammatically awkward. Because the verse lacks a subject and verb common to a main clause, the translator/interpreter has to make several important decisions for interpretation. First, where is the main kernel of the sentence? The phrase, “evidence of righteous judgment of God,” can either be nominative or accusative (the subject or the object) in grammatical form. The entire verse could be read as an accusative of apposition, used to illustrate tribulations that the members were suffering as described in v. 4: “…and in tribulations that you were suffering, namely, the evidence of the righteous judgment of God.” Or the phrase in v. 5 could be the subject belonging to the thought unit in vv. 5-6: “The evidence of the righteousness of God is (verb not present in Greek text) to repay with affliction those who have afflicted you.” Is the phrase, “evidence of righteous judgment of God,” an object belonging to the subject in v. 4 or a subject belonging to the object in v. 6? How one answers this question informs the interpretation of the entire letter. The two options create two separate meanings. Which one is the most accurate? Verse 4 appears to be a complete thought unit. The author has provided a litany of reasons for boasting. The believers have exhibited patience and faith in persecutions and tribulations. To add the phrase “evidence of righteous judgment” as another description of tribulations appears cumbersome and disjointed. I vote against translating the phrase as an accusative of apposition, used to provide greater detail to the meaning of tribulations. Therefore, the tribulations of the members of the church are not the evidence of God’s righteousness. Even though the interpretation remains problematic, I choose to understand that the evidence of God is the manner of God’s retribution for the suffering of the believers.

I prefer to read the phrase as the subject. To read v. 5 as the beginning of a new thought, rather than the end of v. 4, appears less disjunctive, even though one must add a verb to smooth out the translation. This “evidence of the righteous judgment of God” becomes a new idea introduced in v. 5, a theme not found in the first letter that must be understood in this section in order to understand the place of this letter in the history of the community. The evidence of the righteous judgment of God is not just the suffering of the believers but the judgment against those who inflict the suffering (vv. 5-8). Even though the grammatical puzzle is solved, a theological dilemma exists. Do we really know God best by the manner in which God avenges our enemies? This is a sobering thought, demanding much careful reflection.

What is the evidence of the righteous judgment of God? The word “evidence” (endeigma) is a hapax legomenon in the New Testament—a word that is only used once in the entire New Testament. This word, not found in Paul’s other writings, gives additional support to the non-Pauline character of the second letter. The grammatical and theological puzzle remains, however, regardless of the authorship concerns. This author advocates a theological position that places punishment as well as salvation into the future eschaton. A clear theology of suffering is espoused here that culminates in the parousia of Christ.

The first topic addressed in this letter is perhaps the most important one to the author and to the community—how will God treat the community’s opposition? The believers are suffering at the hands of the opponents—the non-Christians (2 Thess 1:4, 8; cf. 2:12). Although the faithful response of the Thessalonian community has won much applause from both Paul and this new leader, the author wants to assure them that their offenders are not worthy of commendation and are far from God’s righteousness. Those who oppose the believers in Thessaloniki are going to be justly punished by God in the present and in the future. This thought is intended to give comfort to those afflicted and fear to those who have done the afflicting….

This idea that “God will take care of one’s enemies” is not uncommon in Hebrew thought. [See, for example, Psalms of Solomon 13:9-10 and 2 Maccabees 6:12-16.]

The fact that God punishes the opposition is indeed related to the righteousness of God in the mind of the writer of 2 Thessalonians (1:6). This is written so that the readers may rest, or relax (anesin) in the revelation of the Lord Jesus, accompanied by the mighty angels in flaming fire. This is pure apocalyptic language. Angels are always present at divine theophanies (1 Thess 3:13; Exod 19:13, 16, 19; Ps 68:18; Mark 13:26f). The symbolic use of angels and flaming fire underscores the apocalyptic message.

Edgar Krentz states that that “the theology of 2 Thessalonians arises out of the interplay between the negative situation of the community addressed and the writer’s response in terms of apocalyptic eschatology. All theological themes are viewed from the writer’s headland through the lens of apocalyptic thought.”1 To suppose an apocalyptic vision, however, does not deny the reality or diminish the power of the present suffering of the believers. The persecution of the believers is not something they will experience in the future; rather, it is happening now. The present tense of the Greek participle for suffering, thlibomenois, in v. 7 underscores the present reality of pain and suffering. In response, the author calls upon a long and ancient tradition of rhetoric that soothes and offers comfort—apocalyptic thought. The persecution is in the present; God’s punishment reserved for the persecutors is in the future. The apocalyptic words bring comfort and assurance that all will be better in the future.

To those who are being persecuted, the words of 2 Thessalonians are intended to bring comfort. God will punish those who do not know God, who are not obeying the gospel of the Lord Jesus, and who are persecuting the believers (1:7-9). The punishment is huge—“eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of the Lord’s strength” (1:9). The coming of Jesus is not offered as a moment of reunion with dead relatives as Paul wrote in the first letter. Rather, for the author of 2 Thessalonians Jesus’ coming represents retribution and punishment. This view represents a major shift in theological thought between the two letters. Between the writing of the two letters, the community has experienced tremendous suffering. The author of the second letter leans heavily on ancient echoes of a wrathful and vengeful God who stands with God’s children against the opposing forces.

Prayer and Thanksgiving—Again, 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12

The last two verses of this section move back into a season of prayer, as did the section begun in v. 3…. The prayers of vv. 3-4 and 11-12 form doxological bookends to the apocalyptic language of God’s response to persecution experienced by the Thessalonian believers.

The details of the language are cosmic although they emerge from a local reality. The believers are experiencing opposition. They are in pain. The panacea to the pain, however, comes from the comfort that a God who belongs to the great universe will someway, somehow, correct the local injustice. God from on high will reveal the Lord Jesus Christ, who will, in turn, punish those who have offended the believers. The author moves the readers from the concerns of the present to a future when all will be well, where wrongs will be right, and where their present sufferings will be avenged. The point of apocalyptic thought is to bring future distance to the present moment. In that frame of time, the reader can momentarily be lifted from the reality of the present suffering and take comfort in future hope—that all will be better one day. That small glimpse of future hope enables the present reality, the sufferings of the present moment, to recede for just a little while….

Paul wrote [1 Thessalonians]. He wrote a letter of pastoral concern, giving guidance to a group of grieving believers who were confused about the coming of Christ. In the second letter, the author, not Paul, deals with a maturing community of faith who understand Paul’s teachings literally and believe Jesus is coming soon. In the meantime, their ecstatic teachings have been the magnet for persecution. The author of the second letter wants the community to understand that their position will be vindicated in due time—in the future—at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ who will punish all those who have offended the believers in Thessaloniki.

1Edgar Krentz, “Traditions Held Fast: Theology and Fidelity in 2 Thessalonians,” The Thessalonian Correspondence, ed. Raymond Collins (Belgium: Leuven Press, 1990), 550.

Linda McKinnish Bridges, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2008) 218–23.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor of Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a nonprofit serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (14) and Natalie (12), and her husband John. Occasionally, she appears onstage in community theater productions and can sometimes be found playing board games with a group of rowdy friends. She loves Marvel movies and Doctor Who, and she’s still trying to write a young adult novel that her girls will enjoy.

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