Gaining the Glory
2 Thessalonians 2:13–15 13 But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. 14 It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.
In this text Paul will transition from his dissertation on antichrist and those who will perish with him to believers and the salvation they are destined for in Christ. Paul focuses here on characteristics of those who will “gain the glory” of Jesus Christ. There are three essential marks given here that are commensurate of true salvation. Thus, genuine believers are chosen by God, called by God and taught by God in the Church.
Chosen By God
We begin on a very practical point. The very notion that Paul “gives thanks to God” (εὐχαριστεῖν τῷ θεῷ) for the faith of the believers demonstrates the tangible nature of our salvation including our election and calling (cf. 1 Th. 1.4). In other words, Paul could not give thanks to God unless something real, visible and tangible was evidenced in the believer’s life. The truth is that genuine faith is always supported by very practical signs or fruit associated with salvation. But before we get to the human side of the coin, Paul first begins with the divine and sovereign hope of the believer. In light of the present eschatological context, the focus on divine sovereignty and the hope that it affords to believer makes sense. The very fact that the eschatological upheaval described in the verses above is an inevitable reality, all the more therefore should we be thankful that God has ordained for His people to persevere in faith through it all. This entire course of thought is designed to comfort the church in its present tribulations and in light of the coming judgment associated with the Day of the Lord (v.16).
What the Thessalonians needed is exactly what every church in every age needs, divine comfort and assurance of our eternal inheritance and hope. This first characteristic really gets at the notion of the supernatural ground of assurance. Our confidence of gaining the glory is based not on personal experience. Whether we love whether we are loveless, whether we see the spiritual graces in our lives and the rise and fall of our affections; these are not the ultimate bedrock or our assurance; God’s sovereignty is! Thus, Paul begins with the notion of election, “But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth” (Ἡμεῖς δὲ ὀφείλομεν εὐχαριστεῖν τῷ θεῷ πάντοτε περὶ ὑμῶν, ἀδελφοὶ ἠγαπημένοι ὑπὸ κυρίου, ὅτι εἵλατο ὑμᾶς ὁ θεὸς ἀπαρχὴν εἰς σωτηρίαν ἐν ἁγιασμῷ πνεύματος καὶ πίστει ἀληθείας). Here Paul gives us both the temporal or purpose and instrumental nature of our election. The first tells us when or why election happens and the second tells us how that election is practically worked out.
In order to tackle the first point however, a textual variant must be addressed that would radically change the meaning. Either Paul wrote that God had chosen them “from the beginning” (ἀπʼ ἀρχῆς) giving it a strict temporal sense or Paul wrote that God chose the Thessalonians “as firstfruits” (ἀπαρχὴν) giving it a more metaphorical sense that relays the purpose of God’s choice (one is a preposition phrase (the former), the other a direct object, (the latter)). Admittedly, scholars, commentators and textual scholars and translations are quite divided with everyone admitting the possibly of the opposite reading. Here we will opt for the reading that is found in the NASB (as well as, KJV, RSV). This idea is found repeatedly in Paul (cf. 1 Th. 1.4; Eph. 3.4-5; 2 Tim. 2.9) while the idea of the Thessalonian church as the “firstfruits” of the gospel is not and perhaps requires much more contextual theologizing than taken temporally.
The reality is, election is a paradoxical challenge for everyone. Upon encountering the doctrine of election and predestination, believers struggle to comprehend the gravity of God’s sovereignty, the meaning of being created by God bearing His image and the process behind God’s will and decree to chose people for salvation (not to mention the fact that God did not chose everyone for the same end). Here Paul does not venture down the path of controversy he simply focuses on the comforting effects of the doctrine. Election however is based on the sovereign pleasure of God (cf. Eph. 1.3-6). The timing of our election Paul makes clear is, “from the beginning” (ἀπʼ ἀρχῆς) and the purpose of election is also clear, “for salvation” (εἰς σωτηρίαν). The theology here (especially the temporal position of the text) finds a significant parallel in 2 Timothy where Paul says much the same:
2 Timothy 1:8–10 8 Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God, 9 who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity, 10 but now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,
In both passages, God’s calling and election has a means, “through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth” (ἐν ἁγιασμῷ πνεύματος καὶ πίστει ἀληθείας). This instrumental aspect of God’s calling will be carried on into the next verse, but here Paul stresses two instrumental factors through which God brings His people to “salvation” (σωτηρίαν). The first is the sanctifying power of the Spirit, “through sanctification by the Spirit” (ἐν ἁγιασμῷ πνεύματος). Another tricky phrase is repreesnted here by the word, “Spirit/spirit” (πνεύματος) since the word may refer to either the Holy Spirit or the human spirit. If this is a reference to the Holy Spirit than “sanctification” is something that is caused by the Spirit. But if the text is taken to refer to man’s “spirit” or soul, then the sanctification in view is received by the person being called. In any case, both describe what theologian calls definitive sanctification. This is sanctification that takes place at conversion and is both caused by the Holy Spirit and takes place within the spirit of believers. The parallel in the first letter seems to be decisive here:
1 Thessalonians 1:4–5 4 knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you; 5 for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.
As the Spirit of God regenerates, He cleanses, He washes and transforms even the will of the creature so that faith naturally flows from the work of the Spirit (Not the other way around). Thus, faith is the next sequential component in the election process. God’s people are not only effectually drawn by the power of the Spirit, they are enabled to exercise saving faith in the gospel, “faith in the truth” (πίστει ἀληθείας). Being chosen by God distinguishes us from the world by the greatest possible chasm. One is either in light or darkness, life or death, sin or salvation. A person will either reject the truth (v.10) or they will love it by beleiving in it.
Called By The Gospel
Consequently, those who are thus “chosen” by God through sovereign election are chosen to be saved and that salvation is a work of the Spirit and that work consists of saving faith. Here Paul now wants to make clear that God’s instrument of His sovereign and effectual call is the gospel, “It was for this He called you through our gospel” (εἰς ὃ [καὶ] ἐκάλεσεν ὑμᾶς διὰ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου ἡμῶν). There can be no way around this all-important evangelical point; the gospel is the power unto salvation (Rom. 1.16). Thus, there is no “unto salvation” without the “gospel” (τοῦ εὐαγγελίου). Furthermore, here Paul uses a familiar construction that needs to be explained. When Paul says the gospel was, “our gospel” (τοῦ εὐαγγελίου ἡμῶν), he does not mean of course that the gospel originates from him, or that the gospel is about him (cf. Gal. 1.11-12). Rather, it speaks of two things- first, it demonstrates Paul’s personal ownership of the gospel. It was his gospel in that he was spiritually united to this gospel. It was his identity, message and treasure for which Paul was willing to suffer the loss of all things. The gospel reminded him that the power was of God not of him:
2 Corinthians 4:7–12 7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; 8 we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. 11 For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death works in us, but life in you.
Second, it speaks of the gospel proclamation that issued forth from him as well. Paul understood himself to be the vehicle, the conduit and vessel through which “the gospel of God” (Rom. 1.1; 15.16; 2 Cor. 11.7; 1 Th. 2.2, 8-9) came to the pagan Thessalonians who were saved by its power (1 Th. 1.9). When Paul says, “our gospel,” he means the gospel that has been entrusted to him for faithful proclamation (cf. 1 Tim. 6.20). This was something that Paul had already made known to them as he reminded the church earlier that his gospel was really, “the gospel of God”:
1 Thessalonians 2:8–9 8 Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us. 9 For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.
Called For The Glory
Those who are truly called by the gospel are also called for the “glory” of Christ, “that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (εἰς περιποίησιν δόξης τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ). This is an eschatological trajectory. The apostle Paul actually has an extensive theology of the “glory.” At times this glory can refer to Jesus’ fame, honor, exaltation and power (2 Th. 1.9; cf. Lk. 24.26; Rev. 5.12). Glory is also spoken of as a realm, a sphere of heavenly exaltation (cf. Lk. 24.26; 1 Tim. 3.16). At times it can refer to Jesus’ ontological glory, the glory of His deity. Although never in full disclosure, to a finite degree, humans have beheld this glory and it is the glory of the divine heavenly counsel (cf. John 1.14; 17.5). But it also speaks of the glory of God in its heavenly radiance, its beauty, majesty and effulgence that illuminates all else. That is more likely the point here. Paul uses the term with that primary meaning not only here in Thessalonians but elsewhere adding color and nuance to the implications of our eschatological calling and hope. Paul teaches that this glory is a glory that will be revealed in us through glorification, a glory that will be of the same kind as Christ’s own glory and it will be a glory that will not end:
Romans 8:17–18 17 and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. 18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
Philippians 3:20–21 20 For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; 21 who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.
2 Timothy 2:10 10 For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory.
Taught By The Church
Finally, characteristic of those who will gain the glory of Christ, is the practical reality of not only being chosen by God, called by God, but also taught by God in the Church (cf. Acts 2.42; Eph. 4.11-16; Heb. 10.25; 1 John 2.19). That means that believer’s are brought up by God and nurtured and nourished in local church through the means of grace. The primary means of grace is God’s word. Not only was this fact true, but characteristic of those who will gain the glory is the duty to be committed to the local church as evidence of this eternal inheritance and glorious reward, “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us” (ἄρα οὖν, ἀδελφοί, στήκετε, καὶ κρατεῖτε τὰς παραδόσεις ἃς ἐδιδάχθητε εἴτε διὰ λόγου εἴτε διʼ ἐπιστολῆς ἡμῶν). The focus here has to do with the believer’s connection to revelation because our entire world and life view goes back to the revelation of God. This is what is meant by “traditions” (τὰς παραδόσεις)— not that Paul here is referring to some extra-biblical body of literature or liturgy somewhere; he is not. Rather, the tradition in view is the apostolic doctrine that comprises “the faith” (1 Tim. 6.20-21; Jude 3). Because Paul is part of the founding of the New Covenant Church, the original believers had yet to fully inscripturate the NT since many portions of the NT were still in their formulation stages. Inspired letters were still being written as inspiration and revelation was till being breathed out by Holy Spirit supernaturally through the apostles (cf. Eph. 2.19-20; 3.5; 2 Tim. 3.16).
The call here is to persevere in these things by preserving in the church, “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us” (στήκετε, καὶ κρατεῖτε τὰς παραδόσεις ἃς ἐδιδάχθητε εἴτε διὰ λόγου εἴτε διʼ ἐπιστολῆς ἡμῶν). The notion of standing firm and holding to (στήκετε, καὶ κρατεῖτε) the apostolic teaching presents the idea of staunch devotion to and a strong and unwavering commitment to the teaching Scripture in the local church. As characteristic of those who will gain the glory of Jesus Christ in His heavenly kingdom, they will thus demonstrate a faithful devotion to word of God as those who have been taught by God in connection with the local church. And those who are thus taught by God show this in two ways.
Those Who Are Taught Of God Trust In The Revelation Of God
The Thessalonians received the highest endorsement and commendation only after they demonstrated their commitment to Scripture (spoken or written):
1 Thessalonians 2:13 13 For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.
This commitment to Scripture should be carefully qualified and distinguished as a commitment that consisted of two things: intellectual assent leading to conviction and internal or heartfelt trust leading to obedience for Paul says, “the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.” Both aspects of trusting God in this way are ultimately by faith, that is, it is based on the gift of God’s grace. That is what faith is, God’s gracious gift that enables us to trust His word for His glory and our eternal good. The evidence of this trust means we take God at His word, we do not cast doubt on the word of God, we testify to its truth, harmony, and perspicuity, as well as experience its life-changing power. From a pastoral angle we should also be quick to point out that such confidence is not a leap in the dark, it is not a result of base fideism, blind and vacuous faith having no objectivity or substantial lines of evidence for its supernatural claims; but this confidence can and must be cultivated and built up and strengthened. That’s why the local church is seminal to all of this. The church should be the incubator for the believer’s increasing confidence and conformity to Scripture (cf. Acts 2.42; Eph. 4.11-16; 1 Tim. 3.15).
Those Who Are Taught Of God Treasure The Revelation Of God
Scripture should be a love affair for every believer where we get lost in its beauty, we are in rapture with its truth, we are enchanted with its wisdom, and we are intoxicated with its endless supply of mystery and light. This aspect of our commitment to Scripture has already been introduced at least in principle by exposing those who follow the way of antichrist as those who did not receive the “love of the truth” (v.10). In other words they did not treasure it. They did not find Scripture and the teaching of Scripture to be truly glorious, satisfying and divine. If we do not treasure Scripture, it will be a burden to us with impossible demands which will only serve to condemn us not build us up (cf. 1 John 5.3). In order to cultivate our ability to trust and treasure Scripture Psalm 119 remains a great guide. Here the believer’s love affair with Scripture burns brightest.
Psalm 119:97–104 97 O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day. 98 Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies, For they are ever mine. 99 I have more insight than all my teachers, For Your testimonies are my meditation. 100 I understand more than the aged, Because I have observed Your precepts. 101 I have restrained my feet from every evil way, That I may keep Your word. 102 I have not turned aside from Your ordinances, For You Yourself have taught me. 103 How sweet are Your words to my taste! Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth! 104 From Your precepts I get understanding; Therefore I hate every false way.