The Vengeance of God, Part 1
2 Thessalonians 1:6–8 6 For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, 8 dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
We have to set the record straight on a age old misconception which has been popularized by weak evangelical Christianity particularly those churches and denominations outside the Reformed perspective; and that being the false notion that God was a God of wrath in the OT but is a God of love in the NT— nothing could be further from the truth. This fails on both accounts. God in the OT is known for His mercy or lovingkindness which endures forever as much as He is known for His justice and wrath (cf. Ps. 136). Conversely, passages such as this one in 2 Thessalonians displays the awesome wrath of an Almighty God against His enemies in the NT. If you ask the average person on the street about God’s wrath and God’s gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ, they typically will not connect the two. It is quite inconceivable how people could overlook God’s wrath in the NT and in connection with the gospel when the very text which is most popular even among unbelievers is John 3:16; a passage that includes the idea of God’s wrath.
If the gospel teaches us anything it teaches us that the good news that Jesus saves sinners does not make sense unless He saves them from perishing under the wrath of God. As unpopular as the doctrine of God’s wrath is, it is not optional for the genuine believer and the biblical church. From the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry down to the last living apostle, God’s wrath and judgment is clearly taught in Scripture. The reason this is all so important has to do with idolatry. We are either going to worship God as He is and as He has revealed himself in the pages of Scripture or we will make a God of our imagination and conform our lives to that false image. The present passage helps us to see God as He is with all of His terrible wrath as well as all of His merciful dealings with His people. In one sense this passages speaks of the vindication of God’s vengeance, God’s wrath.
The Vengeance Of God Will Be Just
First of all we should notice that for Paul, the matter of God’s vengeance is only logical and right (note: “just for God” (δίκαιον παρὰ θεῷ) lit. ‘just before God’ or ‘in the sight of God’ referring to the divine perspective). God sees His vengeance and the vindication of His people as just because it is rooted in the reality of the evil of persecution (v.4, v.5, v.6). Retribution is not an option under the justice of God. It is not a matter of should there be retribution and revenge but only who’s and when. We are explicitly told not to seek out vengeance for ourselves or seek personal revenge, vendettas, or personal payback whether organized or unorganized— in terms of persecution, Jesus prepared His Church to die like sheep in the midst of wolves in the imitation of His own example of suffering under persecution (cf. Mt. 10.16; Rom. 8.36; 2 Cor. 12.10; 1 Pet. 2.21-23):
Romans 12:17–21 17 Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. 19 Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Before we get to the when in the fullest sense, we need to remember that from God’s perspective, man’s judgment is imminent and His justice is not slack but will overcome the unbeliever both individually and personally at death, and His universal or cosmic judgment will not slumber but will inevitably shake heaven and earth (cf. Heb. 12.26-28). From the OT background of Romans 12 we see God’s assurance to His people of that very thing:
Deuteronomy 32:35 35 ‘Vengeance is Mine, and retribution, In due time their foot will slip; For the day of their calamity is near, And the impending things are hastening upon them.’
Another parallel text expresses the right posture of the righteous when it comes to God’s wrath. Not that we do not pray for people to escape the wrath of God but also commit that vengeance to the Lord as part of His glory and power and His prerogative to judge the living and the dead and consign the wicked to hell:
Psalm 94:1–7 1 O Lord, God of vengeance, God of vengeance, shine forth! 2 Rise up, O Judge of the earth, Render recompense to the proud. 3 How long shall the wicked, O Lord, How long shall the wicked exult? 4 They pour forth words, they speak arrogantly; All who do wickedness vaunt themselves. 5 They crush Your people, O Lord, And afflict Your heritage. 6 They slay the widow and the stranger And murder the orphans. 7 They have said, “The Lord does not see, Nor does the God of Jacob pay heed.”
In Scripture, the wicked always perish justly (cf. Rev. 20.11-15). They perish because of their sins, their deeds and disobedience (v.8). There will never be even one just complaint or one valid objection to God’s wrath and judgment (Rom. 3.19). Partly because man is simply not in a position to question God, talk back to God, or find fault God in any way whatsoever (Rom. 9.20). Man will stand condemned by the law of God and by the testimony of his own conscience. Man’s conscience will be the prosecuting attorney agreeing with and working in conjunction with the tribunal of God (cf. Rom. 2.15-16).
This is not just an exposition of God’s wrath however, it is a vindication of God’s people that is designed to produce comfort, endurance and joy to those who are being afflicted, “it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well” (παρὰ θεῷ ἀνταποδοῦναι τοῖς θλίβουσιν ὑμᾶς θλῖψιν 7 καὶ ὑμῖν τοῖς θλιβομένοις ἄνεσιν μεθʼ ἡμῶν). Perhaps that “relief” (ἄνεσιν) would come in parcel form perhaps Paul was thinking mainly of the eschaton; either way both are true and both comprised the hope of the church.
Several times God had granted Paul and the early church temporal relief from persecution and each time God’s word was magnified and the Church was edified (cf. Act 4.13ff.). In Acts 5 we see the remarkable worldview of the early Church and its perspective on persecution. In Acts 5 persecution has reached a fever pitch as the Jews were incensed at the preaching of Peter and the apostles. They were eventually arrested and thrown into a “public jail” for preaching (v.18). After they had been flogged and threatened they were give some relief:
Acts 5:40–42 40 They took his advice; and after calling the apostles in, they flogged them and ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and then released them. 41 So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name. 42 And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.
The Vengeance Of God Will End The World
But much more than temporary “relief”, the rest of the believer is ultimately eternal because the vengeance of God is not only going to be manifested through the temporary relief of an ISIS member having a missile dropped on his head after beheading a group of Christians along with others, but God’s vengeance will end the world. Thus, when Paul tells the church that God will punish their persecutors and grant them peace and rest, Paul is thinking of the final eschatological victory of God, “when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire,” (ἐν τῇ ἀποκαλύψει τοῦ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ ἀπʼ οὐρανοῦ μετʼ ἀγγέλων δυνάμεως αὐτοῦ ἐν πυρὶ φλογός) (notice that ἐν πυρὶ φλογός belong to v. 8 in the Gk. text).
Of course this is none other than the Day of the Lord already mentioned in the first letter (1 Thess. 5.2). The relief that the church so desperately seeks does not take place in a secret rapture as some suggest; it takes place at the end of the age in what we can call the ‘age-ending-parousia’ of Christ. That is when His people will ‘marvel’ in victory (v.10). This is the culmination of God’s work of judgment where He simultaneously judges the wicked with wrath and delivers His people with power (e.g. Ps. 37). This happened repeatedly throughout the OT on a typological level (dealing with the typological kingdom) where redemption was seen as both the deliverance of His people and the destruction of their enemies:
Psalm 37:6 6 He will bring forth your righteousness as the light And your judgment as the noonday.
Psalm 37:9 9 For evildoers will be cut off, But those who wait for the Lord, they will inherit the land.
Psalm 37:22 22 For those blessed by Him will inherit the land, But those cursed by Him will be cut off.
Psalm 37:28–29 28 For the Lord loves justice And does not forsake His godly ones; They are preserved forever, But the descendants of the wicked will be cut off. 29 The righteous will inherit the land And dwell in it forever.
Psalm 37:34 34 Wait for the Lord and keep His way, And He will exalt you to inherit the land; When the wicked are cut off, you will see it.
Psalm 37:39–40 39 But the salvation of the righteous is from the Lord; He is their strength in time of trouble. 40 The Lord helps them and delivers them; He delivers them from the wicked and saves them, Because they take refuge in Him.
But everything that happened to Israel in the past was but a prelude to the final consummate conflict between God and His enemies— those who persecute the Church and reject His message of salvation. If the wicked will not receive the blessing of forgiveness for their sins, they will receive the curse of condemnation for sins. The parousia will usher all of this in. In this context the idea of the parousia is captured by the term “revealed” (τῇ ἀποκαλύψει) to stress not only Jesus’ coming but with that coming the revelation of His power and kingdom and the truth of His gospel. When Christ returns He will fulfill the words of His prophecy in Matthew 26 where Jesus, citing two OT Messianic texts (Ps. 110; Dan. 7), will come with theophanic power and angelic glory:
Matthew 26:64 64 Jesus said to him, “You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
This will not only mean the destruction of His enemies, the vindication of His people and the revelation of His truth; it will also bring about the consummation of the age. To this fact both the OT and the NT testifies. When Christ returns He will inherit His everlasting kingdom and all nations, the elect from every tribe and tongue will serve Him in the context of a new heavens and new earth:
Daniel 7:13–14 13 “I kept looking in the night visions, And behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, And He came up to the Ancient of Days And was presented before Him. 14 “And to Him was given dominion, Glory and a kingdom, That all the peoples, nations and men of every language Might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion Which will not pass away; And His kingdom is one Which will not be destroyed.
2 Peter 3:9–13 9 The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. 11 Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, 12 looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! 13 But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.
The Vengeance Of God Will Center Upon Jesus Christ
The revelation of Jesus Christ will be accompanied by “fire” (πυρὶ) and “angels” (ἀγγέλων) as a sign of His cosmic reign, power and glory. His second coming will be nothing like His first advent where Jesus came in the form of a servant and in a state of lowest condescension and humility to be rejected and crucified by the rulers of this age (John 1.11; 1 Cor. 2.8; Phil. 2.6-8). When He returns like when He was crucified, He will be unrecognizable— only this time He will be engulfed with the beauty, power and majesty of heaven and will shine like the sun. But His return will reveal a Christ of wrath and glory as He comes in judgment, “dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” (διδόντος ἐκδίκησιν τοῖς μὴ εἰδόσιν θεὸν καὶ τοῖς μὴ ὑπακούουσιν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ).
In Jesus’ first coming He extended the mercy of salvation to the lost, in His second coming He will meet out retribution and judgment for those outside of salvation. The condemnation of the wicked is centered upon Jesus Christ and emphasizes two things: God’s covenant and God’s Son. First, to “know God” (εἰδόσιν θεὸν) is to be in covenant with God (cf. Jer. 31.34). Of course, to know God is to have a relationship with God, to fear God, walk with God and love God is to live in the intimate knowledge of God. This is a saving knowledge not a mere intellectual knowledge. It is the knowledge of experience not a mere abstract knowledge. We do not simply know God objectively, we known God existentially and most importantly spiritually or mystically. This is what the unbeliever does not have— a saving, covenantal, and experiential knowledge of God. This kind of knowledge if wrought by the Spirit of God himself. When man does not know God he/she is alienated from God, estranged from God, hopeless without God, and condemned by God – confirmed in their sin and misery forever (cf. Eph. 2.12).
Second, all God’s gracious covenant dealings with man center upon the gospel of His Son, “our Lord Jesus” (τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ). Man will be judged for many reasons and in truth they are all connected; they will be judged for sin, for breaking God’s law, for unbelief, for the wickedness of their own hearts, and for a hatred of God, His word and His people. However, the coming judgment centers upon man’s relationship to the gospel of Jesus Christ, “those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (τοῖς μὴ ὑπακούουσιν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ). Notice also that the gospel has to be obeyed! In other words, the gospel leads to a holy life, to a love for God and His word, and to a desire to do His will. The gospel teaches to love God’s law, God’s decrees and God’s commands for our lives. Those who have no such desire to live this way have no such power to live this way and that is why they inevitably deny its power (cf. 2 Tim. 3.5).
In light of such judgment, what hope do we have to offer man? Well there is no hope apart from the gospel of Jesus Christ, that’s the point. But if you are feeling the weight of your sin, the terror of God’s vengeance against sin, there is hope for those who are presently excluded but only Christ alone:
Ephesians 2:12–13 12 remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.