Worthy of the Kingdom
2 Thessalonians 1:5 5 This is a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you will be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering.
The exegetical issues in this verse are not insignificant and have a wide range of views and opinions with commentators opting for an endless mixture of positions both grammatically and theologically. When this happens, it is often the case that a text is something of a fulcrum upon which the previous and following verses hinge. To make matters more complicated at the very beginning of the verse one has to determine whether or not to supply a connected verb (e.g. ‘to be’) in order to show some sort of link between the previous verse and thought. The NASB supplies two concepts, a demonstrative pronoun “this” (or relative pronoun construction, ‘which is’) and a ‘to be’ verb “is” in order to make sense of the word, “plain indication” or “evidence” (ESV). But this would mean that the term “plain indication” or “evidence” is connecting us back to something in verse 4. What precisely that antecedent would be is difficult to determine exactly and may be more general or conceptual (e.g. the perseverance of their faith). If this line of thinking is right, and I suspect that it is, the phrase, “righteous judgment” is referring to something said in v.4; but what precisely does Paul have in mind.
This is further complicated by the term “judgment” because we are accustomed to viewing the term “judgment” mainly negatively as in the judgment of the wicked. Nevertheless, these exegetical issues must be dealt with in light of the clarity of the context in vv.3-10 where we see that Paul is seeking to comfort the church in the midst of its persecutions and afflictions and remind them of their future vindication and the retribution of God upon the wicked. Under that broader understanding, at least three things are being said in v.5 in regard to the believer and the kingdom of God.
The Manifestation Of The Kingdom
This is a manifestation of the kingdom because the principle of the kingdom is at work in them. Just as the kingdom will overcome persecution so will the believers, just as the kingdom will mean the final overthrow of God’s enemies, so too, believers will overcome their persecutors and just as God’s kingdom and glory will be at last vindicated so will also those who have suffered with Christ will reign victoriously with Him when He comes (vv.6-10; cf. Rom. 8.17; 2 Tim. 2.12). Thus, the principles of the kingdom of God are already presently at work in the Church and being manifested in the conflict of the Church with the world. Thus, we could say that the kingdom of God is manifested in a particular way through the Church’s enduring faith in the face of persecution and affliction.
Here however, the kingdom is also manifested in God’s consequent judgment, “This is a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment” (ἔνδειγμα τῆς δικαίας κρίσεως τοῦ θεοῦ). Admittedly, this is a tricky statement. First of all as we have already pointed out, what precisely does this “indication” or “evidence” refer to? My position is that the church’s endurance in the face of persecution and affliction is the evidence Paul is referring to. However, the second issue that arises is to ask how is this “judgment” (κρίσεως) somehow a point of comfort for the church? In fact, there is a close parallel to this text, although it differs somewhat, the main theme, that of endurance or “standing firm” in the midst of persecution, is the same:
Philippians 1:27–28 27 Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; 28 in no way alarmed by your opponents—which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God.
The verdict has been rendered and the evidence that the church is enduring such persecutions and afflictions by faith means that God has decided in their favor, for their good, and discipline or training in preparation of the kingdom of God (cf. Heb. 12.3-13). On this favor, John Eadie says:
“… the patient sufferings of believers demonstrate that there is now righteous judgment on the part of God; the grace that so sustains them is from Him; He as Judge accepts and approves them by the bestowal of such gifts of patience and faith; and this experience is a further token or presage that a period of fuller manifestation is coming when the persecutors shall receive condign retribution, and their victims shall be brought into perfect and eternal repose.” (John Eadie, A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians, ed. William Young (London: Macmillan and Co., 1877), 235).
There is also a play on words here with the term “judgment” because on the one hand it is an unexpected term when associated with the vindication of the believers perhaps but it also prepares us for the dual-sided nature of God’s judgment of the righteous v.5 and the wicked v.6. The righteous have been deemed worthy of eternal life and the wicked have been deemed worthy of eternal destruction (cf. Mt. 25.46). Ironically, what the world perceives as the Church’s weakness, the destruction of the Church and the judgment of God on the Church is actually the complete opposite of what is happening. Through the persecution of the Church and the enduring faith of the Church, God is actually blessing the Church, building up His Church, and strengthening His Church. The suffering of the church was also a vindication of God’s coming wrath. God is fully just and His wrath and judgment righteous since He will pour out His wrath on a Christ-hating, God-rejecting, Church-persecuting world. The more the Church is persecuted the more God’s wrath is vindicated!
Thus, as this relates to God’s kingdom, it is important to remember the duality of the kingdom. The “already” and the “not yet” of the kingdom. The already aspect of the kingdom is manifested through the Church’s enduring faith in preparation for the obtaining of the ‘not yet’ or future aspect of the kingdom of God in Christ.
The Obtaining Of The Kingdom
This verse serves the broader purpose of vindicating God’s judgment as truly, “righteous judgment” (τῆς δικαίας κρίσεως τοῦ θεοῦ). Admittedly, this is a tricky statement. Innumerable good can be said to come from God’s judgment: the vindication of His justice, the punishment of evil, produces the fear of God, displays of God’s power, the magnification of His holiness, the honor of His name, but also the purifying of His people. Through persecution, God’s people are refined, pruned and purified for the kingdom of God. Jeremiah has an extensive section from Chapter 6-9 where he focuses on the refining providence of God saying, “I will refine them and try them” (Jer. 9.7). But what Israel experienced theocratically and typologically, we experience redemptively and eschatologically. God refines us for our good even if that includes His providential provision of persecution and affliction (cf. Ps. 119.71).
God working through our “persecutions and afflictions.” Leon Morris comments with much sagacity here:
“The New Testament does not look on suffering in quite the same way as do most modern people. To us it is in itself an evil, something to be avoided at all costs. Now while the New Testament does not gloss over this aspect of suffering it does not lose sight either of the fact that in the good providence of God suffering is often the means of working out God’s eternal purpose. It develops in the sufferers qualities of character. It teaches valuable lessons. Suffering is not thought of as something which may possibly be avoided by the Christian. For him it is inevitable. He is ordained to it (1 Thess. 3:3). He must live out his life and develop his Christian character in a world which is dominated by non-Christian ideas. His faith is not some fragile thing, to be kept in a kind of spiritual cotton wool, insulated from all shocks. It is robust. It is to be manifested in the fires of trouble, and in the furnace of affliction. And not only is it to be manifested there, but in part at any rate, it is to be fashioned in such places. The very troubles and afflictions which the world heaps on the believer become, under God, the means of making him what he ought to be. Suffering, when we have come to regard it in this light, is not to be thought of as evidence that God has forsaken us, but as evidence that God is with us. Paul can rejoice that he fills up “that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church” (Col. 1:24). Such suffering is a vivid token of the presence of God. (The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989], 197–98) As cited in John MacArthur, 1&2 Thessalonians (2002) 230.
God’s aim in the Thessalonian’s whole ordeal was to try them and refine them and through those trials to manifest their fitness for the kingdom of God. Its one thing to speak of the kingdom of God as a principle and a reality around us, next to us, perceptible through persecution and perseverance but it is another matter altogether to speak of our personal participation in the kingdom of God or to be “considered worthy of the kingdom of God” (καταξιωθῆναι ὑμᾶς τῆς βασιλείας τοῦ θεοῦ). This phrase explains what some commentators mean when they speak of the “righteous judgment” under question here being a verdict in the believer’s favor. At least it shows us that the aim of God’s judgment here results in the vindication of His wrath and the believer’s participation in the kingdom of God.
We should also point out what this statement does not mean. Paul is not suggesting that Christians obtain the kingdom only and if they are willing to suffer for it as if suffering can earn salvation. No! Instead, this is the evidence that one is fit for the kingdom because true saving faith is causing him/her to persevere and endure one of life’s greatest tests, perhaps the greatest test of all in the whole realm of salvation; a willingness to suffer for the sake of His name. This is something Paul already said was destined for us (cf. John 16.33; 2 Tim. 3.12; Jam. 1.2-4; 1 Pet. 5.10):
1 Thessalonians 3:1–3 1 Therefore when we could endure it no longer, we thought it best to be left behind at Athens alone, 2 and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s fellow worker in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith, 3 so that no one would be disturbed by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this.
What the phrase, “considered worthy” (καταξιωθῆναι) does means is what Paul had already said in the first letter in terms of walking “in a manner worthy of the God who calls” (1 Th. 2.12). These two words are based on the same root word although one is a noun and the other a verb both speak of that which is considered appropriate or suitable to the subject under discussion like your walk with God or your participation in the kingdom. The opposite of this, not being worthy of the kingdom, is ultimately to be understood through a lack of perseverance and unbelief. This is because the hallmark of true saving faith is perseverance (cf. Mt. 10.22). That is why Paul can said earlier to them, “we truly live, if you stand firm in the Lord” (cf. 1 Th. 3.8). In one sense, there could be no greater proof that a person is living in a manner worthy of the kingdom than that they persecuted and persevere.
The Reality Of The Kingdom
On a practical level what makes our trials so challenging is our state of mind, our perspective and our view of why we suffer. When we fail to see the reality of the kingdom our trials can seem overwhelming, aimless, causing us to become fatalistic, discouraged and disillusioned with religion all together. This is why trials, suffering and in particular persecution become the occasion for apostasy. This is precisely what Jesus taught in the Sower’s parable:
Matthew 13:20–21 20 “The one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away.
This falling away however, is precisely the opposite of what the Thessalonians are doing. They are abiding in a commendable way (1.4), they are flourishing under fierce opposition (1.3), they are enduring suffering at the hands of their own countrymen (1 Th. 2.14). They are as Jesus goes on to say “the good soil” who, “bears fruit and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty” (Mt. 13.23). Paul in this last phrase, “for which indeed you are suffering” (ὑπὲρ ἧς καὶ πάσχετε), is reminding the church of the reality that actually dominates their experience. Though they may be tempted to believe in the lies of the world; that the church is for fools, that religion is for the weak, that Christianity is for intellectual midgets, that Christian morality is archaic, that the bible is superstition, and that the world and its kingdoms hold out something better for us. Paul lifts the veil from our eyes and reminds us of what is really at stake here- the obtaining of the glory of God’s kingdom in Christ. We see the very same logic in Chapter 2:
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.
The kingdom manifestation found in the persecution and endurance of the Thessalonians is organic to our own experience of the kingdom today. This is what we must see. The oppression, the ridicule, the harassing, the undermining, and demonization of the church are the necessary preconditions to our own experience of the kingdom. As we endure through any and all persecutions and afflictions, we evidence through our faith and endurance that the powers of the age to come specifically of the reality and presence of the kingdom of God is in our midst.