2 Thessalonians 1:8-12 (ESV)
In flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. 11 To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
V8, The flaming fire may be a reference to the Shekinah, the glory cloud which symbolizes God’s presence (Ex. 16:10). Or it may be a picture of the fiery judgment which is about to be unleashed (Ps. 50:3; Isa. 66:15). Probably it is the latter.
When God takes vengeance, it is not vindictiveness, but righteous recompense. There is no thought of “getting even” but rather of meting out the punishment which His holy, righteous character demands. He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 18:32).
Paul describes two classes marked out for retribution:
- Those who do not know God —those who have rejected the knowledge of the true God as revealed in creation and in conscience (Rom. 1, 2). They may never have heard the gospel.
- Those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ —those who have heard the gospel and have rejected it. The gospel is not simply a statement of facts to be believed, but a Person to be obeyed. Belief in the NT sense involves obedience.
V9, These shall be punished. God punishes sin. The idea that a God of love must not punish sin overlooks the fact that God is also holy and must do what is morally right.
The nature of the punishment is here defined as everlasting destruction. The word translated “everlasting” or “eternal” (aiōnios) is used seventy times in the NT. Three times it may mean “ages of limited duration” (Rom. 16:25; 2 Tim. 1:9; Tit. 1:2). The other times it means eternal or endless. It is used in Romans 16:26 to describe the unending existence of God.
Destruction never means annihilation. It means loss of well- being, or ruin as far as the purpose of existence is concerned. The wineskins which the Lord Jesus described in Luke 5:37 were “destroyed” (same root word as used here). They did not cease to exist, but they were ruined as far as further usefulness was concerned.
This passage is often used by post-tribulationists to confirm their position. They understand it to say that believers will not obtain rest and their persecutors will not be punished until Christ comes back to reign, and this is admittedly at the end of the Tribulation. Therefore, they conclude that the hope of believers is the post-tribulation Rapture.
What they fail to see is that the Thessalonians to whom this was written have all died and are already enjoying rest with the Lord in heaven. Likewise, their persecutors have all died and are already suffering in Hades.
Why then does Paul seem to say that these conditions will not take place until Christ returns to earth in power and great glory? The reason is that this will be the time that these conditions will be openly manifested to the world. Then the world will see that the Thessalonians were right and their persecutors were wrong. The saints will be seen enjoying rest when they return with Christ in glory. The destruction of the Lord’s enemies at the end of the Tribulation will be a public demonstration of the doom of all who have afflicted God’s people in all ages.
It will help us to remember that Christ’s coming to reign is a time of manifestation. What has been true all along will be unveiled for all the world to see. This is not true of the Rapture.
The punishment of the wicked also includes banishment from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power. To perish without Him is to be without Him forever.
V10, His coming will be a time of glory for the Lord and of amazement for the spectators.
He will be glorified in His saints, that is, He will be honored because of what He has done in and through them. Their salvation, sanctification, and glorification will be tributes to His matchless grace and power.
He will be admired among all those who believe. Amazed onlookers will gasp as they see what He has been able to do with such unpromising human beings!
And this will include the Thessalonians believers too, because they had received and believed the testimony of the apostles. They would share in the glory and triumph of that Day, namely, the Day of the Revelation of Jesus Christ.
By way of review, we might paraphrase verses 5–10 as follows:”Your patience in the midst of tribulation is very significant. In all this God is working out His righteous purposes. Your steadfast endurance of persecution shows that you are among the company of those who will share the glories of Christ’s coming reign. On the one hand, God will measure out judgment to those who now trouble you. On the other hand, He will give rest to you who are now troubled, along with us also—Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy. He will judge your enemies when He comes from heaven with the angelic executors of His power in flaming fire, punishing those who are wilfully ignorant of God and those who are wilfully disobedient to the gospel. These will suffer everlasting destruction, even banishment from the Lord’s face and from the display of His power, when He returns to be glorified in all believers—including you, because you did believe the gospel message we preached to you.”