When the Scripture was read, you may have thought, This is a strange message for a weekend when we are welcoming large numbers of first-time visitors at the public launch of a new campus. You may have wondered, Is he really going to speak on these verses from the Bible? I have to tell you, I had the same question. On an occasion like this you have to make a choice. We can do something different because it is special, or we can do what we normally do and say, "This is who we are." I've chosen the latter. What we do here week-by-week is take a passage of the Bible and place ourselves under it. We don't come to the Bible to evaluate it. We want to listen to the Bible in such a way that our thinking, feeling, choosing, believing and behaving are shaped by the Word of God.
It would be very easy to come to the Bible, picking the bits that we like, and ignoring anything that makes us feel uncomfortable. But if we did that then we would only hear a reflection of our own preferences. We would always be affirmed, but never challenged. We would always be comforted, but we would never actually be changed. That is why we use the discipline of working through a book of the Bible, so that we can listen to what God is saying, without us deciding what the topic will be. Last summer, long before we knew the date of this public launch, we planned to listen to God through 2 Thessalonians, and the verses that were read were set for today. It's often tempting for a preacher to fit the message to what he guesses people will want to hear. But I am not helped by people who only say what I want to hear. I am helped by people who "tell it like it is." I am helped by those who are willing to confront what I may be hiding from without even knowing it. And I need to hear what God has to say, especially when it makes me feel uncomfortable.
God is not dependent on us
You could spend your whole life shaping a god to your own liking—a god who loves what you love, a god who says what you want to hear and a god who calls you to live as you are already living. But such a god is only a projection of you. At the end of the day, what use is a god who was designed by you? A god who is shaped by you will die with you. Just as a god who is shaped by me will die with me. Such a god cannot help you, because that god has no existence apart from you.
The Bible has a word for our own ideas about God—it is "idolatry." In ancient times, idols were made from wood, stone, or metal. But idols in our times are more sophisticated. They are not metal; they are mental. We hammer out our own ideas of who we think God is and what we want him to be like in our own mind. That's why so many people have come to see Christianity as a projection of human thought; and they have rejected Christianity for this very reason. If Christianity was only a power play by the church, then they would be right to reject it. But what if God was, before us? What if God is, without us? And what if God always will be, despite us? What if God is not dependent on us, but we are dependent on him? What if God is abundantly good, and we are part of a world in rebellion against him? What if God is love and you are running from him? What if he sees a future disaster that is hidden from you, and he is reaching out to save you from it?
I have been studying this book all of my life, and this is the message that I find in it and that I want you to grasp. God says, "I am who I am. I am not whoever you want me to be." He speaks to us in this book so that you may find him and know him and enjoy him forever.
Please open your Bible at 2 Thessalonians. We saw last week that this letter was written to encourage Christians who were being persecuted. Persecution is always a terrible thing. A particular group of people are picked on and attacked viciously and repeatedly. The obvious question for people who are experiencing this kind of thing is, Where is God in all this? How are we supposed to stand up under it? This is the kind of thing the people in Thessalonica were experiencing, and this letter was written to give the answer: How to stand when you're facing persecution
God is just
"God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you." 2 Thessalonians 1:6. The justice of God will often not be obvious in this world. People who do good often suffer, and people who do evil often prosper. But God is just, and even though his justice may be hidden now, it will become obvious when Jesus Christ is revealed (1:8).
The justice of God is a central truth in the Bible. God never acts out of vindictiveness. He always acts with justice. You can have absolute confidence that no one will be punished for a sin he or she did not commit. No sin will be punished in a way that is disproportionate to the offense.
No one will escape from the justice of God. God knows all things. Nothing is hidden from him. No one intimidates him. No one has leverage against him. Power and wealth count for nothing with him. That means you can have confidence in the absolute justice of God.
God will punish
"He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus." 2 Thessalonians 1:8. We are given two descriptions of this punishment. First, it is everlasting destruction: "They will be punished with everlasting destruction" (1:9). The combination of these two words is terrifying, but the meaning is clear: This is a destruction without end. "It is to always be dying and never to die." You may say, Wait a minute. How can any sin deserve everlasting destruction? If God is just, how can he punish like this? The best answer I ever heard to that question was given by a friend of mine who is a middle school pastor:
Suppose a middle school student punches another student in class. What happens? The student is given a detention. Suppose during the detention, this boy punches the teacher. What happens? The student gets suspended from school. Suppose on the way home, the same boy punches a policeman on the nose. What happens? He finds himself in jail. Suppose some years later, the very same boy is in a crowd waiting to see the President of the United States. As the President passes by, the boy lunges forward to punch the President. What happens? He is shot dead by the secret service.
In every case the crime is precisely the same, but the severity of the crime is measured by the one against whom it is committed. What comes from sinning against God? Answer: Everlasting destruction.
Secondly, those punished are shut out of the presence of God: "They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord" (1:9). To be shut out from God's presence and from his power means to be without hope and without love forever. James Denny says it like this: "Obey the Gospel and you enter into light in which there is no darkness. Disobey the Gospel and you enter into darkness in which there is no light … a night in which no morning dawns."
Here is what the Scripture says: God is just. He will punish through everlasting destruction, and those who are so punished will be shut out from the presence of the Lord, forever. This will happen when Jesus Christ is revealed. This is one of the hardest truths in the Bible. But here is something I've discovered: The hardest truths can produce the most tender hearts. If you grasp this most difficult of doctrines and place yourself under this truth, God will use it to soften your heart today.
Difficult truths produce good effects
Here are six ways to use this truth. First, it will sustain your faith in a suffering world. If you have suffered at the hands of other people, or if someone you love has suffered as these Christians did, you will face this great question: How can I really believe that God is a loving God and God is a just God when so often good people suffer and those who do evil prosper? This doctrine helps. It tells you that you have not yet seen the end of the story. God says to suffering believers, There is a day coming when Jesus Christ will be revealed. Then you will see the full measure of My justice. Then you will see the full measure of My love. So, use this to sustain your faith in a suffering world.
Second, use this truth to restrain your desire to even the score. When someone hurts you, your immediate and natural instinct will be to want to hurt them in return. They brought you down, and you find a certain pleasure in bringing them down. How do you restrain the desire to even the score? This truth is meant to help someone who's been wronged: "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord" (Romans 12:18-20).
God will repay, so leave room for his wrath. You don't need to take it into your hands when you know it is in his. God will deal with this. You can leave it to him. It is on this foundation that God says, "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head" (Romans 12:20). The hardest truths can produce the most tender hearts. If you do not believe this, you will always be trying to even the score.
Third, use this truth to increase your compassion for people who harm you. "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Matthew 5:44. Anyone who has suffered at the hands of another person, as we all have in some way, will hear this and say, Love him? Love her? How is that possible? If the person who harmed you was to see what they did and truly to repent, you might find it in your heart to forgive them. But if they just go on, with no awareness of what they have done, or worse, if they continue doing the same thing, it is very hard to have compassion. Where do you begin in loving your enemies? Again, the teaching we are considering today helps. When you think about everlasting destruction and what it would mean to be shut out of the presence of the Lord forever, you would not wish that on your worst enemy. A deep grasp of this truth will help you to pray for those who've harmed you. Bitterness cannot survive for long when you begin to pray. You will be amazed at the way compassion sneaks in the back door of your heart.
Fourth, use this truth to help you understand what happened at the cross. Jesus Christ came into the world because there is a future catastrophe that you need saving from. During his three years of ministry, Jesus did so much good—healing the sick, feeding the hungry, proclaiming the greatest teaching that this world has ever heard. He did so much good in three years of ministry. Just think what he could have done in thirty years! Yet he tells his disciples repeatedly that he came to die. What could he accomplish by dying that he could not accomplish by living? He died as a sacrifice, and in the great love and mercy of God, our sins were laid on him. Isaiah says, "The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:6). Bearing our sins means that Jesus bore our punishment for sin. This is what was happening at the cross. Isaiah says, "The punishment that brought us peace was on him" (53:5).
On the cross, Christ was punished for our sins. He was shut out from the presence of God. That's why he cried out, "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46) Christ endured everything that hell is on the cross. He entered hell so that you would never know what it is like. That is the heart of the Gospel. You may have wondered, How can one man bear the sins of many? How can his hell on the cross remove our everlasting destruction? The weight of our sin is measured by the One we offended. The value of Christ's sacrifice is measured by the One who is offered. This is the Son of God! His suffering on the cross is able to atone for all our sins forever.
Fifth, use this truth to motivate your obedience to the Gospel. "He will punish those who … do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus." 2 Thessalonians 1:8. Once you understand what happened on the cross, you will say, I must respond to this good news today! But what does it mean to obey the Gospel? You must repent. "[God] commands all people everywhere to repent." Acts 17:30. Here is where that begins: My life can no longer be about me. It has to be about Jesus Christ, who loved me and gave himself for me. Repentance is a decisive turning from all that God calls sin to offer myself to Christ. You may say, How do I do that? I know myself. I can't change.
You must also believe. You have to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. There's a real relationship here in which you trust that he is the Son of God. You trust his death on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins, and you trust his resurrection power, that it is sufficient for everything you face in life and death. You trust Christ because he is altogether worthy of your trust.
You must also follow. James Denney says, "Salvation is not only a gift, but a vocation; we enter into it as we obey the voice of Jesus, 'Follow me.'" That is what he is saying to us through his words to us today. Christ laid down his life for you, and now he lays claim to your life for him. That means your gifts, talents, time, and money—the strength of your body and the affections of your heart. Maybe you have been saying to yourself, I'll think about Christianity some day. Think about it today. Turn to him in repentance, believe in his Son Jesus Christ, and follow him. Eternity hangs on this.
Sixth, use this truth to deepen your joy in the mercy of God. "God is just … [He will repay those who persecute the church,] with everlasting destruction …." (2 Thessalonians 1:6, 9) Think about the man writing these words. He once persecuted Christians himself! Saul of Tarsus was the terror of the early church. Breathing fire and slaughter, he was on his way to Damascus on a campaign of violence. Christ stopped him in his tracks with a blinding light and an audible voice: "Saul, Saul why do you persecute me!" (Acts 9:4) The risen Christ was saying, Saul, your real fight is not with Christians, or with churches. The conflict that's going on in your soul is a fight against me!
So, what did he feel as he wrote this? "I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man …." (1 Timothy 1:12) I deserve this judgment, but God has shown me mercy. And the mercy of God has transformed my life! Right there in the dust, this man repents and believes. This violent man was transformed. Saul the persecutor became Paul the Apostle. Now the Spirit of God is on him giving him these words to write to the church. That's the power of the Gospel! This is the Gospel that we believe and that we proclaim. This is the Gospel by which we are saved and by which all who come to the Lord will be saved. It is good news, not only for all of us here today, but for every person in this community.
Colin Smith is pastor of The Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Arlington Heights, Illinois.