By Marcelo Tolopilo
The Purpose for the Lord’s Return
2 Thessalonians 1:6-10
In all the talk and literature generated by the second coming of our Lord, little is ever said about its purpose. Much print is dedicated to the “timing” of the second coming of Christ; however, the reasons for the Lord’s return are the key issues to understand. It is this issue that is drawing His coming ever nearer, and it is in that purpose that we find the greatest application for our lives today until he comes.
The passage I would like to draw your attention to is 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12. For the sake of brevity I will leave the reading of this passage to you and will simply point out Paul’s four-fold purpose for the Lord’s return, followed by a brief application of these principles. In this newsletter we will consider the first reason for Christ’s appearing. We will tackle the final three purposes in upcoming issues of “The Lighthouse.”
Paul penned this epistle to his beloved brothers and sisters in Thessalonica. This church was especially dear to the great apostle because it was a longsuffering church. It was born in adversity during Paul’s second missionary journey (Acts 17:1-10). In Paul’s first letter to this flock he reminded them of their difficult but joyful beginnings when he wrote, “You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit,” (1 Thessalonians 1:16). This church was not merely born in adversity, but it also flourished in the same thereafter. Paul also wrote in 2 Thessalonians 1:4, “therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure.”
These dear people, like their spiritual father Paul, knew well the painful cost of following Jesus Christ. However, this cost was most definitely not in vain, for as Paul reminded them, God was using the affliction of persecution to purge and perfect their lives (vv 3-5).
Suffering for the Kingdom as John MacArthur points out was not to be thought of as the abandonment of God, but rather as evidence that God was at work in their lives perfecting them (cf. Matthew 5:10; Romans 8:18; 2 Corinthians 12:10). Through their manifold difficulties God was performing a purging work of grace in their midst. God uses the hardships of life to perform His gracious, perfecting work in our lives.
The reasons for the Lord’s return (reason #1)
Yet, even though these believers could understand and embrace their suffering for Christ as a “severe mercy” – as one of my friends likes to call it – unabated suffering for their faith could overwhelm them if they did not understanding the “bigger picture,” the final victory, that is, the return of their Lord and the purpose of His coming.
It is precisely at this juncture of his letter (1:6) that Paul introduces into the text the subject of the Lord’s return and the reasons for it. Yes they were suffering for their faith in the Lord Jesus, but their Master promised to return and when He did their suffering would be swallowed up in His glorious purposes. With that context in mind Paul gives us four reasons for the Lord’s return.
First of all the Lord will return to punish those who afflict His people and reject the gospel. In verse 6 Paul writes, “For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you,” and in verse 8 he adds “dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.”
In other words, that which God used for His children’s holiness – persecution from the unbelieving – He will none-the-less judge because it arises from a hatred of Christ and His gospel. God uses the sin of men to accomplish His holy will, but He still hates sin and His justice demands that He judge it, especially when that sin is a blatant rejection of God and Christ in the gospel. And ultimately our persecution is unequivocal proof of the unbelieving world’s rejection of Christ and His message.
“Wound me, wound my Savior”
There was a time you’ll recall when the author of this epistle (Paul), then known as Saul, rejected the gospel and in turn ravaged the church (Acts 8:3, 9:1, et al). When the Lord appeared to him on the Damascus road His words to Saul were striking. Jesus asked, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4) Whom was Paul persecuting? Christians, the church! And yet from Christ’s perspective the rejection and the persecution of His people was directed against Him. You see the Lord Jesus takes the persecution of His redeemed personally because it arises out of a rejection of who He is and the salvation He so generously provides.
The world can no longer persecute the Lord Jesus directly. They did at one point in history and they pursued that course until they killed Him. They cannot reject His words of life to His face. Nonetheless the world is not done persecuting and rejecting Jesus, but because they cannot get to Him, they lash out against us, His body. When you and I suffer for Jesus sake, it is as though Jesus is assailed and He knows your agony. This rejection of Jesus demands a divinely just response from our Master.
Character bound to judge unbelief
The Lord Jesus is bound by His holy and just character to return and repay our suffering in proportion to His holy justice. The term “retribution” in verse 8 means, “to punish, on the basis of what is rightly deserved.” In other words Jesus will judge sinners because they have unjustly afflicted us, but also because all such affliction is ultimately aimed at Jesus Himself and He, the Lord, will judge the rejection of His message and hatred toward His person because His character demands it.
And just what will be the unbelieving world’s punishment? It will be “retribution,” i.e., a punishment that is rightly deserved for rejecting the gospel (v8). Those who chose to plead their case before God on the basis of their worthless works instead of the sustitutionary work of Christ will be compensated accordingly. More specifically, “These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power,” (v9).
A terrifying prospect – The absence of God!
Their just penalty will be “eternal destruction.” This is perhaps better-translated “eternal ruin.” It will not be annihilation for it is “eternal” (cf. Mark 9:48; Revelation 14:11), and it is characterized by a state of constant devastation. In other words those who reject the gospel will suffer a state of never ending catastrophic ruin! This terrible condition is really defined by rest of the verse that reveals the cause of this devastation; unbelievers will spend time without end “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.”
That, my friends, is a terrifying prospect! The term “presence” means literally “face” and it is translated as such most of the time in the New Testament. It carries the idea of “countenance” and in biblical language it is often used in reference to God and His favor. This is especially true in the Old Testament. In Numbers 6:25 the same term is used to refer to the favorable countenance of the Lord, “The LORD make His face shine on you, and be gracious to you.” Aaron and his sons were to pray that Israel would continually know the smile of God as a people; that they would know the favorable presence of the Lord where His grace abounds to His own.
The benefits of God’s glory
Believers will know this in its ultimate sense when they bask in God’s glory in heaven. In that day the favorable countenance of the Lord will be manifest to us in “the glory of His power.” This phrase, “the glory of His power,” in verse 9 is an expression that speaks of the full, refulgent glory of God. God’s glory is the visible expression of the sum total of His perfect and beautiful attributes. In it’s marvelous light we will be surrounded, sustained and enriched by God’s holy perfections.
That is true to a muted degree presently, but in heaven the magnificent glory of His power will be unrestrained, and will spill over to, and fill every corner of God’s holy abode. That will make the experience and pleasure of heaven a delight beyond description. There, we will experience forever the bounty of God’s glory and will subsequently only know perfect peace, joy, fulfillment, health, strength, worship, meaning, ad infinitum!
The smile of God upon men
At present mankind experiences the muted glory of God in the common graces of the Lord, which fill our earth. God gives men food, family, friendships, the manifold joys of creation, joy, laughter, healing, comfort, strength, creativity, work, purpose, etc., etc. All of that and much more comes from the favorable, benevolent presence of our glorious God. This age of grace and the life that He gives expresses the smile of God’s presence to His creatures.
The horrible absence of God’s presence
But in hell God’s presence will be wholly absent! His life enriching glory will be forever eclipsed by the eternal night of death. People who have accepted God’s common grace, but have rejected His redeeming grace will no longer experience His favor in any way. That means all the benefits that they blindly accept from God in this life will be torn away from them in the next. In fact the reversal of those graces will be their undying reality.
There will be no relationships in hell, only utter bereavement and loneliness. There will be no laughter, joy, light, beauty, meaning, value, comfort, wellbeing; all that will be replaced, as Jesus said, by “outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8:12) Hell will be an eternity of physical suffering and emotional and spiritual torment because the presence and glory of God will be completely absent. It will be an “eternal ruin.”
“So what does this mean to me?”
The first purpose then behind the Lord’s return is to punish those who afflict His people and reject the gospel. There are certainly multiple applications of this principle. One is that we never take our own vengeance against any unbeliever because “it is written, ‘VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,’ says the Lord.” (Romans 12:9) The Lord will take up our case. Trust in Him and give room for His wrath.
Secondly, we should be moved by compassion because people who do not know God through the Lord Jesus are under God’s wrath (Ephesians 3:2) and on their way to certain and terrifying judgment unless they hear from us, and God turns their heart toward Him in repentance. May their persecution and their coming judgment stir in us a heart of compassion so that we may all the more speak of Christ and His salvation to them. May we not shrink back from declaring to all God’s words of life in Jesus! “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:20); “HOW BEAUTIFUL ARE THE FEET OF THOSE WHO BRING GOOD NEWS OF GOOD THINGS!” (Romans 10:15)!!!