Wednesday, November 25, 2009

2 Thessalonians 1:6-10

V6-10 – 6God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you 7and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with His powerful angels. 8He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of His power 10on the day He comes to be glorified in His holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.

Paul reminds the Thessalonians of God’s just judgment. Their perseverance and growth in persecution “is evidence that God’s judgment is right.” Calvin says, “The present disorderly state of matters is a demonstration of the judgment, which does not yet appear. For if God is the righteous Judge of the world, those things that are now confused must, of necessity, be restored to order. Now, nothing is more disorderly than that the wicked, with impunity, give molestation to the good, and walk abroad with unbridled violence, while the good are cruelly harassed without any fault on their part. From this it may be readily inferred, that God will one day ascend the judgment-seat, that He may remedy the state of matters in the world, so as to bring them into a better condition.”

When saying that God will repay with affliction (Romans 2:9), Paul has in mind the Day of the Lord that he mentioned in 1 Thessalonians 5. We may wonder if this is Judgment Day, at the second coming of Christ (Acts 3:20), or if this has in mind the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, along with the persecution of Jews under Roman rule – or the holocaust, some have wondered. But the point is that all “those who trouble you” deserve and will receive hell. The punishment of “everlasting destruction” (v9) – unending death – is mentioned to assure the Thessalonians of justice in the end.

Some, many, find this too harsh. They think of God as merciful. But Paul teaches that God is just, and that persecution is evidence of God’s just judgment. God has said that He has “mercy on whom He wants to have mercy, and He hardens whom He wants to harden” (Romans 9:18). Vincent Cheung says, “The principle of retribution is a necessary presupposition behind the ideas of justice, sin, and redemption.” In fact, Paul boldly declares that God “will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of His power” (v8-9). Is God merciful? Yes! To those who know Him – “or rather are known by God” (Galatians 4:9) – and to those who obey the gospel. But to those who do not and are not, God will show justice. And no one is ready for that.

On the other hand, notes Calvin, “It may be asked…whether it is lawful for us to desire vengeance, for Paul promises it, as though it could be lawfully desired… It is not lawful to desire vengeance upon any one, inasmuch as we are commanded to wish well to all. Besides, although we may in a general way desire vengeance upon the wicked, yet, as we do not as yet discriminate them, we ought to desire the welfare of all. In the mean time, the ruin of the wicked may be lawfully looked forward to with desire, provided there reigns in our hearts a pure and duly regulated zeal for God, and there is no feeling of inordinate desire.”

Notice here that the gospel is a command, not merely an offer. Too often we offer Jesus to unbelievers, instead of declaring that He must be obeyed. The gospel must be obeyed and received, not merely accepted. And the command of God is this: “To believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as He commanded us” (1 John 3:23). Faith works itself out in love (Galatians 5:6).

Finally, we look at v10 to see when this will happen – “on the day He comes.” While at first this seems to refute the idea that this prophesied judgment was the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 AD, or the Holocaust for that matter, we must realize that God metes out His judgment in different ways and different degrees (Romans 1:18-32) along the way to the final Judgment Day. But I really see this as additional confirmation that the rapture, Judgment Day, and second coming are chronologically to occur at the same time, though logically they may be ordered. And as the punishment of eternal destruction befalls unbelievers, Christ comes “to be glorified in His holy people” – the opposite of everlasting destruction – “and to be marveled at among all those who have believed.” Paul counts the Thessalonians among this number, because they believed the gospel he preached to them. And Calvin concludes, “There is, however, an implied contrast between the present condition in which believers labor and groan, and that final restoration. For they are now exposed to the reproaches of the world, and are looked upon as vile and worthless; but then they will be precious, and full of dignity, when Christ will pour forth His glory upon them. The end of this is, that the pious may as it were, with closed eyes, pursue the brief journey of this earthly life, having their minds always intent upon the future manifestation of Christ’s kingdom. For to what purpose does he make mention of His coming in power, but in order that they may in hope leap forward to that blessed resurrection which is as yet hid?”

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

2 Thessalonians 1:1-5

V1-5 – 1Paul, Silas [or Silvanus] and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 3We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing. 4Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. 5All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering.

Paul begins with a nearly identical introduction as that of 1 Thessalonians. He still stresses the intimacy of Father and Son and adds that grace and peace extends to believers from both. This letter is so similar to 1 Thessalonians, and written so soon after the first letter, that we could call it a supplement or extension to Paul’s first correspondence with the Thessalonians. Paul thanks God for – and even boasts before other churches about – them, specifically because God is growing their faith, as seen worked out in their increasing love for one another, during ongoing, and perhaps increasing, “persecutions and trials” (v3-4). Calvin says, “When [Paul] gives thanks to God on this account, he declares that the enlargements, no less than the beginnings, of faith and love are from Him, for if they proceeded from the power of men, thanksgiving would be pretended, or at least worthless.” And we also infer that if the Thessalonians had fallen away as a result of persecution, then the persecution would have stopped (Galatians 5:11); but they have persevered and grown more faithful, evidence that “God’s judgment is right” and that they “will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God” (v5). We’ll look at God’s right judgment in a minute, but first consider worthiness.

As Paul speaks of being “counted worthy” of God’s kingdom here, we must consider where he speaks of worthiness elsewhere as well, being worthy of God Himself (1 Thessalonians 2:12), of God’s calling (2 Thessalonians 1:11; Ephesians 4:1), of the Lord (Colossians 1:10), and of the gospel (Philippians 1:27-28). A worthy life is, as the footnote of my Reformation Study Bible declares, one of “patient, joyful discipleship even in the face of life-threatening abuse from those hostile to the faith. Such lives are sure evidence that God’s judgment is right. Even while enjoying the benefits of citizenship in the heavenly kingdom, Christians still must suffer for its sake (Acts 14:22), since the kingdom will inevitably confront diabolical opposition.”

Monday, November 23, 2009

1 Thessalonians 5:16-28

V16-28 – 16Be joyful always; 17pray continually; 18give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 19Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; 20do not treat prophecies with contempt. 21Test everything. Hold on to the good. 22Avoid every kind of evil. 23May God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it. 25Brothers, pray for us. 26Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss. 27I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers. 28The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

Paul wraps up with a series of short commands The first three, “be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances,” are explained as “God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” These are not merely attitudes to have, but commands to do. We are to always be joyful (Philippians 4:4); that’s hard for me, as somewhat of a pessimist, but it is evidenced by constancy in prayer. We are to always pray; this command does not mean to pray instead of eat, or pray instead of sleep, or pray instead of read. Nor does it mean that we are merely to maintain a prayerful attitude. Rather, we are to pray often – continually, Paul says. We are never to exclude prayer from our lives for any reason. When the Spirit prompts, we are to pray. I can think of many times that I have felt prompted to pray, especially aloud, yet refused out of convenience or peer pressure or fear of what others – even my spouse or children – might think. How foolish! And as a check against what might often be foolish desires that we pray for, we are also to give thanks in all things, whether good or bad experiences take place in our lives.

The importance of v19-22 is that legitimate prophecy must be tested and not treated “with contempt,” which would be one way to “put out the Spirit’s fire.” Calvin warns, “Those…who infer from this that it is in man’s option either to quench or to cherish the light that is presented to him, so that they detract from the efficacy of grace, and extol the powers of free will, reason on false grounds. For although God works efficaciously in His elect, and does not merely present the light to them, but causes them to see, opens the eyes of their heart, and keeps them open, yet as the flesh is always inclined to indolence, it has need of being stirred up by exhortations. But what God commands by Paul’s mouth, He himself accomplishes inwardly. In the mean time, it is our part to ask from the Lord, that He would furnish oil to the lamps which He has lighted up, that He may keep the wick pure, and may even increase it.”

Paul’s teaching here refutes the unbiblical idea of cessationism, which declares that the spiritual gifts, especially prophecy and tongues, have ceased. The goal of cessationist thought is to promote the completion of Scripture, out of fear that a true prophecy may be uttered that contradicts God’s word, or more commonly out of denial that a false prophet could utter a false prophecy but think it to be true and lead others astray. But needless to say, that can’t happen, for we deny that true believers can be led permanently astray. And furthermore, what would we be able to test that prophecy against? We test prophecy against Scripture to confirm its truth, or to reject it upon failure to agree with Scripture. If the content of a given prophecy cannot be tested against Scripture, then we are to ignore it. By the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we are to “hold on to the good” and “avoid every kind of evil.” But we ought also to consider with Calvin that “prophecy,” often thought to refer to telling the future, may very well simply suggest the important gift of interpreting the Scripture (1 Corinthians 14:3), preaching or expounding God’s word for application to any given audience. Obviously, this gift should not be treated with contempt, or despised, but tested. Yet today, many professing Christians do indeed despise preaching.

A recurring theme throughout this epistle, sanctification is mentioned again in v23. Paul speaks of sanctification being complete – our “whole spirit, soul, and body” (Hebrews 4:12; cf. Mark 12:30; Isaiah 26:9). It will be completed at Jesus’ second coming and not until then. And sanctification is certain, because God, faithful, is the One who does it in us (v24). Normally, the soul is deemed to consist of the mind, the will, and emotions. Animals exhibit these functions. But the spirit is unique to humanity.

Cheung summaries this section saying, “Three things receive emphasis in v23-24. First, God sanctifies His people in a thorough manner, even ‘through and through.’ Second, Paul emphasizes that God is the one who sanctifies, and makes His people blameless. Third, he says that God is not only able to do this, but He is faithful to do it.” And Calvin concludes, “We know, however, that under the term sanctification is included the entire renovation of the man. The Thessalonians, it is true, had been in part renewed, but Paul desires that God would perfect what is remaining. From this we infer, that we must, during our whole life, make progress in the pursuit of holiness. But if it is the part of God to renew the whole man, there is nothing left for free will. For if it had been our part to co-operate with God, Paul would have spoken thus – ‘May God aid or promote your sanctification.’ But when he says, sanctify you wholly, he makes Him the sole Author of the entire work… Our calling ought to be held by us as an evidence of everlasting grace, for [God] will not leave the work of His hands incomplete (Psalm 138:8). Paul…addresses believers, who had not been merely called by outward preaching, but had been effectually brought by Christ to the Father, that they might be of the number of His sons.”

Finally, Paul “charges you before the Lord.” This is an unusually strong Greek verb. Paul is effectively putting the Thessalonians under an oath that they must teach the contents of this letter to all the Christians in their sphere of influence. Paul knew his teaching was good and important, and more importantly, from God (see 1 Thessalonians 4:8). Cheung concludes his commentary on 1 Thessalonians by saying, “Christians are at times driven to discouragement, and sometimes almost to despair, when they perceive that they fall short of perfection. Paul’s doctrine of sanctification reminds us to place our confidence in God, and not in ourselves. This does not excuse us from our responsibilities, since Paul has just finished listing a number of them. It is not that we may become passive in the pursuit of holiness, but that even our efforts are inspired and energized by God, and that we may have confidence in Him to do this for us. As Paul writes elsewhere, ‘Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose’ (Philippians 2:12-13).”