Vengeance and Glory at the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus

In the new heaven and new earth, believers will get rest from tears, death, mourning, crying and pain. All the curses of nature—earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, hailstorms, drought, pestilence—will cease, and the earth will be restored to its fullness, much better than the Paradise of Eden.

Isaiah 66:15-16; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12 (text)
March 13, 2011

The last three days was a roller-coaster for us. Last Thursday evening, we celebrated with Donna and her kids their seven-month wait to reunite with Russel. It was also a time of reminiscing the two years that we studied and fellowshipped with them as one big family, highlighted by the Tagaytay retreats.

Then, before dawn last Friday, we sent them off joyfully at NAIA for their 8 am flight to Narita Airport, and then on to their connecting flight to LAX. Unbeknownst to us is the frightening experience they will go through in Japan. After touching down at NRT at 1 pm, they were probably at the boarding area waiting for their 4 pm flight when the huge earthquake struck at 2:46 pm. How amazing that of all the days and flights that they can choose from, they chose THAT day and THAT flight.

It was a harrowing experience for Russel during those hours he had to wait before Donna called him from NRT to tell him they got through the terrifying experience at the airport. Then yesterday at 3:40 pm our time, they finally took off from NRT and landed at LAX at about 12:45 am our time.

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What do we make of this as Christians? Frankly, the answer is—we don’t know. What we know is that God works everything for the good of his people. It might be a simplistic answer, but that’s the best we can do. I admit that it’s very difficult to comfort ourselves even with God’s word (Psalm 46) and with prayers, but it’s all that’s available to us in times like this. We take comfort in “that I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ[who] also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 1).

Those who believe that the Rapture will occur about two months from today on May 21 will be emboldened. They say that the Rapture will be marked by the biggest earthquake ever. Only last year, some Filipino date-setters predicted that a new era of blessedness has dawned in the Philippines, with the coming of the “Jubilee of Jubilees.” But we all trust in the assurance by our Lord Jesus Christ that no one could know the day or the hour of his return. In our text today, Paul also continues his explanation of events related to the Second Coming of Christ.

We have studied Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church, and we now begin the study of his second letter that he wrote shortly after sending them his first one. In his first epistle to the confused and suffering believers, he thanked God for their faith, love and hope. They had suffered at the hands of their persecutors. They had been perplexed by false teachers who told them that their loved ones who had died would not participate in the Second Coming; they might even have doubted their own participation in it. Paul assured them that this is not the case—when Christ returns, the dead will be resurrected and those who are alive will be transformed, and together, he will be take them to glory in heaven.

These believers no doubt were terrified just like us these last three days, but not because of a mega-earthquake and tsunami, but by the prospect of being non-participants in the Second Coming of Jesus. In this shorter second letter, Paul wanted to reassure his confused and terrified believers that the “day of the Lord” had not yet come. He continues to encourage them in the face of unrelenting persecution. And because of the false teaching that the Second Coming has already happened, he instructs them not to cease from their earthly labors, as some of the church members had already done.

After the usual greeting, Paul begins his second letter with a long-winded single sentence (in Greek) from verses 3-10. Just as in the first letter, he begins with words of thanksgiving for their continuing love for one another, and for their growth and strength in the faith in the face of persecutions. He comforts them, saying that they boast about the Thessalonians’ faith and love in the other churches, “We ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring” (verse 4). This faith and endurance in their afflictions are “evidence of the righteous judgment of God,” not that they come under God’s judgment, but being counted “worthy of the kingdom of God” is God’s righteous judgment of them (verse 5).

Beginning with verse 5 through verse 12, Paul teaches that when Christ is revealed from heaven, the destiny of two groups of people will be fulfilled: (1) unbelievers afflicting the church will suffer eternal vengeance and destruction in hell; (2) believers who are afflicted by unbelievers will be granted eternal relief and glory. He then ends Chapter 1 with a prayer for the Thessalonians 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” (verse 11).

For Unbelievers Afflicting the Church:
Eternal Vengeance and Destruction

When Jesus returns from heaven, a great “reversal of status” will occur. And the intensity of this reversal will be immeasurably magnified because the reversal is from the temporal to the eternal. Those who afflict in this temporal present age will be eternally afflicted; those who inflict suffering in this present life will suffer eternal vengeance; those who destroy now will be under eternal destruction. In short, God’s justice will be accomplished for eternity: evildoers will be judged and punished, but the righteous would be vindicated and glorified.

This passage is of utmost importance to a correct view of the last things. Dr. Vern Poythress, a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, says that these verses support the Reformed view of amillennialism, and undermines all the other views of the Second Coming. 1 How? In these verses, Paul says that this reversal will happen when the Lord Jesus “is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels” and “comes on that day” (verses 7 and 10). In other words, the Second Coming is one final event in the history of the world that will happen very quickly, maybe in the span of only hours or days. In contrast, all the other views see the Second Coming as a series of events over a long period of time, even as long as 1,007 years!

What are these other views? There are two main views, premillennialism (with its varied flavors) and post-millennialism. I will interact with these millennial views as I expound our text today.

Premillennialism

The most popular teaching about the last days is called “dispensational premillennialism,” a view that divides the Second Coming into two parts: a “secret” coming first, then a visible, open coming. At some point in the future, Jesus will return in secret, gathering all the believers only, both dead and living, and taking them to heaven. All people on earth who are “left behind” will suffer in a seven-year “tribulation period.” The first 3-1/2 years of these seven years is a “mild” tribulation period, and the second 3-1/2 years is called the “great tribulation,” when “all hell will break loose” on earth.

Courtesy of Pinewood Presbyterian Church

Courtesy of Pinewood Presbyterian Church, Middleburg, FL

After these seven years of tribulation, Jesus will return openly and visibly in glory accompanied by all his saints from heaven. This time, the whole world will see him, but they will be destroyed by Christ at his coming. Then, when the earth is restored, Christ will begin his earthly reign from Israel for a thousand years. Those perfect resurrected saints will live on earth, marrying and having children, and these children might still suffer death and even have the ability to sin like Adam and Eve. This is because at the end of Christ’s reign of 1,000 years, there will be a second Fall—a great rebellion led by Gog and Magog. But Christ—again—will destroy all the rebellious people of the world. After this rebellion, all the dead unbelievers will be resurrected, and together with all the living unbelievers, they will all be judged and sent to eternal hell.

This is the most complex last days scenario ever conceived in the history of the church. What’s so striking about this teaching is that it was never taught during the first 1,800 years of church history. Even worse than this, premillennialists debate whether the “secret rapture” will occur before, in the middle of, or after the tribulation period.

In all premillennial scenarios, the resurrection and judgment of believers and unbelievers are separated by at least 1,000 years. This is not plausible in Paul’s explanation of events in our text. This is because Paul says in our text that when Jesus returns, he will—simultaneously—give his people relief from afflictions by inflicting vengeance on the enemies who afflict them.

Vengeance at Christ’s Revelation

In verses 6-10, Paul says that “when [Jesus] comes on that day” that he is “revealed from heaven,” two things will happen. First, he will “repay with affliction those who afflict you” (verse 6). Paul uses the same word “repay” in Romans 12:19 where tells us not to exact vengeance on our enemies, but “Leave it to the wrath of God,” and then quotes Deuteronomy 32:35, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Septuagint). The word “repay” reminds us of the saying, “payback time.” Last year, before the Lakers met the Suns in a playoff series, they remembered their bitter loss to the Suns in the 2007 playoffs. Said a Laker, “We were up 3-1 and lost three in a row. Everybody remembers that. It’s definitely payback time.”

God says to his enemies, “I will repay your evil deeds.” Just as with the Egyptians, Amorites and Edomites, God waits for the cup of the wickedness of unbelievers today to get filled and overflow. When the cup of God’s wrath is full, he will justly “repay with affliction those who afflict you” (v 6). None of them would be able to cry injustice, because they have been forewarned of God’s vengeance. Because God’s justice is perfect, he can exact vengeance according to the Old Testament principle of “an eye for an eye”—affliction for affliction—without the possibility of being unjust.

What kind of repayment will God require of his people’s enemies? Paul tells us in verses 7-9. When he appears from heaven, he will be accompanied by his mighty angels and flaming fire. What could be more visible than this kind of appearing, with a heavenly army of “myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” of angels? (Rev 5:11) Christ will come “with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly” (Jude 14-15). His mighty army of angels will be on chariots of fire:

For behold, the LORD will come in fire,
and his chariots like the whirlwind,
to render his anger in fury,
and his rebuke with flames of fire.
For by fire will the LORD enter into judgment,
and by his sword, with all flesh;
and those slain by the LORD shall be many (Isa 66:15-16).

When Jesus returns, his heavenly army will make war on Satan’s army! What could be more visible than tens of thousands of angels appearing in blazing chariots of fire? How will the rapture be kept secret from unbelievers when they are the objects of God’s holy war because of their evil deeds against God’s people? They are the enemies of God’s people because, as Paul explains, they “do not know God” and they “do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (verse 8).

These are the same people who refuse to acknowledge God’s sovereignty and authority over his creation. They say there is no God, or God is dead. They say that the universe came into existence on its own merely by natural processes. They say God is not sovereign over natural disasters—they are merely part of the natural course of the physical world.

These are the people in the churches who pay lip service to Christ and his gospel. They say they love the Lord and believe the Bible, but just like the Jews, they show no fruits of righteous­ness and godliness. They are disobedient, rebellious, haters of fellow believers, sexually immoral, thieves, liars and covetous. They have no love for God’s Word, despising the preaching of the Word and the sacraments, preferring to be entertained instead by the music and pleasures of the world in their false worship, and to be tickled with feel-good messages of prosperity and self-esteem.

After these evildoers are defeated by Christ, “they will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction” (verse 9). The term “suffer punishment” is from 2 Samuel 22:48 where David says that God is “the one who gives vengeance.” Clearly, “eternal destruction” is nothing short of a description of eternal hell, which is described also as “outer darkness” where the torment is so great that “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30).

Some people think that “eternal destruction” means that hell will be destroyed or annihilated by God in the end after a time of punishment. But this view contradicts many other teachings of Jesus and the apostles pointing to punishment that does not end. Jesus says that hell is a place where the “worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48; Matt 3:12). Jesus was merely alluding back to Isaiah’s prophecy a few verses after the above prophecy of God’s coming in blazing chariots of fire (Isa 66:24). John paints a gruesome picture of eternal torment by fire, “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night” (Rev 14:11). Satan himself will also be thrown into the “the lake of fire … and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev 20:10).

In a just-released book, Love Wins, a popular, bestselling pastor of a megachurch, Rob Bell, calls the doctrine of hell “misguided, toxic, and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy.” He teaches his followers the liberal’s hell that a person creates for himself when he rejects God, that the orthodox church never taught an eternal hell, and that eventually, “love wins” and all human beings will be saved—even after this life! Against the teaching of Paul in this text, Bell does not believe that God will inflict the vengeance of eternal destruction on those who disobey the gospel of Christ, but even in the next life, God will in the end melt the disobedients’ hearts.

Not only is “eternal destruction” eternal torment; it is also eternal suffering because they will be away from God’s presence and glory. In contrast to believers who “will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:17), they will be outside of the presence of Christ. This is why it is called “outer darkness,” since it is completely outside of God’s radiant glory, and only the darkness of evil will be there; not a speck of goodness will be there.

God is just—his “eye for an eye” is perfectly meted out. Unbelievers who deny God, reject his Son, and persecute his people, will get their fair shake. They who want to be as far away from God as possible will get what they wish for. They will not just be far from God, but in fact, they will be completely outside of God’s presence, goodness, and glory.

When Christ returns, the terror of his coming will be unbearable to those who had suppressed their knowledge of God. Isaiah says these idolaters will “enter the caves of the rocks and the holes of the ground” to hide from his terror (Isa 2:19; Rev 6:16). Thus, Paul has Old Testament idolaters in mind when he says that the Thessalonians as well were formerly idolaters and “Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thess 1:9; 4:5).

The first thing that happens when Christ is revealed from heaven is God’s vengeance on those unbelievers who afflict his people with affliction—eternal destruction. The second thing that God will do is he will “grant relief to you who are afflicted” (verse 7).

For the Church Afflicted by Unbelievers:
Eternal Relief and Glory

The myriads of angels who will accompany Jesus at his coming have a dual mission: first, to wage a holy war against those who afflict God’s people; and second, to grant them relief from their afflictions.

Jesus told his disciples that at his return, the angels “will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” When will this happen? Jesus says the Son of Man will appear in heaven “immediately after the tribulation of those days.” This day is clearly the end of the world, when “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Matt 24:31).

Christians are not to expect their tribulations to cease until the revelation of Christ from heaven. It is only when he appears again that they will be given relief and rest from their afflictions. This is why Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). Paul, Peter and other New Testament writers echo Jesus’ teaching that we must expect suffering and persecution in this world while we wait for the Second Coming (Acts 9:16; 1 Pet 4:12; Rev 1:9). Paul says that it is only after the rapture that believers “will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thess 4:17). Thus, the dividing line between Christian afflictions and rest from afflictions is the return of Christ at the rapture when believers are given resurrected bodies.

So the tribulation period has lasted 2,000 years so far, in conflict with the premillennial belief in a short seven-year tribulation period. Incidentally, postmillennialists are also in contradiction with this text. Instead of unabated persecution and suffering against Christians until the Second Coming, they believe that Christianity will experience a golden age of peace and prosperity because of the preaching of the gospel to the whole world. When this condition is attained, they believe, Christ will return.

On the same day that unbelievers are punished, believers will be given relief and glory. In contrast to evildoers who will be outside of the presence of God in hell, believers in heaven will forever dwell with God (Rev 21:3). In the new heaven and new earth, believers will get rest from tears, death, mourning, crying and pain (Rev 21:4). They will have rest from all their earthly toil. All the curses of nature—earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, hailstorms, drought, pestilence—will cease, and the earth will be restored to its fullness, much better than the Paradise of Eden.

Moreover, believers will be fully and finally transformed in their resurrected bodies, holy and blameless, eternal and incorruptible. They will be glorious, and will be called “holy ones.” Paul assures us that our present sufferings will be nothing compared with this glory, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18). We have been elected before the foundation of the world for this purpose: that in the end, we will be glorified (Rom 8:30).

Paul says that not only believers will be glorified, but more importantly, also Christ, who will appear in glory. In contrast to unbelievers who will cower in terror at his glorious appearing, his saints will marvel at and be in awe of their Savior. This is because we have believed the gospel, the “testimony,” when it was preached to us by God’s servants, in contrast to his enemies who reject and disobey the gospel. Paul is focused on this contrast, which is the reason he uses Isaiah 2 and 66 repeatedly in this passage. The prophet condemned idolatrous Israel while painting a picture of God in his glory, “the LORD alone will be exalted in that day” (Isa 2:11, 17), “And they shall declare my glory among the nations” (Isa 66:19).

Simultaneous Vengeance and Glorification

Thus, Paul’s explanation in verses 5-10 of the Second Coming of Christ belies the claim of premillennialists that he will come in two stages: a secret coming, and later, an open coming. To prove this two-phased return, they claim that God’s vengeance on persecutors in verse 6 is the great tribulation itself. But God’s vengeance is further defined in verse 9 as “eternal destruction,” which cannot be anything else than hell. Poythress sees unmistakable linkages in this passage that would preclude a separation of events: (1) Jesus’ “revelation” and “the presence of the Lord” (verses 7 and 9); (2) “vengeance” and “punishment” (verses 8 and 9); and (3) “mighty angels” and “his might” (verses 7 and 9).

Courtesy of Pinewood Presbyterian Church

Courtesy of Pinewood Presbyterian Church, Middleburg, FL

Furthermore, Paul explains two symmetrical reversals, one in verses 6 and 7 and the other one in verses 9 and 10. In verses 6 and 7, God will repay those who afflict the saints, but grant relief to the saints who are afflicted. In verses 9 and 10, evildoers will suffer in hell “when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints.” The conjunction “when” indicates that the judgment of the wicked and the glorification of the saints happen at the same time!

Summarizing all of the above, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven, all of the following events will happen simultaneously:

First, those who afflict Christians will be repaid with affliction.
Second, Christians, afflicted by evildoers, will be granted relief from their afflictions.
Third, God’s mighty angels in flaming fire accompany Jesus at his coming to inflict vengeance on evildoers.
Fourth, all wicked people will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, which is hell itself.
Fifth, Jesus will be glorified in and marveled at by his saints.
Sixth, his saints will also be glorified, which means they will be given eternal, perfect, and incorruptible bodies.
Seventh and last, this text talks about the destination of two groups of people: unbelievers and believers. Those who do not know God will suffer hell at the Second Coming, and will not be given a second chance in a seven-year tribulation period.

All of the above events occurring simultaneously at the revelation of Christ from heaven shatter premillennial dreams of a two-stage Second Coming. Punishment of the wicked and rewarding of the righteous at the same time leave no room for a thousand-year separation of these two judgments. The punishment of evildoers when Christians are rewarded belies a coming that is known only to Christians. Believers will suffer tribulations from the first coming of Christ until his return, not just in a seven-year period. And how can Christ’s coming be a secret from unbelievers if his warrior-angels appear with him to wage war against them?

As well, all of the above events happening concurrently at the appearing of Christ from heaven undermine a future millennial kingdom on earth. The following questions have to be satisfactorily answered by millenarians: If the punishment of the wicked and rewarding of the righteous happen simultaneously, where is the thousand-year separation of these two events? Corollary to this question is this: How then can there be a thousand-year separation between the two resurrections?

From the above, a millennial kingdom, whether before or after the Second Coming, is very much in doubt. The nature of the thousand-year kingdom from millenarians’ scenarios causes even more tension with our text. At the beginning of the millennium, the only people left on the planet are the perfectly righteous resurrected saints who came from heaven with Christ. If there is a great rebellion at the end of the millennium, who are these rebels?

Moreover, is a millennium—wherein people still have children and die, and have the ability to still sin—possible during the reign of Christ after his Second Coming? How would glorified believers from heaven have a perfect existence when people around them die? How would the kingdom of Christ be a paradise when there is death and the possibility of sin? Is it really possible for glorified saints to co-exist with sinners in the millennial kingdom? In these schemes, the possibility of sin actually becomes a reality at the end of the millennium when sinners rebel against God!

Lastly, since the dividing line between suffering afflictions and rest from afflictions is the Second Coming, what sort of a golden age of Christianity is in view by postmillennialists if believers continue to be afflicted by persecutions and sufferings?

A People Worthy of His Calling at the Second Coming

In view of this dual purpose of the Second Coming—vengeance and hell against unbelievers but relief and glory for believers—Paul prays for the Thessalonians, “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.”

Paul ends this passage the same way he begins. In verse 5, he praises them because they will be “considered worthy of the kingdom of God.” Here, he prays that “God may make you worthy of his calling.” The word used for “considered” and “make” worthy have the same root, and is used in the sense of a judicial declaration to “count, consider, deem” worthy. This is why almost all other translations use “count worthy” instead of “make worthy.”

Thus, verses 11-12 is the second part of our text where Paul weaves together the idea that the readers are to live lives that are worthy of citizenship in the kingdom of God so that Christ is glorified. We are counted worthy to be kingdom citizens not because of our own worthiness or we deserve to be worthy, but because Christ is worthy. After he finished his work of redemption on the cross, the heavenly host rejoices with a song of acclamation, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev 5:12) In this, being counted worthy is related to being justified and declared righteous by God because of Christ’s perfect righteousness all the way to the cross.

Are you worthy of Christ’s calling? The church is a people “called out” of this world. Do you see yourself as in this world, but not a part of this world’s thinking, philosophies, pleasures and desires? Are your good works inspired by your faith in Christ? In your good works, the name of Christ is glorified. They hear and see the good news of salvation in Christ because of his sacrifice on the cross for the sin of the world.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, may you be worthy of being called Christians, by your word, deed and thought. May you not bring shame to the name of Christ by not fulfilling your calling to be holy and blameless before God at his coming again.

Finally, do not fear when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, famines, droughts, pestilences, and earthquakes and tsunamis. God is merely reminding the world as to who is mighty and that he is still sovereignly active in the affairs of the world. Back in 1969, this doomsday rock song “Bad Moon Rising” climbed to No. 2 in the Billboard 100:

I see the bad moon arising.
I see trouble on the way.
I see earthquakes and lightnin’.
I see bad times today.
I hear hurricanes ablowing.
I know the end is coming soon.
I fear rivers over flowing.
I hear the voice of rage and ruin.
Hope you got your things together.
Hope you are quite prepared to die.
Looks like we’re in for nasty weather.
One eye is taken for an eye.

Prophetic? Not so fast. Because these signs will be with us from the time he warned his disciples in Matthew 24 until he returns. But one day, God’s cup of wrath will be full, and his Son will again appear in blazing fire and glory to exact vengeance on those who afflict his people, and to give rest and glory to you who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.


Notes:

  1. Vern S. Poythress, “2 Thessalonians 1 Supports Amillennialism,” The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37/4 (1995): 529-38.
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