Suffering and God's Judgment (in 1 & 2 Thessalonians)

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Churches in the West have often not known what to make of biblical passages such as 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12. Suffering is not a favorite theme in North American congregations, where most members live quite comfortably. Texts which emphasize God's judgment against oppressors reassure their victims that justice will ultimately prevail. But how should such biblical themes be heard among those who are living in relative comfort and ease?

As noted earlier, the same message which comforts the afflicted will often afflict the comfortable. Believers who know the "good life" need to study 1 and 2 Thessalonians realizing that the original readers faced distressing circumstances. Christians today need to identify with the suffering believers back then. The church can identify, not by seeking suffering for itself, though suffering could come as the consequence of greater faithfulness to the way of Christ. Instead, the church needs to identify with those believers who do suffer. In a word, we need sisters and brothers from African­-American urban churches and from base communities in Latin America and churches in Palestine to help us understand the biblical message and discover anew what it means for us to obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.

In this connection, we could comment about one line of interpretation of 2 Thessalonians 1:7, which promises relief for the afflicted at the time of the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven. Some interpreters regard this revelation as the first of two stages in the coming of Christ. In the first stage, Christ comes for his saints, who are taken up with him into heaven. After a seven­-year period called the great tribulation, Christ comes with his saints for the final judgment. [Eschatology, p. 355.] This reconstruction of end­-time events is based on a rather speculative stringing together of isolated texts from Daniel, the book of Revelation, the Thessalonian epistles, and other Scripture texts. Such methods of biblical interpretation usually violate the meanings of these texts in their historical and literary contexts.

Unfortunately, this type of interpretation has also misled many Christians into believing that they would be spared severe suffering. David Ewert's word of caution and his illustration from mission history apply here:

We are ill-­advised to hold out the hope to the church that, before the night of this age gets too dark, Christ will take us away from the trials of life. Missionary David Adeney, who has spent half a lifetime in Asia, observes that when tribulation came upon the church in communist China, it was caught off guard. This was the case because missionaries in China had taught that the church would be spared the tribulation. Any interpretation of biblical prophecy that exempts the church from persecution or tribulation should be rejected. (Ewert, 1980:52)

With the Christian community in Thessalonica in the first century, the church around the world today needs to be prepared for the possibility of suffering as a consequence of faithfulness. The prospect of God's final judgment carries with it the hope that ultimately justice will be done. God's righteous judgment need not elicit either dread or a gloating anticipation of revenge. Those who have entrusted themselves to God as made known in Christ can face the future with quiet confidence. They must also participate with passion and commitment in the church's mission of sharing the gospel. God desires that all might come to the knowledge of the truth. Who knows when the divine patience and the opportunity to repent will come to an end?

One way of identifying with our suffering brothers and sisters in Christ is to get in touch with the martyrs in the history of the church. The Martyrs Mirror has one story after another about women and men and their steadfast faithfulness even unto death. Some of these stories also testify that God's vengeance against their persecutors at times became frighteningly immediate. In 1527, Thomas Hermann, a minister of the gospel, plus sixty-­seven others in Kitzbühel were put to death. Afterward, the town clerk instrumental in the executions was thrown from his sleigh by an erratic horse and died of a massive head injury (Martyrs Mirror: 422).

In 1528 in Moravia, five Anabaptists identified only as "three brethren and two sisters," were executed by burning. Shortly after their execution, Sir Louis, the judge who had condemned them, stepped into a hole while pursuing other Anabaptists, and sprained his ankle. Soon after this, Sir Louis "took sick unto death" and finally "he was strangled in his own blood." The narrator comments,

And thus God has often . . . checked the wicked with like examples, that thereby His work might make the greater progress among His people, to His praise, and to the salvation of many who seek that which is right, and the amendment of life; for if God had not always sustained His work, the enemy would in the course of time have extinguished it, and not have left one spark or germ of truth remain; but this [is what] God does not permit him to do. (Martyrs Mirror: 428)

Such testimony does not warrant the conclusion that God inflicts vengeance through accidents or illness nor that catastrophes signal God's particular displeasure with those who are struck. We can learn from these stories that God providentially sustains the church, even through severe trial. In the tug of war between God's justice and God's mercy, sometimes there are people whom God gives up to the wrath unleashed through a legacy of human idolatry and disobedience (Rom. 1:18-­32). Whether within history or at the time of the end, however, judgment will inevitably come.

Jacob W. Elias