(2 Thess. 1:1-4 ESV) Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 3 We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. 4 Therefore 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.
The salutation is very similar to 1 Thess, and so I’ll avoid repeating materials already covered.
Paul begins with a word of praise, thanking God that the church is growing in faith and in love for each other. Paul says not a word about inviting friends and neighbors to church or doing community service projects — not that he wouldn’t encourage these things. Rather, a close reading shows that Paul is, first and foremost, concerned that the church act like the church among and toward each other. It’s not until we have a loving, faith-filled congregation that the world will find us attractive. They’ll happily accept our well digging and house-painting and enjoy our Easter and Christmas programs, but they won’t put on Jesus until they see us living the love and faith of Jesus toward one another. If we would just do that — by becoming a united, holy community — both congregationally and as the church-universal — the evangelism and social service will go much better.
It’s a little unexpected that, in v. 4, Paul celebrates their “faith” because of the persecutions and afflictions they are suffering. Paul makes “faith” parallel with “steadfastness,” which are two very different concepts. I think the problem is in the translation.
Our tendency is to reduce “faith” to “Jesus is Messiah and Lord” and to ignore the rest of the meaning of “faith.” And so, even though “faith” is a correct translation, it puts the emphasis in the wrong place. I would translate “faith” here as “faithfulness” — which focuses on the part of faith that has to do with being obedient. Maybe something like “faith/trust/faithfulness” would make the point better.
I don’t think Paul’s point is that the church continued to believe that Jesus is Lord and Messiah despite persecution. They did, of course, but that’s not really Paul’s point. Rather, in parallel with “steadfastness” Paul’s point is that the church continued to do what churches are supposed to do — love each other in growing faith/trust/faithfulness (v.3). Hence, “faithfulness” nicely parallels “steadfastness,” as Paul’s point is that they continued to follow Jesus despite the persecution.
2 Thess 1:5-8
On the suffering of Christians
(2 Thess. 1:5-8 ESV) 5 This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering — 6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
V. 5 is one those passages that never quite makes it into Sunday school and sermon theology — although Paul and Peter and Jesus all say this over and over. We just don’t like hearing it.
Paul says that persecution and afflictions comes so that we “may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God.” That sounds like Christians should expect suffering. Compare —
(Rom. 5:1 ESV) 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Paul plainly says that our sufferings ultimately produce hope, which seems backwards. I mean, most of us would think of persecutions as challenging and threatening our hope. Paul says persecution creates hope!
(2 Cor. 4:16-18 ESV) 16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
This is, of course, a difficult topic that has produced countless books to help Christians cope with the sufferings of believers. Suffice to say for now that Paul sees suffering as a pathway toward greater faith and hope. He never pretends that the suffering isn’t real and, at times, truly awful. He never says that “God has a plan.” He never rationalizes the suffering; rather, he embraces it for the sake of Jesus — just as Jesus embraced his sufferings for our sake.
God doesn’t promise to take away pain and suffering for his children. Quite the opposite —
(Matt. 5:10-12 ESV) 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
— Jesus assumes that this will be the natural order of things: “when others revile you and persecute you” not if.
In fact, 2 Thess 1:6 offers more comfort than many of the parallel teachings in the NT: “since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you.” That is, rest assured that you will be avenged by God. He will bring wrath and destruction on those who persecute you — and so when you are being persecuted, remember that the persecutors are sealing their own doom! God will repay!!