In light of yesterday’s post, let’s consider a more fleshed out translation, but a tentative one:
(2 Thess. 1:7b-8 ESV) 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 [those who lack faith in Jesus] and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus [by believing in Jesus].
Do not know God
“Do not know God” refers back to Jer 10:25:
Pour out your wrath on the nations that know you not, and on the peoples that call not on your name
(Ps. 79:6 ESV) 6 Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call upon your name!
(Jn. 1:10-11 ESV) 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.
Notice that in both passages, Jeremiah and the Psalmist refer to nations that do not know the Lord and those nations that do not call upon the Lord’s name. To “know God” is paralleled with calling on God’s name, that is, worshiping God. The references are surely to the idolatrous nations that surround Israel. Jeremiah’s point is not that the neighboring, idolatrous nations have rejected God’s word but that they don’t worship (call on the name of) God.
And John 1:10-11 refers to “the world” as a class and “his own people” is a reference to the nation of Israel. This is language about God’s judgment of the nations.
The language sounds harsh to our ears, but these nations were leading Israel into idolatry, away from God, and eventually into captivity and exile. They were undoing the exodus — returning Israel to slavery all because they worshiped different and false gods.
Paul therefore compares the pagan and Jewish persecutors of the church in Thessalonica with the nations that surrounded ancient Israel and tempted Israel into idolatry, leading to Israel’s captivity and exile — and all the curses that the Torah promises Israel should the nation turn to idols. Again, the persecutors wanted the Christians to reject Jesus and so worship a false god or gods — returning the Christians to slavery.
(Jn. 8:34 ESV) Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.”
(2 Pet. 2:19 ESV) They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.
So there is nothing here about the nation’s being culpable because they were preached to and rejected the gospel. They are culpable, and deserving of God’s wrath, because they worship false gods rather than the true God. (See Rom 1 for Paul’s explanation of this position.)
Therefore, I read 2 Thess 1:8 as speaking of “those” as condemnation of the world outside the Kingdom. Just as Jeremiah and the Psalmist call down God’s wrath on all nations that fail to honor God, so Paul declares that those nations outside the Kingdom will suffer God’s wrath.
As the passages Paul is alluding to are speaking of God’s wrath against other kingdoms, I’d read 2 Thess 1:8 this way:
inflicting vengeance on those [kingdoms] who do not know God [which includes knowing that Jesus is Messiah] and on those [kingdoms] who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus [by having faith in Jesus].
And these kingdoms are everyone other than the Kingdom of God. Paul often thinks corporately, and we try to read into the text our Western individualism — but Paul sees Christians as a third race, neither Jew nor Gentile. If you see the Kingdom as a nation unto itself, and Christians as a distinct race, then you see the world outside the Kingdom as foreigners and strangers to the gospel and God — although, of course, the nations are invited to join the Kingdom.
(Ps. 2:1 ESV) Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed [Hebrew = “Messiah”], saying, 3 “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” 4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. 5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, 6 “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.”
(Acts 17:26-31 ESV) 26 “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ 29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere [“people” is not in the Greek but is provided by the translators. The reference could easily be to “every nation” in v. 26] to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
Or look at it this way. Paul is essentially saying that the prophecies of Jer 10:25 and Psa 79:6 are going to come true. God has promised to exact righteous vengeance against those who don’t know him, and so the persecutors will suffer the punishment they deserve when Jesus returns.
If this is about prophecies being fulfilled, then it’s about nations suffering God’s wrath. This is therefore an anti-Rome passage, but not just Rome. Any nation that does not know God — including even Israel, since Israel has rejected God’s Son and Messiah, showing them to not know God. Indeed, during Paul’s day, Jewish persecution of the church was often much more severe than anything the Roman government cared to do. The brutal Roman persecutions were to come soon but after the Thessalonian epistles were written.
If Psalm 2 and Acts 17 refer to all lost people, that is, all nations of the world (that is, not the Kingdom), then Paul’s reference to those that don’t know God is to everyone outside of the Kingdom, since he is
The nature of God’s vengeance has not yet been explained by Paul. That’ll come in the next passage, and again, it will read very differently when we read the text in light of its OT roots.