2 Thess 1:7a
(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.
God’s response to Christian persecution
Verse 6 declares that “God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you.” That is, God will exact vengeance against those who persecute you. Their decision to persecute marks them as people who will be punished by God.
Verse 7 continues the thought: “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.” Paul promises relief from our afflictions — but the relief is only assured when Jesus returns. Even Paul will have to wait on Jesus.
2 Thess 1:7b-8
(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 and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
Paul’s OT allusions
This is a challenging passage. The image of Jesus coming back “with his mighty angels” is taken from several OT passages. I think Paul likely had this one especially in mind —
(Zech. 14:5b ESV) Then the LORD my God will come, and all the holy ones with him.
We should also consider —
(Jer. 10:25 ESV) 25 Pour out your wrath on the nations that know you not, and on the peoples that call not on your name, for they have devoured Jacob; they have devoured him and consumed him, and have laid waste his habitation.
— which is likely the passage from which Paul gets the idea of “nations that know you not.”
Paul likely also has in mind —
(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!
Now, to me, the BIG question in this passage is what God is going to do with people who’ve never heard of Jesus and so don’t have faith in Jesus. The “Available Light” theory, held by some of my very favorite people, argues that only those who’ve heard the gospel and rejected it will be damned; those who’ve never heard the gospel will be saved if they are good people. (There are differing opinions as to how God decides whom to save for those who’ve never heard the gospel.) I find little support for this view in scripture and much that argues against it — but when so many whose opinions I respect disagree with me, I try to study the question that much harder.
Although Paul writes in Greek, he is a Jewish rabbi steeped in the OT, and so he tends to think and write with a Hebrew style. And in Hebrew, it’s very common to emphasize a concept by stating it twice in two different but similar ways. To get the idea, the two parallel phrases must be read together and not as two different things.
If Paul language is a Hebraic parallel, the two concepts should be considered to overlap rather than being two distinct categories. “Those who don’t obey the gospel” does not mean “those who know God but have no faith.” Rather, “those who don’t obey the gospel” is a subset of “those who do not know God.” Even if the gospel has been preached to you, if you don’t believe it, you don’t know God. God can only be known through the eyes of faith.
Those who don’t know God are damned, Paul says. If so, then the Available Light theory is contradicted. We might try to rescue the theory by saying that Paul is only speaking of those to whom the gospel has been preached, but Paul chooses his words carefully, and he is speaking of all who do not know God.
We do better to find the meaning of these words in their OT roots rather than defining them for the convenience of our theology. So here goes —
Obey the gospel
In Church of Christ teaching, “obey the gospel” is assumed to mean “be baptized the correct way for the correct reason.” But baptism is nowhere in the context of 2 Thess 1. There’s no way a First Century readers would have found “baptized” in “obey the gospel” upon reading this passage.
On the other hand, faith in/faithfulness to Jesus is very much a part of the discussion. See 1:3, 4, and 11. All use the word translated “faith” (pistis), and more importantly, in v. 7, Paul is building on the question of how persecution impacts our faith. So he’s talking about faith. Therefore, we obey the gospel when we believe in Jesus.
Any doubt should be resolved by looking at —
(Rom. 10:15-17 ESV) 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
In Romans, Paul has not mentioned baptism since chapter 6, and the subject has changed dramatically by the time we get to chapter 10. Paul is discussing missionary work, and he wishes that the Jews had been more open to the gospel. They’d been preached to, but they had not obeyed that which was preached.
Now, in context, what does “obey” refer to? Well, plainly Paul is wrestling with the Jews’ lack of faith in Jesus. To obey the gospel is to believe the word of Christ when preached. It’s about faith.
Yes, Israel had heard the message. It had been proclaimed, but not all the Israelites accepted the good news (v. 16). There is a word play in the original Greek on accepted (which is a derivative of the word for “hearing”): Jews heard the gospel (ēkousan, v. 14), but they did not obey it (hypēkousan, v. 16). Paul quotes a passage from the fourth servant song of Isaiah (53:1), attesting that the message had been delivered but not believed: “Lord, who has believed our message?” For Jews hearing was the indispensable prerequisite of religion, because learning depends on hearing. Paul agrees that faith comes from hearing the message (v. 17).
James R. Edwards, Romans, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 257.
The only argument for “obey the gospel” to mean “be baptized” is to argue that baptism is a command and so requires obedience. But context still rules. 2 Thess is just not about baptism, but it is very much about faith in Jesus. We can’t impose meanings just to win a debate with a Baptist.
(And, no, I do not agree with Baptist baptismal teaching. Those who wish to argue against Baptist teachings need to argue with someone who disagrees with them — that is, with someone not me. Saying that X doesn’t speak to baptism hardly means that I believe that nothing speaks to baptism. We need to call Bible things by Bible names, and “obey the gospel” does not mean “submit to baptism.” But there are many other verses that actually speak to baptism. And they should be enough for us.)