Scripture: 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12
(Preached at FBC Nitro, 02/19/2012)
The passage above isn’t all that appealing to many people. It is nice to hear about God’s love, about His mercy and His grace, but a passage focusing on His judgment? We may think, “I’m not too comfort with the idea of God’s judgment.” As a pastor, I’m not too comfortable preaching about it. Some topics are easy to cover in a sermon, others are not as easy. When we come to difficult parts of the Bible, we can just kind of side-step around them and avoid them, or we can deal with them and understand they are an important part of God’s message to us. I always go with the latter choice. As followers of Jesus, our goal is to take the Bible and then place our lives under its authority. We want to listen to the Bible in such a way, and study it in such a way, that our thinking, feeling, choosing believing and behaving are all shaped by it. I remember a couple of years ago counseling with a couple who were planning on marriage. We were discussing what the Bible had to say about marriage, and when it came to one passage I was told, “We don’t believe in that part.” The temptation is to think that God’s Word is a like a smorgasbord. We pass it by it with our spiritual plate, and we pick up the things we like and make them our own, but the things we don’t like we leave on the bar. The Bible isn’t a smorgasbord from which we pick and choose. The Bible in its entirety is a mirror, and all of it together reflects the condition of our heart and is used by God to show us how we need to grow. If we just pick and choose when it comes to the Scriptures, we are always affirmed, but never challenged. We are always comforted, but never convicted. So we need a balance of comfort and conviction, and the only way to receive that balance is to commit to applying all of God’s Word to our lives.
This morning we are going to look at this passage that focuses on God being perfectly just. There are at least three things we grasp about God based on His perfect justice. Sometimes when we think about the justice of God we also think of the wrath of God or the anger of God. In our modern society we have trouble reconciling a God of mercy and compassion with a God of wrathful judgment – how can He both one and the other at the same time? Miroslav Volf, a Christian theologian from Croatia, used to reject the concept of God’s wrath. He thought that the idea of an angry God was barbaric, completely unworthy of a God of love. Then his country experienced a brutal war. People committed terrible atrocities against their neighbors and countrymen. He wrote about his new understanding of the necessity of God’s wrath, “My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because He is love. There are three things we learn about God that point us to His perfect justice.
First, God is perfectly just because He defines Himself. Verse 5 of our passage says, “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— “ When it comes to God, we could spend our entire life shaping a god to our own liking. A god you love, a god who says what you want to hear and who calls you to live exactly as you are already living. That kind of god is only a projection of you, it isn’t God. What use is a god that is designed by you? A god who is defined by me dies with me. A god who is defined by you ceases to exist apart from you. The Bible has a word for taking our own ideas and shaping them into a god – it is called idolatry. In ancient times idols were made of wood, stone or metal. Idols in our time are more sophisticated – they are not metal but mental. They come from our own minds. The truth however, is that God was, before us. The truth is that God is, despite us. God defines Himself. God is saying to us, “I am who I am. I am not whoever you want me to be.” He has spoken to us through the Bible so that we might know Him and love Him forever.
We have been hearing a lot lately on the news about the upcoming presidential election. There are a handful of Republicans candidates battling with one another now for the opportunity to battle with Obama this fall. One of the things that discourages me about politics is that everyone in office is obligated to someone else. They may be obligated to special interests or to large contributors, or to the shifting tides of public sentiment to re-elect them. Someone or something is always pressuring them to say a certain thing or to do a certain thing that may not necessarily be the right thing. With God however, He defines Himself. No one votes Him into office, no one can vote Him out. He needs no campaign contributions, He is obligated to no one. He has all power, He has all knowledge. He is God, and He defines Himself. If crowds choose not to follow Him, that choice does not weaken Him or diminish Him. His character, His decisions cannot be compromised – He defines Himself. Because He defines Himself, He is perfectly just.
Then, God is perfectly just because He rights all wrongs. Verses 6-9 of our passage say, “Since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 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 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. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,…” The people to whom our passage this morning was written were being persecuted. They were in the midst of extremely tough times. They needed to know that somehow, some way, justice would prevail. So Paul pens these words. The phrase “eternal destruction” is very intense here. It means destruction without an end, to always be dying but never to die. Now it is common to think, “Wait a minute. How can any sin be deserving of such a harsh punishment? If God is really just, how can He give this kind of treatment to any human being? The penalty seems disproportionate to the crime.”
This last week I read a comment by a youth pastor that helps us grasp what is happening with the whole idea of sin being worthy of an everlasting hell. The youth pastor said,
Suppose a middle school student punches another student on the nose in class. What happens? The student is given a detention. Suppose during the detention, this boy punches the teacher on the nose. What happens? The student gets suspended from school. Suppose on the way home, the same boy punches a policeman on the nose. What happens? He finds himself in jail. Suppose several years later, the very same boy is in a crowd waiting to shake hands with the President of the United States. As the President draws near, the boy, now a man, lunges suddenly from the group and attempts to punch the President on the nose. What happens? The man is shot dead by the secret service. In every case the crime is precisely the same, but the severity of the punishment is measured by the one against whom it is committed. What is the punishment for sinning against almighty God? Eternal destruction.
The idea of an eternal Hell is one of the hardest truths of the Bible. One preacher said however, that “the hardest truths can produce the most tender hearts. “ If you are willing to grasp it and submit to it, God will use it to soften your heart to Him. The overall point here is that God will right all wrongs, His justice is perfect. That truth will sustain you in several ways.
First, it will sustain you in a suffering world. If you have suffered at the hands of other people, as these Christians in Thessalonica had, this passage will give you hope. If you have seen other people suffer without any apparent consequences for their actions, this passage will give you hope. The great question so many people ask, and the one that keeps many people from believing in God is, “How can I really believe that God is a loving God and God is a just God when so many good people suffer and evil people prosper?” “If God allows these kinds of things to happen, I can’t believe in God. I can’t follow Him.” Paul is saying here that we haven’t yet seen the end of the story. There is a day coming when the full measure of God’s justice will be revealed – He will make all wrongs right, His justice is perfect.
Second, it will curb your desire to even the score. When someone hurts you, the natural desire is to hurt him or her in return. They brought you down, so you will take a certain delight in bringing them down. You want to take justice into your own hands – you want to make things right. The problem is that your justice isn’t perfect – God’s justice is. Listen to Romans 12:18-19, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” God can deal with them better than you can, and He will do so, in His perfect way.
Third, this truth will sustain you in reaching the lost. When we realize that people apart from Christ are headed to eternal destruction, it moves us to compassion to reach them and to share with them the Gospel. I am convinced that Christians would pray more for the lost and witness more to the lost if we really believed in Hell. Our theology of Hell isn’t solid, so we are content to let a world die in sin around us. Leonard Ravenhill, a Christian devotional writer, has said,
Could a mariner side idle if he heard the drowning cry?
Could a doctor sit in comfort and let his patients die?
Could a fireman sit idle, let men burn and give no hand?
Can you sit at ease in Zion with the world around you damned?
Fourth, God’s perfect justice helps us to grasp the significance of what happened at the cross. Jesus Christ came to save us from the sin that is sending to the everlasting punishment we deserve. Isaiah 53:5-6 says, “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Through His death on the cross, Jesus endured hell and entered Hell. He cried to God while hanging there, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). We may wonder, “How can Jesus hanging on a cross save us from everlasting destruction? I don’t get it.” Remember that the punishment of our sin is measured by the One against whom it is committed? Well, the power of the sacrifice is measured by the One who is offered. God offered His Son Jesus as a sacrifice to save us from sin and from everlasting destruction. There is no more powerful sacrifice in the entire universe, because there is no one greater than Him. God is perfectly just – He rights all wrongs, including the wrong of your sin.
Then, because God is perfectly just, He glorifies His Son. Verses 10-12 say, “when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. To this end we always pray for you, 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, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Jesus deserves glory from us today because of His perfect obedience and His perfect sacrifice. Only He can transform us from objects of God’s wrath to God’s sons and daughters.
The hymnwriter has said,
For nothing good have I
Whereby Thy grace to claim
I’ll wash my garments white
In the blood of Calvary’s Lamb.
Jesus paid it all
All to Him I owe
Sin had left a crimson stain
He washed it white as snow.
Think for a moment who is writing this passage. This man once terrorized the early church. When he was on the road to Damascus to do more of the same, God’s Son appeared to him and said, “Saul, your real fight is not against Christians or against churches. The conflict in your heart and soul is against Me.” From that moment Paul was transformed. Later he says in 1 Timothy 1:12-14, “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” Because God is perfectly just, He glorifies His Son.
As the God of perfect justice looks upon you today, what would you have Him to see? Do you want to plead before Him your own case as to why He should accept even the slightest trace of sin in you? Or do you want to plead before Him your own guilt, and ask for mercy through Jesus Christ his Son? Will you surrender your life today to this God of perfect justice?