Why Is Christian Suffering a Good Sign?
Topic: Expository Passage: 2 Thessalonians 1:5-7
2 Thessalonians 1:5-7
Good morning! Welcome to Sunday school! Please turn in your Bibles to 2 Thessalonians 1. Last week we began this series; so now, here’s your quiz. What did you learn last week?
One of the themes from our lesson last week was persecution. The Thessalonians were suffering persecution (v. 4). Let’s break that verse down a bit. What were the Thessalonians facing? (“persecutions and tribulations”) You all know what persecution is. The word “tribulations” could also be translated “afflictions”; it is a more general word for suffering. So the Thessalonians were suffering–specifically, they were suffering persecution.
How intense was this persecution? Well, in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15, Paul says that the Thessalonian Christians suffered in the same types of ways that the Judean Christians suffered. How did the Judean Christians suffer? Stephen was stoned! Men and women were imprisoned. It was ugly! So although we do not know details, it is safe to assume that the Thessalonian Christians were suffering significant persecution.
That’s the what; now what’s the how? How did the Thessalonians suffer? (with “patience” [or “endurance”] and “faith”) That is very important. Because Paul will go on to say that their suffering is a good sign. However, suffering in and of itself is not necessarily a good sign, is it? Suffering in and of itself is not necessarily a sign of God’s favor.
Did you know that there are cults and false religious groups who get persecuted? Some even claim that their persecution is a sign of God’s favor. When a minority Muslim is persecuted by other Muslims, is that a sign of God’s favor? No, it’s not!
The same is true of affliction in general. When Christopher Hitchens is diagnosed with cancer at age 61, is that a sign of God’s favor? No, it is not. (Christopher Hitchens was a famous atheist.)
In order for suffering to be a sign of God’s favor, it must be a certain brand of suffering–that is, “faith-and-endurance suffering.” According to Paul, the suffering or persecution of believers who choose to do right even when it hurts is a very good sign.
Persecution or suffering is hardest to swallow when it seems like our suffering is pointless. If I run out into the street to save my daughter and end up getting paralyzed, that is one thing. But if I find out I have cancer and I do not see any purpose in it, that can be very depressing!
In 2 Thessalonians 1, Paul seeks to encourage these persecuted Christians by telling them, “This persecution (along with your response to it) is actually a very good sign.” He doesn’t say, “This is bad” (although in a sense, that was true); he says, “This is a good sign” (vv. 4-5).
The first word in the Greek in v. 5 is the word for “evidence.” Paul says, “Your suffering is evidence.” Evidence of what, you might ask? That is an excellent question.
In the rest of our time here this morning, I would like to answer the question, “Why is Christian suffering a good sign?”
1. Christian Suffering is a Sign of Citizenship (v. 5).
We’ll skip over the phrase “righteous judgment of God” for right now and discuss that later along with vv. 6-7. But for right now, I want you to focus on phrase, “that you may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God.” It’s a little difficult to identify what word or phrase that dependent clause modifies, but the idea is this: a result of Christian suffering is that we are counted worthy of God’s kingdom.
That raises a couple of questions. First, what is God’s kingdom? In light of the context, Paul must be talking about the future Millennial Kingdom that will be inaugurated at the Second Coming, which this passage goes on to describe. Jesus is coming again, amen!? And when He does, the wicked will be judged, the righteous will be rewarded, and Christ will set up His earthly kingdom. And you and I, as Christians, will participate in that kingdom! We are citizens of that kingdom even now; and one day, we will take the places that God has prepared for us and rule and reign with Jesus.
So that’s what the kingdom is. But now, what does it mean to be “counted worthy of the kingdom”? Are any of us worthy of citizenship in God’s kingdom? I know I am not worthy; are you?
The fact is that none of us are worthy to be citizens in God’s kingdom. And yet, by God’s grace, that is what we are. Philippians 3:20 says, “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” If you have been born again, you should leave Sunday school this morning overflowing with thankfulness that you are a citizen of God’s kingdom!
But we still haven’t answered the question, have we? How does patient suffering result in us being counted worthy of the kingdom; and for that matter, in what sense do we suffer “for” the kingdom? As best as I can tell, the answer is that Christian suffering is a sign of citizenship. By faithfully enduring suffering as a Christian, we prove that we are truly citizens of God’s kingdom.
I’ve used this example with the kids before. If I told you I was a professional runner, what is a way you could test that claim? Well, I suppose you could ask to see pictures, newspaper clippings, or awards I had won. Or, another option would be to just put me on a treadmill, crank of the speed, and watch me go (or not go, depending on whether or not I had told you the truth). My endurance on the treadmill would be a sign of whether or not my profession was genuine.
In the same way, in the Christian life, our endurance in the face of persecution or trials points to the reality of our faith. God is testing us, as He says in 1 Peter 1:7. And by means of that testing, He is growing our faith (we talked about that last week) and also proving our genuineness.
Christian suffering is a good thing because it is a sign of citizenship in God’s kingdom.
2. Christian Suffering is a Sign of God’s Righteous Judgment (v. 5a).
Commentators have questioned what Paul is referring to here when he mentions “righteous judgment.” I think in order to answer that question, you have to look ahead to vv. 6-7 (vv. 6-7).
The first word in v. 6 is the word, “since.” That indicates that v. 6 provides the grounds for, or perhaps, further elaborates on v. 5. What kind of righteous judgment are we talking about? The future righteous judgment in which believers are rewarded and unbelievers judged.
If you were searching for the primary characteristic of God in this passage, what would it be? (His justice) God’s justice is perfect, isn’t it?
In literature, we talk about “poetic justice.” Do you know what poetic justice is? Merriam Webster defines it this way: “an outcome in which vice is punished and virtue rewarded usually in a manner peculiarly or ironically appropriate.” Can you think of an example of poetic justice?
One of the most poignant examples of poetic justice in the Bible is in the story of Esther, where Haman is hanged on the very gallows he built for Mordecai, while Mordechai takes over Haman’s old job, as well as his entire estate!
There is something very satisfying about poetic justice, isn’t there? Why is that? It is because as image-bearers of God, we all long for justice. We all long for justice! And this passage teaches that one day, perfect justice will be served.
Look again at vv. 6-7. The grammar in these verses is very interesting; and sadly, it’s lost in the English translations. The main verb in vv. 6-7 is “repay” or “pay back.” And then there are two direct objects. God is going to pay back “affliction” (v. 6) to those who afflict you. And He is going to pay back “rest” or “relief” (v. 7) to you who are troubled.
Have you ever heard the phrase, “It’s payback time”? Sometimes you hear that in sports when a team gets a rematch. Paul says there is coming a day in which it is going to be “payback time.” The good news for these suffering Christians is that on that day, they will receive relief.
But it’s not just the Thessalonians who will receive relief on that day. It will also be Paul, Silas, and Timothy (v. 7). When payback day comes, the Thessalonians, Paul, Silas, Timothy, and all of God’s afflicted people will receive rest, while their afflicters receive affliction. That is how God’s justice works. It results in role reversal.
This passage reminds me of a particular statement from the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Do you remember that story? Turn with me to Luke 16 (Luke 16:19-25). The most striking feature of this passage is its horrible description of hell. It is impossible to read this passage without being sobered. But what I want to point your attention to this morning is Abraham’s response to the rich man’s request for water (v. 25). In other words, “You lived a life for sinful luxury, so now it is time for you to suffer. Lazarus is a believer who lived a life of patient suffering. So now it is time for him to rest.” What a sobering reminder to us to live with an eternal perspective! Because I don’t know about you, but I would much rather take my rewards in heaven rather than on earth–wouldn’t you?
If you are growing increasingly impatient with your suffering, please remember that payback day is coming. And when it comes, God will give you relief. And when that happens, you will not look back and bemoan your suffering as a Christian here on earth. No, instead you will say, “It was all worth it.” Because it will be.
This is one of those passages that is hard for us to appreciate as American Christians. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I have never experienced the kind of persecution these Thessalonian believers faced. But there are Christians all over the globe this morning who know exactly what this feels like. Let’s remember those Christians, as the writer of Hebrews commands us to do in Hebrews 13:3. And let’s also remember that our situation is unusual. If we ever start to face significant persecution here in America, we would just be going back to what many Christians have normally faced throughout church history.
The last thing we need to uncover from this passage is when will this all occur (v. 7). So you tell me–when will it occur? (“When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels”) And what is that a reference to? (the Second Coming)
The idea behind the word “revealed” is that Jesus has been hidden in heaven since He ascended; but one day, He will be revealed. And it will be the most glorious unveiling ever! He will not come back by Himself. According to Revelation 19:14, the armies of heaven will follow Him, riding white horses. That army will include angels, as this passage points out. It says that the Lord Jesus will return from heaven with His mighty angels (or literally, “the angels of His power”–those through whom some of His power is manifested). And that army will also include us. We are the ones in Revelation 19:14 who will be “clothed in fine linen, white and clean,” because our garments will be washed in the blood of the Lamb.
Now, before we conclude, I should point out that 1 Thessalonians 1:7 is a challenging verse for those who believe in a Pretribulational Rapture. Because it seems to say that believers are granted rest at the Second Coming. Do you see that?
Now, it is worth noting that in Greek, the time indicator “when” in v. 7 isn’t quite as explicit as most of the English versions indicate. A literal translation of this verse would be, “and to you who are troubled rest with us in the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven.” But still, that raises some tensions.
It could be that “the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven,” refers to a complex of events that included both the Rapture and the Second Coming. Or perhaps the first part of v. 7 should be in parenthesis: “…to repay with tribulation those who trouble you (and to give you who are troubled rest with us) when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels….” It could also be that the word for “in” in the phrase “in the revelation of the Lord Jesus” should be translated “because of”: “and to give you who are troubled rest with us because of the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with His mighty angels….” The meaning then would be that the Second Coming is the basis of the believer’s rest.
This is a difficult passage, and it is a good reminder to us that although I have made the case for the Pretribulational Rapture from 1 Thessalonians 4-5, we need to show grace to those who would interpret the biblical data differently. Of course, if you would like to talk to me more about this later, I would be more than happy to talk.
But for now, I want to point your attention back to the primary characteristic of God in this passage, and that is His justice.
As I said earlier, we all long for justice because we are made in the image of God. Because of that, it can be very frustrating when justice miscarries.
How many of you noticed the headlines last week about Jeffrey Epstein? For those of you who didn’t, Jeffrey Epstein was an extremely wealthy, well-connected businessman in New York City. But he was convicted and plead guilty quite few years ago to charges related to prostitution and sexual abuse of minors. Unfortunately, he received a very light sentence. But recently, more details came to light, and it appears that he was actually involved in human trafficking and potentially all sorts of very dark things. He was taken into custody, and things were looking grim for him.
The scandal of it all was that last Saturday, Jeffrey Epstein supposedly committed suicide in his jail cell. And the question immediately was, “How could this to happen? How could we allow Jeffrey Epstein (and potentially others he may have been able to implicate) to escape justice?”
The Thessalonians were experiencing significant persecution. Paul told them, “That’s actually a good sign because you are taking it well.” But he also told them of a day in which God’s justice would be perfectly served. No one–not the Thessalonians’ persecutors, not Jeffrey Epstein–no one will escape God’s justice! Next week, we’ll see more of what Paul has to say about that.