End Times at Thessalonica: The Closing Act
This final act might confusing the reader—seemingly a redux of the opening act—answering the question of whether there are two “appearances” of Christ in this drama. By looking at one difficult passage, perhaps the distinction between the first and third acts—the rapture and the Second Coming of Christ—will make more sense. It's a thought-provoking climax that not only ties together the previous acts, but provides the only possible transition into the final performance.
Paul writes of the Christ's “revealing” in 2 Thessalonians 1:7. This revealing may include His Act 1 gathering of believers to Himself, which seems to fit well with Paul’s contrast of affliction to the ungodly and relief to the godly in verses 6–7. As with 1 Thessalonians 1:16–17, Christ seems obscured in this first revelation. That the affliction of the afflicters is mentioned here hints that this revelation has a broader focus than that first appearing. A persecuted church wonders if there is an actual peace coming on the horizon and what persecutors might expect at the feet of the Master.
As such, the curtain opens on this third act with the Prince of Ages revealing Himself before the whole world—center-stage and surrounded by His angels “in flaming fire” (v. 9). Those angels are full of Christ’s might, standing ready around their Captain to implement His righteous reign upon the earth. This is a view of Christ the earth has never witnessed—an image of terror to those who do not know God and those who disobeyed the Gospel (as typified in the Gentiles and Greeks, respectively—see also 1 Thessalonians 2:14–16, where “the wrath came upon them”). The Judge of the earth is not in the clouds but has entered the stage in all of His splendid might, and eternal punishment awaits those forever destined to lose the glorious joys of God.
It is important to pause and consider this kind of destruction—it is not utter annihilation, as is one way to interpret what Paul writes in verse 9, but rather is an everlasting separation from God’s presence. Just as the “death” that Adam and Eve experienced that grave day was their expulsion from a personal walk with God in the Garden, those who disobey the Gospel must live throughout eternity knowing they cannot enter that heavenly garden, “the presence of the Lord and the glory.” All who do not know God or do not obey the Gospel “will suffer” this fate (v. 9).
Yet, the wrath He pours upon unbelievers here is still greater, for it is not only the Hell promised to those who deserve it—it also involves a here-and-now holy retribution against them for their sins against the people of God. As such, we rightly note that the “revelation” of Christ in verse 7 begins with His promised tribulation period of the earth, climaxing in His Second Coming. (We could also say that the revelation starts with the rapture of the church, as that is a part of the evidence of His righteous judgment prepared for the earth, for the sudden disappearance of millions around the world will cause untold chaos.) This suffering is right and deserved—it is justice—and it is promised to the Thessalonians (“repay … those who afflict you,” II 1:6), culminating at Christ’s appearing during this act (v. 7). Those who had afflicted the believers “will suffer” their own affliction (v. 9), as meted out by the Lord of Hosts.
The point to these two letters, especially the second, is to provide encouragement to both the Thessalonians and to all believers that fear that they have missed the Lord’s return. It should be clear from reading the letters that Paul did not write them to be a systematic teaching on the end-times. If that were the case, we would not need to piece together the events as we have. His purpose was to remind them what he had already taught them prior to writing these letters. This means that the modern reader must pay close attention to each of Paul’s comments in order to divine his prophesy for this coming period in earth’s history. It also indicates that Paul believed young believers to be ready for such a difficult topic as end-times eschatology, which is a lesson to all teachers of the Word.
Note that the letters contain admonishments as well as encouragement. Because we have the advantage of looking back over the Christian centuries, we know what happens when skewed perspectives over-emphasize key points of the end-times scenario. While there is little evidence or call for bizarre date-setting cults around Paul’s time, there were those who sold everything only to live off the generosity of others while waiting for the Lord’s return.
Paul warns genuine believers to stay away from such believers (2 The 3:6), for they do not walk in one accord with the Apostolic tradition (or, as we might say today, the Scripture). The Apostles set forth the example of hard work and just payments for food and lodging, that they would not become burdens to the believers in Thessalonica (vv. 7–9). However, these idle individuals become busybodies (v. 11) who only serve to destroy the church. Even so, the church was to treat such ones with love and care—not as enemies, but warning them as brothers, as they very well may have been (vv.13–15). A loving church practices church discipline with the hope that disassociation from idle individuals would shame such ones (v. 14). It is possible that even genuine believers could be carried away with this kind of lazy living. As such, Paul addresses these people. He preemptively commanded that those who do not work should not eat (v. 10). Here, he writes that these believers should get back to work to pay their own way in life, working in a quiet manner (v. 12).
Implications For Us
Paul wants his readers to live expecting the soon return of Christ. Our view of Christ’s return should bring us peace, comfort, and hope—it should never cause us to become lazy and become a poor testimony to the lost souls around us. When Paul writes “we who are alive and remain” (1 The 4:17), he's charged with anticipation but releases that energy in worship and godly effort. Believers, thank God that we do not have to endure what is destined for this earth as those who are in darkness, and act as children of the light (1 The 5:5). Paul sounds the call for all believers—Christ is coming, so let us awake from any slumber, any idle ways, and walk soberly (vv. 6–9). In the current culture where more young men are choosing to avoid higher learning, to avoid marriage, and even to avoid moving from their parents’ home, such admonitions may be more important than ever.