"Seeing it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you; and to you, who are troubled, rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power."—2 Thess. 1:6-9.
That we may correctly apprehend the meaning of this much controverted passage of Scripture, it is necessary that we ascertain first of all, on whom vengeance was to be taken, and everlasting destruction visited, and then we shall be prepared to understand the nature and duration of the punishment threatened. The passage itself imparts the necessary information upon this point. Those who troubled the Thessalonian Christians were to be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord. And here we are not left in doubt, as the Scriptures are explicit upon this point. The unbelieving, wicked Jews troubled and persecuted the Christians at Thessalonica, as we learn from Acts 17:5-8.
"And the Jews which believed not, moved with envy, took unto them certain lewd fellows of the baser sort, and gathered a company, and set all the city on an uproar, and assaulted the house of Jason and sought to bring them out to the people. And they troubled the people, and the rulers of the city when they heard these things."
This was at Thessalonica, as the context informs us, and those who troubled the Christians there were the Jews who believed not, and hence it was the unbelieving, persecuting Jews that God was to recompense with tribulation, and punish with everlasting destruction. In further proof upon this point, we refer to 1 Thess. 2:14, 15. "For ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen who have killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us."
Those were to be punished with everlasting destruction who knew not God, and obeyed not the gospel. And of the Jews, the Savior himself declared, "They have not known the Father, nor me." The Jews who madly persecuted Christ and his apostles, troubled and persecuted the Thessalonian Christians, and they were to be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and the glory of his power. This brings us to inquire when were the Jews to be thus punished? It was when the Lord Jesus should be revealed from heaven in flaming fire, a figurative expression, denoting severe national calamities and temporal judgments, then about to come upon the wicked, persecuting Jewish people. Christ is spoken of as coming in his kingdom at that time, because his truth would become more permanently established in the earth, and meeting with less opposition and persecution, it would run and have free course in the earth. Proof is furnished upon this point, in the following language:
"For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and then he shall reward every man according to his works. Verily I say unto you, there be some standing here which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom." Matt. 16:27, 28.
The coming of the Son of man was intimately connected with the downfall of the Jewish nation. When that old Jewish theocracy was overthrown, and all its oppressive influences uprooted and removed, then Christ came in the glory of his Father, to establish the principles of his religion; hence the expression — "There be some standing here that shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom." The text before us speaks of flaming fire. This was highly figurative language, and the sacred penmen frequently employed that figure to set forth the judgments of God upon the wicked, to represent the downfall of nations and cities. In the 22d chapter of Ezekiel, the temporal calamities and judgments to come upon the house of Israel are spoken of under this figure, and it is said the inhabitants of Jerusalem should be blown upon with fire, and melted, as tin and iron and brass and lead are melted in the furnace. Ezek. 22:18-22. This language simply portrayed national ruin. Paul also employed similar phraseology—flaming fire—to represent divine judgments then about to come upon the Jewish nation for its sins.
The persecuting Jews had laid up wrath against the day of wrath, had stoned the prophets and crucified the Lord's anointed, and after they had filled up the measure of their iniquity, they were to experience the retributive justice of God. It was a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to those who troubled and persecuted the early Christians. The persecutors themselves should be overwhelmed with divine judgments and punished, and the followers of Christ should enjoy comparative freedom and rest.
What is meant here by being punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord? The ancient Hebrews located God's presence. They thought it was in some particular place. It is said "Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden." Gen. 4:16. "Jonah rose up to flee into Tarshish, from the presence of the Lord, and went down to Joppa." Jonah 1:3. God promised his presence to the children of Israel, in the following language: "My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest." Exodus 33:14. God was to accompany his people with his presence, and give them prosperity and rest. God's presence was supposed to be with his people in Judea, the holy land, and especially Jerusalem, the holy city, where was built the holy temple, and where the children of Israel enjoyed exalted favors and privileges.
When the Jews were carried into Babylonian captivity, and subject to foreign domination, and where they remained seventy years, they were said to be banished from the presence of the Lord — that is, from the holy land, and their religious privileges; they were then said to be cast away from God's presence; they were driven away from Jerusalem where his presence was supposed to dwell more especially. Hence, we are informed that Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon, until the Lord cast the people out from his presence. 2 Kings 24:20. The Jews were driven from their sacred altars, and institutions, and were separated from all those religious associations which had been so dear to them.
But in the good providence of God, they were delivered from captivity and permitted to return again to their sacred land, to rebuild their temple and rear their altars to the Most High. They repented of their sins, and God again vouchsafed his presence unto them.
But in their prosperity they again forgot God, and became a proud, haughty and disobedient people; and again severe national judgments came upon them greater than ever had been, or even should be again. Matt, 24:21. This overwhelming tribulation is called everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord. This sinful people were dispersed among the nations of the earth, they were again driven away from their sacred places, and nationally destroyed; and hence it was said that they were banished from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.
Their destruction is called everlasting. Not that the punishment was endless in duration, for their former destruction which continued only seventy years, was spoken of in a similar way. Paul was addressing those who understood the meaning of such phraseology. They had read of the everlasting hills, the everlasting mountains and the everlasting priesthood of Aaron. The land of Canaan was given to the Jews for an everlasting possession. Gen. 17:8. Ex. 40:15. Hab. 3:6. The statutes of Israel were called everlasting. Lev. 16:34. Paul employed language very similar to that which the prophet Jeremiah used in describing the overthrow of the Jewish nation.
"Therefore, behold I, even I will utterly forget you, and I will forsake you, and the city that I gave you, and your fathers, and cast you out of my presence; and I will bring an everlasting reproach upon you, and a perpetual shame which shall not be forgotten." Jer. 23:39, 40.
The Jews, as a nation, are now suffering everlasting punishment, and have been for nearly two thousand years; their civil polity has been taken from them, and their former greatness has departed, and banished from Judea and Jerusalem, where God's presence had been vouchsafed to them, they are a reproach and a by-word among the nations of the earth. Their punishment was called everlasting or age-lasting but not endless, for all Israel shall be saved. "For if the casting away of them [the Jews] be the reconciling of the world, [the Gentiles], what shall the receiving of them be but life from the dead." Rom. 11:15. And again, "Blindness in part has happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles be come; and so all Israel shall be saved." Rom. 11:25, 26. "For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all." Rom. 11:32.
But we may be asked, what had the church at Thessalonica to do with the destruction of the Jewish polity, and the overthrow and dispersion of the Jewish nation? How could such a distant church be sensibly affected, or gain any relief or "rest," as the text has it, by the destruction of the Jews and destroying of their power? They would gain rest by being relieved from Jewish persecution, for in almost every instance the early Christians were persecuted by the Jews who went about stirring up the people and exciting prejudice against the Christian church. It was these wicked, persecuting Jews who troubled the Thessalonian brethren. On every hand, the Jews were engaged in a series of persecutions. They excited the rabble and stirred up mobs against the apostles and the Christian church.
When Paul and Barnabas were on a visit to Antioch to proclaim the gospel of Christ, and the whole city were brought together to listen to the tidings of grace and salvation, the envious Jews spoke against the things they heard, contradicting and blaspheming. Acts 13:44, 45. But the apostles proclaimed the truth yet more boldly, and the Gentiles were made glad, and glorified the word of the Lord, which was published throughout all that region.
Then the Jews stirred up the people and raised persecution against these apostles and drove them out of their coasts. Acts 13:50. These faithful servants of God then went on a missionary tour to Iconium, and through their instrumentality great multitudes of Jews and Greeks believed. "But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles, and made their minds evil affected against the brethren." Acts xiv. 2. Then they visited Lystra, in Lyconia, to preach the gospel, but the wicked Jews from Antioch and Iconiurn persecuted these apostles, and Paul was so beaten and stoned, that they drew him out of the city supposing that he was dead. Acts 14:19. Again, we find Paul and Silas at Thessalonica, preaching with much success, so that many gave heed and believed. But the Jews who believed not, took certain lewd fellows of the baser sort, and set the whole city in an uproar, and actually made an attack upon the house of Jason that they might lay violent hands on these apostles. Acts 17:6. They went to Berea, and their preaching excited so much attention that many believed the truth. And when the Jews at Thessalonica heard of this, they came thither also, and stirred up the people. Acts 17:13.
Thus we find that the Jews were the chief instigators of the persecution waged against the apostles. Hence, it was perfectly natural for Paul, in addressing the Thessalonian church to refer to the divine judgments which would cripple the power of the Jews and bring rest and comparative freedom from persecution.