The Righteous Judgment of God
Trinity Twenty Six Sermon| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| November 17, 2002| 2 Thessalonians 1:3-10
Many people think that life is not fair. Maybe it’s not. But God is. We can see the lives that we live here on earth. We can’t see God. We believe that God is fair, not because of what we see, but because He tells us so. What God tells us is always true. Our senses can deceive us, but God’s word cannot err, mislead, or deceive us.
To know that God is fair is a wonderful knowledge to have. It takes away our bitterness. Life deals us blows that appear to have no purpose. Christians are persecuted, ridiculed, and despised for their faith. Why? We can’t figure out why. We start to think that God cannot really be in control of this world. If He isn’t, what kind of God is He? If He is, why doesn’t he do justice for us? Is it fair that people who mock the Christian faith prosper? If Jesus has already suffered for us, why must we suffer? If our suffering cannot take away our sins, of what value is it?
It isn’t a good idea for us to try to figure out what’s going on in our lives simply by looking at what’s going on in our lives. Fools refuse to listen to the teacher who has the right answer. God has the right answer. He’s our true Teacher. Of course, His teaching isn’t just dropped down from heaven in a book. His teaching came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man. God’s teaching is revealed in Jesus who assumed our own human nature. He became one of us. He came into this world to be our Shepherd, as today’s Old Testament Lesson teaches us. A shepherd or pastor is someone who feeds the flock. Jesus is unique as our Shepherd because He not only feeds the flock – He actually purchases the flock with His own blood. He pays His own life for the lives of the sheep. They belong to Him. They hear His voice. They receive His body and blood. They receive His body and blood by faith, when they trust that His life has been given up for them to take away their sins and to destroy their death. They also receive His body and blood in, with, and under the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. We call the under-shepherds of Jesus pastors. Their job is to feed Christ’s flock with the food they need. That food is the pure gospel that Jesus has taught us and the holy sacraments that He has given us. This food comes from Jesus. Jesus feeds His flock through the pastors He sends to us. This is why we always regard Jesus as the Good Pastor or Shepherd. We don’t ask our pastors for their unique knowledge and understanding of anything. We ask them only for the words of Jesus. That is our food. As long as our pastors give us this food, we will honor them.
The traditional interpretation of today’s Gospel Lesson is that we serve our Lord Jesus whenever we serve our fellow Christians who are in need. That is perfectly true. Others have suggested that “the least of these my brothers” that Jesus mentions are specifically the apostles and other pastors who bring the food of the Good Shepherd to the flock. The pastors who preach Christ are loved and honored by those who love the preaching of Christ. These same preachers are despised and ignored by those who despise the preaching of Christ. According to the first interpretation, these words were written to encourage Christians to care for their fellow Christians. The mercy we show to them we show to our Lord Jesus. According to the second interpretation, these words were written to encourage the hearers of the gospel to care for those who bring to them the gospel and the sacraments. To honor them is to honor the Lord Jesus who comes to us through the public preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments. Since the word “brethren” or “brothers” in today’s Gospel Lesson can refer either to fellow Christians or specifically to Christ’s preachers either interpretation is permitted. And, of course, both state the plain truth of the matter. When we honor our fellow Christians we are honoring the Christ who is hidden in their hearts and in whom they trust. When we honor our pastors we are honoring the Christ whom they proclaim. We honor Christ by honoring the least of His brothers who believe His gospel. We honor Christ by honoring the least of His brothers who preach His gospel. Of course, Christ, His church, and His ministry will remain united until the end of time.
St. Paul made it a habit to boast about congregations he had served up in Macedonia, now a part of northern Greece. The city known in biblical times as Thessalonica is today known simply as Salonici. It is a beautiful city on the north shore of the Aegean Sea. East of Salonici is a pretty little port town that contains the ruins of ancient Philippi, where St. Paul baptized Lydia – the first baptism into the Christian faith on the European continent. The Apostle Paul had a special affection for these Macedonian churches in both Thessalonica and Philippi. When he boasted of them to others (2 Corinthians 8), he was not boasting about them, but he was praising the grace of God that they had received. God’s grace flowed through those Christians into works of Christian love, hospitality, and generosity. While no one can see the sincere faith of another, faith bears fruit that can be seen. Of course, the fruit doesn’t bear the tree; the tree bears the fruit. Jesus stated it simply in St. John’s Gospel (15:5): “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” When Jesus spoke of Himself as a vine and His Christians as branches of the vine He also mentioned how His Father pruned the branches to make them more fruitful.
As our Epistle Lesson for this morning makes clear, God certainly pruned His congregation in Thessalonica. St. Paul writes:
We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is fitting, because your faith grows exceedingly, and the love of every one of you all abounds toward each other, so that we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that you endure, which is manifest evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you also suffer. (2 Thessalonians 1:3-4)
Had they looked just at the persecution they suffered they couldn’t have understood it. Who can find comfort from suffering and being mistreated? But when we learn to interpret our suffering according to the word of God we do find comfort in it. According to our text, they suffered for the kingdom of God. This reminds of us Christ’s words in His beatitudes, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” It is not our suffering that makes us worthy of the kingdom of God. That worthiness is a gift of God’s pure grace. But it is our love for this kingdom that makes us willing to suffer and it is the promise of this kingdom that gives our suffering real meaning. The bad guys don’t win. It only looks that way. But our faith isn’t based on what anything looks like. It is based on what Christ Himself promises to us. He is the righteous Judge who will bring to this world a righteous judgment.
Jesus will return with His mighty angels. He will repay with tribulation those who persecuted His church. The hordes of murdering Islamic warriors; the atheistic Communist torturers; the pagan Nazi murderers; and all other enemies of Christ’s holy Christian Church on earth will face the Church’s Redeemer and Lord. He will vindicate the faith of his people. He will punish those who despise Him, His righteousness, His grace, His ministers, and His church. Those who did not obey the Gospel – that is, those who rejected the invitation of Jesus, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” – will be punished. Those who reject the Savior will find themselves suffering forever for the sins that had already been washed away by His blood. Those whose faith found refuge in Jesus will find His return to be a day of greater joy than they ever imagined. It will far exceed whatever suffering they endured. Our text tells us that Jesus will be glorified in His saints. Not just to them or in front of them or alongside of them, but in them. Why? Because Christ’s saints believed the apostolic testimony. That’s why. It wasn’t because of the good deeds they did. The good deeds didn’t make them into saints. The testimony of Christ’s apostles is what made them into saints. That gospel preaching told them that for Christ’s sake their sins are washed away. Think of it. You, who believe this gospel, will become a partaker of Christ’s glory despite all of your many sins of thought, word, and deed. These sins will not keep you out of heaven. All of Christ’s saints, that is, all believers in Christ will become partakers of Christ’s glory! This is what we should consider when we must suffer here on earth.
The doctrine of everlasting punishment is widely decried as barbaric and unloving. Many sects formally deny it, such as the Unitarian-Universalists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Seventh Day Adventists. Many more deny it in fact, as do most Protestants and Catholics these days who assume that God will find a way to bring into heaven even those who denied Christ in this life. We tend to deny what we don’t want to face. This is why people deny eternal punishment in hell. But that’s like denying gravity when we are falling. It’s a futile gesture. And there is no reason to face damnation. There is no reason at all. Why should anyone worry about hell when God’s Son has become flesh and blood and has suffered and died for us, bearing and thereby removing from the whole world the hell it so richly deserved? No one who looks to Jesus in faith need be afraid of hell. Jesus faced the fear and the damnation for you. You won’t have to face it yourself.
It was love incarnate that faced the horrors of hell. Those who know Him also know love. The love for one another that God creates inside of us is not something so very noticeable. This love never considers itself; if it did, it would become something else – perhaps pride or perhaps despair. This love that God graciously elicits inside of us is completely dependent on the love revealed in Christ’s suffering. In fact, that’s what this love sees. It sees Jesus bearing away all of our sins. It’s the love that flows from faith. Faith knows only God’s love in Jesus, and so the love that comes from faith is always a reflection of that eternal, pure, and redeeming love. This is why the most natural thing a Christian does is to love his fellow Christian. Charity is never forced. It comes out of the true faith. This is especially true when you consider how Christ’s holy people treat gospel preachers. They love them. They are kind to them. They care for their needs. They honor and respect them. Why? Because of the gospel the preachers are privileged to preach. This is the same reason Christ’s holy people love and honor each other. It is on account of the gospel that we share. When Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead, only that which is eternal will endure. The gospel is eternal. So is the love it engenders in our hearts. When Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead, this love will be instantly perfected. Then all of creation will see the righteous judgment of God.