Listen or read the following transcript as D. A. Carson speaks on the topic of the person of Christ from 2 Thessalonians 1.
“Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.
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—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, 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.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Let us pray.
And now may the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
For two or three decades now some philosophers and some pastors too, for that matter, have been introducing us to the notion of defeater beliefs. A defeater belief is a belief which if you hold it to be true defeats other beliefs. One of the most common in Western culture is the belief that there’s not just one way to God. If you hold that belief to be true, then it defeats Christian belief, biblically constrained, because the Bible insists there’s only one way to God. Thus the belief that there cannot be just one way to God already defeats Christianity.
Of course, such defeater beliefs are highly culturally constrained. That is, they’re not universal. If you’re in the Middle East, for example, almost no one holds that particular defeater belief. There aren’t a lot of people running around Middle Eastern countries saying, “You know, there are a lot of different ways to God.” Rather, in the Middle East, it’s much more common for people to be arguing or shooting at each other over which is the right way to God.
By contrast, in Hindu context, though it’s configured differently in Hinduism, this is a pretty common defeater belief. That is, there are many, many different ways to God. There are millions of gods. The ancient Greeks had thousands; the Hindus have millions, and that defeats Christianity. There is a higher spirituality bound up with a view of truth wrapping up absolutely everything, and we are enmeshed in karmic cycles that enable us to rise higher, but there is no one particular way to God within that large framework.
Now when a culture develops an array of defeater beliefs, these defeater beliefs taken together constitute what is now often called an implausibility structure. That is, at this point most people in the culture not only rely on their defeater beliefs to write Christianity off, but they come to the conclusion that Christianity simply isn’t worth hearing. It’s just too implausible.
A year or so ago, I was giving some lectures in Geneva, and someone mentioned a book that is now circulating pretty strongly in French university circles by a French philosopher called Luc Ferry. I hadn’t read it, so picked it up in the bookstore. Apprendre a Vivre, or Learning to Live. It’s a fascinating book.
Ferry argues that philosophy shouldn’t be a discipline in which you merely analyze things. It shouldn’t be merely an analytic discipline that teaches you how to think. It should teach you how to live. So then, what he does is run through five major philosophies, frames of reference, worldviews, to see what they teach us about how to live, and then he critiques them all.
His fifth one was what he calls la post-modernitÈ. That is, post-modernity. The third one is Christianity. His take on Christianity is pretty good. That is to say, he’s reasonably accurate in his description of what Christianity is and what it teaches you about how to live and what to believe and a whole frame of reference for thinking and living.
Then when he comes to the criticism, he basically has only one … it’s just too good to be true. Isn’t that fascinating? What that means, you see, is that for him, his implausibility structures are so strong that he cannot actually even evaluate Christianity in any sense. He just has to write it off. It’s too good to be true. It’s implausible.
Now I wish I had time to challenge some of the defeater beliefs and implausibility structures that are increasingly strong in the Western world. I don’t have time to do that. What is important for us to see this morning is that such matters were faced by the apostle Paul in the first century. When it comes to the Thessalonians, then, of course, he is dealing with a people who had converted out of polytheism (that is, a belief in many gods) and out of the pluralism that was endemic to the first century, the first three centuries, in fact.
The biggest contradiction Christianity faced in the Roman Empire for the first three centuries was its insistence that there is only one way to God, namely Jesus Christ. Christianity was widely despised amongst the philosophers and thinkers of the Roman Empire precisely on that ground.
The Thessalonians, after all, had come out of that background, just as Hindus come out of it today. Many secularists who have bought into postmodern pluralism have come out of it too. After all, in 1 Thessalonians, Paul writes, “You people, you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead.” That was a huge reversal, but it meant they were no longer in the camp of pluralism and polytheism anymore.
Therefore, when Paul writes to the Thessalonians, he remembers their background, and his words speak to us as powerfully as they spoke to them. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of how these Thessalonians came to Christ. Paul crossed over from Asia Minor, the western third of what is now modern Turkey.
He crossed over by sea from Troas to Europe, so far as we know his first contact there, and he landed and started preaching in Philippi. He ended up in jail and was run out of town on a rail, in effect. He then headed south and stopped eventually at Thessalonica where he planted a church. But eventually, opposition grew up pretty quickly there. In four weeks, he was gone and headed farther south, eventually to Athens and then to Corinth.
So this church was planted in four weeks. You can read the account in Acts 17:1–9. Although he then travels on and stops at Berea and plants another church there and comes to Athens (you can read the account in Acts 17, starting in verse 10), he sends back Timothy to this fledgling church in Thessalonica because he realizes they’re baby Christians. They have come to the faith, but they don’t know very much. They’re facing persecution and frames of reference that seem very strange to them.
By the time Paul gets down to Corinth, Timothy has joined him. He has picked up some good news from the church, but he’s aware of some problems, and he writes 1 Thessalonians. A short time later, he writes 2 Thessalonians. Here Paul is trying simultaneously to stabilize the faith of these immature Christians and to give them counsel and encouragement in a world that is increasingly negative around them, that is making them face persecution.
Hence, verse 4. “Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.” So then, what does Paul say to a church living in such difficult times? What are his emphases? Three things. First, he talks about the perseverance of believers, their steadfastness, their endurance.
Verses 3 and 4: “We always ought to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for one another is increasing. Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.”
Note carefully, Paul does not thank God for the perseverance, for the steadfastness of the Thessalonians directly. No, he thanks God for their increasing faith and their increasing love, and then from this he infers their steadfastness and their perseverance. Now you will recall that faith and love are two-thirds of what is sometimes called the Pauline triad … faith, hope, and love, three virtues he brings up again and again and again. Later on in this book, in chapter 2:16 he mentions hope as well.
What Paul says is as he looks as these Thessalonian believers and as he receives reports from Timothy, he observes their trust in Christ is growing. Their faith is increasing precisely in the midst of difficulties. The difficulties are not snuffing faith out but driving it to sink deeper roots, and their love for one another and for the Lord is abounding. From this, he infers their steadfastness, their perseverance in the truth and in the faith of the gospel, and for this he gives thanks to God.
Here then are the marks of vitality that signal Christians are persevering in the faith. They are not merely hanging on grimly; they are displaying the cardinal virtues, faith, hope, and love. Paul knows he ought to thank God for such virtues precisely because they could not come from any other source than God, not least when Christians are under pressure.
So we must ask ourselves.… What shows our maturity today? What indicates we are pressing on, enduring, persevering in the Christian faith? What it must be are again the cardinal virtues, faith, hope, and then, as Paul will make clear in the next chapter, love. That’s the first thing he stresses.
Secondly, he talks about the patience and the payback of God. Verses 5–10. He begins by saying, “All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right.” To what does “all this” refer? Well, “all this” could refer to their sufferings, or it could refer to their perseverance, their steadfastness in the midst of suffering, but I suspect that the language he has chosen, “all this,” embraces both. That is, the fact that they are suffering and the way they are handling it are together evidence that God’s judgment about them is just.
Their suffering is evidence that they are following God. That’s a way of thinking that is not very common to us, but it’s very common in the New Testament. For example, when Paul writes to the Philippians in chapter 1, he encourages them, “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel.” Then he says, “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.” It’s been granted to you as a gift, as a privilege not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.
One is reminded of the response of the apostles themselves when they first faced persecution. They rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for the name. This is something that is still fairly obscure to many of us in the West, but for Christians in many, many parts of the world this is transparently obvious. We don’t have to do clever exegesis to get around such texts. They are right there.
A friend of mine in Britain recently visited some Christian churches of his dear acquaintance in Malawi, and some Malawi Christian leaders said to this friend in Britain, “The difference between you Christians in Britain and us Christians here in Malawi is this. In both cases we are despised minorities. The difference is you folks don’t realize it yet.” But you see, in the first century there was no doubt about where we stood in the pecking order of the broader culture.
So there is a sense in which God’s approval of us, his judgment, his justice with respect to his own people is demonstrated already in the sufferings of his people. But then it’s also demonstrated in their perseverance, for again and again we’re told that if we suffer with him we will also reign with him. We are made partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end. Jesus says, “You are my disciples indeed if you hold to my word.”
All of this then is evidence in advance of God’s righteous judgment, and as a result, they will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God at the end, this kingdom for which they’re suffering. Now do not misunderstand. This is not saying they’re counted worthy and thus earn the kingdom at the end. That’s not quite right. The evidence shows that they’re counted worthy. That is to say, all of this counts as valid evidence that they have been converted, that they are qualified to enter at the end, that God’s pronouncement in their case is right. It’s just.
Moreover, there will be a huge reversal bound up with this justice of God, a huge reversal in the affairs of human beings. So we read, beginning in verse 6, “God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to those of you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.”
Now passages like this make even serious Christians a bit nervous. We know it’s the Word of God, yes, but because of the pressures from our culture we think, “How do we get this across?” It just does seem a wee bit narrow, doesn’t it? Our guys go to heaven; the other guys go to hell. How do you think about this sort of thing realistically? We should not try to escape the severity of the language. Work through these verses and you will see there is an absolute disjunction of persons and an absolute disjunction of their respective ends.
An absolute disjunction of persons. That is, those who do not know God, or otherwise put, those who disobey the gospel … they stand outside the only gospel that can save them … versus those who by contrast delight in God, as we’ll see delight in Christ. A punishment on the one hand and a sheer joy in his presence on the other hand. The language is stark.
But perhaps we can best get at this by starting at the end of this paragraph and working back. Did you notice what is said in verse 10? It’s quite remarkable. Paul envisages the day when Christ comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed.
I’ve been doing university missions now for something like 35 years. In the last 10 years or so, I’ve been picking up two questions at every single campus visit that I never heard 10 or 15 years ago. I just never heard them. Now I hear them every time. One of them I won’t bother discussing; it’s not relevant here.
The other one is.… Why does the God of the Bible so much want to be praised? Why is there so much emphasis on praising God? I mean, if one of us went around wanting to be praised all the time, wouldn’t we say that person was a bit selfish, self-focused, self-centered? Don’t we view people who want to be praised all the time as intrinsically immature? Don’t we?
In my own family, if I went around wanting to be praised all the time, my wife would have a few words to say. So would my children, and my friends, my colleagues at Trinity. Isn’t that so also in your life? Don’t we appreciate people who are a bit understated and maybe self-deprecating? Yet here’s God wanting to be praised all the time. How is that a virtue? I never used to hear that. I hear it now all the time.
Now come back to this text. Paul is looking forward to the day when Christ comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. What do you do with that? Well, there’s a transparent answer in the first instance that runs right through the Scripture. The transparent answer is, after all, there are ways in which God is not like us. When we compare ourselves with ourselves, if we’re promoting ourselves all the time, we’re comparing more or less equals and it just seems so disproportionate and out of place.
But God, although he is like us in some respects (we are made in his image), in other respects he is not. That’s why theologians historically have distinguished between what are often called the communicable attributes of God and the incommunicable attributes of God. The communicable attributes of God are the ones that he communicates, that he shares with his image bearers.
So God says, “Be holy, for I am holy.” We’re to love one another, and God loves us. God is love, and we’re to be loving. But on the other hand, God also has some incommunicable attributes. That is, some attributes he does not share, that he cannot share, with non-God. For example, there is no text that says, “Be omnipotent, for I am omnipotent,” because omnipotence is an incommunicable attribute of God.
So one of the reasons why God is at the center of everything and ought to be praised, why we cannot make a simple comparison between us, not if we’re mature, wanting to be praised all the time, and God, who really is at the center of everything, is simply the fact that God is God. He did make everything. All of us derive from him. His being depends on no other, whereas our being depends on him. That’s the first thing to be said, the obvious thing.
But there’s something more. There’s something bound up with the gospel itself. Because we have been made by him and for him, then it is an essential part of the good news, it is an essential part of the gospel, that by the death of his own Son he reconciles us to himself, and in consequence, we learn afresh to love him with heart and soul and mind and strength. That is the framework, the only framework in which we can be saved.
The very nature of our sin is that we want to do things our own way. We want to be self-sufficient. We want to be independent. We want to establish our own rights and wrongs. That is what makes sin so hideous. It defies God himself. But if we are saved, then he becomes the center of everything. God knows that therein lies our salvation. It is for our good that we praise God, for it is part and parcel of repentance and faith that brings us to recognize that God and God alone saves and transforms.
Now if we are busy trying to say God is not deserving of our praise or God is merely up here so I may praise some other god, then already we are bound up with idolatry. We are already diminishing God. We are de-Godding God. It is for our good and out of love that God insists we praise him, for therein lies our salvation. The proof that this is out of love is that he sends his own Son and commends his love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.
So the people of God are massively different from those who have not tasted forgiveness, from those who have not been reconciled to God. Not in any sense that they are intrinsically better, but that because of the good news of the gospel, because of what Christ has accomplished, our entire orientation has been transformed, and we want to be God-centered, Christ-centered.
Small wonder then that when Christ returns at the end he comes to be glorified in his people, and there glorified in him and in him alone. He comes to be marveled at by his people, for anything less would not only be idolatry and a return to Genesis 3 in which we want to be our own gods, it would be our death.
That is the structure of thought that lies behind this vast bifurcation of people. Are we returned, are we reconciled to the God who has made us, who stands above us as our Maker, our Redeemer, and our final Judge? Are we reconciled to him by the sacrifice that he himself has provided or are we still trying to see him as a slightly superior peer who we may accept or reject, evaluate, toss aside, multiply?
Here is the patience and the payback of God. He waits patiently, he proclaims the good news, but at the end there is finally a payback. That’s what the text says. He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you. There is final, retributive justice. Amongst God’s people, this is said of them. “Christ comes to be glorified in his holy people, to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.”
The gospel itself is what transforms. We receive it by faith, and it changes our orientation to everything. One of the things that characterizes the people of God already and will characterize us perfectly on the last day is that we see Christ as someone to be marveled at, world without end.
Finally, Paul tells the Thessalonians what he prays for them, the prayer of the apostle, in verses 11 and 12. In the light of the impending consummation, in the light of the bifurcation of people and of ends, what is the burden of his prayer? He says, “With this in mind …” That is, with all of what he has written in mind. “… we constantly pray for you …” What? “… that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith.”
If you want to know what this worthiness looks like, then you go back to the mention of worthiness in verse 5. That is, their faith, hope, and love demonstrating their perseverance even in the context of opposition and suffering and immaturity, nevertheless is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom.
“So I pray,” Paul says, “that you’ll be worthy.” That is, that you’ll be demonstrating faith, hope, and love, that you will persevere in the grace of the gospel, that you will persevere in conformity to Christ, that you will persevere in delighting in Christ and marveling at him, in all of the virtues, the cardinal virtues, the faith, hope, and love that are characteristic of believers everywhere.
“We constantly pray for you that our God may count you worthy of his calling.” Not necessarily that you will escape persecution, not necessarily that everything will be easy, but that God may count you worthy of his calling and that within this framework he may give you power to fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith.
That is, out of your Christian transformed life you will come up with good things you want to do to please him and to serve others. May God give you power to do them. Then he says, “We pray this 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.”
Let me come back to the defeater belief I mentioned at the beginning of this address, the particular defeater belief that says there is no one way to God. It claims to demonstrate a certain inclusiveness, and by contrast, Christianity, it is said, demonstrates a kind of exclusiveness. You have to be bound up with Christ or you’re not saved.
But one of the things we must see is that every outlook has a certain exclusiveness to it. The inclusiveness of this particular defeater belief, that there’s not only one way, establishes a certain kind of exclusiveness because it presupposes a certain view of God. It presupposes perhaps a Hindu view of God or an open-ended, postmodern, God-is-not-well-defined-or-is-defined-only-by-you-and-your-particular-group sort of view.
It presupposes already a certain view of God, and those who hold another view of God are therefore excluded, including Christians who really do hold another view of God. Do you see? In other words, if you are finite and hold any opinion about anything, which includes everyone in this room, automatically we are excluding other views. It simply is an inevitable part of being a human being and being finite.
So Christians admit to their exclusiveness, but they do not claim that this exclusiveness is bound up with any moral superiority on their part. They claim instead that this exclusive gospel, this gospel by which alone we may be reconciled to God is so magnificently inclusive that it draws in men and women from every tongue and tribe and people and nation, from different cultures and ethnicities and races, from different centuries around the world.
It brings them all in, and God on his throne on the last day and the Lamb beside him will look at the travail of his soul and be satisfied. He will look at men and women by the countless millions drawn from every tongue and tribe and people and nation (How inclusive is that?) bound up with the all-sufficient cross work of Christ, with himself at the center of everything, by which vision alone we may be saved, and his Son will be marveled at by all those who believe.
So what should result in the lives of men and women transformed by the cross can never properly be arrogance or ill-tempered or haughty or superior. No, “We pray all of this 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.” That is the purpose of all of this transformation, this gospel effectiveness in the lives of people like you and me.
So what should we be praying for then for brothers and sisters who live in a Hindu part of the world or who live in a pluralistic part of America? Well, in the first instance, we ought to be praying that we demonstrate the cardinal Christian virtues, faith, hope, and love in abundance. More trust in Christ, more love for one another and for the living God, hope for the return of Christ when all of justice will be seen to be done, for this will demonstrate our perseverance.
Within this framework we learn to have bold initiatives prompted by faith that reach out with the gospel and touch other people’s lives. We pray for ourselves, for the church around the world, for men and women everywhere who need this gospel of Christ. Let us pray.
In truth, merciful God, we pray first for ourselves that you, our God, our Maker, our Redeemer, our Judge may count us worthy of your calling and that by your power you may fulfill every good purpose of ours and every act prompted by our faith. We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in us and we in him according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We pray this in particular for brothers and sisters in Christ who wish to bear witness to Hindu friends and relatives where there is so much pressure to conform to another kind of exclusivism and inclusivism.
And we especially pray, Lord God, that the power of the gospel will open up the eyes of millions and millions of men and women, fellow human beings, fellow image bearers that they too may see the utter sufficiency of Christ and marvel at him in anticipation of the day when every knee will bow and he will be marveled at amongst all his people world without end. We ask in Christ’s name, amen.
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