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289

II.

SUFFERING AND GLORY.

"A manifest token of the righteous judgment of God; to the end that ye may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which ye also suffer: if so be that it is a righteous thing with God to recompense affliction to them that afflict you, and to you that are afflicted rest with us, at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with the angels of His power in flaming fire, rendering vengeance to them that know not God, and to them that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus: who shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of His might, when He shall come to be glorified in His saints, and to be marvelled at in all them that believed (because our testimony unto you was believed2323   "It seems hopeless to find an intelligible meaning for ἐφ' ὑμᾶς in connection with ἐπιστεύθη. Apparently, as conjectured by Markland, ἐπιστεύθη is a primitive corruption of ἐπιστώθη, suggested by the preceding πιστεύσασιν, as well as by the familiarity of πιστεύω and its prima-facie appropriateness to μαρτύριον. The reference is probably to vv. 4, 5: the Christian testimony of suffering for the faith had been confirmed and sealed upon the Thessalonians. Cf. 1 Cor. i. 6: Καθὼς τὸ μαρτύριον τοῦ Χριστοῦ ἐβεβαιώθη ἐν ὑμῖν; also Ps. xciii. (xcii.) 4, 5: Θαυμαστὸς ἐν ὑπσηλοῖς ὁ Κύριος· τὰ μαρτύριά σου ἐπιστώθησαν σφόδρα; and for an analogous use of πιστοῦσθαι followed by ἐπὶ with the accusative, 1 Chr. xvii. 23; 2 Chr. i. 9."—F.J.A. Hort.) in that day. To which end we also pray always for you, that our God may count you worthy of your calling, and fulfil every desire of goodness, and (every) work of faith, with power; that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and ye in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ."—2 Thess. i. 5-12 (R.V.).

IN the preceding verses of this chapter, as in the opening of the First Epistle, the Apostle has spoken of the afflictions of the Thessalonians, and of the Christian graces which they have developed under them. To suffer for Christ's sake, he says, and at the same time to abound in faith and love and spiritual joy, is to have the mark of God's election on us. It is an experience so truly and characteristically Christian that the Apostle cannot think of it without gratitude and pride. He gives thanks to God on every remembrance of his converts. He boasts of their progress in all the churches of Achaia.

In the verses before us, another inference is drawn from the afflictions of the Thessalonians, and their gospel patience under them. The whole situation is a proof, or manifest token, of the righteous judgment of God. It has this in view, that the Thessalonians may be deemed worthy of the (heavenly) kingdom of God, on behalf of which they suffer. Here, we see, 290 the Apostle sanctions with his authority the argument from the injustices of this life to the coming of another life in which they will be rectified. God is just, he says; and therefore this state of affairs, in which bad men oppress the innocent, cannot last for ever. It calls aloud for judgment; it proclaims its approach; it is a prognostic, a manifest token of it. The suffering which is here in view cannot be an end in itself. Even the graces which come to perfection in maintaining themselves against it, do not explain the whole meaning of affliction; it would remain a blot upon God's justice if it were not counterbalanced by the joys of His kingdom. "Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for My sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven." This is the gracious side of the judgment. The suffering which is borne with joy and brave patience for Christ's sake proves how dear Christ is to the sufferer; and this love, tried with fire, is requited in due time with an answer in love that makes him forget it all.

This is one of the doctrines of Scripture that untroubled times find it easy to dispense with. There is even an affectation of superiority to what is called the moral vulgarity of being good for the sake of something beyond goodness. It is idle to enter on any 291 abstract discussion of such a question. We are called by the gospel to a new life under certain definite conditions, one of them being the condition of suffering for its sake. The more thoroughly that condition is accepted, the less disposition will there be to criticise the future blessedness which is its counterpoise and compensation. It is not the confessors and martyrs of the Christian faith—the men who die daily, like Paul, and share in the tribulations and patience of Jesus Christ, like John—who become weary of the glory which is to be revealed. And it is such only who are in a position to judge of the value of this hope. If it is dear to them, an inspiration and an encouragement, as it certainly is, it is surely worse than vain for those who are living an easier and a lower life to criticise it on abstract grounds. If we have no need of it, if we can dispense with any sight or grasp of a joy beyond the grave, let us take care that it is not owing to the absence from our life of that present suffering for Christ's sake, without which we cannot be His. "The connection," Bishop Ellicott says, "between holy suffering and future blessedness is mystically close and indissoluble"; we must through great tribulations enter into the kingdom of God; and all experience proves that, when such tribulation comes and is accepted, the recompense of reward here spoken of, and the Scriptures which give prominence 292 to it, rise to the highest credit in the mind of the Church. It is not a token of our enlightenment and moral superiority, if we undervalue them; it is an indication that we are not drinking of the Lord's cup, or being baptized with His baptism.

But the reward is only one side of the righteous judgment foretold by the suffering of the innocent. It includes punishment as well. "It is a righteous thing with God to recompense affliction to them that afflict you." We see here the very simplest conception of God's justice. It is a law of retribution, of vindication; it is the reaction, in this particular case, of man's sin against himself. The reaction is inevitable: if it does not come here, it comes in another world; if not now, in another life. The hope of the sinner is always that in some way or other this reaction may never take place, or that, when it does take place, it may be evaded; but that hope is doomed to perish. "If it were done when 'tis done," he says as he contemplates his sin in prospect; but it never is so done; it is exactly half done when he is finished with it; and the other half is taken in hand by God. Punishment is the other half of sin; as inseparable from it as heat from fire, as the inside of a vessel from the outside. "It is a righteous thing with God to recompense affliction to them that afflict you." "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap."

293 One of the favourite pastimes of some modern historians is the whitewashing of persecutors. A dispassionate interest in the facts shows, we are told, in many cases, that the persecutors were not so black as they have been painted, and that the martyrs and confessors were no better than they should have been. Where fault is found at all, it is laid rather at the door of systems than of individuals; judgment is passed on institutions and on centuries that persons and their actions may go free. Practically that comes to writing history, which is the story of man's moral life, without recognising the place of conscience; it may sometimes have the look of intelligence, but at bottom it is immoral and false. Men must answer for their actions. It is no excuse for murdering the saints that the murderers think they are doing God service; it is an aggravation of their guilt. Every man knows that it is wicked to afflict the good; if he does not, it is because he has quite corrupted his conscience, and therefore has the greater sin. Moral blindness may include and explain every sin, but it justifies none; it is itself the sin of sins. "It is a righteous thing with God to recompense affliction to those who afflict." If they cannot put themselves by sympathy into the place of others—which is the principle of all right conduct—God will put them in that place, and open their eyes. His righteous judgment is a day of grace 294 to the innocent sufferers; He rewards their trouble with rest; but to the persecutor it is a day of vengeance; he eats the fruit of his doings.

It is characteristic of this Epistle, and of the preoccupation of the Apostle's mind when he wrote it, that he here expands his notice of the time when this judgment is to take place into a vivid statement of its circumstances and issues. The judgment is executed at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven, with the angels of His power, in flaming fire. "At this moment," he would say, "Christ is unseen, and therefore by wicked men ignored, and sometimes by good men forgotten; but the day is coming when every eye shall see Him." The Apostle Peter, who had seen Christ in the flesh, as Paul had never done, and who probably felt His invisibility as few could feel it, is fond of this word "revelation" as a name for His reappearing. He speaks of faith which is to be found unto praise and honour and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ. "Be sober," he says, "and hope to the end for the grace that is being brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ." And in another passage, much in keeping with this of St. Paul's, he says, "Inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings, rejoice; that at the revelation of His glory also ye may rejoice with exceeding joy." It is one of the great words of the New Testament; and its greatness is 295 heightened in this place by the accompanying description. The Lord is revealed, attended by the angels of His power, in flaming fire. These accessories of the Advent are borrowed from the Old Testament; the Apostle clothes the Lord Jesus at His appearing in all the glory of the God of Israel.2424   For an excellent and instructive study of the relations of Jewish and Christian eschatology, see Stanton's Jewish and Christian Messiah. When Christ is thus revealed, it is in the character of a Judge: He renders vengeance to them that know not God, and to them that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Two classes of guilty men are quite plainly distinguished by these words; and as plainly, though the English alone would not enable us to lay stress upon it, those two classes are the heathen and the Jews. Ignorance of God is the characteristic of paganism; when Paul wishes to describe the Gentiles from the religious point of view, he speaks of them as the Gentiles which know not God. Now, with us, ignorance is usually regarded as an excuse for sin; it is an extenuating circumstance, which calls for compassion rather than condemnation; and we are almost astonished in reading the Bible to find it used as a summary of the whole guilt and offence of the heathen world. But we must remember what it is that men are said not to know. It is not theology; it is not the history of the Jews, or the special revelations 296 it contains; it is not any body of doctrines; it is God. And God, who is the fountain of life, the only source of goodness, does not hide Himself from men. He has His witnesses everywhere. There is something in all men which is on His side, and which, if it be regarded, will bring their souls to Him. Those who know not God are those who have stifled this inner witness, and separated themselves in doing so from all that is good. Ignorance of God means ignorance of goodness; for all goodness is from Him. It is not a lack of acquaintance with any system of ideas about God that is here exposed to the condemnation of Christ; but the practical lack of acquaintance with love, purity, truth. If men are familiar with the opposites of all these; if they have been selfish, vile, bad, false; if they have said to God, "Depart from us; we desire not the knowledge of Thy ways; we are content to have no acquaintance with Thee"—is it not inevitable that, when Christ is revealed as Judge of all, they should be excluded from His kingdom? What could they do in it? Where could they be less in place?

The difficulty which some have felt about the ignorance of the Gentiles can hardly be raised about the disobedience of the Jews. The element of wilfulness, of deliberate antagonism to the good, to which we give such prominence in our idea of sin, is conspicuous here. The will of God for their salvation 297 had been fully made known to this stubborn race; but they disobeyed, and persisted in their disobedience. "He that being often reproved hardeneth his neck"—so ran their own proverb—"shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy." Such was the sentence to be executed on them in the day of Christ.

When it is said that ignorance of God and disobedience to the gospel are here presented as the characteristics respectively of Gentile and Jew, it is not said that the passage is without significance for us. There may be some of us who are sinking day by day into an ever deeper ignorance of God. Those who live a worldly and selfish life, whose interests and hopes are bounded by this material order, who never pray, who do nothing, give nothing, suffer nothing for others, they, whatever their knowledge of the Bible or the catechism may be, do not know God, and fall under this pagan condemnation. And what of disobedience to the gospel? Notice the word which is here used by the Apostle; it implies a conception of the gospel which we are apt, in magnifying the grace of God, to overlook. We speak of receiving the gospel, believing it, welcoming it, and so forth; it is equally needful to remember that it claims our obedience. God not only beseeches us to be reconciled, He commands us to repent. He makes a display of 298 His redeeming love in the gospel—a love which contains pardon, renewal, and immortality; and He calls on all men for a life in correspondence with that love. Salvation is not only a gift, but a vocation; we enter into it as we obey the voice of Jesus, "Follow Me"; and if we disobey, and choose our own way, and live a life in which there is nothing that answers to the manifestation of God as our Saviour, what can the end be? Can it be anything else than the judgment of which St. Paul here speaks? If we say, every day of our life, as the law of the gospel rings in our ears, "No: we will not have this Man to reign over us," can we expect anything else than that He will render vengeance? "Do we provoke the Lord to anger? Are we stronger than He?"

The ninth verse describes the terrible vengeance of the great day. "Such men," says the Apostle, "shall pay the penalty, everlasting destruction, away from the face of the Lord and from the glory of His might." These are awful words, and it is no wonder that attempts have been made to empty them of the meaning which they bear upon their face. But it would be false to sinful men, as well as to the Apostle, and to the whole of New Testament teaching, to say that any art or device could in the least degree lessen their terrors. It has been boldly asserted, indeed, that the word rendered everlasting does not mean everlasting, but 299 age-long; and that what is in view here is "an age-long destruction from the presence and glory of Christ, i.e., the being shut out from all sight of and participation in the triumphs of Christ during that age" ["the age perhaps which immediately succeeds this present life"]. And this assertion is crowned by another, that those thus excluded nevertheless "abide in His presence and share His glory in the ages beyond."2525   The quotations are from Cox's Salvator Mundi, 13th Edition, pp. 128-9. When the time import of ἀιώνιος is in view, many writers render it, like Dr. Cox, age-long, intending thereby to signify that æonian time has an end; its finitude, in fact, is the one thing of which Dr. Cox consents to think. But the very point of the meaning is that no end is visible. Æonian time is time that fills the mind and imagination to the furthest horizon and beyond it; there is no ulterior prospect. Anything more gratuitous, anything less in keeping with the whole tone of the passage, anything more daring in its arbitrary additions to the text, it would be impossible even to imagine. If the gospel, as conceived in the New Testament, has any character at all, it has the character of finality. It is God's last word to men. And the consequences of accepting or rejecting it are final; it opens no prospect beyond the life on the one hand, and the death on the other, which are the results of obedience and disobedience. Obey, and you enter into a light in which there is no darkness at all: disobey, and you pass eventually into a darkness in 300 which there is no light at all. What God says to us in all Scripture, from beginning to end, is not, Sooner or later? but, Life or death? These are the alternatives before us; they are absolutely separate; they do not run into one another at any time, the most remote. It is necessary to speak the more earnestly of this matter, because there is a disposition, on the plea that it is impossible for us to divide men into two classes, to blur or even to obliterate the distinction between Christian and non-Christian. Many things prompt us to make the difference merely one of quantity—a more or less of conformity to some ideal standard—in which case, of course, a little more, or a little less, is of no great account. But that only means that we never take the distinction between being right with God, and being wrong with God, as seriously as God takes it; with Him it is simply infinite. The difference between those who obey, and those who do not obey, the gospel, is not the difference of a little better and a little worse; it is the difference of life and death. If there is any truth in Scripture at all, this is true—that those who stubbornly refuse to submit to the gospel, and to love and obey Jesus Christ, incur at the Last Advent an infinite and irreparable loss. They pass into a night on which no morning dawns.

This final ruin is here described as separation from the face of the Lord and the glory of His might. In 301 both the Old Testament and the New, the vision of God is the consummation of blessedness. Thus we read in one psalm, "Before Thy face is fulness of joy"; in another, "As for me, I shall behold Thy face in uprightness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with Thy likeness." In one of the Gospels, our Saviour says that in heaven the angels of the little ones do always behold the face of their Father who is in heaven; and in the Book of Revelation it is the crown of joy that His servants shall serve Him and shall see his face. From all this joy and blessedness they condemn themselves to exclusion who know not God, and disobey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Far from the face of the Lord and the glory of His power, their portion is in the outer darkness.

But in vivid contrast with this—for the Apostle does not close with this terrible prospect—is the lot of those who have chosen the good part here. Christ is revealed taking vengeance on the wicked, as has just been described; but He comes also to be glorified in His saints and to be admired in all them that believed—including those Christians at Thessalonica. This is the Lord's and the Christian's interest in the great day. The glory that shines from Him is mirrored in and reflected from them. If there is a glory of the Christian even while he wears the body of his humiliation, it will be swallowed up in a glory more excellent when his 302 change comes. Yet that glory will not be his own: it will be the glory of Christ which has transfigured him; men and angels, as they look at the saints, will admire not them, but Him who has made them anew in the likeness of himself. All this is to take place "on that day"—the great and terrible day of the Lord. The voice of the Apostle rests with emphasis upon it; let it fill our minds and hearts. It is a day of revelation, above all things: the day on which Christ comes, and declares which life is eternally of worth, and which for ever worthless; the day on which some are glorified, and some pass finally from our view. Do not let the difficulties and mysteries of this subject, the problems we cannot solve, the decisions we could not give, blind our eyes to what Scripture makes so plain: we are not the judges, but the judged, in this whole scene; and the judgment is of infinite consequence for us. It is not a question of less or more, of sooner or later, of better or worse; what is at stake in our attitude to the gospel is life or death, heaven or hell, the outer darkness or the glory of Christ.


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