1As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, 2not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here.2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
3Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. 4He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. 5Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?
13But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.
16Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, 17comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.
Rather than write an essay about only one of the passages in this week’s lectionary, I would like to comment on a theme that unites all the selections: hope in the justice of God and the resurrection of the body. The resurrection of the body is a matter of great theological importance, but it has a political dimension that we should not ignore. The resurrection of the body and God’s promise of justice make us free to live faithfully in any regime whatever the immediate consequences.
In the epistle reading for this week, Paul urges the Thessalonians that they should not “be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed” because they will “obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 2:2, 14). Like the house in Haggai’s prophecy (which we will consider shortly), the Thessalonians will obtain a future glory that has been promised. This glory is what gives them confidence to be steadfast in mind. Paul follows his assurance with a blessing, asking that God, who “gave us eternal comfort and hope” would “comfort [our] hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word” (2 Thessalonians 2:16–17).
This passage calls to mind what Paul had written in his first letter to the same church, where he reminds the Thessalonians that they should not grieve “as those who have no hope” when they are confronted by death because we can have confidence that our Risen Lord will raise those who have fallen asleep (1 Thessalonians 4:13). In his first epistle Paul emphasizes the fact that the resurrection of the body is a source of hope; in the second epistle he prays that the hope the Thessalonians have been given would lead to strength of heart for good works and good words.
To understand how the glory of the Lord is a comfort and hope that strengthens us for good works, we turn to the Psalms. All three of the Psalms appointed for today emphasize God’s justice, which is then connected to God’s glory. Psalm 17 calls upon the Lord to defend the upright and especially to vindicate the psalmist against false charges: “From you let my vindication come; let your eyes see the right” (Psalm 17:2). God is presented as the one who is capable of vindicating the innocent, who has the vision to see the truth and what is right.
Psalm 145 praises and blesses God’s name because “The LORD is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings . . . all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever” (Psalm 145:17, 21). There are two elements to note here. First, justice is a proper source of worship and glory. God is greatly to be praised because God is just. The second is that this psalm envisions a bodily future: “all flesh” will bless the Lord “forever.” In Psalm 98, the experience of joy at God’s justice is felt not only by “all flesh” but also by the whole world: “Let the sea roar . . . let the floods clap . . . let the hills sing” (Psalm 98:7–8). Why this celebration? Because “he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity” (98:9). All three selections from the Psalms show us that God is worshiped and glorified because God will judge the world with perfect equity.
Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to be confident because they will obtain the glory of the Lord Jesus. God is glorified in justice, and the particular glory of the Lord Jesus is that he was vindicated in his resurrection. We are united with Christ, and so we can follow our Savior faithfully, even unto death, because we have confidence that the God who is praised in the Psalms for vindicating the righteous will vindicate us in our own resurrection.
We have a model of this type of faithful confidence in the person of Job, who says in today’s reading: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” (Job 19:25–27). There is a Christian tradition—extending from Gregory the Great through Thomas Aquinas and continuing post-Reformation in commentators like John Calvin and Matthew Henry—of reading Job’s declaration as revealing his hope in the resurrection. The plain sense of the text makes it clear that Job has some kind of hope for a future state, one which he will reach after his death (his skin will be “destroyed” before he sees God), and where he will see God “in [his] flesh.” Job is in the flesh as he speaks; this flesh will be destroyed. Yet, somehow, after that destruction he will nevertheless behold his Redeemer in the flesh.
We know from the early chapters of the book that Job was “the greatest of all the people of the east” (Job 1:4), which leads us to conclude that the destruction of his household and property caused a moment of political calamity as well as a personal crisis. The three counselors who have arrived to speak with him are also setting themselves up with a front-row seat to behold the downfall of a righteous ruler. Even in the face of political machinations and personal calamity, Job is able to stand firm in the same hope that Paul holds out to the Thessalonians. We should have the confidence to do likewise.
The prophecy of Haggai is likewise a promise that although there are present troubles, there is hope for the future. Haggai is supposed to tell Zerubbabel and Joshua and the remnant of the people that the Lord has promised to shake the nations and “fill this house with splendor” (Haggai 2:6–7). In fact, the result of this shaking and filling is that the latter splendor will be greater than the former. God is presented here as one who promises to intervene in the lives of those who are called according to the Lord’s name, to not only restore what has been lost but to add abundant glory.
So far, the passages under discussion have focused on the hope of God’s righteous judgment as something that will take place in the future. It can be hard to maintain our confidence in the face of present challenges. We may struggle with despair. But the Lord Jesus himself reminds us in the Gospel reading that the hope of the resurrection is so sure that we can speak of it as being manifest to us right now in the midst of our challenges. In the passage from Luke, Jesus is responding to a question from the Sadducees—a sect of theologians who deny the resurrection. In the face of their question, he replies that those who are raised from the dead “cannot die anymore” (Luke 20:36). He draws on the Old Testament claim that God is, in the present tense, the God of the Patriarchs—even the ones who have died—to show that the dead are not permanently dead. The bodily resurrection is a promise so sure that it can be spoken of as existing in the present.
The cumulative force of the readings for this week is to impress upon us the importance of placing our hope in two related truths. The first is that the resurrection of the body is a great comfort. Because we will rise again, death is not the end of all things; it does not even destroy the possibility of justice. Job knows he will be vindicated after his flesh has been destroyed. The Thessalonians are told that they have a comfort and hope in the resurrection. Haggai tells the people that what comes later will be more glorious than what came before.
The second truth that we have been assured that the God who will raise us up is a perfectly just God, one whose glory is bound up with justice. The seas clap and hills dance in Psalm 98 because God will judge the whole world with equity. Psalm 145, even as it alludes to resurrection, points to the justice and kindness of God as one of the reasons that God’s name will be blessed forever and ever.
These two truths lead to a wonderful conclusion: we are free to live faithfully, whatever the consequences. We are free, if necessary, to become martyrs who die because we refuse to cooperate with the unrighteous powers of the world. We can follow our Savior to death and beyond; we are united with him in his resurrection, and just as his resurrection is his vindication, we too can be confident that our resurrection will be our vindication. If we are falsely accused, like Job or the Psalmist, we can be confident that our just God will be glorified by declaring the truth about us. Because we will rise again, we do not have to be afraid of death. Because we will rise again, we can have hope for a future that extends well beyond our own limited horizon.
We are also free to live faithfully and quietly, seeking the common good as far as we are able, without allowing our own limitations to drive us to despair. There is so much pain in the world, so much disquiet, so much sin. Christians contribute to it, even as we try to solve it. We bring the kingdom of God to people, we proclaim the good news, and we find that the people proclaiming and the people listening are all sinners. Our only hope is that the God who will raise us, the God whose justice is glorified, will eventually make all things right. To paraphrase the popular children’s hymn: we are weak, but God is strong.
All of this means that we should not engage in politics as those who have no hope. Paul tells the Thessalonians that the comfort and hope they have been given should lead to strength of heart for every good work and word. Christians should be a future-oriented people who do not exhibit a fear of the world. Our trust in our just God should be evident in our words and our works as we live out the proclamation of the gospel.