Do you recognize the figure on the cover of your bulletin this morning? She represents what is supposed to be the decisive principle in a court of law: impartial, unbiased, firm but fair justice. Fittingly, her name is Lady Justice. Lady Justice has been around since ancient Roman times, if not earlier, and she is usually pictured as you see her here: blindfolded, holding a set of scales and carrying a sword. The scales mean that she will carefully weigh all the evidence for and against – so that she will arrive at the right verdict. The sword means that she hands out punishment to those who deserve it. The blindfold means that she is not influenced by a person’s face or race, by how much money or power or influence they have. Lady Justice can be found all over the world; from Ottawa, Canada to Frankfurt Germany, from Memphis Tennessee to Tehran, Iran. Since ancient times people around the world have seen the need for fair and impartial justice.
The ideal that Lady Justice represents is a great one, isn’t it? There are only two problems. One, the justice system is operated by imperfect humans who don’t always get it right. Sometimes the guilty go free; sometimes the innocent are punished. Sometimes justice isn’t blind and it does take a person’s power or wealth or influence (or how many lawyers they have) into account. Secondly, most people assume that justice means getting the outcome they want not the outcome they deserve. That’s why you see and hear so many people marching, tweeting and shouting about injustice, claiming that a whole variety of issues are not fair. Admittedly, our justice system is imperfect, and so those cries may occassionally be justified. But there’s a danger here for us as believers – that we allow our knowledge of the imperfections and failures of the human justice system to shade our view of God’s justice. Sometimes we want to accuse God of being unfair. Paul reminds us that God’s Judgment is always just: today and on the Last Day.
Now, we can’t definitively say that the Christians in Thessalonica were harboring feelings of injustice and unfairness against God – but knowing what they were going through, we can hardly blame them if they did. When Paul first arrived in Thessalonica with the message of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection for sinners, the gospel was warmly received, by Jews and Greeks, men and women. But there were other Jews who were jealous of the gospel’s success. They rounded up a mob of bad characters and started a riot. They rushed to the house where Paul was staying, hoping to let the crowd have its way with him. Paul had secretly escaped earlier, but the Jews didn’t give up. They dragged Paul’s host, Jason, and some of the other believers before the city officials, accused them of inciting riotous and rebellious behavior – and made them post bond to guarantee that there would be no more disturbances – even though they were the victims in the first place. (Acts 17:1-9) We could understand if these believers were beginning to question God’s justice; to wonder if God was being unfair in allowing them to suffer simply for following Christ. And yet, in spite of the persecutions, the church in Thessalonica grew and flourished, to the point that Paul had received a glowing report about their perseverance and faith. (2 Thessalonians 1:4)
In the words before us, Paul reveals the reality behind the suffering that Christians endure: all this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. What? Suffering, persecution, and affliction are evidence that God’s judgement is just? What planet is Paul living on? Two biblical truths are at work here. Principle #1: suffering and glory, persecution and the kingdom go hand in hand – following Christ means following him through suffering. Jesus had both taught and demonstrated that the only path to glory leads through suffering. (Luke 24:25-26) He told his disciples that if they wanted to follow him to heaven, they needed to prepare to pick up their crosses and follow him. (Matthew 16:24) Paul concurred, writing that we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God. (Acts 14:22) Therefore, when God allows believers to suffer now, it is evidence that he is preparing them for glory.
Principle #2: The fact that believers have the strength and faith to endure persecution reveals God’s justice. Peter wrote: do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. (1 Peter 4:12, 14) In other words, standing firm in the face of persecution shows that God has your back. If you are persecuted for believing and confessing that God, not a big bang, created the universe; that God, not the Supreme Court, has the right to define marriage; that God, not the court of public opinion, decides which behaviors and lifestyles are right and wrong – you have proof that God is getting it right. Jesus told his disciples: blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:10)
But how can we be so sure? With all the deceit and confusion Satan has sown in our world, how can we dare to be so confident that God’s judgment is just and that we are not making a terrible mistake? Because God – the Judge – has declared that you are right with Him. God slammed his gavel down in judgment on Calvary long ago and just moments ago he credited that verdict to your account: God our heavenly Father has been merciful to us and has given his only Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins…therefore, your sins are forgiven. We stand acquitted in God’s courtroom right now. Even though every one of us lacks the worthiness God demands, he has declared us worthy. Worthy, because of the life Jesus lived in our place. Worthy, because Jesus carried our guilt to the cross. Worthy, because he died to pay for our sins. Worthy, because God raised him from death and made you alive in baptism.
You stand on the right side of God’s judgment now – and your current suffering, perseverance, faith and love are proof of that; they are evidence that God’s judgment is just. That’s a hard truth to accept, though, isn’t it? It certainly doesn’t feel like God is getting it right when our children hate us for our loving discipline. It doesn’t seem like God is just when Christians are mocked and ridiculed for their beliefs. It doesn’t seem fair that saints should suffer while sinners prosper. If you ever feel that way, Paul says, look to the future, see the bigger picture. God is just: he will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well.
One Day, all will be made right, publicly and eternally. That Day will see the greatest role reversal in history: Jesus will pay back trouble to the trouble-makers and will give relief to those who have been afflicted. As we look forward to the day when Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels we can rest assured that those who ignored God, rejected Christ, and tormented Christians will get what they deserve. While it may seem like the deck is stacked against Christians now, while it often feels like the world is sitting in judgement of God, his Word and his people today, Paul says that the tables will be turned when Jesus returns. It won’t be God and his Word on trial, but those who rejected his Word and his Son.
And unlike human courtrooms, where people can get out of punishment through plea bargains, where evidence is tampered with, jurors are coerced and justice is anything but blind: Jesus’ judgment will be swift and right in every case. There will be no mistakes, no mistrials, no appeals and no last-minute backroom deals. Jesus will get it right and his judgment will be undeniably just because he will look deeply into every human heart to see the only evidence that will matter on Judgment Day: faith or unbelief. Paul says: He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. Two categories of people will face condemnation: 1) those who ignored all the evidence that pointed them to the one, eternal God, to whom they were accountable for every thought, word and action – atheists, agnostics and the apathetic – they will be punished justly for their sins. 2) And those who heard the Gospel of salvation but refused to believe it – those who were baptized and fell away, those whose door Jesus knocked on and they refused to open, those who imagined that Jesus could be the Savior of their soul but not the Lord of their life – they, too, will be punished, justly, for their sins.
And in contrast to those who deny the existence of hell or imagine that a loving God would never send anyone there, Paul spells out the reality: they will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power. Destruction doesn’t mean that they will cease to exist. Rather, they will experience what no living human, apart from Jesus, ever has: the cold shoulder from God. Heaven is being with God, seeing him face to face and living in the full light of his glory. Hell is being exiled from his presence, away from God’s face, away from his love and every good thing. It is living forever in the place Jesus described as a fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13:42) Is this punishment terrible? Yes. So awful that we don’t want to think about it? Yes. Something we would wish on our worst enemies? No. Unfair, unjust, wrong? No. It is exactly what unbelievers deserve for rejecting God’s Son as Savior.
The day is surely drawing near when Jesus, the Judge, will come from heaven in blazing fire with his holy angels. He will take his place on the judge’s stand; everyone will appear before him and in every case his judgment will be perfectly just. That’s the day when evildoers and unbelievers – those who persecuted the Christians in Thessalonica and those who persecute you – will be punished. They will not, in the end, get away with it. And that’s the day when believers will realize full, lasting relief. On that Day Jesus will come to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. On that Day, faith and hope will turn into reality – and believers will know and experience God’s full love and glory and they will know that his judgment was just all along.
And yes, just as Paul assured the people in Thessalonica – this includes you, because you believed our testimony to you. By faith in Jesus, you are and will be found to be on the right side of God’s judgment. By faith, you know that because God declared Jesus guilty of your sins, you are worthy to enter heaven. Right now, you may wonder. Right now you may be puzzled by God’s justice and frustrated by his judgment. You may think, when you are suffering hardship or persecution, that it isn’t right and it isn’t fair. Satan will tempt you to accuse God of getting it all wrong.
Stand firm! Stand firm on this one unshakeable, undeniable truth: God’s judgment is always just. Yes, we know that Lady Justice doesn’t always get it right, but Jesus always does. His judgment is just for you right now, in that suffering proves you are on the side of your Savior; and his judgment will be just on the Last Day, when he will give you true, eternal relief from all suffering and sorrow. Come quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen.