Suffering—none of us really wants it, and so often we find ourselves perplexed when we endure it. Have we done something to deserve such pain? Is there any hope that it will end? Is there meaning to it? We might even believe that if we trust in Christ, things will go easier for us—that we will experience less suffering.
A quick survey of the Word of God should disabuse us of the notion that following Jesus means we will suffer less. After all, Jesus Himself says that persecution will follow His disciples (Mark 10:29–30). Scripture, in fact, gives Christians a distinctive theology of suffering, a significant component of which is found in today’s passage.
Responding to the suffering that the first-century Thessalonian Christians experienced (see 2 Thess. 1:6–7), Paul explains that “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” (2 Thess. 1:5). We have here a dense statement that needs some unpacking. First, Paul clearly does not mean that by our suffering we make ourselves worthy of God’s kingdom in the sense of meriting our citizenship in heaven. We are saved by grace through faith, not our own good works (Eph. 2:8–9). The only One worthy of God’s kingdom is Christ, who merited that kingdom for Himself through His perfect life, death, and resurrection (Rom. 3:21–4:25; 5:12–21).
However, when we trust in Christ alone for salvation, we become worthy of God’s kingdom because Jesus’ perfection is put on our accounts. In other words, Christ’s good works are imputed to us, God sees those works, and He declares us righteous and worthy of heaven (2 Cor. 5:21). This is the “righteous judgment of God” presented in 2 Thessalonians 1:5. It is righteous for God to consider us worthy of His kingdom for which we suffer because we are in Christ and Christ’s worth is ours. Our willingness to suffer for the sake of Jesus, then, confirms the justice of God’s declaration because it demonstrates that we have put our faith in Jesus (James 2:14–26). God is just to declare righteous all those who receive the righteousness of Jesus through faith in Him alone, and our suffering for His sake confirms that we have received that righteousness through faith.
God’s declaration that we are righteous in Christ is an eschatological (end times) verdict that means we will not suffer His final wrath on evildoers. Those who do not trust Jesus will face this wrath, while believers will experience perfect relief (2 Thess. 1:6–8).