I have always found the Greek myth of Sisyphus fascinating in a disturbing sort of way. In the story, the gods punish Sisyphus for cheating death twice. They force the recently deceased and legendary king of Corinth to roll a rock up a mountain. As soon as the rock reaches the top of the mountain, it rolls down the other side. He must then roll the rock back up the mountain … until it rolls down again. On and on, the task goes for eternity.
When we looked at 1 Thessalonians, we saw that God called the Thessalonians to endure trials. Now we begin 2 Thessalonians looking at the same theme. They had to bear “persecutions and tribulations” (1:3). People who did not know God and did not submit to the gospel were oppressing or “tribulating” them (1:7). Specifically, faith in Christ was making the lives of the young believers more difficult yet again. The believers longed for rest.
It’s one thing to endure one trial. It’s another thing to persevere through multiple trials. Facing a whole new set of trials after completing an early set surely feels like rolling the rock up the other side of the mountain. How can we be the type of Christians who endure multiple trials and still trust in God?
Several aspects of the trials that the Thessalonians were experiencing are important in giving us perspective regarding our own trials. First, in what Paul says to the believers, we see that God was changing the Thessalonians through these trials. Their faith, love, and steadfastness were all growing to the point that Paul took pride in and told everyone about what God was doing in their lives (1:3-4). The same is true for us; we do not remain the same in trials. God is at work.
Second, the Thessalonians needed to remember that the trials were a sign that vengeance was coming on those who were persecuting them (1:8). Sometimes the longing for divine retribution doesn’t feel right, and there is certainly a place for praying that God will change the hearts of persecutors so that they might experience forgiveness (Acts 7:60). Vengeance, however, is not in itself wrong; what makes vengeance wrong for you and me is the fact that we don’t have a right to vengeance. The Yale theologian Miroslav Volf has argued, moreover, that a belief in divine vengeance makes us less likely to take matters into our own hands.
Lastly, the Thessalonians needed to know that their future would be glorious. They would one day see the glory of God with their own eyes. In a surprising twist, we see that God will also glorify them (1:12). The principle here seems to be the same as when Moses beheld the glory of God in a way that caused his face to shine afterwards in Exodus 34. To see God is to be changed forever (2 Corinthians 3:18).
The worst aspect of Sisyphus’s punishment is not the physical labor – as bad as that was. The worst aspect is the pointlessness of the task. With these three truths from 2 Thessalonians 1, we see that a new wave of trials is not “Sisyphean” for the Christian. God is changing His people in their trials. God will one day make all wrongs right, even if that means taking vengeance on those who remain unrepentant. His people will, moreover, see and be changed by His glory — a glory that Paul says in another place can’t even be compared to waves of trials in this life (Romans 8:18).