“And God will provide rest for you who are being persecuted and also for us when the Lord Jesus appears from heaven. He will come with His mighty angels, in flaming fire, bringing judgment on those who don’t know God and on those who refuse to obey the Good News of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8 NLT).
Flaming fire is a common element that often signifies God’s presence within the Scriptures. For instance, the Biblical book of Exodus tells us that God descended upon Mount Sinai with fire when He appeared to the Israelites in the Old Testament era (Exodus 19:18). God also appeared to Moses in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush (Exodus 3:2) and led His people through the wilderness of Sinai with a pillar of fire as well (Exodus 13:21). Finally, fire is associated with the presence of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:1-4.
In the context of 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8, the presence of flaming fire is linked to the idea of judgment and retribution against those who have refused to acknowledge God. As one scholar explains, this imagery also appears within the book of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah…
“(Blazing fire) itself is an echo of Isaiah 66: 15, while the end of the clause includes language from Isaiah 66:4. The significance of this intertextual echoing of Isaiah is best seen by a display of the three texts (where common language is underlined):
Paul: of the Lord Jesus … in flaming fire, giving punishment to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Isa 66:15: The Lord as fire will come, and as a storm his chariots, to recompense with wrath, punishment and repudiation in flaming fire.
Isa 66:4: Says the Lord [v. 2], … I will repay them because I called them and they did not obey me.” (1)
Of course, many are understandably uncomfortable with the idea that God would exact vengeance (ESV, RV) or revenge (GW, ISV) upon those who do not know Him. For some, it is difficult to understand why a just God would take revenge upon someone for his or her lack of knowledge. For others, the concept of vengeance suggests a kind of vigilantism associated with those who arbitrarily punish others.
Thankfully, this passage does not involve our modern-day concept of vindictiveness. Instead, it expresses the idea of dispensing justice in a lawful manner in response to a wrong that has occurred. We’ll see how this applies to “…those who do not know God” (NIV) next.
(1) Gordon D. Fee, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians, 1:5-10 Judgment And Salvation Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (p.256-257)