*A sermon preached at Zion Bishan BP Church's evening service (15 May 2016)
1st Thessalonians - a letter by the Apostle Paul to the Church in Thessalonica. At the time the letter was written, the Thessalonian Church was a fairly young church. In fact, the birth of this church was an interesting event recorded in the book of Acts.
In the novel, A Tale of Two Cities, written by Charles Dickens, there’s a quote that reads, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” We will see today that this describes quite well the early days of the young Thessalonian church. We’ll also begin by exploring together the background story in Acts chapter 17. We want to do this so we can understand better why Paul writes certain things in chapter 3.
Background of Thessalonian Church
In the book of Acts, Paul and Silas, and a small missions team had come to Thessalonica. Once they were there, Paul spent 3 Sabbath days persuading the Jews there that Jesus is the Christ, God’s chosen One who had to suffer and rise from the dead. Thankfully, many people came to believe this good news – as verse 4 reads, “some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.” And just like that, the Thessalonian church was birthed. It was a wonderful beginning! You could say, it was the best of times, a season of Light, a spring of hope for these converts who had found new life and great joy in Jesus Christ.
At the same time, things were not so easy. In fact, right from the get go, they faced serious opposition. Remember that only some of the Jews were convinced about Jesus Christ; the rest of the Jews had become jealous. Verse 5: “So they rounded up some bad characters (basically hiring the local mafia) from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house (presumably one of the Jewish converts) in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.”
So then, we see that while the Thessalonian church was birthed with great joy and turning to Christ, it was also birthed into persecution; opposition they had never known before in their lives. Yes, it was the best of times, but you could also say it was also the worst of times for this young church, a season of Darkness, a winter of despair.
Can you imagine what this would look like today? Imagine our church or any church for that matter. After registering with the Commsioner of Charities, we have our very first service to celebrate a new beginning. Right when the ribbon is cut and the intro to the first song is sung… The local residents barge in with the notorious local gang, fully tattoo-ed on the arms and legs, branishing weapons… Before the first song is sung, we’re told we have to shut down. We’re not allowed to submit to another king other than our local MP. The new Christians in Thessalonica must have been terribly shocked – maybe they had an idea that following King Jesus would be costly, but to face opposition so quickly – they probably wished they had more time to settle down first! So then, what do God’s people do in such a situation? How is this local church going to survive?
Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom. I’d like to turn your attention to two statements the Thessalonian residents when they complained against Paul and his mission team in Acts 17. Interestingly, while these two statments were the very reasons the locals opposed the church, they also hint to us how the young Thessalonian Christians might press on and remain faithful after all.
First, the Thessalonians said that Paul and Silas are men who have turned the world upside down and now have come presumably to also turn Thessalonica upside down. But what has Paul’s mission team actually done? All they have done so far is tell the local residents that Jesus Christ the Son of God has suffered and risen from the dead! But there must be some extraordinary power in just those words. There was something about this good news about Jesus that turned the world upside down; it now threatened to turn Thessalonica upside down. Could the same power in this Gospel be the source of strength for the Thessalonian church to press on in faith?
The second thing the Thessalonians say is this – the Christians are acting against the decrees of King Caesar by proclaiming another king, Jesus Christ. But is this the answer for the Thessalonian Christians? How will this king from another kingdom come and help them in the midst of their trouble? Even if this King Jesus is really coming to help, can they hold the fort while He’s still on His way?
Suffering & Standing Fast
Actually, these were pretty much the questions the Apostle Paul was asking. Two weeks ago, we were looking at the example of the Thessalonian church. They were a great testimony, they were a model example to Christians all over the region. They had turned from idols to serve the true and living God. But, hang on, isn’t that basically what everyone does when they turn away from sin and follow Jesus Christ? What’s the big deal about this church – didn’t they just have a normal spiritual awakening?
Well, yes and no. You will remember that last week, Deacon Khee Leng told us that the Thessalonian church faced great suffering but remained bold, and walked worthy of God despite opposition. In fact, Paul tells the church in Chapter 2 that they have literally embarked on the same journey as their King, Jesus. They had taken up their cross to follow Him! How so? Well, they suffered in the same way that Jesus suffered – they were persecuted by the Jews, supposedly God’s own people, those who were meant to receive Jesus Christ with joy. And it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that some of the new Thessalonian Christians did suffer the same fate as Jesus. In fact, if you read on in Chapters 4 and 5… Paul encourages the church that those who have died are merely sleeping, it seems possible that some of these new Thessalonian Christians had died, persecuted by the locals.
And so, remember the questions we asked earlier? Are the Thessalonian Christians going to make it? Is this church going to hold on? Well, the answer is a resounding “yes!” And that was probably why they were famous among the churches in the region. That was probably why everyone knew, “oh, that Thessalonian church ah, they kena stormed by gangsters at their dedication service , you know? Their church pastors haven’t even conducted their leadership meeting once, they already got detained by government you know? Eh, but you know the most amazing thing – they still continue to meet, in each others’ houses, and their weekly attendance still keeps growing leh!”
So, yes, the Thessalonian church had an exceptional testimony, they continued to thrive and grow. It was as if the opposition and the difficulties only catalysed the growth. Like a man who blows at a huge fire of burning coals, thinking he can put it out the same way he snuffs out a candle, but only manages to fan more embers into flame. The fire of the Thessalonian church’s faith grew bigger and bigger – it was no ordinary candle flame. The passion of the this church was not a flickering, temporal one.
In fact, I don’t know if you noticed this – but you know how Paul usually scolds or disciplines the churches he writes to? Like in Galatians: he scolds the church for giving up on sound Gospel doctrine so quickly. Or, in Corinthians: he scolds the church for being divided over many things. But with the Thessalonians, there’s nothing like this. In fact, when Paul says he longs to go back to Thessalonica, it’s because he realy wants to see the church – not to scold them.
This is why Paul said of the church in chapter 1, look with me at verse 6, “you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction (meaning they believed the Gospel even though there was so much opposition). With the joy of the Holy Spirit” also. And that’s why they were a shining example to all Christians.
Having said all these, do you realize that Paul remains quite worried? Even though the church has done well so far, Paul remains like the nursing mother he describes himself to be in chapter 2. Always concerned, always thinking about the “what ifs”, a little bit naggy but in a positive way.
Yes, the church had survived, they even thrived. But surely things were going to get worse. At the end of chapter 2, Paul expresses how desperate he was to see the church again. Even though they were torn away from the Thessalonians in person, Paul’s heart was still with them all this while! In chapter 3, he says how he was fearful that the evil one, Satan had managed to discourage them successfully so that they fall away. Even though the Thessalonian church started well, it was commitment in the long run that really mattered – not the short sprint. You see, it’s always easy to begin a new relationship and friendship – it’s always fresh and exciting and there’re so many new possibilities. Even with Jesus, it can and will feel like that. But isn’t it important for us to think about the long run too?
In fact, Jesus said something about this too when he was talking about the cost of following Him! Look with me at Luke 14: “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him,30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’” (Luke 14:28-30).
Can we continue following King Jesus? Will we decide to fall behind one day when the struggle in following Him becomes increasingly hard? I’m sure some of us here already feel like this, even today. But don’t give up yet – let’s look together at how the Thessalonian church surged on confidently and courageously.
Receiving the Word of God as a word from God and not men
In chapters 1 and 2, Paul first tells the Thessalonian church how they were able to remain faithful despite opposition. In the first chapter, Paul reminded them that the Gospel had come to Thessalonica not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. The Gospel of Christ was not merely another juicy news headline. It wasn’t just another exciting and never-before-seen new age spirituality.
Before this Gospel had turned the world upside down, it had first into the hearts of each individual Thessalonian Christian, and then turned their lives upside down – upside down away from sinful idolatry to worship of the true and living God. This Gospel has come to all to tell us that Jesus has suffered on behalf of us, for our sinful rebellion against God – yet, He has defeated the crushing punishment of sin, death itself – by rising to life again and drawing us into this new life with Him. This King Jesus had come to tear down the idols in the hearts and lives of the Thessalonians – which was precisely why many of them were jealous and upset that their way of life had to change. Indeed, the Gospel proclaims there is another king – not Caesar, not even you but King Jesus. Yet, despite the opposition, we saw that some of the Thessalonians did actually receive this good news with gladness.
The reason they received the good news with gladness is found in chapter 2. Paul was thankful that the Thessalonians received the word of God not as the word of men. This was not just any human instruction or religious recommendation. This was no self-help advice or optional life insurance. Paul said, this was the very word of God! The God of the universe, the Father of all peoples, it was God himself who had spoken to the Thessalonians. And so, this very word of God shaped all reality and their way of life. No human word could override the divine decree – no human act or idolatrous interference could take away the salvation this Living God had brought for the Thessalonian church. This very Word was working in the believers, changing them, strengthening them, preparing to meet the challenges of this world with the wisdom of Jesus.
At this juncture, it’s worth asking ourselves: how have we received the word of God? The way we receive God’s word will shape the way we respond to opposition we face in following Jesus. Receiving the word of God involves us acknowledging that there is no other king in our lives that dictates our purposes, our desires, our actions – not anyone, nor anything but King Jesus.
Brothers and sisters, it is indeed hard to acknowledge this – we never want to give up the control we have over our lives. But I’m asking you to relinquish control over your lives; you may personally consider that when we talk later about who this other King, Jesus is, and what He’s done for us. Instead, I want to urge you to first consider how you receive God’s word, do you know it is from our very Heavenly Father Himself?
(1) Sending Timothy
Let’s now look at how Paul encouraged the young Thessalonian church in their persecution. He had given them the very word of God, yes but he wasn’t just playing a cheerleading role from the grandstand – no, he wasn’t just shouting from afar, “come on guys! Don’t give up!” No, he did more than that. Paul made sure the Thessalonians experienced real support and tangible encouragement. He did this by sending this guy called Timothy to them. Verse 2, “and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the Gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by this afflictions.” You could say Timothy was a reinforcement or backup to the frontline of the Thessalonian battle!
But why wasn’t it enough for Paul to cheerlead from another country? Well, Paul is simply following the example of the God he worships, isn’t he? He’s ultimately displaying who the Christian God is and what He has done. And we see who the Christian God is precisely through the Father’s sending of His Son, Jesus, to be one with humanity. This God did not choose only to communicate a word or a message far away from his heavenly kingdom. Instead, this God’s very message and very word was God Himself. The Word become flesh to walk among us, taking on our weakness. Through Jesus, God demonstrated He’s not just a cheerleader from afar, or a feel-good motivational spirit distant from us. Therefore, we see how the people of God, followers of Jesus, are also expected to imitate that kind of closeness, that kind of oneness, that kind of relationship.
I like how the wonderful 17th century church reformer, Martin Luther describes the idea of sharing in one another’s suffering for Christ. He suggested that when it comes to sharing in a fellow Christian’s suffering, there are three different levels. First, the most basic level, we sacrifice our resources for that brother or sister. Donation, charity, basically hands-off generosity. On the second level, we go a little further by comforting the fellow Christian, praying for him. There’s considerably more emotional and spiritual involvement.
The third and highest level according to him, however, is this. It’s bearing the same weakness as your Christian brother or sister. It’s literally walking alongside a fellow Christian in their suffering! As one writer describes, it is in this third level of suffering that Luther “felt the pulse of the innermost heart of Christ’s love and therefore also of Christian love.” And, so, this was why Paul sent Timothy, to walk alongside the Thessalonians, to suffer as they did, to be one with them.
When I read this part of our passage, I cannot help but recall my mission trip to visit our Myanmar partners last December. Yes, they were persecution as intense as the Thessalonian church did, it wasn’t as if the government was trying to shut them down or anything like that. But they were facing different types of opposition in their Gospel work – for example, the tension between the government and rebels in their region can literally endanger their lives when they get caught in the crossfire of clashes. They are also in a region of villages, a majority of which are of other religions – sometimes they face a little bit more red tape and obstruction in living openly as Christians. Because of these reasons, when a team of us visited them last year, they were hugely encouraged and so happy to see us! They were so excited they even built two toilets for us!
When we see how Paul encourages this church, it’s a good time for us to reflect on the way we relate to one another in Christian community. How do we encourage one another – be it as Christian friends or fellow AG/cell group members? Are we the type of people who prefer arms-length relationships – perhaps sending the occasional Bible verse to a suffering brother? Are we the type of Christians who dislike being near to those who suffer, much more journey alongside them? These are really worth thinking about.
Next, I was wondering why Paul sent this particular apprentice to Thessalonica. Well Timothy was Paul’s disciple and spiritual son, a pastor-in-training who eventually took care of the Ephesian church, as he grew in maturity and wisdom.
In his letters to Timothy, Paul gives him some very important instructions. For example, 1 Timothy 4:12-13 “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.” Or another example, 2 Timothy 4:1-2 “I give you this charge: preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.”
You see, from Paul’s writings to Timothy, we see what’s really important and central in the Christian life; and we therefore see what makes us fruitful and faithful followers of Jesus; then we can see clearly what really keeps the church going until King Jesus returns. The key is not the occasional awe-inspiring, motivational speech. No, emotions aren’t enough. The secret isn’t making sure we vote in a way that ensures our local government is entirely Christian. No, it never has never happened, and will not work that way.
The key truth, the center of it all is sticking to God’s Word, always feeding from it and drawing encouragement from it. Nothing else outside of Scripture will suffice. It’s the mind and thought of the Living God that gave the Thessalonians the understanding, love, confidence, hope and endurance they needed. As long as they fixed their eyes on Jesus Christ in God’s Word – they did well. I wonder if you think that way about God’s word too in times of difficulty and trials. Paul goes on to tell them another key ingredient to living a life faithful to Jesus Christ, and, unsurprisingly, this is also based on Scripture.
(2) Certainty of Suffering
In verse 3 of our passage, he tells them “you yourselves know that we are destined for this” meaning we are bound to have sufferings and struggling in following Jesus. Continuing at verse 4, “for when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know.”
Brothers and sisters, when we pay careful attention to God’s sufficient word, we understand clearer how life according to Jesus works. We see from the lives of the Christians in the Bible, both the Old and New Testament, from Moses to Paul and Joseph to Jesus – we see the pattern of life according to the Living God. Suffering and trials are not optional. They’re promised. We should not be surprised when they hit us!
Paul tells the Thessalonians that they were destined for these struggles. It’s not that they made some mistakes. It’s not that they committed a particular sin against God and they were being punished. Persecution was an integral part of their lives – in fact, it was and is the primary way we become one with Jesus Christ, in His life and suffering, then his death, and then his resurrection!
How do you view struggles and persecution in your Christian life today? Have you found yourself surprised by how difficult it is to follow Christ? I think that many times, we don’t respond well to persecution and struggles in following Jesus because we expect a comfortable life. But following Jesus is very costly, and the devil’s main job is to remind us of that. Satan’s key mission is to continuously tell us that life without Jesus would be easier, that if we stopped following Jesus, we could do so much more, be more carefree, enjoy the many good things this world has to offer without worrying about our conscience or what Jesus would or would not do.
But it’s precisely because of this that we’ve got to remember why suffering is worth it. Paul reminded the Thessalonians it’s because King Jesus, the true and living God suffered and died for all mankind for our rebellion and sin against God. He also emphasized in chapter one that this true and living God had raised Jesus Christ from the dead, and therefore spare us from the fierce judgment to come.
In essence, our God King has gone all the way for us. He’s fought the battle to the death, for His Father’s cause and for our salvation. He’s shown his full commitment to us – even to the point of death, he never relented. And, yet, the battle did not end in defeat, His suffering which ended in death only served to secure the victory over evil and sin for us!
As one of my favorite preacher, Charles Spurgeon describes in his last ever sermon, this King he served, “He is always to be found in the thickest part of the battle. When the wind blows cold he always takes the bleak side of the hill. The heaviest end of the cross lies ever on his shoulders. If he bids us carry a burden, he carries it also. If there is anything that is gracious, generous, kind, and tender, yea lavish and superabundant in love, you always find it in him.”
If that’s the Gospel reality of our lives, surely it’s enough to face the sufferings and struggles of this age, as the Thessalonian church has shown.
(3) God Strengthens as We Wait for Christ’s Return
The third way in which Paul encourages the Thessalonians. Despite sending Timothy to soldier alongside them, despite giving them a good reminder of the certainty of suffering. And despite being encouraged by a good report from Timothy that they are doing well… Paul still prays “most earnestly night and day that they may see the Thessalonian church face to face and supply what is lacking in their faith.” (3:10). In fact, he’s so desperate that they continue to walk with Jesus that he says in verse 8, we are alive if you stand fast in the Lord – or if you give up, we’ll be so discouraged and broken it’s as though we’ll have experienced death itself!
Remember the Myanmar village I mentioned earlier? I understand what Paul means in verse 8. When one of the partners update me that the church community is doing well despite difficulties and the reality of physical threats there – I am filled with encouragement and I also wonder, “hey, my brothers and sisters there are trying so hard to follow Jesus, they’re doing well too. I must not only pray for them, I need press on to know God more, continue to serve Him more fervently here in Singapore!”
You see, Paul understood that suffering and persecution were terribly challenging. After all, he went through those things himself. He knew that it was not enough to rely on past victories, it just wasn’t going to suffice to look back and say, “oh, we’ve been faithful for the first two years, we’re doing okay.” From his personal experiences, he know its far too easy to give up on following Jesus, that suffering and struggles in the Christian’s life only get harder and harder.
Ever felt that way? The more you try to follow Jesus, the harder life becomes - of course, there’s the internal struggle and wrestling with sinful desires. But, it’s also more so in our relationships with others. We may not always face the same type of opposition as the Thessalonian Christians – you know, government opposition or political persecution. But I think some Singaporean values like pragmatism, ensuring stability in life, taking less risks in family and career choices, these so-called values that have a central place in our society tend to create the greatest opposition to our Christian beliefs and Christian lifestyle choices.
For instance, perhaps it’s workplace decisions you make to honor God that offend your colleagues and superiors; perhaps it’s career choices you make for a more Gospel-focused vocation that your family disagrees with; perhaps it’s lifestyle changes when you turn away from an old life of sin that offends a close friend; in such situations of opposition, do we find wisdom and encouragement in God’s word, do we look to Jesus and His church for support and solidarity?
It’s because persecution and struggles in following Christ become more and more intense that Paul ends of chapter 3, praying, “Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, 12 and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, 13 so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” He really hopes that the Thessalonian church love each other more and more, as following Jesus gets tougher and tougher. The unity and security we can find in God’s family is such an important reminder in times of trouble – we need to journey with one another constantly in our Christian lives! Then we are more likely remain faultless before God as we struggle before men. And there’s something else Paul says to encourage them. I wonder if you notice it? In the final verse, he explains that all of his prayer requests point to one thing and one thing only – the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
This return of King Jesus, the church’s waiting for his coming will truly change everything. In fact, one of the primary themes of 1 and 2 Thessalonians is this – struggling, and waiting for King Jesus to return! You see, at the end of each chapter in 1 Thessalonian, Paul concludes by reminidng the church of one thing: the certain return of King Jesus. How does this certain return of Christ change our lives?
It means we face suffering and struggles with great assurance that prays, “hang in there, keep your eyes fixed on King Jesus, He will come and establish His kingdom soon.” It’s means we learn how to earnestly pray and remind ourselves, “King Jesus is returning, He will right all the wrongs. Do not be moved by these afflictions.” But I want to emphasize that we also pray with a unique love that says, “King Jesus suffered and endured so that I could see the love of God in Him. Surely, I must do the same that others can know Him too.” Imagine if we prayed these things and ask for the Holy Spirit to help us remain blamless in conduct, holy in word and thought before God as we wait for King Jesus to return!
The story of the Thessalonians. It’s a simple story, yet a life-changing, planet-shaking one. It’s an account of the Living God and his people turning world upside down. It’s the story of them proclaiming, there’s another King Jesus. Of course, this story upsets the world, and that puts the King’s people and His Church in a threatening situation for the rest of their lives. But He’s coming again. The world lives as if there is no God, or no returning of Jesus, no day of judgment. Yet, it’s crucial we live always in the truth: in the presence of God, waiting for Jesus and prepared for the final day.
When we do so, we are sometimes surprised that we find incredible strength, encouraged by God’s promises in the Bible! And we’ll also see, just like how it was in the Thessalonian church, that one of the primary ways God helps us in our sufferings is through the love and support of our Christian family. If you’re someone fighting a solo battle today, you’ve gotta seek support and help in God’s family here in Zion Bishan. Lastly, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we’ll also find deep patience and courage to face a world turned upside down, a world that hates King Jesus and His followers. So then, brothers and sisters, do not be moved by these afflictions.