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  • Pastor Brett

A Church in Trouble

Please read 2 Thessalonians 1:1-12 in your Bible. I used the NLT to prepare these remarks.

Visit jamesbest.net/artwork/sermon-illustrations-2023.

In the Jan. 4 issue of the Epoch Times, Zrinka Peters asked, “Does Religion Prevent Despair?” In this article she offered evidence found in various sociological studies that demonstrate a linkage between the decline in church attendance in our country to a rise in what she called “deaths of despair like suicide and overdose.” On a more positive note, persons who attend worship at least once a week report “greater life satisfaction, more frequent volunteering, a higher sense of mission, a greater tendency to give to others.”

That shouldn’t come as news to us, right? Still, it’s nice to have some data points from secular sources that support what we’ve always believed; following Jesus makes a positive difference.

Good things happen when a church handles bad things in a godly way.

CONTEXT – Senders: Paul and Silvanus/Silas were founders of the church in Thessalonica. Timothy served as Paul’s emissary to the church on occasions when he couldn’t go see them personally. In Acts 17:1-9 we read how Jews in Thessalonica instigated a persecution of these three, charging them with treason based on their claim that Jesus was King, not Caesar. However, the persecution to which Paul refers in his letters was initiated by Gentiles, not Jews (1 Thessalonians 2:1-4).

The two letters to the Thessalonians are unique in the New Testament in that they were authored by Paul and Silas. This passage is much the same as 1 Thessalonians 1:4-10.

1. Good churches suffer bad things. (3-4)

In four ways, Paul made it clear that this was a good church. First, he thanked God for them. In my humble opinion, this is the most sincere compliment someone can give.

Two, he reported that their faith had flourished. Persecution is an intense experience that divides the mature from the immature or false. In the case of maturing faith, persecution will fuel more growth. In the case of a false or immature faith, persecution will cause it to fail.

Three, their love grew. In 1 Thessalonians 3:6 Paul commended them for their love and six verses later, he prayed their love would increase. His testimony in the second letter is that his prayers were answered with a “Yes.” Their love did increase.

Four, they were handling persecution well. Paul proudly held them up as an example for other churches to follow. This letter is all about encouraging a church that was in trouble because unbelievers chose to give them trouble.

2. Encouragement for good churches suffering bad things. (5-10)

In times of trial, turn back to your theology: God uses persecution to achieve His will. (5-6) Paul offered two examples of what God wills. First, it is God’s will to use trials, especially persecution, to demonstrate His justice. Because it is unpleasant, we naturally think of persecution as “bad.” Paul challenged them to think differently about the persecution they suffered, to see it from God’s perspective. If they would look at their circumstance with the eyes of faith, they would see this as God demonstrating His justice through them. How exciting!

God’s justice will be apparent to all when He punishes their persecutors and brings them to ruin. This truth encouraged the believers to have hope, but discouraged them from seeking vengeance themselves, which rightly belongs to the Lord (Romans 12:17-19).

True justice includes both a punishment of the guilty and reward of the righteous. People who think they can improve Judgment Day by eliminating condemnation of the ungodly are guilty of perverse and false theology.

Second, God uses adversity to prepare them for their place in His Kingdom. Persecutions and all trials are like a gardener pruning the lifeless parts of a plant so that it becomes healthier. God uses suffering to distance us from the things of this world, drawing us closer to Himself. Those whom God calls to a place in His Kingdom will first suffer for the Kingdom (Acts 14:22; 1 Thessalonians 2:12).

A promise that encourages is found in verse seven, that God gives His people rest. In the short term, this is a promise of relief from suffering. Everything in this life, including persecution, is temporary. In the long term, this is a promise of Heaven, eternal relief from all things evil and unpleasant.

The most encouraging promise is this: Jesus is coming again and will bring about complete justice. (7-9) Elsewhere in the New Testament, the Second Coming is referred to with the Greek word parousia, but here the work apokalupsei is used, which has the sense of being uncovered. The translation APPEARS is particularly apt; at His Second Coming, Jesus will be revealed to all people. Both believers and unbelievers will behold Him with their own eyes. Judgment will follow immediately, so it will be too late to be saved.

His appearing will be unmistakable and glorious. He will come FROM HEAVEN indicating His exalted status, his authority. He will be joined by HIS MIGHTY ANGELS attending Him in FLAMING FIRE. FIRE is a symbol of God’s judgment (Isaiah 66:15-16; 2 Peter 3:7+10) and His glorious presence (Exodus 3:2; 19:18; Psalm 18:8; Ezekiel 1:13+27).

The people condemned on Judgment Day are described in two ways: they refused to know God and refused to obey God. They will be PUNISHED (literally, “pay a penalty” for their refusals. Their penalty is described in two ways: ETERNAL DESTRUCTION and being FOREVER SEPARATED FROM HIS GLORIOUS POWER. This is two ways of saying the same thing because God is the source of life and to be cut off from Him is to have no life, to be destroyed.

Jesus’ people will give Him glory. It encourages us to look ahead to that day. (10) To people of faith, this is a breath-taking thought: to be united with God and one another in great glory. That hope should be enough to motivate us to weather the very worst this world can throw at us. That great day is anticipated in a couple of Psalms. Psalm 89:7 = GOD IS GLORIFIED IN THE COUNCIL OF HIS HOLY ONES. Psalm 68:35 = GOD WILL BE MARVELED AT BY HIS HOLY ONES. What distinguishes God’s HOLY ONES from those condemned to ETERNAL DESTRUCTION is their faith; they believed the truth about Jesus Christ, just as Paul told it to them.

We support in times of trial by praying with and for each other. (11)

This is the second mention of worthiness. In verse five it was worthiness of God’s Kingdom. Here it is worthiness of God’s call. Again, this is two ways of saying the same thing.

Worthiness is not something we earn; it is grace, God’s gift to us. He calls us and makes us worthy. However, we live and work to think and behave in ways that demonstrate our worthiness, so it is a gift that requires something from us.

We can be encouraged when we honor God in the way we live. (12)

Godly living is pleasing to self and others, but more importantly, it honors God. Having a good reputation is a way of testifying about God, introducing Him to others.

Out of His amazing grace, God goes further and shares his HONOR with us. At the Second Coming, Jesus will receive ultimate honor and He will lift up His people to share that honor with them. This should also thrill our hearts and give us ample motive to do the more ambitious, more moral, more spiritual, more difficult thing in this world and remain faithful in the throes of persecution.

This chapter ends with an affirmation of the divinity of Jesus Christ. In the Greek, OUR GOD AND LORD JESUS CHRIST is directed at one person. GOD is not a reference to God the Father, but to Jesus as GOD. It is this kind of confident faith that brought believers persecution at the hands of the Jews and the Gentiles.

Good things happen when a church handles bad things in a godly way.

Christians who lived in the first couple of centuries A.D. were in a difficult place. On one side, the Jews hated them because they made claims about Jesus and their God that deeply challenged their traditions and beliefs. On the other side, pagans hated the Christians for pretty much the same reasons – the true believers rejected the traditional gods. They referred to Christians as “atheists” for this reason. They made even more vile accusations, showing their hatred of Christians.

In our situation, persecution is a rarity. For early churches like the one in Thessalonica, it was typical of the way they were treated. So what can we take away from this passage and others on the subject of persecution? I can think of six.

1 = The more you distance yourself from popular culture, the more you confront the worldliness and sin promoted, the more opposition you can expect.

2 = The closer we get to the Second Coming, the more persecution you will see in the U.S.

3 = Passive opposition will turn to active persecution if the culture continues to go in the direction its being herded.

4 = Take this passage and ones like it as a “wake up call” to alert you and make you vigilant.

5 = Double down on your devotion to Jesus. Without regard to how anyone reacts, love Jesus more and love more people in His name.

6 = This teaching can also be applied to enduring hardships. The trials of life are not times of direct opposition to our faith, but they can similarly challenge us.

RESOURCES:

The Epoch Times, January 4-10, 2023, page C8.

Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol. 16, 1-2 Thessalonians, 2008, Philip W. Comfort.

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