This message is based on 2 Thessalonians 1:1-12 and preached at the Central Schwenkfelder Church on March 20, 2011.
I’m sure that a fair amount of us have been reading up on the situation in Japan. Last week, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake occurred off the east coast, which caused a Tsunami which took the lives of 10,000 people in one village. Close to 20,000 are dead or missing; 500,000 are homeless and 350,000 are without power. Close to one million are without water. Things like this happen and we can’t help but to ask: “Why did this happen?” “What is the purpose in this?” It does seem senseless, but then again, we operate with a limited amount of knowledge. Oftentimes people ask that question of God, as if He were being put on trial. This brings up the topic of why do bad things happen? As Christians, we have a firm belief in the sovereignty of God, otherwise known as His decrees. In other words, that God so rules the universe and the affairs of men that whatsoever happens is not according to chance, but according to His gracious choice. And yet, God is not the author of evil.
A natural reaction is to ask: “Why, God?” This has taken place on a regular basis since the founding of the church. That sort of question could have been asked by the Christians at Thessalonica. Written shortly after his first letter, probably in the year 51 or 52, Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians addresses this subject and encourages them to have patience and faith. The purpose of the second of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians was to clear up any confusion that might be lingering about the Second coming of Christ.
These Christians were being persecuted for their faith. Such atrocities may have been seen as senseless; they could have wondered where God was. This morning, let us discover that God’s ways are higher than our ways; and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9) and that Patience and Faith Go Hand in Hand. First, let us discover that…
ADVERSITY AND PERSECUTION HAVE A PURIFYING EFFECT.
In other words, we can still have a thriving Christian faith and witness in the midst of difficulty and hardship. Notice verse three: “We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing. 4 Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. 5 All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering.”
Our passage is divided into two portions, verses 1-5 which deals with commendation and verses 6-11, which deal with clarification. Verse one reminds us of the position that God’s people hold, which is not an earthly position, but a spiritual and heavenly one. Paul writes: “To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” This reminds us of the position that the church, which is more important than its geographic location or political position. This position allowed these Christians to see themselves as having something in common. They were family; and they were in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The testimony of these Christians included a robust love for one another. This is really the mark of a true Christian, as Jesus said in John 13:35: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Speaking of our love for fellow believers as family and our love for neighbor in obedience to the second greatest commandment, the late Francis Schaeffer put it this way: “This dual goal should be our Christian mentality, the set of our minds; we should be consciously thinking about it and what it means in our one-moment-at-a-time lives. It should be the attitude that governs our outward observable actions.” Such love bonded them together, even though outward circumstances were not favorable towards them.
But these were suffering for their faith. There are a handful of words that might help us understand what they were going through. He mentions persecution and tribulation. Affliction would be another term. In 1 Thessalonians 1:6 it is called “severe suffering.” 2:14 states: “You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews….” And 1 Thessalonians 3:3 calls them unsettling trials.
What did they encounter? We read of it in Acts 17:5: where a mercenary and raucous mob instigated the authorities to wrongfully accuse Paul and his friends of insurrection. Christians are often misunderstood and wrongfully accused. Their natural reaction would be to be discouraged and troubled in heart. But Paul reminds them that their ultimate citizenship is in heaven. One commentator states: “Persecution has a purifying effect and seals the doom of the enemies of God’s people.” But there is more going on than just the mistreatment of God’s people. It could be that through the trial, He desires His people to draw closer to Him. Such things separate us from the world.
We should not be surprised at the conflict between our faith and popular opinion. Whether it is Easter, the exclusive claims of Jesus or Christmas. Take for instance, a few years ago when members of the Music Department at the Bloomsburg University wanted to create a disc of holiday music from various religions and cultures because the traditional Christmas carols with their Christian message offended some non-Christians in the area. The University’s programmed bell system required a special disk and they couldn’t find one with holiday music that wasn’t Christian in nature. After reading the report, a reader identified only as “Jodi E” wrote these words to the editor: “ …what happens to a person’s right to hear the traditional songs one grew up without it being muddied with the modern definition of “all inclusive” —— what it should be called is ‘all exclusive.’”
What should we expect from a culture that is slowly growing more hostile to the gospel but to be excluded? Furthermore, Jesus predicted more than exclusion, He said we would be persecuted for His name. Our reaction reveals who we are. Affliction has the ability to draw us to God and clarifies who is on the Lord’s side. Remember that Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:43-48: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” Persecution in this life is an indicator of justice in the next. That leads us to our next thought, that…
PERSECUTION HAS A PURPOSE OF CRYSTALLIZING JUDGEMENT.
In other words, there will come a day of perfect and final justice. In verse six, notice that their afflictions prove that they are a part of God’s kingdom: “God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you 7 and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.”
Paul makes a couple of promises here. For one, God will repay their persecutors. Secondly, He will give them relief. So he gives us a picture of what Judgment Day will be like. It will be a day in which mighty angels are seen. There will also be the presence of flaming fire. This is an Old Testament allusion to God’s majesty. Remember that He led them by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, for 40 years in the wilderness (i.e. Numbers). Or when Elijah called down fire from heaven, which consumed the altar, atop of Mount Carmel in front of the prophets of Baal, to prove that He was the one true God (1 Kings 18). Or when Ezekiel witness God sitting atop his chariot of fire and called him to speak to His rebellious people (Ezekiel 1) Or when God promised to judge Judah for their sin in Jeremiah 4:4: “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD And remove the foreskins of your heart, Men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, Lest My wrath go forth like fire And burn with none to quench it, Because of the evil of your deeds.” Or when God vowed to judge the nation of Assyria in Isaiah 30:30: “The LORD will cause men to hear his majestic voice and will make them see his arm coming down with raging anger and consuming fire, with cloudburst, thunderstorm and hail.”
But these will not be as significant as what will take place on the Day of Judgment. Verse 8 tells us: “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power 10 on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people….” Here, God will take vengeance and those who have mistreated His people. He will also punish evil doers with “everlasting destruction.” Jesus spoke of it in terms of “where the fire is never quenched and the worm never dies (Mark 9:44).” In other words, God is a god of final and perfect justice!
Why are Christians persecuted? Where does persecution come from? Aren’t we a civilized world to where that does not occur anymore? Not at all. We can know the following about the persecution of Christians:
- Is alive and well;
- Comes from God’s enemies;
- Comes from within and outside the church;
- Comes often from those who do not know God;
- Is always mysteriously used by God for His sovereign purposes.
In addition, persecution and affliction are a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment. Notice John Calvin’s words: “I am of opinion that the true meaning is this- that the injuries and persecutions which innocent and pious persons endure from the wicked and abandoned, show clear, as in a mirror, that God will one day be the judge of the world.” Paul says that persecution has happened in the lives of the believers at Thessalonica, to seal the doom of those who do not believe in the Lord Jesus and do not obey the gospel.
So the real question is not “am I happy?” or “Do I have purpose?” as if there were some selfish reason we exist. No, the real question is “how may I glorify Jesus?” The real question is: what is the chief purpose of humankind? It is given to us in the Westminster Shorter Catechism where it states: “Man’s Chief purpose is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” Our Thought for Mediation is taken from 2 Thessalonians 1:11: “To this end we pray… in order that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you….” Let us pray.
 Francis Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1970), 9.
 See http://www.foxnews.com/national/tonguetied/112000.sml and http://www.foxnews.com/national/tonguetied/112700.sml. Referenced in Fresh Illustrations..
 John Calvin, “Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians,” Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume XXI, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 312.