I have no really good reason for this except that I read 2 Thessalonians myself recently and I thought it was good stuff. So, I thought we might all look at 2 Thessalonians. Can I encourage you to have your Bibles open?
On his missionary journeys, Paul had visited Thessalonica, preached the gospel and some people had been converted. But, as usual, there was opposition. There was a riot and Paul was forced to leave town… which meant that these baby Christians were born into a context of persecution. Paul was really worried about them but, in fact, they proved faithful and the church flourished and Paul was delighted.
This is a letter full of love and appreciation. He does not have to chastise them or correct them but, being a disciple-maker, he, of course, does urge them on to greater things.
Picking up on Paul’s enthusiasm and encouragement, let’s look at the reasons for his rejoicing. Read 2 Thess 1. (Go to next slide, vv.3-4 again)
V.3: Paul said that he always gave thanks to God for them. Why? What were the characteristics of a church that delighted the apostle Paul?
v.3 – “because your faith is growing more and more… and the love you all have for one another is increasing.” Faith and love. Paul was happy – and, presumably, God was happy. Faith and love.
But faith and love were not simply present. They were both growing. It is their growth that delights him – and presumably God. It is not a static faith but a faith that is getting bigger and deeper and stronger. It was not simply the faith they had had when they were saved. It was a growing faith present in their daily lives. It was not that they loved one another but that they were loving each other more and more.
What do you think a growing faith would have looked like?
We get one clue in V.4. Paul skited about the Thessalonians. When he visited other churches, he told them about what was happening at Thessalonica. He was proud of them. Here were young Christians, experiencing persecution, but going on for Jesus. In these other churches, he boasted about the Thessalonians’ perseverance in the midst of persecution and trials.
There would be some Christians who would say that as your faith grows, you receive more and more of God’s blessings. God wants you to be healthy and wealthy; just have faith. But no, the faith that Paul told stories about was the faith of people suffering and enduring.
Why would you persevere when persevering bring suffering? Why not give up? Many people obviously have faced persecution and have given up. What is the difference between persevering and quitting?
The difference is faith. You persevere only if you trust God to keep His promises. Why endure suffering now? Only because you believe that God will do what He has said He will do. Only because you trust that if you suffer now, but remain faithful, God will be faithful and will give you future blessings – if not in this life then certainly in the next. Why not have peace and security now? Only because we trust God for peace and security in the future, if we remain faithful now.
You might remember that earlier this year there were several suicide bombings of Coptic Christian churches in Egypt and recently 28 Copts were gunned down while travelling by bus. In April, Amr Adeeb, perhaps the most prominent talk-back host in Egypt, was left speechless. Twelve seconds of silence is an awkward eternity on television. Amr Adeeb, leaned forward as he searched for a response.
“The Copts of Egypt … are made of … steel!” he finally uttered.
What caused that? He had just watched a colleague speak to a newly widowed woman in a simple house in Alexandria. The woman’s husband had been a guard at St. Mark’s Cathedral. On Palm Sunday, he had redirected a suicide bomber through the perimeter metal detector, where the terrorist detonated. That guard was probably the first to die in the blast but he saved the lives of dozens inside the church.
His widow, with her children by her side, had told the reporter, “I’m not angry at the one who did this. I’m telling him, ‘May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you. You put my husband in a place I couldn’t have dreamed of.’”
Stunned, Adeeb stammered about Copts suffering atrocities over hundreds of years, but one thing, in particular, shocked him. “How great is this forgiveness you have!” his voice cracked. “If it were my father, I could never say this. But this is their faith and religious conviction.”
Millions marvelled with him across the airwaves of Egypt. [Christianity Today, April 20,2017]
Perseverance in the face of persecution is the aspect of faith mentioned here but I am sure that Paul was perhaps also excited about their use of their spiritual gifts – trusting God to use them supernaturally – about their sharing the gospel – trusting God to bring other people to faith, etc.
The second reason for rejoicing was their growing love for one another.
The descriptions we have of the life of the early church emphasise the degree of community and togetherness – the worshipping together, the eating together, the sharing of possessions so as to care for the poor, etc. There is a famous quote from the second century. It actually comes from a Christian priest, Tertullian, but he imagines a pagan saying, “Look, how these Christians love one another!” For onlookers, the love that Christians had for one another was just as stunning and mind-boggling as the forgiveness that the Egyptian Copts extend to their persecutors. The church showed what community and compassion and sacrifice were like. And, in Thessalonica, that love for one another was growing and growing. No wonder Paul was delighted.
What could we do; what could you do, that would mean that people look at this church and are stunned? Conversely, if our faith and love are growing, we can be sure that God is delighted with us.
Then we come to another reason for rejoicing – judgement! What? How can that be? Is it not interesting that, right at the beginning of this letter, in the midst of the thanksgiving and affirmation, Paul wrote six verses about judgement – and as a reason for rejoicing? That really does not fit with our modern thinking. We do not like talking about God judging. How can Paul rejoice in the fact that people will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord? Is he just ghoulish and vindictive and nasty? Or is there something else going on here?
The context is still the persecution. Is it fair and right that good, God-fearing people should suffer? No. So the reason to rejoice is that God is going to sort that out.
Look at the phrases Paul uses here. “God’s judgement is right (v.5).” There would be plenty of people today who would say it would be wrong for God to judge but that is not the biblical view. The biblical view is that judgement is right. When Paul knew that the Thessalonians are suffering unjustly for their faith, He also knew that to restore justice would be right. Sorting out injustice is just the right thing.
They will be counted worthy of the Kingdom of God (v.5). They were suffering; they were rejected and despised but when God sets things right, these faithful, sincere, godly people will be counted worthy of the Kingdom of God. That is the way it should be! That is great!
God is just (v.6). God will do what is absolutely right. There are all sorts of injustice now but a just God is going to act. That is something to rejoice in.
Now here’s the sticking point: God’s justice will mean that the unjust will be punished. Justice means we reap what we sow. Those who have troubled the Thessalonian Christians will be troubled by God (v.6). And the Thessalonians will receive relief (v.7). At the moment, their persecutors rejoiced and the Christians experienced turmoil but one day the situation would be reversed. The persecuted will receive relief and the persecutors will reap what they have sown.
We possibly struggle with the idea of God punishing anyone but Paul describes it as a great day. It is a day of great majesty and glory. Jesus will be revealed from heaven in blazing fire with His powerful angels (v.7). This is the day that God asserts Himself and justice is finally done. We pray “Your Kingdom come”. Here it is. God will reign and all those who have taken control and defied God and abused other people will be punished. Those who do not know God and those who do not obey the gospel will be punished. Those who reject God; those who don’t have a relationship with God because they have rejected the Saviour and rejected the gospel – the good news of God’s grace – experience the consequences of their choices.
Does God enjoy punishing people? Absolutely not! Let us be clear about this. The Bible says that God finds no pleasure in judging, that He wants no one to perish but everyone to come to repentance; that He wants everyone to be saved. But if people oppose God and dishonour God, God will win.
The consequences are severe. Again, Paul doesn’t pull any punches. V.9: they will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His might. On the other hand, God will be glorified in His holy people and marvelled at among all those who have believed (v.10). God, who is currently rejected and ignored and mocked, will receive the glory that is rightfully His. What a great day! Hallowed be Your name. May You be honoured and glorified!
Paul says that these Thessalonian Christians will be amongst those who glorify God and marvel at Him, because they believed in Jesus. We see the past, the present and the future in these verses. The past is that they believed in Jesus. Because of that, they are currently being persecuted and suffering injustice but they are growing in faith and love. And the day will come when God will reign in His Kingdom; He will be glorified; and they will be in His presence.
Paul Windsor was once running some preacher training in Cambodia. In one session he was teaching them about the story of the Bible – the story the Bible tells from beginning to end. But it wasn’t going well. The Cambodians were not engaging with it at all. Paul and his team felt they were missing the mark. There was no response. They somehow were not reaching these people – until they got to the end of the story. When they talked about Jesus returning in victory and judging the whole world and establishing His Kingdom of justice and peace, the Cambodians started cheering and clapping and stamping their feet. If you think about their history, the knowledge that God would establish justice, was huge for them.
So, as Paul starts this letter with reasons for rejoicing, two reasons related to the Thessalonians – that they were growing in faith and loving one another more and more. And one reason related to God. Jesus will return. Jesus will judge what is wrong and will reign over His Kingdom, where His people will experience His glory.
Yes, God, You will receive glory. Yes, God, your suffering people will be vindicated. Yes, God, there will be no more injustice because You are just and Your judgement is right. Christians, rejoice when you se growing faith and growing love. And rejoice, God’s Kingdom is coming.
If there is a challenge here for us, we might ask “Is that true of us that our faith and our love for one another are growing? What would God have us do so that it might be more true of us?”
Secondly, of course, there is the challenge of judgement. Which group will we be in on that day? Have you, like the Thessalonians, put your faith in Jesus? Do you look forward to the coming of His Kingdom? Or, is judgement a frightening prospect for you?