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1 Thessalonians

Pains in Persecution

1st Thessalonians 3

Paul evidently wrote this letter from the city of Athens. Thessalonica is a few hundred miles to the east; just enough distance in those days to make a return trip something of an adventure. Paul himself is undergoing persecution by the Jews of Athens, but it is typical of the caring Christian heart of the man that he is concerned not by his own sufferings but by others. The church he loves may have gotten word of Paul’s problem, and might be suffering doubt and anxiety. So in his anxiety he sends a young Timothy to that church. Timothy has returned with good news; all is well. This chapter is Paul’s reaction.

First, however, we need to consider persecution and suffering for Christ’s sake.

Persecution – and our reaction to it

Christians in America have yet to suffer any really significant forms of persecution – but the telltale signs of its arrival can be determined. Already, Christianity is “politically incorrect.” How dare these Christians say that homosexuality, adultery, fornication – the list grows lengthy, folks – are in any sense wrong? Don’t they know that right and wrong are obsolete concepts? Soon the time will come when Christians find that getting a job is difficult – who would hire someone who would commit violence against another, homosexual, employee? (They’re all weirdos, right?).

Persecution in this time was much more severe – to the point of death. We can learn from this example how the Christian should react to it.

We should not be disturbed by persecution

Most of us would be disturbed indeed by such, but the Scripture counsels us to the contrary. First, we should expect to be persecuted:

Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

(2Ti 3:12 NASB)

Indeed, we should not only expect it, but we should consider it a blessing – for it shows that we are indeed the children of God:

"Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. "Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

(Mat 5:10-12 NASB)

Paul makes the same point to the Thessalonians – he taught them that persecution would come. That, however, does not make it easier to take. If your doctor tells you that you have cancer and very little time left because of it, you might feel relieved to know what the problem is. But it’s still fatal. Knowing what’s going to happen isn’t the same as conquering it. But it’s a start.

Why are we so disturbed by it?

When persecution comes, many Christians feel that it is not a source of rejoicing but a source of pain. It’s easy to see why. If you are a true Christian, you will live your life loving your fellow Christians, and those around you. You will be charitable, forgiving, and otherwise behave as one the world might label “a nice guy.” One of the white hats, so to speak. In times of ease they’re willing to overlook your strange notions about God because you seem both harmless and charitable – a blessing to the community. That sets expectations for us; we learn to expect to be treated both politely and well.

Indeed, we also receive that type of treatment from our heavenly Father, for God is love. So the ordinary experience of the true Christian does not prepare him for persecution. That’s why the Scripture mentions the point so frequently. You need to be taught the existence of persecution and its intent before it arrives.

You are a source of blessing; you are also a painful reminder of the existence of right and wrong. The world in our time rejects righteousness, preferring its own darkness. We are the light of the world – and the darkness resents it and will persecute us when possible.

What can we do to help those in persecution

One way to prepare for persecution is to help those who are suffering from it. By encouraging them we prepare ourselves for the same thing. Here are three ways we can do this:

  • First, by sharing our own afflictions with them. We’ll tell almost anyone about our success; our sorrows are reserved for those we hold dear. Share them with someone, and that person draws closer to you. Share your sorrows with those in persecution.
  • Next, material help is always appreciated. Persecution often takes the form of economic impact – someone losing a job for Christ’s sake. Practical Christian giving bonds us to such a person.
  • Finally, and most important, lift them up in prayer. Do not ask that the persecution end; rather, that it will be a blessing and a glory to the church. God is so strong when we are so weak.

A Father’s Care

In this section of Scripture we shall see how Paul, enduring persecution, reached out to the church of Thessalonica.

Therefore when we could endure it no longer, we thought it best to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God's fellow worker in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith, so that no one would be disturbed by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this. For indeed when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass, as you know. For this reason, when I could endure it no longer, I also sent to find out about your faith, for fear that the tempter might have tempted you, and our labor would be in vain. But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us good news of your faith and love, and that you always think kindly of us, longing to see us just as we also long to see you, for this reason, brethren, in all our distress and affliction we were comforted about you through your faith; for now we really live, if you stand firm in the Lord. For what thanks can we render to God for you in return for all the joy with which we rejoice before our God on your account, as we night and day keep praying most earnestly that we may see your face, and may complete what is lacking in your faith?

(1Th 3:1-10 NASB)

The heart of the true Christian thinks first of others in the faith. It is a sign of great power in the faith and maturity of the soul. Paul here shows his concern for the works he has done; this church is one he planted and nurtured. It is not just his labor he is concerned with; no, these have become his friends and beloved. His concern is not that they uphold him; his concern is that they might be discouraged because of the suffering Paul is enduring. Paul now deals with this problem.

Satan attacks the ones you love

We usually think of Satan attacking us with temptation, if we think about it at all. But Satan can also attack a person by attacking a loved one. It’s a very effective technique:

  • First, it weakens you. Some part of the array of friends and loved ones you counted on is now weaker; you are not an island, living alone.
  • Next, it discourages you. Particularly if the someone is a person you have admired, it is painful to see them in bad circumstances. It is important that you do not stop sharing with them, but it is discouraging to see someone you love in a hospital bed, for example.
  • Finally, it distracts you. Just when you might be set to do some great service, something like this arises. It takes mature judgment, guided by prayer, to know what to do.

Of course, knowing the attack does not mean we know what to do about it.

Our reaction

What should we do about such a situation? Paul gives us an example here:

  • First, of course, is to hold them up in prayer.
  • Paul shows us something not often done these days. He sends someone he loves to inquire after the church he loves. If God does not allow you to go yourself, send someone you love.

The result of this is comfort, both for the one who is sending and for those who are receiving. Nothing so pleases us in affliction as the sight of an old friend.

The encouragement of good news

Sometimes you just have to find out. Paul, when he could “endure it no longer,” sends Timothy to find out. What a joy when Timothy returns with the welcome news that they are standing firm! Paul’s labor there had not turned useless, but had grown. It is a joyous moment.

On the personal side, it seems they’ve missed Paul as well, and would love to have him make the return voyage. Is there anything so welcome as that? Paul’s worries that his troubles (including those with the law) might cause them to disown him have been relieved. There is nothing like knowing that your loved ones still love you.

Objectives

Paul, in writing about this, shows us why he cares so much for them. He knows God’s plan for them. He shows this to us in one of his mid-letter closes – a benediction before the sermon has ended, so to speak:

Now may our God and Father Himself and Jesus our Lord direct our way to you; and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you; so that He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints.

(1Th 3:11-13 NASB)

Return direction

Paul, like the rest of us, has only a limited appetite for the new and unfamiliar. He’d like to return to see his friends. But in saying that, he tells us clearly that the life of the disciple is not one in which the pilgrim determines the path:

  • He acknowledges that God himself directs his path. It’s no use asking God for a return ticket to comfort; it’s not going to happen. Rather, ask that your steps be ordered pleasantly in the way.
  • If God determines that path, he will clear the obstacles from it. Indeed, this is often the method by which God makes it clear that he is pointing the way.
  • If he points out the path, and clears the path, then we should be neither hesitant nor ashamed to walk on it – wherever it goes. Paul saw his own martyrdom at the end of his road. He walked on it anyway.

“All the way my Savior leads me, what have I to ask beside?”

Abound in love

Next, Paul asks that his readers should abound in love. Love is the unconquerable weapon of the Christian. Against it, Satan has no defense – only distraction.

  • First, we should abound in love for each other. This builds up the church, which builds us as well. It also shows the world what it means to be a disciple of Christ.
  • Next, we should abound in love for those who are sent from us, like Paul was here. Our love should include our Christian brothers in all places.
  • Finally, working outward, is our love for all people. Make it the normal method of dealing with people.
Eye on the prize

All this is not just to get us through the day. There is an ultimate purpose to this: our Lord’s return. By such encouragement as we have seen here – for both Paul and the church at Thessalonica – we strengthen our hearts to go forward. We know of our Lord’s return; together we can strengthen each other looking towards that day.

We are to be holy – kept apart, a people who serve God rather than the pleasures of this world. We ought to be different, for our Master is different.

How long? – to the end of the age, should we live to see it.

Summary

Persecution: it’s to be expected as a Christian, counted as joy when it comes – and a time where sharing love really counts. Satan will attack us in it; using the weapons of God (prayer and love) and the things of this world (practical help) we can provide the encouragement needed to overcome. All this is so that we might be filled to overflowing with love as we live here – and that we might be seen holy and blameless on the Day of the Lord.

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