Persecution of Christianity Is On Our Horizon
[1st Thessalonians chapter three]
When we left off last week, we had just finished chapter two of 1st Thessalonians. In it and our study of Paul’s letters to the early churches, we found the apostle Paul commenting at length about the ongoing persecution of the followers of Christ that was happening as these words were being written. Today as we move on to chapter three Paul continues his commentary on the ongoing persecution of the early church. Paul’s words continue to resonate to this day, as we will soon see. So let’s kick off today’s study of chapter three beginning with verse one.
“So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way as you well know. For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless.” (1st Thessalonians 3, verses 1-5, NIV)
In the first verse, we can see one thing the apostles knew that has long since been forgotten by modern workers – they knew when to take a break! “So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens”. They faced persecution and much personal hardship as they spread the Gospel throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean coastal areas. They dedicated their lives – and no doubt frequently had their own lives and personal safety threatened. Contrast this with today’s financial idolatry (sorry, all you workaholics), where putting in lots of overtime at work (assuming you’re lucky enough to have a job) has become the norm rather than the exception. There are many who are buried under a mountain of debt for two main reasons. The first is medical debt, and the other is student loans, and I view them separately from the type of person I’m about to describe. Sometimes people are heavily in debt due to living beyond their means. They are the ones who say, “I can’t afford it because I might miss a house payment or a car payment or whatever”, but therein lies the core issue. If many of those people weren’t living in twice as much house as they can afford, or if they weren’t driving around in a car or truck with a monthly payment that’s twice as much as what they spend on groceries – if they were a lot more practical (not to mention being a lot less covetous), they wouldn’t be having the difficulties they are experiencing (I am excluding any readers who are either long-term unemployed or retired from this train of thought). Remember what the Bible says in Genesis chapter one, “And on the seventh day God rested…” . So rest and recreation are ordained by God, and we were never meant to work seven days a week. It’s no wonder that people are having heart attacks and strokes in their 30’s and even their 20’s. Having said all that, let’s move on to another verse.
“We sent Timothy… to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way as you well know.” There is a reason that the apostles sent Timothy that hearkens back to the Book of Acts. Timothy had been trained by, among others such as Paul, Barnabas, who was a much beloved person in the early Church whose name translates as “son of encouragement”. I can practically visualize Timothy as he studied and grew in the Lord and his Word as an eager young apprentice who preached, and later taught as we just read, the Word of God with what must have been great vigor and much enthusiasm. His youthful vitality energized the early Church to the point where he was sent on what may have been his first solo assignment – that is, the strengthening and building up of the Church and the Body of Christ. I can almost hear Paul saying, “Let’s send Timothy, he can get those people fired up about their faith as well as any of us can.” But Timothy was also sent to calm the fears of the people regarding their Roman occupiers and their running fight with the Hebrew religious establishment of that time. So, here is a good example for us to follow, that of Timothy who, though he was not one of the original apostles, had equivalent stature with them all the same. Let’s pause and reflect on this for a moment: Wouldn’t you like to be a Timothy too, or any of the early church leaders for that matter? (Barnabas would be my choice) That’s what God is calling us to do – to aspire to be counted among the righteous and worthy in the sight of Almighty God, even as one of the apostles if that were possible. It’s time for us to set our sights higher so we may aim for more lofty goals in life and in our walk with Christ. Everyone we meet, or work with or worship with – or not – is a chance for us to be an apostle of Christ too, even if only as a little apostle compared to the original apostles.
Paul continues his train of thought with a hint of apprehension, which was possible even for Paul, when he wrote, “I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless”. I’m not sure how this was originally translated, but I think that when Paul wrote about “the tempter” he was using it as a synonym for fear. There is little debate about the fact that the early church was persecuted extensively, and Paul was understandably concerned that his new converts were being frightened or intimidated by the religious and political (not to mention military) establishment of the first century AD, to the point that he was losing converts to Christianity as fast as he was gaining them. The modern church has a somewhat similar problem in that there are more “Christians” moving around from one church to another, or leaving altogether, than there are new members joining in any given year. I think I know why. It’s because these wanderers among the churches are searching for truth tempered with faith, hope and love, and they’re having a hard time finding it. The fault for this rests squarely on the shoulders of the pastors and senior leadership of the modern churches of all denominations, particularly the so-called mega-churches where so many people come and go each week that hardly anyone notices who is leaving, which should be taking priority over signing up new members. Maybe these super-churches had best find out who is leaving and why and focus on those people instead. Just a thought, and with that let’s conclude today’s study.
“But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we have in the presence of our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith. Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.” (1st Thessalonians 3, verses 6-13, NIV)
“… in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.” Notice the contrast between Paul’s motivation and his definition of success with that of many modern churches. Despite the persecution and the constant threat to their personal safety, Paul was most encouraged by the growing faith of that congregation. He didn’t mention anything about money or prosperity, not to mention his personal safety, which leads me to believe that those things didn’t matter much with Paul and his associates. Compare that with many – but not all, thank God – modern churches, particularly those in the Western hemisphere. Paul never told this church or any other that they must donate 10% of their income in order to be considered a true Christian, nor did he tell any church that they must all speak in tongues as evidence of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. I know of one TV ministry – I’ll decline to name it – that has telethons twice a year asking for donations, and yet they are known to be sitting on somewhere between $30-$60 million in cash (exact figures are not available because they are privately owned and have tax-exempt status). Clearly this is questionable since they already have more money than they can spend, but for now that is all I will say about this.
“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we have in the presence of our God because of you?” Paul’s joy was in watching others grow in the Lord and seeing their faith getting stronger each day. Are we doing this in the churches we attend currently? Do we give our pastors, deacons, bishops and overseers inspiration by continually enlarging our faith? Do we motivate others to reach and pull themselves up to the next level in their walk with Christ? Are we setting a good example for others to follow, or for our youth to look up to? Those who do these things in whatever way works best for them are exercising due diligence in their faith. Those who do not, on the other hand, have their work cut out for them, and especially as the day of our Lord’s return draws ever closer. The Bible says the Bride of Christ must be pure and holy, blameless and “without spot or blemish”. It’s time for all of us to redouble our efforts towards achieving this goal because we are all running out of time. I’m not saying this to scold anyone, nor to judge them since only God can truly judge. I’m simply doing my job as a pastor as I lead my flock towards righteousness, holiness and purity of heart to the very best of my ability (so help me God).
“Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus… strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.” Notice that we can’t strengthen our hearts on our own, or at least not in a Spiritual sense. Yes, we can psych ourselves up and work ourselves into an emotional frenzy, but that would be operating in the flesh instead of the Spirit. “I can do all things”, Paul wrote elsewhere, “through Christ who strengthens me.” Even Jesus said, “Apart from the Father I can do nothing”. Reliance on God as we come to terms with our own fallibility is what will cause us to become holy and blameless in God’s sight. That’s the whole point Paul makes as we close today’s study – we can’t do this by ourselves lest we step out from under God’s anointing of his servants both great and small. So let’s all join together as a corporate body while we make ourselves blameless and holy – not for each other but for Him who loved us first. Let’s all make sure we are among the great number who returns with our dear Lord Jesus at his second coming. Don’t get left behind!