God's Word

Imagine, after much unsuccessful inviting, that a friend came to an invitation service here. And made a response of faith. And then ran into a wall of hostility - perhaps from their spouse, or family, or work-mates. So that, having begun to come regularly, they're now reluctant to come for fear of stirring up more trouble for themselves. How would you feel in that situation? Or, if you're a parent, imagine your child at school. There are few or no other children of believers. Your child comes back from school having, apparently, been taught alarmingly anti-Christian things. And to cap it all, their new teacher or head-teacher is openly anti-Christian. How would you feel in that situation? Well, they're not imaginary situations. They're more or less lifted from conversations I've had with people here in the JPC fellowship. They're situations very like the one Paul found himself in. He'd seen this group of people in Thessalonica come to faith - a tiny minority in an environment hostile to Christianity. Paul had been forced by anti-Christian opposition to move on. And he'd heard that the opposition was now giving these new believers a very rough ride. (For more on that, see the first in this series: A Model Church, 1 Thessalonians 1.1-7, Sunday 5th April 1998.) In situations like that, I feel three things. Discouraged. Worried. And angry. Discouraged because God's cause seems so numerically weak. Worried about whether the few who've become Christians will actually keep going. And angry with the people who oppose the gospel. And humanly speaking, Paul should have been discouraged, worried and angry. And his letters show he was tempted to be all three. But in 1 Thessalonians 2.13-16, we see Paul speaking not humanly about the situation, but God-centredly. And our first heading is this: First, FAITH IS GOD'S WORK AT THE START OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE AND UNTIL ITS END (v13) Just glance back to 2.1. Paul writes:

You know, brothers, that our visit to you was not a failure.

Now you only have to write that sort of thing if in fact the visit did look a failure. If the Thessalonica City Hall had been packed with thousands each night with hundreds coming forward for inquirers' groups, well then you don't write verse 1, do you? But if in fact the number of people who came to hear was small, and the number of responses was very small, and the speaker got hounded out of town (which Paul did), well then you have to write verse 1. Humanly speaking, the visit was a failure. But Paul is speaking, verse 1:

You know, brothers, that our visit to you was not a failure.

Paul saw plenty of non-response to his evangelism. In fact, Paul saw majority non-response. But he didn't focus on the non-response. He focussed on the response. And where even one person come to faith, he said to himself, 'That was God at work.' And he turned to prayer. Verse 13:

And we also thank God continually, because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe. (v13)

Every time there was a response of faith, however small the numbers of people, Paul took encouragement. He recognised that God had been at work in them. And he thanked God for it. And even though these new believers faced a rough ride from the opposition, Paul took encouragement. He recognised that God would continue to be at work in them - 'the word of God,' not (v13) 'which was at work in you who believe,' but, 'which is at work in you who believe.' So, two applications. For one thing, thank God for faith. When someone says to me, 'Have you heard, so-and-so's become a Christian?', I've noticed I often don't appreciate the enormity of that piece of news. Often because I'm focussed on all the people who haven't yet become Christians, and discouraged about whether God is really at work. And Paul's example is: focus on the response, not the non-response. And quite often you haven't seen any response in your 'own patch', for a while - maybe a long while. And you get discouraged. And then, especially, we need to take encouragement from responses among other peoples' friends and family, or from testimonies in services where individuals tell us how they've come to faith. (I loved the one recently where the person being interviewed likened his pre-Christian life to eating vegetarian food: 'You eat as much as you can, but it never fills you up!') Those testimonies keep us reminded that God is at work, even if in our patch we can't see that anything's happening. Since this time last year, I know of at least ten students who've come to faith. And since September, at invitation services, I know of twelve people who've professed faith. And the Eeyore in me says, 'Well, ten out of tens of thousands of students. What's that? Twelve out of probably hundreds of visitors to JPC. What's that?' Well, the answer, verse 13, is: that's God at work. Stop playing the numbers game. That's God at work. We mustn't let the non-response make us blind to the work of God. The other application is: trust God for faith. A friend of mine came to faith in her first year at University. She played university sport on a Sunday, so she couldn't make church. She disliked the CU types, so she didn't come to that. And to cap it all she was on the organising committee for the College May Ball - which could be a very non-Christian affair indeed. And I was worried whether she'd keep going as a Christian. But a real Christian is a work of God. Faith is God's work at the start of the Christian life and until its end: (verse 13) 'the word of God which is at work in you who believe.' That friend kept going. And I learnt that Almighty God is able to carry on what he's begun - with or without my help, as I scurried round trying to get her into something Christian. Almighty God is able to keep believing children at school, or away at University. Almighty God is able to keep us even if Britain gets more pagan by the day. We don't need a Christian environment to protect us - right as it is, for other reasons, to work for God's values to be recognised in society. Secondly, SUFFERING FOR BEING A CHRISTIAN IS EVIDENCE OF GENUINE FAITH IN CHRIST (v14-15a) Why was Paul convinced that these Thessalonians had really been converted? Presumably they'd professed faith and been baptised. But Paul couldn't have known for sure at that point that they were definitely genuine believers. Only time can tell that. Which is why verse 14 begins, 'For.' In verse 13 Paul basically says, 'I believe God has genuinely been at work in you.' Verse 14 is then his reason, his evidence:

For you, brothers, became imitators of God's churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out.

Since Paul left them, these believers had suffered considerably for being Christians. And the fact that they'd suffered and stood firm convinced Paul that they were genuine believers. Why does he say that? Well, genuine faith in Christ always attracts suffering (by which I mean, the particular suffering of being got at in some way simply for being a Christian). I think of students who've become Christians and packed in getting drunk. And their non-Christian friends give them a hard time for it. I think of the 11-year old who professed faith on an Scripture Union camp I led. His mother picked him up at the end of the week and said to him in my hearing, 'Well, I hope you're not going to go religious on us.' I think of a Christian who was asked in a job interview what effect his Christian faith would have on his work. He said that for one thing it would mean he wouldn't be prepared to lie for the company. That was pretty much the end of the interview. They didn't want someone who wouldn't lie for the company. That's all suffering for being a Christian. It doesn't have to be prison or physical persecution - although in the next 50 years it may come to that in Britain. But why does such suffering come and why is it evidence of genuine faith? Well, simply because the Christian represents the Lord Jesus Christ, and his claims, in a world that rejects him. In John's Gospel, Jesus says to his brothers, 'The world cannot hate you, but it hates me, because I testify that what it does is evil.' (John 7.7) When he was here in the flesh, both Jesus' words and life convicted people of what was wrong in their own lives. Jesus is no longer here in the flesh. But we Christians are. And if we live Christ-like lives and say Christ-like things, we have the same convicting effect. And the world doesn't like that. And it reacts against that. And if you're particularly aware of that right now, verse 14 says: take heart! It's evidence of the genuineness of your faith. Genuine faith always - in some measure - attracts that kind of suffering. The other thing is: genuine faith always survives suffering. God allowed these Thessalonian new believers to experience a rough ride. But he did so in order to strengthen their faith and assure them it was real. At school or college it's only an exam that shows you what's really gone in. And likewise in the Christian life, the Lord takes us through life-exams to show us what's really gone on in us. And those who are most confident that they are genuine believers are those whom God has taken through a rough ride and have come out the other side, knowing that he's kept them and assured that their faith is real. Thirdly, THOSE WHO OPPOSE THE GOSPEL, OPPOSE GOD AND WILL ULTIMATELY FACE HIS WRATH (v15b-16) So far, Paul's focus has been on these new Christians who are getting such stick for their faith. But then half way through verse 15, he switches to those who are giving the stick, who oppose the spread of the gospel, and who are trying to undermine these new Christians. Verse 15, half-way:

They [ie the opposition] displease God and are hostile to all men in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way, they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.

My first experience of this was from a Church of England clergyman. He knew I'd come to faith and soon afterwards he said to me, 'So when are you going to grow out of this evangelical Christianity, then, Ian?' (Predictably, he's a bishop, now). I don't know whether you can think of people who've opposed you or intimidated you or tried to undermine you or others. The church press is full of public examples, some of them church 'leaders'. And it's very easy to feel animosity and anger towards such people, and even to want to hit back. And some commentators accuse Paul of doing just that in verses 15-16. This is the angry Paul, flying off the handle with intemperate language, they say. Which simply shows they haven't actually read the verses. Verses 15-16 reflect no personal animosity between Paul and the opposition or between the Thessalonians and the opposition. Verse 15:

They displease God and are hostile to all men in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way, they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God [God's perfectly just anger] has come upon them at last.

Paul is saying the real personal animosity is between those who oppose the gospel, and God. And it's two-way animosity. Because it's an appalling thing in God's sight for someone to hinder the progress of the gospel or try to undermine a believer. God is angry when that happens. Listen to the Lord Jesus:

If anyone causes one of these little ones who believes in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied round his neck. (Mark 9.42)

And Paul says (verse 16):

In this way, they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.

And I take it Paul is talking about future judgement, but because it's so certain to come, he puts it in the past tense. So why does he say that? Are the commentators right who say he's angry and vindictive and revenge-seeking? Well, I'm sure Paul was angry (see 2 Corinthians 11.29). If we're not angry when we see people trying to undermine Christian faith there's something wrong with us. The question is: what should we do with that kind of anger? And the answer of verses 15-16 is: remind ourselves that these people will ultimately be dealt with by God. So we are not to be judge and jury, because God will do that in his own time. And these verses from Romans 12 give us the full picture of how Paul responded to opposition:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath [ie, leave God to be judge and jury], for it is written, 'It is mine to avenge. I will repay.' (Romans 12.17-19)

Negatively, we are not to retaliate when we get stick for our faith. But Romans 9, goes even further. The most painful opposition Paul got came from fellow-Jews. Yet Paul writes:

I speak the truth in Christ - I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit - I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel. [ie, 'I wish I could swap places with them so they could be saved.' And 10.1:] Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.

Negatively, we're not to retaliate against those who oppose our faith. Positively, we're to wish for and work for and pray for their salvation. God will be judge and jury. That's not our part. Our part, however unlikely or hopeless it may seem, is to wish for and work for and pray for their salvation. Because no-one knew better than Paul himself that even people like that can be turned round by God. Well, we started with discouragement and worry and anger. Discouragement about the numerical weakness of God's cause. Worry about Christians keeping going. And anger with those who oppose the gospel. But what's God's point of view - verses 13-16's point of view? Well, God isn't discouraged, as if he plays the numbers game to reassure himself. One single conversion demonstrates his power at work. And nor is God worried about whether they'll keep going - he knows they will keep going, because he'll keep them going. And as for the opposition: well, under God's sovereignty, it can only strengthen those who are believers, like a well-designed multi-gymn. And our job is not to be out for their judgement, but still to hope for their salvation. And one day we may be saying about some who currently oppose the gospel, verse 13:

And we also thank God continually, because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.

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