I would like to start by reading you part of an email I received 4 years ago. It's from a Swiss lady who Valentina and I met in Cambridge. This lady was from a Roman Catholic background. She came to Cambridge to work as an au-pair. While she was in Cambridge, she came to our church and decided to start following Jesus – just a few months before she was due to return to Switzerland… But it wasn't an easy start for her. She faced strong opposition from her family even while she was still in the UK. And none of us knew quite what life would be like for her when she returned home. Well, 3 years later she reflected back on this period of her life and wrote the email to me. She wrote this:
"I wanted to encourage you in particular to pray with and for those students who are returning home. This was one of the most wonderful things which I experienced when I was in Cambridge. I remember quite clearly how we prayed… for my family and my situation when I returned home. This was most encouraging as I knew even if I wouldn't be strong enough to continue praying once I [was] back home there [were] other people who would ask God to support me. And of course these prayers… were answered very clearly. It still brings tears to my eyes (tears of joy!) thinking of what God has done with my family."
What did God do with her family? Well, her whole family came to the evangelical church she belonged to. All of them started following Jesus – and they shared the Gospel with their friends! Praise God! That's the true story of a new believer who had to leave us after just a short time with us… standing firm under persecution, spreading the Gospel and bringing her family to Christ!
It's very similar to the news which Paul received back via Timothy from the Thessalonian Christians. If you have just joined us mid-way through our sermon series, let me fill you in with the background. In Acts chapter 17, we read that Paul and Silas arrive in Thessalonica and preached the message about Jesus. A church was born. Then fierce Jewish opposition forced Paul and Silas to escape Thessalonica rapidly by night. And during Paul's absence, his Jewish opponents attack him with a vicious smear campaign: 'Paul doesn't care about you really. He came to you with a new message to get a following for himself. He left when the going got tough. He hasn't been back. He hasn't been in touch. He has forgotten all about you.' And word of this smear campaign reached Paul. And he wrote a passionate defence of his short visit to Thessalonica. That's where we join in the action today! We're going to walk through Paul's response to the slander as a four-part drama.
1. An Unbearable Separation
Part one: an unbearable separation. And no! I'm not over-dramatising the situation! It was unbearable for Paul! Look at 1 Thessalonians 3.1. Paul says: "when we could bear it no longer". And verse 5 – "when I could bear it no longer". Why was the situation unbearable for Paul? Firstly, Paul was suddenly torn away from the Thessalonian believers. Look at 1 Thessalonians 2.17:
"But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart…"
Earlier in chapter 2 Paul has described himself as a spiritual mother (v.7) and a father (v.11) to these new believers in Thessalonica. And the verb translated in verse 17 'torn away' is: he was orphaned. Paul was like a parent torn away from his baby. This is the sad experience of many families in 2017 as they flee warzones around the world. One Independent newspaper article wrote this about the current conflict in Syria:
"As thousands of refugees and migrants continue to enter Europe, children are being split from their parents in the chaos and being forced to continue their journey vulnerable and alone."
It's a tragedy! Children torn away from their parents. Orphaned. Vulnerable to be trafficked into prostitution and drug smuggling. Parents sick with worry. And that's the kind of agony Paul felt towards these Thessalonian Christians. Spiritually he had been torn away from them and they were forced to continue their Christian journey vulnerable and alone in a hostile environment. And this drove Paul to action! 1 Thessalonians 2.17-18:
"…we endeavoured the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us."
You can imagine Paul pacing up and down in his room, worrying desperately for these believers. And then he goes on the internet to book flights: no seats available over the next two months. But he can't wait that long! So he takes a boat. But due to bad weather, the boat is damaged overnight, so can't leave the harbour. So he borrows his friend's car, but a few miles into the journey, the brakes fail and he crashes into an olive tree. We're not given details, but Paul is stuck! In agony! Trying to reach them – hindered by Satan.
This was how Paul felt when he was torn away from these young Thessalonian believers. I talked earlier about the smear campaign against Paul by the Jews in Thessalonica. They said Paul left Thessalonica voluntarily – Paul said his experience of leaving them was like a mother and father being torn away from their children. These Jewish opponents said Paul had forgotten all about the Thessalonians – he said that he hadn't stopped thinking about them – and he tried repeatedly to see them. And at this point as he's writing, his love for them bursts out onto the paper he is writing on. 1 Thessalonians 2.19-20:
"For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy."
As we would say, the Thessalonians were 'Paul's pride and joy'. Of course he missed them! Of course he had tried to visit them – again and again! Of course he loved them! Not out of sight, out of mind… But out of sight, yet in his heart! But he was torn away from them – and he couldn't return to them! An unbearable separation.
So how do you feel when new believers move away to difficult contexts? What about some of our young people here in CYFA preparing to go off to university where it's increasingly tough to be a Christian? What about our UK students who will be spending the summer holidays with families who are hostile to the Christian faith? What about our international students, some of whom will face severe persecution back home because they follow Jesus? How do we feel about these brothers and sisters leaving us and moving away to difficult contexts? Paul shows us that it's right to be anxious – and wrong not to care.
2. An Urgent Mission
Secondly, an urgent mission. You see, not only had Paul been torn away from these young believers – and not only could Paul not visit them – he had no news from them! Agony! You can imagine him reading Jesus' teaching in Mark 4.16-17:
"And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away."
And then he thinks: 'Ah! That's my nightmare for the Thessalonians! I know they have faced persecution, but what has become of them? Are they standing firm? Or have they fallen away? I need their news!' 1 Thessalonians 3.1-2:
"Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God's co-worker in the gospel of Christ…"
What was the purpose of Timothy's visit? Verses 2-5:
"to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter [Satan] had tempted you and our labour would be in vain."
While he was with them, Paul had kept on telling the Thessalonians they would suffer – it was a core part of his basic discipleship training (as it should be for us). And so it happened. They face persecution. But Paul didn't just sit back and say: 'I told you so!' He sent them encouragement to keep trusting Jesus in all the difficulties they were facing. He sent Timothy.
For us today, with Skype, WhatsApp and all kinds of social media, we have great opportunities to continue to minister to young believers when they move away. It's easier than ever before to do so. But do we? Do we keep in touch with new believers when they move away to difficult contexts? Non-Christian family? University? To work overseas? Paul did! Paul wanted news of how these believers were doing – and not just if they had had a good Easter, or enjoyed their new job. He wanted to know how they were holding up under spiritual fire.
3. A Wonderful Encouragement
Thirdly, a wonderful encouragement. Here the tone changes! Look at verse 6:
"But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you—"
You can imagine Paul meeting Timothy and the breathless exchanges between them! 'Timothy, how are the Thessalonians?' 'Well, brother Paul – really well! They are living for Jesus as strongly as ever, they are holding firm to the Gospel under persecution and they really miss you.' 'Really?' 'Really!' Then Paul gives Timothy a big hug! Paul's thrilled! Verses 7-9:
"for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God,"
Recently a couple involved with our international student ministry at Jesmond Parish Church went out to East Asia to visit students, some of whom became believers here in the UK. I spoke with them on Skype while they were out there and it was a real encouragement to me to hear news of these students. Let me share one snapshot: One Chinese lady we baptised in this building one year ago returned home shortly afterwards. Back home her friends mocked her for being servile and following a 'Western religion'… But she stood firm! And she is now bringing colleagues to church! What a joy to hear such news! Praise God!
So friends, when you hear that new believers who have moved away from our church family and have settled in good churches – praise God! When you hear of new believers standing firm under persecution, praise God!
4. A Passionate Prayer
Fourthly, a passionate prayer. Paul prays, verse 10,
"…most earnestly night and day that [he] may see them face to face and supply what is lacking in [their] faith"
You see, for passionate Paul, hearing good news about new believers is not enough – he wants to see them! And why does Paul want to see them face to face? It's to (v.10),
"supply what is lacking in their faith".
You see, they were doing really well as young believers, but they still had big areas to work on: lifestyle issues of sexual purity and work (as we'll see in chapter 4) and doctrinal issues on the return of Jesus (as we'll see in chapter 5). And Paul's prayer is a model for us. It's a great prayer to pray for new believers here at Jesmond Parish Church – and for those who have moved away. Pray that we, or others, may supply what is lacking in their faith. Maybe there are areas of discipleship these new believers need to be encouraged in – or challenged on:
- Evangelism: 'I've got no idea how to start sharing Jesus with my family.'
- Service: 'I'd like to discuss with someone how I could start serving in the church family.'
- Or maybe they are unclear doctrinally. They say: 'Don't Muslims and Christians actually worship the same God in different ways?' or 'Isn't the Holy Spirit only for slightly weird Christians?' In case you're wondering, the answer in both cases is 'no'! But it's not enough just to say 'That's wrong' – new believers need good teaching on these topics.
Maybe even as I'm speaking, you have someone on your heart you'd love to help... but you and they are so busy that it seems impossible to find a time to meet. Well, if that's you, pray this prayer – that God can open up a time for you to see them face to face – so you can supply what is lacking in their faith. And if you're aware that your faith is lacking in some area, pray the reverse – for God to provide someone to supply what is lacking in your faith. And we can all pray the following prayer for one another. Verses 12-13:
"and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints."
Like the river Tyne bursting its banks and overflowing, Paul's vision is for the Thessalonians' love to grow more deeply for one another and then flow out from the church community into the world. He wants them to be firm in their faith, ultimately not just so they can stand under persecution now, but also so that they are ready to bring honour to Jesus when he returns.
A big question for each of us as we finish: Is Paul's emotional rollercoaster experience of caring for new believers your experience? Some of us may be thinking: 'Paul, you're too attached to these Christians. It's emotionally unhealthy. You're going to burn yourself out with anxiety. You need to remember that God is sovereign. If I tried to love other Christians like this, I would end up as a nervous wreck within a month!'
If we think like that, as I do sometimes, Paul's example humbles us to seek forgiveness from God. Forgiveness for not caring enough about young believers' spiritual health. Forgiveness for not warning them about the persecution they will face. Forgiveness for not keeping in touch. Forgiveness for forgetting that God is sovereign and so we do need to pray regularly for them. Forgiveness for not loving them. After we have humbled ourselves, God will then call us and help us to follow Paul's example.
Others of us may be thinking: 'I'm a long way off the loving heart of Paul, yet I do see something of this concern in myself. Deep down, I do really care about the young believers in my homegroup who have a hard time at work because they are Christian. I do continue to pray for those new believers who moved to Leeds. I made sure they were linked up with a good church before they left.'
If so, thank God for his work in you – and persevere in loving young believers. In the future, God willing, if the Jesmond Parish Church family continues to grow, we will meet more and more young Christians in the church family who will need our help. Let's make sure, like Paul, that we're ready to help them. Let me pray.
Father, please forgive us for not loving young believers as Paul did – and help us to love them as he did. In Jesus' name, Amen.