But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.
May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word. (NIV)
The Alarm of the Thessalonians
We saw last week that in 2 Thessalonians 2 Paul's concern for the church in Thessalonica was a personal and experiential one. According to verse 2 they were being shaken in mind and alarmed. They were losing the stability and strength and calmness that Christians should have in times of trouble.
His first approach to restoring this loss of balance was to teach the Thessalonians some truth that would remove the deceit that lay at the root of their instability. According to the end of verse 2 they had fallen for the erroneous idea that the day of the Lord had come—the coming of Christ was just over the horizon.
Then, according to verse 3, Paul teaches them, in line with the words of Jesus, that this can't be because the apostasy and the man of lawlessness must appear on the scene first. There is going to be a significant falling away from the faith by professing Christians, and this will be brought to a climax by the man of lawlessness who comes in the very power of Satan and deceives many.
The text last week ended in verse 11 with the horrifying prospect that God himself is going to give people into the hands of the man of lawlessness and confirm their delusion: "Therefore, God sends upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness" (v. 12).
Has Paul Said Enough to Ease Their Fears?
Now the question arises: does such talk settle the mind and give stability and strength and calmness? I stressed last week that Paul points to the victory of Jesus in verse 8: "The Lord Jesus will slay [the man of lawlessness] with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by the brightness of his coming."
But the question still rises: If the times of apostasy are going to be as terrible as these verses say—with supernatural powers of delusion—then has Paul said enough to overcome the shaking and the alarm in Thessalonica? What should give the Thessalonians stability and confidence and calmness that they too may not be swept away in the apostasy and deceived by the man of lawlessness?
The answer is that Paul is not finished. In a sense he has just begun. Verses 3–12 are intended to dislodge the error about the second coming and clarify the end of the age. But now there is something he wants to build in to their minds as well as something to dislodge. And this especially is what will give the stability they need.
Notice verse 15. "So then . . . " Or: "Therefore, brethren stand firm . . . " This "standing firm" is the opposite of "being shaken" in verse 2. So it is clear that Paul is still concerned in verses 13–15 to stabilize the Christians. His practical soul-concern is still paramount. And we can be grateful for this, because every one of us is shaken at one time or another.
Holding On to the Apostles' Teaching
Now what gives this stability and calmness of soul that God means for his people to have? The next phrase gives the key. He says, "stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter."
So when circumstances arise that alarm you, and when the winds of error start to blow you off your stability, the key is to take hold of something and to hold it fast—namely, the traditions that were taught by the apostles.
The Life and Death Grip of Henry Dempsey
Most of you heard about the pilot, Henry Dempsey who was flying his 15 passenger Beechcraft 99 turboprop from Lewiston Maine to Boston last week. At 4,000 feet he heard a noise in the back of the plain where the rear stairs are. He turned the controls over to his co-pilot and walked back. The plain hit turbulence knocked him against the door and it fell open.
Dempsey was sucked part way out, fell face down on the steps, and grabbed for something—anything that might save his life. He caught a railing and held on.
The co-pilot thought he had fallen out and diverted the flight to a nearby airport. When he landed, they found him with his face 12 inches off the runway and with his hands so tight around the rails that his fingers had to be pried open.
What I want you to see from this story is that the life and death grip with which Henry Dempsey held on to the stair railing at the back of that Beechcraft turboprop is the kind of grip we should have on the teachings of the apostle Paul handed down to us in the New Testament.
The wind and the suction and the gravity and the noise that swirled around him and tried to pull him to his destruction was less dangerous than the mystery of lawlessness that is swirling around you today and which will someday become even stronger. And the stakes are greater, because the mystery of lawlessness and unbelief is sucking us not to physical death in the Atlantic ocean, but to eternal destruction in hell.
Six of Paul's Traditions to Cling To
Let's suppose that the railing that Henry Dempsey held on to was a cable instead of a rod. And let's say that the cable was made of six strands of steel and that each one of these strands is one of the traditions that 2 Thessalonians says we must hold fast to in order to stand firm when we are shaken and alarmed. What would these six strands of the cable—the six traditions—be?
I will try to show them to you very quickly in verses 13-14. These are two of the richest verses in the New Testament. I urge you to memorize them for the sake of your own stability and calm.
1. The Love of God
Strand number one in the cable of hope and stability is the
love of God. Verse 13: "But we are bound to give thanks to God
always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord . . . "
I don't think Paul has in mind here the general love of God that he extends to the whole world corporately holding the universe in being, causing the sun to rise, the rain to fall, and the gospel to be preached, and many evidences of his glory and grace to reach the nations. I think he has in mind the particular saving love that Paul describes in Ephesians 2:4–5 when he says that God "out of the great love with which he loved you made you alive when you were dead through trespasses."
In other words the first steel strand in the cable of hope is the active, powerful, pursuing, saving love of God that tracks us down in our rebellion until we collapse and then awakens us new people in Christ. To know yourself distinguishingly, particularly, personally, effectually, irresistibly, unbreakably, and eternally loved by God is the central strand of steel in the cable of hope. So Paul says, Hold on to it, and stand firm.
The second strand in the cable is the apostolic tradition of
election. Reading verse 13 again: "But we are bound to give thanks
to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God
chose you . . . "
This is why I said the love of God was not the general love that he shows the world. It was a distinguishing and particular love—God chose them. They are the elect of God.
How Does Paul Know They Are Elect?
How does Paul know that they are? How do they know that they are? Turn to 1 Thessalonians 1. The same sequence of thought occurs here. First in verse 2 Paul thanks God for the Thessalonians, especially when he remembers their work of faith and labor of love and endurance of hope. But the basis of that thanks to God is at root their election. Verse 4: "For we know, brethren beloved by God, that he has chosen you." Notice the linking together again of the love of God and the election of God. They are loved with a particular electing love.
Now how does Paul know this? Verses 5–6: we know it, he says, "for [=because] our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction . . . and you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit."
In other words Paul was persuaded of their election because of their response to the gospel! They received it in such a way that not even persecution could dampen their joy in Christ and their imitation of godliness.
Why Is This a Strand of Hope?
Why is this tradition that comes from Jesus a steel strand of hope in the last days of deception and apostasy? Because Jesus said in Matthew 24:24, "For false Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect."
In other words, it will not be possible in those days for the man of lawlessness and all the false prophets to deceive the elect. These are the ones whose love does not grow cold, who endure to the end and are saved (Matthew 24:12–13). "He will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other" (Matthew 24:31).
So I urge you with the apostle Peter (2 Peter 1:10), "Be zealous to confirm your calling and election." It is a strand of steel in the cable of hope. Hold it firm and stand fast.
3. Salvation (or Glorification)
The third strand of the cable that Paul mentions in verse 13 is
salvation, or as we can call it from verse 14, glorification. Verse
13: "But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you,
brethren beloved by the Lord, because God chose you from the
beginning to be saved . . . "
Notice that salvation is something future here, not past. The way you know this is by noticing the next phrase—they were chosen to be saved "through sanctification." Sanctification is the lifelong process of becoming holy. If we are saved through sanctification, then salvation in this verse is something that we are looking forward to, not something that has already happened.
And what is it? Verse 14 makes that plain: "To this you were called through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ."
The third steel strand in the cable of hope is that we are destined for glory. How does Paul say it in Romans 8? "Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified."
Whatever afflictions and sorrows you must endure in this life, don't ever let go of the steel certainty that God's elect will be saved —they will be glorified, "and the sufferings of this time are not worth comparing with the glory to be revealed to us" in the coming of the Son of Man. Hold it fast and stand firm.
4. Sanctification by the Spirit
The fourth strand in the cable of hope is sanctification by the
Spirit. At the end of verse 13: "God chose you to be saved through
sanctification by the Spirit."
There is a holiness, a measure of sanctification, without which we will not be saved. We are not sanctified AND saved; we are saved "through sanctification." As one book says it recently: no holiness, no heaven.
Not an Exaltation of Works
This is not an exaltation of works in which we could ever boast. It is an exaltation of the Holy Spirit. It is not sanctification by John Piper. It is not sanctification by works. It is, Paul says so clearly, "sanctification by the Spirit." God's Spirit! The HOLY Spirit.
This is why it is one of the steel strands of hope in the cable we hold on to. It is a work of God—just like every thing else in this cable: God loves, God chooses, God saves, and God, the Holy Spirit, sanctifies and brings us to glory.
And what is our part? The nest phrase tells us: "God chose us from the beginning to be saved through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.
And what is this belief in the truth? It is none other than clinging to the cable of hope for dear life. It is not a pleasant estimation of the cable with a token compliment and stroke every week or so. It is a desperate clinging to the cable as your only hope.
Or to use the words we saw last week in verse 10, it is a love for the truth. Paul said, you remember, that people will perish because they refused to receive a love for the truth and so be saved. Saving faith in the truth of God includes love for that truth.
Saving Faith Is the Power the Spirit Uses
This is why sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth are not distinct acts. It is not as though our faith in the truth and the Spirit's sanctifying work run in separate parallel tracks and have nothing to do with each other. No. Saving faith, with all its impulse to love the truth, is the power that the Spirit uses to make us holy.
This is easy to see in the experience of Henry Dempsey. Suppose as he lay there upside down part way out of the plane at 4,000 feet over the Atlantic with his fingers clinched around the rails and every fiber of his brain devoted to holding fast—suppose his credit cards and his hundred dollar bills started to fall out of his pocket. What would he do? What would he feel?
We all know what he would do and what he would feel. He would do nothing but hold on to the railing. And he would feel freer from the love of money than at any time in his life. And what is the lesson in this?
When, by faith, you take hold of the cable of God's truth, and you love it because it's your only hope in the world, that faith is the power of God's Spirit to purify your life—your money-life, your sex-life, your professional-life, your leisure-life. God chose you to be saved through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.
5–6. God's Call and the Gospel
Well, there are at least two more strands of steel in this cable of traditions, but our time is up. I'll mention them and close with an urgent invitation.
In verse 14 there is the strand of God's call and the strand of the gospel: "To this he called you through our gospel . . . "
Closing Summary and Invitation
From all eternity God loved the church at Thessalonica. He chose them from the beginning from all the sinners in Macedonia. He sent Paul to them with the gospel—the good news that Jesus Christ came into the world to die for hopeless sinners. And in the preaching of that gospel God called his elect with overcoming power to himself. And the result was that they believed the truth and began to be sanctified by the Spirit. And they will one day obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And you can be among them. I hold out to you this morning the cable of God's gracious truth. And I pray that God himself will call you. Is he not now moving in many hearts to stir you up to reach out and take the cable of hope? I plead with you. Take it. Hold it fast. It cannot break!