Suffering and the Second Coming
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren, as is fitting, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions which you are enduring.
This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be made worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering—since indeed God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant rest with us to you who are afflicted, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at in all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.
I want to invite you to spend three Sundays studying with me the second letter of Paul to the Thessalonians. I've divided the book into six parts—three for Sunday morning and three for Sunday evening. So, for example, this morning our text is 1:1–10 and this evening we will unpack 1:11–12. And so on, morning and evening, until we finish this little three-chapter book.
There is something very satisfying about working systematically through a whole book of Scripture so that you have a grasp of the whole message and how the different parts fit together to make the main points. A deep and joyful confidence comes into the mind of a Christian whose knowledge of Scripture is not second hand and piecemeal but textually based and orderly.
I hope that many of you will read the book through again and again; that you will keep a notebook for later use; that you will jot down questions as you read; that you will strive to apply the teaching to your life; and that you will pray earnestly with me that God may be pleased to use his Word to manifest his holiness, and convict us of the seriousness of our sin, and open our eyes to the glory of his grace in Christ, and lead us to deeper faith and greater love than we have ever had before.
With that as our prayer, let's simply begin with 1:1–2 and walk together through the first part of this book.
The Writer of the Letter
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ . . .
We know from the next to last verse of the book (3:17) that Paul himself is the author of this book. He takes responsibility for its contents when he says, "I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write." So it's Paul's letter. But he aims for the church to read it not merely as the ideas of one man, no matter how much divine authority he had as an inspired apostle.
He wants the Christians to read the truths of this letter as shared truths, and he wants them to hear the concerns of the letter not merely as his own but also as the concerns and burdens of Silvanus (another spelling for Silas) and Timothy—the men who were with Paul when the church in Thessalonica was started (Acts 17). Since God had used all three of them to start the church, it's fitting that God's ongoing ministry come to them in the name of these three men.
The Readers of the Letter
Then comes the description of the readers: "To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." What does it mean that the church is "in" God the Father and "in" the Lord Jesus Christ?
A Family and Servants
I think we can see the point if we just meditate for a moment on the specific descriptions of God that Paul chooses to use: God the Father is one; and the Lord Jesus Christ is the other. We as a church are in a Father and in a Lord. What does that mean?
Well, what do those two words imply about God?
What does "Father" imply? Primarily care and sustaining and protection and provision and discipline. So to be in the Father would mean mainly to be in his care and under his protection.
The other designation is Lord: we are in the Lord Jesus Christ. What does "Lord" imply? Primarily authority and leadership and ownership. So to be in the Lord would mean mainly to be in his charge, under his authority and in his possession.
In other words, Paul greets the church in such a way as to remind them that they are a family (in the care of a Father) and that they are servants (in the charge of a Lord). These two descriptions of God as Father and Lord, and thus of the church as family and servants, corresponds to two of our deepest needs. Paul is not just throwing words away here. He is already encouraging and strengthening us as Christians if we will slow down and listen.
Corresponding to Our Two Deepest Needs
The two needs that every one of us has are the need for rescue and help and the need for purpose and meaning. We need a heavenly Father to pity us and rescue us from sin and misery. We need his help at every step of the way because we are so weak and vulnerable. But we also need a heavenly Lord to guide us in life and tell us what is wise and give us a great and meaningful charge to fulfill. We don't just want to be safe in the care of a Father. We want a glorious cause to live for. We want a merciful Father to be our Protector; and we want an omnipotent Lord to be our Champion and our Commander and our Leader.
Paul says in verse 1, You are the church "in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ"—in the care of a Father; and in the charge of a Lord. Take rest and help from one and take courage and meaning from the other.
From Grace and Resulting in Peace
And all the more because of what verse 2 says. Notice the repetition of the very same designations, Father and Lord:
Grace to you and peace
from God the Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The point here is that in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ what we find is grace. The Father's care comes from grace. The Lord's commands come from grace. And grace is God's powerful disposition to seek his pleasure in doing us good, even though we have no right to claim it.
And when you feel deep in your heart that God is your caring Father, and that Jesus is your Champion and Lord, and that all their dealings with you are dealings of grace, then there comes into your soul a peace that passes understanding: "Grace to you AND PEACE from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
And I doubt that this peace is merely individual peace. It is true for the church too. In other words, the key to peace in the church is when the people ponder what it means to have God as our Father, Jesus as our Lord and grace as the governing principle for both. When a church takes its eyes and hearts off the sweet fatherhood of God and the sovereign lordship of Jesus and the reign of grace, its days of peace will be over. May the Lord guard us from that at Bethlehem. To that end I pledge myself to keep holding up these great biblical realities for your enjoyment.
And I hope in years to come I can say of Bethlehem what Paul says next about the church in Thessalonica, vv. 3–4:
We are bound to give thanks to God always for you brethren, as is fitting, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions which you are enduring.
Four Truths Taught by Paul
There are at least four truths here in these two verses that Paul wants us to see.
1. The Essence of the Christian Life
First, faith and love are the essence and sum of the Christian life. This is what Paul focuses on in verse 3 as cause for great rejoicing: "Your faith is growing abundantly and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing."
Faith is the vertical response to grace, namely, confidence in God's care. And love is the horizontal response to grace, namely, freedom for God's command. Do you think it's coincidental that these two human responses correspond to the two descriptions of God in verses 1 and 2? The care of God the Father is to be trusted in faith; and the charge of Jesus the Lord is to be obeyed in love. As Father we trust him to meet all our needs, and as Lord we follow him in the paths of love.
Whether Paul consciously intends that correlation between Father and faith on the one hand and Lord and love on the other hand, the truth remains: the essence and sum of the Christian life is faith toward God and love toward man. The barometer of spiritual life and maturity at Bethlehem, according to this text, is: do we have a strong confidence in God for our future and do we have a visible, genuine love for each other?
2. The Beauty of Growth
The second truth that Paul wants us to see in verse 3 is the beauty of growth. He does not say that he thanks God simply because they have faith and love, but because their faith is growing abundantly and their love for each other is increasing. It's the beauty of growth and progress that fills him with joy.
In one sense this is a comfort to us, and in another sense it is a rebuke. It comforts us because we know we have not arrived at where we should be in our faith and our love for each other. It is comforting to know that the Christian life is a process of growth, not an instantaneous perfection. (But this rebukes us as well because there have been opportunities for growth that we have not pursued. There have been movements of the Spirit that we resisted.)
3. The Power of God's Grace
But the third truth of these verses guards us from thinking that we should take credit for our growth in faith or boast in any increases of love. Whatever progress we have made has been owing finally to the power of God's grace—that's the third truth. We know this because Paul says in verse 3 that it is fitting to thank God for the growth of their faith and the increase of their love. And the only reason it is fitting for God to get the thanks is because God did the decisive work.
This is why not growing in the Christian life is so dangerous. If God is the one who gives growth and if God commands that we grow (2 Peter 3:18), then not to be growing in faith and love means one of two things. It means that God is not present in our life and we have deceived ourselves in thinking that we have been savingly converted and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Or it means that we are grieving the Holy Spirit with a subtle, temporary rebellion so deep that almighty God suffers himself to be resisted in his sanctifying work.
O how we should strive for growth in our faith, and for increases in our love for one another. None of us has arrived. And when you live in the river of this fallen world, not to swim forward inevitably means drifting backward toward destruction. So let's be like the Thessalonians and pursue all the means of grace for the growth of our faith and the increase of our love!
4. Faith and Love in Persecution and Affliction
The fourth truth in verses 3–4 is that faith and love can flourish in the midst of persecution and afflictions. Verse 4 says that what Paul boasted of to the other churches was the Thessalonians' endurance and faith in the midst of persecutions and afflictions.
Not only can faith and love flourish in the presence of afflictions; Paul goes so far as to say that this is precisely God's design and plan. And with that he raises an issue that keeps his attention through verse 10. We will spend the rest of our time on it.
Affliction and Persecution in God's Design
After mentioning their endurance of persecution and affliction, Paul says in verse 5 that this is evidence or proof of God's righteous judgment. "This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God." I take this to mean that the affliction of the believers is part of God's judgment and that it is right and just. God is so much in control of things that even the hostile and sinful acts of unbelieving men are part of his holy and just judgment.
This is one of those great passages of Scripture that shows that when God governs the acts of sinful men, he himself does not become sinful. The persecution of Christians is sin; but in the wise and sovereign and holy hands of God it becomes the expression and proof of his righteous judgment. As an expression of man's unbelief it is sin. As an expression of God's judgment it is righteous.
Three Ways in Which God's Plan Is Righteous
The rest of our text is Paul's demonstration of the righteousness of God's decision to use persecution as part of his judgment. It has three parts, that is, he gives three reasons why it is right to ordain the suffering of his people through persecution and affliction.
1. Its Purpose
First, it is right because its purpose is to fit unholy people for the holy kingdom of God. Its design is not to punish believers but to purify them and refine their faith the way gold is refined through fire (as Peter says in 1 Peter 1:7). That is the point of verse 5: "This [that is, this persecution and affliction] is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be made worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering."
God's design in the suffering of his persecuted people is that they be found worthy of the kingdom at the last day. This doesn't mean that we become deserving of the kingdom. It means we become fit for it. There is a holiness (though not a perfection) without which we will not see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14) and God works that holiness in us (Hebrews 13:21) largely through the discipline of suffering (Hebrews 12:3–11).
So it is utterly crucial how we respond to suffering in our lives. It is God's school for heaven. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:17 that afflictions are producing our eternal weight of glory. And in Romans 8:17 he said we will be "fellow heirs with Christ if we suffer with him in order that we might be glorified with him."
And in all this we must not forget how the letter began: this just and holy God who hates sin and goes to painful lengths to burn it out of us is our Father, who loves us and knows our frame and remembers that we are dust. But Hebrews 12:5 says, "The Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives."
So Paul's first defense of the justice of God in ordaining the suffering of his people through persecution is that his design is holy and loving: he is fitting unfit people for the holy joy of the kingdom of God.
2. The Promised Punishment of God's Enemies
Paul's second defense of God's justice in this matter is to show that the evil which seems to have the upper hand now will be brought to ruin. The tables will be turned and persecutors will be confounded. This is the point of verse 6: " . . . since indeed God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you."
There is a grave injustice happening when evil men persecute Christians, just like there was when evil men crucified Jesus. Yet God was in charge there and he is in charge here and he will show that his own design in all this is just because when all is said and done the afflicter will become the afflicted and justice will be exacted from all who do not believe.
3. The Promised Vindication of God's People
And finally Paul's third defense of God's justice in the design of persecution is that those who suffer will one day be vindicated and given rest and joy at the coming of the Lord from heaven. The exams will be over and the vacation will begin. That is the point of verse 7. It continues the sentence of verse 6: God deems it just not only to repay those who afflict you but also "to grant rest with us to you who are afflicted, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire."
So Paul's argument for the justice of God's judgment in the persecution of his own people by unbelievers has three parts. I hope you don't take these as biblical curiosities; Paul means for us to learn these things about God and suffering and the second coming so that when we suffer for his sake, our faith in his power and grace will grow stronger and our love for each other will grow deeper. Everything he is teaching us here is just the kind of thing we need to know for our faith and love to flourish in the midst of affliction.
Summary of Suffering in the Plan of God
I close by summing them up:
- First, all affliction is designed to make us worthy of the
kingdom of God—our long-term holiness is vastly more
important to the Father who loves us than is our short-term
- Second, no evil will triumph in the end: those who spurn the gospel will in the end be brought to ruin, as verses 8 and 9
describe in tragic and terrible terms: the Lord "will inflict
vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not
obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment
of eternal destruction and exclusion form the presence of the Lord
and from the glory of his might."
- And finally, the suffering of God's people will be rewarded in the end with the stupendous privilege expressed in verse 10: the Lord will come "on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at in all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed." No more suffering. The kingdom has come. The church has been made worthy by her trials. The enemies of truth are swept away in eternal destruction. The saints are given everlasting rest. And Jesus Christ is glorified on his throne forever and ever.
"Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending"
Charles Wesley's hymn, "Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending" is a great statement of these truths. As we sing it, resolve in your heart that your faith will grow and that your love for each other will increase to the glory of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Lo, He comes with clouds descending, once for favored
All the many saints attending swell the triumph of his train:
Alleluia! Alleluia! God appears on earth to reign.
Every eye shall now behold Him, robed in awesome
Those who once denied and killed Him, pierced and nailed Him to the tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing, shall the true Messiah see.
Now redemption, long expected, see in solemn pomp
All His saints, by man rejected, now shall meet Him in the air:
Alleluia! Alleluia! See the day of God appear.
Yes, Amen! let all adore Thee, high on the eternal
Savior, take the power and glory, claim the kingdom for Your own:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Christ shall reign and Christ alone! Amen.