When people ridicule you for your faith in Christ, how do you respond? Do you want to lash out at them and return “blow for blow?” Last night I was talking with an individual who could only find complete and utter fault with the Christian faith and with anyone who would believe in such a torturous, outmoded absolutism. He put down belief in the trinity to pagan superstition and commitment to moral absolutes as necessarily oppressive and Hitlerish. (Of course, he appealed to unwritten absolutes in order to bring his case home.) He did stop short of making the monologue physical, however—which was nice since I’m in no condition to fight anyway—but it was clear how he felt about the Bible, Christ, Christianity, and Christians: the planet would be a better place without them!
Apart from the historical atrocities committed in the name of Christ, for which my friend has some legitimate argument, there is nonetheless a stigma to the gospel. The gospel grates against and is an affront to human pride and carefree autonomy. And people react to it—even in its best presentations by its most loving and skillful expositors. It simply does not adequately square up with the wisdom of the world.
But despite what the world does with our gospel, we, as recipients of the mercy and grace of God, are called to truth, to a different motivation, to a different worldview, and to a different way of living. We are called, in the imitation of our Lord and his faithful saints, to deepen our faith in God and to reach out in love. The Thessalonians, though a very young and in some ways immature church, nonetheless responded to their sufferings with great faith, which in turn sponsored a love the world sees only far too infrequently from Christians. Perhaps we could learn a lesson from this tiny group of people about how to live in trying times—times that require a stubborn faith and persistent love.
Paul was delighted and thanked God that the new church he planted in Thessalonica was actually growing, despite severe opposition. Indeed, he says in 2 Thessalonians 1:3 that their faith was “flourishing.” The Greek term is not just auxanei but uperauxanei with the preposition uper. The prefixed preposition, a feature not uncommon in Paul, adds force to the verb which by itself means simply “to grow.” Thus uperauxanei communicates the idea of “flourishing,” i.e., growth well beyond what would normally have been expected under the circumstances. The Thessalonians were a picture of the person in Psalm 1 who, when compared to a fruitful tree, brings forth fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither in times of drought. Jeremiah paints the same picture of the fruitful believer:
17:7 My blessing is on those people who trust in me, who put their confidence in me. 17:8 They will be like a tree planted near a stream whose roots spread out toward the water. It has nothing to fear when the heat comes. Its leaves are always green. It has no need to be concerned in a year of drought. It does not stop bearing fruit.
The Thessalonians were young christians who did not have all the best follow up materials, dynamic speakers, and years to learn how to become dutiful disciples. They didn’t even have the internet! But Paul said their faith was flourishing and this in the midst of severe persecution. It appears that their own Jewish countrymen were persecuting them in an attempt “to squeeze the living faith out of them” (cf. 1 Thess 2:14-15)!
Now we in America are tempted to think that once the ridiculing and persecution starts, the growth stops. Faith and persecution cannot coexist, so we think. This, of course, reveals many interesting things about us, not the least of which is our utter failure to grasp the inner dynamics of Christ’s experience in Gethsemane and on the cross. This notwithstanding, it is nonetheless interesting to note how similar our thinking on this point is to those who have actually persecuted and tried to exterminate the church. For this has typically been the kind of reasoning they have employed. This includes such notables as Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, and Diocletian, as well as others down through the ages who have wrongly surmised that if Christians were ridiculed, shunned, beaten, and tortured for their proclamation of Christ, they would in the end, renounce him. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Christians, indwelt by the Spirit of the living God, have been altogether too stubborn for retreat. Under the persecution stratagem, they have often been found to be just like the Israelites of old: “the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread” (cf. Exodus 1:12). Now it is true that some fall away from the faith during times of attack, but the church as a whole is generally strengthened through suffering. Did not a certain church father rightly say that the growth of the church is found in the blood of the martyrs? This seems to be akin to the perspective in Revelation as well. If you have suffered for your faith, was not that experience a movement toward cleansing and clarification, as well as spiritual power?
Again, Christians have generally flourished under persecution; their faith and boldness to testify about Christ—his mercy and judgment—have only been strengthened in such moments. On the contrary, it is generally in times of peace, economic prosperity, and general acceptance that the church forgets her calling and who she is. Therefore, she must be incredibly vigilant in times of moral decadence, material affluence, and ideological positioning rooted in popularity contests. Otherwise, like a chameleon, she will rapidly take on the color and hue of the world around her—a world that rightly, yet lamentably, stands under the judgment of God (John 12:31; Rom 3:6).
The church and her members must not make alliances and pacts with the world, as evidenced by uncritical adaptations of its thinking, especially in reference to the blessings and judgment to be proclaimed in connection with the gospel. No matter what pressure is put upon us by the world, we must gently, but firmly resist tampering with the message. It is God’s gospel and we are not to change it, only to live and preach it (Rom 1:1; Gal 1:6-10). We are custodians not cannibals! Paul never once encouraged the Thessalonians to back down from the message in an attempt to alleviate suffering, win friends for Christ, or smooth over the sharp edges or uncomely aspects of the gospel. Relying on her own resources and turning aside to shake hands with the world, the church will inevitably and ironically become, the very enemy of God. Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity against God (James 4:4)? Salt that loses its saltiness is of no value to anyone, but is simply cast outside to be trampled by men (Matthew 5:13). The Thessalonians would have none of it…and neither should we.
So the Thessalonians’ faith—untainted by and unyielding to the demands of the world—was growing, even flourishing, vigorously laying hold of God’s presence and power. Seen in this light my little faith is summarily exposed and rebuked as well as strengthened, encouraged and now posed to do greater works for God. Having the dense fog of unbelief burned off by the heat of his searching presence—such is the effect of His Word applied by His Spirit to my conscience—I am asking the Lord what I can do to honor him. Perhaps you are doing the same these days. I, too, just like you, Paul, and his fledgling church, am made out of clay, with both feet firmly planted on God’s fallen world, but with the internal fortitude, guidance, and comfort of His powerful, indwelling Spirit, I can strike out in new and fresh avenues of trust. In keeping with renewed commitments to “trust and obey,” I am asking God to show us what those opportunities are.
It seems to me that the Thessalonians’ faith in God accomplished several character changes in them, not the least of which was their God-inspired ability to persevere. Their faith in God led to their “holding up and not folding up.” In 1:4 Paul praises them for their perseverance in spite of difficulties and obstacles. By faith they secured a lifeline with God and from him received spiritual supply, internal armament, emotional focus, and an unshakeable, eternal perspective. Theirs was not an inoperative, lifeless faith—as if such a faith is really worthy of the name—but a living, vibrant, strength-producing, kind of faith, rooted in a sure hope, i.e., rooted in their present experience of God and the conviction of Christ’s certain return (1:5-10). We may want to add the Thessalonians to the “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11.
We must remember that we too are connected to the same God who produces the same strength in those, who by faith, are enamoured with him. Do you love him? Have you experienced his mercy, love, and fatherly, yet chastening hand? If so, trust him now! Exercise your faith in God! Ask him for a special work of his Spirit so that Christ might fill your mind, heart, and life today. What is on your plate today? Ultimately he served it up. Can you trust him for it? Nothing makes your father—whose love for you is as solid, profound, and unmovable as Mt. Everest—more pleased than to see you stretch out your arms to him and tell him, “I trust you, Father!”
Take up Scripture and meditate on its promises, commands, warnings, and examples. Think of Abraham and how his faith advanced through personal agony and difficulty. Think also of Joseph’s patience and trust when wrongly accused. Emulate Joshua’s militant faith and steadfastness; put to death those sins that have ensnared you. Let his story be your story. Permit the book of Judges to warn you about the perils and dire consequences of not trusting God. Confess your sins. Dive into Israel’s songs and follow the psalmist as he moves from bitter plaintiff, to humble petitioner, to one who rejoices in God-centered living and who contends emphatically that all genuine faith expresses itself in daily worship and obedience to the sovereign king. Let the prophets bring you up short for moral and spiritual failure, harking humbly to their promises of forgiveness, cleansing, and restoration. Our God is merciful. Above all, concentrate on Jesus Christ and the cross—from which every spiritual benefit we have, or ever will have, derives. Bring the power of Christ’s triumphant resurrection into your heart, knowing that no present defeat in your life spells the final word! Reflect on God’s justice, love, and eternal hope in the work of Christ. Let it be the “idea-paradigm” by which you organize your conceptual world and let your life be lived in the imitation of Christ himself. Examine the epistles and commit yourself afresh to God’s atoning work for you, the gift of the Spirit (who fills your mind and heart with Christ), and your living hope. Set your heart on things above and ready yourself to humbly obey the Lord by faith. Meditate on all these things, mixing your thoughts with earnest faith in and love for Christ. Join in with others who are fervently seeking the Lord and encourage each other daily. Then you shall have the spiritual strength and dogged determination of Christians like the Thessalonians. Then you will say with David, “I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken (Ps 16:10).
Paul also praises the Thessalonians for their love for each other—a love that springs naturally from their faith in Christ. Therefore, as it was with their faith, so also their love; both are deeply rooted in God’s gracious work in salvation. The latter is the appropriate outflow of the former. In another letter Paul says that “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:6). Thus we have here two distinguishing marks of the true church, faith in God and love for other Christians.
In a time of severe trial the young and inexperienced Thessalonian church did not collapse in on itself. It did not fall headlong into a psychological heap of self doubt, “woe is me,” and backbiting (as to some degree occurred in Philippi), but rather refused the “way of self” and consciously opted instead to put the welfare of others first.
There is nothing more ugly than obstinate selfishness in a time of crisis, when people are counting on us the most. Having to look upon such cowardice is like enduring a sudden, totally unexpected slap in the face. All that is within us recoils from such blatant weakness for it is the very antithesis of courage, and therefore, the precise opposite of the more noble elements involved in Christian love. It seems subhuman. Correspondingly, there is nothing more beautiful—for it emanates from and profoundly reflects the cross itself—than living portraits beaming with the selfless character of Christ-sponsored love. This is especially so when everything inside us screams for self-preservation. The Thessalonian believers, with unswerving faith and resolute concern for their brothers and sisters, vividly remind us of the power of the kingdom of God. According to Paul, they were commended by the Lord and in the eschaton they will be counted worthy of the kingdom for which they were suffering (1:5; 1 Thess 3:12).
So then, “Where are the modern day Thessalonians?” It is true, as I have recently seen in central and eastern Europe and Canada, that God has “his people” everywhere. About this, I have no doubt. There are many, however, who name the name of Christ, but who need to combine that profession with a little grateful expression; they need to step up to the plate and begin to “hit” for the Lord, to really live out their gracious calling. There is work to be done; there are people who need the Lord’s message and love. If you claim to have the Thessalonians’ faith, show it by your love for others, by deeds done in the humility that comes from faith.
Now when you set out on a course of obedience, you can be sure that God will fulfill every good purpose of yours (i.e., every desire he lays on your heart in terms of Christ-glorifying service for him) and every act prompted by your faith (2 Thess 1:11-12). We should really only have two questions: (1) who are you, Lord? and (3) what would you have me to do? God has redeemed us so that we might know him and that we might do the good works he has prepared for us (Eph 2:10). We have been called to be the very people of God in the world, saved and sanctified entirely by his grace, devoted to good works, and shining forth the light of the Savior (Matthew 5:15-16; Titus 2:14). Have you asked him to lead you in these virtuous works? Listen to what Paul says in Titus 3:4-8. Notice how the grace of salvation leads to good works done from faith in God and love for people:
3:4 But “when the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind appeared, 3:5 He saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, 3:6 whom he poured out on us in full measure through Jesus Christ our Savior. 3:7 And so, since we have been justified by his grace, we become heirs with the confident expectation of eternal life.” 3:8 This saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on such truths, so that those who have placed their faith in God may be intent on engaging in good works. These things are good and beneficial for all people.
Now it is true that we are not justified by the performance of works outlined in the Mosaic law or by religious works at all (Rom 3:21-5:1), but our faith is certainly vindicated by what it produces (James 2:14-26). More often than not it seems that the doctrine of justification involves the justification of why we are barren and without fruit. Thus we should be about the business, as those who make the claim to God’s favor in Christ, of abiding in Christ and walking in love and service to others. Any doctrine less than this summarily distorts the gospel and unfortunately gives the lie to our profession. The end result is that we are just as deceived about the spiritual life as the world. God’s grace shed abroad in our hearts produces love for others. I think this is entailed in John’s comments in 1 John 4:11-12.
Further, despite the fact that we live in an instant oriented, self-gratifying culture we are commanded to shed our zealous preoccupation with ourselves and persevere in good works toward others. We are to shine like stars in the night sky and by the grace of God we shall certainly do it (Phil 4:13). Let us develop the holy, Christ-centered habit of seeking the good of others. In other words, let us persevere in doing good for at the proper time we will reap a harvest (of righteousness) if we do not give up (Gal 6:9-10). Let us take every opportunity to humbly and joyfully serve the Lord, his people, and those who do not know him. The end result will be Spirit inspired strength, holiness, and the enjoyment of our eternal life in the here and now. We will also be a blessing to those around us and the doctrine of God will be rightly adorned, cherished, and sought after.
So then, let us put aside sins of pride, arrogance, and “me-first,” thinking and let us really and truly give thought and action to the good of others. Is there someone who needs your help? Can you give it? If not, why not? Is God honored by your decision? I realize that we cannot help every person, but surely we can help someone, with something! Is there a person that needs love and affection or food and water or spiritual instruction and discipleship? Go and help them. Or, find someone who can help them; perhaps you have a book that would help them or a skill that would meet their needs. Can you carry a friend’s burden? Is someone worried about their errant teenager? Is there a family that struggles with making ends meet? Has someone recently passed away, leaving a struggling and hurting family behind? Are there elderly people in your town or city that need care and attention? Are there policemen, politicians, and social workers who need encouragement and blessing? Go. Bless them in the name of Christ, share the gospel, draw close, and in the strength that only God can supply serve into the needs, speaking the truth in love. May God give us both the stubborn faith of the Thessalonians and their persistent love for others.