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Lesson 1: A Healthy Church (2 Thessalonians 1:1-5)

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January 22, 2017

There seems to be a shortage of healthy churches in our day. I get emails from people asking if I know of a good church in their city, but often I am hard pressed to endorse any. I often hear of or read about abusive churches, legalistic churches, dead churches, and shallow, feel-good churches. I read recently of a Baptist church in Washington, D.C. that called a married lesbian couple as its new pastors. More and more churches that claim to be evangelical are capitulating to the culture on biblical moral standards. So when I hear about healthy, solid churches that preach the gospel and teach God’s word, it brings me great joy and hope.

The apostle Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians a few months after 1 Thessalonians to a church that had come into existence out of a pagan culture about 12-18 months before. As you would expect, it was not free of problems. No church is. They were experiencing trials and persecution. They were confused over some false teaching regarding the day of the Lord. It’s amazing how quickly Satan infiltrates a church with false teaching! Some lazy church members were not working and were mooching off those who were. But in spite of the problems, it was a healthy church. They were growing in faith, love, and endurance under persecution. A simple outline is:

  1. Greetings, encouragement, instruction, and prayer in light of their suffering (1:1-12)
  2. Instruction, thanksgiving, and prayer in light of the day of the Lord (2:1-17)
  3. Prayer, instruction regarding lazy Christians, and closing prayer (3:1-18).

The opening verses (1:1-5) give us a brief sketch (although not a full view) of a healthy church:

A healthy church is distinct from the world, bathed in the grace and peace of the gospel, growing in faith and love, and persevering in trials as it looks to God’s kingdom.

1. A healthy church is distinct from the world.

2 Thess. 1:1: “Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians ….”

A little over a year before, there had not been a church of any kind in Thessalonica. Now, because Paul, Silas (Silvanus), and Timothy had preached the gospel there, a church had been born. Although the Greek word for “church” was commonly used to refer to secular assemblies, it comes from two Greek words, meaning literally, “called-out ones.” Through the gospel, God has called His people out of this world to be distinct from the world’s values, morals, and goals. As Jesus prayed (John 17:14-17):

“I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.”

So, the church is in the world, but not of the world, even as Jesus was in the world, but not of it. The main thing that sets us apart (sanctifies us) from the world is that we have God’s word of truth. God’s word tells us how He wants us to live as holy people. We are to be distinct from the world in our values. The world values accumulating wealth as if this world is all that there is. But the church seeks to lay up treasures in heaven as we seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness (Matt. 6:33).

The world has relative moral standards that shift with the times. The world says, “It’s okay to live together outside of the lifelong covenant of marriage, as long as you’re in love.” The world reasons, “If two people of the same sex are in love, why shouldn’t they be allowed to get married? If a man decides that he really is a woman, what’s wrong with that?” And tolerance for every kind of behavior, no matter how morally perverse, is the world’s chief virtue. The world asks, “Why believe in the morals taught in an ancient book like the Bible?” We answer, “We believe it because Jesus believed it, and it is God’s word of truth.”

2. A healthy church is bathed in the grace and peace of the gospel.

2 Thess. 1:1-2: “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.”

Although this is a typical greeting from Paul, as with all of his greetings and salutations, it is more than routine. And, although Paul does not mention or spell out the gospel here, it implicitly permeates this greeting. The gospel which Paul preached included the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. The fact that he could mention “the Lord Jesus Christ” right next to “God our Father,” without any explanation, shows that he had taught these former pagans that Jesus is fully God. As we saw in 1 Thessalonians 1:5 & 7 (see, also, 2 Thess. 2:13), he also taught them about the deity of the Holy Spirit. The Christian faith is decidedly trinitarian. One sure mark of a false cult is that it denies the Trinity: There is one God who exists eternally in three persons: the Father; the Son; and, the Holy Spirit.

Paul extends grace and peace to this new church from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace is God’s unmerited favor, shown to us in the death of Jesus Christ on our behalf. Grace means that God bestows all the blessings of salvation—eternal life, forgiveness of all our sins, and complete right standing with Him—as a free gift to those who deserve His wrath. We can’t do anything to merit or earn God’s grace. All we can do is receive it. As Paul says (Rom. 3:24), we are “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.”

Peace refers to total well-being, but especially to the spiritual well-being that comes from being reconciled to God through Christ. His shed blood paid the penalty of our sins so that we are now at peace with God. It also broke down all barriers between us and other people, no matter what their ethnicity, so that we have peace with one another (Eph. 2:14). And, knowing that our sins are completely forgiven by God’s grace alone gives us inner peace in the midst of life’s trials.

Through the gospel, we enter into a relationship with God as our Father. Like the father of the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable (Luke 15:11-32), the heavenly Father is full of love and forgiveness when we repent and return to Him. He is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth” (Exod. 34:6). And the gospel calls us to submit to Jesus Christ as Lord. He bought us with His blood; we are His slaves.

And so healthy churches stand distinct from the world. They are bathed in the grace and peace of the gospel that comes to us from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

3. A healthy church has increasing faith in God and love for one another.

2 Thess. 1:3: “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is only fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows ever greater.”

By thanking God for their growth in faith and love, rather than congratulating the Thessalonians for their progress, Paul is acknowledging that these qualities come from God. While we are responsible to grow in faith and love, we can only do so as we depend on the indwelling Spirit’s power. Pray for yourself, your family members, and for other Christians that God would increase faith in Him and love for others.

A. A healthy church has increasing faith in God.

Paul has a unique emphasis here when he says, “We ought always to give thanks,” and adds that such “is only fitting.” Ought means, “we are under obligation” to thank God because clearly, He is behind this growth. He may have added, “as is only fitting,” because he had heard that the Thessalonians were protesting that his earlier praise of them was excessive (F. F. Bruce, Word Biblical Commentary, 1 & 2 Thessalonians [Thomas Nelson], p. 144). So Paul is encouraging them by saying that their evident growth in faith and love shows that God is truly at work in their hearts.

We come to God through initial faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. We believe God’s promise that whoever believes in Jesus will have eternal life (John 3:16). But such faith is not a one-time event, where we believe and it’s over with. Rather, our faith in God and the many promises of His word must grow. The difficult news is that such growth usually comes through trials. You’re cruising along, thinking that you’re trusting in Jesus, when, “Wham!” you get hit with something difficult. It may be a health problem, the loss of a job, a family crisis, or something else that is beyond your ability to handle. What should you do? If you grumble and complain, accusing God of not caring about you, your faith will shrink. If you call out to Him as your loving, gracious Father, trusting that He has your best interests at heart in this crisis, your faith will grow as you see the sufficiency of His “precious and magnificent promises” (2 Pet. 1:4).

This is illustrated in Israel’s history. God miraculously delivered them from slavery in Egypt through the ten plagues. He opened the Red Sea so that they could cross it as if on dry land. He closed the sea back over Pharaoh’s advancing troops. Then they went three days into the wilderness and found no water (Exod. 15:22). What a great opportunity to trust in the Lord, who had just proven Himself to be a mighty deliverer!

So what did the people do? They grumbled at Moses, which was really to grumble at the Lord. The Lord responded by graciously meeting their need and giving them a further promise of protection. But they responded by further grumbling, accusing Moses of bringing them all into the wilderness to kill them by hunger. God again graciously responded by providing daily manna. But because of their continual grumbling, God eventually swore in His wrath that that generation would not enter into His rest (Ps. 95:7-11; Heb. 3:7-11). After citing this judgment, Hebrews 3:12 warns us, “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God.”

When Paul says (2 Thess. 1:3), “your faith is greatly enlarged,” he uses a word that is only used here in the New Testament. It has the nuance of vigorous growth. As verse 4 mentions, this growth was taking place in the midst of severe persecutions and afflictions. So if you’re facing a severe trial, take care! You can either have an evil, unbelieving heart in falling away from the living God, or your faith can grow vigorously as you trust in Him and see His faithfulness to His promises.

B. A healthy church has increasing love for one another.

Paul often couples faith and love (1 Cor. 13:2, 13; Eph. 1:15; 3:17; 6:23; Col. 1:4; 1 Thess. 1:3; 3:6; 5:8; 1 Tim. 1:5, 14; 2:15; 4:12; 6:11; 2 Tim. 1:13; 2:22; Philemon 1:5). Increasing love for one another flows out of growing faith in the Lord Jesus, who commanded us to love one another even as He loved us (John 13:34-35). Paul had commended the Thessalonians for their love (1 Thess. 1:3); he prayed that their love would increase and abound (1 Thess. 3:12); and again commended them for their love, urging them to excel still more (1 Thess. 4:9-10). Now he had heard that their love was growing ever greater. This means that we never arrive at a point where we can check love off our list for prayer and growth.

We all tend to be like Linus: we love mankind in general, but can’t stand people in particular! The place where you can practice growing in love is with those who are in the closest proximity to you every day. Husbands and wives and parents and children always need to be growing in love. If you’re single, practice on your roommates. It will be good training for marriage if the Lord provides you with a mate!

Selfishness is the major impediment to love. So to grow in love, you must think about the other person’s needs ahead of your own. You must lay aside your rights and sacrifice your time and effort for the other person. As Paul told the Philippians (2:3-4), where two sisters in the Lord were having conflict (4:2), “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” (See, also, Col. 3:12-14.)

Some point out that Paul fails to thank God for their hope, as he did in 1 Thessalonians 1:3, where he mentions their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” But hope is implicit in 2 Thessalonians 1:4: they were persevering through difficult affliction and persecution. (Perseverance is the same Greek word as steadfastness of hope in 1 Thess. 1:3.) Since they still had the effect (steadfastness), we can assume that they still had the hope.

Before we leave verse 3, ask yourself, “Is my faith in God in the midst of trials growing, or am I grumbling? Is my love for others in my family and in this church growing?” If you’re at odds with anyone, go to them as soon as possible and ask forgiveness for any wrongs that you have committed and seek to be reconciled to them. Jesus said that such reconciliation is even more important than your worship (Matt. 5:22-24)!

4. A healthy church perseveres in faith in the midst of difficult trials.

2 Thess. 1:4: “therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure.”

Persevering in faith in the midst of difficult trials is not automatic! Trials test the genuineness of our faith. Jesus spoke about the seed sown on the rocky soil that withers when the hot sun beats down on the new plant (Matt. 13:5-6). He explained (Matt. 13:20-21): “The one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away.”

The key is to send down deep roots in the word when times are easier so that you will not wither in a time of trouble (Ps. 1:3; Prov. 1:20-33). Jeremiah 17:7-8 also links persevering in a time of trial to our faith in the Lord and having deep roots:

Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord
And whose trust is the Lord.
For he will be like a tree planted by the water,
That extends its roots by a stream
And will not fear when the heat comes;
But its leaves will be green,
And it will not be anxious in a year of drought
Nor cease to yield fruit.

The key to trusting the Lord and sending down roots is to do it daily in the smaller trials that we all encounter. Then you’ll have a pattern for faith when bigger trials hit. One of the most important habits that you can develop is to spend time in God’s word and prayer every morning. I try to read a Psalm, as well as a portion from both the Old and New Testaments. You’re free to do whatever works for you, but the main thing is to do it as consistently as you eat. God’s word is daily food for your soul.

I enjoy the Psalms because they were written in the trenches of life’s trials. For example, (as I write this) this morning I read Psalm 86. David begins by crying out to the Lord to hear and answer him, explaining that he is afflicted and needy. Later (v. 14) he specifies that a band of arrogant, violent men were seeking his life. Thankfully, I’ve never been in that kind of peril! But, I can apply the psalm by thinking about what my needs and trials are. Prayer is an acknowledgement that I’m needy. Maybe I’m only having normal, minor hassles or frustrations. But I should take them to the Lord in prayer, following David’s pattern of rehearsing God’s goodness, graciousness, and love. I prayed through the psalm both for myself and for my family, asking that they would seek the Lord in their trials. Doing that consistently with the minor issues of life develops a pattern for trusting God when major trouble hits.

Thus a healthy church is distinct from the world and bathed in God’s grace and peace through the gospel. It has growing faith in God and love for one another. It perseveres in faith in the midst of difficult trials. Finally,

5. A healthy church views its suffering in light of the kingdom of God.

2 Thess. 1:5: “This is a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you will be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering.” Gary Shogren (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, 1 & 2 Thessalonians [Zondervan], p. 246) translates verse 5: “[All of this gives] evidence that God will pronounce a right verdict, which will result in you being considered worthy of God’s kingdom, for which you are also suffering.”

When we go through severe trials, we tend to think that God has forsaken us and is not working out His plan for us. But Paul is saying, “Quite the contrary!” He wants us to understand that suffering is often the means God uses to work out His eternal purpose and prepare us for His kingdom. Paul had already taught these new Christians that we are destined for such afflictions (1 Thess. 3:3). This was a common theme for Paul. When he and Barnabas revisited the new churches that they had just founded, Acts 14:22 summarizes that they were “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, ‘Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.’”

The idea in verse 5 is not that suffering somehow qualifies us for being worthy of God’s kingdom. That would make salvation a matter of human works or merit. Rather, persevering in suffering is an evidence that God is working in us, preparing us for His eternal kingdom, when we will escape His righteous judgment through the blood of Christ, but unbelievers will be judged (vv. 6-10). G. K. Beale (1-2 Thessalonians [IVP Academic], p. 184, italics his) explains,

Their enduring faith through suffering is the badge (the evidence or sign) by which they will be counted worthy of not being judged but of inheriting the kingdom of God at the end of history. One will not be able to enter the kingdom without the badge of enduring faith and its accompanying good works.

Although at this time we’re not suffering persecution, we can persevere through whatever trials we may be experiencing if we’ll keep our eyes on the coming kingdom of God, when He will reward all who have suffered for the sake of righteousness and judge all the wicked. Writing to a persecuted church, Peter expressed a similar idea (1 Pet. 1:6-7): “In this [future salvation] you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Conclusion

I recently had a message from my doctor’s office reminding me that it’s time for my annual checkup. I think I’m pretty healthy, but a checkup will either confirm it or reveal some problems.

Are we a healthy church? Paul’s introduction here isn’t a thorough checkup, but we should ask: Because of the gospel, are we standing distinct from the world? Are we bathed in God’s grace and peace through the gospel? Are we growing in faith and love? Are we persevering in our trials? And, are we viewing our trials in light of God’s coming kingdom?

Application Questions

  1. How can we know which (if any) of God’s commands (the role of women, homosexuality, divorce, etc.) are relative to the culture and which apply in every time and culture?
  2. How would you counsel a young believer who thinks that his trials must mean that God doesn’t love him? What Scriptures would you use?
  3. Why is it crucial to trust God and not grumble in minor trials before major trials hit? See Proverbs 1:20-33.
  4. How does our text refute the popular “prosperity gospel” heresy, which promises that if you have enough faith, God will make you rich and healthy?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Ecclesiology (The Church)