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Lesson 5: Standing Firm in Trials (2 Thessalonians 2:13-17)

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March 5, 2017

Over the 40 years that I’ve been a pastor, I’ve sadly watched many who at one time professed to know the Lord turn away from the faith. Some have been pastors and other Christian leaders. Many have been involved in serving the Lord in some way. But now, they are not walking with the Lord and they do not go to church. They are critical of Christians. Often, they don’t know what they believe, but they are not evangelical Christians. They don’t want anything to do with the faith that they once believed.

That shouldn’t surprise us, in that Jesus told about the seed that fell on the rocky ground. It had no roots, so when the sun of trials or persecution beat down on it, it withered and died. Other seed fell among the thorns, picturing the worries of this world and the deceitfulness of wealth, which eventually choked it out so that it died (Matt. 13:19-23; Mark 4:13-20; Luke 8:11-15). Jesus saw professing disciples turn away when He taught hard truths (John 6:60-66). The apostle Paul had many who deserted or turned against him (2 Tim. 4:10, 16). But, still, it’s always grievous when it happens.

After describing the disturbing events of the end times, when the man of lawlessness will come to power and deceive many with satanic miracles and God will send a deluding influence on them, so that they will believe the lie and come under His judgment, Paul now reassures these new converts that they will not be a part of the great apostasy because God has loved them and chosen them for salvation. God called them, not for judgment, but so that they may gain the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thess. 2:13-14).

But, such certainty does not mean that they could kick back and coast into heaven. Rather, they needed to stand firm in the midst of their trials and persecutions, holding to the apostolic teachings (2 Thess. 2:15). Then Paul concludes this section with a prayer-wish that the Lord who has loved us and given us eternal comfort and good hope through the gospel will comfort and strengthen their hearts in every good work and word (2 Thess. 2:16-17). We learn here how to stand firm in our trials:

To stand firm and not fall away in your trials, keep God’s perspective with regard to eternity and time.

1. The need during trials and times of spiritual deception is to stand firm and hold to the apostolic teachings.

The only command here to these persecuted new believers is in verse 15: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.” Satan uses persecution and trials to get God’s people to doubt His sovereignty and His love: “If God really loved you, this wouldn’t be happening to you! Or, maybe He loves you, but He isn’t able to do anything about this trial.” So Paul here emphasizes both God’s sovereignty and His love. He sovereignly chose and called you to salvation through the gospel (2 Thess. 2:13, 14) because He loved you (2 Thess. 2:13, 16). Hold firmly both to God’s sovereignty and His love during your trials and the enemy will not destroy your faith.

Peter said the same thing to persecuted saints (1 Pet. 5:6-10):

Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you. Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.

Peter emphasizes God’s sovereignty (His mighty hand, His calling you to eternal glory, His ability to bring relief from suffering) and His loving care for His suffering people (“He cares for you”). Resisting the enemy, firm in your faith, is the same idea that Paul here calls the suffering Thessalonians to: “Stand firm, and hold to the teachings of the faith.”

A. Stand firm.

“Stand firm” is a present tense command, indicating that this isn’t a one-time need. We could translate it, “Keep standing firm.” In 1 Thessalonians 3:8, Paul wrote, “For now we really live, if you stand firm in the Lord.” (See, also, 1 Cor. 16:13; Gal. 5:1; Phil. 1:27; 4:1.) The first need when you encounter a trial is to stand firm in the Lord and the truth that is in Him. This does not mean that we should deny or suppress our emotions. It is not unspiritual to cry in a time of trial. But beneath it all, we should affirm, over and over if need be, “I know that God is good, He loves me, and He will bring me through this trial stronger in Him!”

I love the way David stood firm as he was in a cave, hiding from the troops of King Saul who were on a mad hunt to find and kill him. I doubt if I’d be writing songs at a time like that, but David did! Note how he repeats himself, as if he’s preaching to himself, as he stood firm in the Lord (Ps. 57:7):

My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast;
I will sing, yes, I will sing praises!

The Scottish preacher, A. J. Gossip (1873-1954) displayed the balance between genuine sorrow and firm faith in 1927 when his wife died suddenly and unexpectedly. His first sermon after that great loss was the now-famous, “When Life Tumbles In, What Then?” He concluded (20 Centuries of Great Preaching [Word], ed. by Clyde Fant, Jr. & William Pinson, Jr., 8:238-239):

I don’t think you need be afraid of life. Our hearts are very frail; and there are places where the road is very steep and very lonely. But we have a wonderful God. And as Paul puts it, what can separate us from His love? Not death, he says immediately, pushing that aside at once as the most obvious of all impossibilities.

No, not death. For, standing in the roaring of the Jordan, cold to the heart with its dreadful chill, and very conscious of the terror of its rushing, I too, like Hopeful, can call back to you who one day in your turn will have to cross it, “Be of good cheer, my brother, for I feel the bottom, and it is sound.”

A modern heresy called “open theism” tries to defend God from the difficult trials that people encounter by arguing that while God is good and means well, He doesn’t know or have any control over the choices that people make. So, if a drunk driver kills someone you love or commits some other crime, God weeps with you, but it shocked Him as much as it shocked you.

Some years ago I went to a funeral at another church here in town and the pastor said, “This young woman’s death was not in God’s will.” He meant to comfort the grieving family, but by denying God’s sovereignty over her tragic death, that pastor robbed them of comfort. As Paul has just shown, even the horrible evils that the man of lawlessness will bring on the world are under the sovereign control of our loving God. Knowing this, we can stand firm in trials.

B. Hold to the apostolic teachings.

Paul continues (2 Thess. 2:15), “… and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.” “Hold to” means, “have a firm grip on.” But, what does Paul mean by “the traditions”? The word means that which is handed down or handed over. Thus, it points to the derivative nature of the Christian faith. As Leon Morris (The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians [Eerdmans], p. 240) says,

It does not originate in men’s fertile imaginations. It rests on the facts of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ…. For us, these traditions are embodied in the documents of the New Testament.

As you know, the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church put a great emphasis on the traditions that have been handed down from the early centuries of the faith. But often, these traditions supersede the Bible in authority. When the traditions contradict the Bible, they follow the traditions. So you end up with doctrines like transubstantiation, the immaculate conception of Mary, praying to the saints, idols and icons, purgatory, and other teachings that have no basis in Scripture. These churches point to verses like this to justify their emphasis on church tradition.

But Paul was referring to the fact that his oral teachings and written letters did not originate with him. Rather, he was passing down what he had received directly from the Lord (see 1 Cor. 11:2; 15:3; Gal. 1:11-12). In other places, both Paul and Jesus made it clear that traditions are not always good to follow (Mark 7:5-8; Gal. 1:14; Col. 2:8). The inspired word of God is our only source of spiritual truth. To the extent that traditions follow God’s word, they may be helpful. But if they contradict God’s word, they are false and must be firmly rejected. The word of God is our solid rock in times of trouble. Hold firmly to it!

But how? Paul shows that we need God’s perspective (as revealed in the Word), both with regard to eternity and to time.

2. To stand firm and not fall away during trials, keep God’s perspective with regard to eternity.

When I was a boy and I complained about some difficulty or trial, my mother would often say, “Ten years from now you won’t remember it.” True, but that didn’t seem to help to alleviate my current problem! But it is helpful during trials to view them in light of God’s eternal purpose. Paul sweeps us back and then forward in eternity to help us gain God’s perspective on our momentary trials.

A. In eternity past, God chose you for salvation.

2 Thess. 2:13: “But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.” In passing, note how Paul mentions all three members of the trinity in this verse without pausing to explain it. He had taught the Thessalonians about the trinity during his brief time there. Verse 13 stands in contrast to verses 10-12, where Paul describes God’s judgment that is coming on those who reject the gospel. Rather than facing judgment, the Thessalonians can look forward to salvation, because from the beginning, God chose them for it. Because of this, Paul was under obligation always to give thanks to God for them.

There is a difficult textual variant in verse 13. Some early manuscripts read, “from the beginning,” while others read, “first fruits.” If “from the beginning” is the original reading (I lean this way), it parallels Ephesians 1:4, where Paul states that God “chose us in Him before the foundation of the world.” (See Rev. 13:8; 17:8.) If “first fruits” is the original, then Paul was saying that the Thessalonians were some of the first converts to the gospel in their region in the Gentile world (see, 1 Cor. 16:15).

But, either way, Paul’s point is that God chose the Thessalonians for salvation. God didn’t look down through history and see that the Thessalonians would choose to believe, so He put them on His list. The Scriptures are uniformly clear that our salvation is rooted in God’s sovereign choice of us before the foundation of the world. We choose to believe because God first chose us.

Many Christians struggle with the doctrine of election, but Paul doesn’t mention it here to get into a theological debate, but rather to bring God’s comfort to suffering people. It’s a great comfort when you’re going through trials to know that you’re a Christian because the Father gave you to His Son and His Son promised that He would not lose any whom the Father had given to Him (John 6:37-40)! Note four wonderful aspects of this:

(1) God chose you because He loved you. Paul mentions this twice, once in verse 13 and again in verse 16. He is repeating what he said in 1 Thessalonians 1:4, “knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you.” In Ephesians 1:5-6, Paul says, “In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself.” The concept goes back to Deuteronomy 7:7-8: “The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the Lord brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”

(2) God chose you for salvation. “Salvation” stands in contrast to the horrible condemnation that all who do not receive the love of the truth will face (2 Thess. 2:10-12). As Paul said (2 Thess. 1:9), “These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.” John Newton, the drunken sailor and slave ship captain who got saved and later became a pastor, painted above the mantle in his study Deuteronomy 15:15 (KJV), “But thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee.” (Brian Edwards, Through Many Dangers [Evangelical Press], p. 181.) Remember what God saved you from!

(3) God’s choosing you makes your salvation secure. That’s Paul’s point here, to reassure the Thessalonians that because God chose them for salvation, He would complete the process. If God determined before the foundation of the world to save you, then His purpose will not be thwarted by the persecution of godless men who will face His judgment.

(4) God’s choosing you is effected through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. Paul may mention the work of the Holy Spirit before he speaks of faith in the truth because the Spirit must first work in a person’s heart before that person can believe the gospel (Morris, p. 238). The Spirit must first convict a person of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8-11). Then He must open the person’s blind eyes so that he can see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4; 1 Cor. 2:14). And, both faith and repentance are gifts from God (Acts 11:18; Phil. 1:29; Eph. 2:8-9). I understand “sanctification” here to refer to the positional sanctification which we receive at the moment of salvation. The Spirit sets us apart from this evil world unto God.

Sometimes people ask, “How can you know if you’re one of God’s elect?” My reply is, “Have you believed in the Lord Jesus Christ to save you from sin and judgment? Has He changed your heart?” If so, that didn’t come from you. It is evidence that God chose you for salvation and the Spirit imparted to you new life and faith in the truth.

So, Paul looks back to eternity past and says that the truth of God’s choosing you for salvation will enable you to stand firm in trials and persecution. He also looks ahead:

B. In eternity future, God has destined you to gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

2 Thess. 2:14: “It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul has already mentioned this in 2 Thess. 1:10 & 12, “when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day,” and, “so that the name of our Lord Jesus will be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Since we are so closely identified with Christ that we are “in Him,” when He is revealed in power and glory, we also will be revealed with Him (Col. 3:4). We will share His glory!

But the path to future glory often goes through present trials. It is through those trials that the Lord refines and purifies us. One writer put it (H. E. Hayhoe, “Sentence Sermons,” source unknown), “He will never allow a trial in your life without a needs be on your part and a purpose of love on His part.” To stand firm and not fall away in a time of trials, keep God’s perspective with regard to eternity.

3. To stand firm and not fall away during trials, keep God’s perspective with regard to time.

In verses 13 & 14, the focus is on eternity. In verses 16 & 17, Paul’s prayer points us back and then ahead, with regard to time. Both the eternal and the temporal perspectives are helpful in trials.

A. In the past, God has worked in our lives in salvation.

2 Thess. 2:16: “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal comfort and good hope by grace ….” In passing, note how Paul elevates the Lord Jesus Christ, using His full title and mentioning Him before the Father. Verse 16 refers to our past salvation. When He saved us, we came to know our Lord’s supreme love as seen in His sacrifice for us on the cross (Gal. 2:20; Eph. 5:2, 25). There has never been a greater demonstration of love than when the sinless Son of God offered Himself to rescue guilty sinners from God’s wrath!

Also, when God broke into our lives with the good news about Jesus and we trusted in Him for salvation, He gave us eternal comfort, or encouragement. If you struggle with discouragement, think back to your salvation. You could still be taking pleasure in wickedness, facing God’s eternal judgment (2 Thess. 2:12). Instead, now you have come to know God’s love and encouragement. When you’re going through trials, look back on the wonderful salvation that God freely gave you in Christ!

B. In the present and future, God is working to comfort us in trials and to strengthen our hearts in every good work and word.

Also, when He saved us, God gave us “good hope by grace.” It’s good hope because it is absolutely certain, based on God’s promises. It’s also good because it isn’t based on our merits or performance, but rather on God’s undeserved favor. It’s hope because we have not yet realized it. It’s still future.

He also prays (2 Thess. 2:17) that the Lord may, “… comfort and strengthen your hearts in every good work and word.” Paul is praying that God will continue to work in our hearts and lives, both now and in the future. He’s praying that the positional sanctification which God bestowed on us when He saved us will be worked out in practical sanctification.

He mentions both our works and our words. Those two must always go together. If you’re all work but never open your mouth, people will think you’re a good person, but they won’t realize that your good works are because Christ has saved you. If you’re all words, but no works, people will rightly think that you’re a hypocrite and that the gospel doesn’t change anything. Your good works should open the door to speak a good word about Christ. Especially when people see you in the midst of trials, encouraged and strengthened as you do good works and speak godly words, they will realize that you have something that they want.

Conclusion

I’ve gained more by reading Christian biographies than from any other source, except the Bible itself. I’ve read twice Courtney Anderson’s, To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson [Little, Brown & Co.], which is one of the most moving stories you can ever read. Judson endured horrific trials in his labors to take the gospel to Burma. He lost two wives and several children. He was imprisoned for a year in a horrible death prison. He saw little response to the gospel. He said, “If I had not felt certain that every additional trial was ordered by infinite love and mercy, I could not have survived my accumulated suffering.” Judson also said, “The future is as bright as the promises of God.” (Both quotes on www.azquotes.com/author/22968-Adoniram_Judson)

We may never suffer as much as Judson did. But whatever our trials, we can stand firm if we keep God’s perspective with regard to eternity and with regard to time.

Application Questions

  1. Have you seen people who were strengthened in their faith through trials, while others fell away from the Lord? What was the difference?
  2. How can we know whether church traditions are helpful or harmful, since they can be either?
  3. Is the doctrine of election a comfort to you or a source of perplexity? Why? How could it become a source of comfort?
  4. Do you wrestle with discouragement in your faith? How can these verses turn that to encouragement?

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, Suffering, Trials, Persecution