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Lesson 7: Perseverance Through Persecution (1 Thessalonians 2:13-16)

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September 4, 2016

It will be interesting to see what happens to the American church when persecution intensifies. I did not say, “if persecution intensifies,” but, “when.” Persecution for our faith has already begun in minor ways (compared to how those in other countries suffer), but unless there is widespread revival in America, persecution of Christians will grow stronger in the next few years. My aim in this message is to help you prepare for it.

We have already seen businesses fined and forced out of business because of alleged discrimination against the LGBT agenda. There is pressure both from the government and from politically correct corporations to force everyone to allow men who identify themselves as women to use women’s restrooms and shower facilities. A graduate student working on a counseling degree was forced out of her degree program because she said that she would refer homosexual clients to other counselors because of her religious beliefs. At least two states have passed laws that prohibit licensed counselors from trying to help homosexual clients become heterosexual. And, campus ministries have been forced off campus because they refuse to accept homosexuals as leaders of their groups.

I’m not a prophet, but in the future, churches and other ministries that hold to the biblical view on homosexuality will lose their tax exempt status. Military chaplains may be forced to perform homosexual weddings or lose their commissions. Public school teachers may be fired for refusing to teach “diversity” tolerance to their students. Christian colleges and seminaries may lose their accreditation if they do not endorse LGBT “rights.” Those employed by secular universities may lose their jobs if they refuse to embrace the LGBT agenda. Employees of secular companies may be fired for believing what the Bible says about homosexual sin.

At their recent convention in Philadelphia, the Democratic Party and their presidential candidate endorsed abortion rights, which Obamacare is trying to force on businesses and religious institutions. Concerning homosexuality, they said, “[We] applaud last year’s decision by the Supreme Court that recognized that LGBT people—like other Americans—have the right to marry the person they love.” Already, pastors in Sweden, England, and Canada have been arrested for preaching what the Bible says about homosexuality. It is likely that America will soon do the same.

So, we are headed for increasing persecution if we faithfully hold to what the Bible teaches about these moral issues. The question is, “Will you persevere and hold to the Bible’s teachings under persecution, or will you capitulate to our godless culture to avoid persecution?”

In our text, we see the new believers in Thessalonica holding up through persecution that probably was much stronger than anything we will experience in the next decade or two. Their perseverance was another evidence that God had chosen them for salvation (1 Thess. 1:4). In 1 Thessalonians 2:1-6, Paul proclaimed the gospel with boldness. In verses 7-12, he lived the gospel with gentleness. As a result (in verses 13-16), the Thessalonians received the gospel as God’s word with perseverance in spite of much persecution.

To persevere under persecution, believe God’s Word, imitate other persevering believers, and trust that God will judge those who persecute His people.

1. To persevere under persecution, believe God’s word.

1 Thess. 1:13: “For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.”

Note two things:

A. Believing God’s word means receiving the gospel as God’s word.

Scholars are divided over whether “for this reason” applies to what Paul has just said or to what he is about to say. It may mean, “Because God has saved you through the gospel and called you into His kingdom and glory, we constantly give thanks.” Or, it could mean, “Because you received the word we preached to you not as our word, but as God’s word, we constantly give thanks.” But either way, Paul was constantly thankful to God because the Thessalonians had responded favorably toward the gospel, which he here calls, “the word of God.” Paul has repeatedly referred to his message as “the gospel of God” (1 Thess. 2:3, 8, 9), emphasizing that it is good news that comes to us from God, not from any human source. But he also has referred to it as “the word” or “the word of the Lord” (1 Thess. 1:6, 8). The gospel is a verbal message that comes to us from God.

As a verbal message, the gospel has content. It centers on the person of Jesus, who is “the Word.” As John (1:1, 14, 18) writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth…. No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” Or, as Hebrews 1:1-2 begins, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.” All of God’s word, from Genesis to Revelation, centers on Jesus Christ, the Word of God in human flesh (Luke 24:27, 44; John 5:39, 46).

In Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve sinned, God made them clothing from an animal skin to cover their nakedness. It was a picture of God providing a blood sacrifice to cover our sins. The Bible says that we all sinned in Adam and that we all have added sins of our own (Rom. 3:10-23; 5:12-21). Thus we all stand guilty before God, unable to pay the debt for our sins. In mercy, He sent His own eternal Son to take on human flesh and die in our place. He offers a full pardon and eternal life as a gift to all who put their trust in Jesus Christ as their sin-bearer. As Paul wrote (Rom. 6:23), “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Acts 17:2-3 tells us that when Paul was in Thessalonica, he went to the synagogue and “reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.’” The Jews already accepted the Scriptures as God’s word, so Paul used it to reason with them. When he went to Athens and preached to the philosophers on Mars Hill, he used a different approach, citing some of their poets and philosophers, but he argued towards the same point about Jesus (Acts 17:30-31), “God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”

When you’re sharing the gospel with those who do not believe that the Bible is God’s word, my advice is not to try to prove that point. Rather, challenge the person to read the Gospel of John with the sincere prayer, “God, if this is Your word of truth, open my eyes to see and I will believe in Jesus.” God’s word is powerful in itself and doesn’t need our defense. God spoke the universe into existence by His word (Genesis 1). Isaiah 55:11 promises that God’s word will not return to Him empty, without accomplishing His purpose. So don’t get into debates with unbelievers about whether or not the Bible is God’s inspired word. Just challenge them to read it, asking God to show them the truth. So the starting place for persevering through persecution is to believe that the gospel is not the word of men, but rather the word of God.

B. Believing God’s word requires letting the word do its powerful work in you.

Paul adds that the word of God “also performs its work in you who believe.” “Believe” is in the present tense, indicating the ongoing process of belief (Leon Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians [Eerdmans], pp. 88-89). For God to give us the strength to endure persecution, we must continue to believe in the gospel and in all of God’s revealed word of truth.

If you truly believe that God’s word is not the word of men, but rather, the word of God, you will study it diligently to learn what it means and how it applies to every area of your life. If you’re going through trials, the word gives real life stories of men and women of faith who endured trials and persecution, so that we can imitate their faith (Heb. 11:1-40; 12:1-3; 13:7). A major theme in 1 Peter is how to endure persecution for your faith. Many other Scriptures give specific teaching about enduring difficult trials.

But these examples and the explicit teaching of God’s word can only perform their work in you if you are in the word. Don’t just pick out a few favorite verses or, worse, open your Bible and point to a verse at random. Rather, read it consecutively, with a good study Bible for help, praying for understanding. God’s word is powerful because it exposes not only your behavior, but also your motives. As Hebrews 4:12-13 declares, “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.”

If that sounds threatening, keep in mind that God uses His word to heal us, not to harm us. If a doctor gives a superficial diagnosis and does not probe to find the source of your illness, you won’t be healed and he’s not worth trusting. God wants us to be in His word so that it will expose the causes of our spiritual illness so that we can be healed. Persevering under persecution, which tests the reality of our faith, comes from believing God’s word.

2. To persevere under persecution, imitate other persevering believers.

1 Thess. 2:14: “For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you also endured the same sufferings at the hands of your own countrymen, even as they did from the Jews ….” Sometimes when we suffer, whether it is a health problem, an emotional problem, a family conflict, or persecution, we tend to think that we’re the only one in the world with this problem. Even the godly prophet Elijah when he was under persecution complained to God that he was the only one left who followed the Lord (1 Kings 19:10).

Because of this tendency, Peter wrote to persecuted Christians (1 Pet. 4:12), “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you.” A few verses later, he added (1 Pet. 5:8-11),

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. To Him be dominion forever and ever. Amen.

It’s important in a time of suffering or persecution to know that you’re not alone. The same experiences of suffering are happening to your brethren who are in the world. And, as Peter reminds us, God is in charge. He is sovereign over our suffering.

As I said, the Bible has many stories of persecuted believers. The Psalms often describe a situation where the psalmist is being slandered or his life is in danger. But he rehearses God’s attributes and how God has been faithful to His saints in the past. By the end of the psalm, his perspective has changed to praise. Also, the prophets such as Jeremiah suffered because they told people what God wanted them to hear, not what the people wanted to hear. Jesus frequently told His disciples that they would face persecution for His name’s sake.

In addition to the Bible, read missions magazines like “Voice of the Martyrs,” which tell stories of persecuted believers. Read biographies of missionaries who suffered as they took the gospel to difficult places: Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, John and Betty Stam, John Paton, and others. To read of how Judson and his wife suffered in Burma puts my puny trials in perspective! As Hebrews 13:7 exhorts, “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith.” To persevere under persecution, believe God’s Word and imitate other persevering believers.

3. To persevere under persecution, trust that God will judge those who persecute His people.

1 Thess. 2:14c-16: “The Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out. They are not pleasing to God, but hostile to all men, hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved; with the result that they always fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them to the utmost.”

Paul’s strong words here against the Jews have led some to think that he didn’t write this, but it was inserted by a later scribe. But there is no manuscript evidence to support such a conclusion. Others accuse Paul of being anti-Semitic, but that’s ridiculous. If he was anti-Semitic, then so was Jesus (Matt. 21:43; 23:31-38), who pronounced judgment on the Jewish leaders and on the Jewish nation for their unbelief and sin. Paul even said that if he could, he would forfeit his own salvation so that his fellow Jews could have eternal life (Rom. 9:3-5)! And, wherever he preached the gospel, Paul always began with the Jews (Acts 13:5, 14, 46; 14:1; 17:1-2; Rom. 1:16). So Paul was not anti-Semitic.

But how then should we understand Paul’s vehement outburst here against the Jews? To understand, we have to realize that from the earliest days after his conversion, Paul had faced almost continual opposition from the Jews. They would have killed him while he was still in Damascus immediately after his conversion, but he narrowly escaped (Acts 9:23-25). When he first went to Jerusalem, they again tried to kill him, so that he had to flee to Tarsus (Acts 9:30-31). While he served the church in Antioch and then wherever he went, the Judaizers dogged his steps, trying to undermine his gospel (Acts 15:1-5; Galatians).

When Paul preached the gospel in Pisidian Antioch, the Jews opposed him and drove him and Barnabas out of that region (Acts 13:45-46, 50). At Iconium, the disbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles against those who had believed, attempting to stone Paul (Acts 14:1-2, 5). At Lystra, the Jews who had followed him from Antioch and Iconium, persuaded the Gentiles to stone Paul, whom God miraculously raised up (Acts 14:19-20). The same fierce opposition happened in Thessalonica, Berea, and Corinth (Acts 17:5, 13; 18:4-6, 12-13).

Later, after Paul had expended much effort to raise and deliver a generous gift to help the suffering Jews in Israel, the Jews falsely accused him and would have killed him in the temple if the Roman soldiers had not rescued him. They then formed a plot to ambush Paul. When that failed, they tried to convict him before the Romans as a traitor (Acts 22-23). So Paul had quite a few reasons to indict the Jews, as he does here!

Obviously, Paul is making a generalization. There were many exceptions to Jewish unbelief, Paul himself being Exhibit A. He loved the Jews, but still he warns them of judgment. In our politically correct day, you can’t make a generalization about any group or you get labeled as homophobic, racist, or religiously bigoted (if you say something against Islam). But there are helpful generalizations and we should not shy away from making them because it’s not politically correct. Someone needs to point out that it is abnormal and a serious sin for a man to want to be a woman, or vice versa. It is sin against God’s created order for men to have sexual relationships with men and women with women (Rom. 1:26-27).

It is a fact of history that Islam has always conquered by the sword and then taken away freedom from other religions. This does not mean that all Muslim people are that way; but the Quran does teach jihad against all infidels. It teaches that men must keep their wives in subjection and even gives instructions on how to beat your wife properly if she is rebellious (Quran 4:34; 38:44; see www.thereligionofpeace.com). I don’t say any of this to stir up hatred or any violence toward anyone. We should treat all individuals with love and respect and should offer the gospel to all. But we should lovingly warn those who are not in submission to Jesus Christ that they are under God’s wrath and will come under eternal judgment if they do not repent and believe in Christ.

Not only the Jews, but also all of us are guilty of killing the Lord Jesus because of our sins. If someone goes farther and tries to hinder the gospel from going to the lost, they add to their guilt before God. Paul says (1 Thess. 2:16) that they “fill up the measure of their sins.” God used similar language when He told Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign land for four hundred years (cf. also Matt. 23:32; Rom. 2:5). Then He added (Gen. 15:16), “Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” God tolerated the horrible sins of the Canaanites (Amorites) for 400 years, but then when their sin was filled up, He ordered the Jews under Joshua to slaughter them all. If someone raises the slaughter of the Canaanites as a reason not to believe in such a God, you could point out to them that He has justly ordained the physical and eternal death of all unrepentant sinners, not just the Canaanites. As Jesus warned (Luke 13:3, 5), “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

But what does Paul mean when he states (1 Thess. 2:16), “But wrath has come upon them to the utmost”? He uses an aorist verb, which here may look at God’s wrath in its entirety as a certain event, even though the ultimate fulfillment of it was yet future. It would include the awful destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, as predicted by Jesus. It would extend to the almost 2,000-year hardening of the Jews (Rom. 11:25). It would include Hitler’s awful slaughter of six million Jews. And yet to be fulfilled is Zechariah 13:8, which predicts a time when two-thirds of the Jews will be cut off and perish, but one third will survive and believe in Jesus as their Messiah.

Conclusion

The lesson for persecuted believers is: Keep believing in the gospel. In spite of your suffering, know that nothing can separate you from God’s love (Rom. 8:31-39). Look at others who have faithfully suffered and died for the gospel and imitate their faith. Trust that God has a sovereign purpose for your persecution and that in His wise time, He will right every wrong and bring every wrongdoer to just punishment. None will escape (Rev. 20:11-15).

The lesson for those who do not believe the gospel is, “Repent and flee the wrath to come while you still have time!” In His mercy, God delays judgment. But He warns every sinner that His wrath is coming, when His enemies will cry out to the mountains and to the rocks (Rev. 6:16-17), “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” Don’t be so foolish as to shrug off His warning!

Application Questions

  1. Some claim that if you have enough faith, God will deliver you from all suffering. What verses would you use to refute this?
  2. Why does God allow the righteous to suffer and the ungodly to prosper? What are the key Scriptures on this subject?
  3. How can generalizations be helpful? What are their dangers? Why does Paul make this generalization (1 Thess. 2:15-16)?
  4. Is America currently under God’s judgment? If so, is there anything we can do about it?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.

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

Related Topics: Suffering, Trials, Persecution

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