"Purpose and Hope Amidst Adversity"
July 11, 2010 2Thess 1:1-12
WHAT KEEPS YOU GOING WHEN THE WHEELS COME OFF?
At a conference Bill Hybels was comparing our life to one of those little red wagons for children. For much of the time we can hurry along without any problem. But when life gets out of balance and things get crazy, sooner or later one of the wheels is going to come off the little red wagon.
That happened more literally for some in our family this past week. The past few weeks had been stressful enough for our daughter Emily, son-in-law Trenton, and little baby Aiden: packing up and moving to start a new chapter of life in Alberta near Trenton's parents. They were hauling a trailerful of half their worldly possessions thousands of miles through Canada behind their little VW veggie-car. At the campground in northern Ontario they were drenched and got oodles of bug-bites. They'd had a flat tire to change. Then this past week, somewhere around Yorkton Saskatchewan while Emily was driving, a bearing in one of the car hubs went and the wheel actually came off the car while they were sailing along at highway speed! The car swerved wildly and plunged into the ditch. The trailer bed was jerked so hard the box broke right off the frame and actually passed the car, tipping over upside down onto the truck cap that was its roof. What a jarring, scary experience!
However, even in such an upset, the young family became aware that God was bringing good out of all the trouble. All 3 passengers were safe and unharmed. They didn't hit a transport truck. Other people pulled over to help; they were amazed, saying, "You should have flipped." When they examined the trailer's contents, they found the only thing that had broken was one bottle. A truck-driver offered to transport their trailer contents to Saskatoon, where they were towed for repair. And Emily felt a real joy after the dust had all settled; as she says, you'd give anything in order for the people you love to be safe. That's all that mattered. So even in the wreck, they sensed God taking care of them.
What about your life? Have things been pretty nutty or stressful? Have you been upset things weren't working out as you had hoped? Have troubles been mounting up against you? Have you felt picked on or ridiculed for your beliefs or other things people don't like about you?
In Paul's 2nd letter to the Thessalonians, he reassures them that, while they may have had to endure much hardship through persecution, the results of their troubles provide evidence that God is real and rewards those who keep trusting Him even when the wheels come off.
WHAT GOOD CAN POSSIBLY COME FROM OUR TROUBLES?
The church in Thessalonica had been born in controversy, and troubles persisted for the young flock even afterward. We read of the very beginnings in Acts 17: Paul and Silas arrived from Philippi at this city of about 200,000 people, capital of its province of Macedonia. Paul reasoned with those who attended the Jewish synagogue over a period of 3 Sabbath days. Luke records that some Jews were persuaded along with a large number of God-fearing Greeks and several prominent women.
But that's when the trouble began. Acts 17:5-10 states, "But the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city.They rushed to Jason's house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd.But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: 'These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house.They are all defying Caesar's decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.' When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil.Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go.As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea..." Jealousy - mob - riot - shouting - turmoil: it was not exactly a peaceful launch!
And the hardships didn't stop when the apostles left. In Paul's first letter to the church there, he wrote (1:6), "In spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit;" (2:14f) "For you, brothers, became imitators of God's churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out.They displease God and are hostile to all men..." So, becoming Christians had brought upon them suffering and hostility through persecution by their own countrymen. Apparently by the time this second letter is being written, that hasn't stopped. V4 refers to "all the persecutions and trials you are enduring", v5 - suffering, v6 "those who trouble you".
It's bad enough when trials come out of the brokenness of creation, like bearings wearing out on a car at high speed. But in a way that's easier to take than persecution: the latter is personal, you feel rejected and attacked by others for no good reason but on account of your belonging to Jesus Christ. Can you relate at all to the Thessalonian Christians in that way? Have non-believers distanced themselves from you, marginalized or made fun of you or despised you for trusting in Jesus? Has it meant you've been excluded from certain circles or groups?
Paul teaches the young believers that, despite the opposition they've been experiencing, God has been bringing good out of their troubles. At least ten things.
First, their faith in God is growing: v3, "your faith is growing more and more..." Jesus had taught His disciples faith is crucial, vital, and we should be challenged to grow in faith when problems arise. In Luke 17:5 the apostles respond to the challenge to forgive someone who keeps on repeatedly sinning against you by exclaiming to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" He replies, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you." Faith grows when faced by tree-sized obstacles.
Second, their love for brothers and sisters in Christ is growing, too. V3, "the love every one of you has for each other is increasing." When some were persecuted, the hearts of other Christians went out to those suffering in mutual affection. In Paul's first letter, 3:12, Paul had prayed, "May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you." God may have actually used trials to answer that prayer: their love had grown.
Third, a good report about their reputation was being published abroad. V4, "among God's churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring." Paul was bragging on them to other churches as a result of their testing and how they persevered! As in Romans 1:8, "I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world." If we never experienced hardship, there wouldn't be any reason for others to honour and learn from our example and endurance.
Fourth, the outcome of trials provides evidence that vindicates God's judgment - it proves God is righteous in His verdict. V5, "All this" - the persecutions, perseverance, resulting increased faith and mutual love, and the report broadcast among the other churches - "All this is evidence that God's judgment is right"; NLT, "God will use this persecution to show His justice," NRSV His "righteous judgment." Really the persecution is backfiring because, instead of stamping out Christianity, it's causing believers to become stronger and for their surprising love and bold conviction to be announced far and wide. The more others put them down, the more notorious those persecuted become - in a good way. In Daniel 4:37 the emperor of Babylon acknowledges Yahweh's righteous judgment after God takes the kingdom from the haughty highness for a time to remind him he's just a man: "Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble."
Fifth, troubles result in believers being counted worthy to be God's people. V5, "as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering." Also v11, Paul prays "that our God may count you worthy of His calling..." Trials prove our mettle, it's those who've endured the fire of testing that deserve or are worthy of the reward. In Luke 20:35 Jesus refers to "those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead..." If you're a believer, do you at times forget and lull yourself into thinking you somehow automatically DESERVE or are entitled to go to heaven? Don't take it for granted! Paul writes to the Ephesians (4:1), "As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received."
Sixth, troubles provide an opportunity for us to appreciate the rest and relief God grants. V7, "[God is just: He will...] give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well." The Greek word translated 'relief' can also mean 'loosening, relaxing, rest; let up, release'. When the trouble's past, how thankful you are for the relief! Luke 16(25) highlights how the poor beggar Lazarus who lay in agony at the rich man's gate was comforted at Abraham's side after death. "Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony." God comforts those who come to Him, giving them rest from their struggles. Isaiah 57:2, "Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death."
Seventh, our endurance of hardship brings glory to Jesus at His return. V10, "on the day he [the Lord Jesus] comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed." Note the surprising preposition there - not "to be glorified BY" His holy people but IN His holy people; when all is exposed, Jesus is glorified IN you by your conduct, you're making Him look good! (All by His grace, of course.) Eph.1:12,18 "in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory...that you may know...the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints..." Believers who've been tried and tested and come through are Jesus' estate, His inheritance or treasured and valuable keepsake.
Eighth, troubles provide occasion for other Christians to uphold you in prayer. V11, "With this in mind, we constantly pray for you..." When Paul and Silas escaped, they didn't stop praying for those who'd have to remain behind and face opposition and scorn. Colossians 1(9), "...since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding." That's why we have prayer chains, sharing at Prayer Time, and so on. Who's in special need that you can be praying for this week? That praying will also increase your mutual love for one another.
Ninth, testing increases faith which results in action. Troubles develop faith-muscles that work and produce righteous deeds. V11, the apostle prays that God will fulfill "every act prompted by your faith." Likewise in his first letter he referred in 1:3 to "your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love..." Faith without works is dead - like the 'faith' of demons who believe there is one God - and shudder, but don't re-align their actions (Jas 2:17,19). Troubles grow our faith to be healthy - faith that acts.
And tenth, troubles result in us being glorified in Jesus. V12, "We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him..." Not only will Christ receive honour and glory in His faithful people when He comes; believers will receive glory in Him as a result of standing the test of problems and persecution during their earthly life. Isn't that an awesome thought, that the Lord Himself will share His glory with us? In Jn 17:22 Jesus prays to the Father, "I have given them the glory that you gave me..."
AND YOU THOUGHT IT WAS HOT ALREADY...
So, there you have it - ten ways in which persecutions and trials can actually have good outcomes. God rewards those who hang tough for Him in hot water. So don't give up or become discouraged when you are faced with some difficulty.
But what about those who decide to go their own way - those who reject God, including those who have been causing the trouble? Did you think it was hot outside this week? That's nothing compared to what these folks'll face!
The perfectly just judge of all the universe will pay back the ungodly, dishing out to them their own harsh medicine. Vv6,8f, "God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you...He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished..." Commentator Robertson notes, "This is the regular phrase in classic writers for paying the penalty." Nothing escapes the unsleeping eye of the eternal Referee: each will receive their due.
The heavens declare the glory of God in a universal language. What can be known about God should be plain to men, being understood through what He has made, so people who ignore or reject God are without excuse (Ps 19:1ff; Rom 1:18ff). To reject Jesus and spurn an infinitely awesome God's glory is to become guilty of an infinite sin, deserving infinite punishment. Trouble will keep on being paid out to the wicked.
Christ's coming will be with blazing fire: v7, "this will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels." God revealed Himself to Moses in a burning bush that flamed supernaturally (Ex 3:2); in Exodus 19 when He revealed Himself to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai, the mountain "was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire.The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently..." (Ex 19:18) Isaiah 66:15, "See, the LORD is coming with fire, and his chariots are like a whirlwind; he will bring down his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire." In the New Testament, the author of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us to "worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our 'God is a consuming fire.'" (Heb 12:28f) Jesus describes hell as a place "where the fire never goes out"; those 'goats' on His left at judgment who did not show mercy to the hungry or strangers etc.are commanded to 'Depart from Me...into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.' (Mk 9:44; Mt 25:41)
Another aspect of damnation besides the fiery torment is its duration. V9, "They will be punished with everlasting destruction..." No end to the suffering - forever. Not annihilation - that would be too easy, and not fulfill justice in punishing guilt against God's infinite being. No hope of it ever letting up.
But the worst part? Worse than the flame, the torment, the outer darkness, the gnashing of teeth, the undying worm? (Mt 8:12; Mk 9:48) V9, "They will be...shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of His power..." The best part about heaven will be that Christians "will be with the Lord forever." (1Thess 4:17) Woe to those who would be satisfied with heaven if God were not there! Saving faith is satisfied only with God Himself, not simply the gifts of God apart from the Giver. Conversely, the worst part about hell will be being 'shut out', separated from God's presence (literally, God's face), forever banished from Him who is the source and sum of all beauty, goodness, loveliness, and wholeness. More than banished, to have the immensity and terribleness of the Almighty's power and justice AGAINST you. Oh, how this ought to propel us to witness to those who are unsaved, before it's too late! Will you let God's Spirit burden you thus?
PROBLEM OR PRESENT?
Returning to our main theme - those who are in Christ need not be discouraged by hardships and persecution. The Lord can bring much good out of such trials.
Eileen Egan, who worked with Mother Teresa and with the Missionaries of Charity for thirty years, described Mother Teresa's outlook on adversity like this: "One day, after my conservation had been filled with a litany of problems, Mother Teresa remarked, 'Everything is a problem. Why not use the word Gift?' With that began a shift in vocabulary. Shortly thereafter, we were to fly from Vancouver to New York City. I was dismayed to learn that the trip had to be broken en route, with a long delay, and was about to inform her of the problem. Then I caught myself and said, 'Mother, I have to tell you about a gift.We have to wait four hours here, and you won't arrive at the convent until very late.' Mother Teresa settled down in the airport to read a book of meditations, a favourite of hers. [Egan concludes] From that rime on, items that presented disappointments or difficulties would be introduced with 'We have a small gift here,' or 'Today we have an especially big gift.'"
As Paul showed the Thessalonians all the good that could come out of their troubles by the Lord's help, may God show each of us how a problem can instead become a present for us. Let's pray.