- Psalm 110;
- 2Thessalonians 1:1-12
Dear friends in the Lord,
“Do you really think that God will allow his church to go through a time of tribulation?” This was the question during a discussion about the end-times.
“What do you think?” I asked.
He went on to explain about the rapture of the children of God before a period of thousand years of peace under the kingship of Christ when He returns to reign in Jerusalem.
I read verses like John 16:33, Romans 8:17, 1Peter 1:6, 4:12-16, Hebrews 10:32-33. I quoted from how Christians were dipped into tar and used as torches, and even recent history in the middle east when ISIS chopped off the heads of men after they raped their wives, and took the children as slaves.
“I surely believe that God will rapture me before the great tribulation,” someone else replied.
Let’s be honest, no one is looking forward to pain and torture. But will Christians escape these things? The Bible teaches otherwise.
James writes to the Christians who were dispersed across after brutal persecution.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. (James 1:2–3, ESV)
When will our Lord return? The discussion about the return of Jesus Christ usually evokes a lot of interest; us creatures just like to know more about the future! The Bible gives us some indications about things which will happen in the leading up to the Second Coming, but instead of these things giving us encouragement, they usually divide Christians into different camps. Paul writes:
Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:18, ESV)
He repeats in chapter 5:
Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. (1 Thessalonians 5:11, ESV)
Main points of discussion concerning the return of Christ
- There are four main points in this discussion:
- The place is the nation of Israel and the function of the New Testament Church
- When will the great tribulation happen?
- How many times will Christ return?
The purpose of this series of sermons from 2Thessalonians is not to answer these questions in detail, but some aspects of it will become clear as we go through the letter.
We can be very clear about a few things:
- Christ will return! Paul writes,
For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. (1 Thessalonians 5:2, ESV)
- Christians are not exempt from persecution. Some have died and many more will die because of the testimony of Jesus Christ. This is because of the hatred of Satan of Christ and his people. He uses his agents, the anti-Christ, who is still vailed behind the curtains. Satan also employs false prophets and institutions of government to do his dirty work. We studied this when we went through Revelation 13 some months ago.
- A person who presents himself as anti-Christ will come on the scene and persecution will become intensified and global.
- However, he will not be all-powerful. He will only be able to do what he is allowed to do. He will have a short reign because God will deal with him. This is the reason why we read Psalm 110 this morning.
The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth. (Psalm 110:5–6, ESV)
With these introductory remarks let us go to the text from 2 Thessalonians. The series title is “Expecting Christ’s return.” Our sermon title is: “The church in waiting”.
The main points are:
- Growing faith
- Increasing love
- Steadfast in trials and persecution
What would people, and more so outsiders, say about any congregation? In a few week’s time, we will have presbytery visitation. If one of the commissioners would be staying with us for a few months, what would he say about Hervey Bay Presbyterian Church? Perhaps he might comment that he really likes the church-setup. The buildings are tidy, the grounds present well, the pews are comfortable, the sound system is sufficient (they even record the services!), there is enough money in the bank, the morning tea is nice, the sermons are reasonable. Overall, the people are friendly.
Will these be the things the Apostle Paul would be boasting about if he visited our congregation? Apparently not.
The church in Thessalonica was part of a large cosmopolitan city. There were the remnants of the Greek Empire in the form of temples and the worship of the pantheon of Greek gods. There were retired Roman soldiers, most of them if high social standing who introduced the new religion of Emperor worship. And then, of course, there was a contingent of Jews, maybe many of them involved in the very prosperous business enterprises of the harbour city. But by and large, the city of about 200,000 people was populated by downright pagan heathens who worshipped all manner of idols.
Paul, Silas (or Sulvanus—his Roman name) and Timothy went to that city and preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A small congregation from all of the ethnic and social groups of the city heard the Gospel, they believed in Christ and became followers of our Lord. They left behind idol worship as Paul describes in 1Thessalonians 2:
For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews… (1 Thessalonians 2:14, ESV)
Their choice to follow Christ meant suffering and loss of friends and family who turned against them. This is in accordance with what Christ said,
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. (Matthew 10:34–35, ESV)
The ideal would be for complete families units to come to the Lord in faith but it does not always happen that way. In many cases to follow Christ means that one is at odds with the rest of your family. More so in the case when other family members were actively involved in worshipping other gods. Many Muslims and Hindus who put their trust in Christ pay heavily for it. Some can be excommunicated from family life, and others may forfeit large inheritances.
What effect did these circumstances have on the new Christians? Verse 3 says it was “growing more and more.” One translation reads, “Your faith has made such strides.” Paul says that the Thessalonians’ faith is “super-growing.” He may also mean that their faith is like a container being filled up. These people increasingly trusted Christ.
After Paul visited Thessalonica, he went on to visit other churches he had planted. Sometime later, he sent Timothy to Thessalonica who reported back. Paul then wrote this letter, 2 Thessalonians. He praised God for them and he also said he boasted about them to the other congregations. What he saw astounded him. One can translate verse 3 to read, “Your faith and love keep growing in leaps and bounds amid all your persecutions and it simply drives us to thank God concerning you.”
The farmer sows the seed and went way for a while. When he returns he is astounded by the growth he sees. It almost success his expectations. He tells others about it.
Between the first letter and this one, there was remarkable growth in their trust and faith in God. It meant that they were more resolute to learn, study, obey and give practical expression of God’s Word in the way they lived. It was not head knowledge only, it was something that rubbed off in the way they witnessed to one another and others of how they trusted Jesus Christ as their Redeemer. If we go back to the first letter we will understand it better:
- They received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit
- They became imitators of the apostle and his helpers and of the Lord
- They became an example to all the believers in neighbouring churches
- The became witnesses of the Word of God which spread to other areas.
- The way they put their trust in God has gone forth everywhere as a form of spreading the Gospel (Paul says “that we need not say anything.”
- It was clear that they turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God
- Now they (with living expectation) were waiting for the return of Jesus Christ from heaven because they fully believe that God raised Jesus from the dead
- They also believed that Jesus will deliver this church from the wrath to come.
All of this happened with Paul’s first visit. But Timothy reports of astounding growth. Their faith was not stagnant. It was not like they contented with initial steps; they practised, did the hard yards and then they were running in a marathon.
How are we going? Are we growing? Is there any advancement since we became Christians? Are we more advanced in our trust, knowledge, obedience and the practical outliving of our trust in Christ? Has there been any growth since last year? Does the way we do church serve as an example to other churches? Do we have an impact on our society? Are we perhaps getting more like Christians hermits in a society who try to shout us down? This is not what the church of Christ in waiting for his return should look like. The harder the pressure, the clearer the witness for Christ must be.
In John 13, after He had washed their feet, just hours before our Lord was arrested to be crucified He commanded his disciples to love one another. By their love for one another, the world would know that they are disciples of Christ (John 13:34-35). Then, still during the same night, our Lord taught his disciples:
If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15:19, ESV)
Then Christ, just before He entered the Garden where He was arrested, He said,
I have said these things to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world, you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, ESV)
What happened to the Thessalonians, therefore, did not come as a surprise to them. As true disciples of Christ, their love for one another grew in spite of all the persecution and trials. By serving one another in the love of Christ, their witness became known to the rest of believing communities, and even to the non-believers.
When Paul describes their growing love for one another, he includes “everyone”. As a body of Christ they stood together, they excluded no one, and no one felt excluded because all of them contributed to the welfare of others.
Too often the church is not known for the love between members; it is the opposite. If you want to see a good conflict, go to church. And it can happen just because someone dared to sit in another’s spot. One wanted a certain colour pot for the flowers, but the other grabbed another. One wanted to paint the gutters blue and the other wanted it white.
What would Christ say about our love, well-being and spiritual concern for one another? Is it perhaps true that we have lost sight of the spiritual battle we are in that we began to live for ourselves? Isn’t it true that in war society tends to look out for one another better?
In more than one way the church of Christ should reflect more and more of heaven the closer we come to the return of our Lord.
Trails and persecutions became the experience of the Thessalonian church. They did not loose hope. They became more and more steadfast in their perseverance. It was not easy. But they had their eyes fixed on Christ. They endured the difficult times and that became a model for other churches.
When the going gets tough, one might consider giving up. One might even think it is unfair for a Christian to go through persecutions and trials. Like the friend who said, “I surely believe that God will rapture me before the great tribulation.” Not all Christians experience these trials, but it is more likely than not that, as time marches on, we will encounter it. The way you endure will surely be an example to others to hang in there.
May you also say:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. (2 Timothy 4:7, ESV)
Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 21 July 2019