Text: 1 Thessalonians 2:13-15; 2 Thessalonians 2:5-12
Last week we celebrated Pentecost Sunday. A glorious day of proclamation. Peter’s preaching led to repentance and an ingathering of souls. Yet very soon after the new movement was started, they faced immediate opposition and persecution from religious and political leaders. As we saw last week, the start of the church at Thessalonica was no different. Immediately from the birth of the church, the people experienced persecution. In the early church, new believers were immediately prepared for a life of struggle and persecution. Paul would routinely go back and visit churches he founded “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God”(Acts 14:22). Even though his team only stayed in Thessalonica for less than a month, the missionary team had prepared the baby believers for the reality of the suffering they would face for Christ: For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know (1 Thess 3:4).
The message I bring this morning is a very tough sell in the Western Church. We have been so comfortable for so long, and Christianity has had such a privileged standing in our culture that it is very difficult to try and express the reality of the spiritual warfare we find ourselves in without sounding like a neurotic, raving madman. We in the West realize that our brothers and sisters are being killed and tortured, imprisoned and shunned around the world, yet it rarely moves us or registers emotionally or in our prayer life. When prophets, teachers and historians warn us that we too may face similar realities in the not too distant future, we chuckle under our breath and roll our eyes.
Depending upon your perspective, Preacher Paul Washer may carry the voice of wisdom or folly as he cautions us from taking such warnings lightly:
The church in America is going to suffer so terribly. And we laugh now but they will come after us. They will come after our children. They will close the net around us while we are playing soccer mom and soccer dad, while we’re arguing over so many things and mesmerized by so many trinkets. The net even now is closing around you and your children and your grandchildren, and it does not cause you to fear. You will be isolated from society as is already happening. Anyone who tries to run for office who actually believes the Bible will be considered a lunatic, until finally we are silenced. We will be called things we are not and persecuted not because we are followers of Christ, but for being radical fundamentalists who do not know the true way of Christ, which of course is love and tolerance. You’ll go down as the greatest bigots and haters of mankind in history. . . Down through history, you have a wrong idea of martyrdom and persecution. You think that these men were persecuted and martyred for their sincere faith in Jesus Christ. That was the real reason, but no one heard that publicly. They were martyred and they were persecuted as enemies of the state, as child molesters, as bigots, as narrow-minded stupid people who had fallen for a ruse and can contribute nothing to society. Your suffering will not be noble. So your mind must be filled with the Word of God when all people persecute you and turn on you. And if the Spirit of God and common grace pulls back and you see even your children and your grandchildren tossing in the lot that you should die – this is no game . . . Be ready to lose your homes, your cars, everything.
Is Washer a wacko? If he is, then he’s not the only one. The Christian Science Monitor recently published an article by popular internet blogger Michael Spencer (AKA the internet monk) entitled, “The Coming Evangelical Collapse”.
This collapse will herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good. Millions of Evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. I’m convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close.
The article received widespread media coverage, resulting in a potential book deal and hundreds of speaking invitations for the author. In the weeks following, there were countless references to this article on radio and in print. I received word of the article over the Evangelical Free Church’s pastors’ link. What was it about this fatalistic statement that generated so much reaction? One pastor summed it up in an email:
First, I don’t think anyone could have imagined the dramatic social, political, and economic changes that have unfolded in the last six months, changes that have shaken many of our most basic assumptions. The outcry and sometimes violent protests following the defeat of same-sex marriage (SSM) in California, followed by the legalization of SSM in conservative midwestern Iowa, reminds us that the battle to redefine marriage is far from over. The rapid and massive extension of government power suddenly threatens our most basic individual liberties. Growing segments of the American populace are being seduced by Marxist-socialistic ideas and schemes. Emboldened hostility toward religion—as in the case of Connecticut, in which lawmakers put forth legislation to “reorganize” the Catholic church—and an unprecedented economic disaster have all combined, making proclamations of collapse credible.
In other words, the reason these voices are able to speak so credibly to us is because they resonate what we observe taking place around us as our culture becomes increasingly hostile to a Biblical worldview.
Try to identify where in the world the following recent incidents have taken place.
1) In the first two months of this year, churches in this country have seen 141 incidents of violence, including having shots fired, robberies, burglaries and bomb threats.
Where did this happen? India? Pakistan? No . . . the United States.
2) Last fall, members at a Christian church had just finished prayer when members of a political social group who had been secretly stationed among the worshippers rose up shouting profanities and blasphemies as they rushed the stage, hurled propaganda materials at those seated, hung a profane banner from the balcony and tried to provoke confrontation and intimidate the members.
Where did this happen? Syria? Malaysia? No . . . last fall in Lansing, Michigan.
3) A small group of about 15 Christians have been meeting weekly over the past five years in the home of one of the couples. Just this past week, after a neighbor contacted the authorities, they found themselves being questioned face to face by a county-official. The official asked, ‘Do you have a regular meeting in your home?’ They said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you say amen?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you pray?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you say praise the Lord?’ ‘Yes.’” The county employee notified the couple that the small bible study, was in violation of county regulations. A few days later the couple received a written warning that listed “unlawful use of land” and told them to “stop religious assembly or apply for a major use permit” — a process that could cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Where did this happen? China? No . . . two weeks in San Diego.
Here’s the bottom line. Maybe events like these and others are nothing to ultimately get too excited about and maybe guys like Paul Washer and Michael Spencer are just trying to scare everyone. If that is the case, then the rest of this message will be absolutely theoretical and harmless – we can move on next time to talking about something else more relevant. But if they are right. If they are right then messages like the one we hear today will become more and more important as our liberties are taken from us, as we are ostracized from society, and as we are legislated against. If they are right, then each one of us must choose now whom we will serve when it is no longer comfortable to serve the Lord.
Decide How You’re Going to Treat God’s Word (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.
The Thessalonians had received their Christian instruction as God’s Word and not man’s. This does not mean you just sit there an uncritically accept every teaching you hear as the word of God. Indeed, in Acts 17:11 Paul commended the Berean believers for not just taking his teaching at face value, but examining the Scripture to see if the things Paul taught were so. But notice that the Word of God was the authority – everything else was affirmed or rejected based upon its precepts. So many people consider the Bible to be a man-made book. Do you really believe in the authority of every part of scripture? For only the Word of God is lasting, living and active. But you will be persecuted for it. People will blast you for it. Call you naïve and close minded and literalists and fundamentalists and demons. They will use all sorts of words against you – whose word will you trust – theirs, or God’s?
Recognize You’re Not Alone in Your Sufferings:
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, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind (1 Thess 2:14-15)
Remember always that we follow a Roman Criminal, sentenced to death for crimes against the state. Remember always that if the Saul and others in Judea had their way, Christianity would have been crushed in its infancy and its adherents exterminated. Remember that throughout history, Paul’s words to Timothy have proven true again, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Remember that the comfort and freedom that you presently live out your faith in are a historical anomaly. For most of church history and in many places around the world today, Christians don’t have savings, they have shackles. They didn’t have pensions, they had persecutors. They didn’t meet in cell groups, they met in cells. So when you see the darkness coming and those things being stripped away from you, welcome – you are now entering the normal Christian life.
Know the Purifying Purpose of Persecution (2 Thessalonians 2:5)
This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering –
Persecution is always intended for evil, but God always uses it to work out his purposes. This is the will of God: your sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3). It is perhaps one of the greatest failings of the North American church, that we do not truly believe this statement: God wants me to be holy more than he wants me to be comfortable. God has comfort lined up for you, but it is laid up for you in his kingdom which is garbed in holiness and light. While you have gained entrance into that kingdom through Christ, He is also trying to prepare you for the holiness of that kingdom so that you are fit to enter in. By His grace working in you, He is making you worthy of that kingdom, and one of the sanctifying tools he uses to hammer off your rough edges is persecution and trials. Persecution and suffering should drive you to prayer, to the throne of his kingdom, so that you mutter before him, Thy Kingdom come! Thy Kingdom come! For the more eagerly you seek his kingdom and his righteousness, the more ready you are to enter in.
Trust in the Justice of God (2 Thessalonians 2:6-12)
Since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant you relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.
Some people are uncomfortable speaking about God’s judgment. It doesn’t sound nice. It isn’t nice – but it is just. It is a great encouragement to those suffering intense persecution to know that God is keeping tabs on all things and will someday right the scales. Here we learn that God’s judgment are:
1) Fair: a payback for persecution.
2) Relieving: Will bring relief to those afflicted.
3) Universal: Will be upon those who do not know God or obey the Gospel.
4) Eternal: Either in its consequences or its duration.
5) Isolating: Will be in isolation from the benefits of the Lord.
6) Final: Will be on the day of the glorification of the saints.
We don’t repay vengeance for vengeance. Romans 12:19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." We leave it to God to avenge.
Taking the Lord’s supper is dangerous as it is a demonstration of our union with a man whom society deemed irredeemable. Notice the line – we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Why his death? Why not his life? Until he comes – we proclaim the Lord’s death – dying.