Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Finding Stability in a Turbulent World


     The time: 52 AD, twenty years after Christ died and rose again to life.  Paul, writing under the direction of the Holy Spirit,  writes this second book to his dear friends at the church in Thessalonica --- a church he had helped to start (ref. Acts 17:1-10).  Paul has received a report about how they were currently doing. 
     The truth is, this community of believers is being hammered --- subjected to persecution from outsiders because of their newfound faith, and frightened by insiders who brought misleading messages (false teachings) about the Lord’s return.  And as is common to mankind, the believers in this young church moved toward a couple of different extremes.  I still see these extremes exhibited today when confusion sets in.
     Here are the two extremes:
  • Lethargy (or adjective: lethargic) ~ Definition: state of sluggishness, inactivity, and apathy. These folks carry on life as usual with no recognition of the turbulent situation around them, nor the things that God has said about this life that they are living. The lethargic person has no driving purpose and is content to simply let things happen.  Paul will address this in his letter.
  •  Panic  (or adjective: panic-stricken)  ~  Definition: afraid / anxious / fearful / petrified / immobilized / terrified.This group of people exhibited irrational responses to the troubling circumstances all around them.  They overreact…and in so doing, ignore God’s promises and guidance. 

     Both kinds of extremes are being exhibited in the Thessalonian church…so Paul begins his letter by approbating them for their faith….but then he also addresses the false beliefs that they are listening to --- false beliefs about the Lord’s second coming --- and as the letter goes on he gives them reminders to calm their fears. Let’s look at the scripture text.  We’ll see in Paul’s letter, a three-fold purpose:   

1) To encourage them in their steadfastness under persecution
2) To correct their misunderstanding about the imminence of the Lord's return. 
3) To instruct the congregation on what disciplinary action to take toward those who became idle.
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1) To encourage them in their steadfastness under persecution

2 Th. 1:4, 5  (NASB) therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure. 5 This is a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering.

Verses 4 and 5 constitute one thought and must be read in that way.  The two words that begin verse 5 (“this is”) were added by translators to help make the sentences flow and read better, but in doing they also made it possible to miss the point of Paul’s message if we’re not careful. Read again without those two words:

2 Th. 1:4, 5  (NASB) therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure, a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering.

     The Greek text simply refers to their suffering as - “an evidence or sure token of God’s righteous judgment --- proof, as the result of a test.” And it doesn’t say that the suffering makes us worthy….only the shed blood of Christ and our faith acceptance of His forgiveness makes us worthy.  The verse simply says that our patient suffering is an indication (or proof) of our already having been made worthy (and this brings Him glory).What was the suffering? Paul uses two words here: “persecutions” and “afflictions.”
  • Persecutions is diogmos, a word used primarily of religious persecution, and describes the hostile actions of others.
  • Afflictions is thlipsis, “pressure, stress, tribulation, affliction.”  The first is a special term for external persecutions inflicted by enemies of the gospel; the second is more general, and denotes tribulation of any kind.

     Why were they suffering? They were suffering because they believed in the Lord Jesus.  They believed that Jesus would come again.  And they believed that he would set up his own kingdom.  Now, we have to remember, they lived in a hostile environment.  Rome originally thought that Christianity was simply an offshoot of Judaism, and Rome had a long history of tolerating Judaism. 
But as time went on it became more and more clear that Christianity was a force to be reckoned with, and that its followers saw it as a kingdom….one that had a King.  This allegiance had all sorts of ramifications in this part of the world.  They were destined for a clash of kingdoms. Nevertheless, these Thessalonian Christians were suffering in quiet patience. The result of all this persecution was to make their faith in God so much stronger. The writers were so impressed and pleased by this that they wanted everyone to know about it.
    Paul tells the readers in verse 5 that their patient endurance is “a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering.” We don’t learn to trust God in the tough places of life by simply reading about suffering or being told about suffering. We have to suffer. Suffering is a necessary tool.  It was so for Jesus – It was so for the Thessalonians – and it is so for us, today. (See list of scripture references at end.)
     In the plains of the Serengeti, in southeast Africa, about the only thing that grows are gnarly old Acacia trees or bushes. These don’t provide very straight arrow shafts for the little Bushmen that inhabit the plains, so they’ve formulated an ingenious process to keep their quivers full.
First they go out and find a suitable branch; it doesn’t matter if it’s got a 30-degree angle in it, just so it’s the proper thickness and length. Next they’ll build a fire, and right beside the fire they’ll drive two rows of pegs into the ground, about six to eight inches apart. Then they’ll put the branch into the fire to get its juices flowing making it pliable.
     When it’s hot enough, they’ll fish it out of the fire and jam it between the two rows of pegs and let it cool. It’s a little straighter. Then back to the fire, back to the pegs, back to the fire, back to the pegs … until finally the pegs are right next to each other, with only an arrow’s width between them. When the bushman pulls it out this last time, he’s got a perfectly straight arrow that’s useful to its maker.
We like the words in scripture about being “useful to the maker,” but it’s the fire and that bending we’d just as soon avoid.  If we want to be made useful, though, we’ve got to receive the hard part along with the easy part.
    I think in our delight of understanding the new life Christ gives and the new creature He’s made of us, we skipped over some parts…the hard parts...and as a result, we’re not seeing the success in our lives we’d hoped for as followers of Christ. This current turbulent time in which we live --- a time with growing hostility toward people who hold sincere faith in God --- will likely give us some unique opportunities to demonstrate the depth of our faith in God by the way in which we endure persecution and live well for all to see.
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2) To correct their misunderstanding about the imminence of the  Lord's return.
     The Thessalonians had some strange ideas about the return of Christ.  Some said that the Lord had already come.  Others thought that the Lord would come “at any moment,” suddenly, without warning.  But Paul reminds them that there are things that must happen before Christ returns.  I’m going to read a passage from 2nd Thessalonians, chapter two, and make comment as I go along.  (ch. 2, verses 1-12)

2 Th. 2:1 Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together to Him, 2 that you may not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.

     This suggests that those who were bothering the church with the false information were making three distinct claims as to its source.  The first “either by a spirit” --- Some were claiming to have been given a prophetic word given by the Spirit of God.  However, as Paul pointed out, these “words” could not have been from God because they were not in keeping with the Old Testament, nor what they had heard from Paul in his previous teachings.
     The second source, “nor by a word”, refers to something said, not by way of prophecy, but simply from one person to another. It may have been just someone’s opinion in view of the current living conditions, or perhaps they claimed to be relaying a verbal message from Paul or one of his companions.
     Then, thirdly, “nor by a letter”….the final source of the false teaching. Someone had evidently forged a letter, claiming it was from Paul and his associates, but it was in direct contradiction to what Paul had repeatedly taught them, both in person and by letter (again, see 2:15).
     Today, all three of these (spirit/word/letter) are appearing and will likely increase.  You can count on it! One reason is….we may well be in the end times (or, “end times of the end times”).  There continue to be disturbing events globally, that seem to point to that “end time” conclusion.  In addition, Satan is ever at work attempting to confuse and disturb the clear, historic, reliable message of God, concerning the end time events.
     Day of the Lord: refers to the Lord’s end time day of judgment --- for believers, it will be a day of blessing --- for the wicked, however, the Day of the Lord will bring judgment, destruction, and terror.  In light of this understanding of the term, it’s easy to see why the folks in the church in Thessalonica were upset.

3 Let no one in any way deceive you, for it (the day of the Lord) will not come unless the apostasy comes first, (I’ll define some of these words at the end of the passage) and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, 4 who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God. 5 Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things? 6 And you know what restrains him now, so that in his time he may be revealed. 7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way. 8 And then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming; 9 that is, the one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, 10 and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. 11 And for this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they might believe what is false, 12 in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness.

     So, here is what Paul is saying (it’s actually a reminder of previous teaching he had brought them): TWO THINGS must occur before the “day of the Lord” comes. The first is the apostasy…or the rebellion; not just any rebellion, but THE rebellion. Not merely disbelieving in God’s message, but rather an aggressive and positive revolt.

1 Timothy 4:1, 2 Now the Holy Spirit tells us clearly that in the last times some will turn away from what we believe; they will follow lying spirits and teachings that come from demons.  2 These teachers are hypocrites and liars. They pretend to be religious, but their consciences are dead. ….

     The day of the Lord will not be present until this great apostasy sweeps the earth.  This rebellion, which will take place within the church, will be a departure from the truth that God has revealed in His Word.
     And then the second phenomenon necessary for the day of the Lord to be present is the revealing of one whom Paul called, “the man of lawlessness,” and “the son of destruction.”  This person is the one known elsewhere in the New Testament by the term, the antichrist (see John’s writings, 1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7). 
     From time to time, evil men have appeared in the world, and some may even have been called antichrists --- Antiochus Epiphanes, Nero, Diocletian, even Hitler --- but when THIS antichrist appears, there will be no question! 
      He will be the personification of evil and the culmination of all that is opposed to God.  He will be Satan’s tool, opposing both God and Christ, but he’ll also be presented as one who is to be worshipped and obeyed in place of Christ. The presence of this apostasy and counterfeit god will NOT be hidden.  The entire world will observe it. And unless these things are occurring….the day of the Lord has not arrived.
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3) Instructing the congregation on what disciplinary action to take  toward those who became idle.
     Some of the Thessalonian Christians had given up their work and depended on their friends to keep them and feed them.  They figured, since the Lord is coming soon….why do ANYTHING?  Paul gave instruction regarding this in his first letter. (1Th. 5:14 And we urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly.) {other translations say the idle, or lazy}
     This is a difficult situation --- The New Testament DOES teach the imminent (any-moment) possibility of the return of the Savior for His church No one knows when He will return.  It could be today, but it might not be.  And this has been the case for hundreds of years. The principle is that we are to live as though it will be today, while working and continuing on in life as though it won’t be for years to come. So how do we do this?  How do we posture ourselves in a turbulent world?
     Paul gives a couple significant clues!  In 2:10 he says, “they did not love the truth so as to be saved.”  Survival in these difficult times is not merely an issue of knowing or believing something in a merely mental sense --- it is an issue of loving!  We must become lovers, both of God….but also of His truth. And then, finally, we’re encouraged to live in Grace and Peace, at the beginning of the letter, and again at the close:

1:2 grace and peace come from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3:16  Now may the Lord of peace Himself continually grant you peace in every circumstance. The Lord be with you all!
3:18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

When we live in the love of the truth we don’t drift into lethargy…nor to we fall prey to panic.  We are, instead, kept focused and useful as we wait for His return.
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Additional references on suffering, enduring, etc.
Heb. 2:10; Heb 12:7; 1 Peter 2:19, 20; 1 Peter 4:12; Rev. 1:9; 1 Cor. 4:12;  2 Tim. 2:3; 2 Tim 4:5; 2 Cor. 4:17-18

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