Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, open our ears to your word, dig them out that we might hear and receive your word. In doing so, increase love in us and strengthen our hearts to walk in your ways as your people. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
We are in the season of Advent. It is that time of year when we prepare our hearts by preparing our days for the birth of Jesus. Yet, it is also a time where we anticipate Christ coming again. This advent season, we are listening to the first letter of Paul to the Thessalonians. It is an advent letter filled to the brim with expectation for Christ to come again. So join me in turning to 1 Thessalonians, chapter 3, as we set our longing for the birth of Jesus alongside our longing for his return in glory. 1 Thessalonians is in the New Testament – Philippians, Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy. 1 Thessalonians 3, beginning in verse 1. As always, you are invited to leave your Bibles open as we read and study God’s word together.
Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God.
Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we decided to be left alone in Athens and we sent Timothy, our brother and co-worker for God in proclaiming the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you for the sake of your faith, so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions. Indeed, you yourselves know that this is what we are destined for. In fact, when we were with you, we told you beforehand that we were to suffer persecutions; so it turned out, as you know. For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith; I was afraid that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor had been in vain.
But Timothy has just now come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love. He has told us also that you always remember us kindly and long to see us – just as we long to see you. For this reason, brothers and sisters, during all our distress and persecution we have been encouraged about you through your faith. For we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord. How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
When I think of Advent, I rarely think of persecution. We think of waiting, of baby Jesus born in the manger. We might think of the challenge that Mary faced when people misunderstood her pregnancy or Joseph almost divorced her. We might think of the journey to Bethlehem, the birth in the manger, and the shepherds visiting the infant King. But we do not usually think about persecution.
Yet, when it comes to anticipating the coming of Christ and the waiting and longing that this entails, the Bible regularly talks about persecution.
We should not be surprised by persecution. This was the experience of the Thessalonians church. Paul sent Timothy to the church to strengthen and encourage them – verses 3 and 4 – so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions. Indeed, you yourselves know that this is what we are destined for. In fact, when we were with you, we told you beforehand that we were to suffer persecutions; so it turned out, as you know. Persecutions happened to the church in Thessalonica, and Paul said it should have come as no surprise. It is no surprise because it is what they were destined for. It is no surprise because Paul told them beforehand it would happen. We should not be surprised by persecution.
It was the experience of Paul himself. As he talks about how encouraging Timothy’s report was, he says in verse 7, For this reason, brothers and sisters, during all our distress and persecution we have been encouraged about you through your faith. Not just a little distress or a little persecution, but enough that Paul can talk about ‘all of it’ and the encouragement he received. In another place, Paul details how he has been whipped thirty-nine times, beaten, left for dead, imprisoned, and cast out. Even a quick read through the book of Acts shows how common and consistent the experience of persecution was for both Paul and the churches he planted. We should not be surprised by persecution.
Far from being surprised, Jesus promised that this would happen to his church. In John 15, Jesus says, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not have sin. But now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. It was to fulfill the word that is written in their law, ‘They hated me without a cause.’ No wonder Paul could say that Indeed, you yourselves know that this is what we are destined for. In fact, when we were with you, we told you beforehand that we were to suffer persecution. We should not be surprised, but, as Jesus says, expect it.
Persecution happens and happens consistently because the proclamation of the gospel provokes a response. Jesus presence, his message, his kingdom leaves no one neutral. It causes some to bend the knee to Jesus, others to rise up and fight. Some cry out in relief, gratitude, and freeing faith, while others cry out in opposition. The coming of Jesus is like a sword that divides – no one who truly confronts Christ leaves indifferent. All the way back in Ps 2 God says that this is how it goes; Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “I have set my king of Zion, my holy hill. God’s reign has always provoked this dual response in the world and will do so until the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. Only then will the opposition finally be undone and cease. Look at the coming of Christ in a manger, the birth of the Savior that we anticipate and celebrate this season. God came as the man Jesus Christ and was born in weakness, born in obscurity, born in a manger when there was no room for them in the inn. Shepherds and Magi bowed before him, but Herod saw a threat. Herod sought to slaughter Jesus and all the babies of Bethlehem were caught in the crossfire. Persecution happens and happens consistently because the good news of the coming of Jesus Christ provokes this dual response – repentance or rejection, faith or fear, love or loathing.
This is nothing new. The people of God experienced this throughout the Bible and Christians learned to expect this from the very lips of Jesus and experienced it in their bodies for generations. In fact, when persecution ceased and the church became culturally powerful has often coincided with crises in the church. So when the Thessalonians church experiences persecution and Paul reminds them that they should not be surprised, but should have seen it coming, that message does not just apply to one small church in the first century. It is God’s word for us as well. We should not be surprised by persecution.
However, we should be careful about the language of persecution. My children regularly complain that I am mean to them every time I tell them ‘no’ or take away a toy as a consequence for their actions. I have to say again and again, “I am not being mean. I did tell you ‘no’ and that makes you mad.” or “I am not being mean. I did take away your tractor, because of what you did to your brother and that makes you sad, but I am not being mean to you.” But being three and four means that the difference between “I am sad because this happened” and “you were mean to do this to me” is lost on them. This is what happens when we are really young and something we hopefully learn as we grow.
Just as there is a difference between “I don’t like what you did” and “you are mean to me,” there is a difference between “it is hard being a Christian” and “I am being persecuted.” We need to be careful about using the term persecution because there is consistently the temptation, particularly in the West, to call all sorts of difficult things we experience ‘persecution.’ Sometimes Christians experience difficulties not because of their Christian faith, but because they are jerks, or hypocrites, or doing wicked things. That’s not persecution. Sometimes Christians experience difficulties because the culture no longer supports Christian belief in the public square, or even opposes Christian convictions and morality in places. That is certainly opposition, but may not be persecution. Christians in China are experiencing persecution. The level of brutality, torture, and brainwashing being used against the Muslim and Christian populations in China is horrific. Most of our MAF missionaries cannot tell us what country they are in, only the region, because it is not safe for them to say they are there as missionaries. They are simply there as pilots. There are places in the world where not just loss of jobs or loss of status is the cost for claiming Christ, but it may be the cost of your life.
So I hesitate to say that Christians face persecution in Canada. Yet I am quite comfortable saying that Christians face opposition in Canada. A friend and mentor of mine who serves with me on the RCA commission on Theology just moved back to Canada. He is from Stratford originally and is now the President of Trinity Western in BC. As the only two people serving in Canada on the commission, some of the commission wanted to know about the differences between our two countries on how the church is treated. We talked about the court cases that have been decided very differently in the US and Canada and how the courts have decided to protect religious freedom in the States, but not so much in Canada. We talked about the differences between a US secularism that wants Christians not to be the only voice at the table, but one among many voices and a more aggressive Canadian secularism that requires people to hide, abandon, or check all their religious convictions before they are allowed at the table. We talked policy and culture, pros and cons. We talked about how the myth that everyone is probably a Christian has been thoroughly dispelled in Canada and the challenges and opportunities it creates. We talked about the corporation that exists between churches because of our joint desires to share the gospel of Christ. As someone new to the country, I am still learning to understand and navigate what it means to be a Christian in Canada, to be the church in Canada. But I remember vividly what my friend said in conclusion. “In the US, when the evangelical church says it is under attack, we probably think they are exaggerating. When the evangelical church says this in Canada, we are not exaggerating.”
We should not be surprised. However, it is easy to be shaken. It is easy to be discouraged. It is easy to be tempted by the tempter to either despair or to abandon the faith once the cost of standing firm in the Lord seems to grow. Indeed, you yourselves know that this is what we are destined for. In fact, when we were with you, we told you beforehand that we were to suffer persecution; so it turned out, as you know. But it is not enough simply to recognize that there is opposition, we must ask how to respond.
How do we respond? In 1 Thessalonians 3, we are given three ways to respond to opposition or persecution we experience as Christians in the world. First, we should strengthen and encourage one another. Verses 2-3: we sent Timothy, our brother and co-worker for God in proclaiming the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you for the sake of your faith, so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions. Paul was concerned about the church in Thessalonica. He knew firsthand the kind of resistance they faced, the challenges they endured, and the temptations that would come as a result. Paul says, I sent to find out about your faith; I was afraid that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor had been in vain.
When the going gets tough, we need one another. Paul sends Timothy in order for the church to be strengthened and encouraged. When it becomes hard for us to live out our faith, whether because of difficulties we face from the world or temptations we face in our hearts, we need the strength provided by our brothers and sisters. It is hard to stand firm when we stand alone. But when we stand together, we gain strength and encouragement from one another. I know the temptation when things get hard in your life, when you feel the pressure, I know the temptation can be to pull back from the fellowship of the church. But instead of pulling back, we should lean in. Just as Paul sent Timothy to strengthen and encourage the believers, God has given us the people of this congregation to strengthen and encourage us in our walk with God as well. Paul himself experienced that encouragement when heard the report about the church. This is why Paul talks so frequently and prays so earnestly about wanting to see them face to face and even prays at the end of the chapter, Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you.
Second, we respond to opposition and persecution by increasing and abounding in love. Verse 12: And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. The response to difficulty, to opposition, even to persecution is to double down on love. Standing firm does not mean being hard or harsh. There is a firmness and strength to love that is required in hard times. Paul prays that the church would increase and abound in love for one another and for all. Not only do we need more love in the church when opposition grows fierce, but the world needs to see more love from the church when opposition grows fierce. This echoes what Jesus says in Matthew 5: You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemies.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.’ The more opposition the church faces, the harder it seems to get in the world, the more we need to increase and abound in love for one another and for all.
The last way we should respond to opposition and persecution is holiness. Verse 13: And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. The coming of Christ, the challenge the church faces in the world, should lead us to pray that God would make us holy, that he would shape our hearts to desire his ways and walk in them. We should pray that we so desire the Holy One, God himself, that all of our hearts and all of our lives reflect Him and his ways. Holiness and Love are not opposed in the Christian life, but intertwined. Our increasing love and increasing holiness should be twin responses to the challenges the church faces. Even if the road we walk in hard, if we walk in God’s ways we know it is good.
We should not be surprised by persecution. Paul wasn’t, Jesus told us not to be, and it has been the consistent experience of the church throughout the ages. Whether we feel the opposition acutely or not at all, we are called to respond in light of the coming of Christ. We respond by strengthening and encouraging one another, by increasing our love for each other and for all, and by having our hearts strengthened in holiness. In this way, we will be able to stand firm in the Lord no matter what comes.