Reasons to be thankful - 2 Thessalonians 1:1-12
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Aim: To encourage the congregation to persist as Christians when they suffer all sorts of trials and persecutions. To achieve this the sermon will focus on the truth that God is righteous.
Theme: Paul encourages the Thessalonian Christians to keep on persisting by reminding them that God is just. Therefore, they can be sure that their present sufferings are right and that God will judge the world in the future.
In September 1987, a man called Henry Dempsey was flying his 15 seat passenger plane from Lewiston Maine to Boston. The flight was routine until at 4000 feet he heard a noise at the back of the aircraft. He turned the controls over to his co-pilot and went back to discover the source of the mysterious noise. He soon found out. Because as he walked to the rear of the plane a strong burst of turbulence knocked him against the rear passenger door – which fell open. Dempsey was sucked part of the way out, fell face down on the rear steps and grabbed for anything that might save his life. Fortunately for him he caught a railing and held on for dear life. Meanwhile his co-pilot thought he had fallen out and so he diverted the flight to a nearby airport. Somehow, as the plane flew 200mph, for the 10 minutes it took to make the emergency landing, Henry Dempsey continued to hold on. When the plane touched down they found him with his face 12 inches off the runway and with his hands tight around the rails he had been holding onto fto save his life. Apparently, it took airport personnel several minutes to pry Dempsey’s fingers from the rear stairs. He was a man determined to hold on.
2 Thessalonians is a book all about holding on. And if you would like a key verse that summarises what God would like us to be doing after our five-week sermon series on this letter you can find it in 2:15:
“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.”
Get your feet in a secure position and hold on. That’s the big message of 2 Thessalonians. We are to make sure we persist as Christians until the very end, either until we die or until the Lord Jesus Christ returns. So let me ask you a very personal question as we begin to study a letter of the New Testament that focuses our attention on persisting. How concerned are you that the people in this church make it to the end? It is very clear from 2 Thessalonians that it was a central concern for the apostle Paul. But is it a central concern for us? Do we care if the people we are sitting next to in the pews tonight, will be standing with us when we sing our praise to the Lord Jesus Christ in the New Creation? Does it matter to us that people persist in the faith? Just imagine that at the front we could project all the conversations that have taken place in this building over the last year, what would they reveal about our concerns? Now please don’t misunderstand me. It is important to talk about everyday things. It is important to talk about our work or our family or even our cat – although in the big scheme of things it perhaps slightly less important to talk about your cat! It is a good sign when Christians share with each other the troubles of life. In fact, it is vital that we look out for each other when we are sick, when we are anxious and when we are suffering. And I hope that we do. Although as I have said before the great danger we face in a church like this is that we simply become a preaching centre, a place where people gather for 2 hours a week to hear the word of God explained and then show no other substantial commitment to the fellowship of believers. And so therefore our prayer should be that we never become such a church. I hope you pray for that. And if you do, let me encourage you to answer your own prayers by acting in such a way that will prevent it from happening.
I think one of the major disadvantages of the Church of England is its view of membership. Membership in the Church of England is so broad that people can be members of the institution without even attending a church. And if they do attend an Anglican church, even an Anglican Evangelical church like this, they often feel no commitment to the other believers. Now I know this is not just an Anglican problem, many evangelical churches around the country suffer greatly from the consumer mindset which has infected Christians today. So instead of asking, as they arrive in church, “How can I serve other people in the congregation today?” their key question is rather, “What’s on offer for me?” But such an attitude is a disaster for everyone concerned. Because, according to the New Testament, Christians have a responsibility to look out for one another. It is not a choice for the faithful few. It is the duty for the entire congregation. And one of our biggest concerns, if we have understood the future properly, is to make sure our brothers and sisters persist to the very end.
Now at this point someone might say, ‘Why would they not persist?’ Why would anyone who has turned back to the living God in repentance and faith turn their back on him again? Why should persisting be a problem? The reason is simple. Because for Christians everywhere, and for Christians at every time in the history of the Christian movement, there have always been two dangers that threaten to shipwreck the faith of an individual believer. Persecution from the outside and false teaching from the inside.
Outside of a relationship with Jesus Christ people are on a sinking ship that will send them to their eternal death. That is reality, according to the Bible. But wonderfully the Bible also assures us that the person of Jesus can be our lifeboat. The amazing truth of the New Testament is that Jesus can take us off the ship that is destined for destruction and does promise to take all those who remain in the lifeboat to a place of eternal happiness. But here is the guarantee.
As we wait for our boat to arrive at the heavenly shore there will be strong winds and there will be high seas, and together they will that will do their best to remove us from our place in the lifeboat. And so therefore if we want to persist to the end we need to stand firm and hold on to the teachings that we find in the Bible. It was Paul’s big message to the Thessalonians and it will also be God’s big message to us, over the next five weeks, as we study this letter together. So if you are sitting in the church building tonight as a new Christian, or as a middle-aged Christian or perhaps you are even a senior citizen Christian, God’s big desire for you is that you keep on clinging to the rail of Bible teaching, so that no matter what life throws at you, you will persist to the very end. My friends, there is only one support strong enough to keep us in the lifeboat and that is the true teaching we find in the Bible. So over these next few weeks I have a very simple aim. I want to show us the true teaching that will keep us steady in the face of outside persecution and inside deception. We need to realise that both are dangerous and we need to realise that both have the potential to take us overboard if we are not expecting them and if we have no idea how to handle them.
So let’s begin with outside persecution, the major theme of 2 Thessalonians chapter 1. Have a look at 1:6. We are told that “God is just” or alternatively we can translate the phrase “God is righteous.” Fundamentally the God who made us gets it right. That’s what it means to say God is righteous. I know words like ‘righteous’ and ‘righteousness’ are very religious sounding words but when we strip away all the religious jargon that has attached itself to these words we discover that when the Bible affirms that God is righteous it means that God gets it right every single time. It means that in the past he has made the right decisions. It means that in the present he makes the right decisions and it means that in the end he will make sure that those who have done wrong will never get away with it.
Most of us in this church will never experience the terrible persecution that thousands of Christians, around the world, have to endure day by day. But nevertheless, even in this country, we know that living as a Christian, in a world that rejects Jesus Christ, is not easy. We may not be tortured or killed simply because of our love for the Lord Jesus Christ but even in a country like Britain, Christians are mocked and marginalised and sometimes even discriminated against for no other reason than because they say Jesus Christ is the King everyone should surrender their life to. And I think it would be naïve not to consider that in the future things going to get a lot worse. Just think about it. Even now Bible believing Christians like us are compared to Muslim Extremists who are prepared to blow themselves up on the London Underground. So what’s it going to be like in the future when the so-called tolerant society that we live in reveals its true colours? How are we to cope as Christians when in the name of tolerance, groups like ours, are suppressed without mercy because their views cannot be tolerated? How are we to keep on persisting when the pressure is on to give up? We need to hold on to the apostle’s teaching. We need to remember the three words of verse 6: God is righteous. And if we do, we will persist as a Christian even when times are tough. Because even in those moments of difficulty, if we truly believe that God always gets it right, then, first of all, we will be convinced that God has permitted the events we experience for a good reason and, secondly, if we truly believe that God always gets it right, we will have the confidence that in the future God will judge the world. And so therefore we will patiently persist and hold on to the very end.
Take our present suffering, for example. Why does God allow his children to endure trials and persecutions? Have a look at verses 3-5. Paul says, “We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing. 4 Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.
5 All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering.”
How would you define a successful church? Just suppose you were paid to go and visit all the churches in this country and either present them with a trophy of success or a trophy of failure. How would you decide which award to give out at the presentation ceremony? For many Christians membership is the judge of success. I grew up in a Scottish Baptist church and for many years after I left Scotland my grandmother would let me see the Scottish Baptist Magazine. Now if my memory serves me right it was never a riveting read. In fact, to be completely honest with you, I have forgotten most of information I ever read on its pages – apart from one detail. I will never forget how every single report, from every Baptist church in Scotland, was presented. Before any information about the church was actually written, two figures were always published: the number of members and the number of baptisms during the previous year. Now please do not misunderstand me. I am very keen to hear of people becoming Christians. It is good news to hear that the kingdom of God has expanded because someone has put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. But what sort of signal are we sending out if the first piece of information, about our church, that we publish or that we speak about when we meet Christians from another church is the size of our membership? For many Christians, membership is the judge of success.
For others its music or money or even meetings. Just think about the number of churches that think they are doing well simply because their weekly timetable is full of meetings. And not just pointless committee meetings but focused gospel meetings. They have children’s groups, student groups, homegroups, Christianity Explored courses – the list goes on and on. They are remarkably busy but does that mean they are automatically successful?
No! Because, according to the apostle Paul, the mark of a successful church, the mark of a church where it is all happening, is not necessarily growing membership, or quality music or large amounts of money in the bank account or even a full programme of excellent gospel meetings – although these may well be healthy signs. But, according to the apostle Paul, the mark of a successful church is growing maturity. Paul says to the Thessalonians, “We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so”. Why? “Because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing. Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.”
I don’t know if you are planning to come along to the APCM in just over a month’s time. I do hope you are if you consider St John’s to be your regular church. But what should we be looking out for and eager to hear as we read the reports from the various groups and listen to a review of the previous year? Well, surely we need to know if we are maturing as God’s people in this place. Is our faith growing and is the love of every single one of us increasing for each other?
Or if you can manage to do it in the middle of March, think ahead with me to the 31st December 2006. It’s New Year’s Eve and you are currently pondering the last 12 months of your life in the silence before the storm of the fireworks. What would you like to say at the end of the year? As we conduct a personal review of our existence on planet earth, what achievements would we like to see? What about a growing faith? And what about increasing love for all the brothers and sisters in this congregation? I know we can’t put these qualities on our CV, either in the education section or even in the hobby section. But, in the eyes of God, a marked improvement in these two qualities is the sign of a successful Christian life and the sign of a successful Christian church.
So let’s ask the tough question: Why did the Thessalonians show an increased trust in God and more love for each other? Have a look at verse 5. “All this (that is, all that I have just been speaking about) is evidence that God’s judgment (or God’s decision) is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering.”
Or in other words, God was using the trials and persecutions, currently being faced by these Christians. to develop their faith and love. Take faith for example. Faith is not a static quality. It is trust in a living person. And so therefore it can increase or decrease. But in order to grow it needs to be exercised. Our faith in God does not grow either when we sit down and do nothing or when life is a breeze. Admittedly, we are never to think that trials and persecutions are good things in themselves. We are never to call good, evil, and we are never to call evil, good. But nevertheless in the sovereign plan of God, the evil actions of people who persecute his children, are used by God to increase his children’s faith and love. And so do you see the reason why Paul is so excited by the news he has just been told about the Thessalonians? He is overwhelmed with joy because these Christians are walking proof that God’s decision, to allow his followers to go through all sorts of trials, was the right one.
So here is our challenge when life is tough. Here is our challenge when trouble arises because of our commitment to Christ. Will we stand tall, shake our fists at God and question his judgement? Or will we get down on our knees, remember that God knows all things, and pray that in these circumstances he will increase our faith and love? Or to put it simply, will we believe that God is righteous? Because, if we do, we can then have the confident that God’s decision to permit what we are currently experiencing was the right one. And if this is our state of mind we will not abandon God, thinking that he doesn’t care for us. Instead we will keep on going as a Christian until the very end.
I don’t know if you heard the news yesterday about the death of Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav President, who has been on trial for war crimes since 2001. Well, yesterday morning he was found dead in his cell at The Hague detention centre in the Netherlands. And on the BBC website they asked their readers to post their reactions to the death of man who was probably responsible for mass genocide in his country. Now you do not have to be a genius to work out what infuriated the majority of people who emailed their comments to that website. I lost count of the number of people who complained that here was a man who had escaped justice.
Do you not long for a day of justice? I do. Do you not long for a day when wicked people will be punished for evil actions? I do. Do you not long for a day when goodness and beauty and harmony will be a feature of life on this planet? I do. But how can we be absolutely certain that such a day will come? Have a look at verse 6. God is just. Therefore, “He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you 7 and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. 8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.”
God’s righteousness guarantees a future day when the tables will be turned. Christians may be in the minority now and Christians may suffer all sorts of trials and persecutions because of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, but God has promised a day of relief for those Christians who are troubled and a day of judgement for everyone else.
One of the great advantages of not having a TV licence is that I don’t have to suffer the mindless booing on programmes like Strictly Come Dancing.
Now I do apologise if that is one of your favourite TV shows but, come on, even if you like the show surely you can understand my great frustration with how the acts are judged? It seems that even if the dancing was an embarrassment the judges get slated by the audience if they dare offer any negative critique. So even if, for example, the couple tries a double summersault with a twist and the woman lands on her head and knocks herself unconscious, wow betide the judge who dares to suggest that the routine was below the accepted standard. Booo, booo, is the response from the audience.
Now if such a show like Strictly Come Dancing is a reflection of a more general attitude in our nation to telling the truth to people even when it hurts, then it’s almost inevitable that in a congregation like this, there will be many people who have a very confused idea of what God’s day of judgement has in store for them. Therefore, to cut through the confusion I want to allow our passage from 2 Thessalonians chapter 1 to answer three simple questions about the day of judgement.
1) When will this day of judgement take place?
2) Who will be punished?
3) What form will the punishment take?
First of all, when will this day of judgement take place? Have a look at the middle of verse 7. “This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.” So the same Lord Jesus who was born in a manger 2000 years ago, is coming back. The same Lord Jesus who died on a cross to rescue his people from their sins, is coming back. The same Lord Jesus who was resurrected from the dead and who returned to heaven, is coming back. And when he comes it will not be like his first arrival on the earth. This time he will be revealed with blazing fire and with his powerful angels. So when will the day of judgement take place? When Jesus Christ returns visibly and personally to bring this world to an end.
Secondly, who will punished on this day of judgement? We’re told in verse 8. “Jesus will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.”
When I was at Bible college before I came to Hull, at the beginning of every term we had to sit an exam to demonstrate that we had understood the work of the previous term. But our mock examinations were never that serious. In fact, on many occasions it became obvious what questions were going to appear on the exam. Now, of course, real examinations never work like that but just imagine that they did. Just imagine that before the examination we were handed the questions. If we were sensible what would be do? We would make sure we had a answer to the questions that were about to be asked. There’s no point preparing an answer for a question that isn’t going to appear on the paper. The best strategy is to work out your answer to the questions you have been given. So isn’t it good news that God has given us the question that he will ask us on the day of judgement? It’s there in verse 8. “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” So what is the question for judgement day: Have you obeyed the gospel of our Lord Jesus? Which, by the way, is how we determine if we know God. At first glance verse 8 seems to suggest that two questions will appear on the heavenly exam. But the two statements we find in verse 8 are really just two different ways of speaking about the same subject. How do we know God? We obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. What happens if we obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus? We end up knowing God, intimately and personally. So what’s your answer going to be on the day of judgement when you turn over the exam paper and are left starring at the only question on the page? Have you obeyed the gospel of our Lord Jesus? You know as well as I do that no marks are given when you answer a different question to the one that has been asked. So if your answer goes something like this, “Well, I haven’t lived a perfect life but at least I’m not as bad as Slobodan Milosevic” you will the test.
Because the question is not, “Are you good enough for heaven?” or “How often did you go to church?” or “What were you a sincere believer in the truths that you followed?” No, the question will be, “When you were alive, did you obey the gospel of the Lord Jesus?” It’s a yes or no question. So you cannot say maybe. It’s a yes or a no.
What is the gospel of the Lord Jesus? It is not a list of rules to be followed. So we don’t obey the gospel by following a certain number of commandments. No, the gospel is a message, or better, the gospel is a message that summons us to make a decision about the person of Jesus Christ. It is the life-changing announcement that Jesus Christ, the man from Nazareth, really is the risen King of the universe and that every single person on this planet, regardless of culture or creed, needs his forgiveness, won for them on the cross, and needs to surrender their life so that he can take control forevermore. My friends, when the message about Jesus is communicated it carries with it a summons to respond. So let me ask you tonight: Have you obeyed the gospel of the Lord Jesus? So not the person next to you. Or your mum or your dad. But you, you personally. Have you handed over control of your life to Jesus and asked for his forgiveness? Because if you have not and if this situation does not change, either before you die or before Jesus returns from heaven, whichever is soonest, then your fate is recorded in verse 9.
What form will the punishment take? “They (that is, those who do not obey the gospel) will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.” Many people in this room have experienced tragedy in their lives. But, in verse 9, we are told about the biggest tragedy of all. In many ways, hell, which is what verse 9 is talking about, is simply the natural end of a life where God is repeatedly pushed out of the way. God, in the end, will honour our choices. And so if we repeatedly say to him, “I want nothing to do with you. Please stay away”, ultimately he will.
Those who do not obey the gospel, that is, those who do not repent and believe in Jesus Christ, will face everlasting ruin and will be shut out from eternally his most wonderful presence. It will be an eternity of separation from all the goodness and love of God, when a person will reject forever and ever that they did not obey the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ when they could. But it will be too late. They will have reached a position which they cannot undo. Where do you think you will be in a 100 years time? Not 10 years or 20 or even 50. But where will you be in 100 years time? So with that thought in mind let ask you again: Have you obeyed the gospel of the Lord Jesus? And if you haven’t what is stopping you?
Just imagine that across the church from right to left there was a line that indicates how you currently stand in relationship to Jesus Christ. The right indicates those who are not even sure God exists and the left indicates those who are committed followers of the Lord Jesus. Let me run my finger across the line and see if you can pick yourself out. Plug books and Christianity Explored. Middle – know there is a God but you have not let him be king and don’t know him personally. And know Jesus died for you but not asked for his forgiveness. Well all I am saying is that wouldn’t tonight be a good night to obey the gospel? And if you would like to know how then do come and speak to me at the end.
God is righteous. And so therefore we can be certain that a day of judgement is marked on the heavenly calendar. And if we are Christians we can be sure that on the day when Jesus returns the tables will be turned. Yes he will judge but the Lord Jesus Christ will also give us relief, the troubles will stop. And according to verse 10, he will change us so that we will shine with his glory and we will marvel at him forever and a day.
So when trials and persecutions come our way because of our faith in Christ and we are tempted to throw in the towel let’s remember to hold on tight to the apostle’s teaching. We only have three simple words to remember. God is righteousness. Let’s pray.
Read 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12. Then pray.
Copyright information: The sermon texts are copyright and are available for personal use only. If you wish to use them in other ways, please contact us for permission.