Please do turn to the reading we had from 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17. This morning after a two week break we're back in our series on 2 Thessalonians and today our heading is Standing Firm. Introduction Those of you here last Sunday evening will remember that we were reminded of Cassie, one of the Christian students murdered at Columbine High School in Colorado last month. When the young Trenchcoat Mafioso burst into the school brandishing guns and bombs one of them found Cassie praying under the desk in the library. He pointed his semi-automatic pistol to her head and asked her, "Do you believe in God?" Cassie looked back at him and answered, "Yes". He then pulled the trigger, reportedly saying, "There is no God", as he executed her. They were looking for Christians to kill. Cassie stood firm in her faith. Her stance has encouraged other young Christians across America. 70,000 attended a Columbine memorial service and another 73,000 teenagers flocked to an evangelical rally after her murder. Last Wednesday at Mission Focus we were reminded of how Christians involved in Bible translation have stood firm in Indonesia in spite of opposition, rioting and murder and how they are holding on to the truth of their newly translated Scriptures. Although our situations might be very different are we standing firm as Christians, holding to the truth of the Bible, or are we drifting and becoming unsettled in our faith? When I was a student it was said that a good number of those involved in in Christian Unions at university and especially the Presidents would drift after leaving college and therefore would not be standing firm and holding to the truth of the word of God. In 2 Thessalonians 2:2 Paul writes this: "Don't become easily unsettled" and in v.15 he appeals to the Thessalonian Christians and so to us today to "stand firm" and hold to the teachings of Christ and the apostles. The word "unsettled" in the original was often used of a ship adrift from its mooring and suggests a lack of stability. In the case of the Thessalonians they were being unsettled by some false teaching about the second coming of Jesus Christ. So Paul reminds them of the truth (v.5), of their eternal security in the Lord and therefore tells them to stand firm and to hold to the truth. Jesus in Mt 11:7 implies that his disciples are not to be like reeds shaken by the wind but rather rock like and immovable. So who or what threatens our stability as Christians? In these two letters to the Thessalonians Paul mentions 3 threats or winds. Firstly, opposition and persecution (1 Thess. 1 & 3). Secondly, false teaching (2 Thess. 2:2-3). And thirdly, temptation (1 Thess. 3:13). Now we may not be being unsettled by the same fierce opposition and persecution that the Thessalonians faced. But we may be being unsettled by the more subtle type of opposition and persecution that we face at work or at the school gate. Where, as has happened to me, people might say "O so you go to that church that was on the news, you're quite outspoken aren't you?" Paul says that in the face of such we are to stand firm and hold to the truth of God's Word. False teaching is still rife in the church today. No doubt in the run up to the millennium there will be numerous teachings going round about the return of Jesus. That can be unsettling for some as can some of the teaching at many of the colleges training ordinands for ministry in the C of E. Some of the teaching I had in Durham was distinctly liberal and universalist. Perhaps any of you studying or teaching RE find the same. But again we are to stand firm and hold to the truth of the Bible. And then there are temptations (1 Thess. 3:13) that are like strong gusts of wind which threaten to blow us over. Again we are to stand firm and hold to the teaching of Scripture as Jesus did when he was being tempted by the devil in the wilderness. Behind these threats, attacks and winds is the devil. There is a spiritual battle going on. And as we see from the background to these verses in 2 Thess 2 these physical, intellectual and moral attacks "will come to a climax when Antichrist is revealed. For he will inaugurate a time of unparalleled anarchy. Hell will break loose. And many will be swept away by the gale of error and evil". (Stott) So how are we to stand firm? How is it possible? How can we be rock like and immovable? How can we have Christian stability? Well in vv.13-17 of 2 Thess 2 Paul gives us some answers in his thanksgiving, in his appeal and in his prayer which are my 3 headings. All three have Christian stability as their theme. He gives thanks that God has chosen and called the Thessalonians to salvation - that most stable of all states; he appeals to them to stand firm and hold to the truth; and he prays that God will establish them. Therefore his appeal to them to stand comes between his assurance that they will and his prayer that they may. So First, PAUL'S THANKSGIVING TO GOD FOR THE THESSALONIANS Look at vv.13&14.
"But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ."
Why does Paul feel under this obligation to thank God for them? Why does he express an assured thankfulness to God for them? Because God is at work in their lives. Because their faith, love and perseverance are growing (1:3). Because God from the beginning chose them to be saved and then called them and will bring them safely home in the end, in spite of any tribulation. So Paul's assurance that they will stand firm, his confidence in their stability is "due entirely to his confidence in the stability of God's loving purpose for them. It is only because God is steadfast, that we can be steadfast too" (Stott). How we need to be reminded of that and to realise the stability of God's loving purpose for us. The biblical doctrine of divine election and call which is summarized in these two verses is difficult to understand in some ways but it is also comforting and encouraging to know that our salvation goes back to the gracious initiative of God. God chose us and called us. Jesus said in John 15:16, "You did not choose me, but I chose you". And God's election of us is not just for a 5 year term of office so to speak but that we might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ when he returns and for eternity. Here then is a summary of the process by which we become Christians. There is the sovereign, gracious choice of God; there is the Spirit's action which makes effective to us the work of Christ; and there is our response of faith in welcoming that work and clearing the way for God's Spirit to act upon us. Look at vv.13&14 again. First, in v.13 God's eternal choice:
"From the beginning God chose you."
Why did he choose us? He chose us to be saved - to deliver us from the ravages and consequences of sin.
"Through the sanctifying work of the Spirit who brings us to new birth, indwells us and transforms us, and through belief in the truth."
He opened our eyes to believe it, in contrast to those who closed their minds to it and refused to believe (vv.10-12). Secondly in v.14 God's historical call.
"God called you to this salvation by grace through faith through our gospel."
God's call comes to us through hearing the gospel and then we respond. Some say that the doctrine of God's election undermines evangelism. But no! Surely the doctrine of divine election actually makes evangelism essential. For as v.14 makes clear it is through the preaching of the gospel that God calls us to himself,
"that we might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ."
Let's be clear. 'In the eternity of the past God chose us to be saved. Then he called us in time, causing us to hear the gospel, believe the truth and be sanctified by the Spirit, with a view to us sharing Christ's glory in the eternity of the future.' So God chose us and called us from the beginning to the glory. We can have confidence in God's eternal stability of purpose, even when the devil attacks, even when the Antichrist is revealed and rebellion breaks out. As Paul writes in the next chapter,
"The Lord is faithful, he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one".
Also in v.13 Paul describes the Thessalonians as "brothers loved by the Lord" . In v.16 he describes the Father and the Son as the God "who loved us" and in chapter 3 verse 5 he prays that the Lord will "direct your hearts into God's love". Behind God's election, call and salvation is God's love. And the fact that God is love, that he has set his love upon us, that he loves us still and that his love will never let us go is the foundation of Christian stability. Therefore "brothers loved by the Lord" (v.13) have the assurance that the love once shown them in Christ - the love which was the mainspring of their salvation - continues to enfold them, come what may - even the lawless one! John Stott calls the love of God "the ultimate secret of Christian stability". You see our stability is not only impossible, but actually inconceivable, apart from the steadfastness of the love of God. So in the words of Psalm 136,
"Give thanks to the Lordfor his steadfast love endures forever".
But God's steadfast love for us and his eternal stability of purpose do not mean that we can sit back and do nothing. Hence my next heading. Paul writes to the Philippians saying that, "I am confident that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ" (Phil. 1:6). But then goes on to say that they are "to continue to work out their salvation with fear and trembling" - to grow, mature and persevere. (Phil. 2:12). And Paul here after a confident thanksgiving earnestly appeals to the Thessalonians to stand firm and hold to God's Word and then follows that by earnestly praying for them to be established. So first of all my second heading: Secondly, PAUL'S APPEAL TO STAND FIRM AND HOLD TO THE TRUTH Look at v.15.
"So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter."
Since God has so clearly included those who believe in the truth in his great purpose, and since that purpose cannot be overthrown even by Satan and the man of lawlessness, stand firm and do not be frightened by the opposition or unsettled by false teaching. The appeal is not just to stand firm but also to hold to the teachings of Christ and his apostles, i.e. the New Testament, which of course is one way of standing firm. In the face of very strong winds of opposition, false teaching and temptation we are to stand firm and hold on to something solid and secure and we must keep on standing firm and keep on holding to the truth of God's Word. We must therefore be biblical or evangelical Christians, unswervingly loyal to the Scriptures. Are we? Do we spend time learning from them on our own, with others and at church and putting them into practise? That is the road to stability. The only way to resist false teaching is to hold to the true teaching. Also Paul says here, "brothers stand firm and hold to the teachings". We need each other. We are also to stand firm and hold to together. As Paul writes in Ephesians 6: "Be strong in the Lord, put on the full armour of God which includes the sword of the Spirit - the Word of God - and stand firm both as individuals and together as a church, so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realmsand pray in the Spirit on all occasions". (Ephesians 6:10-20) And Paul now turns to pray that the Thessalonians will stand firm and be established in the faith. So thirdly and finally Thirdly, PAUL'S PRAYER Look at vv.16&17.
"May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word."
Interestingly Paul addresses his prayer to our Lord Jesus Christ and God our Father. And despite the plurality of the subject he goes on in v.16 to use the singular who and the singular verbs loved and gave. He clearly thought of the Father and the Son as one. A fact which Jesus himself clearly stated in John's Gospel chapter 10 v.30: "I and the Father are one". Jesus Christ is God. A truth that we must hold to. And Paul continues describing Father and Son here in v.16 with the words, "who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope". He loved us to death on Calvary. In the cross of Christ God's love and grace resulted in the gifts of eternal encouragement and good hope for those who trust in Jesus Christ. I.e. they resulted in giving us every reason for eternal confidence before God. In that confidence Paul prays that God will encourage and establish the Thessalonian Christians. "May God, Son and Father, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word." i.e. may God fortify you inwardly, and may that inward strength show itself outwardly in every good deed and word. As someone has said: "A good hope ought to work itself out in a good life". (Best) May God encourage our hearts and establish us in every good deed and word. May we stand firm and hold to the truth. In that same confidence let's be praying for that for each other just as Paul prays here for the Thessalonians. It is God who encourages and establishes. Only God can do it by his grace. Therefore we must pray. But God does use people to accomplish his work in others. It was Paul who encouraged the Thessalonians individually in chapter 2:11 of the first letter and encouraged them corporately to walk to please God and to grow in their love for others and sent Timothy to encourage them in chapter 3:2 of the same letter. In fact Paul sent Timothy to Thessalonica that he might establish them in their faith. As my family are discovering with Kirsty, our one year old, the child must be taught to stand before he or she can learn to walk or run. There is always a need for mature Christians to take time to help establish younger believers. Church services, home groups and other small groups are vital in helping us to hear, discuss and apply the Word of God. For faith comes by hearing. But individual discipling is also very important. As I've just mentioned Paul encouraged the Thessalonians on a one to one basis. The ministry of the one to one Bible study team here is so necessary. But we must pray too. It is God, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, who encourages our hearts and strengthens us in every good deed and word. This prayer of Paul's reminds us that what we are by God's grace is what, increasingly, we should be in word and deed. And the fact that for Paul this is a matter of prayer, reminds us of where our help ultimately lies.