Destined For Trials

This morning in our series entitled Paul and his Converts, we come to Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians chapter 2 verse 17 and we go on to chapter 3 verse 5. In this passage there are three people or sets of people that we must look at. First, there is Paul himself; then there are the Thessalonian converts; and finally there is Timothy. So they provide my headings, first, PAUL and the context; secondly, THE THESSALONIANS and the problem; and thirdly, TIMOTHY and the solution. First, then, PAUL and the context. Let me underline three aspects to the context of what Paul is saying in these verses. Look, first, at chapter 2 verses 17 and 18:

brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. {18} For we wanted to come to you--certainly I, Paul, did, again and again.

A few months before Paul wrote these words he did not know a soul in Thessalonica. And if he had just been a business man, selling tents and sail-cloth, he would have arrived, stayed sufficiently long to make the contacts he needed, and then moved on. There would have been no great emotional wrench. But he wasn't just a business man. And the strength of (real) Christian fellowship was something quite different to anything in business. Paul has an "intense longing" to see these folk. He is making "every effort" to see them. Christian fellowship is part of the "gospel" or good news. There are generally three factors, in my experience, that lead people to faith in Jesus Christ - a sense of meaningless in life; a sense of guilt; or loneliness. So many today experience loneliness. A film actress, whose life is now in a mess, was reported recently as experiencing great loneliness at the end of filming. But the gospel brings genuine fun and enjoyment with other people and an absence of loneliness. I have enjoyed Christian fellowship all over the world. Christian fellowship means that people don't have empty and isolated lives but a new circle of friends and acquaintances. Paul could have been a very lonely individual. But he experienced the truth of what Jesus said in Luke 18.29-30:

"I tell you the truth ... no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God {30} will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life."

So one aspect to the context of these verses is the strength of Christian fellowship. The second aspect is the reality of Satan. Why couldn't Paul visit his friends in Thessalonica? Why did he have to stay in Athens? We don't know the details. What we do know is that in chapter 2 verse 18 he said ...

... Satan stopped us.

Paul believed in Satan. There is no "dualism" in the bible. Dualism is the belief that there are two equal powers fighting for control of the universe. Of course, the bible does not teach that. God is the almighty creator; and Jesus is the victor over Satan. But the bible teaches that evil is not just the sum total of individual misdeeds. That isn't the whole story about evil. There is, if you like, a "super-plus"; and that is not some impersonal force. No! You have to apply personal categories. You are not talking about an "it" but a "he". "[He] Satan stopped us", says Paul. The third aspect to the context of these verses is Paul's concern for the future. There is a question in chapter 2 verse 19 that Paul asks and we can ask equally today, at the end of the 20th century. Look at it:

What is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes?

That is a fundamental question. Let me put it to you again:

What is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes?

Everyone here this morning has some hope. Everyone is looking into the future - or some distance ahead at least - and you imagine (or you have as a goal; or you project) something that will give you satisfaction. That is your hope. It may be getting more income or a better house. It may be some professional qualification or a career move. It may be marriage or seeing your children do will and responsibly in life. It may be some improvement of society. It may be health. It may be retirement. Now, those may all be good things. But Paul has none of them as his "hope". When he looked into the future, he wasn't focusing on homes or degrees or happy families or social welfare or a peaceful retirement. Yet the bottom didn't fall out of his life. He never thought his future was going to be bleak and boring and hopeless. No! His future was bright and full of hope. Satan may be attacking him. So what? He had a hope that made life supremely worthwhile, whatever the world threw at him. On the one hand he knew, chapter 2 verse 19, that one day, he Paul (and you and I) will be "in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes." He is coming again; he knew that. On the other hand Paul had great "hope" in the Thessalonians. He saw them growing as Christians as they left their pagan practices and morality behind. And he knew that the consequence would, indeed, be that society was changed. So he says, chapter 2 verse 20, "You are our glory and joy." You see, when Jesus comes again, he is going to judge all the hopes and ambitions you have had in this life. So are you going to be secure on that day in respect of your hopes and ambitions? On BBC Radio 4 on Saturday mornings there is a programme on "financial security" - the Money Programme. It tells you about the best pensions, insurances, investments, mortgages and tax arrangements. But what is supremely needed is a BBC Radio 4 programme on "eternal security". As Jesus said (Mark 8.36):

what good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?

When Christ returns, are you sure that the things you really are pinning you hopes on will pass muster as "your joy or the crown in which you will glory" (to use Paul's words)? Many human hopes end with this life. But the health of the Christian fellowship, your working for that end, your serving other believers, your helping others come to faith in Christ, that is something in which you can have confidence "in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes." Perhaps there is someone here this morning who as yet has no real hope in Christ at all. You have never gone to him for forgiveness and new life by his Spirit. At present you are spiritually dead. The bible says that is the natural condition of men and women until they meet with Christ. Why not turn to him this morning? That's what those Thessalonians had done. They then knew that in Christ and his kingdom there was eternal hope. So that is the context - the strength of Christian fellowship; the reality of Satan; and Paul's concern for the future. Let's move on, secondly, to THE THESSALONIANS and the problem. And the problem is "the problem of suffering". Paul has just been mentioning this - chapter 2 verse 14:

you suffered [from your own countrymen].

There are two aspects to this problem. First, there is the fact of the trials these Thessalonians were going through. Then there was the danger from them. First the fact of their trials. Look at chapter 3 verse 3, Paul says:

You know quite well that we were destined for them [these trials].

What are trials that Christians have to face? We are learning on Sunday evenings in our studies in Revelation 1-3 and the letters of the risen Christ to the churches of Asia Minor that "trials" for the Christian come in three ways. One, they come from straight persecution. The Christians in the Southern Sudan (whose terrible plight we have been seeing on our TV screens this week) are being persecuted by the northern Muslims at the moment. But it can be less severe persecution and more in terms of psychological pressure or public policy. Then, two, trials for the Christian come from false teaching in the church. And, three, trials come from immorality within the church. That is all there in those seven letters. In addition there are trials from circumstances where no one seems responsible. But, says Paul, these are hard facts and "we were destined for them". There is an inevitability about trials for the Christian. So don't be surprised when any of these trials come upon you. No! don't give in; where necessary, oppose them. When life is hard for you at work or college because you are a Christian, don't be surprised. When Christian leaders are responsible for false teaching, don't be surprised. And when, sadly, there is immorality being condoned or promoted by people within the church, don't be surprised. Work against it. But remember that "we were destined for such trials". Paul thought it so important that his young converts at Thessalonica realised all this. So he says, chapter 3 verse 4:

when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know.

This was a lesson he taught not just once, but time and again. In fact we know that this formed a major plank in his "follow up" teaching for his new converts. We are told in Acts 14.22 that Paul and his colleague Barnabas went round the new churches ...

... strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God," they said.

That is a basic lesson any new Christian has to learn. Jesus had taught it to his disciples - John 16.33:

... in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."

And Paul taught it to Timothy - 2 Tim 3.12:

everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

So there was the fact of their trials. And Paul says that the Thessalonians had been well taught. "You know quite well that we were destined for them." But secondly, there was danger from these trials. Quite simply Paul suggests that these trials could, chapter 3 verse 3 (the first half) "unsettle" the Thessalonian Christians. The word is a rare word, but it probably means "deceive". Paul is worried that some false teachers would cajole these Christians with clever and smooth talk. They would say, "this shows the gospel is not really good news. Ever since you've become a Christian all you have is trouble. If you gave up your Christian convictions and your Christian standards, you would get on much better; you would get promotion; life would be much easier." And it would be. It would be much easier for some of you today, if you didn't insist on biblical truth. It would be much easier for the Christian Institute if it ignored Christian morality. It would be much easier for many Christian doctors not to bother with Christian ethics. It is the same for Christian school-teachers, business men, lawyers - indeed all true Christians. So be careful of people who talk you into conforming to the world's beliefs on the grounds that it will be easier, when you know you should remain true to Jesus Christ. The first danger, then, is being "unsettled" by trials. The second danger is being "tempted". Chapter 3 verse 5:

I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you.

The psychology works like this. First you listen to suggestions to drift away from a clear commitment to Christ. Perhaps it has to do with marital or sexual ethics. I know people who will read every book on the subject until they find one that fits in with what they already have decided to do any way. You will always find clever people these days who can justify anything. As George Will has said,

there is nothing so vulgar left in our experience for which we cannot transport some professor from somewhere to justify it.

Perhaps it is on some doctrinal point. And you know that if you don't have to go along with the plain meaning of the bible in one place, you can ignore it elsewhere. And you are looking for such an excuse. Spiritual drift starts in the mind; then you change your mind; then you give in. Remember James chapter 1 verses 14-15:

each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. {15} Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

So the problem for the Thessalonians was the fact of their trails - they were suffering for being Christians. This was inevitable; and Paul had reminded them of that fact time and again. And then there was the danger from these trials - first of being unsettled by those who would seduce them away from Christ; and secondly, the possibility of giving in to the temptation and so drifting away from, or even denying, Christ. Finally, TIMOTHY and the solution. The solution to their problems came in the form of a person and what he did. The person was Timothy, verses 1 and 2 of chapter 3:

So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. {2} We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God's fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith.

What he did was to "strengthen and encourage" the Thessalonians in their faith - he would have taught or reminded them of fundamental gospel truths. Timothy was "God's fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ." They didn't need a new gimmick or new programmes or new organization. They needed their potentially weak wills to be strengthened and they needed encouragement to counter possible depression. Who here this morning is going through a hard time? One thing you always will need at such a time is to be "strengthened and encouraged" in your faith. How does that happen? What gospel truths bring that strengthening and encouragement? Let me give you some in conclusion. For encouragement always remember that trials and suffering prove the genuine from the bogus in terms of spiritual reality and prove those God loves. Hebrews 12.5:

And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: "My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son."

Romans 8.17:

Now if we are children, then we are heirs--heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

Then remember there is "blessing" in suffering for Christ's sake:

"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me" (Mat 5.11).

That blessing is usually only seen in retrospect, but "blessing" there is, says Jesus. What about strengthening? How are you strengthened? By being taught to repent and change where any suffering is due to your fault or your sin. By learning what the old Puritans used to call "mortification" - that is learning to say "No!" to temptations and "crucifying" your evil inclinations. And as important as anything, by getting a right perspective. Listen to Paul (2 Cor 4.16-18) - and with this I close:

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. {17} For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. {18} So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

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