We begin a new series this morning entitled 'Paul and his converts'. The particular converts in questions are those in the city of Thessalonica, the capital city of what was then the Roman province of Macedonia. Today it is the city of Salonica in north-east Greece. Over the next few weeks we are going to consider the second of Paul's letters to the young church that grew out of his riot-inducing church planting expedition there. 2 Thessalonians 1.1-4 is our focus, by way of introduction to the letter, this morning. 'The word of God is living and active', says the bible. We should expect this letter to be fertiliser for our faith. Be praying that God will use it to change you. But what are the parallels between our situation and theirs? A word first about the church today. Michael Horowitz is an American Jew - not a Christian. In 1995 he wrote an editorial in the Wall Street Journal denouncing several cases of Christians being persecuted around the world. He has campaigned on behalf of suffering Christians ever since. He says that Christians are becoming 'the Jews of the next century'. What does he mean by that? I quote:
Throughout much of Europe's history, you could tell a country's level of democratic commitment by looking at how Jews were treated. Jews were the canary in the coal mine... Too many Jews, my people, have by now been killed to be useful targets of evil, repressive regimes. But there are millions of vulnerable Third World Christians who are just right for that purpose, and they have become the scapegoats of choice for today's thugs.
Horowitz gives an example of the kind of thing he means: Noting that churches played a central role in the collapse of East European communism, a leading Chinese Communist newspaper looked at China's house-church movement and said of it: 'We must strangle this baby while it is still in the manger.' He says almost 200 million Christians around the world are confronting what he calls 'hard-core persecution'. 2 Thessalonians 1:4 :
Therefore, among God's churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.
The church in Thessalonica was a persecuted church. Again Paul speaks in v5 of how they are 'suffering' for the kingdom of God. I have no doubt that part of the reason that God took them through that experience was so that they would be a source of strength to the suffering and persecuted Christians of the end of the 20th century. But what about us? I think that what Paul says to the Thessalonians should probably shame us and certainly spur us on in two ways. It should remind us of our privileges, and our responsibilities to our brothers and sisters who are under the most severe pressure in other parts of the world. It should also make us face up squarely to the situation of the church in the West and not least in this country: our faith is not so much in danger of being snuffed out by terror as of being smothered to death by ease and complacency. How much more should we take to heart the challenges of this letter, since our own situation is so comfortable. The letter opens with the names of those from whom it comes: "Paul, Silas and Timothy". It was Silas and Timothy who were with Paul at the time of his original work in Thessalonica, and most of the letter is written as from his team. It is clear, though, that it is Paul himself who is writing, because every now and again he slips into the first person singular. So, for instance, in 2:5 :
Don't you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things?
Why singular there? Because he is reminding them of his teaching, which comes with a God-given apostolic authority that none of his team share. He was uniquely commissioned as the apostle to the gentiles (which includes most of us). What he taught had been given to him by God, so his teaching has divine authority. Paul clearly identifies himself at the end of the letter, 3:17 :
I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters. This is how I write.
If what Paul said had divine authority, they needed to be confident that the letter was genuine. Even if he dictated most of the letter, he made a point of signing it off in his own hand. Presumably they were familiar with that from his time with them. Verse 1 again:
Paul, Silas and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:...
That church, that gathering of Christians, was the fruit of the evangelism of Paul and his team. You can read about the dramatic events that took place at the birth of the church in Acts 17:1-10. Some of you may have come to the concert here just after Easter organised by Jews for Jesus. If ever there was a Jew for Jesus, it was Paul. And the first thing he did in Thessalonica was to head for the synagogue, where he took every opportunity to persuade them first that the bible teaches that the Messiah had to suffer, die, and rise again; and secondly that Jesus, about whom he was telling them, was the Messiah, the everlasting King. After three weeks he already had a harvest of believers. Acts 17:4:
Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks [that is, Greeks who accepted the Jewish scriptures] and not a few prominent women.
What happened next? Verses 5-10:
But the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the market-place, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason's house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: "These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are defying all Caesar's decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus". When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. Then they put Jason and the others on bail and let them go. As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea.
From the word go, those new believers were under severe pressure. Imagine having to make your mind up about whether to trust in Jesus as Lord and Saviour, knowing that if you become a Christian you will immediately be on the wrong side of ruthless authorities, facing rejection by your community, accusations of treason and a hostile mob. Much evangelism in the world today is done in exactly that kind of context. Many converts then and now can be under no illusions that to follow Christ would cost them dear. And even in this country we easily underestimate the extent to which taking a stand for Christ means taking a costly stand against the values of a Christless society. Such is the power of the gospel that despite the inhospitable climate, those Thessalonians believed, as do tens of thousands around the world every day in our time. The church in Thessalonica was born, and it immediately began bearing the witness to Christ that was its purpose in life. Clearly at the time of Paul's second letter, the pressures have not eased. If anything, they seem to have intensified. Paul's purpose in writing now is glory. Not his own glory, but the glory of Jesus; and the glorification of the Thessalonians through Jesus. They had been called to glory. That was the goal of their faith. So, 1:12 :
We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him...
How will they bring glory to Jesus and share in that glory themselves? By not buckling under the pressure. By being willing to maintain their painful and costly stand for Christ, come what may. By not watering down what they had been taught by Paul in order to make it more acceptable and less challenging to the world around them. We sing and say often enough that we want to glorify Jesus. How? In just the same way. So in his first letter, in 1 Thessalonians 3:8, Paul had said to them:
For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.
What is Paul's method of ensuring that they (and we) stand firm in the Lord? It is encouragement through teaching. So in this second letter, 2:14-17:
[God] called you to [salvation] through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. 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.
He builds them up and strengthens them by letting them know that they have come a long way. They have made great progress. But at the same time they have a long way to go. Standing firm under fire is a tough thing to do. We have been graphically reminded of that by the example of some of those Denver teachers who shepherded their pupils to safety as the bullets from those two murderous young men ricocheted around their school. How were those Thessalonians to manage it? How are we to manage it? It is only possible by the power of God. And that is the first of the three characteristics of glory-bound church life and Christian living in verses 2-4. So first, AMAZING GRACE "Grace ... to you..." Paul says in verse 2. And then in verse 3:
We ought always to thank God for you, brothers ...
And in 1:12 he says that glory will come "according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ." Neither we nor they would ever have come to faith, nor can we stand firm in our faith, without the grace of God, his utterly undeserved favour. In 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5 Paul had said to them:
Brothers, loved by God, we know that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.
There is the impact of grace in a nutshell: God loved us by giving us his Son to die for us; he choses us; he speaks to us; he works powerfully within us; he changes us; he will bring us to glory. And when the going gets tough that is an immense comfort and relief. But we will not experience that comfort if we do not gratefully acknowledge how utterly dependent we are on him. The other day I lost my daughter Hannah in Eldon Square. It wasn't the first time, and I was confident that I could find her, with Katy's advice and help. I couldn't. My anxiety level rose steadily. After half hour I could put it off no longer and I rang Vivienne to tell her that I didn't have the foggiest idea where Hannah was, and I had looked everywhere I could think of. Vivienne was really happy about that, and congratulated me. Before I rang Vivienne, I realised that the time had come when I had to call on a higher power than my own if I was going to find Hannah. The police were called in. I kept looking. I worked with them. But they took over control of the search. The courteous PC said to me: "I know it's easy to say, but don't worry. We'll find her." He was right. I would have been much comforted if I had believed him. But I did worry. To be quite honest, I began to think it possible that I would never see Hannah again. Soon the whole of central Newcastle was being scoured by numerous police. After an hour and a quarter, which I am convinced went by much, much more slowly than normal time, I heard the crackle of the police radio: "This is to confirm that we have found a Hannah Pryke..." She was in Marks and Spencer's. Inspecting the handkerchiefs. I had walked away oblivious to the fact that she wasn't with me. The police did not even murmur a word of criticism of me. I am a great fan of the police. Think of your soul as a lost child. You are unable to save your soul. You are unable to bring your soul safely home to glory. We are quite unable by ourselves to stand firm in our faith. We are totally dependent on the grace of God. Thank God he is gracious. His amazing grace is the first characteristic of Christian living I want you to see in these verses. The second is this: GROWING FAITH Verse 3: "... your faith is growing more and more..." What does that mean? Well the faith that Paul is speaking of has three elements. The first is belief in the gospel that Paul had taught them. So verse 10:
... you believed our testimony to you.
And in 2:13-15:
God chose you to be saved ... through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel ... So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you ...
The second element of faith is the obedient behaviour that flows from it. 1:11 speaks of "every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith". In 3:6 they are warned "to keep away from every brother who... does not live according to the teaching you received from us." And in 3:13:
... brothers, never tire of doing what is right.
Then the third element of faith is steady perseverance. So 3:3:
... the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you against the evil one... May the Lord direct your hearts into ... Christ's perseverance.
Growing faith is characteristic of true Christians. Their attention to and trust in the Bible's teaching gets greater all the time. They are more and more Christ-like in the way that they live. They never give up in their steady stand for Christ. That kind of growing faith will face obstacles. It is Satan's purpose to disease and destroy it. One example: a police directive in Burma in 1992 demanded that the authorities 'oppose the spread of the Christian religion in every family', 'fight and oppose the preaching of Christians in every place', and 'fight the Christian religion by soft and cruel methods'. Do you detect the voice of Satan? Satan's tactic for attacking our faith may be by soft methods at the moment. But let's not be in any doubt about his strategy: the destruction of God's church. Sometimes the growth of faith is not very obvious, particular to the one on the inside. Like an overwintering cauliflower plant, nothing much may seem to happen. But perseverance through bitter winds and rain and biting frosts is a sign of increasing strength and deeper roots. And come the spring, the fruit of all that hard survival appears. Is our faith growing more and more? True faith will. Then, finally, the third characteristic of Christian living in these verses is this: INCREASING LOVE Verse 3: ... the love every one of you has for each other is increasing. The nature of our love will be that we work to build up one another's faith. We will teach one another. We will encourage each other to live lives that please God. We will spur each other on and support one another in the struggle to bear a faithful and consistent witness until the end of our earthly lives. Paul himself is the great example of that. This letter is a letter of love. We will see how he puts his love for the Thessalonians into practice in the coming weeks. In 1 Thessalonians 2: 7-9 he sums up his attitude towards them in this way:
As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel but our very lives as well, because you had become so dear to us. Surely you remember, brothers, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.
What a picture of tender, affectionate, tough, practical, Godly and gospel centred love. As our faith grows, is our love for every one of our fellow members of this church increasing? Let's pray, with Paul, that by the grace of God it will.