Last Sunday morning, April 28 2002, the Protestant Christian village of Soya near Ambon in Indonesia was attacked by Muslims after a call to do so went out from the leader of the extremist Muslim Laskar Jihad organisation. As a church we've been praying for the gospel message to spread rapidly in that part of the world for many years. Early last Sunday morning a full scale attack was launched on Soya by Muslims with mortars, bombs and gunfire. The attackers went from house to house, reportedly proclaiming Allah's greatness while not sparing women and children, including a nine month old baby. The church building was burned down. In spite of this terrible attack and the pouring rain the television news later showed the residents of Soya conducting worship on the open space beside their destroyed church building. They were standing firm, holding to the truth and praying which is our theme from our Bible passage this morning.
We too are to stand firm in Christ. We here in Jesmond and our brothers and sisters in Mburi, Kenya might not be facing such violent opposition as those in Ambon but are we standing firm as Christians, holding to the truth of the Bible, praying for one another and helping to spread the message of the Lord, eg through parish visiting, or are we drifting and becoming unsettled in our faith?
In 2 Thessalonians 2:2 Paul writes: "Don't become easily unsettled" and in v.15 he appeals to his readers 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, which said that the day of the Lord has already come (v2). 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 and prays for them. So who or what threatens our stability as Christians?
In his two letters to the Thessalonians Paul mentions 3 threats. First, opposition and persecution (1 Thess. 1&3). Secondly, false teaching (2 Thess. 2:2-3) and thirdly, temptation (1 Thess. 3:13). 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. Both here and in Kenya is the danger of liberalism both inside and outside the church. Young Christians here and in Mburi face that danger when they go to college, university or when they go up to the city from a rural area. But again we are to stand firm and hold to the truth of the Bible. And then there are temptations 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 Thessalonians 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. 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 Thessalonians 2 Paul gives us some answers and then goes on to urge us to pray for the rapid spread of the gospel in chapter 3 confident that the Lord is faithful and that he will strengthen and protect us from the evil one. 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."
Confident of God's work in their lives Paul thanks God assuredly for the genuine Christians at Thessalonica just as we should give thanks to God for those in Mburi and here, the brothers loved by the Lord whose faith (1 Thess 1:3) is growing (just as it is among those in Mburi who trust in God daily for their daily needs – a trust which is humbling and challenging to us in the West) and whose love for one another is increasing, 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. 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 fully comprehend but it is 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 term of office as it might be for a newly elected local councillor or a newly elected mayor but that we might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ when he returns and for eternity. Divine election is from eternity for eternity.
Here in these verses 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. Firstly, 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 means there's no need for 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 – the good news that Jesus Christ died in our place on the cross to pay the price of our sin and rose from the dead defeating sin, death and the devil - 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! For the love of God is the '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.
But God's steadfast love for us and his eternal stability of purpose do not mean that we and those in Mburi can sit back and do nothing. Hence my next heading. Paul now 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 ...
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."
In other words 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, hold to the truth and do not be frightened by the opposition or unsettled by false teaching.
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 firmly 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, to rebuke and correct the false and to drive away heresy.
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. In our partnership in the gospel with Mburi we are to encourage and pray for each other to stand firm and hold to the truth. As Paul writes in Ephesians 6:
"Be strong in the Lord, put on the full armour of God and stand firm together, 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 realms…and pray in the Spirit on all occasions". (Ephesians 6)
And Paul now turns to pray that the Thessalonians will stand firm and be established in the faith and then goes on to request prayer. So …
Thirdly, PAUL'S PRAYER …AND REQUEST FOR 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. 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.
May God encourage our hearts and establish us in every good deed and word and our partners in the gospel in Mburi. May we all stand firm and hold to the truth. In the same confidence Paul had let's be praying for that for each other. 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. Paul encouraged the Thessalonians and sent Timothy to encourage and establish them.
It is always encouraging when we have visits from Mburi and it is encouraging to visit them. In fact Joan Parker our Pastoral Worker is with them today. How Britain needs missionaries from Kenya who are standing firm and holding to the truth. But we must pray too. It is God, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, and it is God 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.
In chapter 3 Paul goes on to ask for prayer. We certainly need the Christians at St Philip's Mburi to pray for us.
'Finally, brothers, pray for us…'
But how were these brothers to pray for Paul? What can we learn here about what we are to pray for our brothers in Mburi and how they can pray for us? First we see the priority is not for our own needs but for the rapid spread of the gospel – v1 – in which we have a part to play.
'…pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honoured, just as it was with you.'
The gospel has spread rapidly and has been honoured in many parts of Kenya including Mburi. We can join with the Christians there in praying for the church in Mburi and for the work of the community centre to continue to grow. Praise God for the great freedom in Kenya to preach the gospel since independence and the exciting growth of the church. Over four fifths of the population of Kenya claims to be Christian and there is a high proportion of evangelicals. But nominalism has become an issue even among evangelicals.
In Nairobi 80% of people claim to be Christian but church attendance has fallen to about 12%. There is a lack of trained leaders for the 40,000 evangelical congregations across the country. Gospel work among the young is critical as over half the population of Kenya is aged 15 and under.
We and our brothers in Mburi need to pray that the gospel would spread rapidly and be honoured here in Britain and throughout Tyneside too. Many millions of people here are in desperate need of the gospel at a time when the life of the nation needs the impact of the gospel with rising violent crime – pensioners murdered in their own homes and on their way home from the fish and chip shop – and rising racial hatred. There is openness to the gospel but many do not honour it. Instead some mock and try to undermine the truth of the Bible. So, v2,
'Pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men, for not everyone has faith. But, have confidence in the Lord, the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one.'
Paul then says,
'We have confidence in the Lord that you are doing and will continue to do the things we command'.
And then he prays a prayer which we can pray for each other here and in Mburi: 'May the Lord direct your hearts into God's love and Christ's perseverance.' Don't give up, don't be idle, remember and know the love of God and fix your eyes on Jesus who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.