Preached by Ben Bechtel
One of the great questions of human existence is how we are to cope when hard times befall us. In the novel All the Light We Cannot See, this is precisely the question of a German soldier named von Rumpel. In the heat of World War II, von Rumpel is tasked to hunt down a legendary French diamond with supposed supernatural powers. At first, he carries out his task as a duty to Hitler and the Reich. However, once von Rumpel discovers he has a cancerous tumor in his body, his search for the diamond becomes personal, arising from the hope that this diamond will cure him of his cancer. Von Rumpel’s suffering causes him to frantically search for a diamond that has been touched by the gods.
Needless to say, suffering causes us to completely reevaluate our actions and change the way we live. Some of us, like von Rumpel, frantically search for a miracle cure for a terrifying diagnosis. Others resort to repeating platitudes while actually living in denial. There are those who make significant changes to their lives as a result of their circumstances. And still others simply resign themselves to fate and drift into darkness. Despite our varied responses, we all want to know how we can handle our suffering positively and with joy rather than being eaten alive by our circumstances. Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonian church, which we will begin this morning presents to us a church who responds positively to their suffering by drawing from the resources not found in themselves but in Jesus.
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4
1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3 We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. 4 Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.
1. The Teaching of the Passage
Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians begins much like his first letter to them, with a greeting and a thanksgiving. Like 1 Thessalonians, Paul is aided in his writing to this church by his partners in ministry Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy. After his greeting to the church, Paul launches into his thanksgiving to God for the church. He says at the beginning of verse 3 that he “ought” to give thanks for them. Another way to express this idea is that Paul was obligated to give thanks to God for this church. And later in the phrase he says that it is “right” or “proper” for him to praise God for them.
Now, some have tried to use this, and other expressions throughout the letter, to claim that someone besides Paul had to have written this letter due to its more formal tone than 1 Thessalonians. And at first glance, this does sound very business professional of Paul to phrase it this way. However, I think it’s better to view this phrase sort of like a job performance review. Now there are job performance reviews, and many of us have probably had these types of reviews before, where the boss either gives you a bad review or gives you a good review but it’s very formal and transactional. This is the reason why many of us dread performance reviews. But a really great performance review, where a boss has a relationship with her employee and the employee has done great work, is a delight. Who wouldn’t want glowing commendations from a boss who actually means it and is delighted to tell you that you are doing an outstanding job?
This is the nature of Paul’s remarks here. The Thessalonians have so excelled in their growth in Christ that Paul declares that he is obligated to give thanks to God because their actions demanded it! He is overjoyed in them.
He is particularly overjoyed and giving thanks because their “faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.” God has been faithful to the church at Thessalonica. And this is precisely what the opening of this letter wants to draw our attention to as readers. To see what I mean, let’s back up to 1 Thessalonians and read the end of chapter 3 (3:9-13):
9 For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, 10 as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?
11 Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, 12 and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, 13 so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
Did you see it there? Paul prayed that he would be able to fill what is lacking in their faith and that God would make them increase in love for another. Also, that word “increase” used here in verse 3 to describe their love is the same word used in 1 Thes. 3:12. Over the short time span between these two letters, God has been faithfully at work to grow his church and to answer the prayers of Paul and his partners in the gospel for them. God delights to build his church. May we not grow weary in praying for our brothers and sisters in the faith that their faith would be increased abundantly, and their love would spread like wildfire!
It is the context of their growth in godliness that makes Paul’s thanksgiving all the more meaningful. Let’s reread verse 4 together:
4 Therefore (on the basis of your growth in faith and love) we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.
This church has grown up in suffering. This is a church that has been familiar with persecution ever since its inception. In Acts 17 when Paul first brought the gospel to Thessalonica, some of the people of the city were hostile and ran Paul out of town. Then, they heard he was preaching the gospel and finding favor with the people in Berea, the next town over, so they journeyed there and stirred up the people against him. That is serious. And as we read about in 1 Thessalonians, this is a church that has suffered from intermittent spats of persecution throughout its young life (1 Thes. 3:2).
Notice the present tense verb in verse 4 “are enduring.” The church is now back into another bout of suffering and they are standing firm in their faith in the midst of it. Benjamin will preach more about the nature of this suffering when we come to the beginning of chapter 2, but needless to say, this church has had to come of age facing trials and is in the heat of them at the time of writing.
This church has become like plants that grow in areas prone to wildfires, like parts of California. There are trees in California, like the Ponderosa Pine tree for instance, that have mechanisms to cope with fire. They have a thick bark that makes it difficult for the heat of a fire to affect the heart of the tree. They also shed branches lower than 20-30 feet, which makes it difficult for fire to creep up the tree and set the whole thing ablaze. Still others, manage not only to cope with fire but flourish because of fire. There are several species of plants and trees which drop seed pods that are glued shut and can only be released under intense heat. Fire has become for these trees the means by which they reproduce and grow as a species.
This is precisely what happened in the church at Thessalonica. When those who wanted to oppress them and do them harm closed in, this church endured and flourished. Their unexplainable growth in grace given their context of suffering could only come about by God’s faithful action on behalf of the Thessalonians.
It is precisely for this reason why Paul is so thankful to God for this church. His thankfulness even spills out to the other churches in the region. Paul and his fellow leaders “boast” about the Christlikeness of the Thessalonians to everyone. Paul is even more ecstatic about this church here than he was in 1 Thessalonians due to the Spirit-wrought change that has taken place in their lives. This is similar to a parent’s excitement over their children’s accomplishments. Certain accomplishments are weightier than others. While a parent could not be happier at the time for their child’s first tee ball hit, they recognize there is a greater gravity to their child’s graduation from high school and a more substantial degree of joy which accompanies it.
For Paul, the spiritual father of this church in Thessalonica (1 Thes. 2:7; 11-12), there is certain weight to their endurance and sanctification through suffering for a number of years that causes him to boast in them with joy. This church has continued to grow up and hold fast to their Christian confession through great difficulty.
Some of you may read this verse and question, “isn’t it a bit conceited and selfish for the apostle Paul to boast in his own disciples? Isn’t this all a bit self-serving of him?” I would submit to you, that Paul’s boasting in the Thessalonians here and our boasting in our brothers and sisters in Christ does not take the glory and attention off of God but rightly gives him glory for the work he has done in others’ lives. As pastor John Stott said:
Thanksgiving and boasting appear incompatible…yet there is one kind of boasting which is perfectly compatible with thanksgiving because in reality it is a synonym; it is “boasting in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31).1
We as Christians are to boast in those who don’t boast in themselves, thus giving all thanks and honor to God for his faithful work in the lives of our brothers and sisters.
I heard an interview recently with a Christian writer who said that pastor do a much better job at exhortation than at commendation.2 This means, we do a lot better job telling you what to do and believe rather than also thanking God for the work he is doing in you. And so, this morning I want to both exhort and commend you. Community, let’s be a church that can’t stop praising God for what he is doing in one another’s lives. Let’s be so overjoyed at the faith, love and hopeful endurance that God is working in each of us that we can’t help but proclaim it others. Rather than gossip or backbiting, let us be a church who can’t stop talking about the wonderful things the Spirit is working into the lives of those in our church body. Let’s be quick to boast in what God is doing in others’ lives in this church and in so doing, give Jesus the glory.
Community, there are so many ways I could thank God for how he is working in you but let me just share three things. First, in a time of transition in our church, really over the past 2 ½ years between the building move and Jason leaving, I have seen this church overflow with a love and unity that only comes from God’s Spirit working among you all. As Paul reminds us in Ephesians 4:6, this is our call as a church. Second, I have seen this church’s faith in God play out in radical generosity in so many ways. Both personally and the church as a whole, this is a people characterized by open-handedness and faith in God with your possessions. Finally, there are so many in here who have endured terrible suffering with such hope in Jesus. You all speak the gospel to the rest of us through your rock-solid hope in the resurrection and coming justice of God. Thank you.
2. The Question Underneath the Passage
The question that arises from this passage then is, “how can we suffer like that?” How is it that the fire of trials and persecution caused this church to open up and produce more abundantly? Especially as Christians, Jesus promises us that we will have trouble in this world (John 16:33). We know that if we are not currently suffering it is coming, so how do we not only stay standing when suffering or trials come, but how do we ensure our roots grow deeper and we continue to bloom? As many of you know, suffering has a tendency not to produce in us faith, love, and endurance but to cause us to fall away from following Jesus. I think about the things that cause me to drift from following Jesus and they are nothing compared to what these Christians and many Christians around the world today are facing. How is it that we can flourish and become more truly human in the midst of suffering?
We know that we can thrive and continue following Jesus in the midst of our trials because we have been united to him. In John 15, Jesus uses the language of a vine and its branches to describe our relationship with him. You see, Jesus has made it possible for us to be nourished in all circumstances, even our suffering. He underwent the suffering of the cross on your behalf and now walks with you in the midst of the fire, offering himself to you every step of the way for your joy! You have been grafted to and rooted in Jesus by his Spirit, providing for you Jesus and everything in him no matter your circumstance. He is the diamond in the midst of the fire that von Rumpel and any of us going through suffering could only hope to possess; he doesn’t take our suffering away but guarantees our joy in it and deliverance from it one day by giving us himself. Only those who are planted in and nourished by Christ will be able to remain faithful and flourish when trials come. Church, draw up the rich nutrients of Christ!
Now, how exactly do we feast on Christ? What does that look like for us? At its most basic, feasting on Christ involves enriching ourselves in the word of Christ in the Scriptures and enmeshing ourselves in the body of Christ.
In the Scriptures, Christ and his beauty is revealed to you everywhere. His promises are there to bolster you in terrible tragedy. For instance, take these promises from the end of Romans 8:
32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?…35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?…38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This is remarkable! Think about this: in the midst of suffering, God is giving you all things in Christ. How do we know this? Because he has not even spared his own Son for us. What love! If God gave us everything, nothing can come in the way of his love for us, not even cancer, sexual abuse, or death. He is stronger than those things and shows his love to you in Christ in the midst of those things. What good news!
Now maybe you are here this morning in the middle of terrible suffering and you say, “I just can’t accept those words.” Maybe you’re struggling and wrestling with God so much today that you don’t want to open your Bible. That’s exactly why we have each other! Our individual lives with Jesus are not separated from one another. My personal spiritual life is organically connected in the body of Christ to your spiritual life. If I don’t feel like reading my Bible and am so bloody and beaten up from the trials of this life, I need you to put your arm around me and carry me to Jesus. That is what we desire our worship services here on Sunday morning to be as well, us all carrying one another to Jesus yet again, week after week.
If you are suffering currently, Jesus has done everything possible to ensure that even in the midst of this you might have joy in him and continue to live a life of faithfulness and love marked by hope. If you are not suffering currently, feast on Jesus in preparation for when you will and help your brothers and sisters who are suffering to feast on Jesus now. It is only when we behold the multi-faceted beauty and love of Jesus that we can grow together in faith and love no matter our circumstances.
1 Stott, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 144-145.
2 Matt Smethurst, “Matt Smethurst on Teaching 2 Thessalonians.” Accessed August, 14 2019. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/help-me-teach-the-bible/matt-smethurst-teaching-2-thessalonians/