A Suffering Church

Bible Book: 1 Thessalonians  2 : 13-20
Subject: Church, Suffering; Persecution; Christian Joy

It was not easy to be a Christian in Thessalonica. They were facing persecution and suffering. Their situation explains Paul's choice of words.

Notice the word "affliction" in chapter one and verse 6. Notice the word "suffered" in chapter two and verse 14, and then the word "persecuted" in verse 15, and the word "contrary" in verse 15. In verse 18 notice the word "hindered." These are terms that signify pressure and persecution.

Yet, in the midst of suffering, the Thessalonian Christians experienced joy. They received Paul's ministry of the word according to verse 6 of chapter one "in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit."

Now, what I would like for us to do in our study tonight is to consider the cause, the character, and the cure for a suffering church. First of all, let us consider...

I. The Cause of Suffering (V. 13)

The church of Thessalonica had been founded upon the word of God. The same Book [Bible] that brings us salvation, teaches us how to live for Christ and helps us to endure suffering for His sake, is sometimes the cause of suffering. The Word of God will call you to a higher standard. The Word of God will set you apart from others. The Word of God makes a clear distinction between light and darkness.

Let me tell you how the Word of God brought suffering upon the church in Thessalonica. If you look in verse 13 of our text, you will discover that this church was marked by the recognition of the truth. Paul says, "Ye welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God." Here we have the recognition of the truth. We must never treat this Book as any other book, for the Bible is different in origin, character, content, and cost. The Bible is the Word of God. It was inspired by the Spirit of God and written by men of God who were used by the Spirit. God's word is holy, pure, and without error.

This does not mean the Bible is to be venerated, but rather it is the teachings of the Bible that have meaning for our lives. A pastor visiting a sick lady asked if she had a Bible handy from which he could read to her. "O, yes," she responded, reaching under her pillow. "I keep one here for good luck all the time!" The Bible is not a good luck charm!

During the Vietnam War a news photo showed a soldier holding his bullet riddled helmet. Inside was a Bible his mother gave him before he left for overseas and it had helped deflect the bullet. A few days later another news story described a soldier whose life had been saved by letters from his girlfriend that he too had stuffed in the liner of his helmet. Were the letters from a girlfriend and the Bible of another soldier of the same value? No, the Bible is God's Holy, inerrant, precious Word.

In honesty, was it the Bible as a good luck charm that deflected the bullet or simply the fact that it was made up of so much protective paper, much like the letters from the girlfriend. We cheapen the Bible to use it like a rabbit's foot. Only when its precious lifeblood becomes our guide and rule does it have any real meaning. Bibles are to be studied, not venerated.

Would you rather have your Bible than food? Job said, "I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food" (Job 23:12). God's word is bread (Matthew 4:4), milk and meat       (Hebrews 5:11-14), and even honey (Psalm 119:103). Mary chose the word, but her sister Martha got involved in making a meal. Mary got the blessing, while Martha lost the victory. Would you rather have God's word than money? The believer who wrote Psalm 119 made it clear that God's word meant more to him than "all riches" (Psalm 119:14), "thousands of goal and silver" (Psalm 119:72), "fine gold" (Psalm 119:127), and even "great spoil" (Psalm 119:162).

Would you rather have God's word than sleep? The psalmist said, "My eyes anticipate the night watches that I may meditate on thy word" (Psalm 119:148). The Jews had three night watches: sunset to 10 PM, 10 PM to 2 AM, and 2 AM until dawn. The psalmist gave up sleep three times each night that he might spend time with the word of God. But some Christians cannot get out of bed on Sunday morning to study the word.

But, you see, the people of Thessalonica understood the significance of this Book. They knew that it did not come from man. They knew that it was the word of God.

Someone has said, "This book is the mind of God, the state of man, the way of salvation, the doom of sinners, and the happiness of believers. Its doctrines are holy, its precepts are binding, its histories are true, and its decisions are immutable. Read it to be wise, believe it to be safe, practice it to be holy. It contains light to direct you, food to support you, and comfort to cheer you. It is the traveler's map, the pilgrim's staff, the pilot's compass, the soldier's sword and the Christian's character. Here paradise is restored, heaven opened, and the gates of hell disclosed. Christ is its grand subject, our good its design, and the glory of God its end. It should fill the memory, rule the heart, and guide the feet. Read it slowly, frequently, prayerfully. It is a mine of wealth, a paradise of glory, and a river of pleasure. Follow its precepts and it will lead you to Calvary, to the empty tomb, to a resurrected life in Christ, yes, to glory itself for eternity."

But we see among the Christians of Thessalonica not only the recognition of the truth, but we see the reception of the truth.

Paul used two different words for "received." The first means simply "to accept from another" while the second means "to welcome." One means "the hearing of the ear" while the other means "the hearing of the heart." The believers at Thessalonica did not only hear the word, they took it into their inner man and made it a part of their lives.

The Lord Jesus repeatedly warned people about the wrong kind of hearing, and His warnings are still needed. On many occasions He said, "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." In other words, "take heed that you hear." Use every opportunity that you have to hear the word of God.

Recognition of the truth and a reception of the truth don't amount to a great deal unless there is a response to the truth. Howard Hendricks says, "Observation plus interpretation without application equals abortion." In other words, every time you observe and interpret but fail to apply, you perform an abortion on the Scriptures in terms of their purpose.

A man in New York City died at the age of 63 without ever having had a job. He spent his entire adult life in college. During those years he acquired so many academic degrees that they "looked like the alphabet" behind his name. Why did this man spend his entire life in college? When he was a child a wealthy relative died who had named him as a beneficiary in his will. It stated that he was to be given enough money for his own support every year as long as he stayed in school, and it was to be discontinued when he had completed his education. The man met the terms of the will, but by remaining in school indefinitely he turned a technicality into a steady income for life -- something his benefactor never intended. Unfortunately he spent thousands of hours listening to professors and reading books, but never "doing." He acquired more and more knowledge, but didn't put it into practice.

This reminds us of what James said: "Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only." If we read the Bible or listen as it is taught but fail to put to work what we have learned, we are as bad as that man with his string of degrees. His education was of no practical benefit to anyone.

But in the church of Thessalonica there was the recognition of the truth, there was the reception of the truth, and then there was the results of the truth. What were the results? What happens when we receive the truth of God? Everything will not necessarily run smoothly when we get saved. It will not all be peaches and cream. Everything is not going to go just as we want it to go. We will not suddenly be without problems. Look in verse 14 of our text (read).

The result of the truth coming into the lives of the Christians of Thessalonica did not mean peace, but trouble. Their own neighbors, and perhaps their own families, began to persecute them. They found opposition at every turn of the road.

But the word of God will divide; it will separate. And a strict adherence to the word of God will bring on persecution and opposition. God's word is powerful. The gospel is "the power of God unto salvation to everyone that will believe." It comforts. It encourages. It blesses. But it also brings on opposition, and here we see the cause of suffering. But secondly I want us to consider...

II. The Character of Suffering (V. 14-16)

Look in verses 14-16 (read). In some cases the suffering was characterized by death itself. This was true in the case of some of the prophets and some of the preachers like Stephen, and of the Lord himself. At Thessalonica, however, things had not gone that far and the sufferings of these believers took the form of persecution -- and not merely persecution, but steadfast persecution.

Now, let me tell you what's happening in America. Today our beliefs are increasingly ridiculed by a more powerful value-free society. And when we as Christians maintain our confidence in and commitment to biblical values, we're going to face the same kind of challenge that the Christians faced in the first century. It may not be persecution, but it will certainly be secular ridicule.

For example, if all of us here tonight decided that we were going to march around the nearest abortion clinic all day Friday and sing songs of praise and witness to anybody who tried to go in the abortion clinic, what do you think would happen? The Atlanta Journal- Constitution would be there with their reporters and their cameraman. The television stations would be there with their cameras. And you could almost bet on the fact that our church would be painted in negative hues.

Well, let's say brother Don decided he was going to preach a six-week series on the sin of homosexuality, and we published that in the newspapers and announced on television the series of sermons that was going to be preached by brother Don. I'm telling you, the homosexual community would be up in arms by the second or the third Sunday.

Or let's just say that we all decided that we were going to adopt a resolution at Eastside Baptist Church against gambling, and against the Georgia lottery. You know, the Bible says in Proverbs 28:22, "A man with an evil eye hastens after riches and does not consider that poverty will come upon him."

And, you know, in Proverbs 13:11 in the Living Bible it says this: "Wealth from gambling quickly disappears; wealth from hard work grows." So let's just say that we were going to stand on the biblical principles of stewardship and pass a strong resolution against gambling in the Georgia lottery, and we went to the state house to lobby against the lottery with our resolution. If we made enough noise, do you know who would eventually come after us? The Mafia. The Mafia is behind much of the gambling industry in the United States. And the person who buys a lottery ticket must fork over 62 cents to the gambling industry in order for the state to receive 38 cents. The lottery is a tax, but it hits hardest at those who can least afford it -- the poor.

Now, you just think about it. If the church begins to infringe upon the profit margin of the Mafia, the church is in for some real persecution. If you don't believe that, ask Dr. Paul Jones who is the head of the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist Convention in Mississippi. I was on his board when I was in Mississippi, and we were fighting the legislature in Mississippi to try to keep the casinos from coming into the state. Dr. Paul Jones was shot at. His family was threatened. His car was run off the road, and he was able to tie it in to the work of the Mafia.

Or you begin to fight against pornography or oppose some of the stuff that's going on with the National Endowment for the Arts and you'll experience ridicule. Ask Donald Wildmon, the president of the American Family Association. He has been sued more than one time for his fight against pornography. Beverly LaHaye says that Christians need to fight against grants to the National Endowment for the Arts. She says, "With the plight of the homeless, the AIDS epidemic, and the numerous other social problems we confront, it is ludicrous that valuable tax dollars have been   spent on homoerotic, sadomasochistic, and blasphemous works which can only be characterized  as garbage."

In Thessalonica the Christians were standing on the word of God. They were standing against idolatry. They were standing against sin. And if we were to be as bold as they were; if we were to be as vocal as they were; if we were to be as committed as they were, we would probably all be in duck soup by this time next week.

But I don't want to get you in duck soup. I don't want you to see the cause of suffering and the character of suffering without giving you some hope. So point number three has to do with...

III. The Cure of Suffering (V. 17-20)

Look in verses 17-20 (read). The apostle Paul is writing to under gird his love for the Thessalonians and to assure them of his desires to be an encouragement and a help to them.

In verse 17 he talks about his desire to see them. And in verse 18 he talks about how Satan had hindered his visit. How did Satan stop him from visiting the church in Thessalonica? Some think by illness. We know that the apostle Paul was frail of body, and perhaps his stamina was not what it ought to be. Or it could have been that there was trouble in the other churches that he was serving. Because of the critical nature of these problems he could not be free to come to be with them.

We do not know how Satan hindered him. The important thing for us to understand is that Satan does hinder God's servants. He thrusts obstacles in the way of God's people. Satan tears down and discourages. He creates difficulties and depression.

But notice in verse 19 that Paul did not look back and give in to regret and remorse. Instead, he looked ahead and rejoiced. For the Christian, the best is yet to come. Paul looked ahead by faith and saw his friends in the presence of Jesus Christ in glory.

In times of trouble and testing it is important that we take the long view of things. Paul lived in the future tense as well as in the present tense. His actions were governed by what God would do in the future. He knew that Jesus Christ would return and reward him for his faithful ministry. And on that day the saints from Thessalonica would bring glory to God and joy to Paul's heart. As the familiar song says, "It will be worth it all when we see Jesus."

The fact that we shall one day stand at the judgment seat of Christ ought to motivate us to be faithful in spite of difficulties.

Now, notice in verse 19 that Paul did not say that he would receive a crown, though this is suggested. He said that they themselves would be his crown when he met them at the judgment seat. You see, one of the greatest joys that we shall ever know is the joy of seeing lives that God has allowed us to touch and help. The glory of any teacher is his pupils. The glory of any pastor is those who have come to know God through his preaching. When we stand before God at His throne, our crown of rejoicing will be those whose lives we have touched for Him.

You see, there are five crowns which I believe will be given out to believers as rewards for their work here on earth. There is the incorruptible crown for those who have been able to gain mastery over the flesh and yield to the Spirit. There is the crown of righteousness for those who finish well and who look forward to the coming of Christ. There is the crown of life for those who endure trials and persecutions. There is the crown of glory for the faithful pastor who has compassionately taken care of his flock. And there is the crown of rejoicing for the soul-winner. If you have led souls to faith in Jesus Christ, in addition to receiving that crown, all of the people whom you have won to Christ will gather around you as a part of your reward in heaven.

Years ago I heard Dr. W. A. Criswell tell about a retarded fellow in his church. And every Sunday   when Dr. Criswell got to church this retarded fellow, I believe his name was Tony, would be standing at the door near where Dr. Criswell parked his car. And this was a man whom Dr. Criswell had had the privilege of leading to the Lord. And every Sunday when Dr. Criswell would arrive at church Tony was there to greet him with a smile and a warm handshake. He would ask Dr. Criswell for the privilege of carrying his Bible for him. He would carry his Bible to his office and give it to Dr. Criswell, and Dr. Criswell would go in his office for a time of prayer. When he came out to go to the pulpit, Tony was still there and he would carry Dr. Criswell's Bible for him until he got into the church near the pulpit and he would give it back to him. When the service was over he'd take Dr. Criswell's Bible and carry it back to the study, and then back to the car. But he was always there, always the first one to greet Dr. Criswell.

And then one day Tony died and Dr. Criswell conducted his funeral. And at the funeral Dr. Criswell said, "I have an idea that when I get to heaven Tony will have asked St. Peter to step aside and he will be there at the gate of glory to welcome me home. He will give me that broad smile and that warm handshake and he'll be the one to escort me through the pearly gates to whatever mansion the Lord has prepared for me."

Well, you see, the cause of suffering is a strict adherence to the word of God, and in itself will militate against this world's system. And then there is the character of suffering which is sometimes marked by all kinds of difficulties and hardship. But the cure of suffering is to look beyond the clouds to the silver lining and to see that one day we'll enter the portals of heaven. And if we've been faithful, we'll receive our crown of rejoicing.

Notice in the last verse of our chapter Paul talks about the Christians of Thessalonica, and he says, "For you are our glory and joy." The word for "glory" is "doxa" from which we get "doxology." Those Christians were the praise and the joy and the glory of the great apostle. "Hallelujah," he said, "for what you are to us."


Let me ask you a question. Are you going to heaven? And if you are, let me ask you another question. Are you going to receive a crown of rejoicing? Are you going to meet some folks in heaven that you can refer to as your glory and joy?