persecution

It is The Will Of God That You Suffer (1 Peter 3:17-4:6)

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After some great opening chapters about how we can move deeper into the holiness God has given us by living lives of honor and integrity, and how that movement can silence critics and point people toward Christ, Peter follows up with another important truth about life in the Kingdom:

17 “For if it is the will of God that you suffer, then it is better to suffer for doing what is right than for doing what is wrong.” 

In other words, living with integrity does not promise people will like you. It will just not justify their dislike of you. Now comes the theological explanation of why this will happen: it’s the pattern Jesus demonstrated.

18 The Anointed One suffered for sins once for all time—the righteous suffering for the unrighteous—so that He might bring us to God. Though He died in the flesh, He was made alive again through the Spirit. 19 And in the Spirit, He went and preached to those spirits held captive. 20 It was these who long ago lived in disobedience while God waited patiently as Noah was building the ark. At that time, only a tiny band—eight people—was spared from the flood.[1]

 21 The water through which the ark safely passed symbolizes now the ceremonial washing through baptism that initiates you into salvation. You are saved not because it cleanses your body of filth but because of your appeal to God from a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus the Anointed, our Liberating King. 22 Now He has entered heaven and sits at the right hand of God as heavenly messengers and authorities and powers[2]submit to His supremacy.

I could probably spend an entire morning talking about that passage, but for our purpose, note that the main point is that the Jesus suffered to free those who are unrighteous, captive to sin, and doomed. Now, back to the narrative.

 (4:1) Since the Anointed suffered in the flesh, prepare yourselves to do the same—anyone who has suffered in the flesh for the Lord is no longer in the grip of sin—2 so that you may live the rest of your life on earth controlled not by earthly desires but by the will of God.

What does it mean that ‘if we suffer in the flesh for the Lord we are no longer in the grip of sin’?

There seem to be two main ideas about how to understand this:

  1. It implies that if we take a stand and do not deny Jesus in the midst of persecution, it is a sign that our allegiance to God is a far greater power in our lives than the ‘grip of sin’ that would cause us to reject God to escape pain.
  2. If we resist the strong urge of temptation, it will be clear that the sins that once enslaved us no longer do.

I suspect Peter was referring to our struggle against temptation, since he follows with a specific contrast of their former life of sin and their current life in Christ. However, that is a form of ‘not denying Jesus’ as well, so I think it’s safe to say that what Peter wrote covers all the ways in which we pay a price for taking a stand for Jesus. Back to the text:

You have had enough in the past of the evil things that godless people enjoy--their immorality and lust, their feasting and drunkenness and wild parties, and their terrible worship of idols.4 Because of this, they consider it strange of you not to plunge with them into the same flood of reckless indiscretion, and they heap abuse on you. Someday they will have to give an account of themselves to the One who judges the living (those alive in Christ) and the dead (those dead in their sin).[3] This is why the good news had to be brought to those who are now (spiritually) dead so that although they are currently judged by their life in the flesh, they have the opportunity, because of Christ, to live in the spirit in the way that pleases God.[4]

We will talk about this in a bit, but I want to back up first.

“…prepare yourself to suffer in the flesh for the Lord…that you may live the rest of your life on earth controlled not by earthly desires but by the will of God.”

Why would we be willing to suffer? Because the will of God for our lives is amazing. It’s for our good and His glory, and it serves as a witness to those far from Christ that God’s design for life is beautiful and holy, and thus the God who designed it is as well. We see this become clear as we look what Peter highlights from the sinful pasts of those in his audience. Peter is not doing this to shame, but to contrast.

They walked in immorality and lust (strong appetites of all kinds).They were controlled by their urges. They were addicted to sin. One of the things the #metoo movement has brought to light is the reality of so many people who cannot seem to control their sexual urges. There is no filter, no self-control. They cannot seem to stop themselves. That’s a biblical notion, by the way. God sometimes gives people up in the lusts of their hearts. (Romans 1:24)

That’s what it means to be a slave to sin. We can reach a point where we so give ourselves over to our habits and lusts that God gives us over to them. This is not life. This is death.

If you have ever been there, you know the haunting despair this brings. You are never satisfied; you are always on the prowl, always on edge.  You always know you are going to go to porn again no matter how long you fight temptation. You are always covering up, always wondering how long you can maintain this. Maybe it was worse: you stopped worrying, because you didn’t care. This is death, not life.

Feasting, drunkenness, and wild parties.Literally, they were inflamed continually by what they brought into their bodies and then expressed theirinternalchaos with external chaos. Loud, chaotic, empty, angry, meaningless parties, followed by a bitter fruit of excessive drinking and drunken hookups.

The terrible worship of idols.In Peter’s context, this was typically temple orgies. It was not just a rejection of God; it was a debasement of people, the ruin of personal lives on the way to toppling an empire (just read the history of how Rome fell from within)[5]. Ultimately, people worshiped at the idol of ME, and the idol of “ME” will dominate and destroy everything around me.

  • Who suffers most:The one who indulges as Peter described, or the one who, with God’s help, resists this, ‘suffering’ by denying themselves for the sake of Christ? Who has “abundant life”?
  • Who suffers most:those who live around the self-indulgent and destructive worshiper, or the one who lives around those surrendered to the will of God and the path of life?[6]

God’s design for our good reflects reality– it should, because God created and designed it all, so he knows how it’s meant to work. I’m thrilled that the message of Christianity is entirely counter-cultural on these issues.

  • God’s commands, not earthly pleasures, revive our souls. (Psalm 19)
  • Life is found not when we indulge, but when we take up a cross. (Luke 9:23)
  • Life is found not in selfishness, but in laying down our lives for others. (John 15:13; Eph. 5:25)
  • Self-control, not indulgence, is a fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives. (Galatians 5:22-23)
  • Life is found not in lawlessness but in the boundary of good moral laws. God’s commands are a ‘school master’ to guide us in the path of life, not keep us from the good stuff. (Galatians 3:24)
  • It's when we reject the life of the world that we find eternal life. (John 12:25)
  • It’s in service, not power, that we find an honorable life. (John 12:26)

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So, ’suffering’ by resisting sin - even at the cost of being mocked or persecuted -  is a small price to pay in exchange for living in the goodness that God has offered to us. Christ offers life; the Kingdom of God is meant to be a place where humanity flourishes as they are saved by Christ, filled with His Holy Spirit, guided by His word, and connected with His people.

“Would that men might come at last to see that it is quite impossible to reach the thicket of the riches and wisdom of God except by first entering the thicket of much suffering, in such a way that the soul finds there its consolation and desire. The soul that longs for divine wisdom chooses first, and in truth, to enter the thicket of the cross.”  - St. John of the Cross

  • We ‘suffe'r by resisting the desire to gossip, but the fruit is friendship. Our suffering is redemptive rather than destructive.
  • We ‘suffer’ by confronting our addictions, but the fruit is all kinds of health.
  • We ‘suffer’ by forgiving those who are hard to love, but the fruit is internal peace rather than anger and bitterness.
  • We ‘suffer’ by being generous with money we want to keep, but the fruit is that we will worship God, not money.
  • We ‘suffer’ by biting our tongue when we want to lash out, but the benefit is not burning bridges and wounding others.
  • We ‘suffer’ by humbly repenting of our failures, sins and stupidity, but the fruit is maturity.
  • We ‘suffer’ by aligning our sex lives with God’s design, but the fruit is honor and purity.
  • We ‘suffer’ by taking a stand for our faith in the midst of criticism and mockery and even persecution, but the fruit is that we “live the rest of your life on earth controllednot by earthly desires but by the will of God.”

But it’s not just about us. Peter has been making the argument for several chapters that our lives open the door for our words. He’s been saying this for the entire letter, and I think he closes this section in the way he does to remind us that this isn’t just for our good and God’s glory, it’s part of our fulfillment of the Great Commission. Our lives open the door for us to bring the good news of salvation so others, too, can live in the in will of God through the blood of Jesus and the power of his Holy Spirit.

Someday they will have to give an account of themselves to the One who judges the living (those alive in Christ) and the dead (those dead in their sin).[7] This is why the good news had to be brought to those who are now (spiritually) dead so that although they are currently judged by their life in the flesh, they have the opportunity, because of Christ, to live in the spirit in the way that pleases God.

We have the opportunity to preach the good news of the Gospel, a gospel which will lead to a righteous, healthy and holy life lived in the power of the Spirit now and in the glorious presence of Jesus

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[1]3:19 “The three most common views on this passage are: (1) Between Jesus’ death and resurrection, he preached to the dead in Hades, the realm of the dead (the view of many church fathers, citing 4:6)… (2) Christ preached through Noah to people in Noah’s day (the view of many Reformers). (3) Before or (more likely) after his resurrection, Jesus proclaimed triumph over the fallen angels (the view of most scholars today, citing v. 22) Early Christians nearly always used “spirits” for angelic or demonic spirits rather than human ones, except when explicitly stating the latter. The Spirit raised Jesus; by the Spirit (and thus, in this context, presumably after his resurrection) Jesus “made proclamation”; in v. 22, his exaltation declared his triumph over fallen angels. Most ancient Jewish readers believed that Ge 6:1 – 3 refers to angels who fell in Noah’s day (v. 20); after the flood, they were said to be imprisoned (so also 2Pe 2:4Jude 6).”  (NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible)

[2]“Angels and authorities and powers - That is, all creatures and beings… are put under subjection to Jesus Christ…He alone can save; and he alone can destroy…. Well may his enemies tremble, while his friends exult and sing…If angels and authorities and powers be subject to him, then he can do what he will, and employ whom he will... We can conceive nothing too difficult for Omnipotence. This same omnipotent Being is the friend of man. Why then do we not come to himwith confidence, and expect the utmost salvation of which our souls and bodies are capable?”  (Adam Clarke Commentary)

[3]“There are four main interpretations of the "dead" in this passage (cf. comment on 3:18-22). (1) Christ, while in his three-day death, went and preached salvation to all the dead, offering salvation to those who lived in pre-Christian times. (2) Christ, while in his three-day death, went and preached salvation to the just of OT times. (3) The apostles and others on this earth preached the Gospel to those who were spiritually dead. (4) The dead are Christians, who had the Gospel preached to them and who then died (or were put to death). (Expositor's Bible Commentary (Abridged Edition): New Testament) I am partial to #3, because it makes sense in light of the next verse, which is best translated as, “the good news had to be brought to those who are now dead…”

[4]Three possible translations of this confusing verse:

  • "For this indeed was the effect of the preaching of the Gospel to the dead, (the unconverted Gentiles), that some will be punished as carnal men; but others, (those converted to Christianity), lead a spiritual life unto God." - Wakefield.
  • "For this purpose hath the Gospel been preached even to the dead, (i.e. the Gentiles), that although they might be condemned, indeed, by men in the flesh, (their persecutors), yet they might live eternally by God in the Spirit." - Macknight.
  • "For this cause was the Gospel preached to them that were dead; that they who live according to men in the flesh, may be condemned; but that they who live according to God in the Spirit, may live." - Knatchbull.

My rendering seeks to do justice to all the ideas bouncing around :)

[5]"Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, said that the following five attributes marked Rome at its end: first, a mounting love of show and luxury (that is, affluence); second, a widening gap between the very rich and the very poor (this could be among countries in the family of nations as well as in a single nation); third, an obsession with sex; fourth, freakishness in the arts, masquerading as originality, and enthusiasms pretending to be creativity; fifth, an increased desire to live off the state. It all sounds so familiar."Francis Schaeffer- How Should We Then Live

[6]Living a lifestyle of sin is notthe good life. We don’t even need to read the Bible to see this. I could talk about a lot of things, but I will just point out the things Peter specifically calls out to demonstrate that when the Bible talks about life, the Bible tells you the truth about life.Even those outside of the church see what the Bible revealed long ago.

[7]“The interpretation of this verse is often linked to 3:19, but the vocabulary of the text and its context differ. There are four main interpretations of the "dead" in this passage (cf. comment on 3:18-22). (1) Christ, while in his three-day death, went and preached salvation to all the dead, offering salvation to those who lived in pre-Christian times. (2) Christ, while in his three-day death, went and preached salvation to the just of OT times. (3) The apostles and others on this earth preached the Gospel to those who were spiritually dead. (4) The dead are Christians, who had the Gospel preached to them and who then died (or were put to death). (Expositor's Bible Commentary (Abridged Edition): New Testament) I am partial to #3, because it makes sense in light of the next verse, which is best translated as, “the good news had to be brought to those who are now dead…”

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In This World You Will Have Trouble: The Reality Of Persecution (John 15-17)

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STORIES OF PERSECUTION: SUSAN IN UGANDA

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John 15:18 – 16:3 “If you find that the world despises you, remember that before it despised you, it first despised Me. If you were a product of the world order, then it would love you. But you are not a product of the world because I have taken you out of it, and it despises you for that very reason. Don’t forget what I have spoken to you: ‘A servant is not greater than the master.’ If they persecute me, they will persecute you… The time will come when they will kick you out of the synagogue because some believe God desires them to execute you as an act of faithful service.”

John 16:32-33  “Be aware that a time is coming when you will be scattered like seeds…In this world, you will be plagued with times of trouble, but you need not fear; I have triumphed over this corrupt world order.”

John 17:14-14  “I have given them Your word; and the world has despised them because they are not products of the world, in the same way that I am not a product of the corrupt world order. Do not take them out of this world; protect them from the evil one.”

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Jesus was speaking to his disciples on the night of his arrest. Basically he was telling them, “Expect persecution.” He was right. Hebrews 11 gives quite a list of what happened to not only these disciples but many who claimed allegiance to Jesus: wandered in deserts and mountains, lived in caves, tortured, sawn in two, jailed, flogged, chained, put to death by the sword and stoned. They all were killed but John, who was terribly tortured and imprisoned.

In this specific warning to his disciples we see a broader warning to all who will be his disciples. We may not all experience the exact persecution the disciples or the early church did, but because the Kingdom of God is diametrically opposed to the Kingdoms of the World, those who love the world will despise followers of Jesus; the church can expect to be despised, broken apart, scattered and persecuted. Though Jesus has overcome the world, “in this world you will have trouble.”  “Trouble” of some sort is clearly a reality that has haunted followers of Christ throughout history, including what is happening to the global church today.

The main word translated as ‘persecution’ in the New Testament means “the hunt to bring someone down like an animal.” It is used in ancient and biblical Greek in reference to leaders such as the Roman Emperor Decius (ad 250-251), who killed thousands of Christians who refused to offer sacrifices in his name. (http://biblehub.com/greek/1375.htm)[1]

Persecution is oppression or harassment resulting in punishment for the sake of Christ (Matthew 13:21; Mark 4:17; Mark 10:30; Acts 8:1; Acts 13:50; Romans 8:35; plural, 2 Corinthians 12:10; 2 Thessalonians 1:4; 2 Timothy 3:11). This could take several forms.

This graph from Open Doors shows how this is happening all over the world right now; here’s a good summary from Relevant magazine:[2]

“In Northern Nigeria, Boko Haram has waged a years-long campaign of violence, mass abductions, rapes and village raids against local communities. In many cases, they’ve targeted Christians, as well as more moderate Muslims. Schoolgirls who have been captured have been forced to convert to Islam before being made to become child brides and even suicide bombers.

In parts of the Middle East, where Christianity was first born, faith communities are being eradicated by ISIS and their radical brand of Islam. Even countless peaceful Muslims who do not maintain the same radical ideology of ISIS militants have come under attack…. There have been reports of Christian aid workers being publicly beaten and even made to watch their own children being tortured in an effort to get them to renounce their faith, before being publicly crucified.

There have been some estimates that Christianity could be completely eradicated in Iraq—once home to more than 1 million Christ followers—in just the next five years. This week, Christian churches in an area of Indonesia under Sharia law have been burned and destroyed. In North Korea, people of faiths that the official government does not recognize face imprisonment and even death. According to some estimates, global violence against Christians has never been higher.”

Did you notice a particular nation that was missing in the Open Doors chart and in Relevant's summary?  The United States. We have been fortunate in that we don’t even get noticed at all from organizations that keep track of persecution around the world. However, there is a valid concern about a growing hostility against Christianity here in the United States, so let’s take a moment to clarify what persecution is not, and then we will talk about the trouble we as Christians do face in the United States, and how we should respond.

We are not persecuted when we are stopped from saying “Merry Christmas” at Wal-Mart or forced to endure Starbucks’ changing cups. It’s a sign that our culture is shifting in its understanding of the importance of and accommodation for Christianity, but no one is oppressing us. Nobody in the Middle East is praying that our latte comes in a more Christian container.

We are not persecuted when we are held to a common standard of expected conduct.  If you spend all your time at work preaching instead of working, you might lose your job, and that won’t be persecution. You are failing to do the job you were hired to do.  If you want to wear a T-shirt to school or work with a message about Jesus and your employers don’t let you because they have a “no messages on T-shirts” policy, you aren’t being persecuted. No one in Iraq is praying that Christians in America can wear T-shirts with words on them wherever they want. They are praying that they won’t be decapitated for their faith.

We are not persecuted when we have to defend our faith to skeptics. That’s to be expected, and nowhere does the Bible talk of that as persecution. By the way – it’s important that we do this with grace, or we will think that people are responding with hostility because we are Christians when they are actually responding that way because we are jerks.

There are some popular Christian bloggers and Youtube personalities who post really inflammatory things. It’s no surprise they get a lot of hateful push back. It’s hard to tell how much of that is because they are abrasive and mean vs. how much is because people simply disagree. Disagreement is not persecution. No one in Saudi Arabia is praying that atheists stop trolling your message board. They are praying that their children won’t be beaten to death for attending church.

We are not persecuted when we are offended by anti-Christian messages. The early church lived in cultures that were pagan in ways that are hard for us to imagine, yet the Bible does not claim that the presence of sin and/or gleeful sinners is persecution. It was a source of trials and temptations, but that’s different. We are not persecuted because Hollywood is more corrupt and more powerful than ever. We are not persecuted because advertisements constantly undermine our moral view of the world or because pop music glorifies just about everything but the Kingdom of God. That’s just called a mission field, and we are called to weep for those who are lost and then go to them and preach the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. No one in the Sudan is praying that Bill Maher stop making silly documentaries about religion or that we be spared from obnoxious Hardees commercials. They are praying that, if they make it to a refugee camp, they aren’t killed in front of their children.

By God’s grace, the hostility we can currently expect in the United States is nothing compared to what is happening in the Middle East. At this point, there is no one in the West who can look our Christian brothers and sisters from the Middle East in the eyes and even come close to being able to say honesty, “I feel your pain.”

And yet…

The First Liberty Institute issued a report this year called ““Undeniable: The Survey of Hostility to Religion in America” that “documents more than 1,200 legal cases involving persons who believe they have been discriminated against because of their religious beliefs.” [3]  I’ve been saying “hostility” because a) they use it, and b) it’s a good word for the growing opposition in the West.

  • Christians in the West are increasingly denied promotions or jobs because of their committed walk with Christ;[4]
  • Christians in the West are increasingly sued or jailed for taking a principled, conscientious stand for biblical morality[5]
  • Christians in the West are increasingly paying an academic cost for their Christian principles[6]
  • Christians in the West are increasingly portrayed as dangerous .[7] 

So how does the Bible tell us to respond?

I am going to offer four principles that apply no matter what level of ‘trouble’ we face for our commitment to Christ. Though we don’t face the persecution in the nations highlighted by Voice of the Martyrs, we are increasingly facing trouble, and we have the opportunity to learn how to respond well so that, if and when the more radical forms of persecution come, we have been training ourselves on what to do. So let’s talk about living like Jesus so that we can prepare ourselves to suffer and die for Him if we are ever called to do so. This will be brief, because I want to let some voices of those who are persecuted bring this home.

  • Love our enemies. There is no getting around the biblical demand to forgive and even pray for those who are hostile to or persecute you (Matthew 5:44). If you can’t forgive someone for the emotional pain you felt from that confrontational Facebook quote about how silly you are for being a Christian, it’s going to be really hard to forgive someone when financial or physical pain is inflicted on you or your family. We need to identity those around us we see as being against us and practice loving them as Christ would love them.
  • Don’t seek revenge.  God wants us to surrender the desire for revenge in our hearts, but at minimum we must surrender the desire to revenge with out hands.  We must practice not lashing out and making sure a person or company “gets what they deserve” when there is hostility targeting Christian beliefs of moral stances. It’s one thing to take a principled stand and boycott organizations whose moral offense finally reaches a level where we believe we must take a stand.  It’s also perfectly appropriate to use everything within our legal reach to fight for our rights (I’m thinking of how Paul constantly used his status as a Roman to get out of persecution).  So I’m not talking about  taking a principled social stand or using the protection our legal system provides. If you can write well, write. If you can speak well, speak out. If you can vote, vote. If you can repost and article, repost. Be present and be heard. But we can’t do this out of revenge and bitterness. Do we pray for the salvation and healing of the world even as we boycott? Do we long for their redemption even as we wrestle in the courts for our freedoms? We are going to have more and more opportunities to bold in our defense of justice and truth; we must be equally passionate about doing so with grace, love and humility. [8]
  • Show mercy: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this you will heap burning coals on his head" ( Romans 12:20 ).  Most commentators agree this was a way of saying that repaying hostility with love is the only response allowed by Christians; in so doing, their righteous response will pierce the conscience of their enemy. Somebody needs to point the way; somebody must break the cycle of hostility or persecution. It should be us. We must learn now what it means to care for those who don’t care for us. Once again, we must figure this out while all that’s coming our way is harsh words and hateful attitudes,
  • Look to Jesus, "the author and finisher of our faith" ( Hebrews 12:2 ).  Rather than explain this last point, I will let some who have gone through persecution explain it.

 “The Nine: Overcoming ISIS” 

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FOOTNOTES AND ENDNOTES

[1] Persecution is not a trial or temptation. A trial is “trouble sent by God and serving to test or prove one's faith, holiness, character,”  Temptation is “an enticement to sin, arising from  outward circumstances, within, or from Satan. (Luke 8:13; 1 Corinthians 10:13; James 1:12; 1 Timothy 6:9; Luke 4:13).  (http://biblehub.com/greek/3986.htm

[2] http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/lets-be-clear-about-what-real-christian-persecution-looks

[3] http://dailysignal.com/2016/02/25/hostility-toward-religion-in-america-is-undeniable-report-says/

[4]  Hostility related to jobs

[5] Hostility against a principled, conscientious stand

[6] Hostility in academia

[7] Christians are dangerous

[8] Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek, walk an extra mile and give up one’s cloak is an interesting one (Matthew 5:38-42 ). If you read carefully, a Roman needed to backhand the Jewish person, a form of violence that also involved contempt since they backhanded someone inferior. The Jews were to ask for a punch on the other cheek, asking, in effect, to be struck as an equal. They are subverting the assumptions of their oppressors. By giving them the cloak with the coat, they were stripping themselves of everything, giving a visual to what the oppressor was doing. By going the extra mile, they were getting the Roman who conscripted their service into trouble, because Romans were severely punished for exceeding one mile. They did not lash out, but they did not give up. They responded in a way meant to open the eyes of their oppressors so they could see the hostility and oppression in which they engaged. And if that failed, and they just got beat more and lost all their clothes, James told them to count it as joy (James 1:2); Paul said, “we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4)

Finding Stability in a Turbulent World

     The time: 52 AD, twenty years after Christ died and rose again to life.  Paul, writing under the direction of the Holy Spirit,  writes this second book to his dear friends at the church in Thessalonica --- a church he had helped to start (ref. Acts 17:1-10).  Paul has received a report about how they were currently doing. 
     The truth is, this community of believers is being hammered --- subjected to persecution from outsiders because of their newfound faith, and frightened by insiders who brought misleading messages (false teachings) about the Lord’s return.  And as is common to mankind, the believers in this young church moved toward a couple of different extremes.  I still see these extremes exhibited today when confusion sets in.
     Here are the two extremes:
  • Lethargy (or adjective: lethargic) ~ Definition: state of sluggishness, inactivity, and apathy. These folks carry on life as usual with no recognition of the turbulent situation around them, nor the things that God has said about this life that they are living. The lethargic person has no driving purpose and is content to simply let things happen.  Paul will address this in his letter.
  •  Panic  (or adjective: panic-stricken)  ~  Definition: afraid / anxious / fearful / petrified / immobilized / terrified.This group of people exhibited irrational responses to the troubling circumstances all around them.  They overreact…and in so doing, ignore God’s promises and guidance. 

     Both kinds of extremes are being exhibited in the Thessalonian church…so Paul begins his letter by approbating them for their faith….but then he also addresses the false beliefs that they are listening to --- false beliefs about the Lord’s second coming --- and as the letter goes on he gives them reminders to calm their fears. Let’s look at the scripture text.  We’ll see in Paul’s letter, a three-fold purpose:   
1) To encourage them in their steadfastness under persecution
2) To correct their misunderstanding about the imminence of the Lord's return. 
3) To instruct the congregation on what disciplinary action to take toward those who became idle.
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1) To encourage them in their steadfastness under persecution
2 Th. 1:4, 5  (NASB) therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure. 5 This is a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering.

Verses 4 and 5constitute one thought and must be read in that way.  The two words that begin verse 5 (“this is”) were added by translators to help make the sentences flow and read better, but in doing they also made it possible to miss the point of Paul’s message if we’re not careful. Read again without those two words:

2 Th. 1:4, 5  (NASB) therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure, a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering.

     The Greek text simply refers to their suffering as - “an evidence or sure token of God’s righteous judgment --- proof, as the result of a test.” And it doesn’t say that the suffering makes us worthy….only the shed blood of Christ and our faith acceptance of His forgiveness makes us worthy.  The verse simply says that our patient suffering is an indication (or proof) of our already having been made worthy (and this brings Him glory).What was the suffering? Paul uses two words here: “persecutions” and “afflictions.”
  • Persecutionsis diogmos, a word used primarily of religious persecution, and describes the hostile actions of others.
  • Afflictionsis thlipsis, “pressure, stress, tribulation, affliction.”  The first is a special term for external persecutions inflicted by enemies of the gospel; the second is more general, and denotes tribulation of any kind.

     Why were they suffering? They were suffering because they believed in the Lord Jesus.  They believed that Jesus would come again.  And they believed that he would set up his own kingdom.  Now, we have to remember, they lived in a hostile environment.  Rome originally thought that Christianity was simply an offshoot of Judaism, and Rome had a long history of tolerating Judaism. 
But as time went on it became more and more clear that Christianity was a force to be reckoned with, and that its followers saw it as a kingdom….one that had a King.  This allegiance had all sorts of ramifications in this part of the world.  They were destined for a clash of kingdoms. Nevertheless, these Thessalonian Christians were suffering in quiet patience. The result of all this persecution was to make their faith in God so much stronger. The writers were so impressed and pleased by this that they wanted everyone to know about it.
    Paul tells the readers in verse 5 that their patient endurance is “a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering.” We don’t learn to trust God in the tough places of life by simply reading about suffering or being told about suffering. We have to suffer. Suffering is a necessary tool.  It was so for Jesus – It was so for the Thessalonians – and it is so for us, today. (See list of scripture references at end.)
     In the plains of the Serengeti,in southeast Africa, about the only thing that grows are gnarly old Acacia trees or bushes. These don’t provide very straight arrow shafts for the little Bushmen that inhabit the plains, so they’ve formulated an ingenious process to keep their quivers full.
First they go out and find a suitable branch; it doesn’t matter if it’s got a 30-degree angle in it, just so it’s the proper thickness and length. Next they’ll build a fire, and right beside the fire they’ll drive two rows of pegs into the ground, about six to eight inches apart. Then they’ll put the branch into the fire to get its juices flowing making it pliable.
     When it’s hot enough, they’ll fish it out of the fire and jam it between the two rows of pegs and let it cool. It’s a little straighter. Then back to the fire, back to the pegs, back to the fire, back to the pegs … until finally the pegs are right next to each other, with only an arrow’s width between them. When the bushman pulls it out this last time, he’s got a perfectly straight arrow that’s useful to its maker.
We like the words in scripture about being “useful to the maker,” but it’s the fire and that bending we’d just as soon avoid.  If we want to be made useful, though, we’ve got to receive the hard part along with the easy part.
    I think in our delight of understanding the new life Christ gives and the new creature He’s made of us, we skipped over some parts…the hard parts...and as a result, we’re not seeing the success in our lives we’d hoped for as followers of Christ. This current turbulent time in which we live --- a time with growing hostility toward people who hold sincere faith in God --- will likely give us some unique opportunities to demonstrate the depth of our faith in God by the way in which we endure persecution and live well for all to see.
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2) To correct their misunderstanding about the imminence of the  Lord's return.
     The Thessalonians had some strange ideas about the return of Christ.  Some said that the Lord had already come.  Others thought that the Lord would come “at any moment,” suddenly, without warning.  But Paul reminds them that there are things that must happen before Christ returns.  I’m going to read a passage from 2nd Thessalonians, chapter two, and make comment as I go along.  (ch. 2, verses 1-12)
2 Th. 2:1 Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together to Him, 2 that you may not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.

     This suggests that those who were bothering the church with the false information were making three distinct claims as to its source.  The first“either by a spirit” --- Some were claiming to have been given a prophetic word given by the Spirit of God.  However, as Paul pointed out, these “words” could not have been from God because they were not in keeping with the Old Testament, nor what they had heard from Paul in his previous teachings.
     The secondsource, “nor by a word”, refers to something said, not by way of prophecy, but simply from one person to another. It may have been just someone’s opinion in view of the current living conditions, or perhaps they claimed to be relaying a verbal message from Paul or one of his companions.
     Then, thirdly, “nor by a letter”….the final source of the false teaching. Someone had evidently forged a letter, claiming it was from Paul and his associates, but it was in direct contradiction to what Paul had repeatedly taught them, both in person and by letter (again, see 2:15).
     Today, all threeof these (spirit/word/letter) are appearing and will likely increase.  You can count on it! One reason is….we may well be in the end times (or, “end times of the end times”).  There continue to be disturbing events globally, that seem to point to that “end time” conclusion.  In addition, Satan is ever at work attempting to confuse and disturb the clear, historic, reliable message of God, concerning the end time events.
     Day of the Lord: refers to the Lord’s end time day of judgment --- for believers, it will be a day of blessing --- for the wicked, however, the Day of the Lord will bring judgment, destruction, and terror.  In light of this understanding of the term, it’s easy to see why the folks in the church in Thessalonica were upset.
3 Let no one in any way deceive you, for it (the day of the Lord) will not come unless the apostasy comes first, (I’ll define some of these words at the end of the passage) and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, 4who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God. 5 Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things? 6 And you know what restrains him now, so that in his time he may be revealed. 7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way. 8 And then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming; 9 that is, the one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, 10 and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. 11And for this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they might believe what is false, 12 in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness.
     So, here is what Paul is saying (it’s actually a reminder of previous teaching he had brought them): TWO THINGS must occur before the “day of the Lord” comes. The first is the apostasy…or the rebellion; not just any rebellion, but THE rebellion. Not merely disbelieving in God’s message, but rather an aggressive and positive revolt.
1 Timothy 4:1, 2 Now the Holy Spirit tells us clearly that in the last times some will turn away from what we believe; they will follow lying spirits and teachings that come from demons.  2 These teachers are hypocrites and liars. They pretend to be religious, but their consciences are dead. ….

     The day of the Lordwill not be present until this great apostasysweeps the earth.  This rebellion, which will take place within the church, will be a departure from the truth that God has revealed in His Word.
     And then the secondphenomenon necessary for the day of the Lord to be present is the revealing of one whom Paul called, “the man of lawlessness,” and “the son of destruction.”  This person is the one known elsewhere in the New Testament by the term, the antichrist (see John’s writings, 1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7). 
     From time to time, evil men have appeared in the world, and some may even have been called antichrists --- Antiochus Epiphanes, Nero, Diocletian, even Hitler --- but when THIS antichrist appears, there will be no question! 
      He will be the personification of evil and the culmination of all that is opposed to God.  He will be Satan’s tool, opposing both God and Christ, but he’ll also be presented as one who is to be worshipped and obeyed in place of Christ. The presence of this apostasy and counterfeit god will NOT be hidden.  The entire world will observe it. And unless these things are occurring….the day of the Lord has not arrived.
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3) Instructing the congregation on what disciplinary action to take  toward those who became idle.
     Some of the Thessalonian Christians had given up their work and depended on their friends to keep them and feed them.  They figured, since the Lord is coming soon….why do ANYTHING?  Paul gave instruction regarding this in his first letter. (1Th. 5:14 And we urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly.) {other translations say the idle, or lazy}
     This is a difficult situation --- The New Testament DOES teach the imminent (any-moment) possibility of the return of the Savior for His church No one knows when He will return.  It could be today, but it might not be.  And this has been the case for hundreds of years. The principle is that we are to live as though it will be today, while working and continuing on in life as though it won’t be for years to come. So how do we do this?  How do we posture ourselves in a turbulent world?
     Paul gives a couple significant clues!  In 2:10 he says, “they did not love the truth so as to be saved.”  Survival in these difficult times is not merely an issue of knowing or believing something in a merely mental sense --- it is an issue of loving!  We must become lovers, both of God….but also of His truth. And then, finally, we’re encouraged to live in Grace and Peace, at the beginningof the letter, and again at the close:
1:2 grace and peace come from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3:16  Now may the Lord of peace Himself continually grant you peace in every circumstance. The Lord be with you all!
3:18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
When we live in the love of the truth we don’t drift into lethargy…nor to we fall prey to panic.  We are, instead, kept focused and useful as we wait for His return.
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Additional references on suffering, enduring, etc.
Heb. 2:10; Heb 12:7; 1 Peter 2:19, 20; 1 Peter 4:12; Rev. 1:9; 1 Cor. 4:12;  2 Tim. 2:3; 2 Tim 4:5; 2 Cor. 4:17-18

I Can See The Moon

My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon. — Japanese poet Masahide

The advice of James in the first century translates very well into a 21st century offers the same challenges. 

     "As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. As an example of patience in the face of suffering, look at the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Or think of Job’s perseverance, and what the Lord finally brought about for him.     There are people teaching you falsely about the character of God as it relates to trials, temptations, and suffering. Don’t be misled and deceived.  The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.  Every  good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights who shines His light on you.  He does not change like shifting shadows.  God gave us life through His word of truth, that we might be the beginning of a new kind of creature – his most important and prized possessions.
    Be patient as you wait for the Lord’s return. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains?  You too should be patient as you wait for the Lord’s return, when you will finally be delivered from all of these hardships.  Stand firm, and don’t give up hope; His coming – and your deliverance and reward - is near."  (compiled from James 1 and 5) 

Persecution around the world is still a very real part of the Christian experience.  2011 was not a kind year. From the LA Times: 

      “At least 21 people have been killed and more than 70 injured in Egypt in a suspected suicide bombing outside a church in Alexandria as worshippers left a new year service….”
“Hundreds of nomadic Fulani herdsmen launched coordinated attacks on three Christian villages—Dogo Nahawa, Ratsat and Zot, just south of Jos—about 3 a.m. Sunday.  Reports on the death toll differed wildly, with some placing it at about 200 and others reporting 528 killed and thousands injured.    The killers planted nets and animal traps outside the huts of the villagers, mainly peasant farmers, fired weapons in the air, then attacked with machetes…”

     In the West, we don’t face this kind of persecution. We are blessed to live in a country where not hearing “Merry Christmas” at Walmart makes the news. That may reflect a change in our culture which may one day bring us to a point of more overt hostility, but it's not suffering. 
     We live in a culture where we face temptation for things that are hostile to our faith.  All around we see and hear compelling stories of lust, greed, selfishness, and rebellion.  This does not make America unusual, but it does make America difficult.  The most beautiful and the most popular among us glorify lifestyles that certainly tempt us to participate.  
     A trial is something in our life that causes us discomfort– physical or emotional.  It is something we have to suffer through rather than enjoy.  These are not things that tempt us to sin, but rather things that can refine us. Trials can be sent by God.  David wrote in Psalms 66:8-12 (NIV):

” Praise our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard; he has preserved our lives and kept our feet from slipping. For you, O God, tested us; you refined us like silver. You brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs. You let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and water, but you brought us to a place of abundance

    There are other sources for trials too.  We face the daunting challenge of living in a world in which Satan is like a ravenous lion ; a world in which “all of creation groans as it waits for redemption”; and a world in which we make bad decisions and just have to “reap what we sow.” 
Sometimes, the source of our trials are obvious.  If I need a new car because mine has broken down after 500,000 miles and its just run down or Michigan happens to win a bowl game, that’s just life as “creation groans”.  If I don’t study and I fail a class, that’s  my fault. Sometimes, the source can be tough to gauge. David says he went through prison and “fire and water” because God tested him.

     Here’s where James’ advice to see the big picture is important. I can’t always see the reasons for the situations in my life.  In fact, I might often misunderstand what’s going on.
1)  My car breaks down (bad)…I miss an interstate pile-up (good)
2)  My girlfriend dumps me (bad)…I find real love (good)
3)  I lost my job (bad)…a better job opens up (good)
   James does not spend time talking about if trials and temptations come.  Though he explains why we sin, He doesn’t spend time talking about why we have trials.  That just seems to go with the territory of being alive (for general trials) and being a follower of Christ (for trials we face because we are Christians). The main question is not if or why, but what is God doing in the midst of it?
Our joy will not come from knowing what started our trials; our joy will come from seeing what God can do with them.