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TEXT: I Thessalonians 2:13-16
SUBJECT: Thessalonians #4: Second Thanksgiving
Today, with God's help, we'll move on in our study of Thessalonians. I and II Thessalonians are not books; they are letters, written by Paul and mailed to a church he founded a few years before. Unlike some of his stormier works, these are full of tenderness and affection. Paul loves these people, and he wants them to know it.
Do your loved ones know you love them? Have you made it clear that you care for your brothers and sisters in Christ? Some people are more reserved than others, but whatever your personality, you need to find a way to let others know they matter to you. If they're more than names and faces to God, they ought to be more than names and faces to you. Paul doesn't call any names in this Letter, but if you had asked him, he could have ticked them off one-by-one. I know that because he did it in Romans-and he'd never been to Rome! Yet he knows the Christians there-by name. There's no such thing as a general love; love is always specific! We don't need more love for the human race, we need more love for Wally and Jane! Real love for real people.
In Chapter 2, verses, 13-16, we have Paul's Second Thanksgiving. Note that word, second. If Paul were writing a 300 page book, you'd understand a second giving of thanks-in words very much like the first. But he isn't writing a long book, but a short letter. Reading aloud, it took me two minutes and forty-five seconds to reach the Second Thanksgiving. Writing was slower in those days than it is now, but still, it couldn't have taken Paul (or his secretary) more than a few minutes to write 23 verses. Yet, in those few minutes, he felt the need to thank God-twice!
Some people lace their conversations with godtalk. They can't say 'good morning' without a 'hallelujah' or two. Paul is not doing this! His thanksgivings are not just filling space-like 'you know, you know, you know'. They come from somewhere-and that somewhere is grace. Paul is a deeply thankful man-and his gratitude is always coming out.
Have you ever tried to carry a big bowl of water? No matter how careful you are with it, you never quite get it all to where you're taking it. It splashes and spills all over the place. And so does thankfulness.
Paul is a thankful man-and not an ingrate or a complainer. We would do well to follow his example. Ingrates always have a reason for their sulking. They feel singled out by God for a rotten life. In Paul's case this was true-God had chosen him for a hard and painful life. But, instead of resenting the life God gave him, Paul rejoiced in it. For his suffering would bring good to the ones he loved. Paul esteemed others better than himself.
For what was Paul so grateful? In the first chapter, he thanks God for the Thessalonians-We give thanks to God always for you all. But in chapter two, he doesn't thank the Lord for them, but for their conversion.
What is conversion? What does being saved look like? It depends on your point of view. From below, conversion looks like a sinner receiving the Word. To 'receive' means to 'welcome with open arms'. The Thessalonians didn't just accept what Paul said, they celebrated it!
To some people, the Gospel is gobbledegook. Nothing but a bunch of thees and thous and withersoevers. To others, it's a fine story, but that's all, a story, like Little Red Riding Hood or, maybe Lord of the Rings. To some it's a pack of lies or a way to manipulate people. In Paul's day, it was foolishness to the Greek (who didn't believe in the Resurrection), and to the Jews, an offense (because the Messiah isn't the one they wanted).
But to the Thessalonians, it was what it was-the Word of God. Good news from heaven-Christ has died for sinners and given us a new way to live!
That's what conversion looks like. It looks like a sinner welcoming God's Word into his life. The Word is there and the sinner is doing something with it-he's reading it, believing it, obeying it, talking about it, rejoicing in it. That's what it looks like-from below.
But from above, it looks like something else. From that angle, it looks like the Word of God is doing all the work. It is-
The Word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe.
The sinner is changing fast, but he's not changing himself. It is the Word of God that is effecting the change. The Word gives him life; the Word makes him holy; the Word causes him to hate sin; the Word fills him with hope; the Word moves him to love Christ.
We must never underestimate the power of God's Word. The Church has done this, by and large. The Word hasn't been taken out of the meetings, but it has been given a smaller place than it used to have. People cannot be won by the Word alone-it's said-and if it does win them, it won't keep them for long. They need more than the Word; they need entertainment, they need programs, they need sharing; they need 'something for the kids'.
In their place, I'm not against any of these things. But they must be kept in their place (over on the side). In Church the Word is front and center! Because, unlike other things, the Word works effectively!
This is how the prophets saw things:
The Law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul.
The Testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
The Statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart.
The Commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes
Listen to the verbs: converting, making wise, rejoicing, enlightening! What's doing all these things? The Word of God!
The Apostles pick up on the theme and enlarge it for the Church.
The Gospel.is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes. Every Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, fully equipped for every good work.
The Gospel saves everyone who believes and the Word fits believers for godliness.
No one said it better than our Lord. The Words that I speak, they are Spirit and they are life! Sanctify them by Your truth; Your Word is truth.
Dr. Martin Luther grew up in the Medieval Church and sought his happiness and salvation in it. It had a lot to offer him: saints and sacraments, feasts and fasts, relics and rosaries. But after devoting himself-body and soul-to these things he found himself guiltier and more sinful than ever. What the Church had to offer didn't work.
But then he found what did work: the Word of God. He sang of it as
Above all earthly powers.
I'm not against marketing or programs or psychology (as such) but, at their best, they are earthly powers, able to effect earthly changes-and no more. Heavenly changes are wrought by the Word!
So, Paul is thanking God for the conversion of his friends in Thessalonica. He's mighty glad they received the Word and even gladder that the Word is working effectively in them.
Speaking of the effects the Word was having on them, Paul names one of them,
For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus, for you also suffered the same things from your countrymen as they did from the Jews.
The Word was bringing them into conflict with the ungodly and allowing them to suffer with grace.
This was no new thing, of course. The Word first came to the churches in Judea. The believers there were not trouble-makers, but quiet, respectful citizens of Israel. But the moment they received the Word, they made enemies--angry, dangerous and powerful enemies.
Within days of Pentecost, Peter and John were arrested and ordered to stop preaching Christ-or else. A bit later, the same men were flogged. Not long after, Stephen was stoned to death for his faith. Then James became the first Apostle to die for Christ. Then Saul began breathing out threatenings and slaughter and making havoc of the church. It was not the personality of these people that got them into trouble-it was the Word.
And that's nothing new. The Word is against the world and the world must hate everyone who loves the Word. It happened in Judea in the First Century.
But how did the lovers of the Word respond to the hatred of their neighbors? They didn't take revenge or nurse grudges or water down the Word. They continued preaching it and the accepted the hatred that came with it. And, more than 'accepted' it-They rejoiced because they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name's sake.
What happened in Judea was repeated in Thessalonica. The Jews in that town didn't like the Word any better than their kinsmen back home. They stirred up the city against them and would have killed Paul had they been able to get their hands on him. When Paul got away, they followed him to Berea and incited a riot against him there too.
As long as Paul was there, he was the focus of their rage. But when he left, they turned on the church he left behind. What did they do to the church? The Bible doesn't give any details, but Paul says enough,
You also suffered the same things from your countrymen.
This means they were hated, vilified, gossiped against, arrested, beaten, jailed, exiled, and killed for Christ's sake. But Paul did not think of them as victims; they were saints, for they suffered without striking back and without accommodating their persecutors.
What does the Word do for us? It brings us into conflict with the world. And gives us victory.through the things we suffer.
In the early days of the Church, most of the persecution came by way of Israel. The Jews were scattered all over the world, and wherever they were, they opposed the Gospel and sicked the Gentiles on the ones who believed it.
Paul knew this-first hand. When he saw what his people were doing to the Church, he had to admit it was nothing new,
The Jews.killed the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men, forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved.
The enemies of the Church were the enemies of Christ, and of the Old Testament prophets, which is another way of saying, they were the enemies of God.
In a word, Paul shatters the pride of Israel-the pride he once felt himself. Instead of being the children of Abraham, they had become the children of the devil-and they proved it by opposing everyone God ever sent them-including Himself!
They admired the prophets-as long as they were dead. But living prophets, they hated because they hated the One who spoke by them.
After denouncing their history, Paul attacks their character. Not only do they plug up their own ears against the Gospel, but they won't let the Gentiles hear it either! What a contradiction-they didn't raise a finger against the preachers of idolatry, but let a man preach Christ, and they go berserk!
The leaders of Israel hate their own people and everyone else.
Their spite didn't surprise God. Twenty-five years before, His Son baited them to fill up the measure of their sins-to do every wicked thing their fathers ever did and more. They took up the challenge, first by crucifying the Son of God, and then, for forty years, by slaughtering His Church.
Heaven has taken note of their sins, and before long, will answer them. In fifteen years, Israel will revolt against the Roman Empire. For a short time, they'll have some success, and they'll become drunk on it. But Rome is no paper tiger. The armies march to Judea and lay seige to the capital. When starvation and disease have weakened the Jewish resolve, the Empire strikes back! The city is taken, the Temple is burned, and the bloodiest slaughter in the history of the world is unleashed on Israel.
Flavius Josephus was a Jew who was there. So appalling was the massacre that he had to say, The God of Israel went over to the Romans.
That's what Paul had in mind when he said, The wrath has come upon them to the uttermost. This is Covenant wrath. If you read the curses of the Mosaic Covenant (in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28), you'll see they fell on Israel-every last one of them did, just as God said they would.
What does this mean?
It means Israel is no longer the People of God. Can Jews be saved? Of course. Will Israel be saved en masse? Maybe. Should we witness to Jews, pray for them, support missionaries to Tel Aviv and Crown Heights? Sure! But not because they're God's People, but because they're sinners for whom Christ died. Like the Germans and the Samoans and the Ethiopians and the tribesman of Papua, New Guinea. God has not broken His covenant with Israel. He has fulfilled it.
Practically, this reminds us that mistreating God's people is the same as mistreating God. The wrath of God fell upon Israel, chiefly because of what they did to His servants. His love for them is so great that whatever you have done to them, you have done to Christ.
Would you gossip about the Lord Jesus? Would you lie about Him? Would you hold a grudge against Him or ignore Him for months and years at a time? No, you wouldn't do that!
But, in fact, you do it every time you mistreat one of His people! When I think hard thoughts against my wife, the Lord takes it personally. When you look down on me, you look down on Christ.
Long ago, Israel made their choice: they could love the servants of God or hate them. They chose foolishly. Now, it's your turn. Choose wisely.
SUMMARY AND CHALLENGE
Paul said all this, of course, but it's a digression (a rabbit trail preachers sometimes call it). The main thrust of our passage is far happier.
We are converted-with all our faults and follies, we are still God's People, by grace. You ought to be thankful the Lord saw fit to save you-and others too-including the ones who get on your nerves and do things you don't approve of.
If you have a bad attitude toward any believer, go home today and spend a few minutes thanking God for saving them. Keep thanking Him until your attitude has changed, until you can say from the heart,
We thank God without ceasing, because when you received the Word of God, you welcomed it as the Word of God.
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