Persecution

Bible Passage: 1 Thessalonians 2:14-3:5

Persecution is real. Christians will face it, but why and to what end?

God’s Plan For You to Change Lives

Check out this week’s discussion guide: Religious Persecution in America

Persecution

In life we will always have tribulations. Terrible things are going to happen to us in life because we are born into a world that is under the curse of sin and the power of Satan. However, in 1 Thessalonians we read about a testimony of a very specific type of tribulation known as persecution. Persecution is not cancer or getting seriously injured in a car accident. Persecution is not even having to suffer with a child who has a terminal illness. All of those things are horrible hardships and tragedies that profoundly affect us, our faith and our ministry to others; but they are not persecution.

Persecution is a specific type of tragedy in life A very specific type of trial and hardship. It can be because of race, religion or all kinds of other things. Mankind is very creative in its reasons for persecuting people. But, no matter the reason, persecution is when our life is being oppressed or tormented by people who are willfully and intentionally seeking to destroy us. At minimum silence us/exclude us from freely living in society with them.

Persecution can be mild in that people say bad things about you, don’t include you in community with them, and generally try to make you feel less valuable than them. It is emotional and relational and it hurts, but it is not the most severe form of persecution. Persecution in its severe form moves from emotional and relational attacks to actual physical persecution where you lose rights and privileges in society. You lose your freedom in society which can include being put in prison and even potentially lose your life (the right to live in any society!).

Now here’s the deal. Jesus promised that we will suffer persecution if we follow him. If you are alive you will suffer tribulation. That promise goes to everybody, but Jesus was clear that if we follow Him, we will suffer persecution because of Him. Because of our love for Him!

Paul was no stranger to persecution. As a matter of fact he was kind of a professional at it. He had both inflicted persecution on believers before He came to Christ, and now as a minister of the Gospel He was just about always being persecuted. Likewise, the church in Thessalonica was under constant and severe persecution as well. And this is what our passage deals with today. 1 Thessalonians 2:14 – 3:5 is not a sermon on persecution but rather a sympathetic encouragement of a church going through persecution. So let me walk you through today’s passage and then I’m going to do my best to pull it all together for you and demonstrate how God uses persecution to accomplish his purpose of changing lives! So let’s begin in 1 Thessalonians 2:14,

14 For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea.

Judea is a general term for the region of the world the Jewish people called home.

I would suggest that the Judean churches were recognized to be the “first fruits” of God’s work in establishing the new covenant (Rom. 15:26–27; Gal. 1:17–24; 2:1–10) and enjoyed a certain status among the rest of the Christian churches throughout the empire (cf. the Jerusalem council in Acts 15). They now become the paradigm for other congregations, even in this matter of sufferings. (G.L. Green)

They are not actively seeking martyrdom as the many who sought to imitate the martyr Polycarp at a later date. The experience of the churches in Judea was the pattern that was duplicated in Thessalonica—they suffered for their faith. The Thessalonians experienced the same. Judea at times refers to that part of the territory of Palestine which is distinguished from Samaria and Galilee to the north (e.g., Matt. 4:25; Acts 9:31), but here, as in many other texts, Judea stands for the whole area, which includes these northern regions (e.g., Luke 1:5; 4:44; 23:5; Acts 10:37; Josephus, Antiquitates 1:160 [1.7.2]; Tacitus, Histories 5.9). The churches in Judea are mentioned as a group elsewhere (Acts 9:31; 11:1, 29; Gal. 1:22), and included Christian communities in such places as Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Capernaum. (G.L. Green)

So the church in Thessalonica became; didn’t volunteer for it, but rather it happened to them. Just like the churches in Judea. How? Well,

For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews,

The Judean Christians were Jews and they suffered persecution from their fellow countrymen and Jews. Brothers and sisters that they took pride in being brothers and sisters with. They were persecuted by people in their community that waved the same flags they did. They were persecuted by the people they felt a love and brotherhood with. People they would take up arms with, fight with and be willing to die for to protect their families and community.

In Thessalonica this is exactly what was happening. Persecution was not coming from a foreigner but rather from the neighbor and family member that  they took extreme pride in belonging to. Thessalonica was a proud city and culture and those who were part of it we’re proud to be a part of it. There was an identity of being a citizen of this Thessalonica. So, imagine what it must feel like to them to have those that in recent times treated them as brothers and sisters now persecuting them in the most severe form because they proclaim faith in Jesus Christ!

But Paul attempts to comfort them by reminding them that the Judean Church suffered persecution from their Jewish brothers and countrymen and that this type of persecution was in keeping with what Jesus went through.  He writes,

15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind 16 by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved–so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But God’s wrath has come upon them at last!

Why did these men behave in such a way? There was nothing more odious to the Jews than to imagine any kind of salvation for ‘Gentile dogs’. The Jews in Jerusalem, for instance, listened quietly to Paul until he said, ‘Then the Lord said to me, “Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” ’ Then they ‘raised their voices and shouted, “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!” ’ (Acts 22:21–22). Such prejudice and hostility are not only inspired by the devil, but are directed against the highest and noblest purpose of God, the salvation of a human soul. (T. Shenton)

Not only were the Jewish people responsible for the death of Jesus but they also had a long history of opposition to the messengers of God—they had killed the prophets. In both the OT (1 Kings 19:10, 14; Neh. 9:26) and the NT (Matt. 23:31, 34, 37; Luke 11:47–51; 13:33–34; Acts 7:52; Rom. 11:3) the rejection and martyrdom of the prophets are presented as the archetypical evidence of the rebellion of God’s people against his plan. (G.L. Green)

Acts shows how in many cities the Jews instigated the populace against Paul and were key players in his expulsion. (Acts 9:23–25, 29; 13:45, 50; 14:2, 4–6, 19–20; 17:5, 13; 18:6, 12–17; 19:9; and cf. 2 Cor. 11:24, 26). (G.L. Green)

Not only do they oppose God, but they also turn against those who are not of their race—they are hostile to all men. The hostility of the Jews against the rest of humanity was a characterization that frequently appeared in ancient authors. Tacitus, the Roman historian, says that they were loyal to one another “but toward every other people they feel only hate and enmity” (Histories 5.5). Philostratus similarly states, “For the Jews have long been in revolt not only against the Romans, but against humanity; and a race that has made its own a life apart and irreconcilable, that cannot share with the rest of mankind in the pleasure of the table nor join in their libations or prayer or sacrifices, are separated from ourselves by a greater gulf than divides us from Susa or Bactra or the more distant Indies” (Vita Apollonii 5.33). Diodorus Siculus observed that the Jews “alone of all nations avoided dealings with any other people and looked upon all men as their enemies” and that “the Jews had made their hatred of mankind into a tradition” (34.1.1–2; and see 40.3.4–5; Juvenal, Satires 14.96–106). (G.L. Green)

From what we observe in Acts, the Jewish community in many cities not only made an effort to keep Paul and his coworkers from speaking to the Gentiles but managed to silence them on more than one occasion (Acts 13:48–51; 14:2, 19). In Thessalonica itself their efforts resulted in a truncated ministry to the Gentiles (Acts 17:5–10). In fact, the verb Paul uses to describe their efforts (kōlountōn) places emphasis not so much on their efforts as on their success—“by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles” .(NRSV).(G.L. Green)

The opposition of the Jews to the apostolic proclamation was not only a personal attack against the apostles or opposition to the purposes of God (v. 15) but also an attack against humanity. Blocking the way to the hope of salvation. In this way they are hostile to all men. (G.L. Green)

So in other words the prophets of old, the apostles of Christ and the church were all persecuted just as Jesus was. It is to be expected. If the Jews hated Jesus (who was Jewish) so much to crucify him then we shouldn’t be shocked that they persecute us either! They persecuted all who came to point to Christ, then persecuted Christ then persecuted all who came after Christ proclaiming He had come!

Paul, given this reality, now goes back to expressing his heart for the church in Thessalonica,

17 But since we were torn away from you(referencing the events in Acts 17 when they had to be snuck out so as not to be killed), brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, 18 because we wanted to come to you–I, Paul, again and again–but Satan hindered us.

“More especially, when our endeavors are directed to the work of the Lord, it is certain that everything that hinders us proceeds in some way from Satan. If only this sentiment were deeply impressed upon the minds of all pious people—that Satan is continually contriving, …by every means, in whatever way he can hinder or obstruct the edification of the church! We would then assuredly be more careful to resist him; we would take more care to maintain sound teaching, of which that enemy strives so keenly to deprive us.” (John Calvin)

He tells the Thessalonians that he tried to return on more than one occasion but that he and the apostolic team could not reach their goal because Satan stopped us. So great was their effort that only Satanic opposition could explain why they did not return! Stopped is a term that comes from the military. In order to stop the advance of enemy armies, soldiers would tear up and destroy the road to hinder their passage. Warfare imagery is embedded in the metaphor, Satan himself being their adversary. (G.L. Green)

The word ‘stopped’ [(hindered)] means ‘to dig a trench or to blow up the road in front of the enemy to hinder their advance’. (T. Shenton)

In this spiritual warfare, Satan is hardly an omnipotent adversary. But he is a real adversary. (G.L. Greeen)

The General who leads the persecution of the church is Satan He is always working to stop the advancements of the Gospel!

19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 For you are our glory and joy.

They place hope in the Thessalonians in expectation of the time when they will present the church in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes (cf. 2 Cor. 11:2; Col. 1:28). The apostolic ministry will be put to the test in that day, and they hope to receive a reward (1 Cor. 3:13–15). Their hope is that their labors will not be in vain (Phil. 2:16; 1 Thess. 3:5). Whatever fears (3:5) and frustrations face them now (vv. 15, 18), their hope in this church remains strong. (G.L. Green)

At the time of the coming of the Lord, they will receive a crown in which they will boast. But what is the honor in which they will boast? Not their own achievements, but the Thessalonians themselves! Is it not you? (Cf. 2 Cor. 1:14; Phil. 2:16.) (G.L. Green)

Paul’s main point is that their own ultimate joy and hope is bound up with the well-being of the Thessalonian church. Their absence from the Thessalonians should not be construed as a lack of care or even benign neglect. (G.L. Green)

Just as a father dotes over his beloved child, so Paul glories in what God has done in the Thessalonians through his ministry. It is similar to when Jesus was baptized and the Father declared to the watching world, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’ (Matt. 3:17). The Father was so proud of his Son that he announced his complete satisfaction with Jesus to all those who were prepared to listen. (T. Shenton)

Paul understood his mandate from Christ was to make disciples of the Gentiles That is to bring the Gospel to them and lead them to be genuine followers of Christ. Paul is fully aware that it is not his ability that led them to be followers of Christ. But as those who faithfully labored with Christ to see their lives changed, he has a certain pride in the outcome. Paul is pumped that when Christ returns they will be able to see fruit from their labor. That is the church in Thessalonica stands as a testimony of the power of the gospel and the salvation. Paul and his colleagues were blessed to be the ones who suffered in bringing that Gospel to the Church in Thessalonica! He is like a parent gloating in their child’s success. The parent didn’t do it the child did it. However it still makes the parent incredibly proud and excited! You didn’t hit the ball at the game, your kid did, but you’re pumped anyway and everybody agrees you should be!

1 Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, 2 and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, 3 that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this.

According to the narrative in Acts 17:14, Paul departed from Macedonia and traveled on to Athens, leaving Silvanus and Timothy in Berea. When he arrived, those who accompanied him went back to Macedonia “with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible” (Acts 17:15). It appears that they did precisely this. After coming to Athens, Timothy was sent back to Thessalonica, at which time Paul and Silas were “left behind” in Athens. Silas himself returned to Macedonia as well, though this is not specifically mentioned but only implied from the Acts narrative. Paul left Athens and headed south to Corinth where Silas and Timothy caught up with him upon their return from Macedonia (Acts 18:1, 5). (G.L. Green)

In any case, the opposition to the apostolic mission (3:7) was just cause to keep all the members of the apostolic team together. Travel itself was hard and dangerous labor, so staying with the group that would give protection and help carry the stuff was always desirable. But these itinerant missionaries’ well-being took second place to concerns about the welfare of the Thessalonian church. Timothy was sent back. It was preferable to be left alone than to leave the Thessalonians alone. (G.L. Green)

The mission to Thessalonica was the first recorded ministry that Timothy carried out on his own. Despite the fact that he enjoyed the confidence of Paul (Phil. 2:20–22), his youth and his temperament were such that he did not always receive honor (1 Cor. 16:10–11; 1 Tim. 4:12; 5:23). (G.L. Green)

4 For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. 5 For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain. (2:14-3:5)

Suffering persecution was not understood as an extraordinary event, but that to which they were called or destined for. When the apostolic team arrived in Thessalonica, they taught in the synagogue that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer (Acts 17:3; cf. Luke 24:26; 1 Pet. 1:10–11). Moreover, Christ not only suffered, but also became the paradigm for those who follow him (2:14). As he suffered, so would his disciples (Rom. 8:17; 2 Cor. 1:5; cf. 1 Pet. 4:12), including Paul himself (Acts 9:16). The promise given to the church was, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). (G.L. Green)

In fact, in many NT texts that speak about the sufferings of Christ and of the Christians, the same structure appears (Matt. 17:12, 22; Luke 9:44; John 11:51; 12:33; 18:32; and cf. Mark 10:32; Luke 9:31; John 7:39; Heb. 11:8). The teaching is that they were destined to suffer. (G.L. Green)

The very fact that they had met with dishonor as a result of their faith would be cause enough for confusion. A person who was given the evil eye, insulted, or beaten publicly suffered great dishonor in a society where one’s honor was held by the community to which one belonged. (G.L. Green)

This is the sense here. Timothy was sent back to find out whether they continued their allegiance to Christ. Was there anyone who had defected due to the enormous pressure of persecution? (G.L. Green)

He was more concerned about their faith than their prosperity or physical wellbeing. (T. Shenton)

1 Thessalonians 2:14-3:5 demonstrates three ways God uses persecution in the life of a believer

The 1st way 1 Thessalonians 2:14-2:5 demonstrates how God uses persecution in a believer is that,

Persecution drives you closer to your true love, which is why it leads Christians into deeper communion with Christ! (Philippians 3:7-8)

When you are being persecuted people are attacking you. The people that once felt safe. In this case the proud countrymen of the believers in Thessalonica, or in Judea their Jewish brothers, etc. When the people you thought loved you and were on your team are suddenly doing everything possible to destroy you, you get real, real, careful about who you are going to trust and confide in. So much so that the one that you are going to ultimately confide in is the one you love the most.

For many this leads them to themselves which proves that their greatest love is themselves. However, to those who truly love God the sense of betrayal in persecution as the community around you and the people who you trusted begin to turn against you and undermine you doesn’t lead you to isolate yourself from God but rather to confide in God.

When Saul was persecuting David, David wrote some of the most amazing songs in the world and you can read them in the book of the Bible called the Psalms. Instead of running to himself or to his family or to those who were faithfully serving him David ultimately found himself running straight to God. Over and over again. Many times complaining and lamenting, but always complaining and lamenting to God. Longing for Him and as such growing deeper and deeper in his love for and communion with God!

Job, same thing, his life was in utter disarray and he was suffering tremendously. Then to top it off his wife and closest friends kept trying to blame it all on him. That all his kids had died and that he lost all his wealth because of some sin in his life. But, Job kept running to God. Angry, depressed and lamenting, but all to God!

It’s why Paul wrote this,

7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Philippians 3:7-8)

The 2nd way 1 Thessalonians 2:14-2:5 demonstrates how God uses persecution in a believer is that,

Persecution causes you to long for your true home, which is why persecuted Christians long for heaven! (Philippians 3:20-21)

We all struggle with the bows for pride of life that seeks value in this world. Even though this world is corrupt we try to find our value in it. Just think about how ridiculous that is. That we would try to find purity and wholeness, value and meaning and purpose in something that is inherently corrupt, impure and not whole!

So, to no surprise as believers, when the world that we are trying to find value, acceptance, purpose and  fulfillment in betrays us and turns on us it causes us to want to go home. Persecution is often a sanctifying measure in our life that gives us the courage to long for home. It gives us the courage to let go of what is corrupt and long for what is incorruptible! As believers, when we go through persecution, we find ourselves understanding what Paul wrote when he said,

20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:20-21)

The 3rd Biblical Truth of how God uses persecution in a believer is,

Persecution reveals sincerity, and sincerity is the greatest head-turner in the world! (2 Corinthians 11:22-28)

Sincerity is not a litmus for what is true because there have been people sincerely wrong about all kinds of things including myself. Willingness to die for what you believe in is also not a litmus for something being true because there are all kinds of people who have died for things that were totally not true. However, sincerity is an absolute head turner! If you are willing to suffer for something, then everyone knows you are sincere.

If persecution and ridicule can make you change your belief then you’re saying what you believed was incorrect/wrong. That you are simply not a person of strong character who can bear pressure, or you didn’t truly believe it in the first place, or you feel what you believed didn’t matter enough to suffer for it. On the flip side, if you refuse to budge under persecution then people begin to wonder about what it is you are willing to be ridiculed over. It doesn’t mean they will agree, but there are tons of stories of persecutors turning to Christ because of the perseverance of the Christian they were persecuting. It made them stop and consider what it was the person was being punished about!

This is why Paul wore his persecution as a banner. In 2 Corinthians Paul was confronting a group of celebrity preachers boasting of their greatness, popularity and wealth as the justification that their false teaching was correct and that they were worth following. Paul says No Way! Let me tell you why we should be followed! Jesus was clear, if you are preaching the Gospel you are going to come under persecution. And we are big time! You know we are sincere about this Gospel we are preaching because it ain’t bringing anything but pain and suffering to our life!! Paul writes,

22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one–I am talking like a madman–with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one.25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:22-28)

Challenge: How are you dealing with persecution? Is it leading you and the people around you to Jesus or away from Him?

True salvation produces a willingness to suffer for Christ. And this suffering, which so many saints in every generation the world over experience, is a visible sign of the invisible battle that is raging between the devil and the church. (T. Shenton)

In fact, they should have the opposite effect and strengthen their faith and cause them to rejoice that they have been counted worthy to suffer for the name of Christ. All too often we moan and groan in our afflictions instead of seeing them from a biblical point of view. Many saints in previous generations regarded suffering as a ‘gift from God’. They saw it as an instrument that molded them into the image of Christ and caused them to worship with a deeper and more sincere faith. (T. Shenton)

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:10-12)

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