As you’re being seated, please turn with me in your Bibles to Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. 1 Thessalonians chapter 2 in verse 17 through chapter 3 and verse 5 is what we’ll be studying tonight. We’re making our way through a series called, How to Live in the Last Days, and one of the things we’ve noticed about what the New Testament teaches about the last days is that they began two thousand years ago with Christ’s first coming. So we’ve been living in the last days for two thousand years, and therefore a study of what it means to live during that time would prove profitable, and that’s what we’re doing here in our study of 1 Thessalonians. Before we read God’s Word together, let’s pray.
Father, we are those whose anxious spirits burn for that return, that sweet return of a time of prayer and communion with You by Your Word and by Your Spirit. We acknowledge at once Lord that we are weak. We are distracted, we don’t think like we should, and so we need Your Word to correct us this evening. And we need it in that sweet, gentle way the Holy Spirit is often pleased to do. May we see Jesus from this text. We ask it in His mighty name, amen.
1 Thessalonians chapter 2 beginning at verse 17. This is God’s Word:
“But since we were torn away from you, 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, because we wanted to come to you - I, Paul, again and again - but Satan hindered us. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.
Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God's coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. 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. 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.”
The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the Word of the living God shall stand forever and ever.
As I go running around here in the neighborhood, we live here in Belhaven, one of the things I like to do is listen to podcasts of various types and I was listening to one this week by a pastor that I like to listen to on occasion and he was relating an account that he and his wife experienced with a friend of theirs who was a marital counselor. This friend had done just years of marital counseling and one thing this counselor noticed about married couples, particularly American married couples, was their tendency to live in the future tense. They were always concerned about the next thing. I see some wives and mothers here nodding because that is usually the lot of the wife and the mother. “What’s next? Who’s got to be where? What time is piano? What time do lunches need to be done?” But even for any of us here, there’s that tendency as Americans to always be focused on what’s next. And this counselor said something that stood out to me. She said, “But relationships require us to be present.” Relationships require us to be present!
And there’s probably few people that understood that better than the Apostle Paul, and in fact, that’s the burden of the passage here before us this evening. He expresses his longing to be present with these Thessalonian believers to the point of awkwardness, really, if you read this text, isn’t it? “I long for you again and again.” He keeps saying how much he’s yearning to see them, but in the process he teaches us rich truths about the Gospel and about our relationships. Just a quick note on where we are contextually. Remember, there’s about three or four reasons Paul wrote this epistle. The first is this; He wrote to encourage their faith. As I was reading, did you notice how many times that word, “faith,” occurred? He also wrote to defend his apostolic ministry. That’s going to come up right here because one of the things the false teachers that came in after Paul at Thessalonica were saying was simply this, “Paul doesn’t care about you. That’s why he got out of here so fast. He doesn’t care about a thing that you’re doing.” So Paul is going to make clear to them, “No, that’s not the case at all.” And then he also wrote, as we’re going to see as we move here in the next few weeks, to encourage them on practical matters of how to live in the last days. But the main point of what we’re going to see tonight is this: Paul teaches us the necessity and purpose of Gospel centered relationships for believers living in the last days. The necessity and purpose of Gospel-centered relationships for believers living in the last days. And those will be our headings this evening. In chapter 2 verses 17 through 20 - the necessity of Gospel-centered relationships. And then in chapter 3 and verses 1 through 5 - the purpose of Gospel-centered relationships. So necessity and purpose.
- The Necessity of Gospel-centered Relationships.
Look with me back there at verse 17 of chapter 2. “But since we were torn away from you, 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, because we wanted to come to you - I, Paul, again and again - but Satan hindered us. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.” Paul begins here by noting a hindrance to Gospel-centered relationships. He’d experienced those kind of deeply formed relationships of church life that we all ought to experience with these Thessalonian believers, so much so - and it’s not reflected in our translation here - but the original reads something like this. “But since we were orphaned from you.” It’s a very strong word. Paul doesn’t use it very often. And it’s continuing that family theme we noticed last week. He says, “I’m like a father to you.” Then he says, “I’m like a mother to you.” Now he switches to the children. He says, “We were like children, orphaned from their parents.” Now only a deep, abiding, real and authentic relationship can produce that kind of sorrow when people are parted unexpectedly.
Christians can Expect Satanic Opposition.
But in this section and the next, did you notice that Paul bookends it with a theme here that he’s hindered by Satan, or the tempter, as he calls him in verse 5. One of the things we have to realize is that as we strive to do life together as a body of believers, there are supernatural forces at work against us. Now this doesn’t mean that we go looking for a demon behind every bush, it doesn’t mean that when we get upset with fellow believers we can just say, “Well, the demon of anger got a hold of me.” That’s not what we get to say. That’s most of the time our own sin. Nevertheless, the moment we try to start putting into practice what the Bible tells us, particularly when it comes to relationships with each other, not only in our marriages and families but also as fellow believers, we can expect opposition from the devil. That’s what Paul so clearly tells us here. He opposes genuine, Christian fellowship.
Satan’s Clever Devices.
How does he do that today? Well, he may use some of the same means he used back in Paul’s day. Satan is in the business of separating families for the sake of the Gospel. Many of us rejoiced at the release of pastor Abedini yesterday from prison in Iran. People had been praying for him the world over. Here’s a man who has been separated from his children for years. We had the privilege of attending seminary with a man who was a leader in a house church movement in a closed country who was in prison for over four years for his faith and didn’t get to see his child until about a year and a half ago when he was finally able to escape that country. Satan is behind that. These believers who suffer that way have no problem believing in the reality of the devil and his opposition to the Gospel. Here in the sheltered West we don’t tend to think that way but it’s real. But more often in our circumstances he hinders us in different ways. He hinders Gospel relationships in the church by gossip. He separates us that way. At the root of that is pride of course. He hinders us through kinds of sniping remarks that we make so casually. Have you noticed this week how often your tone slips into something that we should not speak if we claim to be Christians? How often we say unkind things to each other when Jesus again and again focuses on our speech. The reality is, there is a devil who opposes these relationships.
The Gospel Creates Genuine Community.
But then Paul really here, and we’ve got to kind of dig, he really reveals to us how the Gospel changes our relationships. That language Paul uses in these verses is just striking, isn’t it? He tells us that real Gospel-centered fellowship makes us yearn for more of it. That’s why he’s longing for them. He’s not just throwing them a sop. He’s not just saying, “Because you’re this new church, I’ve got to kind of fake it to make sure you make it.” That’s not what he’s doing! He genuinely loves these believers. And that only happens again as we consider the cross, because remember who’s writing. Paul was a Jew of the Jews, he tells us, a Pharisee among Pharisees. No Pharisee writes this about a bunch of Gentiles unless something massive has changed. And something massive had changed! He’d become a new man in Christ and the Gospel does that for our relationships. It teaches us that we’re so far worse than we could possibly imagine that there’s nothing we can do to make God accept us. Now if that’s the posture you begin, then your relationships are going to change with other people. You’ll be done with pride and posturing and things like that because you’ll be leveled by the Word of God to see that you and I are no better than anybody else, ever. So often, our relationships are defined by class or caste, and the Gospel rids of us all of that. And when it does, it produces a community unlike any other on the face of the earth.
We live in a time when people are searching for community, right? Apps are made to create community and they so far fail us. I saw a cartoon the other day where a man was standing before the gates of heaven and the cartoon depicted Saint Peter and the guy’s looking up at him and said, “My life went by too fast.” And Peter responds, “Well you had a great life. You just spent most of it looking at your phone screen.” Isn’t that so true for our relationships today? So often we think relationships come through texting or Facebook messages. Those are great things, we ought to thank God for them, but don’t we yearn for something deeper. Paul says the Gospel creates that, and only the Gospel can give us this kind of relationship with each other.
The Importance of Christian Relationships.
And then Paul, he goes on as he’s talking about this, he says, “What is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at His coming? Is it not you? You are our glory and our joy.” Wait a minute, Paul! You are the apostle of God’s glory. How are the people you’re serving your glory now? And Paul is giving it to us in striking terms to reinforce, emphasize, and drive home the point he is making. Namely, these relationships he has with these believers, the relationships we have with one another as Christians, matter! He pictures himself as an athlete who finishes the race well. And what is his reward? What is his crown? That’s what the imagery is. He tells us in another epistle he runs not as one running in vain; he doesn’t box to beat the air. He is running for the prize. What is that prize? Believers, other Christians, who make it through the tests and trials of this life. Have you ever thought about that? Paul’s apostolic vision for ministry, what drove him, what got him out of bed in the morning was the glory of God first and the way that God got glory for Himself, secondly, was through people who listened and heard the Gospel making it home safely. He’s others-centered.
You see, every relationship we experience as Christians has those two elements. We’re waiting for the coming of the Lord Jesus. There’s that vertical element. That relationships matters the most. But that vertical element never stays contained. When we’re in right relationship with God, it spills out. It has a tendency, in fact better put, it is irresistibly drawn to move outward in authentic, real relationships that the world longs for. And so often we fail to produce, if we’re honest with ourselves as Christians, but yet they are our birthright, Paul is saying, and the Gospel makes us focus on others far more than ourselves. Paul is saying something extraordinary here. “Why am I suffering these things?” he says. “Why did I give up everything?” And he’s not doing this in a way to bring glory to Himself. He says, “No, all of it was worth it if your faith makes it.” That’s why he’s so concerned about their faith. They are his crown and glory and joy. He’s going to rejoice in heaven when those believers in Thessalonica make it.
You see, therefore, when we consider the Gospel and the Gospel-centered relationships that Jesus produces, we have to see first we gather around the cross and from that flows this horizontal movement out from ourselves to other people. We focus on others’ needs, we rejoice when the body rejoices, we hurt when the body hurts; we long to be together. Do we? Do you long to come here each Sunday? When we have real Gospel community, built on the Gospel of Jesus, we love to be together, don’t we? There’s that sweet fellowship. We’ve had the privilege, so many of us, to experience that here or maybe somewhere else, and it’s only produced by the Spirit, it can’t be imitated, it’s authentic only when it comes from the Spirit, and there’s nothing else like it. Have you ever experienced that with other believers? That’s Paul’s goal for us!
- The Purpose of Gospel-centered Relationships.
Then in chapter 3 in verses 1 through 5 he unfolds the purpose of Gospel-centered relationships. Look what he says there in verse 1 of chapter 3. “Therefore” - he’s drawing a conclusion - “when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God's coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith.” What’s he saying? Two purposes, at least, he’s given us for Gospel-centered relationships and what that means to do life together. He says one of the results of that, one of the purposes of that, is to establish and exhort us in the faith. Notice what he says here! He’s so concerned with this young congregation that their faith might fail in the midst of terrible circumstances - and most of us, when we’re faced with awful circumstances, the first prayer we make to God is, “O Lord,” in effect, “change my circumstances.” You’ll notice, if you read Paul’s epistles, not once, not once does he ever pray for circumstances to change. He prays for our hearts to be changed by grace in the middle of difficult circumstances. And here, it’s even more counterintuitive. What does he say is going to build these believers up and keep them steady in the faith? He sends a preacher to them! Now most of us go, “I can think of sometimes, maybe something more useless than a preacher to be sent in the middle of a crisis situation!” Paul says, “No, that’s exactly what they needed!” He sends Timothy to establish and exhort them in the faith.
Notice again what Paul is doing here! He is saying, “If you want to make it in the last days” - we’ll come in a minute to these afflictions that these believers were suffering - “If you want to make it,” Paul says, “you have got to be centered on the cross.” And where do you learn about the cross? The Word of God. He has the highest doctrine of Scripture imaginable. He says, “The thing that is going to make you endure is sitting under the ministry of Timothy. That’s how I know your faith is going to make it.” That’s why we gather here week by week. And we live in a day and age where church membership is seen, at best, as a stuffy leftover from a bygone era or, at worst, something totally unnecessary.
The Necessity of Church Membership.
I remember when I was doing college and young-adults ministry having a young college student from Clemson coming home - never happened at the University of South Carolina! But from Clemson, coming back to visit us in Greenville and this person said, “I’ve been attending a house church.” And Callie and I had just hosted one of those people we’d talked about that we went to seminary with, in our home, who really had to go to a house church because if they sang out loud the authorities would come and kill them, versus Clemson, South Carolina where as far as I knew there was at least five good PCA churches to go to there! And what was this person looking for? Real community. There’s a burgeoning movement of house churches in our country. But let me say this. The New Testament and Jesus, the apostles, from start to finish, never envisage, never imagine a Christian who is not a member of a local body of Christians, under the authority of God’s preached Word. Not only is church membership not something inconsequential to Paul, it’s necessary! He says it’s absolutely vital that we are together as a membership, as a body committed to each other.
Our Views Need to be Challenged.
Why is that? There are many reasons. Just one to highlight - because by nature we are lone ranger people. We want to do things our way. We don’t want to be challenged in our views. And one of the beautiful things about being a Christian is coming together with people not like us who do challenge us, who do cause us to grow in ways that are impossible apart from doing life together. Do we realize that? Our growth will be stunted as Christians if we are not active, vital members of a local church. That is Paul’s pattern in the New Testament. He never imagines a scenario where somebody is saved and alone. It’s always life together! That’s one reason Paul says, he says, “I want you to be established in the faith by Timothy’s preaching.” Put yourself under the Word of God in a local fellowship if you want to make it. That’s what he’s saying!
The Last Days are Characterized by Affliction/Persecution and False Teaching.
Second purpose is this. He says, right there in verse 3, “that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. 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.” Now that word, “affliction,” that’s mentioned twice, is also translated, “tribulation” elsewhere in the New Testament, most prominently in the book of Revelation. Now I was raised, of course, in the Bible belt in South Carolina about a block from Bob Jones University, so my initial impression of Christianity was the great tribulation could come at any moment. It terrified me. That’s what drove me away from Christianity initially because I thought to myself, “This is really serious. Why isn’t anybody more concerned about it if these Christians are right about this?” But when we study the New Testament, it’s interesting to note that this word for “tribulation” or “affliction” is used also of Jesus. What are they telling us? What are the New Testament authors making clear? This may be a bit radical to hear, but I think what the New Testament clearly teaches is, the great tribulation actually began two thousand years ago at the cross when Jesus was, as it were, wrestling against the powers of darkness, not that the verdict was ever in doubt, but bearing our sin on the tree, that, I would venture to say, would be something of a great tribulation. I don’t mean to say that there’s not going to be some period of intense, worldwide persecution prior to the return of Christ. I think that is taught in the New Testament. But that’s not what Paul’s talking about here.
He’s talking about, if you remember from our first sermon, what we can expect living in the last days. We said there were two things we could expect - persecution or afflictions and false teaching. These people were undergoing persecution. That is what marks out life in the last days. Thus, this great tribulation was inaugurated, came to pass, began at the first coming of Jesus and it going on right now. Believers are imprisoned; believers are taken away from their family. That’s tribulation; that’s affliction. You think this text maybe lands with folks like that, where they can read an apostle who was desperate for saint suffering just like them? But even in our own context, there’s always going to be tribulation. What does Paul say? Those who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. We may be ostracized from family. We may not get promotions at work. Things will happen, and in an increasing measure in our society as it becomes more hostile to Biblical truth, these afflictions will come to us and that’s just the point of what Paul is saying. This is why he sent Timothy. He wanted this young community of believers built up because he recognized that in the midst of intense tribulation, what do we need more than anything else besides God’s Word, besides the grace of the Holy Spirit, and actually in concert with those two things? We need each other! That’s why Paul wanted this community built. They were dependent on each other when afflictions, when persecutions came.
Christians are Destined to Partake of Christ’s Sufferings.
And Paul ends here, as he loves to do, refocusing our attention and zeroing in on something about our afflictions. He always comes back here, doesn’t he? He says it’s all predestined to happen this way. We were destined for these afflictions. Now didn’t Jesus tell us that? If they did this to the Master, what do you think they’re going to do to His followers? “No student is above his Teacher. You are going to suffer like I suffer.” Not in the same way; categorically different with Jesus, but sufferings will come to you. And Paul says that’s all part of God’s sovereign plan. He says, “We kept reminding you of these things.” He’s a good pastor. He cares for the people. That’s one of our duties as ministers of the Word to say, “Affliction is coming, trials are coming, and it will crush you if you don’t come back to this nexus, this center that God is the one who is allowing, sovereignly, these things to happen to us.” And they don’t catch Him off guard and they ought not surprise us. This is what happens to Christians!
I remember my church history professor at Westminster once saying if you were to ask a 1st century believer, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” and they would respond to you, “It means somebody who suffers for the Gospel.” That’s how much it was a part of their daily lives. And while we may never be called to be martyrs or suffer physical affliction, we will have trials; we will have afflictions. They will come to us and Paul warns us. And then he says to the Thessalonians, “I love you. I want to be with you. I don’t want to see you run the race in vain. I’m afraid the tempter is going to do that,” verse 5. And one of the main ways the tempter is not going to make good on his plans is you coming together under the Word knowing that you’re loved and cared for by pastors.
Hindrances to Gospel-centered Relationships.
Relationships matter and therefore we need to look at a couple of hindrances and a couple of ways to make progress in Gospel-centered relationships in closing. What are some hindrances in our day and age to Gospel-centered relationships? I thought of three. There’s many more. Busyness and distraction. Busyness and distraction. The old saying is, “Idle hands are the devil’s playground.” What we could say today is, “Most of our schedules are the devil’s field day.” Because we have so much going on, there’s so little time for us to pause and reflect and think about spiritual things and really invest in relationships. One author put it this way. “We try to have million dollar conversations in ten cent moments.” Doesn’t that mark out so many of our lives? We’re busy; we’re distracted. There’s always something there. We will have to be intentional about these kinds of relationships. We’re not going to stumble upon them. There will be hindrances; there will be distractions - some of them from Satan; some of them just life. I get it. We’re all very busy. It’s difficult to make time, but Paul says it’s worth it. It’s necessary.
Another hindrance is pride. Pride leads to posturing, which is a huge hindrance to truly Gospel-centered relationships. You see, if you’re concerned to never appear weak, to never be transparent, to never be vulnerable, then you will never experience genuine relationships, ever, because the only way that happens is if you are vulnerable and transparent enough with others to risk relationship. And you see, what the Gospel does again here is provide us powerful resources to make this happen. Why do we posture? Because we so often want to cover up so many of our flaws. But what does God see? All of them! All the time! All my weaknesses, all my failures, all my besetting sins - He sees them all! And the good news is, He doesn’t just see those, He sees them through the lens of Jesus’ perfect righteousness and therefore I can be vulnerable, I can risk relationship, I can be transparent. And that will create a safe place, if we could use those terms, for people to have their lives fall apart. So often our churches simply are not that, right? Everybody seems fine. “How are you?” “Great!” Then all of a sudden we find out the marriage collapses. People are sunk in deep depression. Whatever it is, all the things we never know about because we’re so afraid, and that always goes back to pride and posturing.
The other thing is this! Because of that, an inability to trust others. And why does that happen in churches particularly? Because of the always present, in every church that you’ll ever be in, the gossip that comes through prayer requests. “Oh, you need to pray for so-and-so! Let me tell you the next juicy bit about that person’s life.” And when that happens to you, are you going to want to trust the people that did that? No. And so many people, this is one of the saddest things I hear as a pastor. Because I became a Christian later in life and discovered the church later in life and it is an amazing thing to me still to be a part of a body of believers together doing life, it thrills me, and when people come and say to me, “I’ve been so hurt by gossip, by backbiting in churches, that I don’t want anything to do with Christians. In fact, I don’t even believe the Gospel is true because of how much I’ve been hurt,” that hurts. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we see it so many times in our own lives. Guilty as charged. I think all of us can say that.
How to Make Progress in Gospel-centered Relationships.
So how do we make progress? Quickly! First, center on the vertical. That relationship’s got to be right. We’ve got to have a deep understanding of the Gospel and what Jesus has done for us. That’s what fires Paul; that’s what keeps him centered. He’s focused on the glory of God shown supremely in the person and work of Jesus. And then we very intentionally move to horizontal transformation, as it were, in our relationships. We intentionally move outwards. The love of Christ spills out from us. That’s the goal! That’s what we pray for, therefore we need to think carefully and consistently how to be the kind of place for broken, hurting people, people hostile to the Gospel, people who will wander in here. My vision for any kind of ministry in a church is that people who are not here tonight worshiping in 2016, in January of 2017, people who will come here hostile to the Gospel will be fired by the Holy Spirit to come and worship God with us! And that they will see this as a place where real community exists and it will be unlike anything they’ve ever experienced and they will say, “Why did I wait so long to come?” That only happens as the Gospel transforms us and we begin to think of ourselves as a family. Not competitors, not lone ranger Christians; as a family.
It reminds me of a story I read of General Colin Powell. Many of you will remember him from Desert Storm fame. And on the eve of Desert Storm, General Powell remembered and recalled a young African American private being interviewed by the celebrity anchorman, Sam Donaldson of ABC News. Donaldson asked the young private, “How do you think the battle will go? Are you afraid?” The young man responded, “We’ll do okay. We’re well trained.” And then suddenly the other soldiers who were milling around nearby said in a very loud voice, the cameras kind of jolted and picked up on it, “Tell him again! He didn’t hear you!” And so the young man repeated, “This is my family. I’m not afraid because we will take care of each other.” That’s what Paul said to the Thessalonians. “I’m afraid, but I’m going to act in spite of fear because I know you’re a family centered around the Gospel.” That is his vision for us, and that is his vision for all of us in any church, and may it be said of us.
Father, we thank You so much for Your Word. We thank You for the cross that centers us, that gives us hope, that gives us purpose. Help us to live Gospel-centered relationships. Help us to do that, God. We can’t do that on our own. May the Holy Spirit be pleased to do that in this place. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.
©2016 First Presbyterian Church.
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