Today’s Reading: Acts 17 & 18; 1 Thessalonians 1-3
Around the same time that Paul was writing a letter to the churches in Galatia, he was also writing a letter to the church in Thessalonica – one of the towns he visited during his second missionary trip. It’s not a surprise, then, that he covers a similar topic – faith, hope and love.
Paul opens up his letter praising God and commending the church on their faithful work, their loving deeds and their enduring hope (1 Thessalonians 1:3). In both of his letters to this church he goes into detail about their faithful work in the midst of suffering and persecution. He encourages them to continue to live a lifestyle of love expressed in holy living. He also speaks of the hope we have in the day in which Jesus will return for us.
This morning my focus is on the faithful work God calls us to in spite of the difficulties that lay ahead of us, the persecution we experience from others or the suffering we endure for the cause of Christ. Here are some of the verses that jump out as an encouragement to us when we are going through a hard time.
Joy in spite of…
So you received the message with joy from the Holy Spirit in spite of the severe suffering it brought you…As a result, you have become an example to all the believers in Greece – throughout Macedonia and Achaia. And now the word of the Lord is ringing out from you to people everywhere, even beyond Macedonia and Achaia, for wherever we go we find people telling us about your faith in God. – 1 Thessalonians 1:6-8
How can we have joy in spite of the suffering we are experiencing? Paul explains that this joy is from the Holy Spirit living within us. It is not something we have to create on our own or pretend to be. It is a gift from God that brings Him glory when others see our joy in spite of our suffering and recognize our joy as a product of our faith in God. Paul had set an example to the church in Thessalonica of how he continued to joyfully praise God in the midst of persecution and now they, too, are examples to others who themselves are going through a hard time.
In addition to this, the faith of the Thessalonians was an encouragement to Paul and the other apostles who had invested in their spiritual growth. They had sent Timothy back to the Church to see if they were being shaken by their troubles or to see if their faith was still strong.
So we have been greatly encouraged in the midst of our troubles and suffering, dear brothers and sisters, because you have remained strong in your faith. It gives us new life to know that you are standing firm in the Lord. How we thank God for you! Because of you we have great joy as we enter God’s presence. Night and day we pray earnestly for you, asking God to let us see you again to fill the gaps in your faith. – 1 Thess. 3:7-10
Please God, not people…
For we speak as messengers approved by God to be entrusted with the Good News. Our purpose is to please God, not people. He alone examines the motives of our hearts…As for human praise, we have never sought it from you or from anyone else. – 1 Thess. 2:4,6
How can we endure the persecutions and criticisms of others? Paul makes it very clear that we are to live to please God and not others. Then when other people express their disapproval of us, it falls on deaf ears because we are only listening for the approval of our God. We don’t seek out human praise but the approval of our Heavenly Father, who calls us to follow Him and who knows our hearts.
God provides justice and rest…
We proudly tell God’s other churches about your endurance and faithfulness in all the persecutions and hardships you are suffering. And God will use this persecution to show his justice and to make you worthy of his Kingdom, for which you are suffering. In his justice he will pay back those who persecute you.
And God will provide rest for you who are being persecuted and also for us when the Lord Jesus appears from heaven. – 2 Thessalonians 1:4-7a
It is not for us to get even or to return suffering back to those who cause us to suffer. We can let go of all of the hurt and bitterness and need for revenge. We can simply have faith in our true and just God, who is the only Judge needed. We can also trust that someday our trials will end. At that time and even now while we are hurting, God will provide comfort and rest for His children.
When I received the news this week that Pastor Ed Heck had died, I read through the weekly blogs he had posted since his cancer diagnosis. His words ministered to my heart. Consider what he wrote on August 15, 2016, just 10 days after finding out he had advanced, aggressive prostate cancer:
“When we ask ‘why’, intentionally or not, we are challenging God’s justice, God’s wisdom, and God’s power. Am I right? I mean, it really doesn’t seem to make any difference whether we are victims or culprits, innocent or guilty; suffering is always seen and felt as being unfair. Whether the cause of our pain is unknown, self-imposed, accidental, or deliberate, most of us conclude that we have been singled out to suffer and that God is picking on us! When the flags of doubt are raised – when the ‘why’ is asked – we are really expressing a deep-seated belief that God doesn’t know what He is doing!
“Here is the key, I think: Suffering, however it is experienced, takes us right to the edge of our faith where contradiction gives us the option of either growing in grace or allowing it to turn into something as toxic as bitterness.” – Rev. Edward H. Heck, https://shardsofgraceblog.wordpress.com
Lord, I know of so many people who are going through a difficult time right now. I pray that you would be a source of strength for them today. I pray that the presence of your Spirit will give them a peace and joy that cannot be explained. Please give them the faith they need to believe, the hope they need to endure, and the love they need to forgive. Amen.