The Church of the Thessalonians (4)
C. E. Hocking, Cardiff
4. TRIBULATION WORKETH PATIENCE
All quotations are from the Revised Version
We expect specially gifted servants of Christ to suffer in the course of their service for Him. Certainly, Paul and his companions had suffered in their ministry. They had been ill-treated and outraged at Philippi, 1 Thess. 2. 2; they had been driven out from among the Thessalonians at the instigation of the Jews, 2. 15; Acts 17. 4-10. At Corinth, from whence Paul writes this Epistle, they were still suffering affliction and distress, feeling the sting of personal privation on the one hand and persecution on the other, 3.7. So it had been with the Lord Himself and the prophets before them, 2. 15. Many servants of Christ who are in the forefront of the battle to-day, are passing through similar experiences. Practical fellowship with such in the furtherance of the gospel could remove much of the privation-element from their experiences. Yet still there is a tremendous need to remember such brethren in our prayers, as Paul exhorts, that they may be delivered from wicked and unreasonable men, 2 Thess. 3. 2.
However Paul made the subject of suffering for Christ
an Essential Part of his Teaching
‘We told you (i.e., used to tell you, a continuous tense) beforehand that we are to suffer affliction’, 1 Thess. 3. 4. He did not seek to hide from his converts the inevitable consequence of accepting Christ. Not that this was mere pessimism. What he had said was proved true, it ‘came to pass, and ye know’, 3. 4. Being forewarned, these young ones in the faith were in a measure forearmed. They knew that this would be so, having been taught it before they knew it by way of experience. Does some of the preaching of our day make being a Christian sound too easy with a path that is trouble-free? The Master, before He went to the cross, said clearly to His own, ‘If the world hateth you, ye know that it hath hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love its own: but because ye are not of the world . . . therefore the world hateth you ... If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you’, John 15. 18-20.
How many of us, like Peter in the Gospels, shrink from that bold witness for Christ which we sense will bring suffering in its train? How easy it is to be believers only! Yet it is granted to us not only to believe but to suffer for His sake., Phil. 1. 29. This is a further privilege God has bequeathed to us. In 1 Thessalonians we find that we are
Appointed to Afflictions
and the question of sufferings is traced back to our calling, 3. 5. We are set for the defence and presentation of the gospel, and knowing this to be our appointed post or station we must not abandon it when affliction comes. This, of course, is not our ultimate destiny. Neither are we appointed to pass through that dread hour when God’s wrath is to be poured out on this godless world, 1.10; 5. 9. Nonetheless, we should not be taken by surprise when affliction comes, as though some strange thing was befalling us, 1 Pet. 4. 12. We do not enter outward persecution because things are out of hand; afflictions experienced are neither accidental nor incidental but rather providential. Judgment begins at God’s house, the sphere where His governmental ways are displayed in the world. All is under the mighty hand of God. Further to this, the faith and endurance displayed and the courage inspired by God in such circumstances are signs of God’s presence with us now. Thus we have a present token of our future recompense, a guarantee of the rest that is to be ours when the Lord Jesus comes, and of our fitness for His kingdom, 2 Thess. 1. 5-7. The Christian under persecution is separated in this from his persecutors who are to be recompensed with affliction by God, 2 Thess. 1. 6-7. In this setting we cannot possibly confound friend and enemy. Again we recall the words of the Lord, ‘Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad : for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you’, Matt. 5. 10-12.
The Hostility of the Devil
Evil men are but the ready tools of the arch-enemy of the people of God. Yet behind the sufferings and painful disappointments of earth is Satan, the hinderer, 1 Thess. 2.17-20. Paul, forcibly separated from these children in the faith felt ‘bereaved of’ them. This was no case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. His real affection for them resulted in grief of heart at his separation from them. Not that he merely pined for them. He ‘endeavoured the more exceedingly’ to see them, once and again. Despite intense desire and determined resolve, however, all attempts to reach them were frustrated. ‘Satan hindered us’, 2. 18. Yet God uses the discipline of disappointment to increase the desire and deepen the affections and to cast us the more upon Himself.
To the apostle’s grief was now added a very real anxiety for the saints, since the enemy is doubly active. He is ‘the tempter’ as well as the hinderer and the apostle feared lest he had tempted these young ones in the faith. Had his onslaughts overwhelmed them, 3.5? When the suspense became intolerable he sent Timothy to Thessalonica. He was to establish and encourage them ‘that no man be moved by these afflictions’, 3. 2 f. Love will always find a way despite all obstacles. Here is another delightful example of godly concern leaving no stone unturned that their faith might be furthered. In the meanwhile, Paul remained ‘alone’ at Athens, happy to accept personal loneliness in the interest of others.
Fruit of Separation and Suffering
There was little cause for anxiety for these Thessalonians however. From the very inception of the work among them they had ‘received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost’. No external circumstances could rob them of the deep inward joy which the Spirit produced in them. As individuals they became imitators of those who had brought them the message and of the Lord Himself, 1. 6; cf. 2 Cor. 8. 2. But more than this, they were united as a company in the face of sufferings at the hands of their own countrymen. In this they ‘became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus’, 1 Thess. 2. 14.
On Timothy’s return therefore, the report he brought was a veritable gospel to Paul, 3.6. The tempter had not succeeded in deflecting them from the path of endurance. They had remained faithful to their rejected Lord. Tribulation had worked patience, 2 Thess. 1.4, their faith and love had been increased, 1 Thess. 3. 6, and they were standing fast in the Lord, 3. 8. They were longing, not for their troubles to cease, but to see their absent father in the faith. How sweetly reciprocal this is; Paul now reaps what he has sown to them. He desired to encourage them and now they are a source of encouragement to him. He longed to see them and now learns that they are longing to see him. He was a means of blessing to them and now they, are a fresh spring of life to him, 3. 8. They were the subjects of his earnest prayer and now he finds that they had good remembrance of him, 3. 6. Surely this is encouraging, although unexpected, fruit of the separation and suffering. Such was the sufficiency of their triune God that all was sustained, yea even developed, despite the machinations of the foe. Even Paul was not an indispensable prop, 3. 12; 4. 9, nor the ultimate source of their blessing.
The experience was further sanctified to Paul, when he found that the labour spent on them had not been in vain, 3. 5. He could find no adequate expression of that thanksgiving which was due to God for all the joy which was his for their sakes, 3. 9. Nonetheless in an overwhelming sense of gratitude he was the more encouraged fervently to pray ‘that we may see your face’. The man who laboured and travailed night and day whilst serving among them, 2. 9, now prayed exceedingly night and day whilst absent from them, 3.10; cf. 2. Thess. 3. 3.
When loneliness, privation or persecution are our lot in the purpose of our God, let us not be cast down. There is a lesson for us to learn from the experiences of these saints of N.T. times. Confidence in God in the darkness brings its own special harvest, Isa. 50. 10. If we were imitating the faith of those indomitable souls we would share in the same precious fruits. Along with the trials there is to be enjoyed and developed Christian joy, faith, love, patience, steadfastness, thankfulness and prayerfulness.
To be followed by ‘Comfort and Challenge’.