Many books have been written on suffering. I have a good number of them in my own library. Most of them deal with suffering on an individual level, speaking about matters such as losing a loved one, depression, facing an unhappy marriage and the problem of loneliness, and the matter of physical/mental handicaps and so on. I have not seen many books that speak about the sufferings of a church as such – or to put it in a different way – the suffering that the corporate body of God’s people experiences, simply because they are the church.
It is abundantly clear that every true church suffers because it experiences manifestations of sin in the church and manifestations of sin against the church. The church suffers together when one of their leaders sin ; the church suffers when members sin ; the church suffers when there is disunity in the body ; the church suffers when it is slandered or attacked by outsiders The fact of the matter is this : Every church mentioned in the Bible suffers !
The Lord Jesus prepared His disciples in this regard. John 15:18 - 16: 33 is a lengthy discourse in which Jesus speaks about the hatred of the world against Himself and against His people. He ends His discourse in Jn. 16:33 with these insightful words: “In this world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
In Matthew 16:18 , He assures His disciples that in the midst of hostility (such as would lead to His death on the cross) He would build the church: “… I will build my church , and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The Lord Jesus teaches us plainly in the gospels that the true church, wherever she is found, must expect opposition.
The church, which is born in the book of Acts on the day of Pentecost (2:41) experiences this opposition almost right away :
· Acts 4:1-30 ; Peter and John are brought before the council of the Jews who threaten them (4:21)
· Acts 5:17-42; The apostles, the leaders of the early church are arrested, put in prison, and the council of the Jews wants to kill them (5:33) , but Gamaliel a Pharisee, and member of the council intervenes.
· Acts 6:8- 8:3 ; Stephen (one of the first deacons - 6:1-7) was seized by some Jews (6:12) and killed, becoming the first martyr of the church. The Pharisee Saul (later Paul) had approved of his execution, and he became instrumental in the persecution in the church in Jerusalem and elsewhere ( 8:1; 11:19)
· Acts 12: 2-3 ; James the brother of John is killed by king Herod and Peter is arrested, but miraculously released.
· As the gospel spreads into gentile territory opposition is encountered everywhere, seeking to arrest the rapid growth of the church. In Iconium and Paul is stoned in Lystra (14:1-23); Imprisonment in Philippi (16:16-24); persecution in Thessalonica and Berea (17: 1-15) and harassment in Corinth (18:12ff) and Ephesus (19:21ff) etc . This is the pattern amidst which the expansion of the church takes place – just as Jesus had said!
Every epistle written by Paul indicates strong opposition to the gospel :
· Rom 16:17,18 - I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.
· The letters to the Corinthians were written because of divisions and quarreling in the church (1:10ff). This was due to the fact that the Corinthians were not a God –centered church, but a man centered church. Furthermore, loose living and sexual immorality, idolatry , false doctrine and the like opposed the work of the gospel. The opposition here is of an internal nature, as these church people allow their own appetites and opinions to rule the life of the church . The problem is “libertinism” . The second letter to the Corinthians reveals Paul’s much of Paul’s personal sufferings and opposition which he experiences as a servant of Jesus.
· The letter to the Galatians is written because there are those who have persuaded the Galatian Christians to embrace another gospel (Gal 1:6). The opposition here is that of religious bigots, and legalists who seek to destroy the gospel basis upon which the church was founded.
· The letter to the Ephesians makes explicit mention of Satanic opposition. Eph. 6:10-18 describes the work of Satan and the spiritual armour needed to counter this formidable opposition.
· Paul’s letters to the Philippians makes mention of the opponents of the church (Phil 1:28), whilst his letter to the Colossians reveals that there is a subtle undermining of their faith by philosophy, human traditions (2:8), self made religion and asceticism (2:23) and the like .
Though I would like to comment on Paul’s epistles to Timothy and Titus , and upon John and Peter’s epistles in this regard, not forgetting to mention the fact that the seven churches in the Revelation to John all encounter sufferings and opposition of many kinds (Revelation 2 &3), I think that I have made my point. You trust that you have been persuaded. The church of the Bible is a suffering church.
We now specifically consider the opposition which the God centered church of the Thessalonians encounters in our text :
The opposition encountered in the church at Thessalonica is described as twofold :
1. From your own countrymen (14- 16)
2. Satan hindered us (17-20)
These two descriptions of opposition experienced by this God –centered church are indeed typical of the experience of every church seeking to be God centered.
This first manifestation of opposition is perhaps the most surprising : the greatest attacks upon the church are from those closest to us.
“For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews,
Paul here compares the opposition which Christians at Thessalonica faced from their countrymen ( i.e. fellow Greeks) with that opposition which Jewish Christians in Judea faced from their own countrymen , and all this because they had turned to God and had embraced the Lord Jesus Christ as their Saviour. That fact brought about great opposition. Some of you can testify how your own family members can become your enemies as a result of you having embraced the gospel. It seems so irrational that they should do this, but this is the effect that the gospel of Christ has on the world. Every true believer becomes a thorn in the flesh of an ungodly society (because they expose the sin which they love), and the response of that society is, “away with you! I don’t want to hear you or see you!”
In vv. 15,16 Paul illustrates this by describing the killing of the Lord Jesus ( and the prophets) by their own countrymen. He speaks about the opposition that the early church experienced as it was driven out of Jerusalem by the Jews. Note, that Paul himself had a large role to play in the early persecution of the Jewish church !
By reminding the Thessalonians of this historical fact Paul reminds them (and us) that suffering at the hands of one’s own countrymen and even our family ( cf Matt. 10:36) is to be expected. It is not unusual.
Take note of what Paul has to say about those who oppose Christ and His church : “… and (those who) displease God and oppose all mankind 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 wrath has come upon them at last!
The sad truth about these Jews that opposed the church was that they thought themselves to have a great zeal for God, but in reality they were blind leaders of the blind. They thought they were pleasing God when they persecuted Christians, but in reality they were doing the opposite. Jesus spoke about this in : “They will make you outcasts from the synagogue, but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God.”).
The truth is that pleasing God starts with trusting in God’s own Son!
So Paul writes this to help the Thessalonians to see that such opposition was to be expected , and they needed to know that they were not forsaken. God was on their side. Such opposition was in fact an indication that they were in a right relationship with God and that these blind zealots were in fact those that God was going to judge. God sometimes allows men to go on in sin, i.e. to fill up the measure of their sins, because of His patience , long-suffering, and mercy, giving them opportunities along the way for repentance (see ; ).
We are familiar with God’s historical dealings of Israel, in which His wrath was poured out on them, as Moses prophesied in . The exile of the Northern and the Southern kingdoms in 722 B.C. and in 586 B.C respectively are an illustration of this .
We need to remember that when Paul wrote this letter in about AD 50-51, that the city that had killed the Lord Jesus was only 20 years away from its destruction , for in AD 70 Jerusalem was utterly devastated by the Romans.
All this points forward to a still greater day of wrath at the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ (see 1:10, 2:16) when He will crush all enemies and opposition.
So then there is no need to grow despondent at the thought of having to face opposition. God remains in charge! This perspective needs to be had by us at all times ! For this we cannot trust the daily headlines . We must trust in the Word of the Lord .
Satanic Opposition (2:17-20)
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… In the midst of opposition and crisis such as the church frequently experiences it is important to have encouragement from our brothers and sisters in the Lord. The Thessalonians needed such encouragement and Paul wanted to come to them. I know of such encouragement through men like Erroll Hulse and Martin Holdt and many others that have visited us and encouraged us.
Now take note of Paul’s next statement : but Satan hindered us. As Paul wanted to visit this afflicted church he found that Satan was hindering them from doing so. Paul recognizes this not simply as the work of men , but as the work of Satan. The source of all opposition to God’s work is ultimately Satan who uses demonic forces , and of course people – even people in our community , and shockingly even people in the church to do his work .
Let this then be our perspective, as we dear people at Eastside continue to hold on to the gospel, and are not afraid of opposition. Let us be careful at all times that we (leaders and members alike ) do not become the opposition and so give the devil a foothold . Continue in the same prayerful mindset as you see here in the example of Paul , holding on to biblical principles of churchmanship , and we shall see ourselves not tempted in this regard . Amen