Monday, March 16, 2015

1 Thessalonians 2:14-20 - “God Centered Churches Must Expect Opposition!”

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 regardJohn  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[1] 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.[2]  They thought they were pleasing God when they persecuted Christians,  but in reality they were doing the opposite. Jesus  spoke about this in John 16:2:  “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[3],  because of His patience , long-suffering, and mercy,  giving them opportunities along the way for repentance  (see 2 Pet. 3:9Rom. 2:4).
We are familiar  with  God’s historical dealings of Israel, in which His wrath was poured out   on them, as  Moses prophesied  in Deuteronomy 28:15-68. 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[4], 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[5] 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

[1]  Present tense – i.e. they continually displease God
[3] See also Genesis  15:16
[4] aporphanizo, from which we get our word “orphan.”
[5] enkopto,   lit.  “to cut into”  -  used figuratively in the sense of “to  hinder, detain.”

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