It’s been one and half months since I’ve posted any blogs or done much on facebook. Teaching my theology class was the top priority. I only have one class left and looking forward to it even though I may step on theological toes, especially those who believe most of the gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased with the last Apostle. But my post for the day is not about that, it is about Paul’s anxiety and what we can learn for him.
So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God's fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless. (NIV® 1984)
Doesn’t it seem odd to you that the Apostle Paul would have such concern for the church in Thessalonica that he twice expressed such strong emotional stress as, “I could stand it no longer”? We often quote Philippians 4:6 where Paul said, “Be anxious for nothing” (NKJV). This gives the impression that Paul went around with a transcendent smile on his face being in perfect peace. Though he faced many physical hardships, his concern for the churches may have been just as taxing as he explained to the Corinthians, “Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches” (2 Cor 11:28 NASU).
Why would someone have such concern for people, some of whom he had never met? He wrote to the Colossians that his concern extended to those who had not seen him face to face (Col 2:1). His goal for all the churches was expressed in Colossians 2:2, “I want them to be encouraged and knit together by strong ties of love. I want them to have complete confidence that they understand God's mysterious plan, which is Christ himself” (NLT). Regardless of what kinds of trials they were facing, Paul’s concern was just these two things, love of each other and knowing Jesus.
If we have strong ties of love for each other and we really understand God’s plan in Jesus, we will be able to weather the storms of life. We need each other for support and encouragement. A loving Christian community can provide that better than any other social connection. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen and the reason is probably that we don’t understand God’s mysterious plan, that is, we don’t really understand Christ. Sure, we think we do. We can quote all sorts of verses and even explain the hypostatic union in the incarnation. But when we don’t have a strong loving Christian community, it exposes the fact that we are still infants in our Christian walk. This was one of the biggest concerns Paul had for the Corinthian church as he wrote to them about the jealousy and strife in their midst, “But I, brethren, could not address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ” (1 Cor 3:1 RSV).
Get the Facts
And the word pleased the sons of Israel, and the sons of Israel blessed God; and they did not speak of going up against them in war, to destroy the land in which the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad were living. (Josh 22:33 NASB)
Have you ever been anxious about a situation? You stew about it, thinking about all the different scenarios of what might be happening. That happened to the nation of Israel on the West bank of the Jordon. They thought the Israelites on the East bank had violated their covenant with God by building another altar. They were ready to go to war with them. After getting the facts, they found it was not so. The same can happen with us. We have enough information to know that there could be some trouble. There are a couple of different reasons for anxiety. One of them is the inability to trust God. we don’t think God is in control and that type of anxiety is a sinful reaction to the world. The other cause is a lack of information when we know God is in control but you have been given the responsibility to take care of things. This is Paul’s situation. He is the shepherd over these churches and he doesn’t know what’s happening. He isn’t taking on a responsibility that doesn’t belong to him. He has to weigh his own situation, what he needs to do in Athens, and the circumstances of his last visit to Thessalonica. So he sends Timothy to find out how the Thessalonians are coping and to bolster them if needed. He knew that sending Timothy would be a hardship for his ministry in Athens, but getting the facts was more important. Paul sets the example for us when we are anxious – get the facts. Don’t let speculations distract you from your work for the Lord.
I will take of the Spirit who is upon you, and will put Him upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you will not bear it all alone. (Num 11:17 NASU)
Moses had too much work to do. His father-in-law provided a resolution to delegate his responsibilities (Ex 18:13-26). This was confirmed by God when He told Moses to select seventy elders and put His Spirit on them. We all face distractions of one kind or another. Sometimes, being informed is a distraction. Instead of doing my job, I read the newspaper so I can be informed. Usually that just adds to frustration or anxiety and keeps me from my work. In Paul’s case, his concern could have distracted him from his work. Some distractions are important as previously mentioned; Paul had responsibilities on two fronts, the work in Athens and the church in Thessalonica. He resolved the issue by delegating to Timothy. He couldn’t go himself, so he did the next best thing, sending his personal representative. He didn’t delegate to just anyone but one who was a fellow worker. Timothy had the same zeal for the Gospel, as did Paul. He knew the situation and the people. When we delegate, it shouldn’t be to the most convenient person unless that person is qualified. My track record in delegating is not very good, but I’ve learned to make sure the people asked to do a job have the ability. While a person may love the Lord and have a desire to spread the Gospel, they may not have the ability or gift to teach or encourager those already in the faith. Timothy had the skill set needed.
Encouragement in Persecution
“These things I have spoken to you, that you should not be made to stumble. They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service.” (John 16:1-2 NKJV)
It is interesting that Paul seeks to encourage the believers in Thessalonica in persecution by telling them they were destined for it (1 Thess 3:3). We don’t normally tell people they are destined for trouble as a way of comfort. But that is exactly what Jesus said to the disciples. Read again John 16:1-2. Jesus is quite clear that this advanced warning is to make sure that we don’t stumble. The stakes are high, the highest that anyone on earth can ever risk, their very souls. We are talking about eternal consequences. The earthly consequences are saving our lives to avoid persecution but the eternal consequences are saving our eternal souls (Matt 10:28).
These warnings and encouragements of persecution are not new. Daniel 12 tells us that there will be trouble in the future. The trouble may still be in our future or we may be experiencing it right now. The end result is still in our future when the resurrection comes and “Many of those whose bodies lie dead and buried will rise up, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting disgrace” (Dan 12:2 NLT). The proof is in the end results. Those who crumble under persecution and deny their faith are those who prove they were not saved in the first place. Trials come to prove that our faith is genuine (1 Peter 1:7). No wonder Paul was concerned for those in Thessalonica. Many can hear the message of salvation and embrace it but not have anything in themselves that is a result of true faith. When persecution comes, they fall away (Mark 4:17).
If the church today made it clear that persecution was to be expected when we are saved, there would be fewer people making professions of faith and then falling away later. People should be told the true cost of becoming a disciple of Christ. We don’t want people spending their entire lives thinking they are saved because they said some words without understanding the implication. “And he said to all, ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’” (Luke 9:23 RSV ). Taking up that cross implies that there will be persecutions, trials, and troubles of all kinds because we belong to Jesus. Our future has changed and the world doesn’t like the transformation that should have occurred in our hearts, our minds – the way we think and act.
So shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it. (Isa 55:11 NASB)
When Paul was concerned that the salvation of the Thessalonians had endured temptation to desert, did it show a lack in his faith? After all, God’s promise in Isaiah that His Word would always be successful was in the middle of a salvation passage. How can God’s effectual Word ever not accomplish His plan? The answer is most likely in Isaiah 55:8, “’For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord” (NASB). When we start thinking we have all the answers and know what God’s will is, we are treading on dangerous theological ground. Yes, God’s Word will accomplish what He wants, but we don’t’ always know what that is. Paul knew that. As mentioned before, his concern was that the seed he had sown fell on rocky ground (Mark 4:17).
For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. (2 Tim 4:10 ESV) They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. (1 John 2:19 ESV)
There is possibly nothing more disappointing in Christian ministry than to see someone with whom you’ve worked and saw what appeared to be genuine faith abandon the faith. Even Jesus experienced this with Judas even though He knew that Judas would betray Him. Demas loved the world. People are pulled away by worries, the deceitfulness of riches and the desire to be like the world around them instead of to follow Jesus (Mark 4:18). It’s a temptation that each of us must face. We don’t know if people who profess Christianity are really Christians because we don’t know their hearts. We know for sure when we see a person finish life strong, glorifying God. Those that abandon the faith sometimes come back. When they don’t, we can be sure that they were not really Christians in the first place.
Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you — unless, of course, you fail the test? (2 Cor 13:5 NIV)
That only leaves what we know about ourselves. We don’t know others but we do know ourselves and can be sure of our salvation. I hear too many people say that they don’t know what they would do in the face of true persecution – the threat of death if they continue to confess Jesus. They sound pious by saying that they would only know at that time. They would be given grace only when needed but they couldn’t say beforehand. I say that is not an expression of faith in Jesus. It is hedging one’s bet. We had better make up our minds that eternity with Jesus is better than choosing to live a few days longer on this earth or we may have already failed the test because Christ is not in us. There is no need to be anxious about our own faith. One test is to have the confidence that in the face of persecution you will not surrender.
I pray that all who read this will know that Jesus is living in them and therefore will finish strong.