It all happened in just three weeks. Paul came to Thessalonica, preached, many were converted, persecution hit, Paul had to depart. Acts 17 and 1 Thessalonians 2:14-3:5 tell the story. Maybe you know little of persecution personally, but you do not go far in the Bible without reading about it.
1 Thessalonians 2:14-15 speaks of the Thessalonians becoming ‘imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus.’ The Jews in Judea persecuted the earliest Christians. The same thing happened to the Thessalonians. Later (3:3b-4) Paul says they ‘know quite well that we were destined for’ this. He had warned them to expect it.
This is how it has always been. The Jews persecuted their prophets; the Judean churches, Jesus and the apostles. We believe the same things so we can expect persecution too. ‘If they persecuted me, they will persecute you’ (John 15:20). Paul told the Thessalonians – if you become Christians, expect persecution. And it turned out that way!
To this day believers experience it.
June 2013, Uzbekistan. A Christian is violently assaulted by a police chief. When he lodges a complaint, he is himself charged. He is stopped by the police chief, taken to a police station and a portable data drive containing Christian materials is confiscated. The officer beats him with a book, punches and kicks him. He is taken home and other Christian resources and his laptop are seized.
Is my lack of persecution today due to failing to live as I should? Not to be persecuted is abnormal.
In 2:15-16 Paul turns to the persecutors and says:
- ‘They displease God and are hostile to all men’ as they try to stop them hearing the gospel. ‘They displease’ God who hates such persecution and as for men, they ‘are hostile to all’. Persecutors in one way or another oppose God and man, keeping people from hearing the message and being saved. Some are driven away by fear of persecution. Others see the truth and believe, regardless.
- ‘In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.’ They will be judged for their sins and even now God’s wrath is coming on them. Sin is like liquid filling a cup, drop by drop. Eventually it fills and God’s wrath is unleashed. Paul is thinking of the Jews and the evidence already seen of God’s wrath. We should be glad that one day all persecution will end.
In 2:17-18 Paul says ‘When we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you – certainly I, Paul, did, again and again – but Satan stopped us.’ Knowing the Thessalonians were being persecuted, Paul’s sympathies went out to them. He had to move to Berea but did all he could to see them again. He longed to come to them but was stopped by Satan – no detail is given but Satan always wants to separate Christians. A good question is whether our hearts go out to the persecuted. That should be our response.
July 2013, Turkmenistan. Police raid a children’s summer camp. With medical personnel they swoop on the event, organised by a church on its own premises. They question the children, make parents collect them and take extensive video footage of children and the meeting place. The Christians are fined for holding an unregistered religious meeting and not complying with sanitary norms, charges they strongly reject.
Our hearts should go out to them.
Pastor and flock
How pastors should regard their flocks, flocks their pastors. 1 Thessalonians 19-20a ‘What is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy.’ The relationship between pastor and flock should be such that the pastor sees the people as his hope, joy and future glory and the people recognise it. The pastor hopes the best for them; for them to truly believe and live to God’s praise is his joy. When Jesus returns the Thessalonians will be Paul’s crown. He will glory in Christ’s presence over them. As it was with Paul and the Thessalonians so it should be today. Perhaps pastors fail to make this clear or maybe people are slow to believe it.
Sometimes pastor and flock are parted. Paul describes how he went alone to Athens (3:1). Imagine him – separated from his hope and glory. That is never easy for a pastor but it happens. Joseph Alleine, imprisoned in 1663, greatly missed his flock and wrote many letters. He says ‘Very pleasant have you been unto me, and your love to me is wonderful; and as I have formerly taken great content in that my lot was cast among you, so I rejoice in my present lot, that I am called to prove my love to you by suffering for you; for you, I say; for you know I have not sought yours, but you; and that, for doing my duty to your souls, I am here in these bonds, which I cheerfully accept through the grace of GOD that strengtheneth me. O that your hands might be strengthened, and your hearts encouraged in the LORD your GOD by our sufferings!’ For pastor and flock to be separated is bad. The shepherd is struck, the sheep scatter. Yet sometimes it happens. If it does not, be thankful.
A pastor’s fears
3:2-3a,5 Paul confesses his fear ‘that in some way the tempter might have tempted’ them and his efforts have proved useless. It was not sinful fear as he did something about it, sending Timothy to them, his ‘brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel’. Paul wanted Timothy to ‘strengthen and encourage’ their faith, so that their trials would not unsettle them. Good pastors do what they can to strengthen and encourage the flock as best they can. Unable to stand it any longer, Paul ‘sent to find out about [their] faith’. He wanted information; any true pastor would, anyone with genuine concern.
Finally, Paul explains how Timothy returned with good news of their faith and love and their pleasant memories of and longings to see him (as Paul longed for them). How encouraging! Their progress and devotion meant a lot, as with any pastor. Growth in faith and love is vital despite persecution, which should drive pastor and people together. Even if there is none, they should be united.
Next in this series: How to pray for each other »