How to Be on the Winning Team!
Introduction: Encouragment of an Embattled People
In Youth for Christ Magazine, there is a story told of a painter who once painted the devil playing a game of chess with a young man whose eternal soul was at stake. The scene showed the devil with a look of glee on his face as he checkmates the young man whose look of despair acknowledges defeat. There appears no other move for him to make.
A great chess player came across the work of art and, after carefully studying the game, he set up a chessboard with the pieces in a similar position. After much thought and time, he saw that defeat could be turned into victory. By making just one certain move on the young man's behalf, the devil was placed in a position of utter defeat.
In the game of life, we have no chance against the wiles of the devil who is determined to ruin the soul. But at Calvary the Lord Jesus intervened and made a 'move' that enables us today, who trust in Christ, to have complete victory."
This is one of the major things that the Thessalonians had to be reminded of in Paul's day. And it is true in our day as well.
In the book of II Thessalonians, we have the Apostle Paul writing his second letter to the persecuted church at Thessalonica. Paul, Timothy, and Silas founded the church there but were run out of town by those who opposed them and their message. The Thessalonians continued to be persecuted and Paul was worried that they might defect from the faith. So he sent Timothy there to see how they were doing. The good news is that they were thriving, despite heavy persecution.
That led Paul to write his first letter to encourage them. In it he also was comforting the persecuted flock, expressing joy in their continued faith, reminding them of the importance of moral purity, condemning the sluggard or lazy lifestyle, correcting a wrong understanding of prophetic events, defusing tensions within the flock, and exhorting them in the basics fo Christian living.
Now, in this second letter, we find that the Apostle had been keeping up with his beloved flock with which God had entrusted to him. This letter was written just a few months after the first one, while Paul was still in Corinth with Silas and Timothy, in late 51 A.D. or early 52 A.D.
The church continued to mature and expand. However, like any church, some problems arose. Persecution apparently increased. And the seeds of false doctrine concerning the Lord had been sown. And some of the people were disorderly.
So the Apostle wrote again to his flock who were becoming discouraged by the continued persecution, deceived by false teachers who confused them about the Lord's return. And he also wrote about the problem of a few who were disobedient to the Lord's commands, particularly the ones who were refusing to work.
In the first chapter, Paul begins by saluting this faithful flock and encouraging them by letting the believers know that, despite what is going on, they are on the right track and are focusing on the right priorities.
Christians are in a war against the forces of Satan, as represented in this epistle by those who don't know and recognize the Lord and are constantly afflicting those who do trust in God and the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul wants to let the believers know that, in fact, the war is already won. It may not look like it now, but the Thessalonians are on the winning team, which will ultimately be proven when Jesus is revealed from heaven.
The great Apostle gives this embattled church two areas from which they can derive encouragement despite what is happening to them in their war with evil. First, the battle is causing them to grow in their faith in Christ as well as their love for one another. And, secondly, they have chosen the right side on which to fight when they followed the Lord.
I. Persecution Lead the Thessalonians to Growth in Faith and Love (1-4)
Paul introduces the letter, after his salutation, by mentioning his obligation to thank God for the growth of their faith and the way they love one another. In fact, the apostle is so impressed by them that he is telling other churches about what is happening in Thessalonica among the believers there.
Persecution has a way of bringing out a person's true colors and clarifying their beliefs. It makes people decide whether or not they actually believe what they claim to believe. It's one thing to say that Jesus is Lord in a place where everyone agrees with you. It is quite another to say it when someone is going to beat you, take away your property, put you in jail or kill you because of it. Nowhere is faith and growth in Christ seen more fully than in places where Christians are faithfully enduring hostilities and suffering from the enemies of Christ.
Suffering also makes us more willing to rely upon the Lord for His strength and faithfulness to us than when all is going well and we are living in a prosperous time. Prosperity and peace make us think that we don't need God and that we can rely on our own ingenuity and brainpower. Unprovoked persecution shows us that we aren't in control of anything. We realize that God is the sovereign in all of life.
Just like in Paul's day, so in ours as well, the places experiencing the most persecution for faith in Christ, also have the most people who are growing spiritually and have a true love for the Lord.
For instance, in 2015 the mission organization, Operation World, named Iran as having the fastest-growing evangelical population in the world, with an estimated annual growth of 19.6 percent. According to Mark Howard of Elam Ministries, an organization founded by Iranian church leaders with the purpose of expanding the church in Iran, more Iranians have become Christians in the last two decades than in the previous 13 centuries combined. All of this despite severe persecution and radical Islamic terrorism.
Compare that with a place like America, where there is little or no persecution going on and where the Christian faith overall is in decline. Also, sadly, many of those who do have strong Christian convictions take their faith for granted, and the freedoms that we have to worship God as we see fit. We are living in a place where that is possible and where many people fought and died for the privilege. This is far from what has been normal in the history of the world. Our freedoms today are like a candle in a heavy wind that is only being kept ablaze because it is being covered by the hand of God and those who seek to protect it every day. And there is no guarantee that the candle won't get blown out in the future.
While I don't think we should pray for religious persecution in our country, it may be the one thing that will wake us up. We have been complacent for a long, time. We, who are believers in 21st century America, need to speak up. We must be like Paul, who do all that we can do to encourage and help those being persecuted throughout the world. And we have to share our faith in Jesus Christ in our own country to whoever will listen. As an old song once said: "It only takes a spark to get a fire going." And maybe God will use us as the spark which reignites the flames of Christian faith in America and other countries which are taking their spiritual privileges for granted.
II. The Thessalonians Chose the Right Side on Which to Fight (5-12)
The second means of encouragement that Paul gave the Thessalonians is the fact that they were on the right side of the War. They chose the winning side on which to fight.
The reality that they were being persecuted was the very evidence of God's righteous judgment to come. For the persecuted saints will be counted worthy of the Kingdom that the Lord has promised them by their endurance. It will demonstrate the genuineness of their faith. It demonstrated that the Thessalonians were not self-centered. Their focus was not on personal comfort, fulfillment, and happiness. It was rather on God's Kingdom and the realization of His purposes.
Indeed, God will one day repay with tribulation those who trouble His people and give relief to those who are afflicted. This judgment will occur when Jesus is revealed from Heaven with His mighty angels. They will come in flaming fire to take vengeance on those who don't know God and don't obey the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The people causing the Thessalonian's trouble right now will one day be punished with everlasting destruction, from the presence of the Lord, from the glory of His power.
At the same time, Jesus will come in that day to be glorified in His saints, to be admired by all those who believe because Paul's testimony among them was believed.
Paul ends this section with a prayer for the Thessalonian church that the Lord would count them worthy of His calling. In other words, that they might behave in ways consistent with their identities as Christians. And might live up to their calling to salvation with lives of goodness and powerful works of faith. So that the name of our Lord Jesus will be glorified in them and them in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The bottom line is that Paul is praying that the Thessalonians might continue living to please and honor the Lord Jesus Christ because, in the end, that is the only thing of lasting value. Fighting against the holy, all-powerful Lord of the universe will only lead to destruction and judgment. Fighting with Him will end in eternal salvation and happiness.
In the world in which we are living, it often seems that there are two equally powerful forces pitted against each other. Those who are good and those who are evil. And, we must admit, that it often appears that evil has the upper hand and we need to abandon ship. But the truth is that Satan and all that is evil are not as powerful as the Creator of the Universe. There truly is a war going on and the opposition is powerful. But they are no match for the Lord. He will win in the end.
We started out with a story about a chess game. Now let's look at another type of game. In many ways, life should be to the Christian like a recorded Superbowl game in which someone has told us the outcome. It doesn't matter how much the other team may be ahead at half-time. The odds of our team winning may seem nearly impossible. However, the game is already over and we know that our team actually does win in the end.
The excitement should be in seeing just how they are going to make it happen. Or in our case, how God is going to make it happen. But we should never allow ourselves to become discouraged because we know that the person who told us the outcome of the game is reliable and will never lie to us. The contest has been won and victory is sure.
There is a story that might help us to bring a little more insight into this Thessalonian passage. It's about the ruler Napoleon.
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) was a French Military leader and conquered much of Europe in the early 19th century. The famous battle of Waterloo took place in Belgium on Sunday, June 18, 1815. It became known as the place of Napoleon's ultimate defeat. But many didn't know that he was beaten right away.
The news of the result of the Battle of Waterloo was eagerly awaited by the people of Great Britain, for so much depended on it. Somehow or other the message came with one word short, and only two words got across—'Wellington defeated'. The country was plunged into mourning, and great was the lamentation until the mistake was discovered, and the omitted third word arrived—`Napoleon —so that it read 'Wellington defeated Napoleon'. Their sorrow was turned into joy, and great rejoicings followed the mourning.
Christ was the glorious Victor at the Cross, where the victory of the whole universe depended on the outcome of the conflict with Satan and his workers of iniquity.
No matter what any of us are facing today. Even if we feel that we are being defeated by the enemies of righteousness, Jesus Christ has won the victory and he will one day remove anything standing in His way, or in the way of those who follow Him.
As the Psalmist has said: "Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning." (30:5). We are truly on the right side of life and the right side of the war.
Thanks be to God, who has caused us to triumph through our Lord Jesus Christ!
© 2020 Jeff Shirley