The Bible says: “We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is fitting, because your faith grows exceedingly, and the love of every one of you all abounds toward you all, so that we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that you endure, which is manifest evidence worthy of the righteous judgement of God, that you may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you also suffer; since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus Christ is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those that do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 2 Thessalonians 1:3-8.
Somewhere deep in the hearts of many people lies both a longing and a fear. There is the longing to possess a faith that is personal, sound and adequate. Countering this desire for a genuine and useful faith is the fear that such a faith is nor attainable, or at least not by them.
The need to believe is more than obvious. The promises made by education, science and philosophy for a new humanity in a new age within a new world have not materialized, nor are there signs that this will be achieved by these means in the foreseeable future. Take education first. Our industrial society is being developed more and more into an information society. The increased use of computers is uncovering a major problem of illiteracy. Those who could hide their inability to communicate are now being found out because they can’t read the simplest computer print-out. Illiteracy, if found out, will not help you get or keep your job. Here is another strain, to be added to those already arising from a confused economy.
Or, take the advances in science. New ways of treating formidable diseases are being discovered. That can only be considered helpful and humanitarian. But with these advances come some problems. People that once would have succumbed to certain diseases will now survive and have children. Those children may carry and transmit a predisposition for that disease to future generations, with all that means for diagnosis, treatment and further complications. More ominous than this is the ability we are developing to alter the codescript of genes and to alter mental development and human behaviour. What we once criticized extreme practitioners of behavioural psychology for attempting, we are now facing with in a much more serious way from biology. The ability to make basic changes in human nature brings us face to face with ethical problems the immensity of which we are only beginning to understand.
Or again, there is the ubiquitous presence of secular humanism. Its influence has penetrated education, politics and the mass media. And not without problems resulting. In education, it has produced a system of values without ethical content. In politics, it has produced a bias in favour of what is popular rather than what is right. In the media, it has led to moral aimlessness and a general preoccupation with present crises to the exclusion of any serious analysis of the cause or its ramifications for the community or world in the future. What is more, the average person is unaware of the extent and depth of the influence of secular humanism and is so naïve and unqualified to do anything about it should its presence be detected.
What we are faced with, then, is intellectual and spiritual doubt, ethical indifference and a lack of moral constancy. We are not sure what we should believe. We are not sure how we should act. And we are so unsettled and hesitant that we have no staying power. What we hold to be true today, we may disbelieve tomorrow. What we consider right and acceptable behaviour today, we reject in favour of something else next week. And because we are unsure of our foundations, we cannot help but fluctuate between certainty and uncertainty, between confidence and hesitation. What we need is a faith that in theory and in practice takes us beyond the limits of modernism! What we need is an intelligent and triumphant faith, a magnificent and sensitive love, and a determined and abiding steadfastness.
I. AN INTELLIGENT AND TRIUMPHANT FAITH:
“We ought always to thank God for you … because your faith is growing more and more …”
The little church at Thessalonica was under a cloud. The Christians there were hanging on only by the skin of their teeth. There were two problems facing them. One was external in origin, the other was internal. One was sociological, the other was theological. First, there were problems between the church and the surrounding community. The non-Christians were putting pressure on the Christians. The little church was suffering from persecution. (2 Thessalonians 1: 4-5) Paul had written to them on an earlier occasion and encouraged them in the midst of persecution at that time. (1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2:14; 3:7) His advice then was to lead a quiet life, mind their own business, and be hard workers so as to win the respect of the non-Christian community and be independent of them. (1 Thessalonians 4: 11-12) The antagonisms of the community had arisen against the Thessalonian Christians from the very first. Paul had had some success in preaching the gospel in the synagogue at Thessalonica. Some Jews, some Gentiles, and a number of prominent women had been persuaded of the truth of this message. A riot has resulted. (Acts 17: 1-9) Since the first, then, there had been no peace for the little church.
Second, there were internal problems of a theological nature. They had to do with the return of Christ and the general resurrection at the last day. What would happen to those Christians who had already died, perhaps because of the persecution, would they forfeit any advantage afforded to those still alive when the Lord returned? Paul had also addressed this problem in his earlier letter. (1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18) A variation of the same problem had arisen after this and had been communicated to the apostles. Some of the Christians at Thessalonica had somehow got it into their heads that the great day of the Lord had already begun. Apparently something attributed to Paul himself had misled them. The little church didn’t know what to believe, and had become unsettled and alarmed. (2 Thessalonians 2: 1-2). This was the situation then. The church at Thessalonica was self-conscious, full of misgivings and apprehension, Attacked from within and without, could they survive? What was Paul’s answer? What kind of advice would he give them? And what advice would he give us, if in the 21st Century we put to him a litany of similar problems facing us as a church and as individual Christians?
Paul looked into the heart of that little church and, despite evidence of the problems of which they complained, saw something else. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I see what you mean. I see your problem as a minority group in a sea of unsympathetic attitudes. I see people of other religious persuasions around you, who don’t appreciate your point of view. I see institutions that are antagonistic to your world-view. And I also appreciate your theological confusion about what exactly is going to happen to your loved ones and friends who have died.
Eschatology, (thinking about the last things), has never been the easiest doctrine to explain. But, I see something else in you that is a wonderful compensating factor. I see that the flame of faith still burns within you, and in fact it seems to be burning more brightly, more resolutely, and more effectively all the time. Don’t you feel that within you? Can’t you sense what God is doing? You only need faith the size of a mustard seed anyway, But God is taking that amount of faith you already possess and by his spirit is using these circumstances, these difficulties to develop your faith within you. You have far more faith than you think you have, and it is growing all the time because God is at work within you. Now is it up to you to nurture and foster that faith you already have.’ It was as though Paul is saying that their faith, though challenged, was growing exceedingly and above measure so that they almost have more faith than is required to cope with the problems at hand. On the other hand, he was approving of the continual growth and development of their faith.
What kind of faith did Paul recommend? He believed, first, that faith should be intelligent. The Christians at Thessalonica would have realized that. Their first exposure to the gospel was not some merely emotional to the gospel was not some merely emotional appeal to their religious sentiment. Paul had debated the issue with them, ‘explaining and proving’ the saving work of Christ on the cross and in the resurrection. (Acts 17:3). He had, of course, all the evidence of the life of the historical Jesus to point to. The Saviour was not the figment of someone’s imagination, the creation of some wide-eyed visionary. This Jesus had been born in Bethlehem in the days of Herod the king. He had grown up in Nazareth, and ministered in Galilee and Judea. Ask any number of those in the in the crowds who followed him and they would tell you of the Rabbi who taught as no other taught, who healed the sick, and gave encouragement to saint and sinner alike. Yes, he was put to death on a Roman cross, but it seemed as though it was foreordained and inevitable, as though the hand of God were in it from the beginning. And he wouldn’t stay dead! He refused. Ask those who saw him alive again, whose lives were changed from craven cowards to gloriously courageous preachers willing to die for their faith. And Paul is right. He learned from Jesus that we must love God with our minds. That is part of the first great commandment. And Christians who have a noteworthy faith make a point of basing the faith on the evidence; On the evidence of the historical Jesus, first and foremost; On the evidence of personal experience; And on the evidence of reason as we apply it to ultimate questions of origins, purpose and morality. If our faith is to be sound, it must be intelligent. It can be intelligent. The data is there.
But Paul also believed that faith should be Scriptural. If the basic data of faith is available, it needs to be interpreted correctly. The Christians at Thessalonica knew this from the beginning because at the very first Paul had ‘reasoned with them from the Scriptures’. (Acts 17:1). We require a text-book in most subject of importance. We need a road-map to guide us through the maze of possible roads we may take. So it is with faith. D.L. Moody, the Chicago evangelist, once said: “I suppose that if all the times I had prayed for faith were put together, it would amount to months. I used to say: ‘what we want is faith; if only we have faith we can turn Chicago upside down, or rather right side up.’ I thought that someday faith would come down and strike me like lightning. But faith did not seem to come. One day, I read the tenth chapter of Romans, ‘Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.’ I had closed my Bible and prayed for faith. I now know opened my Bible and begun to study, and faith has been growing ever since.” A sound and adequate faith grows out of a sound Biblical perspective.
And for Paul, faith also had to be practical. It had to be experienced, as in the case of the first converts in Thessalonica (Acts 17:4), and it had to be lived. Faith can never remain an hypothesis, it must end as a certainty. That assurance of faith can come only when we live it out amidst the pressure and problems of life, and in the face of opposition and antagonisms, and discover that as we live for Christ we actually grow more sure of Him every day. Here, then. For the early Christians and for us lies the basis of an intelligent and triumphant faith.
II. A MAGNIFICENT AND SENSITIVE LOVE:
“… and the love everyone of you has for each other is increasing.”
This was something else that Paul saw as a redeeming feature in the midst of all the problems the little church at Thessalonica was experiencing. There was a love in their hearts that was real; and not only was it there, it was growing. That was a healthy sign; especially that their love was not static but increasing. What kind of love was it? And why was it growing? What were the vital signs?
First, it was a love held by all, “The love everyone of you has”, Paul could say. However uncommon that love was in the ancient city of Thessalonica, it was common in the Christian church in that city. It wasn’t the possession of a few saints merely. The whole church was characterized by it. And what a boon it was. If you are facing a confused and confusing world, you need all the faith you can muster. And when you add this to a sound attitude that isn’t cynical or unduly critical, because there is a love in your heart, then you can begin to look at your own theological questions more objectively and at your rejection by others with greater understanding and self-control. Think of how influential that love must have been in that great city on the Egnation Road, where east and west converged, which received travellers and trade from both Europe and Asia. If the Christian message took root there, then it was bound to spread in both major directions. But what was one faith among so many, vying for the allegiance of the world, unless corroborated and reinforced by a love that makes people stop and take notice. Those Christians had it. Do we? What a strategic situation we hold here in Canada. We, too, have the message, but unless we have the love, will anyone stop and take notice?
Second, it was a love that was obviously cohesive. “The love everyone of you has for each other.” This love was no counterfeit. It was no general sentiment. This was a ‘love for brethren’. (1 John 3: 14). Sometimes we find the brethren not the easiest people in the world to love. That is because we discover our own faults in our brother or sister. But Jesus says: “All men will know you are my disciples if you love one another.” (John 13: 35). The key is to stand back from your feelings about fellow Christians. Pray for those you have difficulty with. Ask God to teach you something about yourself in the way you handle your dislikes of other Christians. It is this Christian affection that holds the church together, and recommends its message to the world. (John 17: 21).
Third, it was a love that derived from Christ. The love in the church at Thessalonica had its source in someone greater than even the sum of its members. It was more than mere brotherly love. It was that special love that the New Testament alone knows about (agape). Paul had taught them that it was none other than Jesus who was the Messiah. (Acts 17: 3). It was in Him they had put their trust. Then, almost automatically, His life became visible in theirs. That was hardly surprising for Jesus had said: “Anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.” (John 14: 12). Again, there is a specific quality about this love. It is more than a generally benevolent attitude. It is a specifically redemptive love that is concerned about a world that is on a collision course and determined to self-destruct. Such a love will not remain uninvolved.
III. A DETERMINED AND ABIDING STEADFASTNESS:
“Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance…” The word Paul uses here is a magnificent one, that addresses a need common in the ancient world and today, namely ‘failure of nerve’. Paul’s word (Hupomonē) means ‘an heroic constancy under fire’. It is more than just ‘hanging in’. Rather, it is a creative steadfastness that employs the tools of faith and love in both enduring trials and mastering them. Paul saw this steadfastness in the little church at Thessalonica.
It was a steadfastness that stood up under external challenges. The world my challenge our faith, but we need not worry. The faith we hold is not our faith in God so much as our certainty of his saving purpose and power in our lives. It was that which secured the future of the little church at Thessalonica. It will be that which will secure our future.
It was a steadfastness that survived internal problems. Greater than any external threat is the weakness from within. ‘Stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you’, Paul encouraged them. (2 Thessalonians 2: 15). Part of our problem is that we don’t expect to grow in our formulation of the faith and we wonder why we are dissatisfied with what we believe. Theological constancy and growth are not incompatible. We are encouraged to hold the basic New Testament faith, and then to grow within that faith.
It was a steadfastness based on Christ’s steadfastness. “He will strengthen you from the evil one… May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance. “ (2 Thessalonians 3: 3-5). Here, then, is the one true source of an intelligent and triumphant faith, a magnificent and sensitive love, and a determined and abiding steadfastness.
Dr. Allen Churchill