1 Thessalonians 2 v 14 – 16 For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God
An eyewitness account by one of the few prisoners to have escaped from North Korea after being subjected to brutal torture in Klechen Camp has been published widely by Christian Solidarity Worldwide. In the camp, Christians must permanently face the ground, with their heads bent over. This cruelty has permanently deformed the necks of many. The guards clearly fear the power of God if they try to prevent Christians from looking up to Him. Even in death, Christians are buried face down to prevent them from “seeing heaven.” Christians are literally worked to death in iron foundries and other factories, their bodies exposed to extreme temperatures and often burned by sparks from furnaces. They are forced to work with nothing but a poor quality apron to protect themselves.
Starvation is a ruthless means of suppressing Christian opposition in North Korea, even against children in the Klechen camp. Children are put into cages. Each morning the mothers are forced to walk past these cages where they see their children starving and cold. The eyewitness reported: “The children screamed and cried out for their mothers. Sometimes the women at great risk to themselves, would knit socks or gloves with scraps and would throw them to their children to keep them warm. Sometimes they would even hide food inside, even though they themselves were starving. If a mother was caught doing this she would be dragged outside alone and beaten until she could not hear or see any more. Even then I would hear her call out to her children to make sure that they were alright.” Such is one example of the persecution of Christian believers in the People’s Republic of North Korea. More than 100,000 people are held in barbaric conditions inside prison camps in North Korea without having had a proper trial. There are of course degrees of persecution that people suffer for Christ. This extreme cruelty may not be faced by others in other countries hostile to the Gospel. But the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ has always been subject to persecution, both on a personal level – persecution of individual believers – and on a corporate level too. The scripture of 2 Timothy 3 v 12 has been true for all of the 2000 years of Church History –
Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.
Persecution is a cost of discipleship – of following the Lord Jesus Christ. Verse 14 – 16 of 1 Thessalonians 2, the passage that we are following on Sunday Mornings, is about
THE COST OF BEING A CHRISTIAN.
This subject is relevant to all of us here this morning.
1. It is relevant to those who already love and know the Lord Jesus Christ as their saviour and Lord. We need to encourage one another to persevere despite the persecution that we face in these days in our sophisticated Western culture. We may not be treated as badly as our brothers and sisters in North Korea – but there is a cost to being a Christian!
2. It is relevant to those with us this morning who are not believers in the Lord Jesus Christ but who are exercised in their souls about yielding to Him as Lord and Master. You, my friends, need to know that the Christian pathway is not an easy pathway. Following Christ will cost you dearly. You could lose friends; your own family may turn against you; your neighbours may become hostile and unkind when you declare that you belong to Jesus Christ and are following Him.
The Apostle Paul was writing to a group of people who already knew only too well this cost of following the Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed the Working of the Word of God in their Hearts through the Holy Spirit was evidenced in their reaction to persecution. The Christian believers at Thessalonica PROVED that they were truly converted by doing two things.
1. They became imitators – followers – of the Apostles, the missionaries, who were in turn followers of Christ. We thought about this when we studied Chapter 1 v 6 several months ago.
6 And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost:
We notice how Paul used the phrase ‘in much affliction’ – it cost them to receive the Good News of the Gospel; then it cost to believe the Gospel – and finally it cost them to live the Gospel day by day.
2. The second thing that they did is in this 14th verse –
14 For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews:
Now they become Imitators of the Church community in Jerusalem and Judea. They had not set out to do so. They had not sent a working party to investigate how things were done in Jerusalem and what sufferings were being experienced there. But it had happened that when the Church in Thessalonica came into being through the Mission of Paul, Silas and Timothy, then they formed a church Order and they suffered persecution and hardship – in the same way that the other churches suffered. They were united in tribulation which showed the unity of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This common allegiance to and interest in the Lord Jesus Christ aroused the hatred of the unbelievers around them as it so easily can do today.
Paul has an interesting way of describing what happened in Thessalonica –
followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus:
He uses 2 terms – Churches of God and Churches in Christ Jesus. Was there a difference between Churches of God and Churches of Christ? No – they were the same. However Paul was seeking to distinguish the true churches from the other Judean communities that existed in those days which claimed to be “OF GOD” but who rejected the Messiah. The Apostle Paul knew only too well about persecution – he had been a persecutor himself, as well as persecuted for his faith in Christ. He knew now that there were true Churches, assemblies of genuine believers in Christ who were covenant people – chosen in Christ from the Foundation of the world. He describes them in the plural – CHURCHES, recognising that the one Church of God is the same in essence wherever it expresses itself. It is proper therefore to speak of local congregations as Churches of God.
But he further describes these Churches in the region of Judea as IN CHRIST to distinguish them from Jewish assemblies which also claimed to be congregations of God. The Apostle John writing in Revelation had a term for these false churches that did not belong to Jesus Christ and were therefore not In Christ – synagogues – assemblies – of Satan.
Revelation 2 v 9 I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. Revelation 3 v 9 Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee.
What is it that distinctively makes any assembly of people a Christian Church? It is that they are IN CHRIST. They did not only name Christ, but Christ was the head of these assemblies – the believers were subject to His will and His word.
Whenever a so called church in any period of history moves its position from being IN CHRIST – from believing in Christ – from being united in Christ – from working in Christ’s interest – from being obedient to Christ – then such an assembly can no longer be called a true Church. When man and his interests are uppermost and Christ is dethroned in an assembly, it is no longer a church. When Christ’s laws, the laws of the Scriptures are no longer obeyed and honoured, then it is no longer a church. There may be those amongst such assemblies who love Christ, but they become a smaller and smaller minority as the so called church dies and becomes irrelevant. The mark of a true church is that it is IN CHRIST. When its leaders permit or dictate behaviours amongst the members that are clearly contrary to Christ’s word, then that Church ceases to be able to say that it is IN CHRIST. Of course blurring the distinctives, allowing immorality, departing from Biblical values, make for a very easy life – persecution rarely features any more.
But as soon as a company of God’s people become serious about being IN Christ and following Him closely, then persecution is bound to follow. And it can be costly!
Are we this serious my friends? Are we willing to risk serious persecution as a result of obeying Christ in everything? Are we ready to be labelled as those who are “narrow-minded and a barrier to human progress and understanding?” This is what people who claim that there is only one way of salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ are now being called by the new liberal left wing humanist groups in Britain today. We could be on the brink of a new wave of persecution as evangelical believers in this land which could become as bad as it is in North Korea! Do you still want to be a Christian? Are you ready to suffer persecution for Christ? This is the challenge of today’s verses!
So much for the first part of verse 14.
Next we find Paul writing about
THE NATURE OF THEIR SUFFERINGS.
for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews:
The Thessalonian Christians were going through the same kind of suffering at the hands of their own country men who were Gentiles, that the Jews were going through in Judea. It was not the persecution that was mentioned in Acts 17 v 5 – 8 that Paul had in mind. There the opposition to the Gospel was instigated by the Jews from the Thessalonica Synagogue. They hired a gentile “Rent a mob” group of men to stir up hatred against the missionaries and the first converts.
The persecution Paul is thinking about the one that had been recently reported by Timothy. This later persecution had taken place AFTER the departure of the missionaries. It would have taken several forms. Perhaps the husbands of many of those women who had been converted were making it hard for their wives to live a godly Christian life. Perhaps others faced the scorn of their neighbours; some lost their jobs; others may even have been falsely accused of crimes that they did not commit.
Whether persecution comes from Jews or Gentiles it is always of the same character. At the bottom of all persecution and hostility towards the Gospel and them that believe – is the age old enemy – the devil. He has been at war with God and those that belong to God since the world began. This hostility has even involved God’s favoured people the Jews. Some have said that Paul is speaking harshly against his own Jewish people here because he wanted to retaliate for what they had done to him and others. But this is not in the Spirit of Christlike Godliness. The Lord Jesus Christ, though He was reviled did not answer back. No – Paul, who was Christ’s man, wanted to inform his Thessalonians Christian friends about the Jews own history. They may have been wondering why it was, that a faith in the Lord Jesus Christ – a Jew , was so bitterly opposed by Jews and why so relatively few became Christians.
They needed to know what had happened in the past – that the Jewish people has had a history of attacking God’s own servants sent to His own people. What happened in Judea, the persecution of the Churches, was not an isolated event, but one in a series.
This is how Paul put it – a series of observations of Jewish history – past and present.
1. They Killed the Lord Jesus Christ;
2. They killed their own prophets;
3. They persecuted the Apostles;
4. They displease God;
5. They are hostile to all men who are not Jews; and
6. They forbid Christians to speak to Gentiles.
1. They Killed the Lord Jesus Christ v15a
15 Who both killed the Lord Jesus,
Putting to death the Lord Jesus Christ was the greatest of all Jewish crimes. Paul wrote in the Greek like this – “The Lord they killed – Jesus.” They destroyed Him who is the Divine Lord Himself. It was the Jews who started the fires of persecution of the fledgling Christian church – starting with the crucifixion. The Jews forced the hand of the Gentile Roman Governor Pontius Pilate to act as their tool. This information is freely available from the Gospels and contemporary historians. The Jews hatred of Jesus led them to choose a murderous terrorist to be released from death row – while the meek loving tender shepherd of His followers who by grace had found true peace with God, was cruelly persecuted – to death!
We do not say this to castigate the Jews. As believers in that same Lord Jesus Christ we believe that it was our sins that nailed Jesus to the cross. We believe that in God’s sovereign plan the death of the Lord Jesus Christ was no accident – but a fulfilment of the redemptive purposes of God. The purposes of God were achieved through the wickedness of the Jews and their persecutions.
In the same way the Jews in Thessalonica made the Gentile rabble their tools and stirred up the Gentile authorities in the first instance – and then provoked continued hostility towards the believers. What was it about the Jews that brought them to take this action and have this attitude? Paul explains in the next phrase appealing to history -
2. They killed their own prophets v 15b
and their own prophets,
Stephen was a Deacon of the first Church in Jerusalem. He was also the first Christian martyr who was stoned by an angry Jewish crowd. In that crowd was a young man called Saul, later to become the writer of the letter to the Thessalonians – Paul. Before he died at the hands of the stone throwers Stephen made a speech and in that speech he said this – and remember that Stephen himself was a Jew converted to Christ –
Acts 7 v 51 Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. 52 Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers:
The Jewish persecution of God’s servants extends back in time, beyond the days of the Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed the saviour Himself accused the Jewish leaders of this persecution –
Matthew 23 v 37 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! 38 Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.
The parable of the wicked husbandmen in Matthew 21 also linked the killing of the prophets with His own death – it was a prelude. Tradition has it that some of the Prophets who wrote scripture met with violent deaths – but there is no Biblical data to support this. However several texts point to some of the other less well known messengers of God, Prophets all the same, who were killed by their own people. Nehemiah 9 v 26 Nevertheless they were disobedient, and rebelled against thee, and cast thy law behind their backs, and slew thy prophets which testified against them to turn them to thee, and they wrought great provocations.
Elijah the prophet was miserable when he said these words in 1 Kings 19 v 9
And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah? 10 And he said, I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.
Their own scriptures testify against the Jews in such passages as this one in 2 Chronicles 24 v 20
And the Spirit of God came upon Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest, which stood above the people, and said unto them, Thus saith God, Why transgress ye the commandments of the LORD, that ye cannot prosper? because ye have forsaken the LORD, he hath also forsaken you. 21 And they conspired against him, and stoned him with stones at the commandment of the king in the court of the house of the LORD.
Throughout their history therefore the Jews had repeatedly placed themselves in opposition to God, all the time thinking that they were serving Him. It would have appalled them to know that they were resisting God, but in their stubborn blindness that is exactly what they were doing.
3. They persecuted the Apostles v 15c
and have persecuted us;
The Greek here is “they drove us out.” Certainly it was true of Paul Silas and Timothy – they had been driven out of Philippi and Thessalonica literally.
Paul here is identifying all the Apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ with the Prophets sent to the Jews during their History. He looked BACK to the driven out and persecuted prophets – and FORWARDS to his present day and indeed to the future believers who would take the message of the Gospel to others through all periods of the Gospel age. There is going to be persecution! In 1945 hundreds of missionaries were DRIVEN OUT of China. We mentioned earlier North Korea – again many missionaries have been driven out of that country by those who fear the power of the Gospel. Persecution is nothing new and will continue until the Lord Jesus Christ comes again!
4. They displease God v 15d
and they please not God,
In their opposition the Jews were out of step with both God and man. God is displeased when attempts to prevent people hearing about Him are made. But the thing about such resistance that provokes God’s greatest displeasure is this – the rejection of His Son, the Messiah, the sent one. This crime is the ultimate crime. To refuse to accept that Jesus Christ the Son of God and Son of Man is God’s Messiah, sent to be the Saviour of sinners displeases God so much that it earns His wrath upon that person who refuses Him! Everyone who does not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ is in this category. This is most solemn my friend. Do not think that you have the luxury of taking or leaving Jesus Christ as the Messiah sent from the creator God! Do not think that you can take your chances that when you meet God there may be some loophole that will get you into Heaven! Oh No! If you do not believe today that Jesus Christ is the only way to God – a relationship with Him through repentance and faith is the only way to have your sins dealt with – and a coming to Him so that He might pardon, forgive and cleanse you from all of your sins – if you are rejecting Christ the Messiah like this in your heart this morning – then my friend you are in grave danger – in danger of the same displeasure that God felt towards those right through History who have rejected His sent One, His Messiah – the saviour of sinners! Are you prepared to continue your life displeasing your creator and God?
5. They are hostile to all men who are not Jews v 15e
and are contrary to all men:
The Jews in their hostility to believers in the Lord Jesus Christ were extending their hostility to anyone who was not a Jew. The Gentiles are hated by the Jews. Why was this? Because in their history God had chosen them and blessed them as a nation – calling them to live apart from other men with Himself. But the purpose was that God might bless the rest of mankind through them. Sadly the spirit of pride and jealousy had taken over in the Jewish nation because God had departed from them. Even though they were descended in the flesh from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they were in effect themselves acting like Ishmaelites with their hands against every man.
The call to be set apart as a holy nation had turned into hostility to anyone who was not a Jew, including Jews who had turned to believe in Jesus!
6. They forbid Christians to speak to Gentiles 16a
Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved,
Even though they cannot actually prevent the progress of the Gospel Paul says that the Jews are constantly interfering and hindering the cause of Christ. The same was happening in Corinth from where Paul was writing this letter to the Thessalonians – Acts 18 had the details. Yet the missionaries were bringing news of God’s greatest gift – salvation full and free through the Lord Jesus Christ His son. Apart from this message being heard and received there is no way for men and women, boys and girls to be saved.
My friends – the same might be said of those today who undermine or hinder the spread of the gospel. We cannot deprive men and women of the words of life without in some sense becoming responsible for the loss of their souls. This is serious when we consider that local churches have been called and set apart for this ministry in our day. We are in this together! We all have a part to play of bringing this most wonderful message to people around us! Even though it may bring down upon us inevitable persecution.
THE RESULT OF THEIR PERSECUTING ACTIONS.
1. they fill up their sins v 16b
to fill up their sins alway:
Paul has a little more to say about the Jews. As a result of their antagonism and blind resistance, the Jews are heaping up their sins to the limit. God in His decree places a limit on the sins of people. There is a point in sinful behaviour beyond which chastisement or judgment is inevitable. Paul applies it here to the Jews. And next he says that
2. The wrath of God has finally come upon them v16c.
for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.
Their latest attempts to destroy the church – and Paul had had a part to play in this before His wonderful conversion – was just adding to the stockpile of Jewish sins that was reaching the limit – indeed Paul suggests that the limit had been reached now – and that the wrath of God has come upon them at last. God’s decision to pour out His wrath on the Jews has already been made. The rejection of the Messiah was perhaps the final act of fixing the nation’s fate. The point of no return had been reached.
Oh my friends it is impossible to read these solemn words without being filled with a sense of dread. God is a forbearing God. God is a forgiving God. God is longsuffering. But there is a limit. Nothing awaits the impenitent, either Jews or Gentiles, but abandonment to God’s wrath. Those who refuse to love and serve the Lord Jesus Christ – only God’s anger and punishments awaits them.
Therefore there is urgent business for you to do this morning, if you have not already done it – to avoid God’s wrath and punishment for sin you must find peace with God.
Romans 5 v 1 Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ:
To find peace with God is to be justified, that is declared righteous, by faith, simple trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and what He has done for sinners. God’s Son died for ordinary people such as you or me. When we simply admit our sin, turn away from it and ask God’s pardon and forgiveness for our sins, then He promises to clear our debt of sin and turn away God’s wrath and anger from us. How foolish it is for anyone to refuse such an offer!
Or perhaps the thought of persecution is too much for some here today! Well let me say finally – the persecution is short term – it will only last while we live – but the punishment in hell – lasts for ever!