The Lord's Day Morning
June 3, 2012
“Living Life in Light of Jesus’ Return: A Word at Work in You”
1 Thessalonians 2:13-16
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to 1 Thessalonians chapter 2. We’re going to be looking at verses 13 to 16 today as we continue our way through this, perhaps, the first letter of the apostle Paul to the churches, and by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to you and to me. As we read this passage together today I'd like you to be on the lookout for two things. First of all, in verse 13, Paul recounts two specific reasons why he is grateful for what God is doing by His Spirit in the hearts of the Thessalonians. And I'd like you to zero-in on that as we read it and ask yourself, “What are the things that Paul is grateful for? What does he list here in 1 Thessalonians 2:13?”
Then, as we get to verse 14, especially the first section, Paul announces that the Thessalonians have become imitators of the Christian churches, the churches that worship the Lord Jesus Christ, in Judea, specifically in experiencing persecution and continuing to believe the Lord and trust the Lord while they’re experiencing that affliction and opposition and persecution. And in the midst of drawing attention to that and actually praising and encouraging the Thessalonians for the fact that they've received the Word of God and it's gotten them persecution and they've believed it anyway and therefore they are like their brethren back in Judea who received the Word of God and they got persecuted for it and they believed it anyway. In the context of encouraging them for following in the good example of the Christians in Judea, he pronounces a denouncement upon the people of Israel, upon his own kin, the Jewish people. It's perhaps the strongest denouncement of Israel found in any of Paul's writings.
And let me say that many people will come to this passage and say that this is anti-Semitism pure and simple. And they will thus accuse Paul of being anti-Semitic and accuse Christianity and the New Testament of being anti-Semitic. And they will use that as a way of dismissing the New Testament and Christianity saying, “The New Testament and Christianity is sub-moral, it's immoral in this area and therefore it does not need to be listened to authoritatively.” It's a way that people will reject Christianity. We need to know the answer to that as we share the Gospel and as we engage in a culture that highly values tolerance but does not highly value truth. And so we’ll give some attention to that. But the two things I want you to be on the lookout for: verse 13 – what Paul's grateful about; verse 14 — what Paul commends the Thessalonians for. Before we read, let's pray.
Heavenly Father, this is Your Word. We ask that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in it, to receive it for what it is — the very Word of God. We ask these things in Jesus' name, amen.
This is God's Word. Hear it, beginning in 1 Thessalonians 2 verse 13:
“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the Word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the Word of God, which is at work in you believers. For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved — so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them at last!”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
I wonder what role gratitude plays in your Christian life and I mean a specific kind of gratitude. I don't just mean gratitude for the blessings that God gives us in the resources that He puts into our hands, the food that He puts into our mouths, the clothes that He puts on our backs, the roofs that He puts over our heads, those kinds of earthly blessings, great as they are and things that we ought to be grateful for, I'm especially thinking of spiritual gratitude and I'm speaking of a special kind of spiritual gratitude. Right now I can think of numerous men and women over the course of my life who have poured their lives into mine and have blessed me by showing me what it means to live the Christian life. I'm not even talking about that kind of gratitude. I'm talking about a different kind of spiritual gratitude — a gratitude that is regularly looking around, especially at our own congregation, and thanking God for what He is doing in the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Do you find yourself, in whatever circle of Christian friends your membership is, whether it's in this congregation or another, do you find yourself looking around regularly saying, “Lord, I want to thank You for how You are at work in the life of that sister, that brother, in Christ”? Do you find yourself thinking that way from time to time? Do you find yourself being blessed when you see God's Word at work in somebody else's life who is a fellow member with you? Well Paul is giving us an example of that in this passage.
If you’ll look back to 1 Thessalonians chapter 1 verse 2, you will see that this passage is not the first time that Paul has expressed gratitude or thanksgiving. In 1 Thessalonians chapter 1 verse 2 he says, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioned you in our prayers.” So Paul begins this letter by speaking of his gratitude for the Thessalonians and for what God is doing in the Thessalonians. And if you look specifically, he tells you a couple of reasons why he thanks God for them. Notice verse 5 — “Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” In other words, one of the things he was thanking God for was that the Gospel didn't just come with words; it came with power in the lives of the Thessalonians. It changed their lives. In fact in this passage, he speaks about their faith, their love, and their hope. He says, “I can see the way the Gospel has changed you by your faith and your love and your hope.” So that's one thing that he thanks God for, but he doesn't stop.
If you look at verse 6, he says, “You became imitators of us and of the Lord for you received the Word in much affliction with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” So Paul's saying, “Another thing I thank God for is even though you have been afflicted, even though you have been opposed and oppressed and persecuted because you trust in Christ, you still believe and in the midst of that affliction you showed joy, and in so doing, you followed the example of the Lord Jesus and you followed the example of the apostles.” “Jesus, who for the joy set before Him, endured the cross and despised its shame.” Paul, who along with his missionary team, in Philippi, in prison, having been beaten, was singing hymns of praise to God in the middle of the night and the Thessalonians are acting the same way in affliction. And so in 1 Thessalonians 1:2-6, Paul gives thanks for what God was doing in the lives of the Thessalonians and for the way that they were enduring affliction, and do you notice how that mirrors what he's doing here in chapter 2 verses 13 to 16? The same themes pop up again.
But specially two things Paul draws to our attention. In verse 13, first, what the Word of God was doing in the Thessalonians and then in verses 14 to 16 how they had become imitators of the churches in Judea in enduring affliction and still believing. Now I'm going to take the second of those two things first because there's a problem there that I want us to face up with. Many people look at this passage and they say, “You know, Paul, you sound like an anti-Semite. You sound like someone who is anti-Semitic.” Look at verses 14 and following. “You have blamed the Jews for killing Jesus and the prophets, driving out the apostles, displeasing God, opposing all mankind, and hindering the spread of the Gospel, and you have said that God's wrath has come down on them at last. You, Paul, are an anti-Semite.” Now anti-Semitism means suspicion of the Jewish people, hatred for the Jewish people, or discrimination for the Jewish people simply because of their ethnicity and their heritage. And it is a very, very serious charge. And let me say, before I say anything else, we emphatically reject anti-Semitism. We have theological reasons why we hold anti-Semitism to be a very grave sin. It's not just because of political correctness that First Presbyterian Church rejects anti-Semitism; we have theological reasons why we reject anti-Semitism.
PAUL WAS NOT AN ANTI-SEMITE
But I want to say very quickly, it is also quite obvious that Paul was not anti-Semitic and I want to suggest to you — and I could give you so many that we wouldn't have time to do it today — but let me suggest five reasons to you that definitively show that Paul was not anti-Semitic. And here's the first one. Paul was a Jew! Paul was Jewish himself! And let me tell you two things about Paul. One, Paul has a deep and evident love for the Jewish people. If you will look in your Bibles in Romans 9 to 11, Paul will tell you that he finds himself praying to God that God would eternally damn him if He would only save his kinsmen according to the flesh. And I want to pause right now and ask you — Have you ever prayed like that for somebody? Have you ever said, “Lord, I love so-and-so so much, and they don't love the Lord Jesus, they don't believe the Gospel, they don't trust Christ; I love them so much that I could pray right now that You would damn me eternally if You would only bring them to Christ”? I've got to say, I don't find myself praying that way. Paul had that kind of love for Jewish people. He could say, “Lord, if You would just save all of the Jewish people, bring them to faith in Christ, it would be okay if You sent me to hell.” That's how much he loved the Jewish people. I want you to realize this is the man who's saying these things. This is not a man who hates Jewish people; this is a man who loves Jewish people tenaciously.
Secondly, let me say this about Paul. Do you realize everything that he denounces Israel for doing in verses 14 to 16 he has done himself? They persecuted the Lord Jesus Christ. What did Jesus say to Paul on the road to Damascus? “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting them”? No, that's not what He said. He said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me.” And did Saul participate in the persecution of the prophets? Oh yes he did! He held the cloaks while the men who stoned Stephen to death did the deed. And did he hinder the apostles in the spread of the Gospel? Yes, with very breath in his being he worked to hinder the spread of the Gospel! And did he displease God while he was doing it? Yes, he did. In fact Paul tells us, “I thought I was pleasing God, but in fact I was displeasing God.” So Paul did all the things that he's denouncing Israel for. He's not talking about this in some sort of theoretical, distance, detached sort of way. He understands this up close and personal. They are him and he is them. So this is not hatred for a race, for an ethnicity, this is not a hatred for the Jewish people because of their heritage. This is a condemnation of unbelief. It is not an expression of hatred against a particular ethnic group. Understand what's going on here.
That leads me to the second thing. Paul is doing exactly here what the Old Testament prophets do. If you read your Old Testament prophets and especially the later prophets and the minor prophets, what do you find them doing all the time? Denouncing Israel for unbelief. Now when those Old Testament Jewish prophets are denouncing the Jewish people for unbelief, are they being anti-Semitic? No, they don't hate the Jewish people for their ethnicity and heritage! They love the Jewish people; they love them so much they’re willing to denounce them for their unbelief. My Hebrew professor in seminary grew up in a Jewish home. He went to Hebrew school as a little boy. He was converted to Christ in university and he became a professor of Old Testament. I want to tell you it was enormous privilege to study Hebrew and Old Testament under him. He had a Jewish sense of humor and if you know a Jewish sense of humor there is nothing quite like it in the world and he brought that into his teaching, and there were stories from youth.
While I was studying under him, the Jewish Campus Ministry at Washington University in St. Louis — there was a large Jewish community in St. Louis and a large Jewish community at Washington University — came to him and asked him if he would come and deliver a lecture to the Jewish Student Union at Washington University on the subject, “Is the New Testament Anti-Semitic?” He said, “I would be honored and delighted to as long as you allow me to give two lectures and you’ll let me choose the topic of the first lecture.” And they said, “Well that's a little strange, but sure, that will be fine. You can come speak to us twice and you can choose the topic of the first lecture.” He chose for the topic of his first lecture, “Is the Old Testament Anti-Semitic?” And what he did was he went through the language of the Old Testament and he showed that the prophets of the Old Testament use stronger language denouncing Israel than any of the apostles used in the New Testament in speaking out the Jewish people. And it set the stage for him to be able to explain the language, like this language, that the New Testament uses. So Paul is just picking up the language of the prophetic denouncement of the Old Testament prophets of Israel for Israel's unbelief. This isn't ethnic hatred; this is a denouncement against not believing God's Word.
Third, Paul is just picking up the denouncement of Jesus here. Jesus, if you look at His words to His disciples spoken in the Olivet Discourse, for instance in Matthew, you will find Jesus saying the same kinds of things about Israel as Paul says here and speaking of the wrath that God was going to bring upon Jerusalem for their sins. So Paul is just reflecting Jesus’ own denouncement of Israel. And was Jesus anti-Semitic? He was a Jew who came to lay down His life for His people. “And no greater love has anyone but that He lays down His life for His friends.” Jesus loved the Jewish people, His people, and He laid down His life for them and for the world. So His love for the Jewish people is evident.
Fourth, remember that as Paul is speaking these words, Christianity is not an oppressing majority, it is an oppressed minority. It is a tiny, tiny minority. In fact, it is being oppressed and persecuted by the Jewish people. That's what's going on here. Now have people, including Christians, gone to passages like this, in later ages, in the context of a majority culture and used them as an excuse to oppress the Jewish people? Sadly, yes. But my friends, there is no truth that sin cannot twist. There is no truth that sin cannot twist but that does not mean that the truth is untrue or that Christianity is inherently anti-Semitic. No, any truth can be wretched from its original contexts and put to uses that God Himself would condemn. And that's certainly happened in this case, but this passage is not anti-Semitic.
And let me say one last thing. Paul is speaking out of his own personal experience and frustration here. He has taken the Gospel to the Jewish people and seen it rejected and he has seen the Jewish people not only reject the Lord Jesus Christ and the apostles, but hinder their ministry and persecute Christians. Paul is just baldly stating the facts here. And in this passage, his point is not to get the Thessalonians to hate the Jewish people. Look at verse 14 again. His point is very obvious. “You brothers became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews.” Listen to that line again. “You suffered the same things from your own countrymen that they did from the Jews.” Paul's point here is not to get the Thessalonians to hate the Jews; his point here is that they've suffered as much from Gentiles as the Jewish Christians in Judea have suffered from the Jews. In other words, he's saying, “Both Gentiles and Jews have persecuted God's people — predominantly Gentile churches; predominantly Jewish churches. You've experienced the same thing. His point is not to get them to hate the Jewish people or to blame the Jewish people for every sin ever committed. His point is to say, “Hey guess what? Your experience is just like the experiences of the churches in Judea. They were persecuted by the Jews; you've been persecuted by the Gentiles.”
By the way, what doe Paul argue in Romans 1,2 , and 3? That the whole world, both Jew and Gentile, stand condemned by God and under His just judgment and wrath because of our sins. “For all have fallen short of the glory of God,” both Jew and Gentile. It reads like an elaboration on 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16. No, Paul is not anti-Semitic. His point is to commend the Thessalonians for enduring their afflictions just like the Jewish Christians in Judea were enduring their afflictions from their own countrymen. Paul is pausing and saying, “I am watching Christians be willing to suffer for Christ and still believe Him and still believe the Gospel.” And my friends, do you have that experience? Can you look around and see people experiencing affliction because of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and give thanks to God for them? If you don't, you’re not looking. If you don't, you’re not looking. It is happening all the time and it will more and more in our own culture. But my friends, our missionaries face this constantly, constantly, and if we're not looking at that and not just praying for them but deriving a reason to give God praise and thanks and gratitude, we're missing the point. Paul looks at these Thessalonians experiencing persecution for the sake of the Gospel and he says, “Lord, thank You that the Gospel is real; it's so real in their lives that they’re willing to bleed for it.” And he gives thanks to God.
PAUL WAS CONSTANTLY GRATEFUL FOR
THE RECEPTION AND THE ACTIVITY OF THE WORD OF GOD
Now here's the second thing. And I wish that I could have spent the whole time on verse 13 and you’ll see why, but here's the second thing. And it's Paul is constantly grateful for two other reasons. Not only is he grateful that the Thessalonians are enduring suffering and persecution and still believing and thus becoming imitators of the churches in Judea who have enduring suffering and are still believing, but he gives thanks to God for two other reasons. Look at what he says. “We also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the Word of God, which you heard from us, that you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the Word of God.” The first thing that he wants to thank God for is that they accepted the Word of God as the Word of God. He wants to point to their receiving of the Word and thank God for it. Secondly, you see this in the last words of verse 13, “You accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the Word of God, which is at work in you believers.” So he's thankful for their receiving of the Word of God and for the activity of the Word of God in them.
Now let me just think about those two things with you for a moment. First of all he's saying, “I thank God that when we preached the Gospel to you, you understood that this was not something that had come out of our brains. This message was not a message that human beings had made up. It was the very Word of God.” J.I. Packer says that, “In preaching, the Word of God delivers through the preacher a message from God to His people about God and godliness.” Isn't that a wonderful definition of preaching? “In preaching, the Word of God delivers through the preacher a message from God to His people about God and godliness.” Notice what Packer doesn't say. He doesn't say that a preacher delivers a message about God. He says that the Word of God delivers through a preacher a message from God which is about God and godliness. It is a glorious way of explaining what happens in preaching. And Paul is saying the Thessalonians got that. “They understood that when I stood up and preached the Gospel this was not something that was coming from my heart and my mind; I'd not invented this. I received this. This is a message that was given to me. This is a message that's being preached through me.” Do you understand that every time we gather under God's Word on the Lord's Day you are here to experience a Word-mediated encounter between your soul and the living God? God Himself is using the preacher as an instrument, as a tool, to mediate an encounter with you by the Word of God so that He can speak into your life. It is impossible for you to have too high a view of the Word of God. It's impossible.
And Paul is looking at these Thessalonians and he's saying, “Lord God, I thank You that they get that! I thank You that they understand that the Word of God is not the words of men; it is the very Word of God! It's You speaking to them by Your Word! They get that!” Do you ever, do you ever look around and you see that going on in the congregation and you see somebody who, the light has just gone on for them and they understand now that this isn't just the words of men, this is the very Word of God speaking to me? And have you ever just paused and said, “Lord, thank You that's Your Spirit working in that brothers’ life; that's Your Spirit working in that sisters’ life for them to receive the Word of God for what it is — Your own Word!”
And then Paul says, “And it's Your Word at work in you who believe.” So it's not a dead Word; it's a living Word. It's a Word at work in you. And we've already mentioned that He's pointed out some of the ways that it's at work in verses 14 to 16. He said, “It's at work in you because it's enabling you to believe even in the midst of persecution.” But back in verses 3 and following he mentions faith, love, and hope as evidence that God's Word is at work in you. It's God's Word at work in you causing you to have faith and therefore you are working out your faith. And to have love, therefore you are laboring from your love. And to have hope, therefore you are persevering and enduring because of the hope that the Word of God implanted in you. All through this passage he's piling up things that the Word of God is doing in these people. The Word of God is transforming their lives. The Word of God is changing them and Paul's looking at that and he's saying, “Lord, I want to stop right now and I want to thank You because I see the Word of God at work in them.”
Now do you do that? Do you look around at First Presbyterian Church or in your own congregation and pause from time to time to thank God for those spiritual, Gospel things that He is doing in the lives of your brothers and sisters in Christ? If you don't, you will be grumpy, because look, we are bunch of sinners living in close proximity with a bunch of sinners in a local church and there are things that we will do to make one another grumpy. And if you are not, from time to time, deliberately looking around and expressing gratitude to God for the Gospel work that He's doing by the Word of God in the hearts of your brothers and sisters, you’ll get grumpy. Listen to what C.J. Mahaney says. C.J. Mahaney says, “If we fail to notice evidence of God's grace in our church, we will gradually become grumblers rather than grateful.” If we fail to notice evidence of God's grace in our church, we will gradually become grumblers rather than grateful. And Paul here is pausing to express gratitude to God for the real work that He's doing in the lives of people in the Thessalonian congregation. Do we pause and do that? If we don't, we will grump.
And look, there will be plenty of legitimate reasons to grump. You may have things to grumble about me. I've got a longer list than you do! And they’d be legitimate. There are all sorts of legitimate things that you could become bitter and grumble about if you do not actively cultivate gratitude to God for the evidences of grace that He is at work in the hearts of people in this congregation. That means our eyes have to be open all the time asking, “What's the Lord doing?” So here sit dozens of young people who are going to spend their summer pouring their lives into hundreds of young people. There will be young people converted. There will be young people who have such a tremendous advance by the work of the Spirit in their lives that they feel like they’re converted. There will be people who have a sense of call to the ministry or to the mission field and it will happen. God will use some of these young people right here this summer. Now are you going to pay close enough attention to that to give praise to God for that?
All year long we have teachers and administrators at our Day School pouring their lives into the lives of young people and amazing things happen in that context. Are we paying close enough attention that we pause and we give gratitude to God? We have people in our student ministry, in our college ministry year round, pouring their lives into the lives of young people and young people are being converted and they’re being changed and transformed. Are we paying close enough attention to that that we can give praise to God? Are our eyes open for opportunities to give gratitude to God for the evidences of grace as He works by His Word in the hearts and lives of our brothers and sisters here at First Presbyterian Church? That's what Paul is pausing to do here and he's giving us a good example. May God enable us to cultivate that kind of Gospel gratitude in our own lives.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word. Thank You that Your Word is at work in us. And we pray, heavenly Father even now, as we sing about the Gospel, that our eyes would be more opened to viewing and appreciating Gospel truth in this congregation. We ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
Now we sang from 599 earlier, so let's sing from 499. “Rock of Ages” is a song about the Gospel. Let's sing it to God's praise.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.