I. Introduction – Anxiety and Stress
The experts say we are living in times of unprecedented stress. From multiple sources last week, I saw articles like this, all driven by a new report from the American Psychological Association.
Americans are besieged by stress. A poll of 3012 US adults by the American Psychological Association say that Americans are overwhelmed by Covid, rising costs of everyday items like groceries and gas, a constant stream of crisis without a break over the last two years. And now the Russian invasion of Ukraine is terrifying.
Maybe I had an atypical reaction to his news. After I read this article, our tech overlords begin to show advertisements to me. They think I should purchase not only anti-anxiety medicine, but also heartburn and acid reflux medicines. A more jaded individual than I might conclude the sole purpose of the story is to frighten people into becoming medicated. I guess that means Covid-19 is over now that they’ve moved on to other medications.
But I came to the realization that this article is almost the exact opposite of the lesson we are studying this week in 1 Thessalonians 2. While the article talks about stress in these times, anxiety in these places, death and destruction all round us, the message of the gospel is living without fear, living with God’s Word, living for others, and living for the future. Our trust and our response to the gospel define our present and our future.
II. Background and History
But first, a little background and history of the Apostle Paul and the Thessalonica church. Paul liked to travel, back when it wasn’t mandatory to wear masks on public transportation. He shared the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome. He traveled by land and sea. Along the way, he endured public humiliation, imprisonments, flogging, and a thorn in the flesh, whatever it was. Yet, he endured and impacted so many people, both immediately and for generations.
It wasn’t always easy for him. Sometimes, he had to adjust what he wanted to do in his heart of compassion. His ministry in Thessalonica was short – he wanted to stay longer, establish the church, and grow leadership as he did in other locations, that was not the case in Thessalonica. Paul and Silas were preaching in the Jewish synagogue on three consecutive Sabbaths, but some of the Jews became jealous and started a riot, and Paul and Silas had to flee Thessalonica in the middle of the night.
That didn’t stop Paul, though, from encouraging them and leading them by writing this letter. Paul persevered in leading these believers from afar through the written word. His circumstances were challenging.
Maybe sometimes our own circumstances are difficult and challenging. I had my own this week. Personal disagreements with some I am close to always disturbs me. I have an increased workload, and I had this squamous cell carcinoma removed this week, and the stitches made me look like either Elvis with only a single side burn, or Frankenstein. Next week there will be new challenges.
My challenges are paltry compared to many in this room or on Zoom, and they certainly paled next to Paul’s riots in Thessalonica, and they are miniscule compared to the horrors in Ukraine this last month. How do we maintain our enthusiasm when so much seems to be stacked against us?
Paul, challenged as he was, continued sharing the gospel. Everywhere, all the time. He never gave up on his mission. His letters are filled with words of encouragement, admonishment, direction, doctrine, and practical guidelines on how to live as Christ-followers.
Despite Paul’s troubles, Paul’s heart remained toward the new Christians of Thessalonica. He only knew them for a short time but had a connection to them that went beyond the superficial. He wanted these new believers to understand who they were in Christ Jesus regardless of how others looked at them, knowing they would struggle and suffer. Let’s start with 1 Thessalonica 2:13.
III. Word of God
And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.
Paul didn’t write to Thessalonica to admonish them. The church there was doing many things right. They desired to please God in the way they lived. Earlier in his letter, Paul said his time with them was “not in vain.” (2:1). Paul didn’t give up just because he was away from them. I know over time I’ve given up on friendships due to distance or time.
I’ve kept the same two close friends now for over 40 years. But others? Some I might write to every few months and then I give up. I feel it’s just too much trouble.
Paul could have been the sort of person who was “out of sight, out of mind” towards others. In many ways, it would make Paul’s journeys easier. But he didn’t. He invested in the lives of the people with whom he had shared the gospel regardless of distance or difficulty.
Paul commends them for what they did with the gospel seed that was planted. Paul, along with Silas and Timothy (that’s the “we” in verse 13) thanked God constantly. There was something about these people that tugged at the heartstrings of Paul and his missionary partners. Paul shared the Word of God with them accurately and passionately, and their acceptance endeared them to Paul.
And now Paul has heard about their faith, and Paul is constantly thankful to God for them. Paul affirmed them for how they received, welcomed, and believed the Word of God. And in that order; received, welcomed, believed. It’s the spiritual journey of the Thessalonica believers. Verse 13 says that the first thing they did was “receive the Word of God.”
What did he mean by “receive? He didn’t say “hear the Word”. He used the Greek word Paralambano which means to associate, to take with oneself. It became part of them. In Matthew 1, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take [paralambano] Mary home as your wife.” It’s used to describe a betrothal. It’s a very intimate word.
These people in Thessalonica had not heard the gospel before Paul presented it. They recognized Paul as a teacher and received what he was saying as something beyond human tradition or folklore. There was something unique about the message proclaimed, something sacred.
They could tell that it was not just the words of Paul, Silas, or Timothy. It was not just flowery language that gave them a warm fuzzy feeling inside. The words were not superficial but penetrated hearts and minds. The message that Paul proclaimed so clearly was about how God who spoke the world into existence became flesh in Jesus Christ, whom John would refer to as the “Word of God.”
They had heard the stories of God, the law, the prophets, and kings. But they had never heard the connection between these stories and Jesus Christ, who was the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Jesus, who was and is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Paul made this message clear to those living in Thessalonica. A message that was, is, and always will be life-changing for those who receive it as the holy inspired Word of God and not men.
The Word of God will change your entire life forever. It causes you to think, it causes you to ponder its meaning, its relevance, and its purpose. Hebrews 4:12 says,
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
Not only did the church of Thessalonica palambano / receive the Word, Paul says they “dechomai” welcomed it. Both the NIV and NASB uses the word accepted, but the NKJV uses “welcomed” which may be a better translation. This wasn’t just receiving something, this was personal.
Paul uses the Greek word “dechomai” and means to take with the hand, to take hold of. Do you remember a man named Simeon in Luke 2? The Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Christ. Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple as an infant and Simeon was there. In Luke 2:28-30,
He [Simeon] took Him [Jesus] up in his arms and blessed God and said:
“Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace,
According to Your word;
For my eyes have seen Your salvation.
Simeon embraced Jesus, the same word “dechomai” is used. Simeon embraced the Word of God made flesh. The Thessalonians embraced the truth of the gospel message. It was no longer merely an intellectual concept but a personal connection relevant to their daily lives and relationships.
It’s been said that Christianity is not a religion. It’s a relationship. There is an intimate relationship between the believer and the Word. Sometimes we miss out on the intimacy of Scripture. We look up passages like we’re looking up a dictionary entry. We read through verses, whole a paragraphs at a time, without pondering what we read. We recite our favorite verses by memory.
But those in Thessalonica embraced Scripture with the gentleness, warmth, and awe as Simeon did when he held the Lord God baby Jesus. Paul knew the power of this Word. Paul had previously arrested, flogged, and even killed Christians. But an encounter with Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, changed his life and purpose forever.
We have the Word of God available to us like no other time in history, but we rarely stop to ponder the awe and the wonder and the power and the intimacy of the message. The Word of God transforms us, not like plastic surgery from the outside in, but dramatically from the inside out. In verse 13, Paul notes that this Word “also works effectively in you who believe.” The believers of Thessalonica were new creatures, and their lives were changed relationally, philosophically, and practically. They received a new a biblical worldview.
So all is peaceful and calm now right? I don’t know where we get that idea. Paul’s life certainly didn’t become easier. Neither did the Church of Thessalonica.
IV. New Challenges
In 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16,
For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you also endured the same sufferings at the hands of your own countrymen, even as they did from the Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out. They are not pleasing to God, but hostile to all people, hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved; with the result that they always reach the limit of their sins. But wrath has come upon them fully.
The Christian life doesn’t absolve us from the world’s challenges. These new believers at Thessalonica did not seem to expect a life free of trouble, but perhaps they did not expect their opposition to be their own “countrymen.” These were people who had come to believe in Jesus, the prophesied Messiah.
Perhaps the connection to a Jew named Jesus was too much for their fellow countrymen to accept. But even the Jews turned against other Jews who believed in Jesus as the Messiah.
The Christians in Thessalonica knew they were not alone. They realized that other believers in other cities had gone through similar suffering. The challenges they faced did not derail their belief. They maintained allegiance to Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected.
Do we allow words or actions by others to impact our Christian walk? Some are steadfast in their faith regardless of circumstances, challenges, or opposition. I truly admire Christians like that. The rest of us are less steadfast. Some of us are only Christian on Sundays. Some get behind the wheel of a car and get possessed by a demon that rants and raves at other drivers. Some of us go silent because we don’t want to be ridiculed for something we believe in that is so personal. But we are called to be strong and courageous. Our biblical model endured stress, anxiety, persecution. Paul did. Certainly Jesus did.
Paul takes a short detour here and talks about the Jews. Paul is clear in his other writings that we are all responsible for the death of Jesus because of our sins, but here, Paul focuses on the sins of the Jews. In crucifying Jesus, the Jews had fulfilled prophecy and postponed the coming Kingdom because they had rejected their Messiah.
The Jews displeased God and were hostile to everyone. The Jews tried to silence the message of Jesus Christ through intimidation and threats. And in doing so, they hardened their hearts. Their eyes were physically open but spiritually closed. Their hearts were physically warm and beating, but spiritually cold and lifeless.
Jesus prophesied this, too, in Matthew 13:14-15 –
Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. And in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says,
‘You shall keep on listening, but shall not understand;
And you shall keep on looking, but shall not perceive;
For the heart of this people has become dull,
With their ears they scarcely hear,
And they have closed their eyes,
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
Hear with their ears,
Understand with their heart, and return,
And I would heal them.’
Those in unbelief reap judgement by the One they reject. But for those who believe there is hope, joy, and glory in our future. 1 Thessalonians 2:17-18,
V. Living in Joy
But we, brothers and sisters, having been orphaned from you by absence for a short while—in person, not in spirit—were all the more eager with great desire to see your face. For we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, more than once—and Satan hindered us.
Paul had to leave them, physically. But his heart, thoughts, and prayers would always be with them. He and Silas and Timothy were the opposite of the countrymen, but Paul and his ministry offered encouragement that spanned time and distance.
Paul wanted to stay, but that didn’t happen. Then he wanted to return, which didn’t happen either. It was not a lack of desire, but Satan thwarting Paul’s desires.
Paul realized what we often forget: there is a spiritual world that coexists with the physical world. He would write specifically about this in Ephesians 6:12,
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.
In the great spiritual battle between good and evil, between humility and pride, we are blessed to be on the side of good. Sometimes we forget who the enemy is – it is not people. It’s bad ideas, it’s bad actions. Identity politics makes this harder. When we disagree with another who supports identity politics, they hear, “You don’t like my idea, so you don’t like me. If I’m black, that means you’re racist. If I’m gay, that means you’re a homophobe. If I want to teach your children to change genders, that means you’re a homophobe.” Satan and the ideas of the world are often hard to separate.
But here in 1 Thessalonians, Paul very nonchalantly simply says, “Satan hindered us.” He did not go into any detail. Was it political? Was it part of his “thorn in the flesh?” Was it something else? Whatever it was, Paul saw Satan at work.
Throughout Scripture, God has allowed Satan to oppose the kingdom of God. Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness following His baptism, trying to stop His mission before it got started. Satan had prompted the heart of Judas even in the upper room the night he would betray Jesus. The entire book of Job begins with God allowing Satan to challenge and oppose Job in very specific and harmful ways to derail his faith. Paul simply recognized the spiritual realm of his hindrance, yet it did not stop him from writing this letter and what would be a second letter to follow.
Paul did not elevate the power or authority of Satan in this scenario, just recognized it for what it was. Then Paul quickly looks forward in 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20 –
For who is our hope, or joy or crown of pride, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming? Or is it not indeed you? For you are our glory and joy.
Paul knew that there would be one day when they would be reunited and Satan was powerless to stop it. The simple thought of eternity with Jesus and all believers brings hope and joy.
It is a reminder of who is truly victorious. Satan does not win. Satan fights, Satan hinders, but in the end, Satan loses. As believers, we win. We have already won.
Our society, our world, constantly discourages us. You can’t do that, you can’t win, just give up.
For me, sometimes it’s somebody close saying something discouraging. I don’t want to think of myself too highly. I am only a man, and a fallen man at that. But when somebody says something discouraging, I also know I am adopted child of God. I am worth a great deal in Him.
Satan occasionally thwarts my plans, but Satan cannot stop what God has started in me. I remember God loves me. He died for me.
We receive paralambano the Word of God, we embrace dechomai the Word of God, we believe the Word of God. But we are already victorious in Jesus, and Satan has been defeated. The joy of the Lord is our strength. Everything we need to live a life of victory is in the Word of God.
- When life seems to be out of control, we know that God is causing all things to work together for good to those who love God, Romans 8:28
- When we are anxious and worried, we can plead with thanksgiving toward God, and he grants u peace beyond understanding, Philippians 4:6-7.
- When we feel like we can’t do something, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, Philippians 4:13.
- When we are tempted, we know we are not tempted beyond what we can handle, and there is always a way of escape from temptation, 1 Corinthians 10:13.
- When we get angry, we know God wants us to learn to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, James 1:19-20.
- When we feel overwhelmed, we know we have treasure in our jars of clay, that God’s power is in us so we are crushed but not despairing, persecuted but not abandoned, 2 Corinthians 4:8-11.
Everything we need to live a life of anxiety and stress is in this world, it’s all around us, and Satan hinders us at every turn. But everything we need to live a life of joy is in the Word of God, it’s how God reveals Himself and His truth to us.
Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
All glory to God through Christ alone. Amen.