Growing Pains

1 Thessalonians 2:13-20

September 29, 2002 | Brian Bill

A small factory had to be shut down because their most important piece of machinery had stopped working.  The company mechanic couldn’t get it running, so they called in an expert.  The man looked over the machine for a few minutes.  He then picked up his hammer and gently tapped it.  Amazingly, it started running again.  

He submitted a bill for $1,500 and the owner hit the roof!  He yelled at the mechanic over the noise of the machine: “That took you less than five minutes!  I demand an itemized bill!”  The expert sat down and scribbled out the following charges:

  • For tapping the machine …………$10
  • For knowing where to tap ……$1,490

As we come to the last part of 1 Thessalonians 2, we’re moving into the warmest section of any of Paul’s writings about the love and affection he felt for his fellow Christ followers.  He begins by establishing that the basis for those relationships is the Word of God.  The Bible is God’s hammer that sometimes gently taps on us and other times it pounds away at our stubborn pride.  This passage gives us 5 facets of Christian growth, a few of which have some pain associated with them.

1. The Word of God Within You (13). 

Follow along as I read 1 Thessalonians 2:13: “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.”  To “receive” literally means, “to take up with the hand.”  It communicates the idea that the Word of God is to be taken by us.  The word “accept” goes a step further.  It means, “to welcome eagerly.”  When we receive the Bible, we’re saying that we acknowledge its authority.  When we accept it, we’re allowing it into our hearts so that we can be changed by it.   

If the Bible is the Word of God, then we must bow in submission to it.  We should never say, “I know what the Bible says, but…”  If we know what the Bible says, then there’s no ‘but.’  We should say, “I know what the Bible says, ‘period.’” 

It reminds me of the story of a church that was going through a difficult controversy.  No one could agree on anything.  At a business meeting one night the various factions were arguing about the minutes of the last meeting.  When the pastor read a passage of Scripture, an older man stood to his feet and said, “Mr. Chairman, I move that the Bible stand approved as read.”  So it must be for you and me.  The Bible stands approved as read, without correction, without change, without deletion, without addition.  

If you’re doing something right now and you know what the Bible says about that activity, you already have God’s answer.  It’s not up for a vote.  If you’re waiting for God to let you know something different than what’s in the Bible you’ll be waiting a long time.  He speaks to us today through Scripture.  Will you accept that?  Have you received it?  Do you believe it?

Paul takes this one step further in the last phrase of verse 13: “…which is at work in you who believe.”  The power of the Word of God is tied to a believing heart.  The Word “works,” which is where we get our English word “energy.”  The word is energized within us, as we believe it.  It’s like farmland that bears a bountiful harvest.  When we hear the message outwardly, and welcome it inwardly by faith, it will rejuvenate us and produce a harvest in our life.  Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.”

Psalm 119 is perhaps the clearest Old Testament Scripture about the beauty and power of God’s Word.  Almost every one of its 176 verses has a reference to the Word of God.  Let me list just 10 ways that the Bible does its work within us.  I hope that this whets your appetite so that you read the entire psalm for yourself.  The Word of God…

  • Tells us what to do (5)
  • Cleanses us (9)
  • Keeps us from sin (11)
  • Gives us life (25)
  • Strengthens us (28)
  • Restores our hope (49)
  • Comforts us (50)
  • Helps us not go astray (67)
  • Guides us (105)
  • Brings us joy (162)

If Psalm 119 is the premiere Old Testament passage, then Hebrews 4:12 is the clearest New Testament description of what the Bible can do in our lives: “For the word of God is living 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.”  Many of you can give testimony as to how God has used His living and active Word to speak directly to your needs.  When God’s Word is in us, our attitudes and beliefs change.

I have read a number of books on the spiritual life, been to conferences, heard sermons and have preached sermons, but there is nothing more important than maintaining a consistent, regular, quality quiet time.  To paraphrase a popular commercial, “Is it in you?”  In order for God’s Word to change us, it has to be “in” us.  Some of you are morning people.  If so, that’s probably the best time for you to read your Bible.  Others of you are night owls.  It might be best for you to read before you go to bed.  It really doesn’t matter when.  What matters is that we do it.

In a sermon on this passage, Ray Pritchard poses a question, “How can we say we believe the Bible and accept its authority if we do not spend time daily in the Word?  New Christians rarely have to be convinced about this.  It’s experienced Christians who tend to drift away…because we tend to substitute our knowledge and Christian activity for the simple discipline of a daily time with God and His Word.” 

I read about a young blind girl from France who was given the Gospel of Mark in raised letters.  She was so excited and read it so much that the tips of her fingers became very calloused so that she could no longer feel the characters.  In an effort to increase her sensitivity she cut the tips of her fingers, but that only made things worse.  She started crying because now she couldn’t read the Bible at all.  As she wept, she pressed the Scripture to her lips and said, “Farewell, sweet word of my heavenly father.”  But to her surprise, her lips were more sensitive than her fingers and she realized she could read with her lips.  She spent the night moving her lips along the raised letters of her Bible.  Oh, that we would love the Word as much as that!

If you believe the Bible, you’re going to have some enemies

The second facet of spiritual growth isn’t very fun to hear.  To the extent we experience the power of God’s Word within us, we will collide with a world that rejects it.  We could put it this way: If you believe the Bible, you’re going to have some enemies.

2. The Enemies of God Upon You (14-16). 

Look at verse 14: “For you, brothers, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews.” 

One of the evidences that God’s Word continues to work within is the fortitude that believers experience when persecution comes upon them.  Jesus taught in Matthew 13:21 that there are some who run at the first hint of hard times: “…when trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away.”  The Thessalonians didn’t bail.  They stood strong in the face of persecution.

These new believers not only imitated Paul, Silas, Timothy, and the Lord in 1:6, they also emulated the suffering that the churches in Judea were going through.  The word “countrymen” is a very unique word that is used nowhere else in the New Testament.  It means the people closest to you.  Some of you can relate to being looked down upon by family members because of your faith; or perhaps you’ve been passed over for a promotion at work because you’re a Christian. 

It’s helpful to remember you’re not alone – there is solidarity in your suffering.  Believers all around the world are experiencing affliction, and always have.  Every generation of Christians has known persecution and martyrdom.  Remember the truth of Philippians 1:29: “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.”  1 Timothy 3:12 is even stronger: “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”  While suffering is to be expected, it’s good for us to realize that we don’t have it near as bad as some who are in danger of their very lives.  We’ll learn more about this next week as we participate in the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.

In verses 15-16, we read some of the most vivid language in the entire New Testament about those who killed Christ: “Who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out.  They displease God and are hostile to all men in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved.  In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit.  The wrath of God has come upon them at last.”  It’s important to keep three truths in balance:

  • We must avoid revisionist history by trying to tone down the truth of what actually happened.  The Jewish people, for the most part, wanted nothing to do with Jesus.  The Jewish leaders handed Him over to the Gentile authorities to have Him crucified.  That’s what happened and we can’t change that reality.
  • At the same time, this is not an excuse for us to be anti-Semitic. We must be careful about formulating attitudes or making statements about “the Jews” in general today.  Christians need to take the lead in asserting that any form of racial discrimination is wrong.
  • As hurt as Paul was by the treatment he received from unbelieving Jews, he had a tender love for his people.  After all, he was Jewish himself, and so was Jesus.  Listen to his words in Romans 9:2-3: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.”  His specific desire is made clear in Romans 10:1: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.”

Paul’s most recent encounter with the Jews was when he had been persecuted in Philippi (Act 16:22-24) and driven out of Thessalonica in Acts 17:5-6.  In Corinth, from where he was writing this letter to Thessalonica, Paul had been so insulted by his countrymen that Acts 18:6 says, “But when the Jews opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads!  I am clear of my responsibility.  From now on I will go to the Gentiles.’” 

Because of the actions of the Jewish people, Paul says in verse 15 that they displease God and are hostile to all men.  As the people who should have recognized the Messiah and welcomed all who would come to the one true God, the Jewish leaders actually worked at keeping not only Jews from hearing the gospel, but Gentiles as well.  Because of this, verse 16 tells us two things about God’s judgment on such people:

  • Their sins are being heaped up “to the limit.”  This phrase means, “to fill to the brim.”  Jesus used this term in his sermon against the Pharisees in Matthew 23:32: “Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!”  God patiently waits as sinners rebel against Him and watches as their sins get filled to the brim.  
  • When the time is up, God’s patience will come to an end and judgment will fall: “The wrath of God has come upon them at last.”  In one sense, Israel was already experiencing God’s wrath as their nation was under Roman rule.  An even greater judgment was to come in A.D. 70 when the Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem and the temple.  And, as we’ve been learning, God’s wrath has a future element to it.  When Jesus returns and raptures the church, He will unleash an unprecedented time of tribulation and judgment upon those who refuse to embrace the Messiah.  Friend, don’t ignore and reject what God says.  There’s a limit to Hi

When the Word of God is within us, the enemies of God will be upon us.  That should propel us to the third facet of Christian growth: do what you can to make sure the people of God are around you.

3. The People of God Around You (17). 

Follow along as I read verse 17“But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you.”  As we learned last week, Paul dealt with the Thessalonians with the gentleness of a mother and with the firmness of a father.  The phrase “torn away” is a very powerful image that literally means, “When we were made orphans.”  Paul was a mother and a father and now he feels like a child who has been ripped away from his parents.  

Remember that Paul had stayed in Thessalonica for only a matter of weeks, but because of intense Jewish opposition, he was run out of town.  But, he always planned to return to finish the job he started.  However, because he had been delayed in his return, his opponents had begun to slander his character.  Some of the new believers were beginning to question his motives.  “If he loved us why did he leave us?” they asked, “And why doesn’t he come back to see us again?”  

Even though Paul was not able to go back, he never really left them in his thoughts.  He thought about them all the time.  And his longing for them was “intense.”  For Paul and his team, the Christian faith must be centered on a passionate all-consuming relationship with Christ; but it must not be lived in isolation.  We need each other.  And we should never settle for casual relationships with other believers.  We’re called to do life together.  To care deeply, to pray intensely, to laugh together, and to cry on each other’s shoulders, as we live in authentic community with one another.  

Be careful about getting into the habit of spotty worship service attendance or of pulling back from other believers.  Hebrews 10:25: “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”  Much of what we’re called to do in the Bible can only be accomplished as we function in deep friendships with fellow Christ followers.  A quick search of all the “one another” statements in the New Testament reveals that we are to:

  • Love one another (John 13:34)
  • Be devoted to one another (Romans 12:10)
  • Live in harmony with one another (Romans 12:16)
  • Accept one another (Romans 15:7)
  • Instruct one another (Romans 15:14)
  • Greet one another (Romans 16:16)
  • Serve one another (Galatians 5:13)
  • Bear with one another (Ephesians 4:2)
  • Submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21)
  • Admonish one another (Colossians 3:16)
  • Encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
  • Offer hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4:9)

Over 100 people are involved in small groups here.  For those of you in a group, you have experienced the beauty of Christian community.  If you’re not in a small gathering, you don’t know what you’re missing!  Let me encourage you strongly to make every effort to join a platoon of fellow soldiers so that you can find the support and true friendships that you’ve been looking for. 

You can’t beat being connected with Christians, but the fourth facet of growth is to recognize that Satan will do everything in his power to keep you from experiencing biblical community with other believers.

4. The Adversary of God Against You (18). 

This is a surprising verse: “For we wanted to come to you-certainly I, Paul, did, again and again-but Satan stopped us.”  Paul tried again and again to reconnect with the church at Thessalonica but it never worked out.  The phrase “Satan stopped us,” is a military metaphor for an army that sets up a roadblock in order to impede the enemy.  It can also refer to the breaking up of a road so that it becomes impassable – like the Railroad Crossings around town this week!  Every time Paul tried to return to Thessalonica he ran headlong into a satanic obstruction.

We don’t know specifically what Satan did to keep Paul from going back to Thessalonica.  It could have been opposition, legal difficulties, illness, travel complications, or a direct spiritual attack.  But we do know that Paul attributed the blockade to Satan himself.  We must remember that Satan is real and that he loves to attack Christian relationships.  

2 Corinthians 4:4 refers to the adversary as the “god of this age.”  Ephesians 2:2 describes him as “the ruler of the kingdom of the air.”  In John 8:44, Jesus called the devil “a murderer…and the father of lies.”  1 Peter 5:8 warns us about ignoring the reality of Satan’s destructive work: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”  And, Ephesians 6:12 reminds us that, “…our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

While Satan has the power to hinder and frustrate the work of God’s servants, he can only operate within the confines of what God permits him to do.  In other words, God allows the devil to obstruct our efforts at times, but God does not allow Satan to hinder His plan as a whole.  Paul recognized that Satan was keeping him from going to Thessalonica but he understood that this was part of the providential plan of God.  There were actually some good things that came out of this roadblock.  God uses the devil to accomplish His own purposes.

  • The Thessalonians were forced to rely on God, not Paul.  Paul couldn’t go, but the believers still grew.
  • Paul wrote a letter to them that became part of Scripture.  Literally millions of churches the past 2,000 years have benefited from reading and applying the books of 1st and 2nd Thessalonians.  If Paul wasn’t faced with a barrier we might never have had this section of the Bible.
  • Paul could still rejoice in knowing that these believers were his crown and joy, even though he couldn’t see them in person.  

5. The Rewards of God Before You (19-20). 

Even though the adversary is against us, we have something to look forward to: “For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes?  Is it not you?  Indeed, you are our glory and joy.”  Paul has “hope” because even though he can’t see the believers, he has confidence in them.  The word “joy” pictures his own inner feelings when he will see them presented to the Lord and welcomed into His kingdom.  The “crown” refers to the wreath of leaves given to the winner of a race in the Greek games.  It’s a victor’s wreath, a gold medal, and a trophy of triumph.  

I want you to notice something.  Paul’s greatest hope, his most joyful aspiration, and his crowning achievement was to see men, women and children in the presence of the Lord Jesus when He comes in His glory.  If we could ask Paul what really fired him up, if we could find out what kept him going when things were tough, his answer would be something like this: I will do anything I can to make sure no one is left behind when Christ returns!

Revelation 1:7 reminds us that when Jesus comes again, many people will face Him with fear because they’ve not been saved: “Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him.  So shall it be!  Amen.”  But, Revelation 4:10-11 also teaches that believers will one day lay their crowns at the throne of Jesus: “The twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever.  They lay their crowns before the throne and say: ‘You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.’”  These crowns are people.  Who will you present before Jesus?  Will you have people trophies to present to the King?

What will you have to show for your life when you stand before Jesus Christ?  A good job?  A college degree?  Money?  Lots of friends?  A nice car?  A good reputation?  A nice family?  If that’s all you’ve got, then you really don’t have that much going for you.  

Ray Pritchard put it this way: “Sooner than you think, you’ll be lying in a box six feet underground with grass growing over your head.  And all the things of this life won’t matter at all.  Someone else will have your money and your job.  Your fame will fade, your glory will disappear and everything you owned will belong to others.  And you yourself will eventually be forgotten except by those people who stumble on your gravestone a hundred years from now and say, ‘I wonder who this guy was?’”

It was Howard Hendricks who said: “Only two things in this world are eternal—the Word of God and people.  It only makes sense to build your life around those things that will last forever.”   If that’s the case, then we better make sure the Bible is in us and that we’re investing our lives in people.  Our goal in life should be to go to heaven and take as many people as possible with us.  Listen carefully.  The only thing you can take to heaven is someone else.  Do you have any trophies of God’s grace?  Who will you be bringing with you to the throne?

 If we’re serious about growing, let’s follow these five facets that will lead us to a victory wreath:

  • Make sure the Word of God is within you
  • Persevere when the enemies of God are upon you
  • Gather the people of God around you
  • Carry on when the adversary of God is against you
  • Focus on the future rewards of God before you

Is God tapping on you right now or is He hammering you?  Whatever the case, it’s because He loves you too much to let you invest your life in things that don’t really matter.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?