1 Thessalonians 2:17-20
September 15, 1996
Not long ago I received the following letter. It came as a total surprise from a person living in another state:
Dear Pastor Ray,
I don’t think you would expect a message from me, but I felt God directing me to. It is kind of hard to find my words and I feel a bit awkward, but here it goes anyway. Jesus spoke to my heart tonight and it has been quite awhile since I’ve listened. I have ignored his calling for a couple of years now. It is truly amazing the way I was taken off guard.
Years ago I accepted Christ into my heart. At first I wanted to do His will and live a Christian life. I slipped quite a bit since than. I wanted to experience all that I was told not to do and I did. I thought I was happy, but inside I was crying out for help. I latched on to a group of friends that weren’t exactly following the right path. The friendship quickly died. Then I joined another group of friends that had an even worse effect on my life. I thought they were true friends and again Christ disagreed(I didn’t realize it till now though). I was stuck pretty much friendless this year, living on my own. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with my personality and why it was so hard to keep friends. I now understand that God had a plan to destroy those dangerous relationships.
I asked God to take me back tonight and have not stopped crying since. There is a song by Jars of Clay(a Christian rock group) which really hit home for me. “I want to fall in love with you(God).” I don’t know if I ever really fell in love with Him, but for once I have a true desire to. I guess I am asking you to pray for me because I don’t want to lose this desire. I want to change and do God’s will. I know true happiness comes from seeing Jesus and I want a clear picture. It is so hard to be alone, but if I put Christ first He will be all I need. I am very stubborn and it has taken me a long time to get to this point. I don’t want to hit rock bottom again. I am scared, at the same time, excited to see what He has planned for me.
When God is involved, even the worst situations of life can be turned around.
The words are searingly honest. “I asked God to take me back tonight and have not stopped crying since.” “If I put Christ first He will be all I need.” Those two sentences contain a world of truth we all need to hear.
As I reflect on that letter, it occurs to me that it might have been written by so many people I know. Change a detail here or there and it might be one of a hundred personal stories. Beneath the pain I find the letter very hopeful because it is based on the most fundamental insight of the Christian religion—the idea of personal redemption. When God is involved, even the worst situations of life can be turned around. Direction makes all the difference. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been, only where you are, and where you plan to go from here. With God all things are possible.
Finally, the letter speaks of the awesome power of relationships for good or for evil. I find that many Christians never fully understand that no relationship stays static. Relationships are like rivers that continually flow this way or that. Like the letter writer, we all have relationships that either pull us up toward God or drag us down toward hell.
The Apostle Paul understood both sides of this truth. In 1 Corinthians 15:33 he wrote that “bad company corrupts good character.” Eventually we all become like the people we spend time with. For better or worse, our friends rub off on us and we one them.
Our text this morning addresses the positive side of this truth. It reveals the power of a good relationship to lead people from earth to heaven. In so doing, we catch a glimpse of the difference it makes when we invest ourselves in the lives of others.
I. What This Passage Says
Although this passage is quite brief, each verse says something important to us. As we begin, let’s recall that the Apostle Paul had stayed in Thessalonica for a period of 3-6 weeks and in that time had founded the first Christian church in the area. Because of intense Jewish opposition, he was forced to leave town for his own safety. But he always planned to return to finish the job he had started. However, because he had been delayed in his return, his opponents had whispered many slanders against his character. Some of the new believers had become confused and some doubted his motives. “If he loved us why did he leave us?” they asked, “And why doesn’t he come back to see us again?”
These four verses are a window into Paul’s heart. If you thought Paul was some cold, austere, remote, unfeeling man, read these verses and think again. This passage is like a paragraph from a love story. Here the great apostle bears his heart to his readers.
First, Paul explains there was a …
A. Temporary Separation 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.”
When Paul says, “We were torn away,” he uses a picturesque word that literally means “When we were made orphans.” So deeply had he been attached to the Thessalonians that to him it felt like part of his own flesh and blood had been taken from him.
Clearly he planned to come back and visit them again. He left under pressure from the Jewish opposition, but he fully intended to return and preach again. In fact, he says that he had already made many attempts to return but had been stymied by the opposition.
Second, he had not returned because of …
B. Satanic Opposition 18
“For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did again and again—but Satan stopped us.”
When Paul says “Satan stopped us,” he uses a military metaphor for an army that sets up a roadblock in order to impede the enemy. That’s exactly how Paul because every time he tried to return to Thessalonica he ran headlong into a roadblock.
Exactly what did Paul mean and how did Satan stop him? If you think about it, he must be referring to some kind of ongoing problem that kept him from returning to Thessalonica. We can’t be sure of the precise details, but we know that Jewish opponents followed him from city to city openly opposing him and spreading lies about his ministry.
In Paul’s mind preaching the gospel was the most important thing in the world. Therefore, anyone who opposed his preaching was actually doing the work of Satan. I don’t think we need to inject demons into this story except as they worked through the minds of unbelievers to stir them up in opposition to the gospel.
So that explains why Paul had returned to Thessalonica: He wanted to but Satan (working through hostile unbelievers) had stopped him time and again.
But that still raises an important question. Paul, how do you feel about these new converts? Do you love them as much as your converts in other cities?
That leads to the third point, which is …
C. Heavenly Coronation 19
“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?”
In these words we have delightful glimpse into Paul’s heart. How did he feel about his followers? They were his hope—because he kept thinking about what God was going to do through them. They were his joy—both now and in heaven. They were his crown. The word refers to a wreath of leaves given to the winner of a race in the Isthmian Games. His reward in heaven would be the pleasure of seeing all those new Christians standing with him.
That brings us to the final part of our passage, which is the …
D. Earthly Celebration 20
“Indeed, you are our glory and joy.” The New Living Translation say, “You are our pride and joy.”
Not just in heaven, but right now you are the most important thing in the world to us. We think about you night and day, we pray for you, we never stop telling others how proud we are of you.
Every new parent understands what Paul means.
Every new parent understands what Paul means. What happens when a baby is born? You can’t wait to tell the good news. You have pictures and statistics and stories about how he has his daddy’s chin and his mother’s eyes and how smart he is and how it doesn’t matter what the doctor says, you know he smiled at you. He’s the smartest, best-looking, cutest baby ever born. And you’ve got pictures to prove it!
That’s exactly how Paul felt about the Thessalonians. Even though he was separated and even though he couldn’t return right now, they were always on his heart, always in his thoughts and prayers.
II. What This Passage Teaches
About God’s Will
We may sum up this lesson very quickly by saying that God’s will often involves times of delay and disappointment. Even a great man like Paul found that not all his prayers were answered. That fact ought to encourage us as we face our own delays and disappointments.
We should also make the point that Paul was God’s man in God’s place doing God’s work in the power of God’s Spirit. He was the right man in the right place at the right time with the right message. Yet when he tried to go back to Thessalonica, he couldn’t do it. In spite of his own best efforts, the door remained closed.
Had he sinned? No. Was he out of God’s will? No. Was God punishing him? No. He was exactly where God wanted him to be, yet he felt orphaned and alone. God’s will is sometimes like that for all of us.
About Satan’s Strategy
This passage also reminds us that Satan is alive and well on planet earth. 1 Peter 5:8 calls him a “roaring lion” who prowls the earth seeking those he may devour. Satan not only hates God, he also hates those who do the work of God. He stirs up trouble for anyone who will stick his neck out and stand up for Jesus. I have reminded you many times that if you have no enemies, it’s probably because you aren’t doing much for the Lord. Beware, Jesus said, when all men speak well of you.
Satan stirs up trouble for anyone who will stick his neck out and stand up for Jesus.
You may face opposition at work or from a critical colleague or from a classmate, a friend, a teacher, a neighbor, a relative, or even from your children or your spouse. Satan’s primary strategy against the church is to discourage us by stirring up opposition so that we will stop spreading the gospel.
This week I listened to a sobering message by Josh McDowell called “Tolerating the Intolerable.” In it he discusses how toleration has replaced justice as the primary American virtue. Tolerance today means that every view of truth and morality is equal to every other view. And if you dare to tell someone else that what they are doing is wrong, you are going to branded as an intolerant bigot. In the Brave New World of the 90s, everything is right and nothing is wrong. Josh quotes one educator who says that the public schools must educate their students to be intolerant of intolerance. And who is the most intolerant of all in the eyes of the world? Christians are, because we believe in a Creator who established absolute standards of right and wrong. On the tape Josh predicts that within 36-60 months from now we will see a major cultural shift in which anyone who dares to speak out for God or against evil will risk being ostracized and publicly humiliated.
If that is true, then we will face some tough decisions in the days ahead. Satan’s strategy has always been to stir up opposition to the church so we will be intimidated into silence and compromise. It was true in the first century and it is still true today.
About Heavenly Rewards
Most Christians don’t know very much about heavenly rewards even though the New Testament has much to say on this subject. If I could summarize the biblical teaching in a few words it would go like this.
No one who lives for Christ will ever feel cheated when they finally get to heaven.
Salvation is always by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Heaven is a free gift that cannot be earned or deserved. But when we get to heaven, we will be judged on the basis of the life we live after coming to Christ. In that day, some people will see all that they have lived for go up in smoke. Others will receive great rewards, which are called “crowns” in the New Testament. I believe there will be many crowns given, some for faithfulness, others for humble service, still others for those who were martyred for Christ.
I’m not sure of all the details about our rewards but this much is clear to me. No one who lives for Christ will ever feel cheated when they finally get to heaven. No one will ever say, “I should have spent more time building an empire on the earth.”
About Ultimate Values
Finally, this passage speaks poignantly about the issue of ultimate values. A while back I heard about a speaker who begins every talk with this penetrating question: “Do you know why God put you where you are right now?” That’s a tough question for some of us to answer. Have you wondered about that? Why has God put you right where you are right now?
Let me turn that question in another direction: What will you have to show for your life when you stand before Jesus Christ?
A good job?
A college degree?
Money in the bank?
Lots of friends?
A large reputation?
A successful career?
The praise of others?
If that’s all you’ve got to show for your life, then you really don’t have much going for you. Sooner than you think, you’ll be lying 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 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.”
Only Two Things Last Forever
Howard Hendricks said it this way: “Only two things 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.”
The Word of God will last forever. People last forever. Everything else disappears.
When asked by a job interviewer about his goal in life, one man responded: “My goal in life is to go to heaven and to take as many people with me as possible.” The Apostle Paul would heartily agree with those sentiments.
Some years ago I heard Dr. Vernon Grounds say that whenever we are faced with a major decision, we ought to ask ourselves, “What difference will this make in 10,000 years?” Most of the things we worry so much about won’t matter in 3 weeks, let alone 3 months or 3 years. We focus on the trivial and forget to pursue the eternal. But 10,000 times 10,000 years from now, you’ll still be glad you invested your life for Jesus Christ.
Too Important Not to Share
The only investments that last forever are the investments we make for Jesus Christ.
–Your future may be secure as far as this world is concerned.
–Your investments may be growing at 15% a year.
–Your children may all turn out good.
–Your marriage may last for 50 years.
–Your may have a retirement plan so you do not fear old age.
–You may be the very picture of health this morning.
–You may have a good job and a bright future.
–You may plan to live 40 more years. I hope you do.
But what of the Lord Jesus and his coming? What do you have invested for that day? When everything earthly is left behind, will there be anything left at all?
No one here will ever regret …
Giving your heart to Jesus Christ.
Offering him the very best that you have.
Serving the Lord with all your heart.
Sharing the gospel with others.
I leave you with one final thought: The only thing you can take to heaven is someone else. Everything else will be left behind.
Several years ago the Mercedes Benz automobile company ran some ads describing a brand-new brake technology they had developed and patented. Although they owned the rights to the technology, they freely shared it with other car companies in the interest of promoting safety. The tag line of the ad contained these sobering words: Some things in life are too important not to share.
As Christians, we have been given the best news in all the world. It’s too important not to share with others. May God help us to invest our lives in the things that will last forever.