Strength for the Journey
II Thessalonians 2:13-17
March 30, 2003
About six months ago I received a letter from Pat Williams, Executive Vice-President of the Orlando Magic (a pro basketball team in the NBA). Although I had never met Mr. Williams, I knew he was a brilliant sports executive and also a fervent Christian. He wrote to say that he was working on a book about the life of Christ and wondered if I had any thoughts that might be helpful. I jotted down a page or two of ideas and sent them to him by e-mail. Several days later he called and we had a great talk. We have since exchanged several e-mails. On Friday afternoon I got a copy of his brand-new book, How to be Like Jesus: Lessons on Following in His Footsteps (Faith Communications). It’s over 400 pages long so I haven’t had time to do much more than browse through it. But I did look closely at the chapter called “How to Endure Like Jesus.” Page 237 contains a quote from German theologian Otto Dibelius, a leader of the anti-Nazi resistance movement in World War II: “God does not lead his children around hardship, but leads them straight through hardship. But he leads! And amidst the hardship, he is nearer to them than ever before.” That’s a striking way to put it. Not around hardship but straight through it.
Several pages later Pat Williams addresses the issue of endurance head-on: “If we want to be like Jesus, we must endure like Jesus. We need to persevere under pressure as Jesus did.” … “If it hasn’t happened already, a time will come when you must endure like Jesus.” … “No one in history deserved to be more honored and respected than Jesus of Nazareth. Yet he was treated with contempt and put to death. If we endure like Jesus, our own battle scars will be the righteous and beautiful wounds of those who have taken a courageous stand against evil. Our wounds will be like his” (pp. 250-252).
Life is a journey for all of us, and that journey is not always easy. There are hard days and difficult nights and sometimes there are weeks and months and years where the road seems to lead from one hardship to another. If we live long enough, we’ll have plenty of chances to get the battle scars Pat Williams talked about. No one gets a free ride and no one is exempt from the troubles of the world.
Sometimes when we are discouraged, we can feel like giving up and walking away from the Lord. We’re not the first generation to feel like that. Our passage ends with a prayer by Paul for the infant congregation at Thessalonica. It helps to remember that these new believers were just recently rescued from paganism. Now they were under intense pressure to leave Jesus and go back to their old life. That’s why Paul prays in verses 16-17 that they would be encouraged and stabilized by the Lord. In order to grasp the full impact of his prayer, we need to back up to verse 13. There we will find a message of encouragement that speaks to us in the 21st century.
I. A Doctrine We Need to Believe v. 13-14
“But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (II Thessalonians 2:13-14).
The whole system of Christian theology can be found in these verses. Everything we believe is here in tightly compressed fashion. The key phrase is “God chose you to be saved.” That speaks of the sovereign grace of God in salvation. Did you know God chose you to be saved? If he had not chosen you, you would never have been saved at all. Sometimes we speak of “finding” the Lord, but if he had not found us first, we would never have found him at all. Salvation begins with God—not with us. He chooses us—and then we believe. In putting the matter that way, I simply mean to declare that salvation is all by grace, all of God, all the time. Shortly before the first service on Sunday morning, when I met with some men to pray in my office, one of them asked, “You’re not going to talk about predestination today, are you?” I laughed and said, “You bet I am.” It’s in the text so I can’t ignore it or pretend it’s not there. Many years ago, when I was growing up in Russellville, Alabama, my friend David Neal and I used to sit on his porch late at night and talk about the Bible. I remember we decided that someday we were going to write a 20-volume masterwork called, Why We’re Confused About Predestination. I saw David a few weeks ago and that brought our late-night theology sessions back to my mind. Thirty-five years have come and gone since those mostly carefree days. I know a great deal more than I knew back then, but there is still much I do not understand. At this point I wouldn’t say that I am confused about predestination. I think I would use the word “mystery” to describe the relationship between human responsibility and divine sovereignty. Some things that God understands are simply not fully understandable to us. After all, the First Rule of the Spiritual Life informs us that “He’s God and We’re Not.”
And so when Paul says, “God chose us for salvation,” I am happy to believe it just as it is written. But that doesn’t mean I can fully explain every nuance of how our uncoerced choices fit into God’s sovereign plan for the universe. But they do. I believe that God arranges the circumstances of life (and the movements of the heart) to bring us to the place where we have no other choice but to freely choose to trust in Christ for salvation. To some that will seem like a contradiction, to others it will seem like a simple statement of biblical truth. Is there a mystery here? Yes, of course, and I would much prefer a theology with some mystery in it than a theology that claimed to fully explain the mind of God. When it comes to salvation, we bring the sin that makes salvation necessary, and God brings everything else. Yet we are not robots or puppets on a string, and when we come to Christ, we do not come conscious of any compulsion. We come by faith because we want to come. And in our coming, we discover later that God was drawing us to himself all along by the power of the Holy Spirit. If you are troubled by this, or wonder how it could be, just remember that you are on the right track when your view of salvation gives all the glory to God. Magnify the Lord as Savior, give him the credit, and you will be moving in the right direction.
From Eternity to Eternity
These two verses lay out the five stages or steps in our salvation in the broadest possible sense:
1) You were loved (v. 13). Salvation springs from the heart of God who loved us and gave his Son for us. The message of the gospel is always, “God loves you. God loves you. God loves you.” And this should be the church’s message as well.
2) You were chosen (v. 13). This is sovereign grace, divine choice, divine election, predestination. This means that when it comes to salvation, God always makes the first move, and if he didn’t make the first move, we would never make any move at all.
3) You were called (v. 14). The “sanctifying work of the Spirit” refers to the wooing of the Holy Spirit whereby he creates in the heart of the lost sinner a conviction of sin and a desire to come to Christ for salvation. Without this work of the Spirit, no one would ever come to Christ.
4) You believed the gospel (v. 14-15). This is where our responsibility comes into play. We are not saved simply because God chose us. We still must believe the gospel. No one goes to heaven apart from the work of Christ on the cross.
5) You share in Christ’s glory (v. 14). This is the final step in our salvation. And it is a step still in the future. One day we will be with the Lord in heaven and we will share in his great victory.
In a sense, this is the whole sweep of salvation from “eternity to eternity.” There is great comfort in seeing things from this perspective. It tells us that God has a purpose in history. He’s not just “making it up” as he goes along. Everything in the universe plays a part in the outworking of God’s plan. This ought to give us enormous confidence as we face the uncertainties of life day by day. If you believe that everything in your life is a hit-and-miss affair, if you think that the events of each day just happen by chance, then you will be a prisoner to your circumstances. You’ll be up when things are good and you’ll be down when things are bad. How wonderful it is to rest in the knowledge that our God is working out his plan for us in everything that happens to us—the good and the bad, the positive and the negative, the happy and the sad.
By the way, don’t let this doctrine worry you about who can or can’t be saved. God desires that all should come to repentance (II Peter 3:9). God loves the whole world (John 3:16). The gospel is to be preached to every nation (Matthew 28:19-20). There is no one who wants to be saved who cannot be saved! Rest assured on this truth. No one will be in hell by accident. No one will be in hell who truly ought to be in heaven. No one will be in hell who says, “I wanted to be saved but God would not save me.” Such a thing simply cannot happen. If you have the desire to know God, you can be confident that he gave that longing to you. God is always the initiator in salvation. God calls, we respond. God calls, we believe. God calls, we come to Christ. When God wanted to populate heaven, he sent his Son to die for us. Then he sent his Spirit to draw us. And he gave us his Word so we would know the truth. And he even gives us faith to believe the gospel. And when the church goes out to preach the gospel, the Lord goes with us so we don’t go in our own power. Salvation is of the Lord!
Death Today, Glory Tomorrow
The very best part of this is the final step in the process—sharing in his glory in the life to come. That hasn’t happened yet. Today death still reigns on planet earth. Turn on the TV and you read about war and killing and bloodshed in Iraq. Death reigns because death has not yet been destroyed. If you doubt that, check out the obituaries in the newspaper. There are lots of people going into the cemeteries, not many coming out. If you are waiting for a resurrection at the cemetery, you may have to wait a long time. Death is everywhere. It is the one appointment no one can postpone. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit since my mother died a few weeks ago. I had the privilege of speaking at her graveside service. Someone said, “That must have been hard,” but it wasn’t hard at all. It was a great privilege and a tremendous honor to do that for my mother. We buried her next to my father who died 29 years ago. Near the end of my message, I said, “Rest well, Dad. Rest well, Mom. We will see you again.” Is that just wishful thinking? Is there any basis for believing that we will ever see our loved ones again? Let the Apostle Paul answer that question:
“We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever” (I Thessalonians 4:14-17).
Everything hinges on the first phrase: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again.” In the King James Version, the translators added the word “if.” “If we believe that Jesus died and rose again.” The New Living Translation says, “Since we believe.” All the versions are correct, I think. We do believe, and since we believe, these things must be true, but if we don’t believe, then we have no certainty at all. Everything hinges on what happened on Easter Sunday morning 2,000 years ago. This is Lent, which leads us to Holy Week, which leads us to Good Friday, which leads us to Easter, which brings us face-to-face with the most stupendous fact in the universe—Jesus Christ rose from the dead.
Question Time with the Sparks
Last Wednesday night I visited the kids in our AWANA Sparks program (K-2nd grade). There must have been almost 100 children crowded into the room. Each year we have an “Ask Pastor Ray” night where the kids try to stump me with Bible questions. Each year it seems to get easier to stump me. The very first question was, “How many letters are in the Bible?” Then “How many words are in the Bible?” Then “How many sentences are in the Bible?” Hmm. I was 0 for 3 and fading fast. Then someone wanted to know, “How tall was Jesus?” Then “Who is taller—you or Jesus?” Then “Is Jesus taller than God?” (There were a few theological problems with that question.) And on it went. One boy wanted to know, “How many clouds are there?” “Do you mean clouds in the sky?” “Yes,” “A whole bunch,” was my inspired answer. Finally I got a question I could sort of answer. “Where was Jesus when he rose from the dead?” That’s a fascinating question that I don’t think the Bible answers completely. We know the tomb was empty on Easter Sunday morning and we know he appeared to Mary that morning and later to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. There were other appearances over the next 40 days. But where was he between those appearances? We don’t really know. All we know is that sometime before dawn on Sunday morning, life returned to his dead body, he rose through his grave clothes, the stone was rolled away, and Jesus came out of the tomb, alive from the dead. But if you’re asking where he was at 6:30 a.m. on Easter Sunday, my answer is, “I don’t know where he was, but I know where he wasn’t. He wasn’t in the tomb. Jesus had come back from the dead.”
Life is hard for all of us and we all have so many questions and doubts and fears and worries. Even the best among us struggle with questions we cannot answer. So many people struggle with hurts and pains they can hardly express. Easter says to us, “The story isn’t over yet.” If you are a believer, history doesn’t end with a question mark but with an exclamation point. As Tony Campolo likes to say, “It’s Friday but Sunday’s coming.” This is the message of the Resurrection:
Your doubts are not the end of the story.
Your fears are not the end of the story.
Your worries are not the end of the story.
Your uncertainties are not the end of the story.
Your unbelief is not the end of the story.
If we suffer with him, we will reign with him. Better days are coming because Jesus rose from the dead. The grave will not have the last word. One day the children of God will exit the cemeteries once and for all. Let us be perfectly clear about it. We do believe that Jesus died and rose again, therefore we have no doubts that one day the dead in Christ will rise and we will rise with them to meet the Lord in the air. Between now and then, we are living on the edge, waiting for what God has promised. It’s like a TV cliffhanger where the end of the episode says, “Come back next week to see how the story ends.” Stay tuned, child of God. The best is yet to come.
And all of this, the certainty of eventual victory with our risen Lord, all of it goes back to the great purposes of God that stretch across the centuries, that span the ages, that reach from eternity past to eternity future. All of it goes back to the first truth that our God is absolutely sovereign and that our salvation rests not in our own puny strength but in the mighty hands of God whose purposes cannot fail.
If you believe that God has a plan for your life, then you can find the strength to keep on going. The sovereignty of God puts iron in a man. It makes him stand up straight for God. When a man understands this truth, it puts some spizerinktum in his soul. (By the way, I used the word “spizerinktum” on Sunday and people thought I was making it up. I could only find one person who had heard it, but I used to hear it when I was growing up. It means something like “courage” or “gumption.”) It’s a wonderful thing when a man can say, “This is God’s will, and I have found it. And I’ve given my life to it.”
II. A Command We Need to Obey v. 15
“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter” (II Thessalonians 2:15). The command in this verse flows directly from the doctrine of vv. 13-14. If you understand the purposes of God, then you will have every motivation to do what Paul commands.
So many believers are jumpy, jittery, worried and uncertain. Who can blame them? If you watch too much of the Iraq war on TV, you’re bound to get jittery sooner or later. This week we heard about a suicide bombing that killed four of our solders at a checkpoint in An Najaf. There was another suicide bombing in Israel. And US agents intercepted a team of terrorists attempting to enter the US with explosives. They intended to kill the president at his ranch in Texas. And every day brings news of more attacks and counterattacks. Truly, these are perilous times. No wonder so many people are on edge.
In times like these, we need to stand fast on the truth of God’s sovereignty and we need to hold on to the truth written down in the Word of God. When the ground seems unsteady under your feet, remember what you have learned. Go back to the first principles. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about a truth that is becoming more and more important to me. Good theology can save your life. In the time of trouble, if you know the truth and if you remember the truth, what you know and remember can save you from despair. Several weeks ago I did a radio interview on KCBI in Dallas. One of the callers was a woman who is going through a hard time in her marriage, with her health, and with some family relationships. As I listened, I realized she was a Christian who felt overwhelmed. I knew I couldn’t solve her problems in two minutes. So I told her that she needed to go back to the first principles and remind herself of those things she knew to be true. “Good theology can save your life,” I told her. At that point the host broke in and said, “But you’re a pastor. You have to say that.” Yes, I am a pastor and I do have to say that, but I say it because it’s true. What you know can save you when life tumbles in around you. What things are we talking about? Here’s a short list:
God is good.
God is faithful.
He will never leave me.
His mercy endures forever.
This is no mistake.
God has a purpose.
He is working out his plan for me.
God still loves me.
The Holy Spirit indwells me.
Jesus is alive today.
He will return someday.
Sometimes all we can do is dig in and hold on. And when trouble comes, sometimes that’s the best thing we can do. More than anything else, our generation of Christians needs to hear these words again. “Stand fast.” Remember what you have learned. Stand on the truth you already know. Take God at his word! There is no reason to quit or to give in to evil.
III. A Prayer We Need to Pray v. 16-17
“May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word” (II Thessalonians 2:16-17).
We come at last to the prayer of Paul for the Thessalonians. The context is crucial because the prayer flows directly from the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and from the command to stand firm. First, we must remember that God is the source of all power. He alone can help us in the time of trouble. All the resources of heaven are at our disposal. Second, remember what God has already done for us.
He loved us—that’s in the past when he gave us his Son.
He encouraged us—that’s in the present through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
He gives us hope—that’s in the future when we will share in his glory.
He has solved every problem by taking care of our past, our present and our future.
In light of all that, pray for two things:
Pray for an encouraged heart.
Pray for a stable heart.
When we are encouraged, we will face the trials of life with hope. “Cheerfulness ought to be the atmosphere you breathe, and if you believe that God loves you, you cannot but be happy” (Charles Haddon Spurgeon). When your heart is stabilized, you won’t be swayed back and forth by circumstances and emotional mood swings. The latest headlines won’t throw you for a loop one way or the other. The stable heart is fixed on the Lord and is not swaying to and fro. The mark of the stable heart is consistency. You are the same because Christ is the same no matter what happens around you.
And the result of the prayer is wonderful. You are able to do every good work and to say every good word the Lord wants you to do and to say. Your life and your lips act in perfect harmony with the Lord.
Here’s the passage in a nutshell:
Since God has chosen you for salvation, stand fast amid all the trials of life, knowing that God will encourage you and make you strong on the inside so that your life will be filled with good words and good deeds. It’s all there and it all flows together—doctrine, command, prayer. Here’s another way of looking at it:
You are greatly loved—Stand fast!
You were chosen by God—Stand fast!
You were called to salvation—Stand fast!
You believed the gospel—Stand fast!
You will one day share in Christ’s glory—Stand fast!
You have received God’s comfort—Stand fast!
You have good hope by grace—Stand fast!
You were established in every word and deed—Stand fast!
Only one thing needs to be added. Get Christ into your heart and you will be stable. All that I have said about the doctrine, the command and the prayer doesn’t matter without Christ. Unless he is in your heart, the rest is just good religious advice. Do you know him? Last week I exhorted you to, “Run to the cross!” But that’s not just a good word for the lost. That’s great advice for believers. In the time of trouble, run to Jesus. Cling to him! Believe in him! Trust in him! Rest your soul in the Lord and all will be well. Amen.