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Encouragement: Encouraging People to Stand Firm (1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:13)
When there's an earthquake, big buildings sometimes collapse while other buildings stand firm. They go through identical tremors but the response is quite different. We talk about standing firm because we should make sure that when the inevitable tremors of life come our way, our faith does not collapse -- that it should stand firm at that time.
Let me give you three reasons why this is important. First of all because faith has an eternal orientation. Some people come to faith initially because they have an immediate problem for which they see no solution and someone tells them that God can address that problem and bring them help and encouragement. They begin to understand, however, that God in His grace not only deals with the immediacy of their problem but He also gets into their past and begins to deal with all that has gone wrong prior to that problem, and He brings them forgiveness. If they begin to understand their faith properly they will realize that in addition to the immediate problem and the past, there is the whole of their future in which they are to live in the faith. There is a future, an eternal dimension to their faith.
Paul talks about this in 1 Thessalonians 2:13 when he reminds the Thessalonians of the day that the Lord Jesus will come again with all His holy ones. Over and over again in this first Thessalonian epistle there are statements concerning the return of the Lord Jesus. Our faith not only deals with our past, our immediate problems, and the foreseeable future but also is rooted in the return and ultimate victory of Jesus Christ as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Those who continue to the end are those who are truly anticipating the return of the Lord and are strong in their faith.
The second reason that standing firm in the faith is important is that faith and faithfulness are used interchangeably in the New Testament. The reason for that is there's only one Greek word for both of them. The Greek word pistis is the word for faith and it is the word for faithfulness. The assumption in the Greek is that if you have faith you'll be faithful. To the extent that you're full of faith you will be faithful; those who are faithful are those who go on being full of faith.
Now this isn't a word game because we understand that if we begin to recognize our faith is in a faithful God, and He proves Himself worthy of our faith, then there is a reasonable assumption on His part that we -- having discovered His faithfulness -- will be faithful to Him.
Paul is particularly concerned about the Thessalonians. They are very young believers and they're under intense persecution, so he sends Timothy to them. He is quite specific: he sends Timothy to strengthen and encourage them in the faith and to find out how they are doing in the faith. Why? Because he wants to make sure they are continuing faithful to the Lord Jesus.
There are many instances of this kind of emphasis in the Scriptures. For instance, writing in the first chapter of Colossians 1:22 Paul says "He has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in His sight without blemish and free from accusation." In the second chapter he encourages us to receive Christ, continue to live in Him, rooted and built up in Him, strengthened in the faith and overflowing with thankfulness.
It is so important, when we see people shaky because of the tremors of life, that we encourage them to stand firm. You remember one of Jesus' famous parables, The Parable of the Sower, in Matthew 13. Jesus told the story of a sower who went forth to sow with a basketful of good seed; he broadcast it around and it fell on different kinds of ground. Some seed fell on the pathway and the birds immediately came and gobbled it up. Some fell on stony ground and, with no depth of soil, it just withered away. Other seed fell among thorns and did okay for a little while, but then the thorns grew up and choked it. But other seed fell in good ground and was highly productive.
He was saying that a lot of seed of the word of God is sown in peoples' lives but it doesn't come to anything. Sometimes it is promptly snatched away by other considerations. Other times there is a very shallow response. Some people seem to respond but as soon as there's any opposition they cave in under it. But there are those who -- if we can mix our metaphors -- stand firm, take root, continue to the end. This is the kind of faith that the Scripture tells us is genuine faith.
Speaking on the subject of faith, the late F. F. Bruce said, "Continuance is the test of reality." If you want to know if a person's faith is genuine, look at the way it progresses. Look at the way it persists. Look at the way it goes on.
I have a great friend who's somebody I admire very much, Robinson Mcquillken. Along with his wife Muriel, Robinson was for many years a missionary in Japan. Then he was called back stateside to become the president of Columbia Bible College, which his father had founded many years earlier. Robinson had a very distinguished career there training young men and young women. At the peak of his ministry, he suddenly resigned. He explained that his wife, Muriel, had contacted Alzheimer's Disease and it was in such an advanced stage that she didn't even recognize her own husband or children. Robinson said this: Because my wife devoted herself to me for all that time I am simply going to lay aside everything else and for the rest of her days I will devote myself entirely to her. What a wonderful, beautiful story of genuine love! Particularly in a world where people will pull out of marriages at the drop of a hat compared to that kind of problem. Here is somebody whose reality of love is clearly demonstrated in its persistence.
So it is with faith. Continuance in the faith is the test of reality. That is why we need to encourage people to stand firm.
The third reason is because faith is a growing, maturing, progressive thing. Some people say they came to faith and simply plateaued, then went into a slip, sliding away into decline. There's something fundamentally wrong with that kind of faith. Faith is intended not only to stand firm but to grow and mature and progress.
Paul sent Timothy to them in order to strengthen them in their faith. So we see that faith is always having a supply of what is lacking; faith is always being strengthened when things are shaky. We've already seen that the ultimate of our faith is that when Christ returns we'll be presented blameless and holy. We're not there yet, there is a progression and growth in our faith. What has been started, God intends to complete.
Clearly, if your faith is in decline it's not growing and maturing. That is why, when the tremors of life come, we need to be strong in the faith and most of us need to be encouraged to stand firm. One of the greatest ministries that we can all be involved in is dealing with people whose faith is under pressure.
What are the impediments to standing firm? It is reasonable to assume that if it is necessary to encourage people to stand firm, that is because there are things that would discourage us from standing firm. There are impediments.
The first impediment to faith is the activity of Satan (1 Thessalonians 2:18). A lot of people don't believe in Satan and that's fine by Satan -- he doesn't mind that at all. I also know that some people are obsessed by Satan; they see him under every bed, in every situation, and even behind every beard. They can identify Satan all over the place.
C. S. Lewis says that Satan doesn't mind whether we totally ignore him or we're totally obsessed by him. Either way is fine by him because either way opens it up for him to do exactly what he wants to do. Those who are totally obsessed by Satan, quite frankly, are paralyzed. They're paranoid. They see him lurking everywhere. On the other hand, those who are totally ignorant of Satan -- those who simply ignore him or don't even believe he exists -- they are utter suckers for him. Either way he does his work.
F. F. Bruce says that Satan's main activity is putting obstacles in the path of the people of God to prevent the will of God from being accomplished in and through them. If some people are obsessed by Satan they're not doing anything; they're paralyzed so he's won. Other people who totally ignore Satan don't even recognize what he's doing, so they have no idea what's happening. It never occurs to them that the enemy of the soul is having a field day.
Let's maintain a balance here. Paul says that Satan is a very powerful force -- so powerful that he was able to stop the Apostle Paul (who was like an evangelical juggernaut) from doing what he wanted to do. That is a very serious consideration -- quite terrifying. On the other hand, we have to recognize the Bible teaches that God is the sovereign Lord, that He is omnipotent, and that Satan is not all-powerful. Powerful but not all powerful. Knowing but not all knowing. A very real presence but not omnipresent. Peter says that the Devil is like a roaring lion -- that's a graphic picture. But this roaring lion is on a very short leash. Put all that together and you come up with one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith: that God in His sovereign purposes allows the enemy of souls and the enemy of His purposes to continue his work, but it is under divine permission. Powerful and permitted but real nevertheless. It's at this point that we delve into great mysteries that we cannot resolve -- at least I can't, and I've never read anybody else who can fully resolve them.
That leads me to remember that we're in a spiritual conflict, that our opposition is very powerful, that we don't mess around, that we don't goof off. In this spiritual conflict our weapons are not simply good organization and meticulous care to detail; the weapons of our warfare are spiritual. If we don't bear that in mind, it is quite possible that Satan will be free to hinder us in our work.
If that sounds complicated, you haven't heard anything yet. In Acts 16, Luke gives the account of Paul and his friends trying to go into different areas of ministry. They were in Asia and wanted to go into Misha, Bithinia, and all kinds of other places, but were hindered from going there. Incredibly, Luke doesn't attribute that to Satan; he said the Holy Spirit was stopping them.
In our spiritual experiences we can run into all kinds of roadblocks that become very difficult for us; if we're not careful our faith will founder. Sometimes the roadblocks might be there because of Satan's activity, but it is also possible the Spirit of God is trying to tell us something. You need to be pretty smart to figure out which is which, and that is why it is so imperative that we don't stay shallow in the faith. That is why it is imperative that we stand firm, are strengthened, and that we are banded together encouraging each other to stand firm.
The second thing to notice about Satan's activity is his tempting activity. One of Paul's major concerns about sending Timothy to Thessalonica was that in some way the temptor might have tempted him. Satan puts very tempting opportunities in front of us which, if we go through with them, will deliver us to spiritual shipwreck. Yet every temptation to go wrong is also an opportunity to do right. That is why, when you read in the New Testament about temptation and testing, the same Greek word (Parasmos) is translated temptation and testing. A temptation becomes a test whem, instead of succumbing to the temptation, you say 'no' and you come out stronger. That is why we need to encourage each other to stand firm.
Notice the second impediment to standing firm: the advent of trials.
The Apostle Paul says that he sent Timothy to strengthen and encourage the Thessalonicans in the faith so that none would be unsettled by their trials. They were having a very difficult time. Paul, understanding their physical danger, the psychological stress, the personal anxiety, understanding they are young believers without adequate leadership, also wants to make sure that even with everything stacked against them they will stand firm in the faith.
How is he going to do it? He does it by simply pointing out to them that there's nothing unusual in Christian suffering. Paul says, when it happens don't be surprised as if something strange is happening. Right from the very beginning, Jesus said if you're going to be my disciple you lift up your cross. The very first thing Ananias told Paul was what great things he would suffer.
We have to recognize that there will be all kinds of suffering. Why? One reason is we follow a crucified Lord who, according to the epistle to the Hebrews, learned obedience through the things that He suffered. If Jesus, in some mysterious way, learned obedience through the things that He suffered, how in the world do we think we're going to learn to be obedient without suffering? Donald Carson, in his new book How Long Oh Lord, says: "If even Jesus learned obedience from what He suffered, what ghastly misapprehension or arrogance is it that assumes we should be exempt?"
Why does God allow His people to suffer? Number one, because whom the Father loves He chastens and disciplines; number two, it is only through stress times that we discover how weak we are, and it's only when we discover our weakness that we discover what it means to be strong in Him. In Christ we learn to stand firm and we encourage each other to do it.
What are the incentives to standing firm? 1. Knowing that you're not alone, that helps. 2. Knowing that you're prayed for. 3. Knowing that how you stand firm affects other people (if you collapse they collapse; if you stand firm they stand firm). 4. Knowing that a genuine work of grace produces people who stand firm. 5. Knowing that one day you'll be out of it and you'll be in His presence. 6. Knowing that God is working in your life in such ways and with such means that He might present you holy and blameless -- that's what He's working toward.
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