Perseverance in the Face of Persecution

1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,

To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring. – 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4 ESV

Most scholars believe that Paul wrote this second letter to the Thessalonian church while he was in Corinth. As indicated by Acts 18:5, it was while in Corinth that Paul was joined by Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy, the two he mentions in the opening lines of his letter. All three men shared a common concern for the believers in Thessalonica and had probably discussed among themselves the most recent reports they had received regarding the spiritual state of the church there.

Paul, an avid evangelist, was also a consummate shepherd. He was never content to simply share the gospel and then walk away. Even though his ministry required him to travel from place to place, rarely allowing him to spend any extended periods of time with the new churches he helped to plant, he remained in constant communication with them. He maintained a network of individuals who acted as his “boots on the ground,” providing him with first-hand knowledge and timely reports about the state of the various congregations he had helped to start.

Evidently, Paul had received news regarding the Thessalonian church that prompted him to write this second letter to them. While he commends them for their growing faith and ever-increasing love for one another, Paul’s real purpose in writing seems to be driven by their confusion over the doctrine concerning Christ’s return. He will spend a good portion of his letter dealing with that issue. Paul knew that false or faulty doctrine could wreak havoc on the local church. Even right doctrine, wrongly interpreted or misunderstood can do irreparable damage to a local congregation.

The churches Paul had helped to start were all comprised of relatively new believers. Their spiritual immaturity made them especially susceptible to false teaching and could lead them to draw faulty conclusions about spiritual matters. They lacked a sophisticated understanding of doctrine. In fact, there was little in the way of well-documented and clearly articulated doctrine available to them. One of the reasons Paul Paul spent so much time putting his thoughts in writing and disseminating them in the form of letters was to provide clear teaching and instruction on key doctrinal issues, such as the Second Coming of Christ and the sanctification of the believer.

Under the inspiration of the Spirit of God, Paul addressed a wide variety of doctrinal topics, helping to establish a comprehensive dogma for the church. His letters, while typically written to local congregations, were commonly circulated among other nearby churches. Eventually, Paul’s letters became part of a growing collection of writings that were later canonized as the New Testament Scriptures. These divinely inspired texts provide the church with an official system of principles or tenets concerning the Christian faith.

But, before Paul launches into the main thesis of his letter, he greets the believers in Thessalonica, reminding them that they belong to “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 1:1 ESV). They are children of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ. They are part of the family of God and comprise the body of Christ. This seems to be Paul’s way of reminding them that they have been set apart by God for His use. To be in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ speaks of both ownership and relationship. There is an intimacy and accountability involved. As Paul had told the believers in Corinth: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20 ESV).

And it is from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ that the Thessalonian believers can expect to receive grace and peace. Grace or charis in the Greek refers to God’s unmerited favor. It is something He gives that is undeserved and unearned. It finds its greatest expression in the gift of Jesus Christ as the payment for mankind’s sin. But God’s grace is continuous and ever-present, constantly flowing into the life of the believer providing divine enablement through the presence of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

And it is through their relationship with God the Father and Jesus the Son that the Thessalonians can expect to receive peace or eirēnē – which refers as much to a tranquil state of the soul as it does to a lack of interpersonal conflict. It is because of Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, serving as the payment for the sins of mankind, that believers are justified or made right with God. And this status with God results in peace or a cessation of all fear or worry of condemnation (Romans 8:1). And, as Paul wrote to the believers in Philippi, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7 ESV).

As Paul considered his brothers and sisters in Thessalonica, he was prompted to express his gratitude to God because of their faith was growing, not stagnating. Their love for one another was increasing, not diminishing. For Paul, this was all evidence of the work of God. He who had begun a good work in them was obviously completing it (Philippians 1:6). And news of their perseverance and steadfastness of faith, even amid persecution and affliction, had led Paul to brag about them to other congregations. They had become teaching tools for Paul, providing him with tangible proof of what it means “to live in a way that pleases God” (1 Thessalonians 4:1 NLT).

The truth is, most of the churches Paul helped to start were suffering persecution in some form or fashion. It came with the territory. Following Christ was not normal or, in most cases, acceptable behavior. It came with a price. Paul refers to persecutions and afflictions. The first word refers to the hostile actions taken against the believers in Thessalonica. These could take the form of actual verbal and physical assaults or social ostracization. New believers could lose their jobs or social standings, but it was not uncommon for some to lose their lives. Affliction seems to refer to the results of this kind of persecution. The Greek word communicates the idea of being pressed down on or burdened by a heavy weight. The constant persecution taking place around them and to them was having an impact on them. The pressure was beginning to take a toll on them. But Paul commended them for their steadfastness. The Outline of Biblical Usage refers to this kind of persevering patience as “the characteristic of a man who is not swerved from his deliberate purpose and his loyalty to faith and piety by even the greatest trials and sufferings.”

They may have been young in their faith and lacking in adequate doctrinal instruction, but they were persevering under extremely difficult conditions. Their commitment to Christ had cost them. Their walk of faith was anything but easy. But they were dedicated and determined to stay the course and, as Paul put it, run the race to win.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

1 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 64. All abbreviations of ancient literature in this essay are those used in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3d ed. (OCD).

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