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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Faith Alone, But Not By Itself.

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. – 2 Peter 1:5-11 ESV

Peter would have been one of the first to defend the concept of sola fide, salvation through faith alone. He firmly believed that man could not be justified or made right with God by anything other than faith alone in Christ alone. But that did not mean he believed that saving faith was all that was needed or necessary in the life of the believer. Our faith in Christ must be accompanied by a change in our behavior and character. James wrote, “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?” (James 2:14 ESV). Then he answered his own question, saying, “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17 ESV). James was not contradicting sola fide, he was simply acknowledge that saving faith is life-transforming faith. It results in a life of good works. And Peter corroborates the view of James when he tells his readers: “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love” (2 Peter 1:5-7 ESV). That’s quite a list. James summed his up in one word: Works. But Peter decided to get a bit more specific.

When speaking of supplementing their faith, the  Greek word he used is ἐπιχορηγέω (epichorēgeō) and it is an interesting choice. It actually means “to supply, furnish, present” (“G2023 – epichorēgeō (KJV) :: Strong’s Greek Lexicon.” Blue Letter Bible. www.blueletterbible.org). But it comes from another Greek word that is compound word in the Greek that combines the preposition “in” or “on” with chorēgeō, a word that literally means “to procure and supply all things necessary to fit out a chorus” (“G5524 – chorēgeō (KJV) :: Strong’s Greek Lexicon.” Blue Letter Bible. www.blueletterbible.org). That gives Peter’s words a whole new twist. He is telling his readers to “make every effort” to see that their faith in Christ be outfitted with all the necessary elements to produce a harmonious and God-honoring life.

It is important that we remember the encouraging words Peter wrote just a few verses earlier. “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3 ESV). These “supplements” Peter speaks about come from God. They are not man-made or self-produced. In his first letter, Peter stated, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies (chorēgeō) — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:11 ESV). The seven things that Peter mentions are God-given and designed by Him to complete every believer with the Christ-like character necessary to live harmoniously and righteously on this earth.

Spirituality, or our growth in godliness is a daily choice. It doesn’t just happen. It requires cooperation and effort on our part. The list Peter supplies is in a specific order and each word builds on the one before it. He uses a common literary device to move his thoughts toward a crescendo that ends with the word, “love.” He is not necessarily giving priority to one word over the other. He is also not saying that you have to add them to your life in the order in which he has given them. He is simply expressing that their is a natural progression to godliness. Like a tree, we are to grow gradually and intentionally, just as our Creator has designed. He begins with virtue. This is a word that described our inward character. It is moral excellence that begins in the heart and expresses itself through behavior. Virtue is a willful obedience to the calling of God on your life.

Knowledge refers to our need to know more about God and His Son. In chapter three, Peter writes, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18 ESV). Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians was the God “may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him” (Ephesians 1:17 ESV). His prayer for the believers in Colossae was that they would “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10 ESV).

Next Peter mentions self-control. This has to do with the ability to master our desires and passions. Rather than allowing our sinful flesh to dictate our behavior, we are to live under the control of the Spirit of God. That’s why Paul told us to “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16 ESV). Our flesh or old nature wants to control us. It wants to dictate our behavior, but we must keep it under control.

Next is steadfastness or perseverance. This has to do with having an attitude of resilience. Living as a believer on this planet can be tough at times. We must keep on keeping on. But it is much more than just a toleration of what is happening to us. It carries the idea of confident and joyful awareness that God is in control and is using any and all circumstances to mold us into the likeness of His Son.

Godliness is just what it appears to be. It is to have and display the character of God. This does not infer that we can become God, but that, as His children, we should reflect His character. We have the Spirit of God living within us, and as we submit to His leadership, we begin to exhibit the fruit of His presence: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

Brotherly affection is simply love for our fellow believers in Christ. That includes the unattractive and unlikeable, the haves and the have-nots. It eliminates any place for jealousy, envy, gossip, slander or hatred. Paul gives us a glimpse into what this looks like when he writes, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10 ESV).

Finally, Peter ends his list with the word, “love.” He uses the Greek word ἀγάπη (agapē), which refers to the highest form of love. It is the same kind of love with which Christ loved us. It is selfless, sacrificial, and always puts others as the highest priority.

Peter tells us that these qualities should be evident and constantly increasing in our lives. And if they are lacking, then we have every reason to wonder what has happened. He says we have become so nearsighted as to be blind. We have lost the ability to see those around us and have become so self-focused that we end up living as if God and others don’t even exist. Is that really saving faith? Is that what we have been called to as believers in Christ? Peter tells us that as these seven qualities increase in our lives, we can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are truly called and our faith is real. They are the evidence of our election, the proof of our calling by God. So we must constantly remember what Paul told his disciple, Timothy. “For God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning of time–to show us his grace through Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1;( NLT).

Help In Time of Need.

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. – Hebrews 4:14-16 ESV

The life of faith is not an easy one. Following Christ requires commitment and a determination to keep on believing and trusting even in the midst of the constant and deadly barrage of the enemy. Paul encourages us, “In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one” (Ephesians 6:16 ESV). Peter warns us, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8 ESV). Later on in this letter, the author will tell us,

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up. – Hebrews 12:1-3 NLT

The Christian life requires endurance and perseverance. It demands that we keep our eyes focused on Jesus, not just for our salvation, but for our ongoing sanctification. He is the “champion who initiates and perfects our faith.” We are to look at His example, how He endured the cross and how He was “tempted in every way, just as we are” (Hebrews 4:15 NLT). Jesus suffered and died because of sin; not His, but ours. He sacrificed His life so we wouldn’t have to give up ours. Which is the author of Hebrews goes on to say, “After all, you have not yet given your lives in your struggle against sin” (Hebrews 4:4 NLT). We will never have to die for our sins, because Jesus took our place. But we will have to struggle with the presence and reality of indwelling sin. While we live on this earth we will have to “strive to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:11 ESV) – the rest that comes with trusting in the finished work of Christ, that includes not only our salvation, but our sanctification and ultimate glorification. We will have to constantly “hold firmly to the faith we profess” (Hebrews 4:14 NLT). Our hope is in Christ, or as Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, “from faith for faith” (Romans 1:17 ESV). Literally, our faith must remain in Christ, from the beginning to the end. Paul told the Philippian Christians, “I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (Philippians 1:6 NLT). We have to hold firmly to that fact, even in the face of difficulty and disappointments.

And when we find ourselves in need, we are to turn to Jesus, our great high priest. He represents us before God and He fully understands what we are going through because He has been in our shoes. He is able to sympathize with our weaknesses. He was tempted just as we are. He knows what it is like to be under attack and to feel overwhelmed. And He also knows what it is like to not sin, to not give in to feelings of doubt and despair. He never failed to trust God. He never once failed to obey God. Paul tells us that “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8 ESV). So when we find ourselves in a difficult spot, we can confidently turn to Him as our divine high priest. And we can find the grace and mercy we need to help us in our time of need. When we are struggling, we don’t find a high priest who shakes His finger in our face and condemns our weakness. No, we find a sympathetic and empathetic high priest who reminds us that our sins have been paid for and any need for us to try to atone for our own sins has been done away with. The author will expand on this them in chapter nine.

But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! – Hebrews 9:11-14 NLT

Jesus played a dual role. He acted as the high priest, bringing the atoning sacrifice for man’s sins before God the Father. But He also played the part of the sacrificial lamb. He gave His life because it was the only sacrifice that would be acceptable to the Father. He was the unblemished, sinless Son of God, offering His own life as a substitute or stand-in for sinful humanity. And as those who have trusted in His substitutionary death on the cross, we can still come before the throne of grace and find mercy, hope, strength, comfort, assurance, and a constant reminder of God’s everlasting, never failing love for us. We will face trials and tribulations in this life. We will encounter difficulties and experience times of doubt and despair. But we have an understanding high priest who knows our weaknesses and has provided the cure for what ails us. As the author put it earlier in his letter:

Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested. – Hebrews 2:17-18 NLT

We have help in time of need. We have a God who understands our weakness and has made compensation for it. We have not been left on our own. We don’t have to face the trials of this earth in our own human effort. We can stand firm and hold on to our original confession because our high priest is there to help us.