The Beginning of the End

26 And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. 27 And Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ 28 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” 29 Peter said to him, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” 30 And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” 31 But he said emphatically, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And they all said the same.”

32 And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. 34 And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” 35 And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36 And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” 37 And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? 38 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 39 And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. 40 And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy, and they did not know what to answer him. 41 And he came the third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough; the hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42 Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.” Mark 14:26-42 ESV

As part of their Passover celebration, Jesus and the disciples closed their time together with a hymn. Then they made their way out of the city and back to the Mount of Olives, located on the opposite side of the Kidron Valley, just east of Jerusalem. There Jesus made yet another shocking announcement to His men: “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (Mark 14:27-28 ESV).

Jesus used a verse from the prophet Zechariah to predict the falling away of His disciples. Not only was one of them going to betray Him, but the rest would end up deserting Him. These men had been His closest companions for 3-1/2 years, yet Jesus was letting them know that the events of the next 48 hours would result in their abandonment of Him. Shocked and shamed by this less-than-flattering disclosure from Jesus, Peter spoke up and vehemently denied that it applied to him.

“Even though they all fall away, I will not.” – Mark 14:29 ESV

He refused to accept Jesus’ assessment of his loyalty, and boldly proclaimed his ever-lasting allegiance. But Peter was speaking from the point of ignorance. He had no idea what was about to take place. Even though Jesus had disclosed the fate that awaited Him in Jerusalem, the disciples had failed to grasp the full import of His words.

Jesus’ allusion to the scattered sheep ties back to His earlier declaration regarding His identity as the Good Shepherd.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” – John 10:11 ESV

What Peter refused to come to grips with was the pending death of Jesus. He could not bring himself to believe that Jesus was actually going to die in Jerusalem. With a sincere yet false sense of bravado, Peter declared that he would remain by Jesus’ side no matter what happened. But Jesus knew something Peter didn’t know: The future. And Jesus revealed to HIs well-intentioned friend that not only would he prove to be a deserter, but he would also end up being a denier.

“Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” – Mark 14:30 ESV

And, once again, the ever-eager and over-confident Peter rejected Jesus’ accusation, vociferously declaring his to-the-death commitment to Jesus.

“If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” – Mark 14:30 ESV

And Mark indicates that the other 10 disciples, not wanting Peter to get all the glory, voiced their own determination to stick with Jesus to the bitter end. But they, too, were unaware of all that was about to take place. Even that night, the intensity of the spiritual battle surrounding Jesus was going to intensify dramatically, causing each of them to scatter to the four winds.

With the words of Jesus still echoing in their ears, the disciples followed Jesus from the Mount of Olives back to the Garden of Gethsemane. In essence, they reversed their steps and headed back to the city of Jerusalem, where all the events of the next 48 hours would take place. But in the garden, Jesus took three of His closest disciples and sought out a secluded spot in which to pray. He handpicked Peter, James, and John, the same men who had witnessed His transfiguration on the mountaintop (Mark 9:2-3). On that occasion, they had seen Jesus conversing with Isaiah and Moses. This time, they would be given the privilege of listening in as Jesus spoke with His Heavenly Father. He shared with these three men the agitated state in which He found himself, declaring,  “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch” (Mark 14:34 ESV). Unlike Peter, Jesus didn’t attempt to cover up His apprehensions with bold-sounding rhetoric. He willingly shared exactly what He was feeling at that moment. In this scene, we are given a glimpse into the humanity of Jesus. He was the God-man, 100 percent God and 100 percent human. And nowhere else in Scripture do we see His human nature displayed with greater clarity.

The author of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus, our High Priest, can empathize with our pain and suffering because He endured it all. There is nothing we will face that He did not encounter during His days on this earth.

This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. – Hebrews 4:15-16 NLT

As Jesus knelt in the garden that night, He felt the full weight of the burden He was about to bear. He knew all that would happen that in the hours ahead, and He was fully aware of the pain and suffering that would accompany His crucifixion. So, He called out, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39 ESV).

Jesus found Himself in a state of inner turmoil. It was only natural for His human nature to find the physical suffering He was about to endure to be something to avoid. But, as the Son of God, He knew that His full obedience to His Father’s will was necessary. Again, the author of Hebrews describes the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ mission.

…when Christ came into the world, he said to God, “You did not want animal sacrifices or sin offerings. But you have given me a body to offer.” – Hebrews 10:5 NLT

He had come to suffer and die, but that did not mean He had to enjoy the prospect of all that was about to happen. And, as Jesus prayed, He poured out His heart to His Father, displaying a deep sense of grief and foreboding. Luke records that God sent an angel to minister to Him in His agony.

…there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. – Luke 22:43-44 ESV

But as Jesus wrestled with the thought of His pending suffering and death, the three disciples slept soundly. And Jesus, finding them asleep, confronted the self-appointed ring-leader of the group.

“Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” – Mark 14:37-38 ESV

The one who had bragged that he would not fall away or deny Jesus couldn’t even manage to keep his eyes open while his Master agonized just a few feet away. On three separate occasions, Jesus returned to find His three proteges sound asleep. They meant well, but, as Jesus indicated, their spirit was willing, but their flesh was weak. They didn’t have the inner strength to counter their fleshly desires. Weariness made watchfulness impossible. And in a matter of moments, fear would overshadow any sense of faithfulness they had to Jesus.

His time of prayer having ended, Jesus woke His sleeping companions and announced that the end was about to begin.

“Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough; the hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.” – Mark 14:41-42 ESV

And the weary disciples, still wiping the sleep from their eyes, woke to find themselves amid a living nightmare. The darkness of the night was now pierced by the flames of torches and the shouts of men. Their peaceful slumber was replaced by a chaotic scene filled with armed guards carrying swords and spears. And there, in the midst of the crowd, stood their friend and companion, Judas.

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

Be Careful What You Ask For

32 And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. 34 And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”

35 And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” 39 And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” 41 And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. 42 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant. 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:32-45 ESV

For the third time, Jesus reveals to His disciples what awaits Him in Jerusalem, including additional details that paint an even bleaker picture. They are making their way from the region of Perea to the capital city, and it is a somber and silent procession. This time, there are no arguments about greatness taking place among the disciples. They are still trying to take in all that Jesus had shared with them while they were in Perea. And the last thing they heard Him say must have made an impact on them.

“I tell you the truth, there is no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive in this age a hundred times as much—homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, fields, all with persecutions…” – Mark 10:29-30 NLT

To their shock and surprise, Jesus had told them that one of the rewards awaiting them for having left everything to follow Him (Mark 10:28) was persecution. They each aspired to greatness, but Jesus had thrown cold water on those lofty aspirations, promoting a lifestyle of humility and service instead. In fact, He had turned their expectations upside down by claiming, “many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:31 ESV).

So, as Jesus leads the way, the 12 disciples and a small contingent of other faithful followers tag along behind Him, confused and perplexed about what may lie ahead.

Jesus, fully aware of their reservations about returning to Jerusalem, pulls aside the 12 and provides them with one last reminder of His fate.

“Look, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and experts in the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, spit on him, flog him severely, and kill him. Yet after three days, he will rise again.” – Mark 10:33-34 NLT

Jesus was painfully explicit, refusing to hide the truth from His disciples. They are on the path that leads to Jerusalem, and Jesus reminds them that once they reach their destination, all hell will break loose – literally. The religious leaders of Israel will allow their hatred of Jesus to come to an explosive crescendo, resulting in His torture and execution. The one they consider to be the Messiah of Israel is telling them that He is going to die. Rather than being crowned the King of Israel, He will be condemned to death. Instead of being revered as the chosen one of God, He will be ridiculed and mocked as a common criminal, then killed.

But, as He had done before, Jesus adds the most important detail that His disciples continue to ignore: “after three days, he will rise again” (Mark 10:34 NLT).

What happens next is truly amazing, and it portrays the disciples in a very unflattering light. But it is not the first time these men revealed their true colors. In the previous chapter, Mark recorded their response to another one of Jesus’ attempts to explain His destiny in Jerusalem. The disciples had gotten into an argument over which of them was the greatest.

This time, it’s James and John who get exposed for their insensitivity and apparent stupidity. They just didn’t get it. Nothing Jesus had said seemed to have registered with them. Perhaps they were simply trying to avoid the awkward subject Jesus had raised. But, whatever their motive, their actions are difficult to comprehend or justify. Immediately after hearing Jesus describe His pending death in Jerusalem, these two brothers have the unmitigated gall to approach Jesus with a totally self-centered request.

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask. – Mark 10:35 NLT

These two men were the sons of Salome, the sister of Mary. This would have made them the half-cousins of Jesus. And it would appear that they believed their blood ties to Jesus qualified them for special treatment. In essence, they ask Jesus for a blank check. They want Him to affirm their request even before they make it known. But Jesus makes no such assurances, instead, He asks them to state their request. And what they share is truly remarkable and unfathomable.

“Permit one of us to sit at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory.” – Mark 10:37 NLT

Had they heard nothing Jesus had said? Were they so incredibly dense that they could not comprehend a single word He had spoken to them? All His comments regarding greatness in the Kingdom of God had gone in one ear and out the other. They were still expecting Jesus to ascend the throne of David and establish His Kingdom in Jerusalem, and they were hoping to nab the two most powerful and prominent positions in His administration. These two fishermen from Galilee were demanding that Jesus elevate them to the two highest ranks available in any royal court. When they had heard Jesus say, “many who are first will be last, and the last first,” they had completely misconstrued His meaning. They must have assumed that their lowly estate as fishermen made them the perfect candidates for these two highly prestigious roles.

But they had no idea what they were asking. When they mentioned Jesus coming into His glory, there were thinking a royal throne. But Jesus had referred to His glory as being His crucifixion. He told His disciples, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:23-25 ESV). 

The cross would be the means by which Jesus received glory from the Father. He would die, but then He would be raised back to life again. And it would be His death and resurrection that provided the final proof that He was the Messiah and the Savior of the world. That is why Jesus was able to say, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32 ESV). And John clarified that Jesus was speaking of His death.

He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die. – John 12:32 ESV

So, when James and John asked for the right to sit on Jesus’ right and left when He came into His glory, they were unwittingly asking to take the place of the two thieves who would be crucified beside Him. That’s why Jesus told them, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I experience?” (Mark 10:38 NLT). 

Their understanding of glory was way off. They were thinking of thrones, crowns, royal robes, power, and prominence. But Jesus was speaking of doing the will of His Heavenly Father. He would be “lifted up,” but to a cross and not to a royal dais with a golden throne. Jesus’ path to greatness and glory would pass through the valley of death. He would have to drink the cup of God’s wrath and be immersed into the suffering that must accompany the sacrifice of His life for the sins of mankind.

James and John, still unable to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ words, boldly proclaimed their readiness and willingness to handle whatever responsibilities came with their new positions. But Jesus informed them that their time would come. They would get their opportunity to prove their allegiance by experiencing the same kind of harsh treatment from the world as Jesus was about to undergo.

“You will drink the cup I drink, and you will be baptized with the baptism I experience.” – Mark 10:39 NLT

James would be the first of the disciples to become a martyr for the cause of Christ (Acts 12:2). John would later be exiled by the Roman Emperor to the island of Patmos. And it is believed that he too eventually suffered a martyr’s death. But both men would be glorified and reunited with Jesus in His heavenly Kingdom.

When news of what James and John had done reached the rest of the disciples, they were incensed. Once again, the issue of greatness raised its ugly head as the remaining disciples fumed over the attempt of James and John to secure for themselves the two best spots in Jesus’ royal administration. And once again, we see that none of the 12 disciples were able to understand what Jesus was trying to tell them. Their anger reveals their jealousy and thinly veiled hope that they might be chosen for greatness. So, one more time, Jesus attempts to open their eyes to the truth. He contrasts the ways of the world with the ways of the Kingdom of God. They are two diametrically opposed systems that promote completely different brands of leadership.

In the Gentile world, leadership was all about power and domination. It was maintained by wielding authority and motivated by self-promotion and the subjugation of others. But God’s Kingdom operated on a completely different paradigm.

“…whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of all.” – Mark 10:44 NLT

And just to make sure they understood what He was talking about, Jesus used Himself as the quintessential example of true greatness.

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Mark 10:45 NLT

Jesus was about to lay down His life for the sheep. Even though He was the Son of God and the Messiah of Israel, He was going to make the ultimate sacrifice that would pay the ransom for the sins of mankind. He would lead by serving. He would display His sovereignty by sacrificing. He would achieve glory through dying. And when James and John later witnessed the two thieves hanging on either side of their friend and teacher, it seems likely that their awkward conversation with Jesus would have come to mind. There before them was the greatest display of what Jesus had been trying to tell them. The innocent Lamb of God dying on behalf of sinful men and flanked by two common criminals who deserved exactly what was happening to them. In that moment, James and John must have realized that those were the two positions they had so arrogantly requested and so rightfully deserved.

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

A Mission Validated, Tested, and Begun

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Mark 1:9-15 ESV

Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark dedicates no part of his gospel to the birth of Jesus. Instead, he opens with very brief descriptions of Jesus’ baptism and His testing by Satan in the wilderness. Even when covering these two significant events, Mark is stingy with the details. He seems to use them as further proofs of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah but then moves quickly past them in order to focus on the actual ministry of Jesus.

Mark mentions, almost in passing, that Jesus was from Nazareth. Since Mark does not cover the birth of Jesus, there is no mention of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. For Mark, the most important details concerning Jesus began with His adult life. He is not negating the importance of the incarnation but is simply concentrating the focus of his gospel on the launch of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Jesus had spent His life growing up in Nazareth, a nondescript town in Galilee. Even among the Jews, Nazareth was a town of little import and low estimation. In fact, when Philip met Jesus for the first time, he told his friend Nathanael, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45 ESV). To which Nathanael sarcastically responded, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46 ESV). Yet, it was out of this unlikely and unimpressive town that the Savior of the world would come.

Luke reveals that Jesus was 30-years-old when He left Nazareth and made His way to the wilderness of Judea where John was baptizing (Luke 3:23). And Jesus chose to inaugurate the official launch of His ministry by being baptized. Now Mark has made it clear that John’s baptism was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4 ESV). It was intended to be a public expression of the individual’s admission of their sin and need for forgiveness. By submitting themselves to being baptized, they were indicating their willingness to repent and be cleansed of their sins, so that they might be ready for the Messiah and His coming Kingdom. 

But why was Jesus baptized? The Scriptures make it clear that He was sinless. The author of Hebrews states that Jesus “was tempted in every way that we are, yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15 BSB). And Paul adds that “God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT).

The author of Hebrews provides some much-needed insight into the motivation behind Jesus’ decision to be baptized that day.

…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. – Hebrews 2:17 NLT

Not only had Jesus taken on human flesh and become one of us, He was willing to undergo the same ritual of baptism in order to associate Himself with sinful humanity. Even though He was sinless, He willingly submitted to John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It is the same reason Jesus allowed Himself to be crucified. Though He was sinless, He willingly died the death that we deserved. As Peter put it, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24 BSB). And Paul succinctly states that “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3 NLT).

Jesus became one of us – in every way – so that He might give His life on behalf of us. And in being baptized by John, Jesus was fulfilling the will of His Father. Matthew records that when Jesus showed up at the Jordan River and asked John to baptize him, John was reticent.

John tried to talk him out of it. “I am the one who needs to be baptized by you,” he said, “so why are you coming to me?” – Matthew 3:14 NLT

But Jesus insisted, telling John, “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires” (Matthew 3:15 NLT). Everything Jesus did was in keeping with His Father’s will. He would later claim, “I have come down from heaven to do the will of God who sent me, not to do my own will” (John 6:38 NLT). And He described His faithful adherence to His Father’s will as a form of nourishment and sustenance.

“My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to finish His work.” – John 4:34 BSB

Another reason behind His baptism was that it foreshadowed another kind of baptism He would undergo as a part of God’s sovereign will. Sometime later, Jesus would have a difficult exchange with two of His disciples. He had just told all of His disciples about what was going to take place in Jerusalem.

“The Son of Man will be betrayed to the leading priests and the teachers of religious law. They will sentence him to die and hand him over to the Romans. They will mock him, spit on him, flog him with a whip, and kill him, but after three days he will rise again.” – Mark 10:34-35 NLT

And in response, the two brothers, James and John, asked Jesus to do them a favor.

“When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.” – Mark 10:37 NLT

To which Jesus soberly responded:

You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism of suffering I must be baptized with?” – Mark 10:38 NLT

Jesus was going to be “immersed” in an overwhelming form of suffering that would no one else could have endured. And it would be the will of God for Him to do so. Jesus later described the unbearable nature of this baptism of suffering.

“I have a terrible baptism of suffering ahead of me, and I am under a heavy burden until it is accomplished.” – Luke 12:50 NLT

It was the Father’s will, so Jesus was determined to carry it out. It was also the Father’s will that the people of Israel come to John in the wilderness and submit to the “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John had clearly called them to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV). And they were expected to obey the will of God. So, in submitting to baptism, Jesus was providing them with an example of faithful obedience, even though He had no sins that needed forgiving.

And Jesus had fulfilled the will of His Father, Mark records that something incredible happened.

…when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” – Mark 1:10-11 ESV

An amazing, supernatural sign from heaven appeared. And it culminated with the sound of the voice of God, calling out from heaven and declaring His pleasure with His Son. This scene provided a divine seal of approval on Jesus. God the Father was validating Jesus’ identity as His Son and declaring His complete satisfaction with all that was about to happen. The next three-and-a-half years of Jesus’ life would have the full blessing and approval of God.

But this fantastic scene is followed by the rather strange statement: “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12 ESV). Yet, even what follows is to be clearly understood as the will of God for Jesus’ life. Jesus, the Son of God, was driven by the Spirit of God in order to do the will of God. And His destination was the wilderness where He would undergo a series of temptations by Satan over a period of 40 days. Mark doesn’t mention it, but Jesus went without food and water the entire time He was in the wilderness. He would have been weak and famished. His physical condition would have deteriorated. But, as Jesus told His disciples, His nourishment came from doing the will of His Father.

And the author of Hebrews reminds us, “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” (Hebrews 4:15 ESV). And His suffering allowed Him to fully undertand and empathize with those whom He came to save.

Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested. – Hebrews 2:18 NLT

Jesus survived His baptism by fire. He overcame the temptations of the enemy and emerged from the wilderness 40 days later completely sinless and fully obedient to His Heavenly Father. And now, His real earthly ministry could begin.

tEnglish 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

Salvation, Suffering, and Scripture

10 You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, 11 my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. 12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:10-17 ESV

Timothy found himself surrounded by false teachers and foolish people whose lack of spiritual discernment caused them to accept their heresy as truth. But Paul was not going to allow his young disciple to lose hope or to abandon his ministry objectives. Timothy still had work to do. The gospel must be preached, new believers must be educated in the teachings of Christ, the truth of God’s Word must be defended, and the promises of God must be believed. At all costs.

If Timothy needed encouragement or an example to follow, he need only look to the life of Paul, his mentor, and friend. After all, Paul was writing this letter while confined to prison in Rome. And the sole reason he was there was because of his faith in Christ and his commitment to preaching the gospel. He had been falsely accused by those who opposed his message and despised him so much that they would do anything to see him eliminated. A group of 40 Jews had even made a pact, sealed by an oath, that they would not eat until they had personally assassinated Paul.

The next morning a group of Jews got together and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. There were more than forty of them in the conspiracy. They went to the leading priests and elders and told them, “We have bound ourselves with an oath to eat nothing until we have killed Paul. So you and the high council should ask the commander to bring Paul back to the council again. Pretend you want to examine his case more fully. We will kill him on the way.” – Acts 23:12-15 NLT

So, just in case his memory had lapsed, Paul provided Timothy with a sobering reminder of his own ministry experience. It had been anything but easy. From the moment he had received his commission as an apostle, Paul had found himself encountering opposition and having to face persecutions and sufferings. But he had done so with patience, faith, love, and steadfastness. This is not a display of arrogant pride or boasting on Paul’s part. He is simply reminding Timothy of what he had already witnessed with his own eyes. Paul recounts three different occasions when he had suffered persecution for doing what he had been called to do. The first took place in Antioch of Pisidia.

It was there that Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel of Jesus Christ in the synagogues and saw a great many people come to faith.

Many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, and the two men urged them to continue to rely on the grace of God. – Acts 13:43 NLT

But they also met with increasing opposition on the part of the Jews.

But when some of the Jews saw the crowds, they were jealous; so they slandered Paul and argued against whatever he said. – Acts 13:45 NLT

And it wasn’t long before their jealousy and slander turned to acts of physical violence.

Then the Jews stirred up the influential religious women and the leaders of the city, and they incited a mob against Paul and Barnabas and ran them out of town. – Acts 13:50 NLT

Having been railroaded out of Antioch by the Jews, Paul and Barnabas made their way to Iconium. But as Luke records in the book of Acts, things did not improve.

The same thing happened in Iconium. Paul and Barnabas went to the Jewish synagogue and preached with such power that a great number of both Jews and Greeks became believers. Some of the Jews, however, spurned God’s message and poisoned the minds of the Gentiles against Paul and Barnabas. But the apostles stayed there a long time, preaching boldly about the grace of the Lord. And the Lord proved their message was true by giving them power to do miraculous signs and wonders. But the people of the town were divided in their opinion about them. Some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles.

Then a mob of Gentiles and Jews, along with their leaders, decided to attack and stone them. When the apostles learned of it, they fled to the region of Lycaonia—to the towns of Lystra and Derbe and the surrounding area. And there they preached the Good News. – Acts 14:1-7 NLT

But things had taken a rather odd and nearly deadly turn in Lystra. Their miraculous healing of a crippled man had caused the inhabitants of Lystra to mistake them for gods in human form. They had even tried to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas, declaring them to be the Greek gods, Zeus and Hermes. But Paul had taken the opportunity to declare the good news, calling their audience to “turn from these worthless things and turn to the living God” (Acts 14:15 NLT).

But the crowds had remained undeterred by Paul’s words, still convinced that they must be gods. And then, a contingent of Jews from Antioch and Iconium had shown up, whose accusations against Paul and Barnabas had transformed the adoring crowd from worshipers to executioners.

Then some Jews arrived from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowds to their side. They stoned Paul and dragged him out of town, thinking he was dead. But as the believers gathered around him, he got up and went back into the town. The next day he left with Barnabas for Derbe. – Acts 14:19-20 NLT

And Paul reminds Timothy, “You know all about how I was persecuted in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra—but the Lord rescued me from all of it” (2 Timothy 3:11 NLT). Paul had miraculously walked away from his own stoning, making his way to Derbe, where he had continued to faithfully proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. Then, according to Luke, Paul and Barnabas had retraced their steps, returning to the very cities where they had faced opposition and Paul had been stoned and left for dead.

After preaching the Good News in Derbe and making many disciples, Paul and Barnabas returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch of Pisidia, where they strengthened the believers. They encouraged them to continue in the faith, reminding them that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God. – Acts 14:21-22 NLT

The inhabitants of these three cities must have been shocked when Paul and Barnabas showed back up. But no one would have been more surprised than those who had placed their faith in Christ as a result of the teaching of these two men. They had probably assumed they would never see Paul and Barnabas again. But not only did they return, they provided a living lesson in what it means to suffer on behalf of Christ. It is likely that Paul still displayed the cuts and bruises from his stoning in Lystra.

And Paul reminds Timothy of the message he had delivered to the faithful in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch: “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12 NLT).

The reality of the Christian life is that the godly will suffer while the ungodly will appear to prosper. False teachers will continue to deceive and mislead the innocent and immature. The wicked will appear to get away with their ungodly behavior, even flourishing, while those who follow Christ find themselves facing trials and difficulties of all kinds.

But Paul encourages Timothy to remain faithful at all costs, reminding him to consider the history of his own conversion and calling. Timothy had been raised by a godly mother and grandmother who had saturated his life with the Scriptures. And that immersion in the Old Testament had prepared Timothy to understand the truth regarding Jesus and His claim to be the Messiah of Israel.

You have been taught the holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus. – 2 Timothy 3:15 NLT

Timothy knew that Jesus had been the fulfillment of all the Messianic passages found in the Hebrew Scriptures. He was the Son of David and the long-awaited Messiah. And He was Timothy’s Savior. And just as the Scriptures had prophesied Jesus’ first coming, they revealed that Jesus would one day come again. That’s why Paul reminds Timothy to keep trusting God’s written Word because it reveals the truth concerning His Living Word.

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. – Acts 3:16-17 NLT

Things were not going to be easy. Living the Christian life was not going to be a walk in the park. But Paul wanted Timothy to know that he could endure whatever came his way because he could trust in the Word of God. It had the power to instruct, discipline, encourage, and equip God’s people. It was divinely inspired and, therefore, spiritually empowered to help every believer not only survive but thrive. Salvation, suffering, and Scripture are three non-negotiables in the life of the believer. Saving faith will result in suffering. It comes with the territory. But Scripture, which reveals the redemptive plan of God made possible through faith in Christ, also provides everything we need to live Christlike lives as we await His Son’s return.

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

Yet, I Will Rejoice

c17 Though the fig tree should not blossom,

    nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
    and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
    and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the deer’s;
    he makes me tread on my high places.

To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments. Habakkuk 3:17-19 ESV

Habakkuk has expressed his concern to God about the state of affairs in Judah, describing it as a place where the wicked outnumber the righteous, creating an atmosphere of injustice and violence. He was shocked by God’s surprising admission that He would use the pagan nation of Babylon as His instruments of judgment against Judah. Habakkuk had been looking for a spiritual revival in Judah, but God had plans to bring about their destruction and captivity.

Upon hearing God describe the divine retribution He had planned for Babylon’s role in Judah’s punishment, Habakkuk found himself encouraged and comforted. He reflected on God’s past acts of deliverance on behalf of the people of Israel and concluded that, in spite of all that was about to happen, he could trust God to do the right thing. The sovereign plan of God was just, right, and perfect in every detail.

I will quietly wait for the day of trouble
    to come upon people who invade us. – Habakkuk 3:16 ESV

Now, Habakkuk closes his book with a statement of complete confidence in God. This is not some pollyanna, positive-motivational claptrap intended to score brownie points with God. He is expressing his sincere belief in the greatness and goodness of God. He fully realizes that Judah’s immediate future is a grim one. There would be no miracle of national revival like the one that took place during the reign of King Josiah. Injustice, immorality, and wickedness would continue to plague the nation of Judah until the judgment of God fell upon them in the form of the Babylonian army. Conquest and captivity were the inevitable fate of God’s people because of their long history of rebellion and unfaithfulness.

Using a series of metaphorical comparisons, Habakkuk clearly reveals his understanding of Judah’s fate. He harbored no delusions that things were going to improve. In fact, he seems to have in mind the curses God had promised to bring on the people of Israel if they failed to keep their covenant agreement with Him.

“But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field.  Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock.” – Deuteronomy 28:15-18 ESV

Their decision to disobey God would result in His discipline of them, in the form of tangible loss and devastating suffering.

“The Lord will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me. The Lord will make the pestilence stick to you until he has consumed you off the land that you are entering to take possession of it. The Lord will strike you with wasting disease and with fever, inflammation and fiery heat, and with drought and with blight and with mildew.” –  Deuteronomy 28:20-22 ESV

Among the many curses that Moses outlined to the people of Israel were those affecting their crops and flocks.

“You shall carry much seed into the field and shall gather in little, for the locust shall consume it. You shall plant vineyards and dress them, but you shall neither drink of the wine nor gather the grapes, for the worm shall eat them. You shall have olive trees throughout all your territory, but you shall not anoint yourself with the oil, for your olives shall drop off.” – Deuteronomy 28:38-40 ESV

And Habakkuk appears to take all these devastating signs of God’s disciplinary hand and boils them down into a few representative examples. He describes a fig tree that has failed to blossom, a sure sign that no fruit could be expected. It would be barren and of no value. He foresees barren vines, devoid of fruit, and guaranteeing no wine production. He envisions the annual olive harvest as failed, the fields lying barren and empty. And the subsequent famine has a devastating impact on the flocks and herds.

But although Habakkuk paints a bleak and depressing scenario, he expresses his firm intention to remain confident in the goodness of God.

…yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation. – Habakkuk 3:18 ESV

Even if all these terrible things take place, which God had indicated they would, Habakkuk is determined to trust in God. His words are reminiscent of those spoken by Job.

Though he slay me, I will hope in him… – Job 13:15 ESV

Job was a man who had suffered great loss and, unlike the Israelites, he had done nothing to deserve it. He was completely innocent and yet, in a devastating series of catastrophic events, he lost all his flocks and herds, and received news that his children had been killed in a freak accident. And yet, his response to all of this undeserved and inexplicable loss was to say:

“I came naked from my mother’s womb,
    and I will be naked when I leave.
The Lord gave me what I had,
    and the Lord has taken it away.
Praise the name of the Lord!” – Job 1:21 NLT

But things only got worse. Job soon found himself suffering from a debilitating and painful skin disease for which there was no cure or no hope of relief. At that point, his own wife, assuming that Job had done something to deserve all this suffering, encouraged him to curse God and die. To which Job responded, “You talk like a foolish woman. Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” (Job 2:10 NLT).

Habakkuk, like Job, was convinced that his God was good even when everything around him looked bad. He was not going to judge the goodness of God based on the nature of his circumstances. And yet, how easy it is for the children of God to “accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad.” And while we should always be grateful to God for His many blessings, their absence should never cause us to assume a lack of God’s presence.

It is right and proper to voice appreciation of God’s goodness when he bestows all that is necessary for life, health, and prosperity. But when these things are lacking, to rejoice in God for his own sake is evidence of pure faith. – Bruce, F. F. “Habakkuk.” In The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expositional Commentary

Habakkuk was prepared for the worst, but fully confident in God’s best. He was placing his hope in the goodness of God. And this reflects a major shift in the prophet’s mood. He had started his book in a state of despair, complaining to God about the dismal conditions in Judah. But now, after having heard from God and being assured of His divine plans, Habakkuk was filled with confident assurance in his faithful, sovereign God.

The Sovereign Lord is my strength!
    He makes me as surefooted as a deer,
    able to tread upon the heights. – Habakkuk 3:19 NLT

Habakkuk knew that he would be able to endure all that was to come because his good God would give him strength. Like the apostle Paul, Habakkuk was relying on something greater than himself to face the ups and downs associated with this fallen world.

I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:11-13 ESV

The days ahead would be difficult. The discipline of God would be painful and purging. But Habakkuk was willing to put his confidence in Yahweh because He had always proven Himself to be trustworthy and true. The conditions in Judah were going to get worse before they got better. The Babylonians were coming, whether Habakkuk liked it or not. And it was all part of God’s divine plan for the future redemption of His people.

As followers of Christ, we face a similar situation as that experienced by Habakkuk. We live in a fallen world where sin and wickedness abound. The people of God are under constant attack with the enemy focusing all His efforts on the destruction of the body of Christ. And yet, Jesus warned us that these days would come. And He also told us to remain firm in our faith and full of peace because He has it all under control.

But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when you will be scattered, each one going his own way, leaving me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” – John 16:32-33 NLT

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

The Lord Is Faithful

1 Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith. But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one. And we have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things that we command. May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ. 2 Thessalonians 3:1-5 ESV

Paul was a powerful proponent of prayer and was not shy in requesting others to pray on his behalf. He knew he was engaged in a spiritual battle that required spiritual weapons. He told the Corinthians believers:

We are human, but we don’t wage war as humans do. We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments. We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ. – 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 NLT

And as he told Timothy, one of the primary weapons in our warfare with evil is prayer.

I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity. – 1 Timothy 2:1-2 NLT

His belief in the power and efficacy of prayer was supported by James, who wrote, “The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results” (James 5:16 NLT). And, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul had challenged them to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17 ESV). And, as Paul told Timothy, this was his desire for every congregation to which he had ministered.

In every place of worship, I want men to pray with holy hands lifted up to God, free from anger and controversy. – 1 Timothy 2:8 NLT

Paul didn’t view prayer as an optional. It was not some kind of spiritual accessory you put on when it was convenient or when you determined it was necessary. It was to be a permanent and vital part of the believer’s life, a sentiment Paul expressed to the church in Ephesus.

Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere. – Ephesians 6:18 NLT

And this call to persistent and perpetual prayer was because of the very real nature of the spiritual battle in which we are engaged. Just a few verses earlier, Paul had warned the Ephesian believers of the epic spiritual war taking place around them and their role in it.

Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. – Ephesians 6:10-12 NLT

Paul was a man of prayer and he coveted the prayers of others. But notice that Paul’s prayer request, while personal in nature, was not focused on himself. He was asking them to pray that his ministry would continue to be successful – “that the Lord’s message may spread quickly and be honored” (2 Thessalonians 3:1 NLT). He didn’t provide the Thessalonians with a long list of personal prayer requests that focused on his health, finances, or relational concerns. It wasn’t that Paul didn’t have problems or personal issues, but that his focus was always on the bigger cause of spreading the gospel.

Paul didn’t need better clothes, a bigger house, improved health, or a trouble-free life. And while he appreciated any concern that others had for his well-being, he wanted them to know that he really had no needs, except the strength and determination to continue doing what he had been called to do.

How I praise the Lord that you are concerned about me again. I know you have always been concerned for me, but you didn’t have the chance to help me. Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. – Philippians 4:10-12 NLT

And Paul made it clear that all he really needed was provided for him by Christ.

For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:13 NLT

As Paul’s letter has made clear, there were those who opposed his teaching and were always trying to add to or alter the gospel message. Not only that, but he also faced physical threats to his life because of his work on behalf of Christ. Paul provides a detailed list of his physical sufferings in his second letter to the church in Corinth. He describes how he had “been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again” (2 Corinthians 11:23 NLT). Then he gave them specific instances of his abuse. “Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned” (2 Corinthians 11:24-25 NLT).

So, Paul asked the Thessalonians for prayer in light of the very real nature of his opposition and their relentless desire to put him out of commission.

…pray for us…that we may be delivered from perverse and evil people. For not all have faith. – 2 Thessalonians 3:1, 2 NLT

As the Thessalonians knew from their own firsthand experience, not everyone accepted the message of the gospel. Many of their own friends and family members had denied God’s gracious offer of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone. Not all have faith, Paul states. Not everyone is part of the body of Christ. And wherever believers exist, they will find themselves surrounded by those who despise their message and their very existence. Jesus had warned His disciples: “You will be hated by everyone because of My name” (Matthew 10:22 BSB). And He broadened the scope of this hatred by declaring that the whole world would stand opposed to His followers.

If you were of the world, it would love you as its own. Instead, the world hates you, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. – John 15:19 BSB

But Paul assures his fellow believers in Thessalonica that, while the world was filled with hostile people who did not share their faith, “the Lord is faithful” and “He will establish you and guard you against the evil one” (2 Thessalonians 3:3 ESV). No matter how bleak things appeared to be or how intense the persecution may become, the Lord stood ready to strengthen and protect them. With true pastoral conviction and a loving shepherd’s heart, Paul encouraged his flock to remain faithful to the Lord. He had not and would not abandon them. And Paul complimented the Thessalonians for their past faithfulness and assured them of his confidence that they would remain committed to Christ, no matter what happened.

we are confident about you in the Lord that you are both doing—and will do—what we are commanding. – 2 Thessalonians 3:4 NLT

Finally, Paul offers up a prayer on their behalf, asking that God give them a greater understanding of His love for them and a deeper appreciation for the endurance Christ modeled with His own life. They need to keep the love of God and the steadfastness of Christ on their minds constantly. As Paul told the believers in Ephesus, an understanding of God’s love as expressed through Christ’s sacrifice is the key to experiencing fulness of life and power.

…may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. – Ephesians 3:18-19 NLT

And as the author of Hebrews points out, a constant focus on the faithfulness of Christ will go a long way in providing world-weary Christians with the strength they need to not only survive but thrive in this life.

…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

Because of the unwavering love of God and the faithfulness of Christ, they had everything they needed to say as Paul did, “I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13 NLT).

 

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

Future Glory Versus Present Suffering

13 But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. 14 To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.

16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, 17 comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word. 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17 ESV

The Thessalonians had been distracted. They had taken their eye off the prize and were focusing on their present circumstances, wondering if, as the false prophets had claimed, that the day of the Lord had begun. Their trials and tribulations seemed to support the idea that the end had begun. So, they began to believe they were living in the last days. But this thought was creating confusion and causing them to doubt the teachings of Paul and his companions.

Paul describes the last days as being filled with apostasy, rebellion, and the judgment of God upon all those who reject the truth concerning His Son. As bad as things may have been for the Thessalonian believers, their conditions were nothing like those that will accompany the final days. And the presence of trials in the life of a believer was not to be confused with the future day of Tribulation. In fact, Paul and the other New Testament authors encouraged believers to welcome trials as a vital part of God’s plan for their ongoing sanctification.

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. – James 1:2-4 NLT

So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world. – 1 Peter 1:6-7 NLT

God’s discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness. No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it’s painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way. – Hebrews 12:10-11 NLT

Suffering and sanctification are inseparable in the life of the believer. Just as Jesus suffered in this life and then experienced the joy of glorification, so will we one day. And Paul reminded the believers in Rome that their status as children of God, made possible through their faith in Christ, also made them co-heirs with Christ. And part of their inheritance was the glory to come. But, as with Jesus, their suffering must precede their glorification.

And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. – Romans 8:17-18 NLT

But as Paul states, their present suffering was nothing when compared with their future glorification. And in his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul stressed the example provided by the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus.

6 Though he was God,
    he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
    he humbled himself in obedience to God
    and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

9 Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
    and gave him the name above all other names,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:6-11 NLT

And Paul reminds the Thessalonian believers that they had been chosen by God “to be among the first to experience salvation—a salvation that came through the Spirit who makes you holy and through your belief in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13 NLT). Their experiences of suffering were proof of their salvation and sanctification. They had been given the privilege of suffering on behalf of Christ and Paul reminds them that their suffering has a purpose. It is a God-ordained process for increasing their dependence upon His indwelling Spirit so that their lives might display His power in their weakness.

And Paul had learned this truth from firsthand experience. Three different times he had asked God to remove “the thorn” in his flesh. But each time God had answered: “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NLT). And this eye-opening lesson from God had radically altered Paul’s perspective on the role of suffering and weakness in the life of the believer.

So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 NLT

Paul stressed to the Thessalonians believers that God’s ultimate goal behind their salvation was not their present happiness, but their future glorification.

To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. – 2 Thessalonians 2:14 ESV

Their ultimate glorification would not come in this life, but in the life to come. In the meantime, God was using the presence of suffering and trials to expose their weakness and to encourage increasing dependence upon the Spirit’s presence and power within them. And Paul challenged them to stay the course. Not only were they destined to experience additional suffering in this life, but they would also find themselves bombarded by false teaching that contradicted the words of Jesus and His apostles.

So, Paul called them to “stand firm and keep a strong grip on the teaching we passed on to you both in person and by letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15 NLT). As he told the believers in Ephesus, his job was “to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12 NLT). And he was committed to doing just that.

This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. – Ephesians 4:13 NLT

His commitment was fueled by his belief in the transformative nature of the gospel message. Salvation was to result in sanctification. Faith in Christ was meant to produce those who bore the image of Christ. Spiritual infancy was to give way to spiritual maturity. And the spiritually mature are far less likely to be deceived and distracted by false teaching.

Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. – Ephesians 4:14-15 NLT

Paul closes out this part of his letter with a prayer that takes the form of a blessing. He asks God the Father and Jesus Christ His Son to provide the Thessalonians with comfort and strength in the midst of all their trials. Notice that he does not ask for the removal of their trials. His emphasis is on hope. This is a clear reference to their future salvation and glorification. God and His Son, Paul reminds the Thessalonians, “loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace” (2 Thessalonians 2:16 ESV). He stresses eternity and hope. His point is that the Thessalonians needed to quit being distracted by their current circumstances and the misguided teaching of the false prophets and refocus their attention on the finish line. 

If they kept their eyes on the prize, they would realize that “their present sufferings are not comparable to the glory that will be revealed” (Romans 8:18 BSB). And this future hope would provide the comfort and strength necessary to live transformed lives in the present.

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

Future Glory Trumps Present Suffering

This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. 11 To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12 ESV

Paul has informed the Thessalonians that he uses them as an example for the other congregations to whom he ministers.

We proudly tell God’s other churches about your endurance and faithfulness in all the persecutions and hardships you are suffering. – 2 Thessalonians 1:4 NLT

But he knows this does not make their suffering any easier. He understands that they are confused by the difficult conditions they face and are questioning how their trials could be within God’s will for them. It all seemed to make no sense. Hadn’t Jesus said that He came so “that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 ESV)? Didn’t He promise fulness of joy to those who kept His commandments (John 15:11)?

The presence of suffering in the life of Christ’s followers has always caused doubt and confusion, in spite of the fact that Jesus promised it would happen.

“Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows.” – John 16:33 NLT

Placing one’s faith in Christ is not a vaccine against suffering. It does not provide immunity from effects of living in a fallen world where the presence of sin permeates everything and impacts everyone. And Jesus was informing His disciples that following Him was going to set them at odds with the world around them.

“If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first. The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you.” – John 15:18-19 NLT

Attempting to live as lights in a sin-darkened world was not going to be easy. Exposing the deeds done in darkness was not going to win them any friends. Even Paul had warned the believers in Ephesus:

Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. – Ephesians 5:11-14 ESV

But Jesus had made it clear to His disciples that the majority of those living in darkness would prefer to remain right where they were, refusing His offer of salvation from sin and death.

…the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. – John 3:19-20 ESV

Yes, Jesus promised many trials and sorrows in this life, but He also provided His followers with the following assurance: “But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NLT). And Paul is attempting to explain to the Thessalonians that the presence of suffering and persecution in their lives should not come as a surprise. As followers of Christ, they were destined to suffer just as He had. But their present suffering had an upside.

And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. – Roman 8:17-18 NLT

There was a method to God’s seeming madness. While to them, their suffering seemed nothing but painful and pointless, Paul wanted them to know that God had a purpose behind it all. There was an as-yet invisible part to God’s divine plan to which they were currently unaware. And while their trials might tempt them to question God’s goodness and justice, Paul wanted them to know that it was all part of God’s righteous and fully sovereign plan for them.

This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering – 2 Thessalonians 1:5 ESV

And rather than complaining about their lot in life, they were to trust their all-knowing, all-wise God. He knew what He was doing. There was a divine purpose to their suffering that had both short-term and long-term ramifications. Which is what led James to write:

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. – James 1:1-4 NLT

God uses our suffering to transform us. The presence of trials is meant to make us God-dependent rather than self-sufficient. That’s exactly what Peter meant when he wrote: “humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor. Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you” (1 Peter 5:6-7 NLT). Trials require trust. When we are incapable of solving our own problems, it forces us to turn to the one who holds us in the palm of His hands. And that is exactly what David suggests that we do.

Give your burdens to the LORD, and he will take care of you. He will not permit the godly to slip and fall. – Psalm 55:22 NLT

God loves His children and, oftentimes, that love shows up in the form of troubles and trials that test our faith in Him. But when, through faith, we turn our cares over to Him, we experience an increasing level of perseverance that results in the further development of our spiritual maturity. We grow stronger and even more faith-filled, needing nothing. Which is what Paul meant when he wrote:

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Ephesians 4:11-13 NLT

And another major factor behind Paul’s contentment with any and all circumstances in this life was his strong belief in God’s plans for the future. He understood that this life was not all there was. There was a life to come. For Paul, this life was a temporary environment in which he lived as an alien or stranger in an earth-bound body, but with the full assurance that there was more to come.

For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. – 2 Corinthians 5:1 1 NLT

And Paul wanted the Thessalonians to find hope and encouragement in the reality of their future glorification, but also in God’s future judgment of the wicked.

God will provide rest for you who are being persecuted and also for us when the Lord Jesus appears from heaven. He will come with his mighty angels, in flaming fire, bringing judgment on those who don’t know God and on those who refuse to obey the Good News of our Lord Jesus. – 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8 NLT

God was not blind or oblivious to what was going on the Thessalonica. He was fully aware of their suffering and knew the names of those who were responsible for it. And He had a plan in place to bring about the just and righteous judgment of those people for their acts of wickedness. And just as the future glorification of the persecuted believers in Thessalonica will be far beyond anything they could ever imagine, the future judgment of the wicked will be far worse than anyone could ever dream.

They will be punished with eternal destruction, forever separated from the Lord and from his glorious power. – 2 Thessalonians 1:9 NLT

At His second coming, Jesus will right all wrongs and restore order and justice to the world. He will punish the wicked, but He “will receive glory from his holy people—praise from all who believe” (2 Thessalonians 1:10 NLT). And Paul includes the Thessalonians in that group. Yes, they might suffer in this life, but in the life to come they will enjoy an eternity with God the Son and God the Father, free from the effects of sin and completely separated from any form of suffering, sorrow, or shame.

The apostle John was given a vision of this future reality, which he penned in his Revelation. 

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” – Revelation 21:3-5 NLT

And with that amazing image in mind, Paul tells the Thessalonian believers, “To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power” (2 Thessalonians 1:11 NLT). Paul was asking God to show up in the midst of their suffering, providing them with the power they needed to live up to their calling as His children. And when they endured suffering well and walked worthy of their calling, the name of Jesus would be glorified because it would be evidence of God’s saving work in their lives.

Living the godly life was never intended to be easy. Jesus didn’t die so that we might live our best life now, but that we might one day experience eternal life in all its glory. But in the meantime, God has provided us with everything we need for living in obedience to His will and for displaying His divine nature through our lives.

By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence. And because of his glory and excellence, he has given us great and precious promises. These are the promises that enable you to share his divine nature and escape the world’s corruption caused by human desires. – 2 Peter 1:3-4 NLT

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

Faith and Love

But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you— for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, 10 as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?

11 Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, 12 and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, 13 so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. 1 Thessalonians 3:6-13 ESV

At some point, Timothy left Thessalonica and rejoined Paul in Corinth. Upon his arrival, he had shared with the apostle some encouraging news regarding the spiritual and emotional state of the Thessalonian believers.  And upon hearing of their “faith and love,” Paul was indeed encouraged, referring to his report as “good news”(euaggelizo).

Normally, Paul used this Greek word only when referring to the Gospel message – the good news concerning Jesus Christ. In fact, this is the only place in the entire New Testament where it is not used in that way. But for Paul, news of the steadfast faith and love of the Thessalonians was directly linked to the life-transforming power of the Gospel. Their persevering faith was evidence of God’s power, made possible by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. In his first epistle, the apostle Peter reminded his readers that, because of “God’s power,” they were “being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5 ESV). God was preserving them through faith, and guaranteeing their future inheritance of eternal life. This comforting fact prompted Peter to exhort the believers to whom he wrote.

So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world. – 1 Peter 1:6-7 NLT

And Paul knew that the capacity of the Thessalonian believers to express love was proof that they had experienced the love of God. The apostle John clarified that those who truly loved others were exhibiting the life-changing love that God had graciously shown them.

We love each other because he loved us first. If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers. – 1 John 4:19-21 NLT

Faith and love were on display in Thessalonica and Paul could not have been more pleased. He was also encouraged by Timothy’s report that the Thessalonian believers maintained a strong love for Paul and Silas, manifesting itself in a desire to be reunited with them.

He reports that you always remember our visit with joy and that you want to see us as much as we want to see you. – 1 Thessalonians 3:6 NLT

Paul didn’t always receive a warm welcome in the many cities he visited. He knew what it was like to face rejection and had even endured physical abuse at the hands of those with whom he had shared the Gospel. So, it was comforting and encouraging to hear that the Thessalonian believers had not lost their affection for him. This was particularly meaningful to Paul when he knew that there were those who were constantly trying to undermine his authority and diminish his influence. To hear that the believers in Thessalonica had not turned their backs on him or the Gospel he had preached was especially encouraging to Paul. And Paul let them know that news of their persevering faith had brought him comfort in the midst of his own personal circumstances.

So we have been greatly encouraged in the midst of our troubles and suffering, dear brothers and sisters, because you have remained strong in your faith. – 1 Thessalonians 3:7 NLT

He had found the content of Timothy’s report to be spiritual rejuvenating.

It gives us new life to know that you are standing firm in the Lord. – 1 Thessalonians 3:8 NLT

Paul was a man of prayer and, while physically separated from the believers in Thessalonica, he had been interceding for them before the throne of God.

Night and day we pray earnestly for you… – 1 Thessalonians 3:10 NLT

And they were in good company because Paul made it a habit to pray for all the churches he had helped to plant. He told the church in Ephesus:

I have not stopped thanking God for you. I pray for you constantly… – Ephesians 1:16 NLT

He informed the Colossian church:

So we have not stopped praying for you since we first heard about you. – Colossians 1:9 NLT

And he wrote to the believers in Rome, letting them know that they were on his heart and in his prayers.

Let me say first that I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith in him is being talked about all over the world. – Romans 1:8 NLT

And Paul told the Thessalonians that his prayers for them were filled with expressions of thanksgiving to God. He was able to enter into God’s presence with gratitude and with great joy because he knew that his spiritual children in Thessalonica were thriving, even in the midst of difficulty. But along with prayers of thanksgiving to God for all that He was doing among them, Paul was also “asking God to let us see you again to fill the gaps in your faith” (1 Thessalonians 3:10 NLT).

Paul was the consummate pastor/shepherd. He loved to see people come to faith in Christ, but he also found great joy in helping them grow up in their faith. He was an evangelist and a spiritual mentor. He shared Peter’s passion to see new believers move from spiritual infancy to maturity.

Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation… – 1 Peter 2:2 NLT

Paul told the believers in Ephesus, “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15 NLT). And so, Paul made the spiritual growth of the various flocks he had helped to found a high priority in his prayer life. When he couldn’t physically be present among them, he made sure he was regularly interceding on behalf of them.

And along with his prayer for permission to return to Thessalonica, Paul asked God to increase their capacity to love others.

…may the Lord make your love for one another and for all people grow and overflow, just as our love for you overflows. – 1 Thessalonians 3:12 NLT

And this love was not to be myopic, focused solely on the members of their congregation. It was to flow outside the fellowship and into the streets of Thessalonica, so their lost friends, family members, and neighbors could also experience the love of God. Paul was simply asking God to empower them to do what Jesus had expressed in His sermon on the mount.

“…love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” – Matthew 5:44-48 NLT

Anyone can love those who love them in return. But the love of God was best expressed in the gracious gift of His Son. It was while we were still mired in our sins and incapable of expressing love to Him, that God loved us. And no one describes the love of God better than the apostle John.

God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.

Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. – 1 John 4:9-12 NLT

Faith and love. Paul knew these two things were the key to their ongoing spiritual health and vitality. And both come from God. They are not self-manufactured or the by-products of human will power. That is why Paul reminded the Thessalonians that one of his ongoing prayers for them was that God would continue to increase their love and strengthen their faith. And his request had an eternal focus. He was thinking long-term, not short-term.

May he, as a result, make your hearts strong, blameless, and holy as you stand before God our Father when our Lord Jesus comes again with all his holy people. Amen. – 1 Thessalonians 3:13 NLT

Paul was a man on a mission and that mission had a goal. There was a finish line at the end of the face. There was a prize at the end of the contest. And while there might be obstacles and difficulties along the way, there is a reward waiting for all those who run the race with endurance.

And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. – Romans 8:17-18 NLT

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

Faith in the Face of Affliction

1 Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain. 1 Thessalonians 3:1-5 ESV

We know from Luke’s account of Paul’s second missionary journey, recorded in the book of Acts, that Paul and Silas had been forced to flee Thessalonica because of threats against their lives. They left under the cover of night and made their way to Berea. Their initial reception in Berea was positive and Luke records that the Jews there “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11 ESV). But before long, the Jews in Thessalonica got word that Paul and Silas were in Berea and sent men to stir up the local Jews against them. Once again, Paul was forced to leave, but he asked Silas and Timothy to remain behind in Berea (Acts 17:14). Paul then made his way to Athens by boat. Once there, he immediately went to work sharing the gospel, even preaching in the Areopagus, an outdoor arena located on a small hill northwest of the city of Athens. The term,  Areopagus referred to the place and the council of rulers who met there to debate and discuss important topics. Paul addressed this learned group, using the local shrine to the “unknown god” to discuss with them the truth regarding Jesus Christ. And all went well until he mentioned Jesus being raised from the dead.

Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. – Acts 17:31-33 ESV

In spite of the negative response of the council, there were those who heard Paul’s message and believed.

In his letter to the Thessalonian believers, Paul picks up the recounting of his travel itinerary right at this point.

Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith… – 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2 ESV

Paul had left Silas and Timothy back in Berea, but a further decision had been made to have Timothy return to Thessalonica to continue the work of building up the local congregation there. In a series of letters he had written to Timothy, Paul provided his young friend and ministry partner with some specific instructions regarding his work among these fledgling congregations.

Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity. Until I get there, focus on reading the Scriptures to the church, encouraging the believers, and teaching them. – 1 Timothy 4:12-13 NLT

Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching. – 2 Timothy 4:2 NLT

Paul reminds the Thessalonian believers that Timothy had been sent to encourage and instruct them, but also to strengthen their faith as they wrestled with the persecution they were facing.

We sent him to strengthen you, to encourage you in your faith, and to keep you from being shaken by the troubles you were going through. – 1 Thessalonians 3:2-3 NLT

If you recall, a year earlier, when Paul and Silas had been in Thessalonica, a mob attacked the home of Jason, one of the members of the local congregation. He and a few other Christians had been dragged before the city council where they had been falsely accused of insurrection against the Roman government.

“They are all guilty of treason against Caesar, for they profess allegiance to another king, named Jesus.” – Acts 17:7 NLT

Jason and his companions were forced to post bond and released, but the pressure on this small congregation did not let up. The Jews living in Thessalonica saw them as a threat and continued to stir up trouble for them. The Gospel was having an impact, resulting in the conversions of some of the members of the local synagogue. And this resulted in a spirit of jealousy and resentment among the Jews. And the city council, answerable to the Roman government, was not about to tolerate anyone or anything that caused a spirit of dissent or discord in their community. So, this small congregation of Christ-followers was under increasing pressure and growing persecution.

But Paul reminds them:

…you know that we are destined for such troubles. Even while we were with you, we warned you that troubles would soon come—and they did, as you well know. – 1 Thessalonians 4:3-4 NLT

He had warned them that trouble would come, and it had shown up as promised. Evidently, this had been the motivation behind Paul’s decision to send Timothy back to Thessalonica. He was concerned that the pressure being placed upon the believers there would cause them to consider reneging on their commitment to Christ.

Paul had a strong commitment to the spiritual well-being of the local church and, knowing that persecution was to be expected, he had sent Timothy to provide godly leadership in the face of opposition. And he had already provided Timothy with ample instructions regarding his role as an elder/shepherd of the people of God.

I am writing these things to you now, even though I hope to be with you soon, so that if I am delayed, you will know how people must conduct themselves in the household of God. This is the church of the living God, which is the pillar and foundation of the truth. – 1 Timothy 3:14-15 NLT

The church was to be the pillar and foundation of the truth. The local congregation in Thessalonica was meant to conduct itself in keeping with the truth of the Gospel, exhibiting its life-transforming power even in the face of persecution. Paul was well aware of the fact that Satan would do everything in his power to discourage and demoralize the young believers in Thessalonica. In fact, he confessed to them his fear that they would give in to the enemy’s attacks on their faith.

I was afraid that the tempter had gotten the best of you and that our work had been useless. – 1 Thessalonians 3:5 NLT

Paul had expressed similar concerns to the believers in Ephesus and had provided them with insights into the nature of the spiritual battle in which they were engaged.

Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. – Ephesians 6:10-12 NLT

Faith in Christ had resulted in salvation for the believers in Thessalonica. But it had also resulted in persecution. Their commitment to Christ had placed a bullseye on their backs and made them tempting targets for the enemy. And Paul knew that the constant presence of trials and tribulations would cause some to lose faith. Their strength to stand firm in the face of opposition would grow weak and the temptation to return to their old way of life would be great.

Paul had warned Timothy that this would happen, so he had encouraged him to “fight the good fight, holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and thereby shipwrecked their faith” (1 Timothy 1:18-19 BSB).

The local church is meant to be the pillar and foundation of the truth. It is within the local fellowship that the miracle of the Gospel shows up in transformed lives and a loving community of Christ-centered people who love God and each other. But for that local church to be impactful, it will require individual believers who remain committed to the cause of Christ regardless of any persecutions or problems they may face.

Paul knew that the Thessalonian believers were suffering, but he also knew that they could survive and thrive. His answer to their problem of persecution was simple. It was the very same thing he had told the believers in Corinth.

Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong. And do everything with love. – 1 Corinthians 16:13 NLT

And God had not left them ill-equipped or on their own. He had provided them with ample resources to fight the good fight of faith.

Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm. Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness. For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. – Ephesians 6:13-17 NLT

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