The Impact of Effective Witness
Therefore,we must never think that there is no justice. In this world, we frequently see that murderers, rapists, plunderers, liars, adulterers, thieves and robbers go scot-free. We become so furious when we see them get acquitted for crimes they obviously committed merely because of a technicality, political connections, or celebrity status.
Isaiah 59:17-20; 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10 (text)
January 16, 2011
In the first five verses of his first epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul gives thanks to God for the believers’ faith, love and hope. They had evidence of their faith and love in their works, and they persevere through sufferings and persecution because of their hope in the coming of Christ. In the first part of verse 5, Paul says that the gospel came to them with power for salvation, with the work of the Holy Spirit, and with full assurance.
In the second part of verse 5, Paul says, â€œYou know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.â€ The truth of the gospel was strengthened because the Thessalonian believers saw the integrity, sacrifice and faithfulness of Paul and his companions. Paul and his co-workers came and preached the gospel, not for personal gain, not because of pride, but for the sake of the people in Thessalonica. They saw that Paul and the others were worthy of being imitatedâ€”role models and examplesâ€”because of their faithfulness in word and deed to Christ their Lord and Savior. So they received the gospel with joy even in the midst of sufferings. In addition, they were reassured that they also belong to the elect who are loved by God.
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Because the Thessalonians followed the example of Paul who followed the example of Christ with joy even in the face of persecution, their fame spread throughout the surrounding regions. Their witness for Christ was more effective because of the evidence of faith in their lives, particularly after they turned away from their idol gods and worshiped the true and living God. Because of this, they were delivered from the coming wrath of God on the Day of Judgment.
Joy in Affliction
Severe trials comes upon all people, and Christians are not exempt from them, sometimes even more so, it seems. We are struck with painful, crippling and even terminal diseases. We suffer financial hardship with the loss of jobs or a disaster. Our relationships get sour and eventually end up in a bitter divorce or breaking up of friendship. Death strikes so suddenly sometimes. Just a few days ago, a pastor whom I have known for several years, much younger than I am and in good health, died of acute leukemia. His terminal disease was diagnosed just two weeks ago. What grief and sorrow to his wife and children!
To be sure, we are not the only ones whom God had singled out for suffering. Until Christ returns to restore perfection in a new heaven and a new earth, the whole world will continue to suffer. Jesus himself prepares us for these when he said, â€œIn the world you will have tribulationâ€ (John 16:33). The church in Thessalonica was not exempt from sufferings, receiving God’s word â€œin much affliction.â€ In fact, the Greek word used by Jesus for tribulation is the same word used by Paul for affliction, translated in other places as distress, persecution, or anguish. They were being persecuted, surely suffering from physical and material hardship, like many Christians who are being killed, tortured and persecuted for their faith in Christ throughout the world today. But even knowing what hardship their faith in Christ would bring, they accepted the gospel, because they also knew that the apostles’ word was â€œnot as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of Godâ€ (1 Thess 2:13). The word of God overcomes afflictions.
When Paul, Timothy and Silas first preached in their city for three weeks, the Jews assembled a mob against them together with those who believed, and brought them to court. They suffered the same persecution that Jesus and his disciples suffered in Judea by the hands of the Jews: they crucified Christ their Savior, threw them into prison, drove the believers out, and prevented them from preaching the gospel. In the same way, the Thessalonians were persecuted by their own people. So Paul later encouraged them, â€œFor you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jewsâ€ (1 Thess 2:14). They were not alone in their afflictions.
In utter contrast to prosperity gospel peddlers,Â Christ warned us that suffering and persecution are to be expected of those who belong to him. Peter learned from his Master, â€œBeloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you (1 Pet 4:12-13). We are not to be wondering, â€œWhy did God send me this disease, or hardship, or broken relationship, or persecution?â€ We are not to be strangers to trials. If we never have trials because of our faith in Christ, then we are to examine the reality of our faith.
Paul says that we are God’s children of promise, and we have an inheritance awaiting us. But as heirs of God in Christ, we will receive our inheritance â€œprovided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with himâ€ (Rom 8:17). We will receive glory only after suffering with Christ in this world.
So we are not to despair of our afflictions and troubles. Jesus, Paul, Peter and all the other apostles did not. But how were they able to hold up in times of distress? Because they received God’s word with joy, looking forward to the glory that awaited them. We are to â€œ[look] to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith,â€ most of all, as our example.Â In the garden of Gethsemane, Christ was in extreme pain and anguish at the thought of his coming suffering on the cross, but â€œfor the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.â€
This is why Paul exhorts us to look away from our sufferings and look forward to glory, â€œFor I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to usâ€ (Rom 8:18). Like Paul, Peter encourages us to receive the gospel with joy, â€œBut rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealedâ€ (1 Pet 4:13). After his afflictions, Jesus received his glorious reward as he reigns at the right hand of God from his heavenly throne. Likewise, after we persevere through tribulations, we will receive our heavenly reward.
Moreover, the joy of the Thessalonian believers came not from their own hearts, but originated from the Spirit. It is the Spirit of God who gives us joy in our afflictions. Even when the Jews rejected their preaching, the disciples â€œwere filled with joy and with the Holy Spiritâ€ (Acts 13:52). This is so because joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit in a believer’s life (Gal 5:22). God pours out his love into our hearts â€œthrough the Holy Spirit who has been given to usâ€ (Rom 5:5).
Spread of the Gospel
Paul mentions a second result of the Thessalonians’ effective witness: the gospel spread throughout Macedonia and Achaia. It’s an amazing story of effective preaching and witnessing, because Paul did not have to go to the other cities in the northern and southern parts of Greece; the Thessalonian believers did the work themselves.
If you look at the map and history of Macedonia, you can see that Thessalonica was an important city. Not only was it the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia, it was also strategically located. It had a natural harbor for trade and commerce, and it was along the busy Roman highway called the Via Egnatia, which connects the empire’s eastern and western parts. So the gospel easily spread from there because traveling to other places was easy, and many people passed through the city from different places.
With the Thessalonians as examples, we see two ways that we can be witnesses for Christ. First, like Paul, they themselves became examples to believers in these other cities. In what ways were they examples? We have read about their faith, love and hope. They produced the work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope. Other believers heard of their joy in the midst of persecution, so â€œtheir faith has gone forth everywhere.â€ They were famous as living examples of the relationship between faith and works: â€œFaith apart from works is dead,â€ and without works, faith is not complete (Jas 2:26, 22). The outcome of faith is our works, of which another example is the church in Thyatira, one of the seven in the Book of Revelation. Christ commends them, â€œI know your works, your love and faith and service and patient enduranceâ€ (Rev 2:19).
From Dead Idols to the Living God
Their faith also resulted into turning away from idolatry and to the worship of the living and true God. Turning away from idols mean that they repented of their idolatrous worship of pagan gods and then worshiped the only real God. In the Old Testament, God is described as â€œlivingâ€ and â€œtrue,â€ as in Deuteronomy 6:4 where Moses declares Yahweh as the one true God speaking, â€œHear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.â€
Idols are not alive, because they are made of wood, stone, or metal, â€œThe idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; they have eyes, but do not see; they have ears, but do not hear, nor is there any breath in their mouths. Those who make them become like them, so do all who trust in them!â€ (Psa 135:15-18) Just look at the Black Nazarene idol which millions worship and pray to, but it is a dead god made of wood, and it is black because it was burned by fire in a ship. What kind of a god is it who is unable to prevent itself from being burned?
Not so with Yahweh, â€œBut the Lord is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting Kingâ€ (Jer 10:10). He is the living God for living people (Psa 42:2), as Paul also says (Rom 9:26; 2 Cor 3:3; 1 Tim 3:15). He is the one true God of Israel and the Gentiles (Exod 34:6; Psa 86:15). God describes himself in a vivid, living way, with a mind and emotions, and able to execute mercy and justice, â€œThe Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guiltyâ€ (Exod 34:6).
Paul likens the Thessalonians to Israel whom God commands to repent of their idolatry and to worship only God: â€œIf you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the Lord and serve him only…â€ (1 Sam 7:3). The Thessalonians showed evidence of their repentance from idolatry by turning away from idols, directing their hearts to the Lord, and serving God.
Second, â€œthe word of the Lord sounded forthâ€ from them. They actually preached the gospel and witnessed for Christ. The word â€œsounded forthâ€ or â€œrang outâ€ (NIV) is from a Greek verb execheo, from which our English word â€œechoâ€ comes. This means that the gospel was like a loud echo which reverberated through the mountains and valleys of Macedonia. No wonder Paul says that the gospel â€œhas gone forth everywhereâ€ or spread far and wide throughout the province. They were real evangelists, bearers of the good news of salvation through faith in Christ. In this way, the gospel spread to other areas where Paul and his co-workers were not able to travel to as they were limited in resources, time and strength. It was as if Paul and his co-workers multiplied themselves in the Thessalonian church.
If Christ was Paul’s example, and Paul was the model of the Thessalonian believers, so the Thessalonians are our models for effective witnessing for Christ. We here in Pasig are to witness to others in this city, in our homes, in our places of work, and in the marketplace. If we are to distinguish ourselves as a Reformed church, we are to be distinct in our doctrine, worship and life as Reformed believers. What if others come to our church and say, â€œGod is really among youâ€?
Many Christians think that the Internet is a tool of the devil. But we have seen that the church could also use this technology to its advantage. Some of you came to know of our church through email, some through Facebook. Our church is known to others not just in Metro Manila, but throughout the Philippines, and in faraway lands through the Internet. And God is using this tool to spread the Reformed faith to others. What if you continually broadcast our church on the worldwide web, as some of you are already doing?
Delivered From God’s Wrath to God’s Love
Scripture tells us that unbelievers are by nature children under the wrath of God, â€œWe all once â€¦ were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankindâ€ (Eph 2:3; cf Rom 1:18; Eph 5:6; Col 3:6). Why are unbelievers under the wrath of God? Because God is holy and he made man holy and righteous. But since man rebelled against God, he was placed under God’s curse of sin, death and eternal wrath.
The word wrath is not just anger or displeasure as when a person is angry at another. The Greek word is orge, from which our English word orgy comes, which usually evokes images of excessive sensual enjoyment or debauchery. When it is used of God’s holy anger against sinful mankind, it means strong anger and indignation directed at wrongdoing, sometimes with a corresponding retribution in the present, but surely more so in a future Day of Judgment.
Out of 36 uses of orge only 10 does not refer to God’s wrath on the Day of Judgment: Mark 3:5 (Jesus’s anger against Pharisees); Luke 21:23 (God’s wrath against Jews); Rom 13:4,5 (wrath of civil authorities against evildoers); Col 3:8; Eph 4:31; 1 Tim 2:8; Jas 1:19-20 (human anger); Heb 3:11; 14:3 (God’s wrath against Israel in the desert). Thus, all other uses of God’s wrath, including the one in verse 10, refer to his pouring out his vengeance on evildoers in eternal hell.
God’s Wrath Versus God’s Love?
Today, many people, including both evangelicals and liberals, do not want to think of God as a God of wrath, saying that God is a God of love and God loves everyone. They want to preach only God’s grace, mercy and love, telling unbelievers, â€œGod loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.â€ To be sure, God is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in love. But he is also a God of justice and holiness. He cannot wink on sin and ignore wickedness. He judged the evil world in the Flood, in Sodom and Gomorrah, and in the destruction of Jerusalem. And he will once again judge the whole world when Christ returns from heaven in great wrath.
There is no incompatibility between Godâ€™s wrath and Godâ€™s love. He has both attributes, because he is both merciful and just. The difference is that God’s wrath against unbelieving sinners is sure to be executed, while his mercy on those who repent of their sin is entirely dependent on his sovereign will and pleasure, not on anything in them. Thus, when he sent Christ into the world to propitiate or appease his wrath against wicked mankind, it was not because it was his obligation to his creatures, but because he chose to be merciful and gracious and loving towards them.
So Paul commends the Thessalonians for hoping and waiting for the Second Coming of Jesus, â€œwho delivers us from the wrath to come.â€ He repeats this hope later, â€œFor God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess 5:9). They were assured of their destination: eternal life in heaven in God’s love, not eternal hell under God’s wrath.
Raptured from Tribulation?
Most evangelicals who also believe in a future millennium think that this wrath will come upon the world in a future seven-year tribulation period after all Christians are raptured out of this world. They have been taught that they will escape the intense tribulation and distress in this world just before Jesus returns. But this is not what the Bible teaches, for Jesus says that we will suffer tribulations in the last days before he comes and gathers all the elect on the last day:
Immediately after the tribulation of those days â€¦ will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other (Matt 24:29-31).
This is clearly a description of the Second Coming, not a secret Rapture, after a period of great tribulation on earth, which all the inhabitants of the earth will fear. Believers will go through tribulation in this world during this time period before Jesus returns and gathers all of his elect.
So in talking about God’s coming wrath, Paul is referring to that great Day of Christ when God will complete his righteous indignation, judgment and wrath on unrepentant mankind. The Old Testament talks about this day in many places:
The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath (Psa 110:5).
Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death (Prov 11:4).
A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation … Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the Lordâ€¦ for a full and sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth (Zeph 1:15,18).
Riches such as silver and gold treasured by man will be burned. It will not matter how little or how much we have of these earthly possessions. They will all disappear in the twinkling of an eye in the great day of God’s wrath. It is also interesting that silver and gold and other precious metals are usually the materials that idols are made of, and these idols will also be destroyed.
The New Testament also talks about this great day of wrath in many places:
But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed (Rom 2:5).
Everyone will be in stark terror when they see the Son of Man coming in great wrath, so they will say to the rocks and mountains: â€œFall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?â€ (Rev 6:15-17).
All those who worship idols â€œwill drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his angerâ€ (Rev 14:9).
Therefore,we must never think that there is no justice. In this world, we frequently see that murderers, rapists, plunderers, liars, adulterers, thieves and robbers go scot-free. We become so furious when we see them get acquitted for crimes they obviously committed merely because of a technicality, political connections, or celebrity status. Even David said he was offended in seeing injustice, â€œFor I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wickedâ€ (Psa 73:3). Where is God’s justice, we ask?
But God has an answer for us. Jesus teaches us, â€œDo not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other alsoâ€ (Matt 5:39). Where is justice in that? Paul tells us why Jesus says so, â€œBeloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’â€ (Rom 12:19). On his great day of wrath, God will repay all the evildoers and their wicked deeds. He will make all things right and perfect by visiting his wrath on evildoers. Feelings of revenge can be overcome by realizing that God will make all things right, and that he will visit his wrath on those who deserve it. We are to find comfort in the certainty that every single unrepentant idolater, murderer, adulterer, thief, liar and all the greedy and covetous â€œwill be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or nightâ€ (Rev 14:10-11).
But beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, â€œSince, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God (Rom 5:9). You are not destined for wrath, but for salvation and glory.
So even when you suffer afflictions and persecution in this world, be joyful, for this momentary trials will end when Christ returns to take you to your glorious place in heaven.
In the meantime, while you wait for your deliverance from this world, give glory to God by your witness to others, whether by word or deed. This is your most effective witness, so that when our Master returns from heaven, he will find us working and laboring faithfully, and waiting with perseverance for him, and then he will say to us, â€œWell done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.â€ Amen.