Our series on 1 Thessalonians — titled “Real Christians in Challenging Times” — had been planned for a quite a while before we finally began it a few weeks ago.
But who could have known that when we started it, our church — and our world — would begin battling a pandemic that has closed schools and businesses? That has put millions out of work? That has overwhelmed doctors and nurses? That has struck fear in hearts and minds? That has forced friends, family members, and coworkers to stay separated from each other?
It is indeed a challenging time. But it’s also an exciting time to be part of God’s plan for the planet. And we’ve been learning through our study of 1 Thessalonians that the Lord has given his sons and daughters in Christ many resources to deal with life’s challenges.
This past Sunday we looked at seven verses in chapter two. And at this stage of state-mandated social distancing measures — which have been in effect for a little over a month — we can all relate the Apostle Paul’s longing to be with his brothers and sisters in the church at Thessalonica. Check out what he writes in verse 17: “But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face.”
Wow! We at Calvary Chapel Living Hope sure can relate to Paul’s longing. We were torn away from each other by the coronavirus — and we certainly want to be together again and see each other face to face. Paul’s term “torn away” in fact implies the idea of being orphaned. (It can feel like that sometimes, can’t it?) But he also uses the word “heart” — and we know that just as Paul couldn’t see his church family, he still shared a heart connection to them that’s beyond flesh and blood presence. And we have a heart connection with each other just like that!
And keep this unexpected blessing in mind too: Since we’ve started “virtual” small groups which meet online, we have more people in them than we had before the pandemic hit! Something else to consider: Before this crisis happened, a survey came out saying that 72% of people feel lonely. Can you imagine what those people who don’t have a church home are feeling right now? Where do they go for support? Where do they go to safely be vulnerable? Where do they go when they need prayer? Let us keep them in mind and in heart as we move forward to stay connected as a church body, even though we can’t be together in person.
In verse 13, Paul writes: “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” Let’s look at the word “received.” The idea here is the same as when Jesus in Gospels tells his listeners that whoever welcomes one of these children welcomes him. It’s that kind of welcoming in and taking to heart, just as if you’re caring for a little boy or girl. That’s the degree to which the Thessalonians received the power of God’s word in their lives!
And God’s word is also “at work” in them. Which means that, just like the Thessalonians, God through his word empowers us and encourages us, especially when we’re frustrated or need energy to complete a task the Lord has given us to accomplish.
We’ve indeed covered a few more resources in this passage: First, our connectedness to each other; second, God’s word at work in our lives. And there is a third resource: Sharing the gospel with others. What does sharing the gospel mean to you? What has your experience been when you’ve tried it? It’s not always easy to do, that’s for sure. We’re treading on very personal ground with others since it means more or less telling them there’s sin in their lives (like there’s sin in everybody’s life), and they have an eternal need: Jesus.
And how many times have you heard non-Christians declare that they don’t need Christ in their lives? That they’re happy with the way things are? Well, remember — that may be true! God’s “common grace” falls upon everybody to one degree or another, and people who’ve been rejecting God still may be the recipients of his grace and mercy. It can be quite a concept for Christians to wrap their heads around, too, because seeing others living apparently happy lives without God can make our gospel efforts seem pointless. But take heart — they’re not! One of the biggest misunderstandings about the gospel is that it’s supposed to make us “happy.” Not true! The gospel is supposed to save us and launch us into an amazing relationship with God — one that certainly may take us to great heights of happiness … but also through dark times when we suffer, emotionally and physically. The gospel of Jesus rescues us from sin that would kill us eternally. It’s not built to make us temporally or materially “happy.”
When you’re faced with the other common misconception about the gospel — that God looks at our lives with a scale and determines that if we’ve done more good things than bad, he welcomes us into heaven — remember that’s also not true. Not even the person who’s done the most “good” things in life is worthy of heaven because everyone is still stained by sin. And Christ is the only one who can clean that sin from our lives as we put our trust in his finished work on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. Keep that in mind as you share the gospel with others.
And there’s one more thing we can examine from this passage. In verse 18, Paul tells the Thessalonians that Satan “hindered” him from coming to them. So, who is Satan, and what does he do? For starters, he’s a liar, an accuser, a tempter — and yes, a hinderer. He puts roadblocks in front of our best efforts so that hopefully (in his mind) our thoughts will stray from God and hurt our faith in him. But remember: Whatever hinderances or roadblocks Satan puts in front of us, God still wants to empower us — and to remember that when all is said and done, Satan will never destroy the church. Jesus said so. No amount of political unrest or persecution — and not even the coronavirus — will prevent the church from moving forward.
Consider what Satan and his angels may have realized after the pandemic forced churches to stop meeting in person around the world: Sure, all the churches may be empty … but instead churches opened up in every home. Nothing will ever stop or destroy Christ’s church. Count on it.