Meditations in 1 Thessalonians
Part 1: 3. Persecution
1 Thess 2:2 We had previously suffered and been insulted in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in spite of strong opposition
Again our starting point must be the historical record of what happened in Thessalonica when the apostles shared the Gospel there: “But the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go. As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea.” (Acts 17:4-10) At some point – and we have discussed previously that it was probably longer than three weeks after they got there – the Gospel is having such effect that the religious Jews of the city start a riot aimed at the apostles AND the local Christian community. Jason is obviously a local who has a house and who lives there and the brunt of their anger is focused first on him. So great is the tumult that the church considers the safest thing is for Paul and Silas to be smuggled out of the city at night.
Now when we come to the letter itself, we find that a big thing is not made of it and yet persecution and opposition is mention no less than five specific times and one implied time. Let’s take them in order in the letter, first the implied one where Paul speaks of “your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1:3) Knowing the historical background as we do we are not surprised when Paul speaks of endurance because you endure when the going gets tough. As we’ve noted previously, and is seen here, they are enabled to endure – to ‘hang on in there’ – by the hope that they now have in Jesus. Hope is always about the future and our hope is always threefold: a) our hope of meeting him in eternity when we die and b) our hope that he will be working out his plans and purposes for us while we are still on this planet, and that will be for good and c) our hope that his grace in the form of his holy Spirit within us will always be sufficient to carry us through whatever tomorrow holds.
Now on to the first of the specific references: “in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” (1:6) Severe suffering! The only suffering we know about is that suffered by the believing Jews from their unbelieving fellow-Jews, or the general hostility from these Jews that the new Gentile believers encountered. Anyway, despite this opposition they received the word gladly and with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit. In adverse circumstances when under enemy attack, our resource is always, initially at least, the Holy Spirit within is, the Spirit of Jesus, God Himself.
Moving on through the letter Paul later says, “We had previously suffered and been insulted in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in spite of strong opposition.” (2:2) This is an interesting comment because the subject of persecution falls on Paul as much as on the Thessalonians in that he speaks of the struggles that they had had in Philippi, as well as the opposition they all received in Thessalonica.
A bit later in the letter he focuses it back on them: “You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all men in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. (2:14-16) The Jews generally, even though they had been the core or foundation of the early church, had been the greatest source of opposition to the Gospel. Perhaps it was their fear that the Old Testament and the Law would be cast aside. They were the ones who opposed Paul, not the Romans and not the local peoples mostly.
In the next chapter we find, “We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know” (3:2-4) Trials and persecution were seen by Paul as natural parts of the Christian life. Obviously when the Gospel was first presented there and people turned to Christ, as part of the general teaching, Paul had warned that opposition comes when the Lord blesses. The enemy is never happy about it!
Finally, a few verses on he says, “Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith.” (3:7) That again appears to reflect more on the apostles than on the church in Thessalonica. The apostolic ministry brought with it opposition, hostility and outright persecution, but now Paul hears the good things that have been continuing in Thessalonica and, he implies, that makes it all worth while. That is the truth: when God blesses, the enemy so often rises up in reaction through the unbelieving world, but nevertheless the fruit of salvation and being able to lives changed for the good, makes it all worth while. Press on, and look for the fruit!