The story seems so modern. A man who seems to be in a rut in his job gets a call from his boss about a terrific new opportunity overseas. Things had not been going so well where he was. Everything he tried to do was a dead end. So this opportunity was one to be snapped at. He had confidence in his boss, so he decided to take the new offer.
He prepares passage across the sea and lands in a new country. He heads to his first town to try to create a new market. He looks and finds that there are only a few stray persons who show any interest. The competition is intense, and one of his competitors has him beaten and thrown in prison. His boss finds out about it when he and his partner call him in the middle of the night. His boss arranges for his release. But when he is released the next day, they are told to leave town.
Undiscouraged, they decide to try to sell their idea to another city. Perhaps they would find better market opportunities there. At first it seems like things were getting to a good start. A lot of important people in that city had subscribed to the new idea. However, before long, they had to run for their lives when the competition started a riot there. So they went to another city with the same result. In the fourth city, the man and his new ideas were mocked, and he left there with only a few new subscribers.
By now, the man was wondering what was going on. Where was this great promised opportunity he had dreamed about? Nevertheless, the man pressed on to a fifth city. Again after a promising start, the competition stirred up trouble. The man was thoroughly discouraged. That night, his boss called him with these words: “Don’t be afraid Paul! Don’t let them silence you! Speak boldly, for I have many people in this city. I will be with you, therefore, no one will be able to attack or harm you (Acts 18:9-10)
As we can see, this story we have told is the story of the Apostle Paul in Acts starting from his travels in Asia Minor. He wanted to go off into several new areas, but the Lord had said, No”. Then he received the Macedonian vision to cross the Hellespont into Macedonia. The five cities were Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, and Corinth. By the time the uprising against him in Corinth happened, Paul had been beaten, imprisoned, mocked, and hunted down. If anyone had a right to be discouraged, it was the Apostle Paul. The words from the Lord came to encourage Paul came at exactly the right moment. The success of the mission did not depend on Paul’s abilities, but rather the sovereign plan and power of God. The strength of God would be demonstrated not in Paul’s strength and wisdom, but rather in Paul’s weakness. God did not call to fail, but to succeed.
Paul had not been able to establish any of the work in the other cities. Apparently, he left Luke behind to strengthen the work in Philippi. And he was particularity concerned about Thessalonica. He feared the worst there and sent Timothy on a salvage mission. It seemed that Paul expected a dismal report but was delighted and surprised that things were going well there. Again, the success of God’s work does not depend on us, although by God’s grace He calls us to join Him in His work. We know of this good report letter on in the letter we call 1 Thessalonians. Paul was doubly encouraged and strengthened.
The encouraged and thankful Paul takes pen and paper and along with Silas and Timothy dashes off a letter of encouragement that we call 1 Thessalonians. Whether it was written before or after 2 Thessalonians is debated by scholars. It might have some relevance to some of the issues Paul deals with in the Epistle, but does not matter so much for the text in question.
Paul the encouraged now becomes the encourager. He knows the severe trials the church had undergone in his forced absence. He wants to encourage the believers to persevere through the doubts and trials. The same Lord who had seen him through a particularly rough spot will see the Thessalonians through. He follows his greeting to the believers by reminding them that the Thessalonian’s welfare was constantly in their prayers. He was grateful to God for the things that were going well in Thessalonica. He mentions that their faith was demonstrating its vitality in their work for the Lord which was motivated by love. Their hope had allowed them to endure the hardships they had faced.
Paul does here what a lot of pastors do when they use the prayer as an extension of the sermon. He had let them in on the content of his thanksgiving prayer to God to remind them that God was at work in them. Paul continues his encouragement of them by reminding them that they were loved by the very God who had chosen them. What encouragement it is to know that the God of the universe cared for them as a church and as individuals. The proof of this love was the powerful outworking of the Holy Spirit which accompanied the preaching of the Gospel. There is a big difference than just saying “I love you” and saying “I love you” which is proved in action.
Not only did God love them, but Paul loved them and demonstrated it first by sending Timothy to check on their welfare as well as in writing this special letter to them. Surely Paul had a lot to do already at Corinth and the work there, no less that he had to care for the churches at Philippi, Berea, as well as those in Galatia. When Paul, who had a lot on his plate, took time to lay it aside to deal personally with them, it served as a means of encouragement to the believers there.
The demonstration of the power of the Spirit with the Thessalonians also certified Paul’s Apostleship and message, that it had come from God. Perhaps Paul felt some in the city doubted his sincerity about wanting to return to the city and used the hindrance of Satan as an excuse. They had no reason to doubt what they had both heard and experienced. The church had suffered under the hand of earthly rulers and powers and needed to be reminded that there was a power greater than the Politarchs or even the Roman Emperor. This served to further strengthen and encourage the believers.
Paul goes on to tell them that their endurance of suffering served as a positive example to the other churches in Macedonia and Achaia. The Christian gospel is authenticated not only in the power of the Holy Spirit, but in the endurance of persecution by the believers for the gospel’s sake. A faith worth dying for is a faith that is worthy to live by. The Christian message cannot be authenticated by a theology of glory alone. There is also a theology of the cross that Christians following the Lord must equally embrace. Paul reminds us in Romans that if we suffer with Him, we will also be glorified with Him. The Thessalonians are commended by Paul that their faith embraced both glory and the cross. This is a contagious faith, a faith that makes news because it is so different than worldly expectations that one can have gain without pain. The Christian Gospel is not a Romantic escape novel. It is instead a living faith that perseveres through suffering because of the glory that follows the cross.
Paul continues to show the work of God in that they turned from worshiping idols to the living God. He also commends them for keeping their eyes on the goal, which was the return of Jesus who had been raised from the dead, the same Jesus who had rescued them. In times of discouragement, it is always good for Christians to be reminded of whose they are and where they are going.
If we read these verses in isolation from the rest of the epistle, one would think this was a church that had it all together. What a glowing report. Who would not be encouraged to hear such a report. However, there were many issues Paul had to deal with. One example is even though they were commended for their waiting for the return of Jesus, they were getting some things wrong also. In chapter 4, Paul has to deal with them because they mistakenly believed that only those who were still alive at the return of Jesus would be resurrected. They thought those who had died in the congregation were lost. Paul had to strongly correct this notion. Also, others who felt the coming was so near were quitting their jobs as causing scandal and uproar in the community by freeloading. Paul had to tell them that they still were required to work and that Paul himself when he was with them did not freeload but worked night and day. They were right in expecting Jesus’ reture but were wrong in acting out the implications.
We can see that the true nature of encouragement is more than just praise, although it is a vital component. Paul usually in his letters is upfront with praise. We must also understand that Paul is praising God for the work He was doing in the believer’s lives and not the people themselves. Boasting of human accomplishments, especially when it is truly the work of God is idolatry. Paul is clear that all human boasting is excluded in the presence of God who works in us both to will and do of His good pleasure. We are entirely saved by the grace of God through the agency of faith which in itself is a gift from God.
Paul also realizes that correction is also an important component of encouragement. Unlike modern means which seems to praise just the good points and ignore the bad, Paul holds both praise and correction as necessary. Indeed in Hebrews, believers are told that chastisement is a further proof that they are God’s children. Paul encourages them for where they have come from, but he also encourages them to continue on.
Paul knew of many discouragements in his life. But through them, he also learned that the hand of God was still with him even in difficulties. Paul learned hope and faith through these trials. His discouragement was turned to encouragement. The encouraged Paul became the encourager of others.
How do we face discouragement? Too often it seems that we grumble and complain to others. We become discouraged discouragers rather than encouraged encouragers. Maybe we need to learn the lesson from this morning’s message. If we find that we are tearing down rather than building up, we need to look again at the promises of God to bring us through discouragement in trials to victory. Perhaps things aren’t going as well as we would like. Perhaps things appear to be going quite badly right now. If we will only remember that the battle belongs to the Lord and victory over these trials is by our weakness in the face of God’s strength, then our discouragement will become encouragement. Let us be like King David, who in the midst of dangerous trials encouraged himself in the Lord.
We must remember that “all things work together to good, to those who love God, who are the called according to His purpose.” Not all things are good. Some things that we undergo are quite unpleasant. However, all things good and bad are part of God’s plan to benefit us.
When we have been encouraged in the Lord, let us realize that we are encouraged to encourage others.