Joyful Reception of a Hated Truth

I. The Designed use and end of the Word of God (13).

A. The word establishes the basis for thanksgiving. Receiving the message of the gospel as the “word of God” is not a matter of human insight or power of discernment but a gift of God’s grace. When the preached word finds its home in an open heart and results in a saving belief, God has done the work. God is to be thanked for such mercy to sinners dead in their rebellion against God in his holiness and truth. When Paul preached at Philippi to Lydia the Lord “opened her heart” (Acts 16: 14). Paul wrote the Corinthians, “that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (2 Cor 4:15).

B. The word is a message designed to be received. So intensely connected with the most relevant and eternal concerns of human existence, the message presses itself on the human conscience for reception. Its vital issues are not clandestine or gained only by remote inference, but are plainly and clearly promulgated for immediate attention. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). “If you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Sinners are called on to “wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come” (1 Thes 1:10). Should any message press to the front of the line ahead of this one? Does any message more urgently demand serious, wholehearted reception?

C. The word is a message designed to be proclaimed. With the same urgency that calls for its reception, it demands proclamation-“which you heard from us.” “For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor 9:16). Paul himself had been rescued by this message and now counted everything as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus and the righteousness that God gives us through him (Philippians 3:8, 9). This message could not be repressed but must be proclaimed: “Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak” (2 Cor 4:13). “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (2 Cor 5:11). “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20). The tongue and the mouth were never used for such a finally good and glorious purpose than this. No human speech could possibly surpass in importance and beauty the proclamation of the revealed truth of God about the way of rescue from the dominion of darkness and final death.

D. The word of God carries within it its own evidence as being of divine origin. The content of the gospel and all of its canonical environs show that this is not a message invented by men, but arises only from God—“what it really is, the word of God” (13). It is a message of his glory, his righteousness, his wrath, his holiness, his absolute prerogative, his wisdom, his sovereignty working out his eternal decrees, for the praise of his own glorious name. No unaided human mind can invent a narrative of more glorious splendor and worthiness of a god than what is found throughout Scripture. The Savior of which it speaks could not have been contrived even in the greatest depths of human ingenuity: the person of Christ defies human logic and his words and actions of meekness, humility, and condescension arising from absolute power and omniscience cannot be of human origin. An unbiased mind observing the totality of Christ’s person and work must confess, “Surely this is the Son of God.’ An unbiased mind observing the length, breadth, and depth of Scripture, its themes, its writers, its coherence, and its purpose must confess, “Surely, this is the word of God.” Human minds, however, are not unbiased but severely biased against God, his glory, and his truth

E. The word of God is effectual in its operation; That confession comes, however, only by its internal operation of effectual power—“which also performs its work in you who believe.” This reiterates what Paul wrote in 1:5—“Our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” The Spirit who revealed its truths and inspired its manner of presentation, also opens the understanding to receive it. Matters of eternal importance, God has “revealed to us through the Spirit,” and they are delivered “in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit.” These things can only be understood in a saving way when they are “spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:10-14). Hebrews 4 speaks of the word of God in its natural power and probing truthfulness and what should be the result of reading it if we were not sinfully resistant to its content. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb 4:12, 13). The Scripture tells us clearly that we do not fear God, that we have transgressed his law, that we are presently under condemnation and submissive to the personal forces of evil that oppose God. It reveals that Jesus Christ, the Son of God took our nature and took our place under divine wrath, paid our debt and gives us eternal life upon our trusting in him and his perfect work of redemption. These things are clear and unmistakable in the Word of God. When this message comes “in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction,” we are brought into the full sphere of salvation.

II. The operation of the word is contrary to the philosophy and passions of the world (14-16). Paul noted that the Thessalonians became imitators of the apostolic messengers in 1:6 in their belief of the word in spite of tribulation. Now he makes this imitation of a broader scope.

A. While separating believers from the world, the word establishes unity of thought and affection in believers throughout the world.

    1. They became “imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea.” This short statement in itself calls into question any substantial rivalry or distrust between the churches of Judea and the Gentile churches. Galatians 2:6-10 is clear that Paul was in harmony with the apostles in Jerusalem. He affirms that the Gentiles’ imitation of those churches in suffering for the same is a mark of their genuineness.
    2. The fellowship transcends human idiosyncrasies and cultural divisions for these churches, whether Jewish or Gentile, were “churches of God in Christ Jesus.” They were “beloved by God” and chosen by God (1:4). Their justification was achieved in history by the obedience, death, and resurrection of Christ. Their adoption and sealing was effected by the Holy Spirit. These blessings of grace transcend any human categories. All those so loved, justified, and adopted need to ask, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).

B. The separation the word creates brings opposition from the world (14)—“You endured the same suffering.” Those converted in Judea were opposed because Jesus did not meet their preconceived, dismembered, and narrow view of Messiah. Among the Gentiles, the Jews, along with cooperative non-Jews, created turmoil and trouble by a variety of accusations (Acts 16:21; 17:7; 18:5, 6, 13; 19:9, 26). So, whether in Jewish context or pagan context, the preaching of Jesus as Son of God and Savior promoted opposition. This is why Paul in revisiting the churches founded in his first missionary journey instructed them, before appointing elders, to continue in the faith with the knowledge “that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

C. The subtle and radical nature of this opposition is seen in the opposition from the original possessors of the message of the prophets. The Jews who opposed the gospel and the proclamation of Jesus as Messiah were of the same sort that had opposed and killed the prophets (Matthew 23:29-39). They also had framed and instigated the death of Jesus (Matthew 27:11-14, 20). This charge, as shocking as it is true, was made by Peter at Pentecost (Acts 23:29). Now they were maligning and bringing about the persecution of the apostles.

D. By so doing, they showed themselves to be enemies of all people—“hostile to all men.” There is “one God, and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Timothy 2:5, 6). This gospel message, the said testimony, therefore, is the only saving message among sinners of all nations; the mediatorship of Christ is the single path to a saving knowledge of God. Opposition to this, therefore, shows a hostility to all men.

E. They sought to inhibit Paul’s mission so thoroughly (16) that he would be absolutely interdicted from preaching Jesus and him crucified to anyone at all.

    1. Paul, on the other hand, is willing to endure such opposition for the sake of getting the gospel to sinners. “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David, according to my gospel, for which I suffer hardship even to imprisonment as a criminal; but the word of God is not imprisoned. For this reason, I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen” (2 Timothy 2:8-10). God’s determination to save an elect people cannot be hindered by even the most hostile, organized, and ideologically committed people. Their schemes, if successful according to their intent would rob sinners of salvation. But, through the suffering of Christ which prompts the suffering of his messengers and his people, the elect “obtain salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:10).
    2. Paul is at Corinth when writing, and he has experienced an uproar there to such an extent that the Lord came to him in a vision at night. He assured Paul of his safety while there and also assured him that his labors would not be in vain because of election: “I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:10). Scripture says, “And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized” (Acts 18:8).
    3. As Jesus predicted that the Temple would be utterly destroyed because of the sins of the Jewish religious establishment (Luke 21: 5, 6, 20-23), even so Paul looked at the time when the iniquity of these unbelieving antagonistic Jews would be complete, fully ripe for a display of wrath. After the ascension of Jesus and before the destruction of the temple and the dispersion of the Jews, the apostles would continue to experience persecution along with the effectual call of the gospel ministry (12-19). So, Paul sees their sin coming to maturity and the consequent destruction, as it were already upon them. Just as Jesus had predicted. Not only are they certainly to be cast away from the temple and the sacrificial ceremonies that are fulfilled and thus passe, but they are recalcitrant in their unbelief and handed over to the perfect wrath of God, that wrath that comes in the last times and to the utmost.

III. The operation of the word establishes unity and love among believers (17-20). Far from the sour and bitter relationships or accusations of insincerity and aloofness, Paul insists on an ardent desire to see them, minister to them, and have a common cause in Christ with them. On earth, we are bound by time and space and will be absent often from loved ones. Some of them, all of them, we will see for the last time on some occasion (cf Acts 20:38). In heaven we will never part, never tire of the company of the saints, never lack for joyous interaction, never be forced to leave in light of danger, never have an accusation arising from a misunderstanding, never suspect clandestine malice arising from selfishness in ourselves or others.

A. Taken away from them in Acts 17:10 under cover of night to go to Berea, he felt that his opportunity with them had been cut short. He now earnestly desired to see them again both to instruct as an apostle and fellowship as a brother. In 3:9, 10 he expressed both of these purposes: joy before the Lord on their account, and a desire to “complete what is lacking in their faith.”

B. Having gone from Berea to Athens and from there to Corinth, Paul indicated that on more than one occasion he had actually intended to return to them (18). When he could not do that, he sent Timothy as 3:1, 2 indicates. Some roadblock was thrown in the way of Paul’s return to Thessalonica. As is often the case in the course of life, evil interventions keep us from accomplishing a good intent. Satan always is involved in the spoiling of these plans. Paul says, therefore, “Satan hindered us” (18). There is an infinitely greater and wiser Lord than Satan who overrules satanic instigations for his own purposes and glory, who “works all things after the counsel of his own will” (Ephesians 1:11). If hostility and turmoil interrupted his plans in other places or in places where Paul was, he would rightly see Satan’s work in provoking havoc. These events, however, always lead to an expansion of God’s glory and purpose. Satan entered Judas to provoke the betrayal (Luke 22:3-6); he sought to cover it with an intent to kiss Jesus (Luke 22:47, 48). Jesus saw through the ruse but forbad any human intervention in the process (Luke 22:49-52). Jesus, who knew and was guiding the accomplishment of an eternal decree nevertheless recognized that under the greater providence of God, Satan now manifest an element of the “power of darkness” (Luke 22:53). “Satan hindered me” refers to the immediate events that interrupted Paul’s intent to visit Thessalonica again with apostolic purpose; “God works all things together for good for those who love him, even who are called according to his purpose” provides the unified cover for all things for all the saints. Jesus came in order to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).

C. Paul had no desire for worldly acclamations. He had no worldly ambitions. He wanted no applause for what he had accomplished beyond his peers (Galatians 1:14; Philippians 3:4-11). The only crown he desired, the only true joy he sought was the knowledge of the effectuality of his ministry of the gospel that would last and be a source of joy “in the presence of our Lord at his coming” (19). The Thessalonians were the substance of that joy—“For you are our glory and joy” (20). All that will remain when Christ appears, when his presence becomes visible, palpable, and eternally sensible, are those things that have arisen from heart obedience to his revealed will and the individual stewardship that he requires of all his redeemed company. To the Corinthians he wrote, looking toward this mutual responsibility of ministers and people for unwavering attention to eternal truth, ”For we are not writing to you anything other than what you read and acknowledge and I hope you will fully acknowledge … that on the day of our Lord Jesus you will boast of us as we will boast of you” (2 Corinthians 1:13, 14). Matthew closed his comment on this verse (20) with this observation: “Ministers and people must all appear before him, and faithful people will be the glory and joy of faithful ministers in that great and glorious day.” May we not be found short on joy in that day.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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