I would like to call your attention to verses 4-5 as we begin: “Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering” (II Thessalonians 1:4-5). It’s never been easy to be a Christian, but in some parts of the world it is difficult indeed.
Kurdish convert Ziwar Mohamad Ismaeel was shot dead February 17, 2003, in a city in northern Iraq. When Ishmaeel became a Christian, his family asked the leader of the local mosque what to do since he had left Islam. The mullah declared him an apostate and recommended he be killed. Some of his relatives captured him and took him out to a remote place, where they gave him the choice of either renouncing his faith or being killed. His friends managed to rescue him and sent him into hiding. But Ishameel refused to stay there very long as he did not want to show fear. “With Jesus on my side, I have nothing to fear,” he declared. “I have to go back to my family to tell them that even when they kill me, I will never deny Christ.”
He made his living as a taxi driver. On the morning of February 17, he was waiting in a line of taxis for his turn to load up passengers. About 8:30 a.m. a stranger approached the station and began talking with him. Fellow taxi drivers said that Ismaeel offered a cup of tea to the man, who then began to demand loudly that Ismaeel deny his faith in Christ and come back to Islam. When Ismaeel refused, saying he could not stop believing in Christ, the stranger asked him to step aside and talk privately with him. Just seconds later, eyewitnesses said, the man pulled out a machine gun and started shooting point-blank at Ismaeel. A total of 28 bullets were pumped into his head and chest before he fell to the ground, dying on the spot. When the police captured his killer, the man claimed be fulfilling the will of Allah and said, “I don’t feel guilty for doing it.” He was said to be a member of the Islamic Union who had spent two years in Afghanistan. A friend who knew Ismaeel said, “He was always exhorting other Christians to be bold, to not be afraid.” He left behind a wife and five children. (Sources: Open Doors USA and Worthy News)
God’s Judgment is Right
And Paul said, “I boast everywhere I go about your faith and your perseverance.” Then he goes on to say something that sounds a bit strange, if you think about it. “This is evidence that God’s judgment is right.” What does he mean, God’s judgment is right? How can it be right for a woman to become a widow because her husband was a Christian? How does the death of a persecuted Christian prove that God’s judgment is right? By itself, it doesn’t prove anything. Persecution is a terrible reality for millions of believers around the world, but that’s not exactly what Paul has in mind. He’s not saying, “Everywhere I go I boast about your persecution,” as if that by itself was a good thing. To say that would be to turn morality upside down, to virtually say that evil has somehow become good. That can’t be right. Evil is always evil.
Paul’s boast was not in their persecution but in their perseverance and in their faith. The word for perseverance is very important. It literally means to “remain under” something. In this context it describes a person who will not be swayed from his loyalty to Christ even by the greatest trials and sufferings. Perseverance is not merely enduring trials with gritted teeth, but patiently waiting with radiant hope for the dawn of a better day.
Then Paul adds something else in verse 5. By your suffering God is making you “worthy” of the kingdom. Another way to say it is, “God is making you fit for heaven.” There are two things we can know when we go through hard times because of our faith: First, our sufferings are noticed by the Lord. The One who sees the sparrow when it falls keeps a watchful eye on his suffering children. Just as a parent has special care for a child who is ill, even so the Lord gives special attention to his children who bear reproach for his sake. Second, our sufferings have an eternal purpose. They are not random acts of fate. When Mr. Ismaeel went to his taxi stand last month, the Lord went him. And when his assailant pumped 28 bullets into his body, the Lord stood by his side. And when he died, the Lord was there to welcome him home to heaven. Whatever else we can say about it, we must confess that our Lord makes no mistakes, even though many things in this life have no explanation.
God Never Says “Oops!”
On Wednesday morning I spoke to the older students at Oak Park Christian Academy about the war in Iraq. At that point we were still within the 48-hour window and the war itself had not started. You could see the fear etched on the faces of the children. I told them that I wished I could promise them that war would not come, but I couldn’t promise it because war might come. And I told them that I wished I could promise them that terrorists would never strike the United States again, but I couldn’t say that because it might happen eventually. The future is uncertain for all of us. But I also told them that the Bible tells us to “Fear not” 366 times. That’s one for each day of the year and one more for Leap Year. God’s Word to us today is, “Fear not!” And when the troops march and the bombs fall, his word is the same, “Fear not.” And his word for the day after tomorrow is, “Fear not.” Finally, I told the children to remember two things: First, the Lord is always with us no matter what happens. Second, the Lord makes no mistakes no matter how scary life may seem. Like the little girl said when asked by her mother, “What did you learn in Sunday School?” “I learned that God never says, ‘Oops!’” she replied. God did not say “Oops!” when the war started on Wednesday night. There are no surprises with God. Even our trials somehow fit into his plan for us.
Paul’s prayer for these suffering believers comes in verses 11-12. As he does in other places, he packs a great deal into just a few phrases. This is a wartime prayer. You could summarize it this way, “I am praying for you, that you will hang tough for Jesus no matter how hard it gets."
I. Two Requests
This prayer is simple to outline. There are two requests in verse 11 and two results in verse 12.
A. That you might be Living Proof.
“With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling” (II Thessalonians 1:11a). He’s already said in verse 5 that their steady faith under pressure was proof that God was making them worthy of the kingdom. Now he prays that God will do what he’s already started to do. Note once again that Paul doesn’t say, “I pray that your trials might go away.” He doesn’t say, “I am praying that your persecution would soon come to an end.” Those are legitimate requests but that’s not how Paul prays. In the spiritual realm there are no shortcuts to maturity. No pain, no gain. Paul understood the evangelistic value of a steadfast faith. “Lord, make my brothers and sisters living proof so that the whole world will know what you can do through believers who can take the heat and not give up.”
B. That you might have Godly Goals.
“And that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith” (II Thessalonians 1:11b). Translators have a hard time with this phrase because it’s not totally clear what Paul is saying. Let me give you two other versions of this request:
1) We “pray that he’ll fill your good ideas and acts of faith with his own energy so that it all amounts to something.” (The Message)
2) "We pray for God’s power to help you do all the good things that you hope to do and that your faith makes you want to do.” (CEV)
We all have ideas but not every idea is a good idea. Not every dream is a good dream, not every goal is a worthy goal. But there are dreams and ideas that are good and worthy because they come from God. Paul is saying, “I’m praying that you won’t waste your life on things that don’t matter. I don’t want to see you come to the end and say, ‘I blew it.’ So I’m praying that you will figure out what really matters in life, and then you will have the faith to go and do it.” Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it. So when you pray for others, pray that they will pursue godly goals instead of worldly goals, and that they will be given strength to fulfill all that God has for them to do. By the way, this is a powerful prayer for parents to pray for their children. Ask the Lord to give them good dreams and godly goals, and then pray that the Lord will make those dreams come true. Pray that your children will dream big dreams for God and then have the energetic faith to see them come to pass.
II. Two Results
When we pray this way, we should expect two results.
A. Christ is glorified in us.
“We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you” (II Thessalonians 1:12a). To glorify the name of Christ means to enhance his reputation in the world. For Ziwar Mohamad Ismaeel, glorifying Christ meant being faithful to the point of death. For all of us, it means living so that others know that we know Jesus and are not ashamed of him.
B. We are glorified in him.
“And you in him” (II Thessalonians 1:12b). I thought about this little phrase all week long, but it wasn’t until late last night that I finally got my hands around it. It’s like playing on Michael Jordan’s team. In fact, it’s as if you are standing in a vast crowd of people and MJ looks at you and says, “I want you on my team.” “But I don’t even know how to play basketball,” you reply. “Don’t worry about it,” Michael says. “Just pass the ball to me and I’ll do the rest.” So that’s what you do. You go out on the court in front of thousands of cheering fans with millions of people watching on TV. It’s a heady experience but then you remember, they aren’t cheering for you. They don’t even know who you are. But it doesn’t matter. You’re on Michael Jordan’s team. When the game starts, someone passes you the ball. You don’t even take a step. You just look for MJ and throw the ball to him. He then does one of those patented head fake, double-pump, around-the-back, through-the-legs, 360-rotation tomahawk slam dunks. The crowd goes wild. He gets the points and you get an assist. As you go back down the court, he grins at you and says, “Nice pass.” And that’s how it is all game long. You get the ball and pass it to Michael. That’s all you ever do. But that’s enough because he’s the greatest there ever was. And guess what? Your team ends up winning the game in double overtime. Afterward the reporters crowd around Michael to ask him questions. No one seems to know you were even in the game. But then you hear Michael Jordan say your name. He’s telling the reporters he couldn’t have done it without you. You smile even though you know it’s an exaggeration. He didn’t need you, anyone could have passed the ball to him. But he chose you, and you did it, and because of your passing and MJ’s greatness, you won the game. Michael was the hero but you share in his victory because you were on his team.
As wonderful as that fantasy might be for a basketball fan, something much greater is in store for us. We’re on Jesus’ team. He chose us and he made us starters. We can’t do much, and without him, we can’t do anything at all. The game is long and hard and sometimes it seems like we’re going to lose because the other team is mean and vicious and they cheat all the time. But in the end Team Jesus comes out on top because the Captain of our team is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He’s the greatest there ever was and he’s the greatest there ever will be. We’re joined with him by faith so that when he wins, we win. That’s what it means to be glorified in him. We’re not much but the glory that comes to him comes also to us because he looks at us and says with a smile, “Nice pass,” even though we know he could have done it without us. We share in his glory because we are on his team.
That’s the final reward for hanging tough for Jesus. When you stand strong under pressure, four things happen:
1) You are living proof of God’s power,
2) You accomplish God’s goals for your life,
3) You glorify Christ by your life, and
4) You share in his ultimate victory.
What a wonderful way to live. What a powerful way to pray.
All By Grace, All the Time
As we wrap up this message, I wonder if some of you are experiencing hard times right now. Are you perplexed by some persecution you’re going through or wiped out with some worry? God’s word to you is clear: Stand firm. Stay the course. Don’t despair. Don’t give up. One day God will make everything right. Our responsibility is to hang tough for Jesus.
There is one final phrase I don’t want us to miss. It tells us how all this is possible: “According to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (II Thessalonians 1:12c). It’s all by grace, all the time. Everything in the Christian life is by grace. We are saved by grace, we live by grace, we hang tough by grace, we die by grace, and we go to heaven by grace.
Have you ever experienced the saving grace of God? Some of you have not yet answered the Savior’s call for the first time. Listen. He’s calling your name. He’s knocking on the door of your heart. He’s waiting for you. Will you answer?
This week I received a message from a man I’ve never met who lives in another state. After reading my book, An Anchor for the Soul, he sent me an e-mail. This is part of what he wrote:
I have recently been struggling with the weight of sin and I had no idea how to get it off of my shoulders. My wife recently met a friend at her work that invited us to a church in our community. About two months ago we went there for Sunday service. The place was full of people on fire for God in their hearts. Honestly it made me feel like these people were kinda weird. I had never experienced such passion for anything in my life. For the next month or so my family and I would go to these services but I always felt awkward and out of place. How could these individuals feel so strongly about God? I really wanted to be able to feel the love these people were feeling but I had no idea how to do it.
About three weeks ago I began to have the same question run through my mind over and over again, “What does it mean when Christians say Jesus died for our sins?” Over lunch the next weekend, my friend Bud proceeded to give his testimony to us. It was a very powerful story and it made me want to ask all the questions I had. Two hours later after I spilled out my heart to him, I felt differently about things. I wasn’t saved but I knew I was on the right track. My body was trembling the entire time and I could feel the weight begin to lift. I knew I needed to find Jesus at that point and my friends did everything they could to explain to me how that could happen.
The following week brought about a lot of doubt and soul searching for me. I needed something else to help me open the door because I knew something was going on inside of me, I just didn’t know what it was yet. The next week was my wife’s birthday and her friend Laura bought her your book, An Anchor for the Soul. The next day I picked up the book and started reading it. I read it at work, school and home. I felt myself glued to every word you wrote on those pages. The further and further I read into the book, the more I began to understand what my life was missing. I felt Jesus knocking at the door to my heart and I finally opened it. I learned through your book that I needed true faith to pray to the Lord Jesus, that I needed help and I couldn’t do it by myself. I needed his help to save me and to carry my burdens.
I recited the prayer in your book three times out loud even though I only needed to do it once. The feeling of salvation has hit me like a truck but that truck has turned my life the other direction. I have been growing spiritually every day for the past week and a half. I feel Jesus’ love all over me and I thank God all the time for coming into my heart. I know that the Holy Spirit has worked through your book to save my soul. Thank you for writing it and God Bless You! Sincerely, Anthony
P.S. This is just the short version of what has happened for me recently but one thing keeps running through my thoughts and prayers. My life has been saved three times in the past and I truly thank God for keeping me alive long enough to save my life forever.
What a powerful letter. Has anything like that ever happened to you? Has salvation ever “hit you like a truck?” (When I asked that question on Sunday, a woman told me later that salvation hit her like a bulldozer and lifted her up.) I realized this week that it had been a while since I said a certain phrase so I’m going to say it right now. If you want to go to heaven, there’s one thing you need to do. Run to the cross!
Run, run, run to the cross! Lay hold of Jesus by faith and don’t let go. When hard times come, hang on to Jesus! He’ll never leave you, he’ll be with you when you die, and he’ll take you home to heaven.
Salvation is all grace, all the time. Your life can be changed just like Anthony’s was changed. Run to the Cross. Jesus is waiting to meet you there. Amen.
Dr. Ray Pritchard is the founder and President of Keep Believing Ministries.