Why “advent” is a surprisingly good word describing the appearance of Jesus – 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, Part 1

We live in a culture where what we see and hear can so easily be manipulated, deceiving us into believing something that is false.  Have you heard of deep fakes?  That is video technology in which you can make videos of people saying whatever you want them to say, and it really looks like a video of that person.  But it is fake.  This is not just impersonation.  This is the use of a person’s real image and voice, through sophisticated computer-generated alterations.  It is very, very difficult to tell that the video you are watching is fake. 

It is very easy to be deceived, and not just by deep fake videos.  As we continue our Advent study of 2 Thessalonians, Paul was concerned that the Thessalonian Christians were being deceived.  Turn in your Bibles to 2 Thessalonians chapter 2, and read verses 1-12.

In verse 1, Paul uses the word “advent.”  In fact, we’ll see him use the word three times in verses, 1-12.  Look at verse 1.  I bet you don’t see the word “advent,” though, do you? 

The word advent means “arrival” or “coming”.  Now do you see the word? Paul writes, “Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Any of our Bibles could have translated this phrase, “Concerning the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  But we don’t use the word “advent” nearly as frequently as the word “coming,” so it makes more sense to talk about Jesus’ coming.  Yet, “advent” is an important word.

We do use the word “advent,” for more than the season of the year leading up to Christmas.  You might hear it in history class or on the History channel like this, “Before the advent of the printing press, the written word was very expensive and not very accessible.”  Then the printing press was invented, and things changed.  We call that invention “the advent of the printing press,” the arrival of the printing press. 

In more recent years we talk about the advent of the internet.  Life was so different before the internet, wasn’t it? Since the mid-1990s when the internet really grew, things have changed fast. The word “advent” can refer to the arrival of anything, but it is often used for paradigm-shifting inventions or people or epochs in history. Something appears where there was nothing before, and that new thing makes a significant change in the world. 

You can see why “advent” is used for Jesus.  There is no doubt that there is a distinct before and after the advent of Jesus.  Think about the advent of Jesus.  He was a Jew, and in the First Century, the Jews were a conquered people, because the powerful Roman Empire occupied the land of Israel.  So Jesus was born to a powerless people.  You’d think a world-changer would be born into the family of the Roman emperor, or at least a wealthy Roman citizen.  Nope, he was born into a no-name family who came from a no-name town in Israel, which was a tiny, non-influential province in a far-flung corner of the Empire.  Worse still, when Jesus was born, his life was immediately threatened by the insane local leader, Herod, who decided to kill all newborns in the area because of a prophecy that said a contender to his throne would be born. So Jesus’ parents had to flee their country to Egypt.  That means Jesus started his life as a refugee.  His early years didn’t seem like they were leading to the kind of significant life that would have a before and after.

When the threat from Herod was gone, Jesus’ family moved back to their small town in northern Israel where Jesus lived in obscurity for 30 years.  No royal training.  No military training.  No leadership training.  He just learned the family business, which was carpentry or masonry.

When he finally does leave home and fulfill his calling, there is no doubt that his ministry is powerful, but he stays in Israel. You’d think he would start traveling the world and preaching like Paul did.  But no.  He stayed right there in Israel.  In fact, he rarely even went to the capital of Israel, Jerusalem. Most of his ministry was in Galilee to the north. 

Because he did gain, however, a large following, that kind of thing always stuck out to the Romans who were known for keeping the peace by brutally putting down any uprising.  Even though the crowds adored him, it didn’t take much for the Romans to dispense with Jesus.  After a ministry of less than three years, Rome killed Jesus, and his ministry was over.  From the perspective of the Roman Empire, Jesus and the movement he led was a tiny blip on their radar.  It didn’t seem like much of an advent.  Nearly 2000 years later, what we well know is that the Advent of Jesus was a before and after like the world has never seen.  Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection was the ultimate Advent.

But here in verse 1, Paul is not looking backwards to the first advent of Jesus.  The Christian Season of Advent not only looks backward to the first advent of Jesus, when he was born, but it also looks forward to the second coming of Jesus.  Paul is looking forward too.  Paul looks forward by teaching the Thessalonian Christians about the second advent of Jesus.  He describes it as a day in the future when Christians will be gathered to Jesus.  What does that word “gathering” mean? 

Check back to the next post, as we’ll investigate it.

Photo by Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash

Christians, Conspiracy Theories and the end of the world – 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, Preview

Join me in a little True or False quiz: 

  • The earth is flat.
  • The moon landing was fake.
  • Bigfoot is real.
  • The Lochness Monster is real.
  • The Abominable Snowman is real.
  • Jet plan entrails are soaking us with chemicals.

Know what they all have in common?  People believe them.  Do you believe any of these are true?  I have to admit that the idea of a flat earth is the one that is most astounding me. 

Did you ever hear one of these ideas and wonder, “What if it is true?”  Maybe the government caused 9/11?  Or maybe they were responsible for the assassination of JFK?  Could it be that our government knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq all along, and George W. Bush just wanted revenge on Saddam Hussein to avenge the shame of his father’s one-term presidency?  Perhaps Big Oil lobbied him to save the oil fields?  What if? 

The thing about conspiracy theories is that they are usually based in a kernel of truth.  They have just enough possibility of viability that they can catch on and spread like fire.  In other words, they are believable, at least by some.  In our day and age, social media, with its easy access and share-ability, has led to an explosion of conspiracy theories.  What do we do about this?  What is a distinctly Christian response to conspiracy theories?

As we continue our Advent series, “Ready for the Return,” studying Paul’s short letter, 2nd Thessalonians, this coming week we are going to look at chapter 2, verses 1-12. Interestingly, it seems that the new Christians in Thessalonica were facing a conspiracy theory as well.  It was a juicy one.  Read those verses, and see for yourself.  When Paul finds out about this conspiracy theory, he is really concerned.  He knows that conspiracy theories sound exciting, but they so often deceive.  Join me on the blog next week to learn more!

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

How to be counted as worthy of God’s Kingdom – 2 Thessalonians 1, Part 5

Will you be counted as worthy of the Kingdom of God?

Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians 1 verse 5 that the Thessalonian Christians’ growing spiritual maturity in the midst of persecution is evidence that they will be counted as worthy of the Kingdom.  That’s quite a statement.  What if we are Christians who haven’t been persecuted? Can we be counted as worthy of the Kingdom? I ask that because many Christians who read this, such as my fellow American Christians, have likely never suffered for our faith.  Or if we have, our suffering was probably minor.  We have never had to make a choice to follow Jesus or deny him.  We’ve never had to face jail time because we worshiped Jesus. We’ve had it easy.  If being counted worthy of the Kingdom requires that we prove our faithfulness during persecution, then what about you and I who have not been persecuted? 

I if American Christians will be counted worthy of the Kingdom based on how we handle affluence.  I wonder if our wealth is our test of faith. What might Paul write to American Christians, and Christians in other wealthy nations? I can imagine Paul writing to American Christians, praying that we will not get caught up in consumerism.  I can see him writing, “Just because you have the money to buy things, you don’t have to.” 

That actually freaks me out a bit.  What if our response to consumer opportunities is the thing by which we were counted as worthy of the Kingdom?  Let me be clear, we are saved by grace through faith, not by works.  Paul would go on to write that.  Here in 2 Thessalonians though, he sounds a bit more like James, who famously wrote that faith without works is dead.  How do these seemingly contradictory ideas work together?

I would recommend that you see Paul’s teaching as part 1 and James’ teaching as part 2 of the Gospel story.  Part 1 teaches that there is nothing we could do to save ourselves.  Jesus had to be born, live, died and rise again.  Praise God that Jesus won the victory over sin, death and the devil!  Apart from that victory, we don’t have forgiveness of our sins, and we are stuck apart from God.  But Jesus did win the victory over sin, death and the devil, and we have hope. 

That’s where Part 2 comes in, faith without works is dead.  We show the quality of our faith, in other words, by the life we live.  Our faith doesn’t save us.  Instead James teaches that there is a false faith and a true faith.  I’m concerned about Christians that have a false faith.  That is a faith that is in the mind.  A Belief.  Anyone can say they believe in God, but their life choices show what is really important to them.  That is James’ point precisely when he says, “even the demons believe.”  Of course demons don’t have any hope of eternal life.  So mere intellectual belief is not the kind of belief that shows we have truly received the gift of God’s grace.  We need a different kind of faith, one that is living and active and clear for all to see.  That living, active faith, Paul heard from Timothy, was vibrant and growing in the Thessalonian Christians, and he was elated. Now he tells them that this is evidence that they are counted worthy of God’s Kingdom. 

Paul goes on to try to encourage the Christians in Thessalonica because of their difficult situation.  In verse 6 he reminds them that God is just.  He is aware of their struggle.  But be encouraged, he tells them, because the people who are troubling them will be troubled.  Then in verse 7, Paul writes that God will give the Thessalonians relief.  He’ll also give Paul and his associates relief, Paul says, which is a reminder to the Thessalonian Christians that they are not alone in suffering.  Paul has suffered a lot, probably more so, than they have.  He would be longing for relief too. 

Though you and I have not faced persecution, have you ever longed for relief?  We don’t have to go through persecution to realize that life is hard.  Through the history of the church, there are three things that wage war against all Christians.  The world, the flesh and the devil.  Let’s briefly talk about each of them.

There is a world system that is different from the Kingdom of God, sometimes making it very difficult to live as a disciple of Jesus.  I referred to it already. In America, one manifestation of that world system is affluent consumerism.   

The next thing that we fight is ourselves.  Our flesh.  We have desires, and those desires can impel us to do all sorts of things that are not good for ourselves or others.  Often they masquerade as temporary pleasures that leave us feeling empty, wanting more, but in the end the satisfaction doesn’t last, leaving us even more frustrated at how temporary it is. 

Finally the last thing that wages war against us is probably the one most commonly talked about.  The devil.  We can talk about the devil as if he and his minions are the cause of nearly all of our troubles, from the smallest thing like a flat tire to the most severe illness like a bout a with cancer.  It’s a tough balance.  The devil is not something to be trifled with, and yet it’s unlikely he is behind every bush, as the saying goes.  But he is a real enemy. 

Put together, the world, the flesh and the devil, are three formidable foes that we all deal with.  Therefore many of us long for relief.  You might have even been known to say or to pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.”  (That is the Aramaic word Maranatha.) Have you longed for Jesus to return, to alleviate the struggle you are going through? 

That’s exactly what Paul says will happen.  Look at verses 7b-10.  Jesus is coming again!  Therefore Paul essentially says to the Thessalonians, “Be encouraged, because you are part of the group that he will gather up to be with him.”  Paul is not guaranteeing that Jesus would return in their lifetime.  He is simply saying that Jesus will return, and if he returns in their lifetime, because the Thessalonians believed in Jesus and showed their belief to be true faith, they can have the confidence and the expectation that they would be received into Jesus’ arms.  When Jesus returns they will be relieved from the troubles they have been experiencing.   They have something amazing to look forward to and to keep the faith for.  They same goes for us in the battle we have against those forces that tempt us.

Paul concludes with a wonderfully encouraging prayer in verses 11-12.  He says that he constantly prays that God will count them as worthy of his calling, which is what he has been talking about all along.  “Counted as worthy” is Paul’s way of saying, “Christians, live faithful lives.”  That is not just a belief that resides in a person’s mind, but it is a belief that shows itself to be true through a person’s actions.  To be ready for Jesus’ return, then, is to have a belief in him that is proven by how we live our lives. 

To summarize it, Paul prays that God, by his power, would fulfill every good purpose of the Thessalonians and every act prompted by their faith, so that Jesus will be glorified in them, and them in him, all according to grace. 

I love this prayer. 

It’s a prayer to pray for people, and to ask people to pray for you.  Paul is basically praying that God will empower the Thessalonian Christians to live faithfully, by the grace of God.

I also love how Paul finishes this section by once again mentioning the Lord Jesus Christ.  Grace and the subversive titles of Jesus are like bookends for this opening. We talked about his earlier use of these terms in an earlier post in this week’s five part series on 2 Thessalonians 1.

What we have seen in this series is that there has been an invasion into our world.  That’s what we celebrate at Christmas.  God invaded humanity.  It was an invasion of grace, that gives us the opportunity to have new life in him.  The Thessalonian Christians experienced that life-changing grace, and they thrived even in the middle of persecution.  Paul, to encourage them, points them to a glorious future when Jesus will invade again, when he will return.  Let us be like the Thessalonian Christians, ready for the return of Jesus by growing a maturity of faith and love.

Photo by Ben Mullins on Unsplash

A helpful perspective on pain – 2 Thessalonians 1, Part 4

Is pain always bad? How do you handle pain? I’m not a fan of pain. I’ve been battling a heel spur for the past year. Initially it hurt sharply every step I took. But through treatment, especially stretching, it is at bay. I can still feel it, but it isn’t crippling. I even run 4-5 times per week for a few miles, and it doesn’t seem to have worsened. My heel pain, though, is relatively minor. I know, if it grows, I could get surgery and remove it. There are other pains, hurts, traumas in life that are far more severe. How should we view them? As all bad?

We continue our Advent study of 2 Thessalonians, and in this post we’ll try to give some perspective on those important questions. In this first week of Advent, we are studying chapter 1. In verse 3, after sharing his important greeting, Paul dives into commenting about the Thessalonian Christians’ situation.  We learn that he has heard a good report from Timothy, who has just returned from visiting the Christians in Thessalonica.  As a result of Timothy’s good report, Paul thanking God for the Thessalonian Christians for two specific actions that Timothy observed in his visit: their faith is growing and their love for each other is increasing. 

Certainly Timothy mentioned a lot more to Paul about his visit. Why does Paul focus on those two actions? Turn to Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, the one that Timothy carried with him and delivered to them on his visit. In 1 Thessalonians 3:10 and 12, we read a prayer that Paul prays for the Thessalonian church. First, in verse 10, Paul says he is praying night and day earnestly to be able to see them, and to supply what is lacking in their faith.  Imagine if a Christian you really respected said that to you.  How would you feel?  “I just want you to know that I am praying nonstop for you because your faith is lacking.”  Woah.  That could hurt.  But it is to be expected since these were new believers.  Now Paul has learned that his prayer has been answered! Timothy visits Thessalonica, observes them Christians, returns to Paul and reports how their faith is growing!  Paul is ecstatic and wants to encourage them.

Now look at 1st Thessalonians 3:12, and there we read about the second part of this prayer.  Paul writes a short prayer to God, asking him to help the Thessalonians’ love for one another increase.  In 2 Thessalonians 1:3, he expresses great excitement that this second prayer has also been answered.  Paul is so happy, and he wants the Thessalonians to be encouraged, to keep going in that direction of increasing faith and love. 

Paul doesn’t mention increasing faith and love just because those prayers were answered, he also mentions them because those are two key elements of discipleship.  Could it be said of you that you are increasing in your faith, and in your love for your brothers and sisters in the church family?  We could summarize these two aspects of discipleship this way: the Thessalonian Christians are growing spiritual maturity in their lives. At this point, we don’t know precisely how they grew spiritual maturity. What actions or habits did they practice? I wish we knew more. What is clear is that both their faith and love increased.

In verse 4, Paul is so excited about the increase in spiritual maturity of the Thessalonians Christians, not just because of the growth itself, but also when he considers the context in which they grew.  They grew maturity in Christ while they were being persecuted.  You can see Paul hearing this news from Timothy’s report and thanking God. His prayers have been answered.  When you are so concerned for someone going through a hard time, and you are praying for them, and they get through it, you know how excited you are.  You rejoice with them.  That’s what Paul is doing, and he admits that he brags about them to the other churches.  There he is in Corinth, probably saying, “Guess what I just heard?  Your brothers and sisters in Christ, you know the ones in the town with the crazy people that kicked me out, those Christians in Thessalonica are not only surviving, they are thriving!”  I love that Paul reveals that he boasted about the faith of the Thessalonian Christians to other Christians.  It gives us a little window into the relationships between the churches in those days.  He was intentionally trying to connect them, to bond them, in the family of Jesus.

How much do we know about the stories of the churches around us?  I’m thankful for my local ministerium because I get to know the pastors from the churches that participate in the ministerium, and from those pastors I get a bit of news about how things are going in their churches.  I think we could do a better job of telling those stories, including telling stories within our own congregation.  The primary way we tell each other our stories is through sharing them in small groups, Sunday School classes, personal relationships.  That’s why I encourage you to get involved in a group if you are not in one already.  We need those places where we can tell the stories of our lives and support and pray for one another.

After these very encouraging greetings, Paul, in verse 5, now writes theologically.  He begins with what seems to me a strange comment: “all this is evidence that God’s judgement is right.”  What evidence?  He is referring to the fact that the Thessalonians are persevering and even growing spiritual maturity despite being persecuted.  So their spiritual growth and perseverance in suffering is evidence that God’s judgment is right.  What does Paul mean?  I don’t know about you, but I find that an odd statement. Is Paul saying that the persecution and suffering is from God? 

I suspect Paul, first and foremost, wants the Thessalonian Christians to avoid discouragement.  They could easily think, “What am I doing?  I’m following Jesus, and all it has gotten me is persecution.  How could God allow this?”  We say that kind of thing when life doesn’t go our way, right?  Imagine if we were being persecuted for our faith!  We could pray, “God, I am in physical bodily pain because of you.  I am losing my friends because of you.  How can you allow this?  How is this right?  Do you love me?  Are you even real?”  In fact, we do pray those kinds of prayers, even when we aren’t being persecuted. Our thinking can spiral downward real fast when things are tough.  Paul knows that.  So while he has now raised the specter of their persecutions, he wants to quickly cut off any negative thinking that might spark.  He reminds the Thessalonian Christians that God’s judgement is right.  What he means is this: God has allowed the Thessalonians to go through this difficult time, but they have grown tremendously through it, so look on the difficulty as right.  Have a positive view of the pain, because it grew spiritual maturity within you.

I will admit, being positive about pain is not easy to do. But Paul reminds us that we can see it from God’s perspective, that he can redeem pain, that we can even grow through pain.

Photo by Road Trip with Raj on Unsplash

Why “Lord Jesus Christ” is subversive, and “grace and peace” is more than a greeting – 2 Thessalonians 1, Part 3

Have you ever heard someone talk about Jesus Christ, as if “Christ” is his last name, or surname? The name “Jesus Christ” has become so culturally familiar, perhaps most often used as an expletive. What does his name mean? Continue reading, as our study through 2 Thessalonians chapter 1 during this first week of Advent will seek to understand the name of Jesus.

After confirming to the Thessalonian Christians that they are the church, connected to the larger Christian family, Paul continues encouraging them in verse 1 by declaring that they are “in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  In other words, they should see themselves as a distinctly Christian church.  There were plenty of other religions in the Roman Empire, and we have already seen evidence of that by the presence of aggressive Jews in Thessalonica.  Paul emphasizes here the fact that the Christian Church is different.  The Christian church is uniquely rooted in both God as Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Jews would agree with the first part, not the second.  Romans would struggle with all of it.  Calling Jesus “Lord” and “Christ” is very intentional on Paul’s part, then. 

First, what does Paul mean when he says that Jesus is “Lord”? Paul is saying that Jesus is Lord, not the Roman emperor, the Caesar, who thought of himself as deity and required people to say, “Caesar is Lord.”  Paul, calling Jesus “Lord,” as he also does in verse 2, as if to really drive the point home, is directly confronting the empire in this letter.  Just the greeting of the letter is a subversive act.   Paul is saying, “Christians, Jesus is your Lord, no matter what the emperor says.” 

Second, not only would Romans bristle at the suggestion, Jews would be upset at the Messiah part.  Paul is saying that Jesus is the Messiah.  That word “Christ” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word “Messiah.”   The Messiah shows up in Old Testament prophecies as a coming king, of the line of the great King David, whom God would send as the fulfillment of the prophets’ message, which said that he would rescue Israel and restore her to prominence, just like in the days of King Solomon.  Reading those prophecies, the Jews in the first century believed that the Messiah would free their land from their Roman overlords.  So when Jesus came along saying he was the Messiah, but he did not rise to become a military leader, the Jewish leaders deemed him a fraud and blasphemer, and they crucified him.  The earliest Christians, however, taught something different.  They said that Jesus actually was the Messiah, and that the Jewish leaders had a faulty understanding of the prophecies about the Messiah.  The Messiah was not going to be a government leader of an earthly kingdom, but was instead he was king of the Kingdom of heaven, a Kingdom that Jesus prayed, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  It was a surprising kingdom that was among us and in us, and could be advanced through us.  So Paul, attributing that title “Messiah” to Jesus is also directly confronting the Jews. 

Third, the name “Jesus” is his given name. In Aramaic, it would be Yeshua, or transliterated to English, Joshua, which means “God is salvation.” Fitting, isn’t it?

You and I are so used to the name “Lord Jesus Christ.”   But in Paul’s day, especially there in Thessalonica with pressures from both the Romans and the Jews, that name was nothing short of revolutionary.  They were the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.  If they would have put that name out on their church sign, they would have gotten all kinds of abuse.  It would be like my church putting the name “Communist Church of Atheism” on our sign.  Imagine how that would go over here in the conservative Lancaster County Bible Belt?

So Paul has begun his letter to these new Christians by grounding them in what is true.  They were a church of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  They were believing a new way, a different reality, that put them in conflict with the culture around them.  Paul knew that those Thessalonian Christians’ choice to be disciples of Jesus was neither an easy choice nor one that would result in an easy life.  He himself had experienced the painful result of following Jesus. Jews and Greeks breathing down his neck, stoning him, rioting because of him and his message.  He was well aware of how difficult it could be to be a Christian, let a brand new one, in their town.  He knows he needs to help them.  What will he say next to help them keep the faith?

In verse 2 he gives them his standard greeting of grace and peace, which he uses in nearly all of his letters.   But he isn’t just using a throwaway greeting.  Grace and peace are two theologically-rich words for Christians.  Our entire relationship with God is based on grace.  As Paul would later write in Ephesians, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, not by works, it is the gift of God.”  Grace points us to God’s amazing love, mercy and forgiveness to us in Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection.  Therefore, we not only receive his grace, but we also share grace with one another, and with those outside the church.  We are a grace-soaked people. 

Second, peace is so important for Christians.  Especially for Christians who are living in the middle of unrest, such as the Thessalonians were.  Jesus came to bring peace.  In his birth, the angels announce “Peace on earth, good will to all humanity.”  This word, too, is a direct confrontation to the empire.  In the Roman Empire, it was declared that the Caesar would bring peace.  But just like the angels, Paul says that peace is available to us in the Lord Jesus Christ.  No human can really bring lasting peace.  But Jesus can. 

So how about you? Do you know Jesus as Lord and Christ? Have you received his grace and peace? Please comment below if you want to talk about that!

Then we continue in the next post, taking a look at what Paul will say after his greeting.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

When does a church become a church? – 2 Thessalonians 1, Part 2

My church rents space to four other groups of Christians, and those groups describe themselves with a variety labels that indicate their relative age. First Baptist Church, as you can see in its name, is an established local church, older, I believe, than my church. The Orthodox group, however, calls themselves a fellowship. An established Orthodox church in a neighboring county started this group, seeking to plant a new congregation in Lancaster County. They meet twice per month for a mini-liturgy and Bible study. The Burmese Church is a group of Christians from Myanmar, connected to churches in their home country, so they see themselves as an extension of an established church. Finally, the Hispanic Church is brand new, renting space to start a church plant. Are they all churches? When does a church become a church?

In the previous post, we learned that Paul and his ministry friends traveled to the Greek city of Thessalonica, and there they started a church, as people responded to the story of good news in Jesus. But just as soon as the church got off the ground, Paul was forced to leave the city under cover of night, when anti-Christian Jews in town came after him. Paul and his friends travel the 45 miles to nearby Berea, where they continue ministry. But the Thessalonican Jews track them down and incite the Bereans against them too. Paul must flee again, and this time he decides to travel far enough to be safe from the Thessalonian Jews. He instructs his friends, Silas and Timothy, to stay in Berea and help the new Christians there, while he travels 200 miles south to Athens, and then eventually a bit west to Corinth. You can read this story in Acts 17 and 18. Finally safe and stable, Paul settles down. His ministry in Corinth will last at least 18 months, likely longer. But as Paul’s stay in Corinth gets longer and longer, he wishes he could visit the church in Thessalonica.  He really seems to have a close relationship with them (based on what he will write in 1st Thessalonians), and he wants to help them grow deeper in their faith in Christ, teaching them how to live as Jesus’ disciples.

You can almost read Paul’s mind.  “Are the new Christians in Thessalonica going to make it?  Or will the pressures of life lead them to turn away from the faith?  Those Jews in Thessalonica are intense.  Are they trying to get the Christians to deny their newfound faith?”  Should he try to go back to a town where he almost got killed?  But that would mean he would have to leave the believers in Corinth.  They, too, need to be taught.  And what we know of the Corinthian Christians is that they were very rough around the edges, to put it lightly.  So Paul decides that he needs to stay in Corinth, and he decides to reach out to the Thessalonians the next best way; he writes them a letter, the letter we know as 1st Thessalonians.  Of all his letters that we have in the Bible, it is highly likely that 1st Thessalonians is the first letter Paul writes.  Written around 51 CE, it is probably the oldest New Testament writing. 

In the ancient world, letters don’t get to people in a day or two, like we’re used to.  It was a process, one that was expensive and long.  Writing materials are not cheap.  Paul often used a scribe to write, and that person might need to be hired and paid.  Then Paul would have to determine a way to actually get the letter to Thessalonica.  That is likely where Timothy comes in.  Often Paul’s ministry partners doubled as letter-carriers.  While he was in Corinth, Silas and Timothy eventually joined him. Now Paul sends the letter with Timothy who journeys the 200+ miles back to Thessalonica, a trip that could easily take days.  Once there, Timothy likely gathers the Christians and reads the letter out loud to them because not everyone in the church would be able to read. 

We don’t know how long Timothy remains in Thessalonica.  He eventually returns to Paul in Corinth, with news about how the young church is doing.  Scholars believe that about six months after writing the first letter, Paul, still in Corinth, hears Timothy’s report and writes another letter to the believers in Thessalonica, the letter we know as 2nd Thessalonians. 

Think about what we have learned so far about the Christians in Thessalonica.  They are the only Christians in town, they are new Christians, and they are believing in a new religion.  They are a diverse in a society that doesn’t always look kindly on diversity.  They also face a challenge from the very Jews who kicked Paul out of town, and who chased him in Berea. In other words, these new Christians are on very thin spiritual ice. So how were they doing? Did Timothy have good news or bad news?  How is this small group of very new Christians doing?   What Paul says in 2 Thessalonians will give us the answer to these questions.

In verse 1, after identifying himself and his ministry friends, Paul gives the Thessalonian Christians a standard greeting in which he calls them a church.  I find that small detail interesting.  When does a church start becoming a church?  If your church or mine were to start a new church, in a neighboring town, would we call it a church on day 1?  Maybe.  But more than likely we would call it a church plant, signifying that it was new, and not yet a fully-developed church.  We might call it a Bible study, a small group, a fellowship. The Christians in Thessalonica have been Christians for less than a year. How can Paul call them a church? Surely they can’t be mature enough, established enough for that label? Or can they?

In my denomination, the EC Church, we actually have a process that a church has to go through to make the jump from being a church plant to a fully-sufficient church.  Some churches remain in church plant status for years.  Yet Paul calls this new group of Christians a church.  In fact, he had even called them a church six months earlier in his first letter to them, and at that point they had likely only been Christians for a couple weeks or months.  That tells me something I believe is important for all of us. 

Paul calling the Thessalonians a church, though they were very new Christians, tells me that in Paul’s mind, these new Christians would do well to see themselves as a legitimate, fully-accepted part of the family of God.  I can imagine Paul wanting them to feel included in that larger sense of identification with God’s family.  Though they are new to the faith, they are part of God’s family, with all the rights and privileges of God’s sons and daughters.  Those new Christians should not see themselves as second-class Christians. Instead they are a church.

Do you see yourself that way? Part of God’s family? If not, why not? What we see in Paul’s use of the word “church” is his heart for the Thessalonians to be connected. Christians are people who are connected. This is one of the reasons why I love my local ministerium, the 15-20 churches from a variety of backgrounds that work together to reach our community for Christ. We recently held a Community Thanksgiving Service, and it was a wonderful expression of unity, of connection.

What concerns me is when Christians are disconnected. Some Christians believe that they do not need a connection to a church because they can have a personal relationship with God. I would suggest that it should not be viewed as either/or, but both/and. Yes, we can have a personal relationship with God, and we should nurture that relationship, but we can and should also nurture a relationship with a group of Christians, a church. I’m not talking about a church building. I’m talking about a group of Christians that connect deeply and regularly for the purposes of church.

What are the purposes of church? Check back in to the next post, as Paul will eventually talk about that!

Photo by NATHAN MULLET on Unsplash

Introducing our Advent 2021 series – 2 Thessalonians 1, Part 1

For this Advent season, I thought it would be good to study a lesser-known book of the Bible that relates to Advent.  This letter didn’t originally relate to Advent.  Advent was a season of the year that Christians created many years after this letter was written.  But because Advent mean “arrival,” I think you’ll see how this book is fitting. The book is one of the short letters in the New Testament, 2nd Thessalonians. 

You might wonder, “Why 2nd Thessalonians?  Why not start with 1st Thessalonians?”  Well, it’s simply a matter of space.  Advent lasts for the four weeks before Christmas, and four weeks is not enough to cover 1st Thessalonians.  But it’s perfect for 2nd Thessalonians which is much shorter, and basically has the same theme as 1st Thessalonians. So let’s dive in to 2 Thessalonians chapter 1.

In verse 1 we read “Paul, Silvanus and Timothy.”  Ancient letter writing started the opposite of how we start our letters or emails. We always start by addressing the person we are writing to. In the ancient world, the writer began by identifying himself. 

Who are Paul, Silvanus and Timothy?  Paul is the leader, the apostle, the missionary, the man who took the wonderful story of Jesus and spread it like no other in the first century, starting numerous churches across the Roman Empire. Silvanus is another name for Silas, one of Paul’s traveling companions.  Timothy was an apprentice of Paul who would go on to be a pastor of the churches in the city of Ephesus.  Many years later Paul would write 1 & 2 Timothy as letters to help Timothy in his pastoral ministry in Ephesus.  For now, these three men are mentioned as contributing to this letter, but Paul is likely the primary author.  If you glance ahead to chapter 3, verse 17, you can see that he picks up the pen and writes the ending.  As a result, for the remainder of the posts in this series, I will refer to Paul as the author.

He is writing to the Thessalonians. Who or what are the Thessalonians?  Keep your finger in 2 Thessalonians chapter 1, and turn to Acts 17.  There we read about the beginning of this specific church.  In Acts 17, Paul is on his second of three missionary journeys recorded in the book of Acts.  We read that he arrives in Thessalonica, which today is the city of Thessaloniki in Greece.  In the first century this was a major city of 200,000 people, the capital of its province. You can visit the ruins of the old city in Thessaloniki still today. 

There Paul shares the Gospel with the Jews and Greeks, and numerous people come to Christ.  We don’t know how long Paul, Silas and Timothy were there, but even if it was a very short time, Paul started the church. The Jews in town were jealous of Paul’s success, and almost certainly considered the Christians to be traitors who were starting a cult.  So they incite a riot, accusing Paul of being a government insurrectionist, and Paul and Silas have to leave Thessalonica under cover of night, and they head to nearby Berea.  But the Jews from Thessalonica find out that Paul has escaped to Berea, so they follow him there and agitate the Bereans against Paul.   

I tell you that to give you a sense of the kind of people that lived in Thessalonica.  The Jews, at least, not only disagreed with the Christians, they also aggressively pursued Paul, trying to stop him.  Imagine you are one of the Christians living in Thessalonica after Paul has been run out of town.  You are part of this new church that has just started.  In Acts 17:4, we learn who the people in the church actually were.  When Paul and Silas were initially preaching there in Thessalonica, “some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, so did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.”  That was the church.  How many people?  Maybe 50?  Maybe 100?  It was a small group of brand new Christians.

The church was multi-ethnic, comprised of Jews and Greeks.  It also had socio-economic diversity, and it had gender diversity.  It was new, and likely most everyone in the church, if not all of them, were immature in their faith.  The Jewish members of the church would have had a background in their Jewish faith, which would have been immensely helpful.  Those new Christian Jews though, would have been considered apostate by the other aggressive Jews in town.  To what degree Paul was able to disciple the new Christians and build up leaders, we don’t know.  My guess is that he wasn’t there long.  That fact, and the fact that there were Thessalonian Jews so aggressively opposed to Christianity, probably had Paul very concerned that this new church was going to fall apart. 

So how does the letter of 2nd Thessalonians come to be?  Let’s continue the story by remembering Paul’s itinerary.  In Acts 17:1-9, he is in Thessalonica.  In verse 10 he travels to Berea, about 45 miles to the west.  As we heard above, in verses 10-15 we learn that it doesn’t seem he is in Berea all that long before the Thessalonican Jews track him down.  At least in Berea Silas and Timothy can stay to build up the believers, unlike the Christians in Thessalonica who were on their own.  If you are Paul, you’re thinking, “Okay…the Berean Christians are cared for, but I still need to do something about the group back in Thessalonica.”  Paul is a wanted man there, though, so he can’t go back.  Yet, as he writes in 1 Thessalonians 2:17, he longed to go back and visit them. 

As we continue following his itinerary in Acts 17, Paul next travels 200 miles south to Athens. After what seems to be a relatively short stay in Athens, in Acts 18:1 we read that he travels to nearby Corinth, 50 miles to the west of Athens.  As we skim through Acts 18, we learn that Paul is finally able to settle down a bit, staying in Corinth at least 18 months, but likely longer.  Silas and Timothy eventually join him there. But Paul has not forgotten the Thessalonian Christian. It really bothered him being apart from them, so at some point he sent Timothy, we read in 1 Thessalonians 3:1, to deliver the letter we know as 1 Thessalonians. Timothy eventually returns with news from Thessalonica. 

Will Timothy bring good news? Or bad news?

We’ll find out in the next post!

Photo by KaLisa Veer on Unsplash

The important connection between Sci-fi and Advent – 2 Thessalonians 1, Preview

How do you feel about science fiction?  Are you a sci-fi lover?  A sci-fi hater?

I love sci-fi.

I love pretty much any sub-genre within the larger sci-fi umbrella.  What’s not to love? Time travel, futuristic technology, spaceships, lasers, intergalactic travel, and of course, aliens.  Sci-fi has it all!  I recently started watching a new streaming TV series called Invasion, and the premise of the story is the question, “How would people really respond if powerful aliens attacked earth?”  To answer that question, the show follows the lives of four very different people in four very different places in the world as they react to the invasion.  But that’s show biz for you, where aliens are real.  They’re not actually real, though, are they?

Do you ever wonder if UFOs are real?  Unidentified Flying Objects made the news recently as the government has declassified documents, and there seems to be a movement to search for alien life!  Some people claim that our planet has been visited many times.  These most recent declassified documents include videos of Air Force pilots seemingly mystified by what they are seeing on their radar screens.  Objects in the air making movements and traveling at speeds that no human object is capable of.  Maybe it was just a fleck of paint on their camera being blown by the wind, or maybe an extra-terrestrial has been spying on us. 

Advent is the season of the year that reminds us that an extra-terrestrial has already arrived.  But not the extra-terrestrials of ET or AlienGod has arrived.  In fact, Advent means “arrival”.  The Son of God, the Messiah, Jesus, arrived. God became flesh.

Advent also reminds us that Jesus is coming again!  That’s why our 2021 Advent theme is “Ready for the Return,” and we’ll be studying the New Testament letter of 2nd Thessalonians.  Why 2nd Thessalonians?  Because whenever you think of Advent, you obviously think of 2nd Thessalonians, right? 

Take a moment this weekend to read 2 Thessalonians chapter 1, or perhaps the whole letter, which is only 47 verses, to see if you can determine why this short letter might be the perfect study for Advent.  Then check back in to the blog on Monday as we’ll begin discussing 2 Thessalonians 1 and Advent.

Photo by Artem Kovalev on Unsplash

How to think Christianly about America (or any nation) – Ezekiel 29-32, Part 5

This week we have been studying the rise and fall of great powers, because we learned about the fall of Egypt as prophesied by Ezekiel in Ezekiel 29-32. In the previous post, we learned that in recent history, the rise and fall of great powers is controlled by economics. So we have to ask, what about God?  Isn’t God involved?  Does God decide which nations rise and which fall?  Does God want some nations to be great and others lowly?  What should we Christians think about this?

Remember the prophecy to Egypt in Ezekiel.  Their nation had been a regional superpower for centuries.  Now God declares that Egypt was going to fall, and it would not be great again. 

I write as an American, and much of what I have thought about Ezekiel 29-32 this week has clearly been colored by my context as an American. Christians in America have long had a somewhat confused understanding of the relationship between God and country.  What we see in this passage is that God desires to be in relationship with all people.  He is not interested in the rise and fall of great powers.  He is interested in people.  Nations come and nations go.  America rose and became a superpower, and it is possible that America will fall from that place, maybe in our lifetime, maybe a thousand years from now.  Maybe all that potentially scary news about China (which I started this week’s blog series with here) will come to pass and they will attack and defeat us.  We don’t know, of course.

In the Old Testament, God often talks about nations and their longevity.  We Americans can think that we want our preferred version of America to last forever.  Usually the version of America that we want to last forever is the version that benefits us.  But does God promise that any version of America will last forever?  No.  Instead there is a rise and fall of nations throughout history.  That is par for the course of world history.  What, then, is the Christian way to look at our citizenship in America? 

To answer that question, we need to jump over to the New Testament where we learn that we Christians see ourselves first and foremost as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Our earthly citizenship is temporary, because every earthly country is temporary.  Even if USA doesn’t end in our lifetime, it will happen sometime.  But God’s Kingdom will never fall.  God’s Kingdom is eternal. 

Christians, therefore, should be focused on the Kingdom of God.  Our lives, our choices, our actions, should be to glorify Jesus and follow the pattern of life that he lived.  There were Christians living through all of the 1700 years before America was born.  Those Christians were disciples of Jesus, pursuing the mission of God’s Kingdom all around the world, and they did that without an entity called the United States of America.  How?  Because God’s Kingdom isn’t dependent on any nation.

But we are citizens of an earthly country. I am an American citizen. For my fellow American Christians, what does it mean, then, to think Christianly about our citizenship in America?  For those of you who are citizens in other countries, you can ask yourselves the same question. What does it mean to think Christianly about citizenship in your country? I have written about this in a previous blog series, staring here. But I also recommend that we strive to answer these important questions by remembering the perspective of God’s Kingdom.

We should want God’s Kingdom to come all around us.  Just as Jesus prayed: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  We Christians, then, not only pray for God’s Kingdom to come wherever we live, but we also participate in ushering in the Kingdom.  When I say “usher in the Kingdom,” I am not talking about the goals of any political party.  Remember the Purple Church series a few months ago?  Jesus is neither red nor blue.  The church should be neither red nor blue.  The church should be purple, a place where people who lean red or blue can mix together focusing on God and making his Kingdom our priority.

We’re a purple church because God doesn’t want to be in relationship with a temporary nation.  He wants to be in relationship with people.  That’s why God’s Old Covenant was with the nation of Israel, but his New Covenant is with the church.  God is in relationship with his people, the church.  Our hearts, our goals, our decisions should flow from that perspective.

We, the church, then, strive to fulfill the mission of the Kingdom, no matter what country in which we hold earthly citizenship.  As we live in those countries, we desire to fulfill the Great Command and the Great Commission.  We also desire those nations to be places of goodness and human flourishing.  That’s why we Christians take the lead in pursuing equality, freedom, and justice, no matter where we live.  That means we should be active in rooting out injustice.  We follow the teaching of Jesus to love God, love neighbor, and help people become disciples of Jesus who can live the way of Jesus.  We are people who are filled with the Spirit, so that the fruit of the Spirit is flowing freely from us into the lives of others around us. 

Our hope is not in a political party.  Our hope is not in a geographic region on the globe.  Our hope is not in a form of government.  Our hope is not to make a nation great again.  Our hope is in the Lord.  Our passion is to make his name great.

As the Jews in Babylon learned from Ezekiel’s prophetic oracles about Egypt, God desired a relationship with all people, even those who were enemies of Israel.  God wants to be known by all.  That should be our heart too.  As our hearts are more like God’s heart, then geography, nationality, ethnicity matters less, and people matter more.

Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

What is the cause of the rise and fall of the great powers – Ezekiel 29-32, Part 4

When I traveled with Michelle to Cambodia in 2016, we visited Angkor Wat, one of the seven wonders of the world.  It is astounding.  Ancient temples built a thousand years ago reminding us that there used to be a super power there, the Khmer Kingdom.  It was a far-reaching kingdom, a superpower in Southeast Asia.  But no more.  Now vines grow through the buildings of Angkor Wat.  They are a tourist attraction, gorgeous astounding place to visit.

Same goes for the pyramids in Egypt, which are the actual graveyard of the Pharaohs (considering that we talked about Sheol, the graveyard of the superpowers in the previous post).  Now we can look at their mummies in museums.  But it’s not just the Khmer Kingdom or the ancient Egyptians. Let’s take a quick, very general trip through world history, and we will find that the same end has come for superpower after superpower.  How many others are in the superpower graveyard?

Thousands of years ago, the Egyptians and the Assyrians conquered most of the Ancient Near East, and then the even more powerful Babylonians conquered Assyria and Egypt.  Eventually the Medes and Persians would conquer the Babylonians.  Then came the Greeks, then the Romans, and eventually the Muslims in the middle east.  There were other superpowers in Asia, Africa and the Americas. In Europe, for a time the Spanish and the French were quite powerful, then the British became perhaps the first global superpower.  Many other European countries wanted to be global superpowers too, colonizing new lands around the globe, often in brutal ways.

Then there are the contenders or pretenders to the throne.  The nations that want to be superpowers, but just don’t quite make it.

Comedian Norm MacDonald once remarked that the news tries to scare you with stories about these nations that want to be superpowers.  Countries like Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.  MacDonald asks, “Does that news ever really scare you?  Do you ever wake up in the middle of night scared, thinking ‘Ahh, that country across the ocean…I wonder if they’ll get me?’  Probably not.”  Then MacDonald says, “There is one country that worries me, though.  Not Iraq, not Iran, not North Korea.  The only country that really worries me is the country of Germany.  I don’t know if you are students of history or not, but in the early part of the previous century, Germany decided to go to war. And who did they go to war with?  The world!  That had never been tried before.  So you figure it would take about five seconds for the world to win, but no…it was actually close.  Then about thirty years pass, and Germany decides to go war again. Once again it chooses as its enemy, the world!  This time, they really almost win.  You’d think at that point the world would say, ‘Listen Germany, you don’t get to be a country any more on account that you keep attacking the world!  What do you think you are?  Mars, or something?’

While Norm MacDonald’s joke is funny, that’s not quite how it went down.  In his book called The Rise and Fall of The Great Powers, historian Paul Kennedy says that, that in both World War 1 and World War 2, there was a moment when it was obvious that Germany would lose each of those wars.  Kennedy suggests it was the same moment in each war.  Do you know what Kennedy is referring to? 

It was when the USA decided to join the Allied powers in the fight.  For all intents and purposes, when the USA entered the war, it was over.  How do we know that?  Economics.  Kennedy looks at the rise and fall of great powers from 1500 to 1980, and he traces the same pattern.  Economics win wars.  When the USA joined World War 1 and World War 2, we brought an unparalleled economic engine to the war effort.  It could be argued that German and Japanese technology and military genius were actually superior to ours.  It doesn’t matter though.  Economies win the war.  They always win.  Sure Hitler and Nazi Germany, along with their Axis partners put up a good fight, but they were no match for a massive economic engine that could fight wars on multiple fronts.  We could just keep pumping people and equipment and munitions into those battles, and little by little we could wear them down.  And we did.  It was just a matter of time. This is the story of the rise and fall of the great powers. 

Often we talk about these world wars as battles of good miraculously winning over evil. Kennedy disagrees. Does this mean that God has no say in the matter? Are economics more powerful than God? Are we to understand Ezekiel 29-32 only as prophetic oracles of Babylon’s economic ascendancy and Egypt’s economic inferiority and loss?

In the next post we’ll talk about God’s hand in the rise and fall of the great powers.

Photo by James Wheeler on Unsplash