On Sunday, I spoke to the church about a trip I took to Turkey in 1999 with a group of pastors and denominational missions leaders. One day we were in Ankara, being shown certain sites by one of our two missionary hosts in the country.
On the edge of a particular marketplace was an Islamic shrine, and vendors were selling various relics that would give the buyer good luck if you prayed with those objects in the holy place. Our group was being told by our host that it was in honor of a particular cleric who was well-loved for his piety and many trips to Mecca.
A local man who could understand some English was listening, and then spoke Turkish with our host, obviously discussing the shrine and its meaning. Another Turk came along and joined the discussion … all the while with our other missionary friend interpreting for us what was being said.
The two Turkish fellows began to talk louder and louder, directing their remarks with increasing anger toward each other. We were told that they did not agree on the significance of the cleric or the shrine. More and more people began to gather around us, and obviously they were turning into two factions — sort of like Steelers fans and Ravens fans having a discussion about Flacco versus Roethlisberger.
Our two missionaries quietly said to us, “Let’s slip out of here!” A full-out riot was beginning, and as we were slithering away, the police were running toward the group.
The entire situation reminded me of the story of Paul and his missionary companions in Thessalonica, as recorded in Acts 17. After speaking for three Sabbaths in the synagogue there, it says …
Acts 17:3-4 — Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women. But other Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city.
The civil authorities got involved, and Paul and his companions were sent off out of town.
Galatians is probably the first of Paul’s biblical writings, written even before the Gospels were fully completed. His second and third writings were likely the two letters to the Thessalonians, presumably written only perhaps a year apart. Among concerns the Apostle had were that some followers experienced great difficulty with persecutions and opposition … just as Peter’s recipients were likewise experiencing, and that Peter was writing to encourage them through these circumstances.
To the Thessalonians, Paul wrote …
1 Thess. 2:13 — And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe. 14 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews 15 who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone 16 in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them fully.
Paul reflects upon the way the Thessalonians had responded to the preaching of the Gospel as a message of divine truth. They experienced the same opposition and sufferings as did the earliest believers in Jerusalem and Judea. Beyond rejecting Christ as Messiah, they were particularly hostile to the message that Gentiles could be saved and brought into a new people of God — the church.
Paul was worried about this opposition and how these young believers were withstanding it, finally hearing encouraging news that the bulk of them were standing firmly in the faith.
1 Thess. 3:1 — So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. 2 We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, 3 so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them. 4 In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. 5 For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you and that our labors might have been in vain.
6 But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. 7 Therefore, brothers and sisters, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith.
So Paul was, of course, experiencing “distress and persecution” but was encouraged by the steadfastness of the Thessalonians. Truly, they were in a new thing together and needed the mutual encouragement of one another.
But the phrase in chapter three that stands out to me is what Paul says about persecutions in verse three: “For you know quite well that we are destined for them.” Persecution is the normal experience for the believer in Christ.
After my several experiences with surgeries, a few days later I have had the same singular question, “Is this pain I have right now a normal thing?” If the answer to that was “yes,” then I was good with it, knowing it was to be expected. But if the answer was “no,” then I was going to be troubled that something was truly wrong.
Those of us who have been banging around this planet now for a bunch of decades as followers of Christ should understand that the weird thing — the out of character thing — is that we have suffered so little persecution and opposition. That may change. And if it does, will you endure it like the Thessalonians did … or like the chosen strangers to whom Peter wrote did?