Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3 We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. 4 Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.
5 This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— 6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. 11 To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
– 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 [ESV]
For many years, I undervalued the 23rd Psalm. The thoughts there, I realized, are good and edifying. The truths important. The promises rich. But not until I looked more closely at verse 4 did I begin to have a new and very deep appreciation for this well-known psalm. In verse 4 David stops speaking about God (“the LORD is my shepherd…He makes me lie down…He leads me…”) and begins speaking to God. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me,” he says [emphasis added].
In the dark times God’s presence is most precious. In the dark times we look for The Light of his love, goodness, mercy, and power. The candle burns brighter in the darkness than in the light. Well…actually the candle does not burn brighter in the darkness (as far as I’m aware). But it is more noticeable in the darkness. It is more clearly seen in the darkness of night than in the bright of day. Many Christians will confess that their prayers take on a stronger sense of urgency and fervency during times of trial than in times of favor. It’s true, David expresses thanks to God when “the lines have fallen in pleasant places.” But he pours out so many more of his Psalms in times of trouble and persecution.
As Paul writes the Thessalonians they are experiencing persecution. This is clear by Paul’s reference to “all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.” Paul’s chief concern in writing this letter is to clarify with them the not-yet-but-ultimate reality of Jesus’ Second Coming. There was some confusion there about this. Some even thought that the Day of the Lord (i.e., Second Coming of Jesus) had already happened (2 Thessalonians 2:2). He assures them that Jesus had not yet come, but that he would surely return, and the scales of justice will be balanced.
In the meantime he commends their faithfulness and urges continued steadfastness.
I think of people who have given to me the strongest witness for Christ. The testimony of a bedridden man in Springfield, Illinois comes to mind. I would visit him in the nursing home as part of my seminary field education training. I could barely understand his words, but I discovered in him a deep faith. His refrain of faithfulness, “There ain’t nothing the Lord can’t do!” echoes in my mind all these years later.
Jesus has shown that to be true when he rose from the dead. He promises eternal salvation to all who believe. That remains true no matter the external circumstances. He will come again at the end of all time and take his own to be with him forever. This is our true Christian hope.
Unbelievers might expect us to praise God when things go well. And well we should! God deserves all the praise for every good and perfect gift: it comes down from the Father of lights with whom there is no shadow of change (cf. James 1:17). But in the throes of suffering we offer praise to God it’s as though a candle has been lit in the darkest of night. It brings light to all. Fellow believers are encouraged. Unbelievers surely take notice.
This is no call to seek hardship and suffering. But it is a reminder to us that when we praise God in the midst of suffering we show our faith to be pure and good. And we light a candle of hope for all to see.