When Paul wrote to the Christians in Thessalonica, he was writing to a people acquainted with tribulation. The gospel came to them in “much affliction” (1 Thess. 1:6), and it seems as if the difficulty didn’t let up. The “storm” was so severe, Paul sent Timothy to the Thessalonian church to make sure that the fire of their faith had not been extinguished by their circumstances. In his letter to the church, Paul encouraged them by reminding them of two things: first, God was sovereign over their suffering; and second, he was sovereign over their salvation. He wrote,
Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God's coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. (1 Thessalonians 3:1–3)
What an important truth for believers to grasp in the present distress. Jesus told his disciples in the upper room discourse that they would experience affliction in the world (Jn. 16:33). Paul was no stranger to suffering (2 Cor. 11:23ff.), and he knew that following Jesus didn’t make us exempt from disease or disaster. The word Paul used for destined in this verse, keimai, is used throughout the gospels in the sense of “to recline at table.” It’s often translated as to “lay.” Here, Paul is using it figuratively. He’s saying, “God has placed you here, he has appointed you to this!”
This is no doubt a strange but comforting thing to say. Imagine the response of the Thessalonians: “You mean to tell me God has laid me down here?” One might be tempted to think of God as cruel, but the words of Paul are meant to anchor the faithful. God is not caught off guard by our sufferings, be they persecution or pestilence. The Lord is sovereign over all circumstances, and while they may be difficult, we know that he is good. The world around us may be shaken, but believers in Jesus don’t have to be moved (1 Thess. 3:2). We know that in this world we will face affliction, but we follow the one who has overcome the world (Jn. 16:33).
Paul gives a further encouragement toward the end of his letter. Yes, God destined us for suffering, but he also destined us for salvation. “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him” (1 Thess. 5:9–10).
Paul hinted at this glorious election to salvation earlier in his letter (1:4), and he returns to it at the end of his epistle as a kind of bookend. We may suffer many things as Christians, and those sufferings have been appointed by our gracious Father. We rest knowing, however, that one thing we will never suffer as God’s people is God’s wrath.
Here the gospel promise gives us a holy endurance. What we suffer is not ultimate, and it pales in comparison to the weight of sin Jesus bore in our stead. While on earth we share in his sufferings, but not in the judgement he took for us. Because of this, we can “encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thess. 5:11) knowing that the ultimate price he paid will not be required of us. Since he died for us, we can live for him in life and in death as Paul suggested in 5:10. In waking and in sleeping, we are his. I’m reminded of the beginning of the answer to question one of the Heidelberg Catechism, “What is your only comfort in life and death? That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”
This is all well and good, but perhaps you’re wondering how to live in-between suffering and salvation? What’re we to be doing right now, while we look forward to the coming of the Lord? Paul doesn’t leave the Thessalonians curious on this, and his encouragement to them is just as applicable to us today. While we suffer, God wills our sanctification. “For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.” (1 Thess. 4:3–5)
Note closely Paul’s focus. In the midst of affliction, we tend to see our circumstances as our greatest problem. For Paul the greatest problem in the life of the believer isn’t necessarily suffering, but sin. Right now God’s will is for us to be sanctified, to continue to grow in holiness even in the midst of the present crisis. I saw some troubling articles this past week about how pornography websites have seen an increase in traffic since the Coronavirus stay-at-home orders went into effect. Be careful that the disruption to your daily routine isn’t used by Satan as an opportunity to get a foothold. Now is not the time to indulge in lust, or laziness, but to draw near to the Lord in prayer. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16–18).
During their sufferings, Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to turn from their lusts, and to cultivate a heart of thanksgiving and a habit of prayer. He even called them to rejoice. Not because they had not been destined to suffer, but because they had been destined to obtain salvation through Christ. If you’ve been discouraged during this season, let Paul’s words in this epistle bring you hope. If you’ve been fearful and your faith has been shaken (perhaps you’ve even given in to sin during these uncertain times), then remember the blessing Paul closes his epistle with, and receive it for yourself:
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. (1 Thess. 5:23–24)
Amen to that!