The second stanza of an old Isaac Watts hymn asks quite a reasonable question. It is a question that we—accustomed as we are to many creature comforts—should be willing to ask ourselves.
Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize
And sailed through bloody seas?
“Wherefore when we could no longer forbear, we thought it good to be left at Athens alone; And sent Timotheus, our brother, and minister of God, and our fellowlabourer in the gospel of Christ, to establish you, and to comfort you concerning your faith: That no man should be moved by these afflictions: for yourselves know that we are appointed thereunto. For verily, when we were with you, we told you before that we should suffer tribulation; even as it came to pass, and ye know. For this cause, when I could no longer forbear, I sent to know your faith, lest by some means the tempter have tempted you, and our labour be in vain” (1 Thess. 3:1–5).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
After mentioning how dear the Thessalonians were to him, Paul then says that when he couldn’t stand it anymore, he thought it best for him to be left in Athens alone (v. 1). He commissioned Timothy to go back to Thessalonica in order to establish and comfort them (v. 2). This was a significant move because Timothy was important to Paul also. Timothy was Paul’s brother and fellow-worker, as well as a minister or servant of God (v. 2). The reason for sending Timothy was because the Thessalonians were going through afflictions at the hands of their own countrymen, as he mentioned in the previous chapter, and he wanted to ensure that they were taught well enough when it came to such afflictions. He didn’t want any man to be moved by them (v. 3), and he wanted to remind them that as believers we are appointed to them (v. 3). Paul had predicted it beforehand, when he was still with them. He told them what was going to happen. We are going to suffer tribulation, he had said, and sure enough it came to pass (v. 4). The Thessalonians had seen it come to pass with their own eyes. That was the reason why Paul was beside himself with concern. When he couldn’t take it anymore, he sent Timothy to them to find out if the tempter had followed up the affliction with temptation, and in such a way as to unwind all of Paul’s labors there (v. 5). Notice that there are two elements that Paul is concerned about. The first is the trial itself, and the second is the devil’s interpretation of it. The real concern is the spin the devil puts on it. But remember what a liar he is.
THE UNBELIEVERS’ INTENTION FOR BELIEVERS
In the previous chapter, Paul had reminded the Thessalonians that the Jews in Judea were “contrary to all men.” They were full of malice and hostility. They did not want Gentiles to be saved. They murdered the Lord Jesus. They had killed their own prophets. They persecuted the apostles. Paul knew the heart of man, and he knew the inevitable reaction whenever renewed hearts come into contact with unregenerate hearts. There is nothing you can do that will prevent this reaction from happening.
The thing you can do is teach Christians what to expect. Far too many Christians think the negative reaction is the result of them being a poor testimony. The idea that it is because they have had a good testimony scarcely occurs to them. Did Jesus have a poor testimony? Is that why He was killed?
GOD’S INTENTIONS FOR BELIEVERS
But God governs all things, and this means that God must have a purpose or intention for us in our afflictions. What is He up to?
“And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch, confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:21–22).
“And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” (Rom. 5:3–5).
We glory in tribulations, not because we are masochistic, but because we know that it is the pathway to the great city. But we sometimes look at the landscape, which can be pretty grim, instead of looking at what is really happening. And what is really happening is what we are becoming. The hard path fits us for the glory to be found at the end of that road. What is this difficulty? Look at it with the eyes that Paul wanted the Thessalonians to have. It is the love of God, shed abroad in your heart.
OUR OWN INTENTION
We must learn wisdom. This means we must reject the purpose that unbelievers have for our afflictions, and yet we must also embrace the purpose that God has for those same afflictions. We know that God does not tempt any man (Jas. 1:13), but we also know that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted (Matt. 4:1). And we are instructed to pray that God lead us not into temptation (Matt. 6:13). This is not a contradiction. The same event can be a trial and a temptation, and the same Greek word is used for both. The event that is assigned to us by God—“to which we were appointed”—is an event that has different intentions on either side of it. God uses it to strengthen you, and the devil wants to use it to weaken you.
So we must learn to walk straight, which means that we must first learn to think straight. The way into the kingdom of God is fraught with difficulty. But that does not mean that just because something is difficult that it must be the way into the kingdom. Remember that wrath was coming upon the unbelieving Jews “to the uttermost.” The destruction of Jerusalem was difficult, but that is the only thing that it was. “Good understanding giveth favour: But the way of transgressors is hard” (Prov. 13:15).
The diamonds of the promise can only be found in the mines of difficulty—and some of those mines go deep. But there are other mine shafts that are filled with nothing but useless rocks.
The check on your heart should be this: Are you pursuing Christ and His kingdom? Is that what you want? Is that what you want regardless? Then the diamonds are most certainly there. Seek first His kingdom.