Life With Jesus: A Bit Like Whitewater Rafting
When it comes to following Jesus, sometimes we assume the experience should be similar to a lazy river ride: relaxed, peaceful, minimal to no disturbance. When we read the Bible, though, we see the actual experience is far different. In reality, it’s much more like whitewater rafting.
In this week’s sermon, I work my way through 1 Thessalonians 3 as we ask difficult questions about the afflictions we face and what God is doing in the midst of them.
You can listen to the sermon audio here.
For a full unedited manuscript of this message is included below.
*This message is for Lifepoint Church and a part of our current series, ‘Not Without Hope.’
Today, we are in week 3 of a series we’ve called ‘Not Without Hope.’ The big idea, something we’ll say each and every week is that JESUS IS THE SOURCE OF ENDURING HOPE.
Of course, as we go, we’ll see that continue to ring true. As most of us know already, we’re working our way through the book of 1 Thessalonians which was written by the Apostle Paul to the church he and his companion Silas planted in the city of Thessalonica; at that time Thessalonica was located within the Roman province of Macedonia; today we know it as Greece.
As I’ve said in both weeks, Paul planted this church quickly–just three weeks of preaching at the Jewish Synagogue on Saturdays. From that preaching, though, the Holy Spirit did what only he can do. People came to faith. As we said last week, people began to change and live differently. As chapter 1 showed us, they began walking away from their former lives–
They became imitators of Paul who was ultimately an imitator of Jesus.
However, while that life change was an indicator of spiritual heart change–which is what’s most important–it resulted in circumstantial challenges.
The city was soon in an uproar over this little church. As a result, Paul and Silas had to leave town due to the threat to their lives and now this little church finds itself in a difficult position; new in faith, under persecution, without the leader who led them to Christ in the first place.
And, those are the circumstances, in short, that leads to Paul writing this letter.
Toward the end of chapter two, Paul begins the thought that will carry through most of chapter 3, and that is his desire to be with the Thessalonians in person. He hates that he was torn away from them, he desires to come to them to make sure they are ok, but Satan has prevented that from happening.
I’m going to pray for us, and then we’ll pick up in chapter 3. If a roadmap is helpful to you, we’ll first read 1-5 and then go back through those verses and along the way go through verses 6-7 as well.
Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, 2 and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, 3 that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. 4 For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. 5 For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain.1 Thessalonians 3:1-5
One of the many things that I love about the Bible is its depth.
Upon first review, these verses read as a simple account and retelling of why Timothy showed up in Thessalonica not too long before this letter arrived.
However upon second review, these verses actually give us insight into spiritual realities that have the ability to make or break us in this journey of following Jesus.
I understand that sounds dramatic…and it should!
When you follow Paul’s thought process, hopefully those insights become clear.
There are several points I think are helpful for us to discuss. To see these points, I want to work our way from backward…
I’m going to put verse 5 on the screen for us again. Two key points.
Our greatest concern for others should be where they stand with Jesus.
Do you see that? Paul is seemingly a nervous wreck because he’s consumed with what has happened to the faith of this little church he quickly planted and then was forced to quickly leave.
While I’m sure he has empathy for the difficult circumstances this church is going through, his greatest desire for them is not that they would be circumstantially at peace but that they would be established in their faith.
I wonder how often the faith of those we care about is our greatest concern? Sure, we can care about the circumstances. Yes, we should serve others to help improve their circumstances. However the ultimate goal of our care and our concern should not be worldly comfort. The ultimate goal should be the strength of their faith.
We have an enemy who subtly seeks our destruction.
Interestingly–at least to me–the wording Paul uses here is ‘tempt.’ That word sounds so passive, doesn’t it? Be careful! You might get tempted! It suggests a future possible reality that we think we should easily be able to avoid.
But, that’s where the word subtly comes in…which is a weird word, by the way. The meaning of subtly is to do something in a manner so delicate or precise as to be difficult to analyze or describe.
It very much reminds me of how Satan approached Eve in the garden…surely you will not die…did God really say? C’mon…you’re a reasonable person…
Imagine how tempting the lies Satan must have been feeding the Thessalonians would have been.
You certainly shouldn’t have given up all of the idol worship…seems a bit extreme doesn’t it? I mean, after-all, you’d worshiped that idol your whole life and you were doing ok, weren’t you? And, hey, maybe your friends will speak to you again if you let them know you’ve kept one around the house?
What if you just take back what you said you believed? That would make going to the market a much nicer experience, wouldn’t it?
Subtle little lies…”
While that’s not always the way Satan works, sometimes he’s big and brash and horrific…but often, he’s quiet, deceptive, and sounds close enough to the truth to believe.
While Satan was subtly tempting the Thessalonians, and he’s subtly tempting us, the true source of those temptations is a lion roaming the earth seeking someone to devour, as the Apostle Peter says in his first Epistles
That brings up an important point of self-reflection, I think. What are the areas of your life that you may be being tempted by the enemy? They may be subtle and not seem like a bit deal, or they feel like a tremendous deal. Either way, we need to be aware of how temptation can ultimately lead into destruction of our faith. We need to be aware that we have an active enemy who is presently roaming the earth, seeking someone to devour.
Now, continuing to move backward in the text, Paul says some really fascinating things in verses 3 and 4…after saying he sent Timothy, he says Timothy was sent to strengthen and exhort 3 that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. 4 For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know.
The implications of these verses and the questions they no doubt bring to mind are significant: Here’s the first point I want to draw from these verses:
Affliction (suffering) is a Certainty of the Christian Experience
Look, I understand that’s a bold statement…that word ‘certainty’ is strong. But, so are Paul’s words. He literally says to the Thessalonians that they were destined for these afflictions. And, I should say that when Paul is saying affliction or suffering her it is clear to everyone involved that this suffering is a direct result of faith. This is not suffering that has come about because of a sin issue…this is suffering as a result of being aligned with Jesus. I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page there.
That language of ‘destined’ brings with it, I think, a flood of questions. ‘Destined’ implies that God knows the suffering is coming…it even implies that God allowed this suffering to happen. And, I understand that that may be uncomfortable..but, again, it would seem that is what Paul is saying. Paul doesn’t go into a theological discussion to explain this dynamic to us and i’m not going to do that today either–if you would like to have a discussion about, we can set up a meeting and do that, I’d be happy to.
However, I do think I would be remiss not to at least ask the question ‘why.’ If God is loving, if God is good, if God literally IS love…why are those who love him destined for suffering?
Maybe some of you are here this morning and you’re following Jesus and as you’ve followed Jesus you thought life would get easier…and in many ways it has but yet at the same time there are still difficult things going on. Yes you are praising God that you’re free of guilt and shame but you’re asking God why there’s still so much heartache and difficulty.
For these Thessalonians they would have been praising God that their sins were forgiven, as we should as well, but they no doubt would have been scared, anxious, and questioning why such suffering could happen to them.
So, the question I want to dig into really for the rest of our time this morning is this: It’s a difficult question and I’m sure I won’t answer it fully. But, it’s this:
Why are those who love God ‘Destined’ For Affliction (Suffering)?
The first thing I think we need to remember ties back to what we talked about in verse 5. If we love God and are loved and saved by God, that de facto makes us hated by Satan and desired to be destroyed by Satan…right? That makes sense…
What the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 6 I think gets this point across well: The Apostle Paul says it this way in Ephesians 6: “10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Again, back to verse 5 and the point I made before…we have an active enemy and his primary desire is to destroy you–whether subtly or boldly, that’s his goal.
Now, on the opposite end, again, is God. And, while God allows certain things to happen and he allows certain hardships to be endured, we must remember that God is not the source of those evils, but God can ultimately work those evils for our good and his glory.
In this, I’m reminded of the story of Joseph. All the way back soon after the days of Abraham, Joseph’s brothers fake his death out of jealousy and then sell him to traders who then sell Joseph in Egypt. It’s horrific, brutal story. And yet, Joseph says this to his brothers after years and years of separation, ““As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…”
So, Satan means things for evil against us…ultimately that affiliations would turn us away from God, but God uses afflictions ultimately to bring about good.
The most extreme example of that being at the cross of Christ. At the cross of Christ is the most horrific event in history…God being hung on the very tree he created. Pure evil. And yet, God worked that evil for the good of anyone who would place their faith in Jesus. Absolutely stunning.
Romans 8:28 sums this concept up well, “28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
So, in summary, Satan intends afflictions to turn us away from God and God uses afflictions to work all things for our good..and I think from that a followup question could very naturally be asked and that is
What is God Doing In Us Through Our the Afflictions We Face??
Through Affliction, God is Refining Our Faith
We hit on this last week as well. But, remember how a jeweler verifies the validity of a diamond? They take this little magnifying tool with a bright light and they shine that light into the center of the stone. If within the center of the stone they find blemishes and marks and cuts and various things, well that actually proves that the diamond is legit.
Last week we saw the Apostle Paul say he and Silas have been ‘approved by God and entrusted with the Gospel.”
As I said last week, that word approved isn’t intended to be interpreted as saved…Paul is already saved…Paul’s righteousness is through Jesus and Jesus alone. However, Paul was entrusted with the critical mission to take the Gospel to the gentiles…a mission that would come with beatings, imprisonment, shipwreck, heartache, being stoned to the point of being believed to be dead…and on and on…God saw Paul’s faithfulness through the suffering and therefore the genuineness of his faith in the midst of the suffering and therefore God entrusted him with this critical missions.
What about for us today?
When we experience hardship and affliction as a result of our faith or even just as part of living our everyday lives, we need to view those afflictions, difficulties or persecutions as opportunities to have our faith refined and proved.
“6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.1 Peter 1:6-7
Through Affliction, God is Making us More like Jesus.
Back in the Gospel of Luke series we did this summer called Labels, when we were reading the account of the crucifixion, I had made the point that it was actually Jesus’ righteousness that led him to the cross…do you remember that?
In the text, there was a criminal named Barabbas…Pilate didn’t want to crucify Jesus because Jesus was innocent according to Pilate, and of course that was true. However, Because Jesus was innocent, a deal was made to free Barabbas and instead take Jesus…if Jesus had been guilty, Barabbas wouldn’t have been freed. However, because Jesus was innocent, Barabbas received Jesus’ innocence in his place
To Jesus, that was unjust…and yet, that is what Jesus endured.
When we endure hardship that is undeserved, we gain an appreciation for the hardship that Jesus faced for us…even when he didn’t deserve it. And, in enduring well, we can point others to Jesus to say even more so than me, Jesus endured, Jesus was faithful, it is actually Jesus’ innocence that saves me.
Through Affliction, God is Freeing us from Sin
Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word.Psalm 119:67;71
“It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn Your statutes.
I think of the story of the prodigal son…you likely know the story. A wealthy man has two sons, the younger of the sons asks the father for his inheritance which is essentially wishing the father dead. Amazingly, the father agrees. The son takes his money, moves away and spends it lavishly. Eventually, when his funds run out, the friends he’d made abandon him, the possessions he’s purchased he can no longer afford, and he finds himself working for a pig farmer…that fact that it was pigs makes it even worse, to Jews, pigs were unclean animals. But, he’s working for a pig farmer and eating the food fed to the pigs in order to survive…
In that affliction, he comes to the end of himself and says “‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
Through Affliction, God is Forcing us to Rely on Jesus
In 2nd Corinthians chapter 12, the Apostle Paul has just finished giving a resume, of sorts, of the suffering he has endured as a result of his faith. Uniquely, this particular bit of suffering for Paul is not placed upon him by other people, but it is allowed by God in order to keep him humble. Paul says he has a thorn in his flesh. We don’t know exactly what that means, though many think it was likely a physical ailment of some kind. But, Paul asks three times for God to take it away. And, you’d think God would be like oh yes for sure, no problemo, sorry about that.
But, no, Jesus responds to Paul and says, my grace is sufficient for you, my power is perfected in weakness. Essentially, Jesus responds and says no…remember the grace I have given you. And, when you’re weak, that’s actually better for you because you’re forced to rely on me. From which Paul says 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Through Affliction God is Giving Us An Opportunity to Encourage Others.
We actually see this come into view as we read on in the text and pick things back up in verse 6:
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.1 Thessalonians 3:6-7
What is your story of endurance? How might that be an encouragement to someone else?
If I could sum up the answer as to why we are destined for affliction…I’d say this:
God Ultimately Allows Affliction In Our Lives For Our Good and His Glory.
Earlier I said this passage holds within it theological realities that can make or break us as Christians..
And the reason I say that is because this passage brings to us a change of expectation and therefore a change of experience.
Oftentimes, I think we think life with Jesus is like a lazy river floating when in reality it’s more like whitewater rafting.
We think we can hope on our favorite donut flotie, grab our favorite drink and enjoy the ride because for some reason, that idea has gotten into our head. The reason I know that idea has gotten into our head is because when the rapids hit, many often find themselves smashed against a rock, gasping for air, having no idea what to do and not sure if they’re going to survive.
But, what Paul’s doing in this passage, is he’s preparing us to understand life with Jesus more like whitewater rafting.
Full transparency, I’ve never been whitewater rafting…but, I have been lazy river floating.
When I was thinking through this concept this week, I hopped on youtube and watched some videos filmed from the perspective of a whitewater rafting guide. It’s really impressive to watch.
As the raft of people is going down the river, there are really three primary experiences…there is the floating experience when the raft is being carried down the river by the river…there is the row or paddle experience which is often done in short hard bursts toward the beginning of entering into a zone of rapids, and then there is the ‘hold on’ moment that takes place during the most intense rapids…those in the boat stop paddling, and they hold onto the ropes within the raft for dear life…
A sequence of those phases is how you get from one portion of the river to the other portion of the river without getting your head smashed by a sharp rock……you follow the guide, you rest, you paddle, and you hang on…and you make it.
Maybe today you’re in the middle of the rapids and you feel like your clinging to a rock and you’re not sure if you’re going to make it. If that’s you, I want to pull you into the raft and say cling on to Jesus.
Not only can Jesus guide you through the rapids, not only can Jesus tell you when to row so you avoid the sharp rocks, but Jesus is literally the raft who is going to carry you down the mess of a river that is this life…and when the really difficult stuff comes, the beauty of the Gospel is that you can cling to him as tightly as possible and he will not let you go.