Marks of a growing church 3 – Spiritual opposition

St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 12th October 2014

Readings – 1 Thessalonians 2:13-20; Matthew 22:1-14

Has anyone here, heard of, or read the Screwtape Letters? They were written during the last war by C.S.Lewis, the author of the popular Narnia books and they purport to be the correspondence of a senior devil called Screwtape to his nephew, Wormwood. This junior devil, Wormwood, is supposed to be taking care of a man whom Screwtape calls his patient. The only trouble is, this “patient” is showing an unhealthy interest in the Enemy i.e. God. And so the letters are written to help Wormwood devise ways of distracting this man from the Christian faith, if not to win him back to the other side.

Of course these letters are just the work of C.S.Lewis’ imagination. But with his typical mixture of humour and deep insight, the Screwtape Letters draw attention to an important aspect of the Christian life that perhaps we don’t talk about as much as we should, which is spiritual opposition.

Now I realise that the very idea of spiritual opposition makes many people feel distinctly uncomfortable and uneasy. We don’t like to think about the fact we might have evil forces ranged against us, and if you’re anything like me, we would much rather focus on the positives of the Christian faith, such as the Father’s love or the blessings of eternal life. But it’s important that from time to time we remind ourselves that to be a Christian means, whether we like it or not, we are involved in a spiritual battle. As the apostle Paul puts it elsewhere, in Eph 6:12: our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

That’s quite heavy, isn’t it? And I guess that if we’re honest we don’t really want to believe this is true. We want to claim the victory that Jesus has won over sin and death and evil on the cross, and live in the power of that victory. But here’s the rub: just because Jesus has won the victory, it doesn’t mean that the forces of evil simply surrender once you put your faith and trust in Him. In fact, I know many people whose life has become that much harder once they have become a Christian. They face ridicule from their family, or pressure at work, or some misfortune that really tests their newfound faith. And unless we are able to explain why we face this opposition and how we can overcome it, the chances are that ultimately they might decide that in the end following Jesus is just too much hassle.

Now in our sermon series from 1 Thessalonians we have already looked at the impact the gospel had in the short time Paul stayed in Thessalonica. Paul reminds his hearers in chapter 1, verse 5 how the gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. But we have also seen that after only a few weeks Paul was driven out of town by a mob hired by the local synagogue leaders, and that the very young church he left behind was in essence left to fend for itself.

So why was this? Well, let’s take a moment to consider what actually took place when Paul began to preach. Picking up from last week’s reading, Paul writes in chapter 2, verse 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 the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.

This tells us that something very special happened when Paul shared the gospel. The people in Thessalonica didn’t simply hear a man talking about God, as if the message of Jesus was just another good idea, or interesting theory. No, when Paul spoke, his words became the very words of God that spoke directly into their hearts. As he explained why Jesus died and rose again, the Holy Spirit moved in power in their hearts. They were convicted of their sins; they were converted to a true and living faith; they confessed Jesus as Lord over their lives.

I wonder, have you ever experienced preaching like that? I can think of just a few occasions in my life where even as the speaker shared the gospel, you could almost see the Holy Spirit changing the hearts and minds of those who were listening, for example, an away day for young Mums where during the talk you could see lives being changed for ever or a youth camp where during the final service we seemed closer to heaven than to earth. Those times when God takes the words of the preacher and moves in the power of the Spirit are special indeed, and I hope that as you gather here week by week your prayer is that you might encounter the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.

But as we have seen, whenever there is conviction and conversion, there is also spiritual conflict. Let’s listen to what Screwtape tells Wormwood at the start of chapter 2:

My dear Wormwood,

I note with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian. Do not indulge the hope that you will escape the usual penalties; indeed, in your better moments, I trust you would hardly even wish to do so. In the meantime we must make the best of the situation. There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us.

Of course Screwtape is exaggerating the real power that the evil one has. Once we confess Jesus as Lord, we are safe in His hands, and nothing can snatch us away from His comfort and His love. But it is true that the evil one will use whatever tactics he can to challenge, disturb and weaken our faith, because he knows that ultimately he has been defeated.

So what are these tactics? And how best do we resist them?

Well, the most obvious weapon he uses is outright persecution.

We’ve already seen how after just a few weeks in Thessalonica Paul was driven out of town. But it’s clear from verse 14 that the persecution didn’t stop there. In fact, almost from the very moment someone put their trust in Jesus they experienced harassment, threats, maybe even the loss of their job and their family ties. I wonder, if you had come to faith in such circumstances, would you still be walking with the Lord? Or would you maybe stop coming to church, hide your Bible in the drawer, and put your head down, in hope of leading a quiet life?

To me, it’s a great tribute to the faith of the Thessalonians that even as Paul wrote to them about a year later, they were still standing firm in their faith. What kept them going? Because for them, they understood that persecution was a normal part of Christian experience, and they had before them the example of churches elsewhere. As we read in verses 14-15: For you, brothers, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out.

Now I should just point out that there is a wrong and a right way to read Paul’s words in these verses. In the New Testament when we read of the Jews, sometimes the word refers to all Jewish people in general. Sometimes the word refers particularly to the Jewish leaders who were in authority at that time. And it’s important to make this distinction. Otherwise we can read a verse like verse 15 and turn it into the worst possible excuse for racism and being anti-Semitic.

No, what Paul is saying here is that just as the Jewish authorities persecuted the church in Judea, so the synagogue rulers persecuted the church in Thessalonica. And the church in Thessalonica should not have been surprised at this, because at that time that was the usual reaction of Jewish leaders who had much to lose from ordinary men and women, both Jewish and Gentile, turning to faith in Jesus Christ.

But to single out the Jewish authorities because of their violent reaction actually misses a very important point, which is this: whenever the word of God comes in power, people in authority nearly always react badly. You only have to look at the events of history or the news today to see this is the case. Whenever men and women say, “Jesus is Lord”, they are confessing that He is the one with the supreme authority – not the emperor, not the religion of the state, not even the church. And so for most Christians in most places persecution has been and continues to be a normal part of their experience.

Of course we don’t experience such persecution in the West at the moment. And yes, we should be immensely grateful that we still have such freedom to worship and to spread the gospel. But I believe we should also stop and consider what we would do if one day it became dangerous or illegal to confess our faith. Would we, like the Thessalonians, stay faithful to our Lord? Or would we allow the evil one to weaken our belief and compromise what we stand for?

Maybe the answer to that question depends on how we ourselves see the gospel. If we know it to be the life-changing power of God, then I believe we will stand firm. But if our faith is just another hobby, or a nice idea, then Jesus Himself warns us we are building on sand, and we will lack the foundations we need when the storm hits.

Now there is much, much more that I could say on the subject of persecution. But I want to move on and look at a couple of other tactics we need to be aware of.

The first of these is sheer weight of circumstances.

I am moving on here to verse 17 which shows us just how much Paul wanted to go back to Thessalonica: But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. Now we often think of Paul the great missionary, or Paul the church-planter, but Paul was much a pastor as a pioneer. Although he had been forced to leave in a hurry, with much work unfinished, he didn’t simply move on and concentrate on a new place to preach the gospel. No, he held the people in Thessalonica in his prayers. He made plans again and again to try and go back to see them. In fact he cared so deeply that he didn’t simply feel he had been torn away from their presence, as our Bibles translate it. He felt orphaned, as if a very special relationship had been broken all too soon.

So you can imagine all the efforts he made to visit. Yet so far all his plans had come to nothing. Worse, there were some in Thessalonica who were perhaps suggesting that he didn’t really care for them, after all, that all his love and affection were some kind of big pretence. Why then hadn’t he gone back? Verse 18 tells us: For we wanted to come to you – certainly I, Paul, did, again and again – but Satan stopped us.

I would love to know what Paul meant by these words, but unfortunately he doesn’t tell us. Clearly he doesn’t use the expression lightly. It seems to refer to something which for whatever reason hindered all the plans he had made to go back to Thessalonica. Maybe it was an event, maybe it was an illness, we don’t rightly know.

But the verse does raise the interesting question – how do we know if Satan is stopping us doing something? Well, first of all, let’s be clear we are talking here about something significant. There are certain Christians who see Satan behind every inconvenience, every minor ache or pain, every little upset. When you do that, you run the very real danger of taking your focus off Jesus Christ and giving the evil one more credit than he ever deserves. In any case, sometimes bad things happen to us, not because of any malevolent force, but because of our own stupidity or sin. I know from my own experience the devil is not responsible for my daftness!

However, sometimes even our best and most careful plans can for apparently no good reason be frustrated. It does not seem that the Lord is teaching us a particular lesson. You have committed everything to the Lord in prayer. As far you know the desires of your heart are right. Yet for whatever reason these plans do not come to pass. It’s then, I believe, we might start to talk about Satan stopping us.

But please note this – even when we experience a temporary setback in the spiritual battle, ultimately God’s purposes always prevail. Yes, Paul did not go back to Thessalonica. Yes, Satan might have stopped him on that occasion. But the ultimate result of this setback is that we ended up with this wonderful letter we are studying this morning. And through this letter far more people have been blessed over the centuries than would have benefited from Paul’s visit.

The third tactic and one that lies behind this whole letter is what I might term communication breakdown.

As we have already seen, some of the people at Thessalonica must have wondered if Paul was really coming back. Maybe they believed Paul didn’t really care for them, or they had been exploited by a preacher peddling the latest religious craze. That’s why Paul wrote his letter – to affirm his sincerity and their faith. And as we saw last week, the whole of chapter 2 is full of expressions of deep, deep love towards the Thessalonians. Paul talks in verse 7 about caring for them like a mother caring for her little children. Or again in verse 11 about dealing with them as a father deals with his own children. He ends the chapter by affirming in the strongest possible terms just how much he loves them for who they are and for what God has done in their lives.

Listen again to verses 19-20: For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy. Aren’t those the most wonderful and beautiful words?

Brothers and sisters, it is good to communicate. It is good to affirm our fellow believers. In fact it is essential that we do so. You see, sometimes Satan doesn’t have to weaken our faith by persecution or frustrate us by sheer weight of circumstances. He can be content just to watch us fall apart because we do not communicate with each other and we do not value each other as much as we ought as fellow believers in the Lord. It’s a pattern that I see repeated in churches again and again where people who because of some perceived slight or hurt simply stop coming and never tell anyone why; where people feel undervalued for all the hard work they do; where competing interests mean that every plan from the Lord is defeated by division and infighting.

And that leads me, finally, to a point you have heard me make many times before, but which I hope you don’t mind me repeating, that if we to stand firm for the Lord, we need each other. How do we resist persecution? By having fellowship with other Christians who will support us and cover us in prayer. How do we deal with those circumstances that frustrate us and challenge our faith? By having fellowship with other Christians who can encourage and strengthen us in the Lord. How do we avoid all those misunderstandings and miscommunications that can quite literally bedevil the life of the local church? By having fellowship with other Christians, recognising that even those you disagree with are brothers and sisters in the Lord.

As Paul writes at the end of 1 Corinthians 15, thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! That’s us – not you and me, not the vicar, but us, the body of Christ, given the victory which Jesus won for us by the cross and the empty tomb. So let’s be that body of Christ, responding to the word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit, for His name’s sake. Amen?

The Screwtape Letters

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