The Lord's Day Morning
October 14, 2012
“Enduring Trials in Light of Jesus’ Return: Saved through Sanctification”
2 Thessalonians 2:13-15
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to 2 Thessalonians chapter 2. We’re going to be looking at verses 13 to 15 together today. In the Christian life, there are certain truths that we need to grasp firmly and hang on to in order to live in the trials and the tribulations that we must endure. For all of us, the testimony is, on our way home to glory, we go “through many dangers, toils, and snares,” as John Newton reminds us in “Amazing Grace.”
Well, the apostle Paul has talked about some of those dangers, toils, and snares — the times of tribulation, the man of lawlessness, the man of sin in the passage immediately prior to this. Now, he wants to give several truths for us to anchor the Christian life in, to thank God for, to stand firm on, to hold fast to. And as we look at this passage, I'd like you to be on the lookout for four of the truths. We could number these different ways, but four things in particular Paul wants us to stand firm on, hold fast to, and thank God for. The first thing, you’ll see this in verse 13, is the love of God. He speaks of us being beloved by the Lord. The second thing, also in verse 13, is the choice of God or the election of God. This is so important for our comfort and for our assurance. The third thing is the sanctification of God, the sanctifying work of God's Holy Spirit in us. And then finally, in verse 14, the calling of God. Paul wants us to understand and hold fast to and stand firm on and thank God for those four things, vital to the living of the Christian life.
So let's look to God in prayer and ask for His help and blessing as we prepare to hear His Word read and proclaimed.
Heavenly Father, Your Word is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword. It is inspired, it is God-breathed, and it is profitable for reproof, correction, and training in righteousness that we may be equipped for every good work. So do this, O Lord, today, as the Word is read and explained and applied. Do it by Your Spirit in our hearts as we specifically need it today. And we ask that You would get all the glory for this and that eternal good would be done to our souls, for we pray it in Jesus' name, amen.
This is God's Word. Hear it in 2 Thessalonians chapter 2 beginning in verse 13:
“But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this He called you throughout our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Now in verse 15 in this passage, Paul gives a specific exhortation to the Thessalonians and to you and to me. He calls on them to stand firm and to hold fast to the traditions that he had given to them. Now he's not talking about extra Biblical tradition. He's not saying, “Hold fast to what the Bible teaches and in addition these extra Biblical things that we've also handed to you as traditions of men.” In the New Testament, tradition is good and bad in so far as it is faithful to God's Word. When it is Biblical, it's good. When it's the traditions of men, when it's human invention, it's always bad. So you can find Jesus in Matthew 15 criticizing the traditions of men, and you can hear Paul here in 2 Thessalonians 2 commending traditions because they are not manmade. They come from God. In fact, if you’ll look back at 1 Thessalonians chapter 2 verse 13, you’ll see Paul speaking exactly about this. “We also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the Word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the Word of God, which is at work in you, believers.”
And so Paul here in 2 Thessalonians is commending to them the tradition that he has handed down, not manmade tradition but the very Word of God that he has handed down to them. And he wants them to thank God for the teaching that they have received from God's Word and he wants them to stand firm on that teaching and he wants them to hold fast to that teaching because in the Christian life, in the trials that we face, we need to have something that we're firmly grounded in and that we can hang on with for all our life. And in fact, the Lord's Supper is designed to press home those truths deeply into our hearts so that we hang onto them better. Robert Bruce, the famous Scottish pastor, once said, “In the Lord's Supper, we don't get a better Christ, we get Christ better.” Now what he meant by that was, you’re not offered grace in the Lord's Supper that you’re not offered in the Word of God. You’re not offered a Christ in the Lord's Supper who's different than the Christ that you’re offered in the reading and the preaching of the Word. But the Lord's Supper is given so that we get hold of that Christ better who is offered in the Word. It's designed to press certain truths into our hearts that will help us live the life of faith better. And so in the Lord's Supper we don't get a better Christ, we get Christ better.
In fact, just a little bit later when we sing hymn number 378, a hymn that Dr. Miller used to always use when we had the Lord's Supper here at First Presbyterian Church in the 1950's and 60's, “Here, O My Lord, I See Thee Face to Face,” one of the lines that we will sing is that we want to have a firmer grasp on the grace which is offered in the Gospel. That's what the Lord's Supper is designed to do — give us a firmer grasp upon that grace which is offered in the Gospel. And Paul is pointing to three or four things which had been taught in his word. In fact, you study this passage and there is nothing that Paul mentions in this passage as a matter for thanksgiving, as a matter to stand firm on, as a matter to hold fast to, that he has not already taught about in 1 Thessalonians and 2 Thessalonians. Every subject that he mentions in this section, verses 13, 14, and 15, you will find a precursor to it in 1 Thessalonians and earlier in the letter of 2 Thessalonians. So literally now, he is bringing to their minds truths that he has already taught them and he's telling them, “I want you to hold fast to these truths,” and I want to point to four of them very quickly this morning.
THE LOVE OF GOD
The first is the love of God. Notice what he calls them in verse 13 — “brothers beloved of God.” He wants them to realize again and reflect upon the fact that God Himself, the Father, has set His love on them. From before the foundation of the world, the Father has loved them. “For God so loved the world He has given His only begotten Son for them.” He wants them to relish the reality of the love of God for them. Do you meditate on the love of God for you? It's one of the hardest things to believe in the world. If you know yourself and if you've admitted who you are, it's one of the hardest things in the world to believe that God knows you and He still loves you. And here's Paul saying, “Brothers, I thank God for the love of God to you, but I also want you to stand firm in the love of God and hold fast to the love of God. I want you to take that in.” It's dangerous to live the Christian life without knowing the love of God for you. If you’re a Christian, you trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, God loves you and He loves you not because you had faith in Christ, you had faith in Christ because He loves you. And if you are a believer and you are not working on an experiential understanding of God's love for you, it's going to leave you crippled somewhere in the Christian life. It's a dangerous place to be not to know the love of God for you. And so here's Paul saying, “I thank God for the love of God for you and I want you to stand fast in it, I want you to stand firm in it, I want you to hold fast to it.”
THE DOTRINE OF ELECTION AND THE COMFORT IT PROVIDES
And then he says a second thing. He thanks God not only for His love but for His election. Now election is a doctrine that people like to argue about. Paul never sees election as something merely to be disputed about; he sees it as something that is absolutely critical to the comfort of believers. Notice what he says, again in verse 13 — “I give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first-fruits to be saved.” Now there's something I need to address in the translation. Some of the Bible passages or translations that you’re using will render that passage, “chose you as the first-fruits.” And then down in the margins it may say, or, “God chose you from the beginning.” Some of your Bible translations may have, “God chose you from the beginning,” and then down in the margins say, or, “chosen as the first-fruits.” The reason is, one little Greek letter separates the translation of this phrase as, “chosen as first-fruits” or “chosen from the beginning” and some of the manuscripts had it written one way and others of the manuscripts had it written another. And so Bible scholars debate on what the best rendering of this passage is because Paul uses the term “first-fruits” at least five other times in his writings. But I think probably the best rendering of this passage is, “chose you from the beginning.” It's like the idea that Paul is speaking of in Ephesians 1:4 and 5 that He set His love on you, He predestined you from before the foundation of the world. I think that's what Paul is getting at here. He's saying, “I thank God that He chose you before the world was, before the beginning; from the beginning He chose you.”
Now as you know, in the Old Testament, chosen is a truth that is spoken of constantly with regard to the Old Testament Israel, to the people of God in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, though, the idea of our being chosen is applied to believers repeatedly. 1 Peter talks about it, Luke talks about it, John talks about it, and Paul is talking about it here. That language that is used for the Old Testament people of God is applied to believers here. We are chosen by God. Did we seek the Lord? Yes we did, but we sought the Lord because He chose us. We love Him because he first loved us and we have believed on Him because He first chose us. And so he's grounding the assurance of the Thessalonians in the fact that God chose them. You remember what Jesus once said to His disciples? He said, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you.” Now why was that important for His disciples to understand? Because all of them were going to abandon Him in His hour of need. You remember that Matthew tells us that all of the disciples deserted Jesus. It wasn't just Judas who betrayed Him, it wasn't just Peter who denied Him; all of the disciples deserted Jesus in His hour of need, but He had said to them, “You did not choose Me, I chose you.” The determinative fact in the security of the disciples, was Jesus’ choice, not theirs. Do we make a decision? Yes we do. Do we trust in Christ? Yes we do. Is that important? Yes it is. But underneath and behind it and from before the foundation of the world is God's choosing, and that's the only thing that can keep us comforted and certain and secure in this life.
GOD’S SANCTIFYING WORK IN THE BELIEVER
Third, notice what Paul goes on to say. “I give thanks to God for you because God chose you from before the foundation of the world for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in truth.” Now he's talking about their sanctification. He said, “I thank God that He is at work in you by His Holy Spirit sanctifying you and you’re being sanctified by your belief in the truth.” Notice how he's emphasizing both what God does for our sanctification and the instrument of faith in our sanctification. Our faith in God's truth, in God's Word, is the key instrument that God uses on the human side to grow us in grace. But notice he emphasizes sanctification isn't just about us doing it on our own; it's about what God the Spirit is doing in us. And he says, “I thank God that God the Spirit is at work making you more godly, sanctifying you.” And so he says, “I want you to stand fast in that truth. I want you to believe that God is at work in you to make you more godly.” So not only the love of God, the election of God, but the sanctifying work of God are truths that he wants them to stand firm in and hold fast to.
THE CALLING OF GOD
And then finally, if you look at verse 14, he speaks of the calling of God. They are called through the gospel to what? “To obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That's what you are called to. That's what you are called for, to obtain the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul is saying to those Thessalonians, persecuted as they were, in the midst of tribulation as they were, that their future is to obtain the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. They are called to glory. And so he wants to remember God's love and choice of them from before the foundation of the world, he wants them to remember that God is at work in them now sanctifying them, and he wants to hold the future of glory in front of their eyes and he wants them to be rooted and firm and strong in those truths. He wants them to dig their fingers into those truths and hang on.
Twenty-five years ago in the first week of September in 1987, Henry Dempsey, a commercial pilot, was flying a small commuter plane from Boston to Lewiston, Maine. He didn't have any passengers on board; they were just moving the plane to Lewiston, he and his co-pilot. And as they were on that trip out over the Atlantic Ocean, they heard a strange noise in the back of the plane. And so Henry Dempsey got up out of the pilot's seat, left the co-pilot to fly the plane, and he went to the back of the plane to try and figure out what the rattling was. As he pushed on the door at the back of the plane, it fell open and he fell out of the plane, halfway. He grabbed onto the railing of the stairs and hung on for life – four thousand feet above the Atlantic Ocean going two hundred miles an hour. His co-pilot looked back and saw the back door of the plane open and he assumed that the pilot had been pulled out of the plane and so he called for the coast guard to look for someone in the ocean who had fallen out of the plane. And then he called the port-smith tower and arranged for an emergency landing in their Beechcraft 99. When they landed, Henry Dempsey was still hanging on to the railing of the stairs at the back of the plane, his head twelve inches off of the ground as they landed. And when they got to the plane they literally had to peel his hands free from the railing, he was holding on so tight.
Paul is saying to us that he wants us to wrap our hands into these truths, the truths of the love of God, the choice, the election of God, the sanctifying work of God the Spirit in us, and the promise of future glory. He wants us to wrap our hands around those things and hang on for dear life, just like Henry Dempsey hung on to the railing of that stairwell to keep from being thrown out of that plane. That's what Paul is saying. He wants us to hold fast to those truths. It's absolutely essential for living the Christian life to hold fast to these truths. And that's what the Lord's Supper is about. It's about pressing those truths deep into our hearts so that we hold fast to them in the trials and the tribulation of life.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word. Thank You for the truth that the apostle Paul has put before our eyes. Grant that we would hold fast by faith to these truths. Work these truths deep in our hearts, not only by the preaching of Your Word but by our faithful receiving of the Lord's Supper. We ask this in Jesus' name, amen.
God promises to us in His Word everything needed for the salvation of our souls and for the living of the Christian life and He confirms those same things in the sacrament. Receive them. Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.