Our response during a Pandemic! : 1 Thessalonians 2:17 – 3:5

Good morning church! My name is Jinson Thomas and I’m one of the pastors at the Gathering Community Church.

We are going through a series titled “Abiding Faith” from the letter of 1 Thessalonians & I’m thankful to God for the opportunity to encourage you all through the Word this morning. The fear and uncertainty of Coronavirus has gripped the entire world & as a result many nations are being locked down to contain the spread of the virus.

In the midst of this lockdown situation where we are away from each other, what is God trying to tell us? Let’s turn to 1 Thess 2:17 – 3:5 because I believe there are some very relevant principles to address our situation and lives:

17 But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavoured the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face,

18 because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us.

19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you?

20 For you are our glory and joy.

Chapter 3

1Therefore 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[a] 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.

Social Distancing

It’s the most heavily used and to an extent the trendiest phrase within the last 2 months. This means maintaining physical distance or avoiding contact with people during an outbreak to minimize the exposure and transmission of an infection.

This poses a tension for God’s people because we realize that God has created us to be social beings! So, pastors and church leaders all over the world are praying through and figuring out what it means to be the church in a time when social distancing is a necessity.

At the same time the world and culture around us says things like “This is the one time for you to save the world by sitting at home and watching TV, don’t mess it up!” Is Netflix the solution for this season? Or does God intend something much deeper in purpose?

On the basis of today’s passage, I would argue that God’s intention during this time is to show His concern for us believers through the church & to show His concern for the world through the church.

After all, when we look at the situation and crisis when Paul wrote this letter, he wrote it to brand new believers who were probably just weeks or months old in the faith.

Paul and Silas barely spent a few weeks with them before they were driven out of the city due to severe persecution. That left these brand-new believers with their newfound faith, alone in a very hostile environment. You can imagine how pressurized they felt as new believers to undergo suffering each day.

And in the midst of this, God shows how concerned and present He is with them through the concern of believers like Paul, Silas and Timothy. But how can we develop that genuine concern for people? Does it happen merely by us making a list to contact 15 people everyday?

Planning is good but if it’s not fueled by genuine concern, it’ll not stick. If you’re at that place today where you desire true concern for the believers and unbelievers in your life, know that you’re not alone.

Like you I’m also figuring it out and I want to know how to do that biblically. So 4 Important Steps that we learn from this text:

1. We need to Understand that Identity precedes Concern

17 But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart (v17)

Right throughout this passage, we see a lot of familial language being used. Sometimes he refers to his relationship with the church like a parent is with the child. But sometimes he refers to them as “brothers”.

I think it’s important because he recognizes although they heard the gospel through Paul (he is their spiritual father) but yet just like them he is also “a sinner saved by grace” and “a child of God”. That is his first and primary identity.

Angela my wife and I have been reading a parenting book which spoke about this concept of identity. Many a times parents seek validation and acceptance from their children.

They derive their identity through the approval of their children. They spend 20-25 years of their lives trying to do that and then suddenly when the son or daughter leaves home for college or gets married, their world turns upside down & they lose their sense of purpose in life because God never designed them to find their identity in their children.

I think the same thing could be said about finding our identity in the church as well. If we’ve been looking for validation and acceptance from the believers in the church, then the moment something like this lockdown situation comes about, we feel this sense of losing our purpose in life & our faith seems weak and fragile.

And that’s when we resort to spending hours in entertainment, social media and many other sinful indulgences as an escape route.

And the hard truth is that whenever we find our identity in the believers instead of Christ, we don’t really end up loving them. Rather we see the believers in the church as a means to an end.

That’s primarily the main reason why we fail to show concern to our brothers and sisters in Christ. A lack of concern is primarily an identity issue NOT a feeling issue.

So I want to encourage you all this morning, if you’re at a place where you want to be concerned for people, it doesn’t start from you making a long list and a set of plans…it starts from you understanding your identity as a child of God first and not as a member of the Gathering.

It starts with understanding that you are loved and accepted infinitely through Christ Jesus. Only when your heart rests in that identity, will you be able to love & show concern to people not seeking to get anything back from them but with a genuine concern to care for them.

2. We need to Express our Concern

Another thing we notice in this passage, it is filled with affectionate language for the Thessalonian church. Paul says “You are in our hearts (v17)”, “We endeavoured the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face (v18)” & “You are our glory and joy (v20)”.

In our predominantly male-dominated Indian culture, it’s looked down upon if people especially men express their heart and feelings. What’s promoted is the alpha male, tough guy persona who has no emotions. And that also somehow translates within the church.

I understand that personality types can differ from person to person. Some people will be able to express themselves at length but others might find it hard to do. But I think it’s good and important for us as God’s church to be able to express our affections and concern for each other.

I’m not saying that we need to be sentimental and over-emotional but in a way that is natural to us, we should be able to verbally express our concern and affections because it communicates care especially when people are going through a very difficult time.

Look at the way our God expresses Himself in Jeremiah 31:3-4:

“I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness. I will build you up again, and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt”

And let me tell you my own experience has been that even the most rough and tough person (although they won’t show it) seeks and appreciates concern. During this season of COVID-19, the impact is such where even the spiritually mature would struggle with fear, uncertainty and loneliness.

Assured with your identity in Christ, I would encourage you especially in your conversations with your brothers and sisters, please don’t shy away from expressing your pure affection and concern for each other. They need to hear those words of concern being expressed.

3. We need to Respond to the Concern

Being assured of our identity in Christ, and having expressed our concern, we need to now do whatever is necessary according to our ability to help meet the need/concern.

2:18 – We see how that concern has driven them to make several attempts to go back to Thessalonica despite being kicked out of the city. because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us.

3:1-3 – 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[a] in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions.

When there was no option left, Paul and Silas decided to stay back and instead send their beloved coworker Timothy to check on the believers and also encourage them in the faith. Paul didn’t say “I’m the main church planter and only I need to be the one to go back there.”

He didn’t say “Timothy is my dear Son in the faith, one of my best and most faithful disciples and a super encouraging dude so let me keep him with me for my personal edification”. No, when it reached that point where Paul couldn’t go back, he was willing to send his best resource and his best friend to encourage a suffering church who needed him the most at that time.

And we see how Paul’s concern was not just for their physical well-being. Yes, persecution was also real & physical at that time. But Paul’s deeper concern is how this persecution was going to affect their spiritual well-being.

Will they still continue to love, trust and obey Jesus or will they abandon Him? I really appreciate the calls that I was able to have with some brothers this week where they asked me about my spiritual walk. It just brought so much of refreshment to my soul.

One of the questions that I always appreciate being asked is “how is your heart?” Not that always my heart is doing great but I think it somehow is able to sift through my intellectual faith and dig deep into my heart.

And I really believe true believers in Christ want to be asked those questions, they want to be challenged with those questions even in seasons when things aren’t going great spiritually.

In those in whom the Spirit dwells, there is a deep unrest with their spiritual life and they are waiting for a Christian brother or sister to challenge them and also point them back to Christ. I want to encourage you all even though this is a season of social distancing, please make use of technology to respond to the concern for your brothers and sisters.

And remember that our desire is not in just making sure that the brother or sister is doing physically well during this pandemic, but that their heart is still responding to Christ. That is true Christian response of concern.

4. Impact of concern

There is an impact that this concern generates. I find it interesting that in spite of the encouragement & concern that was expressed and shown to them with the sending of Timothy, Paul doesn’t tell them that the suffering will go away.

Rather in chapter 3:3 he says: For you yourselves know that we are destined for this.

I think sometimes many of us do have a romanticized view of the Christian life. We don’t believe in prosperity theology of health and wealth – we know that’s wrong, unbiblical and harmful to the church of God. But yet in practice we don’t see suffering or anticipate suffering as essential to being a follower of Christ.

Think about it – if God was only about health, wealth and prosperity, then it means that He is absent and distant from me in times when I’m going through suffering, pain and poverty.

Instead in the Bible we see our God who understands our suffering, is present in our time of suffering, very near us during our moments of suffering and moreover uses suffering as a tool to redeem people from every tongue, tribe and nation to Himself.

We see this clearly displayed in the suffering of Christ on the cross through which we are redeemed and set free from our slavery to sin to live for Him eternally. And if God can redeem sinners like us through the suffering of His Son, then He can most certainly also use COVID-19 as a tool to redeem people to Himself.

I want to end with a true story of a doctor treating COVID-19 patients in Italy – the new epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic which is recording almost 1000 deaths every day.

“Never in my darkest nightmares did I imagine that I would’ve seen and lived through what has been happening here in the hospital for the last three weeks. Right now we are no longer doctors but mere sorters who decide who should live and who should die.

Up until 2 weeks ago, my colleagues and I were atheists; this was normal because we are doctors and we have learned that science proves that God doesn’t exist. I always laughed at my parents when they went to church.

9 days ago, a 75-year-old pastor came to us with respiratory problems. He had a bible with him and it impressed us that he was reading the Bible to the people who were dying and holding their hands. We were all tired and discouraged doctors – physically and psychologically spent and so we found that we were listening to him.

We realized that we have reached our limits of what man can do. We need God, and we have begun to ask for his help, when we have a few moments free. We cannot believe that we who were once fierce atheists are now seeking for interior peace by asking the Lord to help us resist so that we can take care of the sick. Yesterday the pastor died.

Despite the fact that in the last 3 weeks we have had over 120 people die in our unit and we are all exhausted and feel destroyed, he succeeded, despite his own condition and our own difficulties to bring us PEACE that we no longer hoped to find.”

A COVID-19 infected 75-year-old pastor was able to bring peace through the gospel to atheist doctors. One thing I can say is that the people I’ve been speaking to over the last couple of weeks are genuinely open to God at this juncture. They are all looking for PEACE.

We know the PRINCE OF PEACE!

So to close let it not be Netflix, television or anything else that defines how we respond to this time of lockdown. Being assured in our identity in Christ, expressing & responding to the concern to our brothers and sisters, can we now look outside of our churches to impact the city with this story of PEACE?

God has divinely ordained the church to show His concern for the people within and also the people outside the church.

One comment

  1. Simply just would like to say that thank you brother for encouraging me this morning through ur God given wisdom…. The story of the doctor’s life was an eye opener for me.
    Very much grateful and inspired by Paul from this passage!~

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