For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17
Welcome Young Believer! For the last few weeks, we've been talking about the basic tenants of what it means to be a Christian and thereby a member of the Church. We've discussed some of the challenges you might face in the 21st century Western Church and some of those challenges that are caused by the Church itself. Today I want to speak with you about a subject that I truly believe most American Christians have almost no comprehension of... the persecution of the Church. We certainly see cultural changes happening today that may eventually lead our nation into true persecution of Believers and our neighbors in Canada know this firsthand. However, having a Twitter fight or not being able to have a reasonable discussion of beliefs at school, or even losing a job are only shadows of the true persecution our brothers and sisters face worldwide.
According to an article by Forbes citing the research of NGO Open Doors between October 2019 and September 2020, "4,761 Christians were killed for their faith, 4,488 Churches or Christian buildings were attacked, 4,277 Christians were unjustly arrested, detained or imprisoned, 1,710 Christians were abducted for faith-related reasons." These numbers are heartbreaking! They should also make us pause and consider when the last time was that we were asked to sacrifice anything for our faith.
In the early days of the Church, this persecution affected every Christian on earth. Living in the Roman Empire, early Christians were considered traitors to their country and were hunted relentlessly then murdered with cruel creative violence. Jesus, Himself warned His disciples,
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. John 15:18-20
Peter the Apostle later reminded the Church of this truth as they were experiencing the immense persecution Jesus had warned them would come.
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. 1 Peter 4:12-14
As an American Christian, I can only imagine the terror and endurance that these Believers have as they give the ultimate sacrifice for their faith. I've often pondered if I would give the same or if like Peter during Jesus' trial I would fail and deny my faith. One thing I can relate to with these persecuted Believers is that I too have lost people I love. This kind of loss especially when it's someone near and dear to you makes you think deeply about your own mortality and what will greet you after death. For those losing their loved ones to persecution, I'm sure this was an even more intense burden upon their hearts.
It is in this context we see Paul write to encourage the church at Thessalonica,
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. 1 Thessolonians 4:13-18
The wonderful news he wanted the church to know is that they would indeed see those beloved brothers and sisters again... even better than that though was the reminder that Jesus is coming back for His Church, not just the ones who survive physically to the end of the age, but also for those who have passed. This beautiful reminder must have comforted the early Christians greatly and given them the strength to continue day after day under such extreme circumstances.
I bet that they got really excited too! Looking forward to Christ's return is certainly wonderful, but it's easy to get down in the weeds looking for when exactly that will be. Amazingly enough, Jesus told us during His ministry that He was not even aware of the day nor the hour, but only the Father knew when it would be. Yet, three times we see described just how secretive the hour of this return will be...
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3
“But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. Matthew 24:36-44
(“Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!”) Revelation 16:15
Therefore we understand that as Christians we are to expect lives full of trouble from the World for what we believe. Depending on the times and the countries we live in that trouble could be as extreme as torture and death or simply challenge us with sacrifices our friends would never face such as losing a job because of faith or being bullied by people who were once our friends and family. Sometimes it means being downgraded on a paper or tithing to a point we don't know how our monthly budget will last. Yet we have the promised, all of us, that Christ will return!
What then should we do while we wait for Christ's return?
We should live faithful and obedient lives trusting in the Word of God and lifting up one another!
But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:4-11
I love studying what the Bible has to say about the End Times as much as the next person out there from the crazy things Ezekiel and Daniel have to say about the subject to the Book of Revelation. However, sometimes I need to be reminded that waiting for Christ doesn't just mean speculating about when and how He will arrive... it is about loving those He has put in my path today and sharing the Gospel with them. I pray that you will find joy in waiting, encouragement in knowing He will return, and endurance for the hard times.
If you have any other questions about persecution, the end times, or how we are to wait for Christ's return, please feel free to leave them in the comments below. I highly encourage you to find a mentor in the faith who can help personally walk you through many of these issues as you grow into a mature believer. This is one journey you were never meant to take alone!