International (MNN) — 1 Thessalonians is thought to have been written around AD52, at a time when the Gospel was spreading throughout the Roman Empire. In this first letter, it's thought that the church body to which Paul was writing was entirely Gentile, and that they had undergone some form of persecution for their faith.
Most notable is that Paul starts his letter with a prayer of thanksgiving, praising the church for their continued perseverance in spite of hardship. He is encouraging and reassuring the Christians there, while at the same time urging them to go on working quietly while waiting in hope for the return of Christ.
It's a tone that continues throughout Paul's ministry right up until he was executed during the reign of Nero. Today, there is a similar tone being shared amongst Christians living in places like North Korea, Somalia, Iran, Eritrea, and Pakistan.
Other countries are beginning to emerge where believers are targeted for their faith, like Nigeria and Egypt. In fact, the worst persecution is documented in a list through Open Doors–the World Watch List– and released annually. Rather than the acts specifically, they track religious freedom and other issues related to the suppression of the Gospel.
Surprisingly, the picture that emerges is not one of dourness or one that is wholly dark. Rather, the picture that emerges from the persecuted Church is one that celebrates the kind of Creator God that engenders such a wholehearted response.
Today, as the United States marks the Thanksgiving holiday, we asked a couple of ministry leaders to share some thoughts on what it is to be thankful in light of the greatest challenges facing believers today.
Burma has opened in ways no one could have hoped for five years ago. Vision Beyond Borders founder and director Patrick Klein shares, "We're just seeing a lot of prayers answered. I believe people are praying and asking God to intervene in the country of Burma.
"I think they're more and more in the spotlight and people are finding out more and more. With the (U.S.) President going there to visit and addressing the issues with ethnic minorities, hopefully we'll see the oppression stop with the Karen." Klein goes on to say that there are opportunities to take the Gospel to people that seemed impossible a decade ago. "It's because more people are praying, but also because time is getting shorter and we need to do all we can while we can."
Voice of the Martyrs USA spokesman Todd Nettleton agrees. "I think one of the things that we have a responsibility to be is Christ's body, to be His hands and feet. One of the sad things about the American church is often we think that the ‘professional staff,' the paid pastoral staff, are the people who are supposed to do God's work and supposed to carry on His plan and be His hands and feet."
While Christians in the West have not been experiencing the degree of persecution and harassment that others have around the world, there's a responsibility that comes with being resourced. Nettleton explains, "The reality is that all of us are a part of the body of Christ, and all of us are called to carry Christ's love into the community and into the hearts of the people around us. So I think that's one of our responsibilities and maybe one of those responsibilities where we haven't done as good a job, because we think ‘that's the pastor's job, that's not my job.'"
Believers, although separated by oceans and miles, stand together in solidarity in Christ's name. It makes a difference, says Tom Doyle with E3 Partners. "In the Muslim world, we're seeing Muslims coming to faith in Christ. In Israel, in this desperate situation (with Gaza), we're seeing more Jews coming to Christ than ever before. It's a difficult situation worldwide especially focused in the Middle East, but believers are connected in prayer, and God is moving in this dangerous war zone."
The Apostle Paul found ways to be thankful, even while he was behind bars. Amidst the flurry of preparations for a Thanksgiving celebration in the U.S. this week, we ask this question: In light of your redemption in Christ, what makes YOU give thanks, praise, and worship? Join the discussion on our Facebook page.