The Old Preacher

Viewing the World through God's Word

Category: 1 Thessalonians

God Will Change Us

God wants to change us.  Not our first choice.  God’s blessing on our life, yes.  But not our whole person transformed.  Sounds uncomfortable.  Yet that’s what God wants.  Here’s how Paul put it . . .

“For this is the will of God, your sanctification . . . “
(1 Thessalonians 4:3a)

“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely,
and may your whole spirit and soul and body
be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
(1 Thessalonians 5:23)

That’s the change:   sanctification.  Here in his benediction to the Thessalonian church, Paul uses the verb “sanctify” and the noun “sanctification.”  The Greek verb is hagiasai—“to set apart, make holy.”  What does that kind of change look like?

Here’s a picture.  When the LORD instructed the Israelites to make a sanctuary in the desert (Exodus 25:8), his blueprint included this directive: “Hang the curtain from the clasps and place the ark of the Testimony behind the curtain. The curtain will separate the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place” (Exodus 26:33).  Two chambers.  A “Holy Place” and a “Most Holy Place.”  Same old desert ground.  No somber, mystical music mysteriously drifting through.  In themselves, ordinary places.   But both were set apart for the Lord’s use only.  That’s what “holy” means—“set apart from the ordinary for the Lord.” 

This is God’s will:  our being “set apart from the ordinary for the Lord.”  This is Paul’s benediction for the church:  ” . . . may the God of peace himself set you apart completely for himself . . . “

The scope of sanctification is “completely”:  “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely.”  We see the same scope again:  ” . . . and may your whole spirit and  soul and body be kept blameless . . . ”  The Greek word for “completely” is holotelays—“wholly, entirely, through and through.”

Commentators tend to get stuck discussing what Paul means by “spirit and soul and body.”  Does he mean man’s being is three parts?  If so, “spirit” would be that part of our being that perceives the spiritual God.  “Soul” is the sphere of our will and emotions.  “Body” is obviously our physical being.  However, I don’t think Paul is dissecting humans.  Rather, he’s stressing the state of being completely “kept” (tayreo) “blameless”  (holoklayros) “at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  The goal of sanctification is blamelessness when we stand before the Lord at his coming.

How in the world can we pull that off?  With David I have to admit, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me” (Psalm 51:3).  How, then, can I possibly be “blameless at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ”?

Look closely at Paul’s benediction . . .

“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely,
and may your whole spirit and soul and body
be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

May God sanctify you.  May God himself sanctify you.  If that blessing isn’t enough, Paul adds this promise . . .

He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it (5:24).

Pistos is “trustworthy, faithful, dependable.”  Because it is God’s nature to be faithful, “he will surely sanctify us  completely and keep us blameless at the coming of our Lord.  Another word here is significant—“calls.”  God initiates our relationship with him.  He calls us to save us from sin and death.   And that relationship (in which we are being sanctified) continues, not by our merit, but by his grace and faithfulness.

This is what Paul wants to be ringing in the Thessalonians’ ears (and ours) as we reach the end of his letter.  Jesus is coming again.  We must be found blameless at his coming.  God will sanctify us and keep us blameless so we are ready for Jesus.

Paul then closes his letter with four remarks . . .

Brothers, pray for us.  Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.
I put you under oath before the Lord
to have
this letter read to all the brothers.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
(5:25-28)

Knowing the missionaries will face more opposition as they continue to preach the gospel, Paul asks the brothers to pray for them.  He asks them to “greet all the brothers with a holy kiss”—this kiss being like that between members of the same family.  It’s important everyone hear his letter’s content, so he puts the recipients “under oath before the Lord” to be sure it’s read to all.  Finally, he blesses them with “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Two “take-aways” from 1 Thessalonians stand out to me today.  One, Jesus is coming again.  Human history will end, not with an all-destructive war or Planet Earth run out of resources or the seas flooding the continents from global warming.  It will end with the triumphant return of the Lord Jesus Christ for his followers.

Two, God is progressively sanctifying us now and will keep us blameless for the day of Christ’s coming.  “He is faithful; and he will surely do it.”  With that in mind, we can turn Paul’s benediction into a prayer that expresses God’s will for us living in this fallen world . . .

O God of peace,
you yourself, please sanctify us through and through,
to preserve our whole spirit, soul and body
blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In his name we pray, Amen.


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Christian Community

The plan:  our three-year-old church would buy one of our town’s big old houses (we were renting from an Episcopal church then), three or four couples (including us) would live on the top two floors and we’d make the ground floor our worship “sanctuary.”  We wanted a church built around Christian community.

It never happened.  (The Lord had better plans.) But that planned community comes to mind as I read Paul’s closing exhortations in 1 Thessalonians . . .

We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.  Be at peace among yourselves (5:12,13).

Communities need leadership.  Not the impersonal, put-in-my-time-for-my-check kind or the autocratic, professional CEO kind.  “Over you in the Lord” implies leading modeled after a father managing his children or a shepherd caring for his flock.  Therefore, Paul calls the church to “respect” or “acknowledge” the church’s leaders as “those who labor among you.”  These men work hard at their calling.  Part of their labor is to “admonish you.”  The original Greek is nouthetoo.  Generally it means “to instruct”, specifically “to call back to biblical behavior.”  The church is “to esteem them very highly in love.  Thus the relationship between the led and the leaders is to be one of “peace.”

And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all (5:14).

Paul appeals to the church with four exhortations, the fourth “be patient with them all” summarizes the first three.  ” . . . admonish the idle.”  These are those who won’t work (because Jesus is coming soon?), so their behavior must be brought back to biblical norms (“he who won’t work shouldn’t eat”–2 Thessalonians 3:10).

Those who tend to fall by the wayside when hardship hits must be spurred on to persevere in the faith.  The “fainthearted” are not inferior Christians allowed to be forgotten by the bold-faith members.

The spiritually “weak” must be given “help”.  The Greek word literally means “cling to, hold fast to someone” and then “to pay attention to.”  Paul uses it here in the sense of paying attention to the weak and holding fast to them in order to help them along in their faith-walk.

Our natural tendency is to ignore the idle, to leave the fainthearted behind, and overlook the weak.  People like that need patient assistance.  It’s easier for the strong to go on alone than to bear the burden of the hurting.  But the church is a Christian community.  And a community moves ahead together, albeit slowly because we’re ministering to one another on the way.  Besides, one way the Lord teaches us patience (a fruit of the Spirit) is by putting us with people who require it.

See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone (5:15).

Our sinful nature demands pay-back.  That revenge-drive is especially strong when it’s a fellow-believer who does us wrong. (We expected better.)  But the Christian community is to be a bunch of good-doers, even to evil-doers.

Christian author Robert Thomas writes . . .

Diokete (‘seek’) is immeasurably more than halfhearted efforts.  Eager expenditure of all one’s energies is none too much in seeking . . . “the good”.  In place of wrong, injury or harm dictated by a vengeful spirit, Christians must diligently endeavor to produce what is intrinsically beneficial to others, whether other Christians . . . or unbelievers.  The seriousness of the abuse suffered is no issue.  Some Thessalonians doubtless had been victims of unjustified harsh treatment, but regardless of this, a positive Christian response is the only suitable recourse.  The welfare of the offender must be the prime objective.”

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (5:16-18).

This exhortation-triplet is personal (I must rejoice, pray, give thanks), but also communal.  If Christian community members “rejoice always”, their rejoicing in the Lord will be contagious, their ceaseless praying will motivate others to pray, and their thanksgiving regardless of circumstances will change grumbling lips to lips of gratitude.  This is God’s gracious design (“will”)—little communities of Christians that reveal an alternative lifestyle.

Do not quench the Spirit.  Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.  Abstain from every form of evil (5:19-22).

“Quench” (sbennute) is used literally of putting out a fire.  Here Paul uses it of “putting out” manifestations of the gifts of the Spirit, in particular “prophecies” which they are not to despise.  Prophecies were a spontaneous utterance among the gathered community, taken as a word from the Lord, but not absolute since they had to be tested (though Paul here doesn’t explain how).  What is found to be “good” (that is, the building up of the Christian community—1 Corinthians 14:3) they are to “hold fast” to.  What is judged “evil” (that is, inconsistent with God’s word and with apostolic teaching and does not build up the community, they must stay away from.  The correction for spiritual gifts abuse is not cessation but regulation.  In the Christian community, for the upbuilding of the community, the Spirit must be free to manifest himself.  For Christian community to flourish, the Spirit must impart the presence of the living Christ.

* * * * *

We often gauge the health of the church by numbers; but though numbers matter, health isn’t measured by how many bodies sit in the seats.  We often gauge the church’s health by its music; but though making music to the Lord is vital, health isn’t gauged by how much like a Christian concert we can be.  And often we gauge the church’s health by its preaching; devoted preaching of God’s word fuels the church’s life, but the health isn’t gauged by how like a theological classroom we can be.

Paul’s exhortations here strongly suggest that we should gauge our church’s health by its community.  According to Merriam-Webster, “community” is “a unified body of individuals” and “a group of people with a common characteristic or interest within a larger society.”

Community:  “a group of people with a common interest in Jesus
within a larger society”.

It’s up to all of us to make the church that community!

 

 

 

 

 

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Like a Thief in the Night

Trying to sleep at night, I sometimes imagine what I’d do if someone broke into our house.   I see myself grabbing my gun (two steps from my bed—closer I might shoot myself in the foot while asleep).  Then I quietly sneak from bedroom to living room to find the bad guy.  My imagination has complications:  (1) in my condition it takes at least a full minute to push out of bed to get the gun; (2) I’m guessing an old bald guy leaning on a walker won’t strike the fear of God into the thief.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 Paul answers the question, When will “the Lord himself descend from heaven” (4:16, ESV)?

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 (5:1,2, ESV).

Apparently Paul had explained the “when” when he’d visited  (Acts 17:1-9).  No need to write it, still he does:  “For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”  Question:  When will the Lord Jesus come again?  Answer:  “the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”

Before unpacking that, let’s camp briefly on “the day of the Lord.”  It was a familiar Old Testament term, which Paul uses here of Jesus’ Second ComingHere are three representative passages from among dozens . . .

Prophesying against unfaithful Israel in the 8th century B.C. Amos warns, “Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! Why would you have the day of the LORD? It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him” (Amos 5:18,19, ESV). 

Calling God’s rebellious people to repentance, Joel cries,  “Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains a great and powerful people; their like has never been before, nor will be again after them through the years of all generations (Joel 2:1,2, ESV).  They did repent and[t]hen the LORD became jealous for his land and had pity on his people” (Joel 2:18, ESV).

The day of the Lord would bring, not only the Lord’s wrath, but prior to it,  the outpouring of his Spirit.  “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.  “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.  The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls” (Joel 2:28-32, ESV).  

We conclude that the Old Testament “day of the Lord” would be the day when he would both execute his wrath and consummate his salvation.  The New Testament writers identify Jesus Christ as the Lord of that day.  He fulfills all the Old Testament “day of the Lord” prophecies.   The “day of the Lord”, then, includes the rapture of believers, but also wrath on unbelievers.

Now back to Jesus the thief.  Well, that’s not precise.  Paul doesn’t call Jesus a thief; he explains the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night:  suddenly.  “My imaginary thief” won’t ring my doorbell to announce he’ll be back in 30 minutes to break in.  He’ll come abruptly, without forewarning, all of a sudden.

Nothing more to explain about when.  Especially since Jesus said, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32).  But Paul does picture world conditions surrounding that day . . .

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 (5:3, ESV).

The world will feel quite capable, thank you, of providing peace and security through governments and guns.  How blind and arrogant the sinful mind!  Even today, with the Middle East burning, the threat of new nuclear powers, and rampant violent crime in America, we slog on making political promises, ratifying treaties, arranging deals, marshaling military to find the right combination that will enable “people of good will” to create a peaceful, secure world.

But “they will not escape”.  Like “labor pains come upon a pregnant woman”.  “Honey, I think it’s time.”  “Honey” jumps as if jabbed with a live wire.  He’s shocked silly.  Nor did mother-to-be expect tonight would be it.  Look at them.  Barely-controlled chaos.   So it will be for the world when the Lord comes again.

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 (5:4, ESV). 

Believers “are not in darkness”, which here means more than ignorance.  The world is morally, spiritual dark; in that dark realm unbelievers reject Jesus and his message.  Jesus’ followers “are all children of light, children of the day.”  Not just in their knowledge of Jesus coming, but in their faith/Spirit connection to the new eternal age that has dawned.  Consequently, they are not surprised when the trumpet sounds.  They belong to the one who comes calling.

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 (5:6-8, ESV).

“So then” introduces how, according to Paul, believers should respond to the message of Jesus’ coming “like a thief in the night.”  Not by taking to a mountain, donning a white robe and gazing heavenward.   Rather, believers shouldn’t sleep the sleep of indifference.  They should be watchful and on guard, lest the world’s ways and their own sinful nature “drug” their minds.  They must be controlled, clear-headed.  The anti-model is the drunk staggering at the bar.  The model is the sentry at the gate.

Paul doesn’t imply that we believers should become moralistic, as if refraining from the mind-dulling partying of the world will save us.  Instead, he calls us believers to live practicing we are in Christ—people who belong to the “day”, who know they’re in a spiritual war.  We’ve already “put on” (in military analogy) “faith and love” as a breastplate and “the hope of salvation” as a helmet.

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 (1Thessalonians 5:9-11,ESV)

Ah, but such spiritually/morally “sober” living in a spiritually/morally “drunken” world means fighting and winning a war.  Who among us has what it takes, especially given our track record?  We are warriors critically wounded in countless battles.  How can we be encouraged to fight the fight to be ready for the day of the Lord’s coming?

“For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  God plans to save all who trust Jesus for their salvation.  On that day, we will boast of his saving work, not our moral obedience.

Furthermore, Christ died for us.  Neither our worst sins nor most embarrassing fickleness will bring us God’s wrath, rather his salvation.  He died so  whether we are alive (“awake”) or dead (“asleep”) when Jesus comes, we will “live with him”.  That’s why he died for us.

Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to “Therefore, encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.”  We are not to fight the war to maintain readiness for Jesus’ coming as if on a one-man mission.  We are to “encourage one another.”  We are to “build up one another” in the Gospel of Jesus’ return.  We are to be a team of warriors, who model for each other, how to live now in anticipation of then.

“The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”
How are we doing at living ready? 

Better, I hope, than I am with my gun in a shaking hand and my disabled body leaning on a walker!

 

 

 

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The Living Dead

Jesus will come in our generation!

That’s what early converts to Christ envisioned.  Paul, too.  He wrote to the Thessalonian church:  “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 (1 Thessalonians 4:15).  (Several years later, he apparently revised his thinking:  “ . . . knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us [this is, from death]with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence”—2 Corinthians 4:14.)

No convert questioned the promise of Christ coming again.  No apostle either.  Nor do we Bible-believing Christians today.  We’ve pages of questions about when and in what relation to other end-time events and so on (not to mention all sorts of “certainties” about details).  But the New Testament is clear:  he’s coming.  The Thessalonians, too, had a question, which they apparently relayed to Paul via Timothy’s visit.  (From Athens, Paul had sent Timothy back to Thessalonica to encourage these new converts in the faith—3:1-3,6.)

Question:  Will fellow-believers who’ve died miss some of the glory of Christ’s second coming because they won’t be alive when he comes?  That’s the implicit question Paul answered:    “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.”  He had taught them about Christ’s return (1:10); but this question probably arose when some of their number died (maybe in the persecution?).  What will happen to them?  Will they miss the explosive beginning of glory?

What’s so important about knowing the answer?  Because Paul isn’t writing a theology of Christ’s Second Coming.  He’s not answering every eschatalogical question.  Why is it important to know that?  Because unless we limit his answer to what they’re asking, we  may carelessly read into Paul’s words what he never intended, trying to establish a more complete end-time theology.

Example:  Let’s suppose I’ve just had back surgery and you, my friend, email me from California to ask how everything went.  Together with my health I include the procedure they used.  My explanation is accurate, but it doesn’t include everything about even my surgery, let alone all back surgeries.  We should keep that in mind in Paul’s text here.

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep (a common euphemism for death), that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (4:13, ESV).

Paul writes this, not just to give them  knowledge about believers who’ve died, but “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”  This isn’t a theology lesson (though the theology is correct); it’s pastoral encouragement for the grieving.

A 2nd century condolence letter to a couple who had lost a son contained these words:  “I sorrowed and wept over your dear departed one as I wept over Didymas (the son he’d lost) . . . but really, there is nothing one can do in the face of such things.  So, please comfort each other” (1 & 2 Thessalonians, F. F. Bruce).  That’s grieving without hope.

These days, however, it seems virtually everybody has the idea that after death comes heaven.  In the 2nd century the error was “no heaven for Jesus’ followers”; in the 21st century “heaven’s the next stop on the journey for everyone.”

“For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (4:14, ESV).

Here’s why the Thessalonians and we “may not grieve as others do who have no hope”—“ . . . we believe that Jesus died and rose again.”  The resurrection of Christ’s Second Coming is founded on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in his First. “God will bring with [Jesus, when he comes again] those who have fallen asleep.”    Jesus’ historical resurrection will be repeated over and over and over again as every believer is raised out of the grave!  This is our hope (expectation, future).  Grieve?  Yes.   But not as the hopeless.

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” (4:15, ESV).

Those who’ve died believing in Christ won’t miss any of the glory by being bodily resurrected after the living are bodily raised. The opposite will be true.  Those who died will rise first. 

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” (4:16,17, ESV).

On that day, writes Paul, will come “the Lord himself”.  Not a vision or an angel, but “the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command.”   That’s not a whisper in the ear; it’s a military term that raises the dead!  Philo, a Jewish philosopher who lived during the time of Christ, spoke of God gathering his people from the ends of the earth with one shout of command.

Together with that command-call will come “the voice of an archangel” and “the sound of the trumpet of God.”  The blast of a great trumpet called the Jewish exiles home from Assyria (Isaiah 27:13).  And even now these words are spoken in synagogue worship:  “Sound the great trumpet for our liberation; lift up the ensign to gather our exiles . . . “  So on that day the great trumpet will call us “exiles” home to our Lord.

Those who died “in Christ” (that is, “connected to Christ by faith and by the Spirit” will rise first.  Those alive who are left will be “caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air . . . “  The Greek arpazo, translated here “caught up”, is used of the crowd that tried to take Jesus by force; therefore, it can also be translated “snatch, seize, take away (forcibly)”.  The Latin term for arpazo is repere, from which we get the English “rapture.”  That word has nothing to do with time in relation to other events; it has to do with the manner in which we believers will rise. Our Lord will enter again a seething, corrupt world and “snatch us up” to be with him.

And rapture raises a question:  Does Paul here teach a “secret rapture” of believers before the Great Tribulation?  (If that question means nothing to you, good!)  For what it’s worth, here’s my understanding  in this brief quote from F. F. Bruce:  “When a dignitary paid an official visit (parousia) to a city in Greek times, the action of the leading citizens in going out to meet him and escort him back on the final stage of his journey was called the apantaysis (the meeting).”  Paul doesn’t say if Jesus then leads the risen believers to earth or to heaven.  (I think to earth.  We’ll all find out the correctness of our eschatology some day!)

In any case, we believers will meet the Lord in the air and from then on “always be with the Lord.”

Therefore encourage one another with these words” (4:18, ESV).

Thessalonians grieving over departed loved ones?  Will they miss out on some of Christ’s glory when he comes again?  Take courage!  Be comforted!  The Lord himself is coming!  And they will meet him in the air first!

Who-goes-first isn’t our problem.  Ours is that groundless view that virtually everybody who dies goes.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It is the dead “in Christ” who will rise.  Therefore, the most important eschatalogical question is this:  “Have you turned your life over by faith to the crucified, and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ?”

The final issue is this: 
Except for that last generation, we will all die,
most enduring the harsh aging process. 
But we can be confident of this: 
At the end of this life,
what’s coming is not the grave
but our Lord whom we’ll meet in the air.

 

 

 

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A Holy, God-Pleasing Life

” . . .for all the enthusiasm for ‘Gospel-this’ and ‘Gospel-that’ within the reformed evangelical world, there is a general lack of enthusiasm for holiness” (Blair Smith, Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals—
Surprising, no?  I mean, who doesn’t know the Gospel has ethical content?  If Smith’s assessment is right, why no enthusiasm for holiness?  Maybe it’s the word that turns people off.  Too rigid and restricting.  Or because, regrettably, in some circles “holiness” has become little more than legalism about skirt lengths.
As Paul nears the end of his first letter to the Thessalonians, he switches subjects.  Here in 4:1-3 he introduces his new topic, reminding  them of ethical charges he’d given while he had been with them.
“Finally, our friends, you learned from us how you should live in order to please God. This is, of course, the way you have been living. And now we beg and urge you in the name of the Lord Jesus to do even more.  For you know the instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.  God wants you to be holy . . . ” (4:1-3a, TEV).
” . . . how you should live in order to please God” reminds us that, for the Christian, all of life is to be Godward worship.  (Thus living-to-please-God is not meritorious for salvation, but the way the saved are to live.)
“God wants you to be holy.”  “Holy” in the TEV is the original Greek hagiasmos, variously translated “sanctification, holiness, dedicated to God.”  In other words, being holy means living out what the Holy Spirit is working in.  More precisely, we are in the process of being holy, a process in which we play a responsive part to the greater working of the Holy Spirit and Word.

 Charge:  Stay Away from All Sexual Sin (4:3-8, TEV).

God wants you to be holy and completely free from sexual immorality.  Each of you should know how to live with your wife in a holy and honorable way, not with a lustful desire, like the heathen who do not know God.  In this matter, then, none of you should do wrong to other Christians or take advantage of them. We have told you this before, and we strongly warned you that the Lord will punish those who do that.  God did not call us to live in immorality, but in holiness.  So then, whoever rejects this teaching is not rejecting a human being, but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.
” . . . sexual immorality” translates the Greek pornaya and refers to any kind of sexual activity outside of one-man, one-woman marriage.  A Christian is not to be governed by “a lustful desire” but “live with [his] wife in a holy and honorable way.”  Warning accompanies this charge:  “the Lord will punish those” who ignore it—because they would be “rejecting . . . God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.”  This last clause recalls why God gives us his Holy Spirit; namely, to progressively make us holy and thus pleasing to himself.
For Christian men, “stay away from all sexual sin” may be the most challenging charge to obey.  Where can we turn not to be confronted with “the lust of the flesh” and “the lust of the eyes”?  Yet 1st century A.D. Roman empire was similarly sexually-charged . . .
 Demonsthenes, a Greek statesmen and orator of ancient Athens said: “We have courtesans for the sake of pleasure; we have concubines for the sake of daily cohabitation; we have wives for the purpose of having children legitimately, and of having a faithful guardian for all our household affairs.”  Even religion was sexual.  “Temple prostitutes” wasn’t a metaphor; some gods were worshiped through sexual intercourse with them.  All in all, a George Barna pollster would have been hard-pressed to find a family in that culture where the husband did not have sexual relationships outside his marriage.
Our sex-charged culture (where “hook-ups” have become as common as what used to be the first kiss) isn’t so much different from that of the one Paul lived and wrote in.  Which eliminates the excuse:  “If Paul knew what it’s like now . . . !

Charge:  Love Each Other (4:9,10, TEV).

There is  no need to write you about love for each other. You yourselves have been taught by God how you should love one another.  And you have, in fact, behaved like this toward all the believers in all of Macedonia. So we beg you, our friends, to do even more (4:9,10, TEV).
 The Thessalonians, according to Paul, didn’t need this reminder, because they were keeping the charges, and further, “You yourselves have been taught by God how you should love one another.”  How had God taught them?  Perhaps Paul was referring to Jesus having taught much about love, or perhaps the Holy Spirit teaching them by producing the fruit of love in them (Galatians 5:22,23).  In any case, Paul both commends their love and urges them on to more.
Sadly the church has received mixed marks on this matter.  On the simplest level (perhaps), I’ve visited churches where the only “hello” came from assigned greeters.  Other visitors have told stories of even less “love.”  On the other hand, many churches are quick to sacrificially help fellow members and outsiders in need.  “So we beg you, our friends, to do even more.”  A fitting charge.  (Love is worth more than a good drummer!)

Charge:  Earn Your Own Living (4:11,12,TEV).

  Make it your aim to live a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to earn your own living, just as we told you before.  In this way you will win the respect of those who are not believers, and you will not have to depend on anyone for what you need (4:11,12, TEV).
This brings to mind Charles (Michael Landon) on the old TV series “Little House on the Prairie.” There he is, laboring in his fields quietly minding his own business, providing for himself and family.
On the other hand, ” . . . about the beginning of the third century . . . [a certain bishop] announced that the Parousia (second coming of Christ) would come by the end of a particular year:  many of his flock sold their property and so became destitute” (1 & 2 Thessalonians,  F. F. Bruce).  Not Charles nor what Paul had in mind!
Similarly, in the 19th century Baptist preacher William Miller announced the Second Coming of Christ would occur.  But October 22, 1844  came and went without the Coming.  How many “believers” sacrificed their livelihood to get ready?
Possibly this was the Thessalonians’ error Paul addressed (see 4:13 and following)—so enthused about the Second Coming that they dropped their work and simply looked endlessly to the skies.  A poor reputation with outsiders.  A burden for other believers who felt compelled to help provide for them.
Work for Christians is a vocation, a calling from God to earn one’s own living.  In that sense, work is also worship.  When we drag ourselves out of bed on Sunday morning to go to Worship, so we do to work-worship Monday through Friday.
* * * * *
 Are we enthusiastic for holiness?  Does desire to please God drive our day-to-day living?  Do we realize that holy living means not only staying away from all sexual sin, but also loving each other and earning our own living?
For us who believe in Jesus, the Holy Spirit is working holiness in.  We must choose to work it out.
 

stock photo of conscience - Man listening to the angel and devil self to make a choice - JPG

Note:  I apologize if you’ve received a jumbled-up post.  Not me; it’s WordPress—and I can’t figure it out.

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Could Bear It No Longer

A shepherd’s heart may be more important for a pastor than an eloquent tongue.  Sounds crazy given today’s emphasis on the “production quality” of the church’s gathered worship.  Get a worship team that sounds like the hottest Christian concert band!  Get a pastor who wows with his words!  But hear the apostle Paul who admitted . . .

“Even if I am unskilled in speaking . . . ” (2 Corinthians 11:6).  So maybe Paul didn’t measure up to the Greek rhetoricians.  But no one could discount his pastor’s heart.

The word “pastor(s)” is found only once in the New Testament (“It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ”–Ephesians 4:11-13, NIV).

The original Greek (poimayn)literally means “shepherd” or “goat-herd”.  The English word “pastor” comes from the Latin noun which means “shepherd”.  The Latin verb means “to lead to pasture, set to grazing, causes to eat.”

The image we’re to have of a pastor, then, is of a shepherd.  Emphasis lies on “feeding” people God’s Word, but as part of the pastor/shepherd’s care for the people/sheep. I say that because in today’s text Paul reveals a heart that beats with the heart of a shepherd.    Read the text  below with me and see how many words and phrases unveil that heart . . .

But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face,  because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us.  For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you?  For you are our glory and joy.

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 in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. 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. 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.

But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you—for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord.  For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God,  as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?

Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you,  and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you,  so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints (1 Thessalonians 2:17–3:13, ESV).

The most pregnant phrase in those paragraphs:  ” . . . when I could bear it no longer . . . ”  Paul couldn’t endure another day not knowing ” . . . about [their] faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted [them] and [his] labor would be in vain.”  The man who endured virtually more suffering than we can imagine, couldn’t stand any longer not knowing how the Thessalonians were responding to affliction from the tempter through the hostile Jews.

How easy to pick out a few other pastors and criticize their hearts!  But over four decades of pastoring, I wonder about mine.  Granted, Paul didn’t know when or if he’d see the Thessalonians again.  I’d see “my sheep” on Sunday.  But what about my heart?

  • Was I longing with great desire to soon see “my” people face-to-face?
  • Did I see them as my hope and joy and crown of boasting before the Lord Jesus at his coming?
  • Were they my glory and joy?
  • Did I fear that the tempter may tempt them through affliction to turn from the faith so that my work would be for nothing?
  • Did I rejoice and thank God when I saw their faith and love?
  • Did I pray fervently to be able to supply what was lacking in their faith?
  • Did I thank God for his work in them?
  • Did I pray that God would establish their hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints?

Too often I’d have to answer, “No.”  Too often I was more  concerned with empty chairs or how well I played my guitar or if people liked my sermon than I was about their spiritual condition and their growth in holiness.

Pastors aren’t perfect.  (Amen!)  But (we) pastors bear much responsibility (not all, by any means, but much) for the hearts of “our” people.

May the Lord give our pastors a heart like Paul’s,
so that “our” people may have a heart like His!

 

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Satan Hindered Us

In the late 1970’s we planted a church in Northern New Jersey.  As it happened, the charismatic movement was sweeping through the area.  Itinerant preaches captivated congregations with casting-out-demons sermons.  Behind every ill, it seemed, Satan lurked.

Nowadays, at least in my church circles, Satan’s treated less seriously, if at all.  However,  in 1 Thessalonians 2:17-20, Paul explained he had wanted to re-visit the Thessalonians “but Satan hindered us.”

But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face,  because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us.  For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you?  For you are our glory and joy.  (1 Thessalonians 2:17-20, ESV).

What do we know about Satan?  Here’s a brief back-story . . .

A God-Created Fallen Angel.

“All things were made [by God] through [the Word who was God] (John 1:3).  “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).  Therefore, God created Satan and created him good.  But in Genesis 3, Satan, in a serpent’s form, is tempting Eve to disobey God.  Between chapters 1 and 3 some angels sinned.  “God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell . . . ” (2 Peter 2:4).

How did they sin?  In Isaiah 14:12-15 Isaiah prophecies against the king of Babylon with language that seems too strong to refer to merely a human king.  Wayne Grudem comments, “It would not be uncommon for Hebrew prophetic speech to pass from description of human events . . . to  heavenly events that are parallel to them . . . ” (Systematic Theology).

“How are you fallen from heaven,
O Day Star, son of the Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground
you who laid the nations low!
You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven above the stars of God.
I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds,
I will make myself like the Most High.’
But you are brought down to Sheol,
to the depths of the Pit.”

Not God’s Equal.

Rebellious angels are now confirmed in their evil by God.  Therefore, Satan as a fallen angel is “leashed” by God.

But now suppose you take away everything he has – he will curse you to your face!”

“All right,” the Lord said to Satan, “everything he has is in your power, but you must not hurt Job himself.” (Job 1:11,12, TEV).

Satan is no more God’s equal than a puppy whose leash we hold.  We’re not chess pieces caught up in a cosmic match between two equal masters, pawns in the hands of competing powers.  Yet, as an angel, Satan wields greater power than we humans.

Aims.

Here are a few of Satan’s goals in his nefarious rebellion . . .

  • Replace God’s reign (see Isaiah 14:12-15 above).
  • Slander God’s character (see Job 1:11,12 above).
  • Destroy God’s purposes for mankind (Since the children, as he calls them, are people of flesh and blood, Jesus himself became like them and shared their human nature. He did this so that through his death he might destroy the Devil, who has the power over death, and in this way set free those who were slaves all their lives because of their fear of death—Hebrews 2:14,15).

Strategy.

Here are three parts of Satan’s plan . . .

  • Deny God’s Word (Did God actually say . . . ?  You will not surely die—Genesis 3:1,4).
  • Seek to make humans think they are the measure and goal of everything ( . . . you will be like God—Genesis 35)
  • Distort God’s truth (Paul condemning Bar-Jesus:  “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?”—Acts 13:10)/

(Note:  above “Aims” and “Strategy” gleaned from bible.org/seriespage/commendation-and-thanksgiving-1-thess-213-20.)

Tactic.

Interestingly, when we read the Acts account of Paul in Thessalonica (17:1-9), author Luke mentions hindrance from men’s attacks, but nothing about Satan.   I suspect that’s because God is telling us that often Satan carries out his strategies through humans, whether as individuals or in organizations.  In other words, the hostile Thessalonians opposing Paul and the gospel were Satan-inspired

That’s what I take Paul to imply in Ephesians 6:12—For we are not fighting against human beings but against the wicked spiritual forces in the heavenly world, the rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers of this dark age. Human “rulers and authorities” that oppose Christ and his gospel are empowered by “the wicked spiritual forces in the heavenly world.”  So they are whom we’re fighting against as we follow Jesus and spread his message.

The Long-Red-Underwear-One 21st Century.
Don’t laugh.  But don’t ignore either.  Satan’s as real now as when Jesus was among us.  His aims and strategies and tactics are the same.  We have an enemy who prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8).  Following Jesus in an evil-one-controlled world (1 John 5:19) amounts to spiritual warfare.  For how to fight see 1 Peter 5:9 and Ephesians 6:10-20.

Paul’s Odd Tactic.

As far as I can tell from Scripture didn’t return to Thessalonica and command, “Get behind me, Satan!”  He simply went on to Corinth.  Which suggests to me, Paul saw Satan’s hindrance as God’s guidance.  Just as the Lord used Satan’s attacks on Job for a greater good in Job’s life, so he used Satan’s attacks through the Thessalonians for a greater good in spreading the gospel.  With the way back to Thessalonica blocked, Paul wrote letters to them and preached the gospel in Corinth.

Showing us that sometimes when Satan seems on the loose doing his devilish work,
our Lord still has him leashed for his good purposes.

 

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Mighty Ministry Model

What models for ministry do  pastors and other Christian leaders (worship, youth, Sunday school, small group leaders) have today?  To whom and what must they consciously, or even subconsciously, look to pattern their own leadership after?

Clearly this is imperative.  The right model will pass on the right leadership, the wrong will pass on the wrong.  And it will, for good or for bad, affect everyone who follows that leader.

John Piper, in his book Brothers, We Are Not Professionals!”  (http://document.desiringgod.org/brothers-we-are-not-professionals-en.pdf?1439242057)  argues that pastors are under “quiet” pressure to . . .

“Be as good as the professional media folks, especially the cool anti-heroes and the most subtle comedians. This is not the overstated professionalism of the three-piece suit and the stuffy upper floors but the understated professionalism of torn blue jeans and the savvy inner ring. This professionalism is not learned in pursuing an MBA but in being in the know about the ever-changing entertainment and media world. This is the professionalization of ambience, and tone, and idiom, and timing, and banter. It is more intuitive and less taught. More style and less technique. More feel and less force.”

I chuckle at Piper’s remark “the understated professionalism of torn blue jeans”, because over several weeks I happened upon a half-dozen young preachers on TV all wearing blue jeans.  The new clerical garb!

In today’s text (1 Thessalonians 2:1-16) Paul provides “a mighty ministry model”.  (Nothing to do with jeans!)

Paul is in Corinth (Acts 18:1), concerned about the persecuted new believers back in Thessalonica. Timothy has returned from a personal fact-finding visit with an encouraging report, but also with news of Jewish persecution condemning Paul to turn believers from his gospel.  In this section Paul defends himself.  From his self- defense we glimpse segments of his “mighty ministry model.”

1 For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain. 2 But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict. 3 For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, 4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. 5 For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness. 6 Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. 7 But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. 8 So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us (2:1-8, ESV).

Transparency.

That’s a word which politicians have made a mockery.  But not Paul.  And not (hopefully) Christian leaders who follow his model. Three times in this paragraph (verses 1, 2 and 5) Paul refers to what the Thessalonians came to know about him:  “that our coming to you was not in vain”, “that they had boldness in our God to declare . . . the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict” and having “already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi”, and that “we never came with words of flattery . . . nor with a pretext for greed”.  Paul’s life was an open book.

A Christian leader must be transparent.  Thereby he encourages others to follow, not just with his words and triumphs, but with his wounds and weaknesses.

Boldness in God.

The Greek word translated “boldness” (verse 2) implies open speaking.  Paul and his partners spoke the gospel openly “in the midst of much conflict”.  No whispering in the shadows. They were confident of God’s presence with them and provision for them.

Christian leaders in America still remain relatively persecution-free (but the circle is tightening!).  Even so, often God’s Word counters what people want to hear.  Ever try telling a yet-unmarried Christian couple they must stop sleeping together?  We need boldness in our God.

Awareness of Being Entrusted by God with the Gospel.

This concerns motive and method (verses 3-5).  Paul’s motive was never deception.  He believed he had been entrusted with the gospel—a trust to be guarded and passed on truthfully.  His motive was always to please God not people, knowing God tests and tries our heart.

None of us is perfect in how we interpret and preach the gospel.  But I cringe when I hear a  preacher butcher the biblical text.  He does so either because he’s been careless in preparation or is trying to further his personal agenda.  Honestly, most preachers I’ve heard carry a way-too-casual demeanor about the text.  This is God’s Word!  Too often preachers fail to understand they have been entrusted with it and, therefore, approach it without any sense of reverence.  If leaders approach the written gospel as just another text book, how will followers treat it?

Mother-Like Care.

Gentle with converts, “like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.”  ” . . . affectionately desirous of you.”   ” . . . ready to share with you . . . our own selves.”  ” . . . you had become very dear to us” (verses 6-8).  No demands.  This is incredible.  I’d expect Paul, suffering persecution wounds himself, enduring painful hardships to fulfill his ministry, to lose patience with slow learners, maybe take out his frustration on them.  But he reminds them of the mother-like care he gave them and they recalled weeks later.

A female Sunday school teacher may want to show mother-like care; but I haven’t known many pastors over four decades of my ministry who wanted to be known for this virtue.  We pastors want to be known as strong (forgetting that gentle, mother-like care is strength  beyond the corporate leadership model we often follow).  Think of Jesus with the poor, the hungry, the sick.  Mother-like care.  It’s harder to show that than to preach a powerful sermon!

For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.  You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers.  For you know how, like a father with his children,  we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory (2:9-12, ESV).

 

Father-Like Exhortation.

Paul reminds the Thessalonians of how he worked hard at his tent-making trade, so not to burden them for financial support.  He calls them witnesses to his holy, righteous and blameless conduct.  He points to their knowledge of how he exhorted, encouraged and charged the converts “to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”  That exhortation “had teeth” only because this is how Paul himself as a “father” lived.

To speak words of exhortation, encouragement and command to live in a manner worthy of our God isn’t so great a challenge (though to do it like a loving father without harshness is!).  But it’s much more challenging to conduct ourselves in holy, righteous and blameless ways—and then call on those we lead as witnesses to that conduct!

And 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.  For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews,  who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind  by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them at last (2:13-16, ESV)

 

Gratitude When People Receive God’s Word As God’s Word.

How did Paul know his “followers” had received God’s Word as God’s Word.  One, he saw the “fruit” of God’s Word at work in them.  Two, they become imitators of other followers of Jesus.  And, three, they followed despite suffering.  For that Paul constantly thanks God.

Many Christian leaders (pastors especially) are occupied with the next step, the next level, more converts, bigger growth.  Vision is important—but not to the exclusion of what God is doing now.  Ingratitude for God’s work is a mark of unrighteousness and incurs God’s wrath (see Romans 1:21).  It’s not the mark of a “mighty ministry model”.

 

Why a Mighty Ministry Model?

I included mighty in this title not just for alliteration’s sake.  I use it to identify the ministry model’s source.  It wasn’t Paul’s personal power that created this model.  It was God’s through the Holy Spirit at work in Paul.  Therefore, model Christian ministers (pastor, Sunday school teacher, etc.) must seek the empowering of the Spirit in prayer and in the Word.

But Paul couldn’t be passive, waiting for that anointing to fall.  In mind and heart he—and we who would follow his model—must deliberately aim at that model.  That requires rejecting the “quiet” pressure to follow the world’s media and entertainment model.  It requires “hanging on our refrigerator” a poster of the apostle instead of a poster of the current celebrity (Christian or otherwise).

Whether we wear torn blue jeanor not, may God empower us by his Word and Spirit to become mighty ministry models for those who come after us!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Celebrating a “Hip City” Success

 They call Thessalonika (present day spelling) “Greece’s Hippest City”.  Want to visit?  Book a room at the Plaza hotel online at http://www.booking.com/hotel/gr/plaza-art.html?aid=314342, 

Thessaloniki waterfront

Paul, at Corinth in 50 A.D., worried about how the new Thessalonian believers were holding up in the face of persecution.  Having no computer for email, he sent Timothy to find out (1 Thessalonians 3:1-5).  When Timothy returned with a glowing report, Paul wrote the letter we call 1 Thessalonians.  Here’s chapter 1 . . .

 

Paul, Silas and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you. We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers.  We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.  For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you,  because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake.  You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.  And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.  The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia– your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it,  for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God,  and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead– Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath. (1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, ESV).

At first reading it might seem the Thessalonians’ persevering faith in persecution’s face was due to their determination, their strength of character.  That’s partly true.  They made choices to hang on to faith.  After all, it was their work faith produced, their labor love prompted, their endurance hope in Jesus inspired.  They imitated the missionaries and the Lord, welcoming the message in spite of severe suffering.  They turned from idols to serve the living God and to wait for God’s Son from heaven.

As I understand it, the doctrine of God’s sovereignty (“The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all”—Psalm 103:19. NIV) doesn’t preclude human choice.  For example, when Joshua challenged the Israelites, ” . . . choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15), they were confronted with a real choice—the gods of the Amorites or the LORD.  And they would be blessed or cursed accordingly.

I love this quote by Charles Spurgeon (19th century British Baptist preacher), but we might infer more than we should about God’s sovereignty and human’s choice . . .

“I believe that every particle of dust that dances in the sunbeam does not move an atom more or less than God wishes – that every particle of spray that dashes against the steamboat has its orbit, as well as the sun in the heavens – that the chaff from the hand of the winnower is steered as the stars in their courses. The creeping of an aphid over the rosebud is as much fixed as the march of the devastating pestilence – the fall of . . . leaves from a poplar is as fully ordained as the tumbling of an avalanche.”

Humans aren’t dust or spray or chaff or aphid or leaves.  While God surely must first awaken us out of sin’s deadness, we are still able to choose much.  Especially as reborn-by-the-Spirit believers we can choose to welcome the gospel though we’ll incur persecution, we can choose to labor in love for a friend, we can choose to drive our idols to the dump.

When we more carefully read 1 Thessalonians 1 it becomes clear Paul is celebrating what God has ultimately done.  He thanks God for the Thessalonians.  That “thanks” sets the chapter’s tone:  even for all the Thessalonians have done Paul thanks God.

Yet, before any action by the Thessalonians, they were “loved by God” and chosen by him.  That choice was evident by how the gospel came to them—namely, “with power, with the Holy Spirit, and with deep conviction.”  (I take Paul to mean that the power of the Holy Spirit produced deep conviction in the Thessalonians.)  Despite knowing they would face severe suffering, “they welcomed the message with joy given by the Holy Spirit.”  Jesus’ physical resurrection dynamically demonstrated he is “the living and true God.”  The promise of his coming again from heaven offered hope of rescue “from the coming wrath.”  Therefore, both God’s act in historical resurrection and in future coming moved them to turn from dead idols.

Question:  did the Thessalonians’ conversion experience result from God’s acts or theirs?  Answer:  yes.  God the Holy Spirit was the prior and prime Actor.  The Thessalonians were thereby enabled and responsible to answer; but they weren’t compelled to believe and rejoice and persevere as if God’s sovereignty made them  puppets.

So today.  It’s possible for us to be into the doctrine of God’s sovereignty so much that he is the ultimate cause of everything and we are responsible for nothing.  (In the same way, it’s possible for us to presume God’s not active in his creature and everything’s pretty much up to us.)  At what point exactly does God’s sovereign act end and man’s responding act begin?  I don’t know.  Here, it seems to me, is knowledge too high for us.  It’s enough for us to know God is the prior and primary Actor, and we are responsible to respond accordingly.

We are not Deists or Moral Therapeutic Deists who believe God “wound up” the world and left it to run on its own, except to help us when we can’t go it alone.  God is directly, deliberately involved in his creation and with his creatures.  For that, with Paul, we can be most thankful.

But that doesn’t give us license to do nothing until we “feel moved”.  Scripture is chock full of commands and directives.  Obedience isn’t meritorious, but it is required.  So, knowing God is acting, let’s do the good we know to do.

Then, let’s celebrate—our accomplishments with a small-scale celebration and God’s accomplishments as if we’re practicing for an eternity of effusive praise in the hippest city ever.  (We are.)

 

 

 

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