21. Good Heartedness

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 3 :  21. Good Heartedness

1 Thess 5:15   Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.

There are people you can encounter in life who are grumpy and grouchy but even worse there are people who are vindictive who, it seems, are out to get revenge, out to get back at others for real or supposed offences. They are spiteful and unpleasant in their endeavours to pull others down.  Can such people be Christians? Can people who have been instructed by their Lord to “Love one another as I have loved you,” (Jn 13:34) and to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Mt 5:44) be vindictive and pay back wrong for wrong?  Let’s look at this more deeply.

The crucial words are paying back wrong for wrong. A wrong has been done to you. That is hard to take. Someone speaks wrong gossip about you, a false rumour is spread about you, someone uses their position of power at work against you, someone cheats against you and you lose out. All of these things are difficult to take. Even a good heart cries out, “That is unjust, that is unfair, that is wrong!”  And we want that wrong to be righted but sometimes no one comes to our aid, no one steps in challenges the untruth of the gossip or rumours, no one moves against the power broker at work, no one brings down the cheat – and we feel wronged.

Have you ever been in or heard of one of those situations where someone cries out, “But it’s so unfair!” and someone else responds, “Who told you that life was fair?” In this fallen world, so often life is unfair, people more powerful than us do us down, others speak behind our back to our detriment. It does even happen in church because we fail to see how terrible it is that we are contributing to lack of unity, i.e. divisiveness, and we are failing Jesus’ instructions to love. We get wrapped up in the moment and lose perspective and suddenly are on the wrong side of God’s instructions. Oh yes, be quite clear, these are God’s instructions.

The Law was quite clear on this subject: Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the LORD.” (Lev 19:18) Love is to replace a grudge. God was serious about it.  Solomon understood it when he wrote his proverbs: “Do not say, “I’ll pay you back for this wrong!” Wait for the LORD, and he will deliver you.” (Prov 20:22) That was at a good time of his life when he could still say, wait for the Lord and leave it up to Him.

The Law (from the understanding heart of God of course) understood that there would be circumstances where the offence was so great that there would need to be a cooling down period, and hence the institution of the cities of refuge: “For instance, a man may go into the forest with his neighbour to cut wood, and as he swings his axe to fell a tree, the head may fly off and hit his neighbour and kill him. That man may flee to one of these cities and save his life. 6Otherwise, the avenger of blood might pursue him in a rage, overtake him if the distance is too great, and kill him even though he is not deserving of death, since he did it to his neighbour without malice aforethought.” (Deut 19:5,6) That does face us with the recognition that humanly speaking at least, it is sometimes incredibly difficult to overcome the desire to respond.

The fact is that Jesus came teaching another way: “You have heard that it was said, `Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” (Mt 5:38-40)  If someone comes against you, as one of my followers, go along with him, don’t resist, give what they demand.

How can you possibly do that? Three ways:

1. Remember it is God’s heart in both the Law in the Old Testament and the teaching of the New Testament.

2. God’s grace is sufficient for you to help you put aside all your desires to strike back and instead respond in love.

3. Realise that striking back opens a cycle of offence – revenge – retaliation – greater revenge. That is how long term feuds arise.

Elsewhere Paul is concise: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil,” (Rom 12:17) while the apostle Peter adds a positive touch: “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” (1 Pet 3:9)  Wow! When people insult you, bless them! Why? Because God says so and behind His instruction is the desire, coming out of His love, to do good to them. That may not be possible at this moment but in the long-term He desires to draw them to Himself so they may enter into all the good He has for them. Whether they will ever respond only He knows, but the person who insults you, speaks badly of you today and does you down, may be next years candidate for an Alpha Course and may coming knocking on your door as a new brother or sister seeking your forgiveness. Don’t spoil the future. (That’s the fourth way you can be motivated to do the right thing in our list above).

20. Suffering Others

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 3 :  20. Suffering Others

1 Thess 5:14   And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone.

So in this verse we have considered warning the idle and encouraging the timid, so now let’s move on to consider the weak. Our temptation might be to say, “Shouldn’t we encourage the weak” rather than simply ‘help’ them, but Paul is quite careful with the words he uses. Timidity is an attitude of mind and therefore our input to the timid needs to be at the level of the mind, and that is how encouragement comes. But when he speaks about the ‘weak’ there is a broader dimension to be considered for a ‘weak’ person is one who lacks strength, and that may be physical, mental, spiritual or moral. To cover all these possibilities our input to them should simply be to bring ‘help’ which goes from assistance and all other things that will bring relief and then permanent change to them.

Paul referred to those who were physically weak when he wrote about Communion: That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.” (1 Cor 11:30)  Their physical weakness came from a fracture in their relationship with the Lord from their wrong behaviour, failing to appreciate the body, the other believers there, and so help in this case would be more bringing correction to their thinking and behaviour, and that was what Paul was doing as he wrote to them.

When the writer to the Hebrews wrote, “Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees,” (Heb 12:12) it appears it could have meant physical or spiritual. The context suggests he is speaking about their ill-disciplined lives and so help in that context would be bringing discipline, which is what God was doing.

Weakness sometimes can be simply in respect of our faith: “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.” (Rom 14:1). Help in that context was first accepting the weaker brother or sister and then, perhaps, bringing teaching to strengthen them, which is what Paul often did. Another expression of this is the believer whose conscience is weak and so they are not as sure of themselves or their faith as they could be, which is why Paul wrote, “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:22) The context for that was weak consciences.

Weakness, sometimes simply means accepting our human limitations that then drives us into the arms of God. That was what Paul was referring to when he said, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:10)  Help in such a context is simply reminding the believer that they are not their own Saviour, only God can be, and encouraging trust and perseverance.

But then Paul finishes this verse of mini-exhortations with, “be patient with everyone.” The big danger in the Christian faith is that we look down on those we consider have not matured or developed as far as we have, or we become intolerant of their slow progress and what sometimes appears silly, shallow or immature words or actions, for the truth is that we all grow and develop (or not!) at different rates. Patience is about waiting for others. Proverbs 14:29 declares, “A patient man has great understanding, but a quick-tempered man displays folly,” which suggests that our lack of patience indicates a lack of understanding of the lives of other people. I believe there is a native American saying, “Never criticize another man until you have walked in his moccasins”.  Patience of other is an indication that we understand them and their life and we realise why change is slow.

Paul’s ‘love verses’ of 1 Cor 13 start, of course, with “Love is patient,” (1 Cor 13:1) and of course in the list of the fruit of the Spirit is patience: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness.” (Gal 5:22)  Patience should, therefore, be an expression or enabling of the Holy Spirit within us. To the Ephesians Paul wrote, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Eph 4:2,3)  There patience is linked with humility and unity.  Humility is the awareness of the reality of who you are, a lost sinner saved only by grace. When we are humble, we will be patient with others. In seeking to establish unity in the body we will not let the slowness of others drive them away from us in our thinking.

Finally a word from Peter might help: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9) We should always remember that for any of us the Lord was patient with us waiting while we slowly came to a place of repentance and then slowly worked through (and continue to work through)  the process of sanctification which will continue to the end of our lives. He is patient with us and doesn’t write us off for our slowness. In the same way, neither should we write off our brothers and sisters. In some ways this is harder inside the church than outside it. Outside it we know that people are lost sinners and therefore we expect them to get it wrong until they come to Christ, but once people have turned to Christ and have received His Spirit, we often think the changes in them should happen a lot faster! It is at such times that we need to remember this teaching on patience!

19. The Idle & the Timid

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 3 :  19. The Idle and the Timid

1 Thess 5:14   And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone.

In the previous verse the Live in peace with each other,”  links from being at peace and have respect in relation to leaders and now with the rest of the congregation, for these are now instructions about how to live at peace with the rest of the people of God. When Paul says, “We urge you brothers,” he is exhorting them into action for there are three ‘actions’ here and one ‘inaction’. Lets consider them one by one.

He starts, warn those who are idle.” When you warn someone you caution them against an imminent danger. Now the Bible has quite a lot to say about being idle, for instance simply showing how awful it is: “The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he will not even bring it back to his mouth!” (Prov 19:24) The ‘sluggard’ for Solomon was a habitually lazy or idle person. He pictures his lethargy, so lazy he can’t even be bothered to lift food to his mouth. But he also warns about the outcomes of idleness: “Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth.”  (Prov 10:4)  Wealthy people (unless they have inherited it) have wealth because they have worked hard. Poor people, so often, are poor because for one reason or other they have not worked. But Solomon also points out that the lazy or idle person makes excuses for not working: “The sluggard says, “There is a lion outside!” or, “I will be murdered in the streets!” (Prov 22:13) Excuses, excuses!

In his second letter Paul is even stronger on this issue: “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, labouring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” (2 Thess 3:6-10)  Obviously he had received some report about people just sitting around idly doing nothing, perhaps awaiting the Lord’s return. Steer clear of such people he says, follow the example we gave you, and remember the basic rule we left you with –  “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”  He is not to sponge off others!

For Paul there were other dangers associated with idleness, as he said to Timothy, “they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying things they ought not to.” (1 Tim 5:13) There is a phrase, “the devil makes work for idle hands.” The idle person sits around and all they have left to do is gossip. The writer to the Hebrews extended this to cover growing in your faith; “We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.” (Heb 6:11,12) Diligence is a means of countering idleness, working to pursue your faith. Idleness at work, at home or in the kingdom. They are all rejected in the teaching of the Bible.

But moving from those who have a wrong attitude that produces idleness, he moves on to others in the flock who simply are not strong in various ways. Next he says, “encourage the timid.” A timid person is one who lacks self-confidence. Now, intriguingly, when he was eighty, Moses might have been considered timid in his responses to the Lord at the burning bush (Ex 3)  but eventually that timidity was transformed into meekness which is defined in a dictionary as ‘patient and mild; not inclined to anger or resentment’ and seen in Moses, described as the meekest man on the earth, as coming out of a total reliance on the Lord. Timidity, it might be suggested, comes out of an insecurity, a lack of confidence in God. Paul had to say to Timothy, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Tim 1:7) He had to say to the Corinthians, “If Timothy comes, see to it that he has nothing to fear while he is with you, for he is carrying on the work of the Lord, just as I am.” (1 Cor 16:10)

We have these things, in contrast to timidity, because of the Holy Spirit living within us. Paul said elsewhere, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” (Rom 8:16) Timidity follows when we are unsure of who we are and, even more, when we are unsure of God’s love for us. Timidity, as we noted, above is related to fear and fear freezes us or immobilizes us.

Again, don’t confuse timidity with gentleness. Paul had experienced this: “By the meekness and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you–I, Paul, who am “timid” when face to face with you, but “bold” when away!” (2 Cor 10:1) That’s what they had said of him – oh he was so timid when he was with us and so bold when he writes his letters of correction. No, he wasn’t  timid with them, just gentle.

Get rid of timidity as you work to develop your relationship with the Lord, realizing who He is and who He has made you to be. Let His perfect love cast out fear  (1 Jn 4:18). Be diligent in all things, working to gain a good reputation and bring glory to the Lord, allowing gentleness and meekness all grow and develop as you are able rest in Him more and more. May it be so!

18. Respect Spiritual Authority

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 3 :  18. Respect Spiritual Authority

1 Thess 5:12,13   Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.

We jump a number of verses before we come to the next set of practical instructions, simply because Paul had spoken in some detail in the intervening verses about the coming of Jesus a second time. Now he steps back into the present time and deals with another concern  or simple matter of teaching to be considered, that of those who work for the Gospel in the local church.  At the end of that previous teaching he said, Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing,” (5:11) which, flowing out of that teaching about waiting for Christ’s return, seems to be saying, “As we think he will come soon, make sure he does find you doing the best you can and so keep on building one another up and, (in the light of that which we considered in the previous meditation that came just before that Second Coming teaching,) “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life,” (4:11) and make sure you do this in every aspect of your life and the life of the church.”

He is, perhaps from his own experience, mindful that church life isn’t always the peaceful place it should be, and especially in respect of leaders and the flock.  A simple reason for this may be that the enemy knows that if he can bring down the leaders, the flock will be more vulnerable and so leaders become first in his sights for attack. Paul’s letter (especially 2 Cor) show that often he was under pressure from the enemy through the flock. Indeed we noted that earlier in the letter a number of verses were defensive about how they had handled themselves when they had been with them. Rumours had obviously circulated or grumbles noticed.

So now he comes and gently asks: “Now we ask you brothers.” That is quite a gentle approach. It is not a strong demand as Paul sometimes makes when urging or giving instructions. His request is to respect their local leaders and in so doing he notes three things about them. First, “respect those who work hard among you.” I have noticed in church life there is banter about the leader getting ‘a real job’. Having been in leadership for over twenty five years (and now retired), I am utterly convinced that unless you have been in that role you do not have a clue as to the pressures that come on church leaders. From the congregation’s point of view the vicar, the minister, the pastor, the elder, call him (or her today) what you will, has a dead easy job. After all they are just there to lead on a Sunday aren’t they. Well if that is all you feel they do, you really are clueless! First of all these men and women carry the burden of the church and it remains with you twenty four hours a day. Not for you leaving the job behind when you leave the office. When people call for you in a crisis, they may do it in the middle of the night – I have been called out in the early hours.  You are there as the leader, the guide, the director, the counsellor, and so much more. You are also the brunt of people’s criticisms which may vary from not liking the songs sung on Sunday, the length or content of the sermon, the way you conduct the prayer meeting and so on. When I consider all the leaders I know (and it is a lot), MOST of them have been shot to pieces at some time in their ministry, and that goes from the vicar with a traditional, grumbling congregation of twenty to the minister of a large number  whose role is to guide bleating sheep gradually into the path of sanctification – often when they don’t want to go down it. Sorry if this sounds a grouse, but many if not most do not know how hard their leaders labour in this role. Respect them for it.

Now part of this kickback from the enemy is because of the second description that Paul gives: “who are over you in the Lord”. Leaders are God’s spiritual authority and in a days when we distrust authority, because there have been so many abuses of it in public life, that distrust often flows over to our feelings about those in spiritual leadership. These are those who struggle to hear the word from God, who struggle to counter the works – the lies and the deceptions – of the enemy, as he tries to upset and draw away the flock, and who struggle to keep the peace among fractious people. Christians shouldn’t be like that but they are – and that is why Paul has to speak as he does in this letter.

But the third reason even more gives us understanding why this state of affairs so often prevails: “and who admonish you.”  Dictionary definitions for ‘admonish’ are “to caution against specific faults, to warn, to reprove mildly, to urge or exhort.” This IS part of the role of the spiritual leader. Do you remember Paul’s description of the purpose of Scripture: “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” (2 Tim 3:16).This is all the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing about our sanctification, our being changed into the likeness of Jesus. Where there is resistance because sin has not been fully dealt with in a life, that is where upset occurs and the leader carries the brunt of it.

For this reason Paul concludes, “Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.” (5:13a) We will do this when we take to heart some of the things I have said in this study. When we realise the scope of their activities, their role in God and their being in the front line of the enemy’s attack, then we will hold them in the highest regard and when we allow the Spirit to touch us over this, we will find a love for them we hadn’t had before. So in respect of them and the rest of the church he concludes, “live in peace with each other.”  If you heed these things we may find ourselves with a very different church.

17. The Quiet Life

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 3 :  17. The Quiet Life

1 Thess 4:11,12   Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

We live in a day of noise, of opinions, of twenty-four hour news. Some may seek for a quieter life by not having loud music on all the time, by not reading papers, and by not watching the news. Perhaps that is like some of the Christians from earlier days who went into monasteries or went and lived in the desert to escape worldliness.  But many people would like ‘the quiet life’, the life free from trouble and upset – but it evades them. Arguments ensue, family members get into trouble, there is pressure at work, things break down, accidents happen. Anxiety, worry, stress are familiar.

Now come on, says Paul, you don’t have to have that sort of life, Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.”  Put another way, make it a goal of your life to be restful, content and at peace with the world. How could they go about doing that? Well, he goes on, “mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you.”  Make your own life the focus and ensure you are living that well. In an economy that was neither concerned with theory, ideas, paper nor the Internet, work was primarily physical. To get on with life meant get on with the family business, usually working with your hands.

Paul certainly would not say that today, but that was how it was then. Perhaps to let these three things sink in a little more it might be good to think of the opposites. Live a quiet life, he started out. i.e. don’t be a noisy, loud-mouthed, over-bearing assort of person. Mind your own business, he continued, i.e. don’t be a busybody interfering with other people’s lives, pushing in where you are not wanted, being a know-it-all. Work, he said finally, i.e. don’t be a lazy sponger on others, don’t be a scrounger, don’t be a benefit grabber. One thing all those three sorts of people exhibit is lack of self worth The noisy loud mouth is so often covering up what they really feel about themselves. The busybody is trying to be important to make up for what they feel about themselves. The lazy sponger has lost all self-respect and has little sense of self-worth.

But then Paul comes out with two other reasons to live as he’s said – quiet, self-esteemed, and hard working. First, “so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders.” (v.12a) Do you remember Jesus taught, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:16) Our lives are to reveal the Father and His love and goodness. The way we live out our lives on a daily basis should be such that as we express, love, care, goodness, kindness, gentleness, wisdom and grace, others see and wonder and we win their respect and their openness to the Lord.

But there was a second reason: “so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” Why is that such a bad thing?  Well God is a giver and a provider and He doesn’t want us, as far as it is possible, to become reliant on other people rather than Him. However this is not to be taken to extremes for we know that in the early days of the church they were inter-dependent and thus we find, “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need,” (Acts 2:44,45) and later, “There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.” (Acts 4:34,35)  There clearly were there those who were needy and they were reliant upon others in the church to care for them. Some in that society would naturally have such needs and this became clear when a problem arose: “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.” (Acts 6:1) Widows and orphans are a natural grouping of those who would need to be reliant upon others.

The fact that the second coming has been mentioned so often in this letter, and more details follow these verses, may be an indication that in those early days they all expected Jesus to be returning at any moment and the temptation,  therefore, was to say, ‘well, why bother to work if our future is limited?’  The truth is that we will not know when Jesus is returning. Jesus asked his followers, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Lk 18:8). Faith is as much about letting  your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heavenas it is about anything. That ‘letting your light shine’ is also as much about how you lead a quiet life, minding your own business and working at providing for yourself and for your family as anything else as well.

Do we catch the import of these verses before us here? By doing this we will not only NOT be a drain on others but we WILL be a testimony to others. Also perhaps in so doing, we may become those who resource others instead of them having to resource you. They sound such mundane words but they are fundamental to the sort of people we are: Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”  May it be so!

16. Brotherly Love

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 3 :  16. Brotherly Love

1 Thess 4:9,10   Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more.

There was a part of a verse in the previous group about sexual purity that we did not comment upon because it seems it provides Paul’s link to this encouragement to love each other even more. It is, in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him.” (4:6a) What he seems to be suggesting is that where there is immorality – crossing that boundary of one man with one woman in a committed relationship – it can so often affect a third party, a husband perhaps or another member even of the Christian family. If you enter into an illicit relationship with someone and they are already in a relationship with another, that other person is being wronged and being taken advantage of through what you are wrongly doing.

When you put this alongside God’s teaching about love, you realise this just cannot be, it must not be. So now he picks up on the general teaching about loving one another.  That was clearly something that the apostles had taught in their initial founding of this church and so Paul doesn’t really need to go over it again. But actually, in their case, even beyond the fact that they have had this teaching, they have clearly put it into practice and they have become known for their love to all believers in that whole area. It seems almost unnecessary to bring teaching on this matter having picked it up because of his warning against temptations in the sexual area, bit it is something so vital that he wants to urge them to do it more and more and (implied) be even more widely known for their love.

Perhaps it seems so obvious, this teaching on love but practically it becomes one of the most important features of the life of the church. In the Garden of Gethsemane, after Jesus had prayed for protection of the believers, he prayed, “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20,21). Now how can you have oneness without love? This is vital. How will the world see and believe if we are not one and how can we be one without love?

Now the teaching on love is simple and straightforward. First we find: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: `Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Mt 22:37-40) That is basic but then Jesus taught, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (Jn  13:34,35). Jesus’ love was sacrificial love, love that lays down its life for others. One of the early Church Fathers wrote of the reputation of the early church, “See, they say, how they love one another.”

Now we have to be honestly practical. Do we see this sacrificial love in the life of our local churches. I am going to suggest that so often it is absent. If that is so here, I suggest, are some reasons why it is so.

First, because this is not taught as of first importance. If regular preaching and teaching does not remind the congregation that we are called to be a congregation of love, we will allow things in that this hinder love.

Second, because we allow behaviours and attitudes that are unloving. If we fail to love, care and accept every person who comes to us we will be unloving. If we tolerate gossip, criticisms, jealousy, envy, or prejudices we are unloving. Be honest, are any of these in our local church?

Third we do not cultivate and develop structures that develop first fellowship, then trust, then love. Big meetings can convey the message; little gatherings  provide opportunity for love to grow. Although you can have the general attitude of love towards all, the practical in-depth feeling and expression of love develops when you relate to people closely, i.e. you fellowship with them. In that environment, love grows practically, a trust grows, security develops, needs are shared – and then met.

These are just some of the reasons that love does not grow within the local fellowship. A church that focuses on ritual is more concerned with ceremony than with love. A church that focuses on singing can fail in love. A church that is known for its teaching  can still fail in the area of love. A Pentecostal or charismatic fellowship can have all the gifts and still miss love. The apostle Paul said it to the church at Corinth: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor 13:1-3)

Sometimes we get clever and knowledgeable about love in the New Testament and talk about Greek agape love that is God’s love that is seen in utter commitment and is the sacrificial love that Jesus spoke about that we referred to earlier, and philadelphia which is brotherly love, a love between friends. What we find in this verse is, Now about brotherly love (Philadelphia) we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love (agape)  each other.”  What we have therefore, is Paul saying, “We don’t really need to teach you about brotherly love that you find between friends because God has taught you this deeper love of commitment and sacrifice, and so if that is the love you express, it will cover all eventualities, especially that which we would hope to see between brothers and sisters in the local congregation. Isn’t that great! Is that the love you find in your local congregation? If not, are you working on it?

15. Sexual Purity

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 3 :  15. Sexual Purity

1 Thess 4:3-7   It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.

In the light of the “anything goes” mentality of much of our modern world  – and certainly portrayed by the media – these verses create what one might call a severe culture clash. It is interesting that the apostle picks this subject as the first one for giving practical instructions for daily living.

Let’s start by observing the general principles that are laid out here, of which there are several. First of all It is God’s will that you should be sanctified.” (4:3a)  The word ‘sanctified’ means set apart to God or very simply, different from the rest of the world. Now why should this be? The answer is seen in the big picture of the Bible: God made the world perfect and gave man free will. Man used free will to reject God’s design and do his own thing. This meant that we see sorts of behaviour that are contrary to God’s design and what we so often fail to understand is that when you live contrary to God’s design your life ‘breaks down’ – just like a car will when the driver ignores the manufacturer’s handbook. When we come back to God through Jesus Christ and allow the Holy Spirit in us to guide and direct us, He will guide our lives back onto God’s design and thus these lives will be quite different from those in the rest of the world. Moreover we will then be in a place where God can bless our lives in ways that those living outside His design cannot receive.

But hold on to those fundamentals: 1. The world rejects God’s design in its behaviour.  2. The result of living contrary to God’s design means breakdown. 3. Jesus leads us back into living according to God’s design and thus,  4. These lives receive God’s blessing.

The second principle, that flows on from that is that, “God did not call us to be impure.” (4:7a) Any behaviour that runs contrary to God’s design means our lives have been tainted with damaging behaviour, our lives are no longer the pure and good lives they were when God originally designed and made them. If you live contrary to God’s design in this area, be under no illusion, God says you are impure and that impurity will destroy you unless it is dealt with appropriately before God.

The third principle is that Gods us now, “to live a holy life.” (4:7b) Holy means, in its weakest sense, associated with God. Holy means different, like God, perfect. Holy means living according to God’s will, God’s design. That, we must repeat again and again is what is crucial. Failure to do this means we retain destructive forces in our lives and we fail to receive God’s blessing, God’s goodness poured out. Instead we tolerate destructive behaviour patterns in our lives and wonder why they are going wrong, or why we feel there must be something better.

So Paul gives his first practical instruction: “that you should avoid sexual immorality.” (4:3b) Now the godless world challenges that there is such a thing as ‘sexual immorality’ simply because it is godless and therefore denies that there is a Creator who has designed things to work in a particular way. ‘Immorality’ suggests that there is a ‘morality’, a way laid down that is right and ‘immorality’ is contrary to that way laid down. To see the ‘morality’, the way laid down in God’s design, we must go back to the beginning: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” (Gen 2:21,22) There, even before the Fall, we have the design laid out: one man with one woman, a husband and a wife, a married unit, a committed couple, and they are designed to join together physically. It does not say for procreation but simply that they will join physically. The fact that they were naked and felt no shame shows the goodness of God’s design, which ever since the Fall, had been marred, spoiled and twisted as we reject His design for our relationships.

The fruits of ignoring that initial design are varied and very obvious. Adultery, emotional distress, social and relational breakdown, jealousy, hatred, bitterness, hostility, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, sexually transmitted diseases; they are rife within our Western communities. In our folly we think we have freedom but do not realise that we are in fact reaping God’s judgment. Paul describes the way God lifts off His hand of restraint from a people who ignore Him: “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another…. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion…. , he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity.” etc. etc. (Rom 1:24-31) All these things are the fruits of unrestrained sin and they are destroying individuals, relationships and society and they are the judgement of God!

The Christian is called to a different lifestyle: “each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honourable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him.” (4:4-6)  Sexual liberty is not freedom, it is the judgment of God and it bears its fruit which are obvious. Satan whispers, “Surely God didn’t say,” but yes He did! These things WILL happen. On a practical and pastoral level, I have observed the goodness and grace of God that does love and accept and forgive those who have lived the lifestyle and then repented and turned back to God, but I have also noted that those who have had sex before marriage, those who have lived together, those who have divorced, these people are vulnerable more than the others in the rest of their lives and struggle more to hold fast to God’s way. God’s grace IS there but it also requires a total rejection in the heart of those prior godless ways – because that is what they were. If you sleep around you are being godless. If you are unfaithful in relationships, you are godless and as Paul goes on to say – “The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you.” (4:6).  The warning is there.

14. To Please God

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 2 :  14. To Please God

 

1 Thess 4:1,2   Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.

In this final study in part two – the principles that we note that stand out in the earlier part of this letter – we note one final principle, the thing that hopefully motivates us in the ‘doing’ side of our lives. Someone has said that Christianity is a ‘doing’ religion; we don’t just learn background knowledge about God or theories about spiritual life,  the bigger part of it all is actually putting it into practice. But there are also other world religions that ‘do’ but the truth is that they either do because the rules are there and they follow them in order to win approval, or they have rules and follow them before of fear of the awful One who has made them.

When we come to the Christian faith we find something quite different. We find all that we are and do comes out of a loving relationship and where this relationship is real and genuine, doing simply becomes a response of love. So when Paul in the verse above speaks of instructions on how to live to please God, he is providing us with a means of responding in love to His love.

The apostle John understood this well. In his first letter he wrote, And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make your joy complete.” (1 Jn 1:3,4) Fellowship is another way of referring to closeness of relationship. Because we have this closeness of relationship, he is saying, we write to you and explain these things so that your joy in this same relationship may be full. That’s his starting point. So he goes on to write, “if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him.” (1 Jn 2:5) As we follow His word, His revelation to us, we experience AND express God’s love.

Later he writes, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. …. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins… if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 Jn 4:7-12)  Love is behind everything we are and do, God love. He expressed it by sending Jesus to die for us, He expressed it by drawing us to Himself and forgiving us, cleansing us, adopting us and giving us His own Holy Spirit of love to live in us. Now, as His Spirit of love lives in and through us, we express love. Ultimately it all comes and flows because we have responded to Him and we gave Him our lives and were transformed. If we ever lose sight of that, we fall back on legalistic religion.

As we move on into the third part and start looking at specific individual instructions, we must keep in mind these things otherwise we start attributing these things to means of salvation instead of simply love responses to love – which is what they should be. Sadly, the reality is that because we are the people we are, we often lose sight of this, that we are loved and everything we are receiving from God is an expression of His ongoing love for us. Indeed we even take for granted the good things that happen to us and fail to see them as specific expressions of God’s love to us. Remember, here is a vital truth to hold on to: “God IS love” (1 Jn 4:8,16) and so everything God thinks, says or does is an expression of love. Everything He does with or for us is an expression of love. The enemy tries to blind us to this truth but it is the truth.

Think of your wife or husband who you love very much or a child of yours who you love very much. So much of the time we just act towards them without thought but when we do think about it we realise we do what we do because we love them so much. Love is the thing that prompts us into action and is behind every good word or deed. Perhaps it is also like that in the Christian life, we do so much of what we do without thought, but ultimately we are motivated by the starting love we have for God when He saved us. Our conforming to instructions we find in the New Testament, whether from Jesus or the apostles, flows from the feelings we have deep down, towards Him because of who He is and what He has done. We live out of gratefulness and thankfulness and our natural desire is to please Him.

When I do things for my wife or children, I want to please them, I want them to feel good about it, and when I do that I do it because I love them. I don’t do it to try to love them or win their love, because I already love them, but I do it as an expression of my love for them that already exists, I do it to please them because bringing pleasure is a desire of love, an expression of love, an outcome we want to achieve because we love. As with our families, so it is with God. Our learning these instructions from the apostles, is simply a means of providing ways we can please love and we desire to do that because we love Him, and we love Him because He has first loved us. Hallelujah!

Recap:

PART 2: Big Principles – picking up some of the ways God works

8. Motivation – faith, love and hope, driving forces

9. The Work of God – the work of salvation from the beginning

10. Facing Idolatry – the alternative to worshiping God

11. Judgment – Accountability before God

12. Building the Church – the outworking of salvation

13. Spiritual Blindness – the example of the Jews

14. To Please God – why we DO

13. Spiritual Blindness

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 2 :  13 :  Spiritual Blindness

1 Thess 2:14-16   You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all men in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.

There is a sense whereby we should be grateful to the Jews of the Bible for making so obviously clear to us the effects of sin, the sin that contaminates all of mankind. The only reason to pick on the Jews is that they are the people God chose in the period of Old Testament history. Throughout the Old Testament the message from God was that they were intended to be a light to the Gentiles, a light to the rest of the world, revealing God. His intent was that they would reveal His love and goodness although He must have known that, in the event, with some notable exceptions – say David, Solomon, Josiah etc. – so often they would reveal the awful realities of Sin – rebellion, stupidity, self-centred godlessness.

Read the Old Testament and see God’s side of it.  Again and again He purposes blessing, He purposes doing good for Israel, but time and time again they turned away and fell into disarray and defeat before their enemies. The presence of the miraculous in their midst and the awareness of amazing testimonies of God’s power and love, there on their behalf, seen so clearly through such times as the Exodus, failed to keep them on track, failed to stop them drifting away, failed to stop them relying on legalistic or mechanistic religion instead of a wonderful relationship with the living God.

Stephen, the first Christian martyr, declared of them just before they stoned him to death, You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute?” (Acts 7:51,52)  Jesus himself declared, “Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your forefathers who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your forefathers did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. Because of this, God in his wisdom said, `I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.” (Lk 11:47-51) Was the fulfilment of Jesus’ words the destruction of Jerusalem and the casting the Jews out into the rest of the world until the mid 20th century?  But that was the truth: they had rejected all those God sent.

Wherever you look in the New Testament there is this condemnation of the unbelieving Jews, e.g.  “Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:22,23) What a condemnation that was in the midst of Peter’s first sermon on the Day of Pentecost.  Jesus had done such amazing things but the unbelieving Jews of Jerusalem, the very hierarchy of Judaism, the chief priests and keepers of the temple, rejected all of that, ignored it and distorted the truth and killed Jesus. In that respect they are like the modern crusading atheists of today who find fault with the extreme edges of the Christian world and ignore the wonder of transformed lives in the middle of it, and all the good they have done through the centuries. And they do this all to maintain their own godless prejudices.

This is the truth and it was true of those Jews throughout the Bible. Although there was always a believing remnant (and those became the foundation of the Christian church – all the apostles were Jews, as were all the early believers) the majority preferred to rule their own lives and do their own thing, ignoring God and ignoring His Law that He had provided for them. So they killed prophets when they came and they killed Jesus when he came. Jesus told a parable that could not be more pointed: “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. `They will respect my son,’ he said. “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, `This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ” `The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes’? “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” (Mt 21:33-43)

Wherever Paul and his team went they received opposition from the Jews in the town. This is the tragedy of history, that those who should have been the first to see, failed to see and instead became those who opposed the Gospel, opposed Jesus and opposed God. Even in Israel today, orthodoxy exists, a few believe in Jesus but the majority are not known for their spirituality. The best we can say is that in this, they reflect the rest of the world. If we look at them and see their failure beware complacency. Their day may yet come. Paul warns of these things in Rom 10 & 11.

In Israel we see revealed so clearly a spiritual blindness and it comes as a warning to all the rest of the world – is this how you are too? Beware.

12. Building the Church

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 2 :  12 :  Building the Church

1 Thess 2:11,12   For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

So you get people to become Christians and that’s it? Not according to the New Testament. We find here the apostles’ activity  described in order to achieve some change in the lives of the new believers, so let’s consider first the end result, what the apostles are seeking to achieve in these new believers.

Paul describes the end result as “lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.”   When we speak of being worthy, we speak of ‘being up to an approved standard, a quality that would be acceptable’. So the apostles are teaching these new believers to live new lives, lives that will be approved by God. One of the best descriptions of the old life we lived before we came to Christ is found in Eph 2: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.” (Eph 2:1-3)  That’s how we used to be, spiritually dead because we transgressed or strayed for God’s right way and lived lives characterized by sin, led  by the nose by Satan in a life of disobedience to God and simply following our self-centred desires all the time.

Very well. Let’s consider the opposite to those things: alive to God with lives following God’s way for living, led by the Spirit and thus following God’s purposes for us. Do you see the four things there: 1. God related,  2. Learning God’s design for living, 3. God led, and  4. Realizing God’s purpose for us as individuals.  If you reverse that order for a moment we see that when we come to Christ we realise that He has a new purpose for our lives which is revealed as His Spirit leads us and teaches us a new way to live and we realise the reality of living out this new daily relationship with God.

Now Paul expresses that in our verses above as living lives that are approved by God as we learn to live under His reign (his kingdom) and realise the wonder of His presence in and with us (his glory). This is why it’s not just rules but relationship. We have His Spirit within us and we are led on a daily basis by His Spirit. As we let Him do this we realise more and more the wonder of His presence with us. This is what the apostles are seeking to teach these new believers, how to enter into this new relationship with the Lord which has practical outworkings in daily living.

So a little practical application. Have we learnt or are we in the process of learning to be led by His Holy Spirit, learning to be sensitive to Him as He prompts us, chides us, convicts us, teaches us, trains us?  Have we realised that he has a unique plan for each of us? Are we aware of the gifts and abilities He has given us and the things He has put on our heart as He works to lead us into a place of blessing and service, becoming Sons of God, those who enter into the Father’s heart and the Father’s business?  Are we aware of things that are good and things that are bad for our lives? Do we work to rid ourselves of those things that are bad whether they be things we might consider as mundane, like gossip, criticism, jealousy (but are things that are really harmful to both us and to others) or things that we might consider more serious like theft or adultery etc.

The New Testament has lists of things to be rejected from our lives, e.g.  No. “falsehood .. anger.. stealing.. unwholesome talk …bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice,” (Eph 4:25-31) or no “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed… anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language …lying.” (Col 3:5-9) But the teaching is positive. Replace these things with, “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Col 3:12-14) Thus in the Christian life there are negatives – to be rejected – and positives – to be cultivated.

And how did the apostles go about this teaching? Byencouraging, comforting and urging.  The word that the NIV translates as ‘encouraging’ some other version translate as ‘admonishing’ which has more of a corrective element to it. As Paul elsewhere speaks of the function of scripture is for  “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training,” (2 Tim 3:16) it is likely that this first word will have a stronger feel than just a pat on the back. The analogy of them acting like a father would suggest a more directive approach that is backed by comfort or support in difficult times. The word ‘urging’ brings an urgency or importance to the work of change. Yes, this work brings correction and change, and we do need support or comfort to keep at it in the face of enemy distractions and doubts, and we do need urging on to remind us how vital it is, for this is the reason Christ saved us.