Saturday, July 04, 2015

Strengthened and protected by the word of God (Ministry in Thessalonians #28)

Finally brothers, pray for us, that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you. And pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men, for not everyone has faith. But the Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen and protect you from the evil one. We have confidence in the Lord that you are doing and will continue to do the things we command. May the Lord direct your hearts into God's love and Christ's perseverance.
- 2 Thessalonians 3:1-5 

Over the years I have learned so much from Paul's prayers. I love the theology tucked into these passages, often overlooked at the beginning and end of his books. I also love the permission some of these prayers give to ask God for big things! This passage is one of the most specific prayers, and it is rich with meaning.

The humility of Paul and his team is such a lesson for all of us. Despite being the "apostle to the Gentiles", who planted this church and left after only 3 weeks, Paul asks THEM for prayer. Think back to the early years of your walk with the Lord. Imagine one or two years in getting a letter from someone who was instrumental in leading you to the Lord - asking you to pray for him or her! What an encouragement that would be to your faith, to be entrusted to pray for someone you loved and respected so much.

But what is truly amazing is what he asks them to pray.
   - That the message they proclaim would spread rapidly and be honored
   - That they would be delivered from wicked and evil men

This is a Gospel-centered prayer request! Paul wants others to receive the message of the Lord as the word of God, not the word of man - just as the Thessalonians did (1 Thess. 2:13). As the team moves forward in proclaiming that message, Paul asks prayer for deliverance from "wicked and evil men". There are those who intentionally oppose the Gospel's advance, and Paul wanted to be delivered from them -- not for his own comfort, but so the message could continue. This prayer provides biblical permission to pray for deliverance of those who are imprisoned or otherwise persecuted for their faith!

Ever the pastor, Paul then reassures them -- God is faithful and will strengthen and protect YOU. He draws an important distinction - while they pray that they "may" be delivered from evil men ... he is certain of God's protection from "the evil one". What a beautiful reminder tucked into this prayer that even when men on the earthly level "succeed", God still ultimately protects from the evil one. Satan wants to steal our faith. God promises to protect us from his ultimate goal.

How does that strengthening and protection work? I see a key in the very next verse. While it seems to break the flow of the prayer, it is really an important part of it. Paul is certain that the Thessalonians are doing "the things we command" -- standing firm on their teachings which were the very words of God. As we hold on to the word of God and doing what it says, our faith grows - because "Faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the word of God" (Romans 10:17). As our faith grows, we are strengthened and protected from Satan's schemes. It's a beautiful way that we can be part of what God is doing in our own hearts!

And our hearts - that's the focus on the end of Paul's prayer. He prays for their hearts to be directed - the word refers to all hindrances being removed - into two things: God's love and Christ's perseverance. Knowing God's love assures us that everything in His Word is for our GOOD. And while scholars debate whether the final phrase should read "Christ's perseverance" or "the perseverance of Christ" the point is clear: Jesus fully obeyed God, and by His empowerment we can do so as well. Continue to obey the clear commands of Scripture is only possible with His perseverance.

As we look at this passage and the previous one from a ministry perspective, one thing stands out clearly to me: The word of God must be central in our lives and worship. We must know it, read it, study it, meditate on it, memorize it, teach it, proclaim it, hear it read ... in every way, the strength of the church and individual believers depends on the place we give the word of God. If those we minister to lack assurance of its accuracy, inerrancy, and authority, some apologetic teaching might be in order, because the minimization of God's word has led to errors more numerous to count. Once we establish the Bible as the word of God, then we should proclaim it fully in every way we can. It will make every difference in the world!

Stand firm! (Ministry in Thessalonians, #27)

But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our Gospel, so that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. May the Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who loved us and by His grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word. (2 Thessalonians 1:13-18) 

One of the beautiful things about Scripture is that the Author doesn't leave us hopeless. He balances hard truths such as those in the previous verses with passages filled with encouragement and purpose.

In this passage, Paul highlights the "how" of the Thessalonians' salvation:
- The sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit
- Belief in the truth
- through the proclamation of the Gospel

They were saved not by a mere set of facts, nor by any works of their own. Instead, God's men shared God's message, and the Thessalonians believed it. The Holy Spirit came into their hearts and began a transforming, sanctifying work. And that sanctifying work occurred as the believers held on to the word of God - the teachings passed on by the very apostles who brought the message to them. He charges them - and by extension, us - to stand firm - in contrast to those just mentioned in the previous verses who refused to love and believe the truth, delighted in wickedness, believed a lie, and were deceived by evil.

How do we stand firm? By holding to the teachings passed on by the apostles! Remember that Paul was writing this as one of the earliest books of the New Testament to be penned. The early church had the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), stories passed on by those who knew Jesus, and the few books that were written to this point. The "teachings passed on whether by word of mouth or by letter" incorporates all that was taught under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In John 17:20, Jesus extends His beautiful prayer beyond His immediate apostles to all those who would believe because of their words:

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message

In replacing Judas with Matthias in Acts 1, we learn that the criteria for apostleship was witnessing the resurrected Christ (Acts 1:21-22). Here is the apostolic authority laid out in Scripture: Those who were direct witnesses of the resurrected Christ recorded what He taught them, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and those writings became the New Testament. They became the "teachings passed on". They became the truths we are commanded to hold on to (and they point back to the Old Testament, reaffirming its role as authoritative in the church as well).

So Paul is telling the church in Thessalonica: "God called you through our words, saved you through your belief in the truth and through the indwelling Holy Spirit, and now teaches you through our words - so hold on to them. He's given you encouragement and hope that is eternal - beyond your circumstances. So just do and say what is right."

That's where the hope comes in! God gave us encouragement and hope, so that we can be encouraged and strengthened for doing and speaking what is right. But that hope isn't just a good feeling. It's not positive thinking. It's firmly rooted and grounded in the word of God. It looks a lot like this:

"I'm facing the temptation to compromise at work right now, by inflating my numbers. But God's Word tells me that God hates dishonest weights and measures, and tells me to be honest in all things. He tells me that He establishes the work of my hands. So I am going to trust Him and do what is right."

"Our finances are really tight, so we don't have extra money right now for anything. But that single mom in our church doesn't have enough money to buy food. Scripture tells us to always be ready to meet immediate needs and that we should always be ready to do good especially within the church. He also promises to provide for our needs. So we are going to trust Him and open our hands to her, by having a meatless week and giving the difference to help her with her financial needs."

The examples are endless but the principle is the same -- when faced with a specific situation, we find something in God's Word that speaks to that situation, and we believe what God says and act or speak accordingly.

We are given hope and eternal encouragement. But we won't find any of it apart from the Word of God. As Christians who want to stand firm, we must make Scripture central to our daily lives and to our churches. We must be sure that our belief in its accuracy and inerrancy is firmly grounded, then hold on to it (all of it) with all we have. It's the only way to stand firm.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Known by love

See their faces. Read their stories. Feel the pain of their loved ones. This is beyond senseless. It's an obvious act of hatred, but it's more than that. It's an attack from Satan. An attack inside the doors of the church by someone who, for an hour at least, tried to act like he belonged there. Amid all the necessary discussion about race, don't miss this profound truth: THEY TOOK HIM IN. This young white man walked into a church full of African-Americans, in a city in the deep South, and was welcomed. He wanted to sit by the pastor, and the pastor didn't turn him away. They weren't afraid of his differences. To the end, they modeled Jesus' intention that disciples are known by their love.

And then he killed 9 of them.

The devil may have laughed, but don't think for a minute that he won. He didn't. Jesus said, "On this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it." (Matthew 16:18). The language is active, speaking of a church moving forward to attack hell itself. That means when we are fighting the right battles, we get close to the gates of hell, and the fires might singe us. But Jesus promises victory is certain.

This church's love was evident to the end. Love won the victory. It didn't die with them. The gates of hell did not prevail. That's the all-important religious aspect to this story, something we all should remember.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Loving the Truth (Ministry in Thessalonians, #26)

Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to Him, we ask you brothers not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report, or letter supposed to have come from us saying that the day of the Lord has already come. Don't let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man who is doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself above everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God's temple, proclaiming Himself to be God.

Don't  you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? And now you know what is holding him back so that he can be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work, but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of His mouth and destroy by the splendor of His coming. 

The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan, displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs, and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.

- 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12

I've decided that 2 Thessalonians puts to rest any idea of agnosticism. In Paul's theology, there is simply no room for the malaise of apathy. We either love the truth, or we refuse to do so. We either believe the truth or we delight in wickedness. 

Like many of you these words grate against my desire and even, in some ways, my experience. I want to believe that there was a time when I hadn't yet embraced truth, but I didn't really delight in wickedness. I wasn't really all that bad, right? 

Yet apart from the redemptive, transforming power of Christ, the human heart is "deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked" (Jeremiah 17:9). And I know I was guilty of things God hates (Proverbs 6:16-19), things like pride, deception, causing division. And those are just the things I'm willing to post publicly! 

Through the pen of Paul, the Holy Spirit doesn't allow me the easy way out that universalism offers. Instead, I am pressed to ask the hard question: How much do I love the truth? Because what this passage teaches is not easy, but it is simple: If anyone wants to believe a lie, God lets them. 

To Paul, salvation is more than praying a prayer or checking off doctrinal beliefs. It's a direction of the heart characterized by LOVING and BELIEVING the truth. The opposite of this is not merely believing a lie, being shrouded in a false belief system against your will. No, the opposite of this is REFUSING to love the truth and DELIGHTING in wickedness. 

Wickedness isn't necessarily blatant, dark evil. The word simply means injustice, unrighteousness, whatever is morally wrong as defined by God's law. Certainly we all fall short - that's what the word "sin" means - but Paul tells us that those who are condemned actually delight in wickedness. They take joy in it. Like the Israelites in the time of the Judges, they call what is evil, good. And by taking truth and refusing to love it, they essentially say that what is good, is evil. 

There is no question this is a hard word from Paul - and yet we must remember, looking at this from a ministry perspective, that he wrote this to ENCOURAGE the church. In the next section he will turn his attention toward encouraging them to hold on to the word of God. But first, he lays groundwork of how important it is for them to not take that word lightly. They are to LOVE it. And when they do, they can have assurance of their salvation.

I see something else encouraging tucked into these words. I see a hint that God looks at the heart of those who might not know the full truth, to see if they are loving the truth they do have. Do they love the truth of God revealed in nature? Do they love the truth they've picked up along the way? Are they prepared to love the full revelation of all God is for us in Christ when they are told of the Gospel message? For those individuals who reject wickedness and love truth, I see a hint of God's words to Ezekiel concerned the shepherds who were leading Israel astray with false teachings:

Ezekiel 34:10 This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.

I've read plenty of miraculous stories of people seeing crosses, hearing words, having visions of Jesus, being told to go some place where a missionary had also been told to go, neither knowing who they would be meeting. We know Jesus said no one can come unless God's Spirit draws him. He draws with the truth. As people see and respond positively to the truth, He gives them more truth ... and more truth ... and more truth ... because they love it. Because they believe it. Because he wants no one to perish. 

And how does He do that? Through His church. Through each and every believer and community of believers. 

Does this passage trouble you? Do you hate to think of anyone perishing? Rejoice, dear friend.  You share the heart of God, who doesn't want anyone to perish. He won't force the affections of the heart. He'll take every inkling that someone loves truth and nourish it with more. And He wants to use you in the process.

Don't let Paul's words confuse you. Let them energize you to find those He wants you to share with, so you can love the truth together.  

Thursday, June 04, 2015

While you're waiting (Ministry in Thessalonians #25)

All this is evidence that God's judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with His powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of His power on the day He comes to be glorified in His holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you. 

With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of His calling, and that by His power He may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith. We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
- 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12

A theme throughout 1 & 2 Thessalonians is the second coming of Christ. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul teaches about the second coming and ends each chapter with an encouragement based on our hope in Christ's certain return. In 2 Thessalonians the emphasis shifts somewhat. Paul enhances the teaching on the second coming with details about what will happen and how not to be deceived by false claims of a secret return. However, he also addresses something very significant: What to do while you're waiting.

We all hate to wait. I personally rarely go anywhere that might result in a wait without a good magazine or book. Anyone who's walked with the Lord very long knows that the times He asks us to wait on an answer to prayer are much harder than hearing "no" when we longed for "yes". Our human brain tends to only focus well on one thing, and so when something is heavily on our mind, we can neglect other things that are equally true and important. Anyone who has nursed a loved one through an extended hospital stay knows the truth of that principle.

Paul doesn't shy away from the hard truth about the judgment associated with Christ's return. While it will be a happy "meeting in the air" for those in Christ (see 1 Thessalonians 4), it will be a time of punishment for those who don't know God or obey the gospel of Christ. This judgment is also associated with validation of the faith of those who had been persecuted throughout the centuries. God is just, even if that justice did not play out in their lifetimes.

Yet Paul doesn't just use this reminder of Christ's return and teaching on the coming judgment of their persecutors to turn the Thessalonians attention heavenward. Throughout the book of 2 Thessalonians we have every reason to believe that they didn't have any trouble at all focusing on the Second Coming. In fact, many scholars believe they focused on it a bit too much - being anxious about whether they had missed it (chapter 2) and not working in order to wait for His return (chapter 3). Paul's prayer for them here sets a tone for the book: Here's how to live while you're waiting on Christ's return. What can we learn from this prayer?
  • Christ's return should motivate us. Paul prays "with all this in mind". What is "all this"? The coming judgment upon Christ's return and the result of the day He comes: He will be glorified in His holy people, and marveled at among all those who have believed. He will be glorified in our lives, made holy by His grace, and we will be marveling at Him. At His beauty, at His perfection, at His power, at Him in every way. 
  • The One who calls us is the One who counts us worthy of the call. Let's be honest. NONE of us are worthy of our calling. However, through prayer He causes us to become who He calls us to be. The beautiful thing about it is that the new heart He puts within us makes us want to cooperate with the lessons along the way. I call this my "Princess Diaries" analogy. Have you seen it? In the movie, Mia is a homely, awkward teenager who suddenly discovers that she is really a princess - her grandmother is the queen of Genovia (played perfectly by Julie Andrews). Grandma wants to give Mia the chance to decide whether to pursue her heritage as princess and future queen, or to reject the opportunity. Much of the movie consists of Mia's efforts to be transformed from a nerdy young woman into a princess. Sometimes the efforts are humorous, as when Mia trips and falters in her evening attire. Other times they are sad, as when she embarrasses herself at a dinner party by setting the ambassador's sleeve on fire. And occasionally they are dramatic - when Mia's classmates see her new hair for the first time, they are truly amazed at the transformation. Through it all, Grandma encourages Mia that the Princess Lessons are really all about helping her "become who you are" -- and she reminds her that even if she rejects the heritage of becoming Queen, "you cannot reject who you are". That's true of our calling. Romans 11:29 says "The gifts and callings of God are irrevocable." We are made worthy of the calling one painstaking lesson at a time. Like Mia, we sometimes have humorous results, other times sad and embarassing -- and occasionally dramatic. Always we can see the results more clearly from a long, reflective view than we can in the midst of the day-to-day struggles. And if we throw in the towel for a while, we can never reject who we are -- the Holy Spirit won't let us be happy until we take up the lessons once again.
  • He fulfills our good purposes and faith-prompted actions by His power. This verse has been so liberating to me! Have you ever felt the paralysis of analysis when it comes to ministry? You sense a call to ministry, a call to look outside yourself in some way. But there are SO many things you could do ... so many things you should do ... so many things that need to be done ... where do you begin? One of the things I've learned over the years and through the Word of God is that we so often underestimate how thoroughly He has redeemed us. He has given us a NEW HEART. He has transformed us! But just as with Peter and Paul, He left our personalities and strengths and interests intact. Paul didn't quit being an intellectual the day he encountered Christ. Peter didn't stop being bold and daring. But they both walked out their ministry filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, with the very personalities and gifts God had put within them. Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying we shouldn't pray and seek God for specific guidance, and I'm certainly not advocating an emotion-led life. But what I am saying is that when we sense His call, it's ok to consider what we really have a passion to do and examine it against the word of God. Do you love to cook, and get great joy out of making economical meals? Maybe God would use you in a soup kitchen! Has writing always been part of your life? Consider whether God wants you to encourage others with your words! The possibilities are endless. Rather than do nothing out of fearing a wrong move, see in this passage the freedom that when we move forward in our purposes and faith-filled actions, they are completed not in our strength but by God's power. When you start something that you just can't seem to help getting involved in, and it bears fruit, that's a fulfillment of 2 Thessalonians 1:11!!  Watch for the fruit of the Spirit in the things you are passionate to do - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. "Against such things there is no law." (Galatians 5:23). 
  • The purpose is always God's glory. He is glorified in us by grace alone. Don't be confused by Paul's phrase "and you in Him." To be "glorified" means to be given an accurate weight or measure, to be shown truly for what a thing is. Through our actions God is revealed to the world as who He truly is. And through Him, we come to see who we truly are. Biblically, one reason for the delayed return of Christ is that all the world has not yet seen His glory through His people - they haven't heard the message preached and seen it lived out. The longed-for return can only be hastened in one way: As we move toward the fulfillment of the prophecy that every tribe, tongue, and nation will be represented around the throne (Rev. 7:9). 
Biblical waiting is never passive. He is always working in us, whether we are waiting on answered prayers or on the return of Christ. Meanwhile, He has a ministry for us to be involved in ... while we're waiting.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

"Therefore ... we boast" (Ministry in Thessalonians, #24)

Paul, Silas, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 
We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing. 
Therefore, among God's churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. 
- 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4 

As we turn the page to Second Thessalonians, we don't find a radically different church. Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians starts much as the first one did, and continues the attitude of thanksgiving for their faith and love. Not only did the enemy not steal their faith and make the efforts meaningless - he completely lost the battle as well as the war. The church became deeply rooted.

And Paul was like any proud parent -- he told others about his beloved child, in this case, an amazing young church.

As Christians, we know that "pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall" (Proverbs 16:18). We understand that we are not to boast in our own works (1 Corinthians 1:29) and that all boasting is to be in the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:31). And yet, seemingly paradoxically we are told that we should "outdo one another in showing honor" (Romans 12:10) and we see examples throughout the epistles of Paul showing honor to a Christian or church, often as an example or encouragement for others.

So how do the two connect? What can we glean from Paul boasting about this church?
  • It's ok to say positive things about others - and let them know it. Paul didn't seem to spend any energy worrying that if the church knew he was talking about them they would get, in my best Texas parlance, "the big head". Have you ever had a relationship where you felt unappreciated or constantly criticized, and yet others said "She always speaks so highly of you"? What is your thought? If you're like me, it's probably along the lines of, "Well I sure wish she'd tell me so." People need to know when they are getting it right, when they are being a blessing, when they are valued and appreciated. The more the relationship is one of authority (such as parent-child, teacher-student, pastor-congregation), the more important it is that the person in authority take the time to reinforce positive lessons with specific, verbal appreciation. This isn't just basic human nature; we see this in Paul's example throughout Scripture. We don't have to be scared to honor people who are living out Biblical truths in the real world. 
  • Context matters. Paul shares that he boasts "among God's churches." He doesn't try to convince the world or the Roman government of this awesome church. He boasts to those who will understand the context and be encouraged by the example. This doesn't mean that it is wrong to speak of the good a church is doing when talking to a city council considering a restrictive sign ordinance, for example -- but it does mean that we have to realize the audience and that the boasting will be most effective when the context is grasped by fellow believers. 
  • Biblical boasting is specific enough to take away encouragement and examples. Paul specifically boasts about their perseverance and faith in the midst of persecution. The likely result of this, on the part of the listeners, is a realization that they too could endure trials, in the same way the church at Thessalonica did. Decades after this book, Peter would write, encouraging believers to resist Satan and stand firm "because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings" (1 Peter 5:9).
  • Biblical boasting doesn't take from God's glory, it elevates it. Paul would later write to Ephesians that God reveals His wisdom in the heavenly realm through the church. That's us, with all our faults. God is glorified in our weaknesses and frailties. He is also glorified in our progress. When read in context, we see Paul's constant connection back to God: 
    • The church is "in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (v 1)
    • They receive grace and peace "from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (v 2)
    • Paul's prayers "thank God for you...because your faith is growing" (v 3)
    • The boasting occurs "among God's churches" (v 4)
    • As we will see in the next segment (v 5), their perseverance is "evidence that God's judgment is right."
  • We are part of a larger story. "God's churches" that heard of Thessalonica were part of what God was doing as well. Thessalonica, a relatively new, small, early church, needed to know they also weren't alone. By sharing the stories, each of the churches make a connection that brought them into the bigger picture of what God was doing. 
When blood-bought, Spirit-filled, Word-bathed Christians are growing, others have much to learn and be encouraged by. Paul's example tells us that we don't have to be afraid to tell their stories - and we have much to learn from listening to others' stories as well. Most of us aren't church planters, going around with easy access from church to church to tell others' stories. So what are some ways we can connect to the bigger story?
  • Read Christian biographies. There is something profoundly moving about reading stories of Christians gone before. I always feel like I'm extending the list of Hebrews 11. We have much to learn from people who lived in different times and places. While they certainly have their biases, as we do, and while we do not elevate their lifestyles to the commands to Scripture - we can be deeply impacted by seeing how the scarlet thread of faith extends through the centuries and across the miles. Not sure where to start? Check out Goodreads' list of Christian biographies and pick one that sounds good to you!
  • Read missionary stories. Certainly missionary biographies are a great place to start, but sign up for missionary newsletters or read those your church provides. Find out what God is doing TODAY in places you've never heard of. 
  • Learn about the persecuted church. Sign up for newsletters from and start reading. You'll be blown away by the faithfulness and endurance of believers around the world.
  • Learn about the churches in your city. Pray for other churches and pay attention to what God is doing in them. When you see a Vacation Bible School sign, pray for that church. When you meet a believer who attends another church, ask what God is doing there. See yourself not just as "a member of X church" but as "part of the church in (my city)".
  • Don't be afraid to talk about what you see in others. Do some Biblical boasting, especially if you are in ministry! Share what God is doing in your group, and tell them about it. Even if you're not in ministry, talk about the amazing testimony of your worship leader, or the way God uses your pastor's words in your life. Then tell that person directly. Encouragement works both ways!
God is doing some amazing things throughout the world through the most unlikely vessels -- US. Let's bring Him glory by sharing those stories. He is worthy ... therefore, we boast.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

"Brothers, Pray for Us" (Ministry in Thessalonians #23)

"Brothers, pray for us. Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss. I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you." 
- 1 Thessalonians 5:25-28

It takes a lot of humility to ask for prayer, especially from someone younger in the Lord.

Although Paul was a church planter and missionary, and never lost sight of his responsibility before the Lord for those he served, his conclusion here is a beautiful example of humility. He sees the Thessalonians as brothers, and asks for their prayers.

If you are in ministry, hear in this the challenge to ask for prayer from others. Who is praying for you as you preach, teach, evangelize, minister a cup of cold water in His name? Build a prayer team and keep them informed with how to pray for you!

This example of humility is a dual reminder: In any ministry situation we should always have prayer support from others -- and we should always remember to pray for those who minister to us. Our pastors, elders, deacons, teachers - all desperately need our prayers. In Paul's request I hear their words: "Pray for us." You can bet that any leader worth his or her salt is praying for you. Let's be sure to pray for them as well!

"Brothers, pray for us." Prayer connects us across the miles, builds deep relationships, and has eternal results. Let's not miss out on that!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Hard Simplicity of Sanctification (Ministry in Thessalonians #22)

And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else. 
Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. 
Do not put out the Spirit's fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil. 
May God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The One who calls you is faithful, and He will do it.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:14-24

It's easy to see Paul's pastoral heart throughout his writings. 1 Thessalonians is filled with declarations of love, desire to see them, and reminders of their time together. Now, as Paul and his team wrap up this letter to a much-loved church, they leave parting words that are not difficult to understand. Paul's letters consistently move from doctrinal theology to practical theology, and this earliest one is no different.

Paul packs a lot of information into a few short verses. Like most pastors, he sees the time drawing to an end and wants to make sure every Spirit-breathed word makes it onto the page before the messenger takes the scroll on its journey to the recipients. His parental hearts comes through as well; who among us hasn't had a parent shouting out last-minute reminders as we drive off to a new experience without their daily presence? Rather than see this sentences as a list of commands, we should view them as a reflection of love: The love of a parent, the love of a pastor, and most of all, the love of the God who inspired them onto the page.

Let's be honest: We don't need Greek word studies or even comparisons to other scriptures to understand how Paul is exhorting the Thessalonians - and us - to live. It's straightforward and simple. But oh, don't for a minute think I'm saying it is easy. I am absolutely certain that we don't get behind the first verse before we are filled with questions about how to "warn the idle" and conviction about times when we've been "the idle"! We can spend a lifetime learning to live out "always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else." It's simple - but not easy!

I'm convinced that this hard simplicity of sanctification is why the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to wrap up this section with a solid doctrinal reminder of how we walk out our practical theology. In a few words, he fills us with hope that the previous verses can be lived out in our lives -- not by our power, but by His alone:

  • "May God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through." What a perfectly beautiful reminder that our sanctification comes from God, not from our own efforts. Don't be thrown off by the word "sanctify". It simply means "separate", specifically to be separated from ungodly things to be dedicated to God Himself. It also means "to purify" and is used in the New Testament to refer to being purified by the blood of Christ and cleansed from within. It is an internal work with external effects. It's just a big word for being "in the world, but not of the world". And praise God, He reminds us that it is a work of God Himself. The God of Peace. The One with whom we have peace because of the blood of Jesus. 
  • "May your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." Sanctification affects us through and through. It's not something that we can keep to ourselves. Although our faith must be very personal, it isn't private. When God's sanctifying work is in us we will be different in every aspect of our being. Have you ever felt convicted to apologize to someone who had no idea that you had wronged her - but you knew, because the internal attitude was off and God wouldn't let you rest until you confessed? That's an example of the way sanctification works. As we learn to walk closely with God as He works in us, we will sense times when something is affecting our spirit, soul, or body in ways that keep us from being blameless. The quicker we act to separate ourselves from that, the sooner we find a deepening of our intimacy with God as He walks with us through the hard simplicity of sanctification. 
  • "The One who calls you is faithful, and He will do it." This unequivocal statement keeps our focus on God's faithfulness. Have you ever had an experience where you felt you kept reliving the same mistake? Did you get to the point of recognizing that God was going to let you keep going around that mountain until you got it right? Then you have experienced the persistent, stubborn faithfulness of God. When we are His children, He is far too faithful to us to allow us to persist in something that damages our spirit, soul, and body rather than keeps it blameless. It may take a while for us to get the message, but He will keep after us, because as this verse tells us "He WILL do it". We get the joy of deciding to cooperate with Him in that work, and to decrease the consequences of ignoring His voice by responding quickly. When I was a child I was pretty stubborn. (Some would argue I haven't outgrown it, but that's a topic for another day.) Many things that my mom tried to teach me I resisted. On more than one occasion I recall her saying to me, "You can be stubborn, but I can be more stubborn than you." She knew what every parent knows: At some point she would win, because she was the mom. She saw the bigger picture and there was only so much I could do without her. She was stubbornly faithful to not let me go outside and play until the chores were done, or I brushed my teeth, or whatever thing I was rebelling against that day. And in the end, all the important lessons she taught me took. She did it. She loved me enough that her faithfulness exceeded my slowness to respond. And our God is the same way. I just want to cooperate and be used by Him, rather than keep repeating the same lessons. 
Paul never promised the Thessalonians a rose garden. He told them from the beginning this wouldn't be easy, and they experienced persecution early on. Now, listing a number of simple but difficult aspects of this different life they were called to live, he still doesn't mince words. It's obviously not going to be easy. But he is leaving them in the hands of the One whose work would transform their lives.