Saturday, January 24, 2015

Trusting the Word to Work (Ministry in Thessalonians, #11)

And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe. For you, brothers, became imitators of God's churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people 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. - 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16

One of my consistent prayers when I teach or write is that my words will fall to the ground and God's words would remain. I know too well that I am human, imperfect, and have areas where I'm prone to imbalance. God wisely makes absolutely no promises about my words. His Word, however - well, that's a different story:
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

Your word, LORD, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. (Psalm 119:89) 
When I first started walking with the Lord, I had no mentor, discipleship program, or even a regular church. What God used to draw me to Himself was His Word, which had been planted in me when I was a child required to be in church with my parents three times a week. While it didn't seem to "take" at the time, what I didn't realize was the principle of germination. Just as seeds in a garden germinate at different rates - the oldest mature seed to germinate actually dates to Jesus' era - so it is when God's Word is planted in the soil of a heart. Our part is to plant the seeds of God's Word and pray for it to fall on good soil; the rest, including the timing of germination, is in God's hands.

Paul's team rejoiced over the Thessalonians because when they heard God's Word from Paul and his team, they welcomed it "not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God." Paul knew full well that such a response was the work of God in their hearts, so he "continually" thanked God for this attitude toward the Word of God. The words used in this passage are instructive to any of us who communicate God's Word in any way to other people.
  • First, the word of God is "heard." This refers to physically hearing something. They had to literally hear the word of God from someone - the verse makes it clear they heard it from Paul's team. Paul lived out the words he later wrote to the church in Rome: How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? Romans 10:14
  • Second, the word of God is "received." This word refers to "receiving something transmitted" and taking it to oneself. In the context of this verse it refers to receiving with the mind. When these believers heard the word of God, they did not immediately cast it aside. The words didn't fall to the ground; they received the words into their minds and gave them some consideration. 
  • Third, the word of God is "welcomed." Some translations say "accepted". The Greek word carries a much deeper meaning than our typical understanding of either word. Its first meaning is "to take with the hand" and it is a word associated with hospitality, used in Hebrews 11:31 of Rahab "welcoming" the spies. When referring to something heard it includes the idea of "to make one's own". It includes the idea of "take up", as its use in Ephesians 6:17 demonstrates.
  • Finally, once the word has been heard, received, and welcomed, it is "at work in you who believe." You don't have to know Greek at all to grasp the meaning behind "at work" when you see the word energeo! It contains the idea of working with POWER. It brings to mind Hebrews 4:12: For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
How was the word of God shown to be at work in the Thessalonian church? The "For you" in verse 14 connects the thoughts. Paul tells them God's word "is at work in you who believe. FOR YOU, brothers, became imitators of God's churches in Judea..." How did they imitate these churches? The verse continues to describe how just as the churches in Judea suffered persecution from their own countrymen, so too did the church in Thessalonica. We know from Acts 17 that this persecution came alarmingly early in the life of the new believers. The seeds had barely germinated before persecution came, people were arrested, and Paul & his team were whisked away to Berea. They had to learn quickly to trust the word of God to be at work in the church.

Please know that none of this negates the importance of sound biblical teaching. God gave the "office" gifts to the church - apostle, evangelist, prophet, pastor, teacher - to build her up and bring us all to maturity. When God's word is at work in us, we will be drawn to sound teaching and want to be part of the church He loves.

What this passage teaches me, though, is that when I fully do my part - share the word of God and pray for the it to fall into good soil - I can rest knowing that whatever circumstances arise, the word of God will do its work. Like a new plant, it takes on a life of its own.

The ministry challenge for this is two-fold: First, it's always a good idea to examine our hearts anew to make sure we are welcoming the word of God and allowing it to powerfully work in us. Second, take any concerns that you have about people you've shared Scripture with to the Lord. Ask Him to give them a heart to receive and welcome the words as the words of God, not man. And pray for those words to accomplish the purpose God intends as He unleashes the power that is locked up in every seed, bringing it forth to produce fruit in His perfect timing.


Friday, January 23, 2015

The fruit of loving (Ministry in Thessalonians, #10)

"As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you. But we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us. Surely you remember, brothers, our toil and hardship: We worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel to you. You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous, and blameless we were among you. For 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."
- 1 Thessalonians 2:6b-12

When I started this series, I wrote that I wanted to discover the heart of ministry. I wanted to meditate on the truths of these two books that were richly laced with insights about how Paul and his team ministered in Thessalonica. The passage we are considering today is one of the key sections that God kept bringing up in my heart and mind to lead me to this series. It's funny though. Preparing to write about this, I kept focusing on the idea of "how not to be a burden", since Paul mentions that concept twice in these verses. I even made a list from my observations. But God - as He so often does - reshaped my understanding just as I sat down to write this post.

Paul's ministry, not only to the Thessalonians but overall, cannot be understood apart from the deep love that God gave him for people. What else but love can prompt such a longing for another's salvation that a person would want to give up his own if possible?
I am speaking the truth in Christ--I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit--that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. (Romans 9:1-3 ESV)
Paul made it clear to a later congregation that love was the motivating factor in his ministry:
If we are "out of our mind," as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. (2 Corinthians 5:13-14)
And one of the most beautiful chapters in all of Scripture, loved by believer and unbeliever alike, extols the virtues of love above other spiritual gifts, even saying it is greater than hope and even than faith!
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)
But in 1 Thessalonians, one of the earliest books of the New Testament to be written, Paul isn't teaching on the theology of love. Instead, his emphasis on love appears suddenly, sandwiched between his words describing how he and his team approached ministry in Thessalonica. To me, that makes his example all the more powerful. Rather than providing us a list of ministry do's and don'ts, he just peels back the curtain of transparency and lets us see what happens when ministry is fueled by genuine love. Join me in this glimpse into Paul's heart:
  • The intensity of authentic love. "We loved you so much". The word translated as "loved...so much" is only used here in the New Testament and is defined by Strong's concordance as "to desire, long for, especially the longing of love." We often rightly emphasize the "doing" aspect of love as described in 1 Corinthians 13. It's good and even wise to remind ourselves that love doesn't depend on feelings. But it's wrong to keep love locked into a category of duty. There is an intensity of authentic love, especially for those God calls us to minister to, that brings with it a deep desire. It transforms duty into delight.
  • The joy of authentic love. "that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well". In a ministry situation we should never lose sight of the importance of joy and delight. Let's face it - ministry is hard. Anyone who chooses to spend time developing her spiritual gifts, practicing the spiritual disciplines essential to exercise those gifts effectively, and living out the exercise of those gifts in consistent ministry is giving up something to do so. It's not just this thing we do on the side, on par with attending local sporting events or visiting art galleries. And if that weren't enough, the minute we step out in the obedience of faith, Satan increases his attacks to stop us (we'll see more on that in a future lesson). But in the middle of this tough job and spiritual warfare, God does something beautiful. He gives us joy. He makes us delighted to do His will - to share the gospel and our lives. 
    • If you think delight is not important, consider this: Imagine your husband coming home one night and announcing that he is taking you out for dinner, then when you get home will clean the entire house while you prop up your feet and watch your favorite show. The next day he will take care of the children while you sleep in. When you thank him for it he says, "Don't thank me, it's my duty. I'm supposed to do that as your husband." I don't know a woman who could hear those words and not have some of the excitement taken out of the plans. But if that same husband took his wife's face in his hand and said, "Darling, I love you so much, I am delighted to do something for you to bless you. In fact, I cannot wait to find ways to show you love" - the woman would sense his delight.
    • Joy is a fruit of the Spirit. When we are filled with the Spirit, there is a joy that underlies everything we do. We can consider that Biblical permission to fight for joy and to come against the enemy's efforts to steal our joy. In fact, we can often discover what ministry God wants us involved in when we find something that causes us to overflow with joy and delight!  
    • The word "delight" is a word meaning "well-pleased". It's used by God for Jesus upon His baptism - "This is my Son...with Him I am well-pleased" (Matthew 3:7).It really means just like it sounds - it's a sense of pleasure that goes along with someone or something. It's a word that describes when you are doing exactly what you want to be doing at a given moment. Paul's team was "delighted" - "well-pleased" - to share the Gospel AND their lives. Let's face it - most of us might share the Gospel out of duty, but we aren't likely to share our lives apart from a sense of delight. There has to be some level of "want to" in order to open up our hearts and homes.
  • The nature of authentic love. "because you had become so dear to us." "So dear" is "agapetos", a form of the word "agape" which is sacrificial, Godly love that focuses on the good of the one loved. The same form of the word is used at Jesus' baptism when God speaks, "This is my beloved (agapetos) Son" (see Mark 1:11). John tells us "We love, because He first loved us" (1 John 4:19). Any measure of love we have for someone comes from the heart of God. When God gives us love in our hearts for someone, or a group of people, and gives us a delight in sharing our lives with them, we walk that out in sacrificial love and along the way, they become increasingly "beloved" to us.
So we are back to our starting point. Paul and his team had this deep, genuine love, placed in their hearts by God. This love defined their ministry. What is the result of this type of love? The passage outlines a few aspects of their ministry that could only come from hearts of love:
  • Parental care
  • Gentleness
  • Willingness to work hard
  • Holy, righteous, blameless
  • Encouraging, comforting, urging 
  • And of course, not wanting to be a burden
After going through this passage, I'm convinced that a Godly ministry cannot start with a desire to not be a burden. Frankly, that can easily become false humility and lead to pride and a "martyr's complex". Godly ministry has to start with authentic love. If I am to see any kind of fruit at all, I have to first be filled with love for the people God calls me to. Whether that be a one-time conversation, an extended Bible study group, or a long-term relationship, I cannot escape the priority of love. If I sense the love waning, I have to go back to the source of Love Himself, and ask for a new infusion. The beautiful thing is, when I am compelled by love, the fruit is evident. People might reject the message, but they can never deny the love behind it. 

So that's my ministry challenge tonight: Seek God for the people He's given you a deep love for. Ask Him to make that ministry a delight. And watch the type of fruit He brings forth as you love and serve those you find "so dear".

Monday, January 19, 2015

Not Looking for Praise (Ministry in Thessalonians #9)

"We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed - God is our witness. 
We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else." 
- 1 Thessalonians 2:4b-6a

Paul's ministry example continues with a segment of parallel warnings. As apostles and teachers "approved by God to be entrusted with the Gospel," Paul and his team knew that God tested their hearts. This recognition undergirded their determination to not try to please men. In part, that meant they didn't use flattery (trying to attract people by giving false praise) or cover up greed with a spiritual-seeming mask. They could stand with God, and the Thessalonians, as their witnesses to their desire to please God, not man.

Yet what captured my attention most from this section is the latter portion: "We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else." To me this goes beyond not just trying to please men. Consider this with me briefly.

"Trying to please men" implies some sort of effort. In fact, the Greek word this phrase comes from, aresko, means to strive to please, and includes the idea of accommodating oneself to someone else's "opinions, interests, and desires". I can't help thinking of Julia Roberts in "Runaway Bride." She plays a woman who didn't even know how she liked her eggs, because she always ordered them the same way her boyfriend did. That's a perfect picture of "trying to please men". In the movie it's sad; in ministry it's spiritually disastrous. In ministry situations it can be challenging (you want them to like you so you can build relationships), but it's crucial. One of my spiritual gifts is encouragement, so I have studied Barnabas in-depth. I can completely understand how he could be "led astray" with Peter with the Judaizers came to Antioch.

Most mature Christians probably make a sincere effort to not be people-pleasers. But Paul's words go further. He says, "We were not looking for praise from men". "Looking for praise" literally means "seek glory". While "seek" (or "looking for") is used for intentional seeking, it is also used for something far more subtle: "Crave". We can resist the temptation to intentionally accommodate people's "opinions, interests, and desires", and still retain the subtle craving for their praise. In fact, some of our biggest disappointments come when we feel that we didn't get the positive feedback- the "praise" - we had hoped for.

Thankfully, there is a craving that can go deeper than our understandable human craving for approval. Luke 12:31 uses the same word: But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. When our focus is on the kingdom of God, all other cravings come into balance. We no longer crave people's approval or praise. And in the paradox of the kingdom, it is within the community of believers that we are able to find our soul's deeper longing met fully. We learn to appropriately value others and look out for their interests; to honor others; to show gratitude. We give and receive appropriate "praise", when we stop looking for it and focus on Jesus together. Consider just a few passages:
  • Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Philippians 2:3-4)
  • Romans 12:10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. (Romans 12:10)
  • How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? (1 Thessalonians 3:9)
I encourage you to take up this ministry challenge with me: Ask God to search your heart for any areas where you are trying to please people, and reveal any hidden cravings for praise. Commit to seek Him and His kingdom above all. And learn to model - and receive - the biblical answer to our human longing for positive feedback through the community of believers, the church.

The appeal we make (Ministry in Thessalonians #8)

"For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives,
 nor are we trying to trick you. 
On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the Gospel." 
- 1 Thessalonians 2:3-4a

I love the connecting words of Scripture. The "fors" and "therefores" and "buts" and "so's" teach me so much spiritual truth.

These verses tell me that Paul's boldness in sharing the Gospel "despite strong opposition" (see v. 2) didn't come from a desire to prove a point or a human-centered approach to outreach that put all the burden on the messenger. Instead, he was able to "dare to tell" the Gospel because of the very nature of the appeal that he was making. The Gospel, and the call to speak it, became a source of empowerment to fulfill his calling. Consider these observations:

  • Paul was convinced of the truth of his message. The appeal - the Gospel - did not "spring from error". This is the starting point for any authentic evangelism. The messenger must first of all preach the Gospel to himself or herself - to be convinced it doesn't not spring from error. If you are facing any doubts at all in this area, go back to the basics. Read the Gospels and the book of Romans again; take your questions to God; renew your faith. 
  • Paul was convinced of the purity of his motives. Paul knew his team was in Thessalonica for the right reasons. Interestingly, Paul didn't focus much on the motivations of others. In fact, to encourage a church that was concerned about ministers taking advantage of Paul's imprisonment he wrote "The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached." (see Philippians 1:15-18). However, Paul's example and his emphasis here on the purity of his motives tell us that motives do matter. The overall teaching of the New Testament makes it clear that leaders are held to a higher standard. The more we can be sure of the purity of our motives, the greater our boldness in sharing the message. There are many possible impure motives, but what is a pure motive? Paul himself defined it to the church at Corinth: For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 2 Corinthians 5:14). We should be filled with Christ's love, and it will overflow in love toward others. When we are convinced of His love and are walking in love toward Him, then we will have His heart toward the world. Since He doesn't wish for any to perish, His love will compel us to someone who needs to hear the message. 
  • Paul was convinced of the rightness of his methods. His team was not trying to trick anyone. There was no bait and switch. They were clear about why they were there, and they were clear about what the message involved. They didn't hide difficult truths. One of the contrasts of Christianity to the gnosticism of the first century is that there was no "higher level" of knowledge for those who were in the faith's "inner circle". In fact, there was no "inner circle" as the world perceives it. Those called to lead most visibly suffered the greatest, and the church preserved the words it was taught for all to hear. We still enjoy that straightforwardness every time we open the New Testament. 
  • Paul recognized God had entrusted them with the Gospel. God had "approved" them - the word refers to being approved after having been tested. God knew they were ready for the responsibility of taking the message to others. The word "entrusted" should be encouraging for anyone called to share the Gospel, whether to a friend or in a church or at an evangelistic meeting. It's the word "pisteuo" and is a form of the word "faith"! God had faith in them, after testing them, and He demonstrated it by giving them the Gospel message. Anytime God calls you to share the love of Christ with someone, you can be sure He's first tested you and entrusted you - He has faith in you! The focal verse of this blog, 2 Corinthians 4:7, tells us that when God entrusts the Gospel to us, He knows He's putting them in this earthen vessels - these jars of clay - and that the whole reason He does it is to show that the power comes from Him and not us. 
One of my favorite book series includes the story of a young man who unknowingly inherits over a million dollars. His adoptive father is charged with telling him about the inheritance "when he is old enough to bear it with dignity." We could consider the Gospel message a "trust fund" that God entrusts us with when He has made us ready (see Gal. 1:15-16). Unlike most earthly trust funds, though, this treasure is one we're not to keep to ourselves. In fact, the nature of the treasure makes us long to share it with others! As we grow in Him, He tests us and then begins to entrust us to share that treasure with others. Maybe just one or two ... maybe a whole congregation ... maybe millions on television. It doesn't matter. The message is always the Gospel, the motive should always be love, and we should always share it openly and freely.

The appeal we make comes from a heart that God has entrusted. We can trust Him to empower us to complete what He trusts us to do!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Transparency (Ministry in Thessalonians, #7)

"You know, brothers, that our visit to you was not a failure. We had previously suffered and been insulted in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you His gospel despite strong opposition." 
-1 Thessalonians 2:1-2

As I've meditated on Paul's letters to the Thessalonian believers, I've been drawn by the number of times he tells them they "know" something, either about him or from him. Ten times in eight chapters he reminds them of something they already know. 

The church in Thessalonica knew: 
  • What type of men Paul and his team proved to be while among them (1:5).
  • Their visit to Thessalonica was not a failure (2:1). 
  • Paul and his team was persecuted in Philippi before coming to Thessalonica (2:2).
  • The team did not try to flatter the Thessalonians, nor were they greedy (2:5). 
  • They dealt with the church in a paternal way (2:11). 
  • Paul's team was destined for trials (3:3). 
  • The persecutions Paul prophesied while in Thessalonica came to pass (3:4). 
  • The instructions Paul gave them (4:2) 
  • What is restraining the man of lawlessness at this time (2 Thess 2:6)
  • What it looks like to imitate Paul & his team (2 Thess 3:7)
How did the church know these things? The message of the books is clear: These are all things that Paul either told them, or they observed while watching him. To me this shows a remarkable degree of transparency. 

Consider just one topic: Persecution. Paul wasn't in Thessalonica very long. We don't know at what point he shared this information, but we can assume it was very early in the life in the church. How tempting it could have been to soft-pedal the realities of life after choosing to follow Jesus. But no - Paul shared what had happened to them in Phillipi, told them more was was coming, and described it as his team's destiny! Based on what happened in Thessalonica, the new church quickly learned to practice what Paul had preached! 

Paul also lived openly before them. Their lifestyle and approach to ministry were on display for all to see. They made their teaching clear. There were no secret lessons, no "super-spiritual" attitudes to establish unrealistic standards. There was simply transparency in all matters. This transparency was not our modern "tell-all" approach that tends to glorify our sins and emphasize our flesh. Instead, it was an authentic godliness, borne out of deep love for them and firmly grounded in the word of God.

One of the most important ways Paul's team was transparent is tucked into 1 Thessalonians 2:2: with the help of our God we dared to tell you His gospel despite strong opposition. Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. He was already well-known throughout the empire - but he makes it clear that after what happened in Philippi, it was only "with the help of our God" that they kept the message going. I don't know about you, but in that portion of a sentence I hear the voice a man who passed through fear and landed firmly on the ground of faith. I hear a supernatural boldness that came after time on his knees. I hear a holy stubbornness to take chances - not just to whisper but to "dare to tell you His Gospel". Paul never pretended that the strong opposition was easy. He taught them how desperately they needed "the help of our God." 

As we grow in transparency, we are also increasing what those who look to us "know". We are equipping them to walk out their faith when we're not around. We're making an investment that, like Paul's, will not be a failure but will result in a church that can be an example to others.

Ministry challenge: Identify a way that you can be more biblically transparent to those who look to you for leadership.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

When the message rings out (Ministry in Thessalonians, #6)

"The Lord's message rang out from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia - your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead -- Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath." 
- 1 Thessalonians 1:8-10

Acts 17 records the beginning of the church in Thessalonica. Jews, Greeks, and "prominent women" joined together in following Jesus as Messiah - and then the persecution started. This wasn't just an isolated heckler here and there. The early Thessalonian church saw mob riots and the arrest of some of the new believers. They had to sneak Paul and Silas out under cover of darkness. This church had every reason to stay underground.

But there is something about the Gospel that cannot stay secret for long. The text tells us that from the church in Thessalonica, the message "rang out" - the phrase literally means "sounded forth" or "resounded". It's used when the sound of something is carried forth - A. T. Robertson says it signifies "to sound out of a trumpet or of thunder, to reverberate like our echo." Thessalonica was strategically located on the Egnation Way (Via Egnatia), a major thoroughfare of the first century. This passage makes it clear that this young church used its location for kingdom purposes. In fact, their faith had "become known everywhere".

Yet Paul and his team don't focus on how those who heard the ringing truth of the Gospel reacted to the message. Instead, they rejoice that God's word has been shared so widely. Whether positively or negatively, people were talking about the new faith of the Thessalonian believers. Specifically, they were "gossiping" about their rejection of idolatry and their anticipation of Christ's return. We should all have such a reputation.

This passage should give great encouragement to anyone in ministry. It contains not only principles for ministry; it also gives a picture of how the Gospel can take root in a community. Consider just a few points:
  • The Gospel takes on a life of its own. There's nothing wrong with strategies (Paul certainly was intentional in his evangelistic efforts). But there is an organic nature to the spread of the Gospel that should be profoundly encouraging to anyone in ministry. In the Thessalonian church, we see Jesus' words in action: 
    • "What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs." (Luke 12:3)
    • "Again he asked, "What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough."" (Luke 13:20-21)
  • We don't have to convince people that a ministry effort is successful. In a numbers-driven society, this is good news indeed! Certainly there is nothing wrong with reports of what God is doing - the New Testament is filled with specifics about responses to sermons and mission trips. But the report of those who see the difference the Gospel has made in the lives of others can be a greater "year-end report" than anything we could prepare. 
  • We can rejoice when our faith is recognized - even negatively. Based on Acts 17, we can be certain that this awareness of their faith did not always come with positive feelings. The old adage, "It doesn't matter what they write about me, as long as they spell my name right" could be modified for believers: "It doesn't matter what they say about us, as long as the Gospel comes through loud and clear."
The Thessalonians were famous for their faith, and made Jesus known in the process. Along the way, more than a few who overheard the gossip had their interest piqued enough to find out more. The Lord's message rang out - and the world would never be the same.





Imitation (Ministry in Thessalonians #5)

"You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord; despite severe suffering you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit, and so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia." 
- 1 Thessalonians 1:5b-7

Among the many beautiful truths the Protestant Reformation restored to the church was the importance of individual faith. Martin Luther was captivated by the emphasis on faith for each singular soul when he studied Romans 1:17: "For the righteousness of God in it is revealed from faith to faith, according as it hath been written, 'And the righteous one by faith shall live,'" (Young's Literal Translation). Today, personal faith in Christ is a fundamental tenet of evangelical Protestant faith.

However, the non-negotiable necessity of a personal relationship with Jesus does not mean that our relationship with Him is only personal. Far from it. We embrace Him personally, but we walk with Him in community. Our local church, the broader body of Christ, and the "great cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1) who have walked this path before us provide examples that we can follow. Various words such as "example", "model", "follow", and "imitation" all point to the same principle: When we are in Christ, we don't have to figure it out on our own.

In the case of the Thessalonians, Paul and his team clearly lived among them in a specific way for the sake of those they were ministering to. These new believers imitated their leaders and ultimately became a model themselves to new churches. It's interesting to note that "imitators" is plural while "model" (or "example") is singular. Each person had to walk out his or her own imitation - but together, as a whole, they became a model for other churches to follow. Later, in chapter 2, we learn that the Thessalonian church imitated the churches in Judea - the organic development of the church spread as each body became greater than the sum of their parts! None of us will get imitation perfectly but somehow, together, we can reflect the character of our Savior.

Our modern Western world tends to be resistant toward intentional imitation, though the warp speed at which fashion trends, hashtags, and slang traverses the globe testifies to our internal bent to imitate someone. On some level we think that imitation is phony, that we give up some degree of individuality. But Biblical imitation is anything but uniformity. Instead, it's an intentional choice to emulate someone in specific ways. Consider the following:
  • Paul taught others how he followed Jesus and urged them to do the same. 
    • "I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church." (1 Corinthians 4:16-17)
    • "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you." (1 Corinthians 11:1-2)
    • "For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you..." (2 Thessalonians 3:7)
    • "Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus." (2 Timothy 1:13)
  • Spiritual leaders should have faith and lives worth imitating. 
    • "It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate." (2 Thessalonians 3:9) 
    • "Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity." (1 Timothy 4:12)
    • "Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith." (Hebrews 13:7) 
  • We are taught to intentionally draw our attention to those whose lives follow Biblical examples.  
    • "Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us." (Philippians 3:17)
    • "As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord." (James 5:10)
    • "We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised." (Hebrews 6:12)

What do we imitate? 3 John 1:11 tells us to imitate actions that are good "Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God." The Hebrews 13:7 passage above tells us to imitate the faith of leaders whose long-term walk has visible results. The same verse tells us we should consider the outcome of their life- this speaks to a long-term walk with visible results, not a trendy following of the latest fads.   And several passages make it clear that suffering enters us into a special type of imitation (see 1 Thessalonians 1:6, 2:14, and 1 Peter 2:21).


So what does this look like in practice? There are as many answers to that question as there are Christians. As I've learned about imitation, I've realized the importance of being very intentional and prayerful. Imitation first starts with Christ, so I have to be very aware of His life through the Gospels and live accordingly. I should always be able to identify characteristics of my "role model" that reflect the character of Christ. I've also learned that God doesn't want me to be an exact replica of someone else. God isn't about creating cookie cutter Christians, who follow exactly some pattern. So in my own life, imitation seems to be centered on specific areas where God is working in me. Let me give an illustration.

One of the dearest people in my life is Judy. I often describe her as my "second mom." Judy attends my church now, but for years was a pastor's wife. Judy is a quiet, peaceful presence in any room, and in Bible study she is known for attentively listening and often not speaking at all. But when she does speak, it's like the old commercial: "People listen." She has a way of simplifying whatever we've been discussing into the basics, and always increases our faith. In short, she brings much wisdom without many words. Regular readers of this blog know that the same cannot be said about me! My gifts of teaching and encouragement often tag team to make it difficult for me to keep my mouth shut. However, I know from Scripture that sometimes, the better part of wisdom is found in silence: Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut. (Proverbs 10:19). So one day I had lunch with Judy and asked her the secret to developing that kind of discernment. She shared with me her life experiences and things she learned along the way. I have a long way to go, and I know that God has gifted me in certain ways that mean sometimes I have to speak where others are silent, but there are definitely times where God reminds me, through Judy, of the beauty of silence and careful speech. I also pray that my words would fall to the ground and God's words would remain. No one will ever confuse me with Judy, but her influence in my life has strengthened my faith and sharpened my walk with Christ.

Your experience will be different. If you are struggling in an area, find someone to imitate. Talk to your pastor or other church leader; read Christian biography; look in Scripture for someone God commends who has the same problem, gift, or situation.Ultimately, we imitate God, and all imitation of others must be kept within this context:
  • "For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you." (John 13:15)
  • "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children." (Ephesians 5:1)  


All of us should strive to live a life worth imitating, because there is always someone watching. However, if you are in leadership, or are involved in any kind of ministry, it is absolutely essential. Whether you are aware of it or not, people will imitate you. As we seek to live lives worthy of imitation, we absolutely must keep our eyes on Jesus. We have to first imitate Him so that we know we are on solid ground if anyone imitates us. Beyond that, though, we should be authentic and specific. It makes a big difference whether I say, "I begin each day with prayer" or, "I pray for a half hour first thing in the morning because if I don't, I find that my prayer time never happens and my day is more frustrating."

Imitation also can require sacrifice. In many cultures today new believers are paired with someone who meets with them daily. Paul's frequent practice was to live among the churches he started; they saw firsthand what his life was like. They knew when he rose for prayer and how he studied the Bible. I often ask myself, would I be willing to share my quiet time with a new believer? I look at that as my "alone time" with God - but maybe He would have me invite someone in for a period so they can hear my prayers and study with me. While Jesus did have a place of "farther still" where He went alone, the closest three disciples still heard what He prayed (they wrote it down in the Gospels) and those three were with Him in some of His most intimate moments with the Father.


"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," Charles Colton wrote in 1820. That might be true in worldly things. But in matters of the faith, imitation is far more than flattery. It's a divinely-appointed means of our spiritual development and one of the ways that God shapes us into the image of His Son. Biblical imitation is not uniformity. The beauty of our faith is that it is infinitely translatable - it doesn't look the same because the focal point is not what we do, but Whose we are. When we are in Christ, we find that our different gifts and approaches become part of a majestic mosaic that, when pictured from a distance, shows an increasingly clear picture of our Savior.

Ministry challenge: Who are you imitating? Reflect on an area where God wants to transform you, and ask Him to give you someone to imitate.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Certainty (Ministry in Thessalonians #4)

"For we know, brothers loved by God, that He has chosen you, because our Gospel came to you not simply with words but with power, with the Holy Spirit, and with deep conviction." 
- 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5a

One of the beautiful things about Christianity is knowing where we stand with God. Scripture is clear that we can know we have been saved and are in Christ. An entire book has this as its main theme. Consider just a few passages from 1 John: 
  • "We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. ... But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him:" (1 John 2:3, 5) 
  • "We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death." (1 John 3:14)
  • "Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence:" (1 John 3:18-19)
  • "The one who keeps God's commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us." (1 John 3:24)
  • "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. ... We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life." (1 John 5:13, 20)
Paul's words to Thessalonica underscore another Biblical certainty: In ministry, God can give us discernment about the authenticity of another person's conversion. Of course, we cannot know the deepest workings of another's heart, but this passage echoes Jesus' teaching that we can recognize genuine faith by its fruit:

"Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them."(Matthew 7:17-20)

What does Paul and his team claim to "know" about the church at Thessalonica? Simply that they are "chosen" - one of Paul's ways of referring to authentic believers. After beautifully reiterating to the church that they are loved by God - a message we should all remind each other of regularly - Paul elaborates on why they have this certainty about Thessalonica: When the Gospel came, it came with four evidences: 
  • Words
  • Power
  • The Holy Spirit
  • Deep conviction 
The Acts 17 account of Paul's visit to Thessalonica doesn't include a lot of detail about what these evidences looked like. Instead, it's focused on the persecution they faced in that city. Yet despite this opposition, people responded to the message. Later in 1 Thessalonians Paul observes that they "welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit" (1:6) and that they received the words "not as the words of men, but as it really is, the Word of God" (2:13). Whatever evidences of power and the presence of the Holy Spirit came were obviously clear to Paul and the team. 

What about the "deep conviction"? Contrary to what we might think, this isn't the word used for conviction of sin. It means "full assurance, most certain confidence". It's the same word used in Hebrews 10:22: "let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water."

For anyone in ministry, this is an encouraging concept. God can grant discernment and make conversions so obvious that we can "know" genuine faith through what we are able to perceive. Certainly this is one way that Jesus' words in John 20:21-23 are lived out in the church: "Again Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone's sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.""

What an encouragement it should be, especially to pastors and church leaders, to know that God gives a special discernment to "know" genuine faith, to recognize authenticity. This is protection against easy believism, emotion-oriented responses, wolves in sheep's clothing (Matthew 7:15). In some parts of the world, it's protection against persecutors who try to infiltrate the church by pretending to be seekers. 

Is this discernment perfect? Of course not. John himself later wrote of a time when falsehood didn't become apparent on the front end: "They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us" (1 John 2:19). Like anything else in ministry, we have to grow in this discernment. And even then sometimes we might find, like Elisha, that the Lord hides details from us that we would like to know (see 2 Kings 4:27).

The ministry challenge in this passage for me is: Grow in discernment in ministry situations, and pray for my pastor and church leaders to have the insight and discernment to perceive the real from the counterfeit. Will you join me in taking up this challenge?

Friday, January 09, 2015

Gratitude and Honor (Ministry in Thessalonians #3)

"We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in the Lord Jesus Christ."
- 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3 (NIV 84)

As we move forward in Paul's letters to the Thessalonians, we see what Paul considered of utmost importance in his greeting: Expressing gratitude to the church he planted. We might be tempted to see this as a mere formality, a cultural nicety if you will. But the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the evidence throughout the books tell us differently. Paul and his team were genuinely thankful for the church at Thessalonica, and told them so in specific ways beyond this initial greeting:
  • And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe. (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
  • How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? (1 Thessalonians 3:9)
  • We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. (2 Thessalonians 1:3)
  • But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. (2 Thessalonians 2:13)

We know that gratitude is a command - coming, in fact, later in this same epistle ("give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." 1 Thessalonians 5:18). What is remarkable to me about these letters is that Paul and his team modeled gratitude not through emphasizing their gratefulness in circumstances, but by expressing specific gratitude toward people - specifically, the Thessalonians. The church-planting apostle who brought them the gospel - the one whom they should be thankful to God for putting in their lives - was thankful for them!

It's certainly Biblical to honor our church leaders. Scripture tells us to "Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith" (Hebrews 13:7). We are further instructed to "Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you" (Hebrews 13:17). We are to ensure they have what they need: "Those who are taught the word of God should provide for their teachers, sharing all good things with them" (Galatians 6:6). Teaching elders deserve special honor: "The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For Scripture says, 'Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,' and 'The worker deserves his wages'" (1 Timothy 5:17-18). We can certainly assume that the church at Thessalonica demonstrated gratitude to Paul and his team - and this was appropriate and good.

However, despite having every reason to place these expectations on the church in Thessalonica, Paul and his team turn the concept of gratitude and honor upside down: They pour out gratitude to God for the Thessalonian believers. These expressions of thankfulness are extremely specific: 
- The church's faith, hope, and love, and the effort these produced 
- The church's acceptance of the word of God
- The joy Paul & his team have before God because of the church in Thessalonica
- The church's increasing faith and love
- The Thessalonians' place as "firstfruits" of what would become an abundant harvest of Gentile believers

Through their example, Paul and his team modeled what Paul later taught the church at Rome: "Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves" (Romans 12:10). As with so much of the New Testament, Paul's teaching here was counter-cultural. The Middle Eastern culture of Biblical times - and even today - was very much an "honor-shame" society. Individuals interacted with each other based on how much "honor" was expected - and of course, it was the goal of most to obtain the highest place of honor possible given his life circumstances. We must understand this to grasp how significant it is that, in one of the earliest New Testament books written, Paul uses valuable papyrus space to express thankfulness to God for this church. 

When we stop to think about it, this is still counter-cultural today. In the West we don't have an honor-shame society, but we certainly do know what it is like to have individuals who receive more "honor" than others. Our entertainment-driven society elevates sports heroes, entertainment figures, politicians, etc., to unrealistic pedestals. In the church, we sometimes see similar treatment of well-known authors, speakers, or mega-church leaders. Again, some level of gratitude and honor is fully appropriate for those who dedicate their lives to the church. Paul's example, though, gives a picture of someone who could have expected all that and more - but chose instead to honor his spiritual children. 

Think of a special speaker you might have hosted at your church. You probably provided an honorarium or love offering, and possibly given a gift and thank you note after the lecture, perhaps in an effort to obey 3 John 6: "They have told the church about your love. Please send them on their way in a manner that honors God." This is good and right. Imagine though, if upon the speaker's return home, you received a letter filled with thankfulness to God for your church. Imagine receiving the verses Paul's team wrote in a personal letter to your church from someone for whom you had the utmost gratitude and respect. What would that build in you?


When I receive a compliment, my fleshly reaction is often false humility - I want to act as if it's undeserved. If I open my hands and heart to fully receive it, though, my reaction shifts: I deeply want to live up to it. I know that it's all a work of God's grace, that apart from Him I can do nothing - and yet whenever someone thanks me for something or gives me the honor of a compliment, often as I smile and say "Thank you" I am praying, "Lord, let that be true." I am built up and encouraged to see how God has used this flawed vessel, how the treasure has been poured out through His power, and I am challenged to make that trait a reality in my life. If I received Paul's letter, I would be challenged to an increased faith, deeper love, stronger hope, and authentic joy. I would hold the word of God even more dear, and I would long to be part of bringing in the rest of the Gentile harvest.

Don't miss that our starting passage expresses gratitude for "all of you". We have no reason to believe that the church in Thessalonica was exceptionally spiritual and filled only with easy-to-love individuals. Like any church, it was likely a mixture of mature and new Christians, some more worldly and others more spiritual. Yet Paul leaves no one out. He is thankful for "all of you." I cannot escape the obvious lesson here: In a ministry situation, there is no one for whom I should not be thankful to God. Often the most difficult students serve to sharpen the teacher in ways that nobody else could.

As I seek to apply the ministry lessons I'm learning in Thessalonians, I see two principles here: 
  • Be cautious of those in ministry who demand or expect honor, who seek to elevate themselves by receiving praise from others. While appropriate funding and respect should certainly be granted freely and generously, if the apostle Paul can model gratitude and mutual honor, then certainly today's ministry leaders should do so.   
  • In situations where I am the spiritual "leader" (and most of us are, to at least someone, even if it's our children), I should intentionally recognize those things that are praiseworthy. Thank God for what I see in them, and then tell them what those things are. Sometimes it seems we fail to do this out of fear that we are going to cause the other person to become prideful. We fail to realize that by saying nothing, we are withholding a form of encouragement that God intends us to give each other. No one in the body of Christ should wonder if he or she is appreciated or valued. We don't get to spiritualize this one. Certainly we are valued by God, but these passages make it clear that we should express our gratitude to each other as well.
As I mentioned in the first post of this series, this study is personal to me as I enter a new season of ministry. So I invite you to join me on occasional ministry challenges that will emerge from our study of the text. Today's challenge for me is: Express gratitude to someone I've ministered to. I want to develop the habit of thankfulness, and I want people to know why I'm thanking God for them! (If you are new in the faith or haven't identified those areas where you've been a spiritual leader or ministered to someone else, then express gratitude to your church leaders.) 

And to complete Paul's example, whenever we do express thankfulness, let's be sure to include that as a praise during our prayers to God!