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?

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