Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Presence (Ministry in Thessalonians, #12)

But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you--certainly I, Paul, did, again and again--but Satan stopped us. For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy. - 1 Thessalonians 2:17-20 

I have a sweet friend who truly brings to life the gift of presence. She truly loves to give her support to people in person. When Bob's mom was in and out of hospitals and rehab facilities over the course of a couple of years, I lost count of how many times I would look up and see Beth. When I had a monthly women's prayer and study group, Beth was the first to sign up. Birthday parties or special dinners? If she's in town, you can definitely count on her.

The more I study Scripture, especially the New Testament, the more I realize that the importance Beth places on presence is a reflection of God's heart. Think for a moment what we know about God from the earliest verses of Genesis: His Spirit hovered over the earth's waters. He was personally involved in every detail of creation. He personally brought animals to Adam to name. He walked in the garden and personally made garments from animal skin to cover Adam and Eve after their sin. We can look at Scripture and see ever-increasing levels of His presence: Walking in the Garden. The burning bush. The pillars of cloud and fire. The Shekinah glory. The incarnation. The indwelling Holy Spirit. His glorious return. Just to name a few.

With all this emphasis on the presence of God in the Bible, we should not be surprised to see Paul placing a priority on visiting the Thessalonian church. He doesn't take lightly their forced separation. The phrase translated "torn away" is particularly touching: aporphaniz┼Ź. It literally means "orphaned" and was used to describe "to bereave of a parent or parents". Paul's team - described earlier in the chapter as acting maternally and paternally - has such a feeling of loss when persecution forced them to leave the new church in Thessalonica that they describe themselves as feeling "orphaned".
We might be inclined to think this is just a word for dramatic effect, if it were not for Paul's description of their actions after being torn away. They continued thinking about them, and had an 'intense longing' to see them - the word for 'longing' indicates a strong desire (positive or negative) and is so strong itis used negatively to describe lust. Out of this desire, they spent a significant effort to see the church - they were diligent, intentional, and put themselves out in an effort to get back to Thessalonica. Paul's words leave absolutely no doubt: It was their will to get back to Thessalonica.

"But Satan stopped us." Satan was also present. He got personally involved in an effort to keep the leaders from getting back to that new church. Why? Satan wants nothing more than to be worshipped and if he cannot get worship, the next best thing is to take someone's faith in God away. He knew how young the church back in Thessalonica was and how the church planting team could strengthen their faith. Here is the beauty wrapped up in this temporary setback: his plan failed utterly! I don't know what it looked like for Satan to stop them, but we know that's what happened. Yet as we will see in the next chapter, the church held firmly to their faith. Satan won a battle, but he didn't win the war. There's still a church in Thessaloniki, as it's called today.

Paul anticipates their continued faith as he wraps up this chapter - when Jesus returns, the churches he planted, included Thessalonica, would be his glory and joy. The ultimate measure of his purpose and significance. The ultimate satisfaction. The ultimate success story. They would be his victory crown - where? In the presence of our Lord Jesus. Here's our key word again. In His Presence, there will be hope, glory, joy. In His Presence, a temporary hindrance by Satan will be seen in its full context and victory will be celebrated. And we will get to be with each other as well as with the Lord - for eternity. What a gift - Presence.

This past Sunday, my pastor defined "loving your neighbor" as "extending to your neighbor whatever you have found Jesus to be for you." Jesus gives me His presence through the Holy Spirit. The ministry challenge for me is to seek God's heart for others to such a degree that I long to share my presence with them, just as He shares His with me.

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