Saturday, February 28, 2015

Giving instructions (Ministry in Thessalonians, #16)

Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. It is God's will that you should be sanctified; that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man, but God, who gives you His Holy Spirit. (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8)

Throughout the New Testament we see a variety of approaches to ministry. We see the apostles encouraging churches, teaching them, pleading with them, challenging them to think differently. Sometimes we see calls to come up higher; other times guidelines on what to let go and what to take up. And sometimes, we see straightforward commands. This is one of those passages. 

From the standpoint of ministry, it's important that we see there is a place for giving instructions. Certainly there is value in training disciples to discover God's Word for themselves; it's important that the faith-walk of a church be authentic and not empty legalism. Some topics do lend themselves to dialogue and a questioning, socratic-type method. But it seems to me that our post-modern culture has infiltrated the church in a dangerous way when this becomes our default method, especially in areas where Scripture leaves no wiggle-room. The "soft theology" of discovery and raising questions can lead to relativism when it's not balanced by Scriptural "hard theology" of sound doctrine and clear-cut commands. Sexual morality is one area where "instructions" are called for.

The word translated "instruct" in its various forms literally means "commandment". These are not options! Paul and his team aren't presenting one option among many. Instead, they lay out specific rules - significantly, "by the authority of the Lord Jesus." What does Jesus say about sexual morality?
  • We are to be set apart. "It is God's will that you should be sanctified." Sanctified means to be set apart. This world is broken in every way due to sin - including sexual brokenness. Christians are not to be like the world. Our approach to sexual morality should be one area where we are set apart. Other Biblical passages make clear what that should look like: Sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage between a husband and wife, and anything that defiles that should be rejected.
  • We are to avoid sexual immorality. "Avoid" means to hold oneself back, to abstain. It means that we are not to go in the direction of immorality but instead in the direction of purity. It's not just about avoiding certain acts; we are to pursue a lifestyle of purity that holds us away from sexual immorality. 
  • We are to control our body in a holy, honorable way. When we belong to the Lord, we don't get to "lose control". Our body is His temple and therefore, we are stewards of His temple. We must control ourselves in a holy, honorable way. We handle ourselves in a way that reflects His holiness and brings honor to His name which we bear. Paul contrasts this to "passionate lust" - a hedonistic, physically oriented lack of control which characterizes those who don't know God.
  • We are never to wrong or take advantage of someone in the area of sexual morality. To the Thessalonians this most certainly meant not being involved sexually with another man's wife, as was common in that culture. In fact, Thessalonica was known for sexual immorality being practiced in the guise of the religions of that day. Paul makes it clear that the church should be distinguished by not sharing spouses, but also by not taking advantage of another person. We might not have Thessalonica's sexual mores, but examples abound of "taking advantage of" another person in this way. In Paul's teaching of Jesus' instructions, morality is not based on consent. It's based on marriage, self-control, and love for others that would never take advantage of a weakness for selfish passion.
Paul wraps up the section by stating that Jesus Himself will judge those who commit these sins, because God wants us to be holy, not impure. He boldly tells us that disobeying these commands is a rejection of God, who gave believers His Holy Spirit. We have to intentionally reject the Holy Spirit's promptings in order to commit sexual sin.

These are hard, direct words. Paul doesn't shy away from sharing them. That's the ministry lesson tucked into this teaching: Don't be scared to share truth under the authority of the Lord Jesus. 
Yes, we can trust the Holy Spirit in the lives of other believers, but we have to realize that He uses teachers, pastors, and other leaders (Eph 4) to mature the church. It's great when we get to have a good discussion. But sometimes, we all need some clear instructions.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Wrath + Love

God's Word is so amazing. I have written and taught a study on the attributes of God, and I've studied covenant in-depth, but tonight doing my Bible study I made a connection I've never seen before.

One of the first passages I ever memorized was Isaiah 54:10: "For the mountains may be removed and the hills may shake, But My lovingkindness will not be removed from you, And My covenant of peace will not be shaken," Says the LORD who has compassion on you." A great verse in a beautiful context of God restoring His relationship with His covenant people, pictured as a bridegroom renewing His promises to His bride.

As I reflected on this from the perspective of the bride, I thought of the differences between human relationships. In human relationships there is almost always wrong on both sides. But in this situation, God was 100% right to be angry with His people, His bride, and put her away for a time because of her unfaithfulness. She was 100% wrong and He was 100% right. But despite the judgments of the earlier portions of Isaiah, now the emphasis has shifted to a completely undeserved outpouring of grace, love, compassion. Why? What makes the difference?

Context is key in Bible study. Isaiah 54 follows Isaiah 53 which ends with this moving and dramatic truth about God's Servant, the Messiah:

53:12 "So I will assign him a portion with the multitudes, he will divide the spoils of victory with the powerful, because he willingly submitted to death and was numbered with the rebels, when he lifted up the sin of many and intervened on behalf of the rebels.”

An intervention has occurred. The Messiah has carried their sins. He intervened on their behalf. They were no less rebels. But He took on the wrath of God that they deserved.

And not just them ... us. Me. Everyone. Romans 5:10 says "For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life." Reconciliation came when we were still enemies, because Jesus bore the full force of God's wrath.

A theology that omits the wrath of God is not only incomplete, it steals from us the deep joy that comes when we realize the depth of God's love. We cannot know His love fully until we realize that His Son bore the wrath we deserved. When we hear this message it either becomes the craziest thing we've ever heard, or the most hopeful. We either think there is no way it could be true, or we desperately hope it is true.

God loved Jesus fully. Jesus fully pleased God. Yet He died. That makes no sense apart from one great truth that has drawn people for 2000 years: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16).

Wrath + Love = The Cross.
Love + Acceptance of the sacrifice = The Resurrection.
The Cross + The Resurrection = The Hope of the Gospel.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Clear the way! (Ministry in Thessalonians, #15)

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we have in the presence of our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith. Now, may our God and Father Himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. May our Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May He strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all His holy ones. 
- 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

The news of the Thessalonians' faith and love was encouraging to Paul and leads into this beautiful outpouring of prayer on their behalf. Paul longs to thank God for them and does so the only way he can - by praying for them. He prays that the team can see them again; that our Lord will increase their love; and that He will strengthen their hearts. Each of these prayers is a lesson in itself, but what strikes me the most about them is a key difference between the first prayer and the other two. 

The latter two prayers focus on asking Jesus to do something IN the Thessalonians - increase their love and strengthen their hearts for the holiness that should characterize children of God. This isn't surprising. When we walk with the Lord we learn that we cannot love without His love in us. We know that it truly does take a certain strength of heart to pursue blameless, holy living when everything around us fights against it. It's not surprising to hear Paul ask for a divine impartation of love and strength.

What surprised me is that Paul's team prays earnestly to "see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith." They even ask God to get personally involved in making that happen. As a former Pharisee, Paul knew the Scriptures. He was certainly familiar with passages like Daniel 10, which tells of spiritual battles going on in the heavenly places involving angels, and shows God dispatching an angel in response to Daniel's prayer. Paul doesn't ask for an angel to get involved here. He boldly asks God to personally step in. And lest we misunderstand his request he gets extremely specific: "Now may our God and Father Himself and our Lord Jesus..." There's only one God. The "Himself" is only there for one reason: To make it clear that this request is for God's personal intervention. 

The nature of the request is equally specific; he asks that they "clear the way for us to come to you." The phrase "clear the way" refers to the removal of hindrances. What hindrances? Paul has only verses before explained why his team didn't make it back to Thessalonica: "Satan stopped us." (1 Thess. 2:18). Paul and his team recognized that Satan was personally involved in an effort to keep the leaders from getting back to that new church. Satan wanted to keep the ministry team away from the young church as part of his diabolical plan to steal their faith. So, Paul went straight to the top - and asked God Himself to get involved in the fight. 

What was this so important? Why couldn't Paul just ask God to impart what was lacking in their faith, just as he asked Jesus to give them love and strength of heart? Here is the beauty of God's plan for the church: There is something inherent in the nature of faith that makes it grow in ways when we are together that it does not grow when we are apart. 
So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17)

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13)
The New Testament was still in its infancy, so the Thessalonians didn't have the words of the apostles written down like we do - but we still need more than a pen and our own Bible, as important as those personal quiet times are. Something that we lack in our faith is built up when we hear the word of God proclaimed. We are equipped by our pastors and teachers, prepared for service and built up to a more mature faith. Every time we hear a Biblical sermon or sit under a sound teacher, something is supplied for our faith that wasn't there before. Our part is to recognize that our faith needs this impartation of the word, and to regularly put ourselves in a place where it's taught, with a heart attitude to receive it.

Here's the ministry challenge for this passage: If you are not in one of the spiritual roles mentioned in Ephesians 4:11, then thank God for your church leaders who do bear this responsibility. Pray for them to impart the word of God accurately, and for them to have the time to prioritize prayer and Bible study. Recognize that as their primary job. Thank them for it. Pray every day this week that when you come to church next Sunday God will use your pastor's words to supply something lacking in your faith. Let God use him for the purpose He gave him to your church - to build you up and mature you.

If you are in one of these spiritual roles, I'm sure you recognize the profound responsibility that you have to the body of Christ and the vital importance of handling the word of God accurately. However, take some time to recognize the importance of having what is lacking in your own faith supplied as well. Who is your "pastor" or teacher? Take some time this week to receive a word from God that you don't have to research, write, or determine how to communicate to others. He has a word that is just for YOU. It will supply what is lacking in YOUR faith, and it will build you up for the work you are doing in His church this week. 

Jesus loves His church. This is one prayer we can be sure He answers - to clear the way for His people to hear His word.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Faith and love (Ministry in Thessalonians #14)

So when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless. But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us, and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. Therefore, in all our distress and persecution we are encouraged about you because of your faith. For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. 
- 1 Thessalonians 3:5-8

Paul's heart for the church in Thessalonica oozes from every chapter of these books, but this passage is especially touching. Paul has already explained how his ministry team decided together to stay in Athens and send Timothy to check on them. But Paul gets very personal in verse 5: HE could stand it no longer. He had to know how they were doing. Specifically, he was afraid of the type of spiritual warfare they might have been facing from the enemy of our souls, the tempter. Satan had already stopped them from coming to Thessalonica again so he knew that something evil was afoot. He didn't know the form it took with the church, but he was afraid some temptation had come to them. The previous verses seem to indicate that he was particularly concerned about temptations away from faith based on the persecution they were facing. Whatever his concern, he reached a point where he had to know something about their faith.

What's interesting to me is the report Paul details from Timothy doesn't talk about their faith at all! He says there is news about "your faith and love" but all the specifics relate to love; The church has pleasant memories of Paul & his team, and longs to see them. That's it. It seems so innocuous to our ears, almost a courtesy statement. Yet Paul saw in this report something much, much deeper. He saw evidence of faith, of standing firm in the Lord.

The epistles of John were still decades from being penned, but the eternal truth from God must have been ringing in Paul's heart:
1 John 3:11, 14 11 For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. ... 14 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 4:6-12 6 We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. 7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

Paul knew that Timothy's report reflected two evidences of faith:
  1. They loved other believers. Remember, Paul and his team had been run out of town by persecutors. If the church at Thessalonica was not holding firm to truth, they would want to distance themselves from people who were out of favor with persecutors. Instead, they not only embraced them, they longed to see them! And they even said they had "pleasant memories" of their time together - despite the riot and false accusations by their own countrymen!
  2. They paid attention to the apostles' teaching (1 John 4:6). They weren't rejecting God's messengers, because they were embracing the message. Today we listen to the apostles' teaching through reading and obeying Scripture. The church in Thessalonica cared about God's word. 
Paul's team was greatly encouraged by this report, as simple as it was, because it told them everything they needed to know. When we truly are standing firm in our faith, we too will love other believers and pay attention to God's Word. It's a simple test, but the fruit is undeniable: Genuine faith and genuine love for God's people are inseparable.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

God's fellow worker (Ministry in Thessalonians #13)

So, when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God's fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them. In fact, when we were with you we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. 
- 1 Thessalonians 3:1-4

At the end of chapter 2, we saw how Paul and his team prioritized presence in their ministry. It's no surprise when we find them sending one of their own, Timothy, to "strengthen and encourage" the believers in Thessalonica. Despite having the full authority and inspiration of the Holy Spirit behind his words, Paul knew that some lessons are not just taught, they are caught. Timothy's presence, and his steadfastness in the midst of trials, would strengthen and encourage the believers in ways Paul couldn't put into words.

What jumps out to me the most besides the continuation of this example of presence is Paul's description of Timothy: "Our brother and God's fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ." Paul could accurately have called Timothy "our fellow worker". In other passages, he referred to co-laborers in just that way. I find it significant that in a passage where he is trying to encourage them to not let trials unsettle them - the word literally means "move" - Paul highlights that Timothy labors not just alongside Paul, but alongside God Himself!

The implications for ministry are profound. To be God's fellow worker means we "work alongside" Him. It means we "cooperate" with Him in the task at hand. Most of all it means that spreading the gospel isn't our idea - it's God's. We're the ones coming alongside Him in His work.

As God's fellow worker, Timothy's assignment to Thessalonica is to strengthen and encourage them because of the certainty of trials. Trials are our destiny - they shouldn't unsettle us. Paul even goes on to say that his team had foretold their persecution. Whether they had divine insight or just read the signs of the times doesn't matter. Either way they knew what was coming, and they were right. It changed their location (they had to flee to Berea) but not their message. Not their purpose. Not their faith. They were God's fellow workers. Whatever happened, His work was going to be accomplished.

It is still so today. Trials, persecutions, difficulties - we face them all as God's fellow workers. But we face them with full assurance that He is with us in the midst of them, and that He is working it all together to accomplish His good purpose.

Don't be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them. Be strengthened and encouraged as a fellow worker with God in the task set before you. He is faithful, and He will do it.