Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The basis for encouragement (Ministry in Thessalonians, #20)

But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep we may live together with Him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

- 1 Thessalonians 5:8-11

A principle of interpretation is to always look to see what the "therefore" is there for. Here, Paul urges the believers to encourage and edify (build up) each other as a result of specific truths. Just as chapter 4's teaching on Christ's return ends with the exhortation to encourage each other with the words that promise reunification with our loved ones who are in Christ, the section on the "day of the Lord" ends with the exhortation to encourage each other. What is our source of encouragement in the context of a certain coming judgment? 
  • We belong to the day. As the previous section noted, we are children of light and of the day. We are not asleep; we've been awakened by the beauty of Christ.
  • We are spiritually protected. Faith and love become our breastplate, shielding our hearts from attacks of unbelief and hatred. The hope of salvation becomes our helmet, protecting us from mortal wounds of the enemy.
  • We are not appointed to suffer wrath. Salvation is the end result of our faith, because Jesus bore the wrath of God on our behalf. 
  • Jesus died so I can live with Him. Whether dead or alive when He returns, I am assured of life forever with Him. 
The  ministry lesson tucked in to this passage is that Biblical encouragement is always built on truth. Understanding this one principle can help us greatly in discerning true encouragement from well-meaning, but empty, words. It marks the difference between encouragement and mere affirmation. Biblical encouragement can be challenging ("let us be self-controlled"). It can remind us of basic truths ("He died for us") and take us deeper into the cross ("God did not appoint us to suffer wrath"). As we seek to be encouragers and teach others to do the same, let's always ground that encouragement in Scriptural truths. 

About those who fall asleep, and those who sleep (Ministry in Thessalonians, #19)

Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words. 

Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, "Peace and safety," destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 

But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night.
- 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:7

One of the things that makes the Bible ring true to me is the openness of its teachings. Unlike the gnosticism that was increasingly taking root in the first century, there are no secret teachings or higher levels of knowledge in Christianity. Earlier, we saw how intentional Paul was to highlight truths that he had taught them, things they "knew" because he was transparent in his ministry. Here, we see that same level of intentionality applied to teaching about death, the return of Christ, and the day of the Lord.

Jesus talked at length about the end of the world and told the apostles what believers living at that time could expect to see. So it's only natural that as new followers came into the fold, they would hear of Jesus' words (remember, the gospels hadn't yet been written down) and wonder about other believers who had died, who wouldn't be here to see Christ's return. Paul didn't leave them hanging - he didn't want them to be ignorant about it. This tells me that at the heart of true ministry is a desire for people to know. To have specific truths to hold on to. This is another of those areas where Paul didn't leave room for discussion, for a soft theology of discovery and raising questions; instead, he lays out "hard theology," a sound doctrine of clear truths with a specific timeline (though not specific dates and times).
  1. Jesus will come down from heaven with a loud command, an archangel's voice, and a trumpet call of God. 
  2. The dead in Christ will rise first. 
  3. Believers who are still alive and left on the earth will be caught up in the clouds. 
  4. Everyone - the resurrected dead and the caught up living - will meet the Lord in the air. 
  5. We will all be with the Lord forever.

Paul also didn't want them to grieve hopelessly. Have you ever witnessed truly hopeless grieving? I have, and it's one of the saddest things I've ever seen. "Grieve" means to be sorrowful or sad. We are not told not to grieve - we will still experience sadness when those we love die, because death is not normal. It's not the way it was meant to be. Instead, when we lose a loved one in Christ we grieve differently because of the hope that we will see him or her again - we don't even have to wait for heaven. We'll be reunited in the sky, either both being resurrected (if we die before Christ's return) or being caught up after their resurrection (if we're still alive). Paul's specific theology here becomes a source of encouragement - we are told to "encourage each other with these words". The bodies of those who are gone are just "asleep" - waiting for the trumpet. (As Paul notes elsewhere, their souls are with the Lord immediately at death; absent from the body but present with God.)

Paul then moves into a related, but distinct topic: The "day of the Lord." Not the day of joyous resurrection, but the day of judgment. He doesn't give specific information, because that day will come suddenly, like a thief. The entire emphasis here is on the impact of this day on those who are being destroyed. These individuals are also said to be asleep, but not in the sleep of death. These are asleep in the darkness of unbelief. Asleep when they could be awake.

Believers are in direct contrast. In Christ, we are all children of the light, children of the day. We are alert, self-controlled. We are not in the dark of night, where sleep and drunkenness reign. We are in the light of day, where truth and love reign. We have been called from darkness into His marvelous light, called to declare His praises with every breath He gives us until our last breath - or until we meet Him in the air.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Now, about Brotherly Love, Part 2 (Ministry in Thessalonians #18)

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. 
- 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12

Ever since I wrote the last post on Ministry in Thessalonians, I've reflected on these next two verses and came to realize that I really should have included them in that post on brotherly love. The thoughts are so closely connected that some versions don't start a new sentence at verse 11.

The Thessalonians were taught by God to love, and were successfully loving other believers. As part of his challenge to them to "do so more and more", Paul lays out three specific actions that facilitate love within the body of Christ:
  • Be ambitious about the right things. The New Testament consistently warns against "selfish ambition" and cautions believers about elevating themselves above others. Jesus taught that greatness is measured by the degree of servanthood, so pursuing what looks like worldly success actually moves us away from heavenly greatness. Here, Paul gives a specific "goal" for appropriate ambition: Lead a quiet life. The phrase is used elsewhere in the New Testament to mean "remain quiet" and "rest"; its root means "tranquil". It's a phrase used in contrast to "running hither and thither" (honestly, that's part of the definition). The quiet life is marked by a trust in God (that keeps us from taking on too much), relationship with Him and others, Biblical rest. It's a quietness of soul. Goal-oriented, ambitious people in the body of Christ can love well by focusing their ambition on rest and relationship. 
  • Mind your own business. We chuckle at this, knowing almost immediately what it means (or at least what we think it means). Certainly there is the element of avoiding gossip, as Paul clearly spells out elsewhere. But Young's Literal Translation captures the nuances of the Greek a little better: "Do your own business". Another translation reads, "Attend to your own affairs." In any case, the idea in mind is that we don't let our responsibilities slide ... an apt command given that the previous one focuses on quietness and rest. We are so prone to extremes: "Rest? OK. Great command. I can get into this quietness and rest thing. Can't do the dishes, gotta rest. Can't help out my neighbor, gotta rest." But when we truly grasp all that God is for us in Christ, we not only have quietness of soul, we also have fullness of purpose in the life He gives us. We can contentedly and peacefully take care of our own business - those things we are personally responsible for - without anxiety or stress. 
  • Work. Paul instructs them to work with their hands. The context clearly refers to work that earns a living. We often forget that work preceded the fall. The result of the fall was sweat and toil, thorns and thistles - the difficulties of work. But work itself is God-ordained. 
As believers grow in love for each other, with lives that are consistently marked by quietness of soul, personal responsibility, and hard work, two things happen: Outsiders respect our daily lives, and we are not dependent on anyone. (Certainly, there are times when we step in and help each other, or even where disability or illness lead to dependence - that is not what this passage refers to.) Our love continues to grow as we each increasingly do our part, at home, within the body, at work, and generously share with each other our time, talents, and treasure, within a context of mutual love and submission.

Love at work. It's a beautiful thing.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Story

I woke up late one recent morning, but full of joy for I had in my heart so strongly THE story ... the basic outline of Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration. In my sleep God had reminded me so strongly of the basics and how simple it really is ... yet how profoundly amazing and full of love:

1) Creation. God created the world and everything in it - and it was good. His creation of man and woman in His image was very good. Whatever ills we see in the world, we cannot blame God. We cannot justly accuse Him or attack His character. A good God made a good world. He could not do otherwise.
2) Fall. God created man in His image - including a free will. God didn't have to create, to reveal, to love ... He chose to do so. God has a free will so creatures made in His image - man and woman, not the animals - had to have a free will. Sadly, they chose to use that will to rebel, to reject, to believe a lie. Sin and death entered the world.

3) Redemption. Amazingly and beautifully, God had a plan. Woven into the story of fall is the story of redemption. Blood-stained garments of animal skin to clothe the fallen couple, when their man-made garments of leaves were insufficient. A future Victor who would crush Satan's head. The assurance that life would continue through future generations.

4) Restoration. So often I think this is the one we miss. God not only offers redemption for all who will embrace it - He restores what is lost. Ultimately that will be in the new heavens and new earth. But even now, where He redeems, He restores. Broken relationships healed. Broken promises fulfilled, Broken people made whole. Broken dreams renewed. Ever wonder why we are so fascinated with home improvements, makeovers, dramatic turnarounds? The Great Commission and the Great Commandment invite us to be part of the biggest restoration project in the world.

I don't know why this simple outline came to me this morning - truths I know deeply. I just had this picture in my mind of someone ready to rail against God, being interrupted with these truths just as He interrupted me years ago.

"Is it any wonder they call it Amazing Grace?" (Geron Davis)

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Now, about brotherly love ... (Ministry in Thessalonians, #17)

Now, about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more. 
- 1 Thessalonians 4:9-10

One of the earliest American history facts I remember learning is that Philadelphia is the "city of brotherly love". As we studied the history of the constitution and the infant republic, this town was featured prominently. It would be many years before I realized that the name of the city was lifted directly from the pages of Scripture.

Philadelphia, or "brotherly love" is the noun form of one of the three Greek words for love used in the New Testament (the verb form is phileo; the other verbs are agape and storges; a fourth word, eros, is not used in the New Testament.) While agape refers to divine love or to self-sacrificial love, and storges to natural love such as that a mother has for a child, philadelphia refers to love between individuals - specifically, the love that should exist between Christians. Interestingly, the root word, philos, simply means "friend" and was used to refer to "one of the bridegroom's friends who on his behalf asked the hand of the bride and rendered him various services in closing the marriage and celebrating the nuptials". We're talking about a love that involves a level of trust and deep relationship.

In his classic The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis explores each of these words. He writes of philos: “Friendship arises out of mere companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure or burden” (Strong's Concordance). In other words, the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to choose not the self-sacrificing agape love, or the natural storge love, but the relational philos love to define the love that God taught these believers to have for each other. 

Love for one another is so important to the heart of God that when the founders of this fledgling church were torn away from them, God stepped in to teach love directly to the church. Certainly phileo love is tied to agape love; the word in the second part of verse 9 is agape. God taught them to love one another with His divine, self-sacrificing love - but it played out in ways that reflected the unique philos love. Why is that? I believe it's simply this: Believers always have Jesus in common.

When we encounter another follower of Christ, we have found something in common, as Lewis described. In a place like Thessalonica, where believers were in the minority and faced persecution, realizing that they had relationships based on the common bond of Christ was crucially important to the young church. Those social bonds would strengthen faith and help them grow to maturity. Furthermore, in the first century there were no denominations or multiple churches within a city. There was no place to go if you couldn't get along. True "brotherly love" was essential for the church to rise above the differences as God brought people from all walks of life - Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female - into the church to make them all equal before Christ. And that's a beautiful thing.

I've certainly experienced some of the beautiful diversity of the philadelphia love within the body of Christ. I think of one friend who is as different from me as I can imagine. I'm a southern girl; she doesn't quite get us. I don't have an artistic bone in my body; she is creative in every way imaginable. I dislike pink and girly frou-frous; she enjoys what is often called "the feminine touches". Yet because of Christ, I met her and gradually developed a relationship of mutual love and appreciation for our differences. She has been incredibly encouraging about my teaching; prays faithfully for my ministry requests; and demonstrates in every way that we have true phileo love for each other. I hope you can think of your own example.

We were created for relationship - with God and with others. Not everyone has a spouse; not everyone has children; but we all have the opportunity to have friends. We can enjoy things we have in common with our friends from all walks of life, but there is a special friendship among believers who have Jesus in common. Paul urges us, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to pursue this love, "more and more".

Let brotherly love continue... Hebrews 13:1