Wednesday, May 27, 2015

"Brothers, Pray for Us" (Ministry in Thessalonians #23)

"Brothers, pray for us. Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss. I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you." 
- 1 Thessalonians 5:25-28

It takes a lot of humility to ask for prayer, especially from someone younger in the Lord.

Although Paul was a church planter and missionary, and never lost sight of his responsibility before the Lord for those he served, his conclusion here is a beautiful example of humility. He sees the Thessalonians as brothers, and asks for their prayers.

If you are in ministry, hear in this the challenge to ask for prayer from others. Who is praying for you as you preach, teach, evangelize, minister a cup of cold water in His name? Build a prayer team and keep them informed with how to pray for you!

This example of humility is a dual reminder: In any ministry situation we should always have prayer support from others -- and we should always remember to pray for those who minister to us. Our pastors, elders, deacons, teachers - all desperately need our prayers. In Paul's request I hear their words: "Pray for us." You can bet that any leader worth his or her salt is praying for you. Let's be sure to pray for them as well!

"Brothers, pray for us." Prayer connects us across the miles, builds deep relationships, and has eternal results. Let's not miss out on that!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Hard Simplicity of Sanctification (Ministry in Thessalonians #22)

And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else. 
Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. 
Do not put out the Spirit's fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil. 
May God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The One who calls you is faithful, and He will do it.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:14-24

It's easy to see Paul's pastoral heart throughout his writings. 1 Thessalonians is filled with declarations of love, desire to see them, and reminders of their time together. Now, as Paul and his team wrap up this letter to a much-loved church, they leave parting words that are not difficult to understand. Paul's letters consistently move from doctrinal theology to practical theology, and this earliest one is no different.

Paul packs a lot of information into a few short verses. Like most pastors, he sees the time drawing to an end and wants to make sure every Spirit-breathed word makes it onto the page before the messenger takes the scroll on its journey to the recipients. His parental hearts comes through as well; who among us hasn't had a parent shouting out last-minute reminders as we drive off to a new experience without their daily presence? Rather than see this sentences as a list of commands, we should view them as a reflection of love: The love of a parent, the love of a pastor, and most of all, the love of the God who inspired them onto the page.

Let's be honest: We don't need Greek word studies or even comparisons to other scriptures to understand how Paul is exhorting the Thessalonians - and us - to live. It's straightforward and simple. But oh, don't for a minute think I'm saying it is easy. I am absolutely certain that we don't get behind the first verse before we are filled with questions about how to "warn the idle" and conviction about times when we've been "the idle"! We can spend a lifetime learning to live out "always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else." It's simple - but not easy!

I'm convinced that this hard simplicity of sanctification is why the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to wrap up this section with a solid doctrinal reminder of how we walk out our practical theology. In a few words, he fills us with hope that the previous verses can be lived out in our lives -- not by our power, but by His alone:

  • "May God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through." What a perfectly beautiful reminder that our sanctification comes from God, not from our own efforts. Don't be thrown off by the word "sanctify". It simply means "separate", specifically to be separated from ungodly things to be dedicated to God Himself. It also means "to purify" and is used in the New Testament to refer to being purified by the blood of Christ and cleansed from within. It is an internal work with external effects. It's just a big word for being "in the world, but not of the world". And praise God, He reminds us that it is a work of God Himself. The God of Peace. The One with whom we have peace because of the blood of Jesus. 
  • "May your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." Sanctification affects us through and through. It's not something that we can keep to ourselves. Although our faith must be very personal, it isn't private. When God's sanctifying work is in us we will be different in every aspect of our being. Have you ever felt convicted to apologize to someone who had no idea that you had wronged her - but you knew, because the internal attitude was off and God wouldn't let you rest until you confessed? That's an example of the way sanctification works. As we learn to walk closely with God as He works in us, we will sense times when something is affecting our spirit, soul, or body in ways that keep us from being blameless. The quicker we act to separate ourselves from that, the sooner we find a deepening of our intimacy with God as He walks with us through the hard simplicity of sanctification. 
  • "The One who calls you is faithful, and He will do it." This unequivocal statement keeps our focus on God's faithfulness. Have you ever had an experience where you felt you kept reliving the same mistake? Did you get to the point of recognizing that God was going to let you keep going around that mountain until you got it right? Then you have experienced the persistent, stubborn faithfulness of God. When we are His children, He is far too faithful to us to allow us to persist in something that damages our spirit, soul, and body rather than keeps it blameless. It may take a while for us to get the message, but He will keep after us, because as this verse tells us "He WILL do it". We get the joy of deciding to cooperate with Him in that work, and to decrease the consequences of ignoring His voice by responding quickly. When I was a child I was pretty stubborn. (Some would argue I haven't outgrown it, but that's a topic for another day.) Many things that my mom tried to teach me I resisted. On more than one occasion I recall her saying to me, "You can be stubborn, but I can be more stubborn than you." She knew what every parent knows: At some point she would win, because she was the mom. She saw the bigger picture and there was only so much I could do without her. She was stubbornly faithful to not let me go outside and play until the chores were done, or I brushed my teeth, or whatever thing I was rebelling against that day. And in the end, all the important lessons she taught me took. She did it. She loved me enough that her faithfulness exceeded my slowness to respond. And our God is the same way. I just want to cooperate and be used by Him, rather than keep repeating the same lessons. 
Paul never promised the Thessalonians a rose garden. He told them from the beginning this wouldn't be easy, and they experienced persecution early on. Now, listing a number of simple but difficult aspects of this different life they were called to live, he still doesn't mince words. It's obviously not going to be easy. But he is leaving them in the hands of the One whose work would transform their lives. 

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Those who work hard among you (Ministry in Thessalonians, #21)

Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord, and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. 
- 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13

After an extensive discourse on the hope that believers have in the return of Christ and our eventual reunion with Him and other believers, Paul turns to a more earth-bound topic: The healthy functioning of His body, the church.

Don't think for a minute that these practical instructions are of lesser significance than the future promises we have just read. Since Jesus established it, the church has been God's appointed means for spreading the good news of salvation through Jesus, teaching and bringing others into the family so that one day, people will worship around the throne from "every tribe and tongue and nation and people group" (Revelation 7:9). He wants to multiply exponentially the number of people who will "live together with Him" (verse 10) and that requires a healthy, growing, global church.

No one believer, or one body of believers, or even one massive people movement of believers, can ever fully reflect the character of Jesus to the world or live out the Great Commandments in all the ways God loves. No single body can fulfill the Great Commission. It takes all of us - yet as real as the overall body of Christ is, the fact remains that it is revealed to the world in local bodies of believers. God didn't stay on an abstract plane, but came down to earth in the form of a baby who grew to be a man who revealed God's true nature to us. In that same sense, the "body of Christ" is incarnated in hundreds of thousands of local bodies - the local church. And for each local church to fulfill its God-given purpose in God's global plan, each person has a part to play. As Paul turns to address some of these aspects of healthy church life, let us recall that this is one of the earliest books of the Bible, written to one of the first churches Paul planted. Without the full counsel of the word of God to inform their faith and practice, this church was very dependent on Paul's guidance. What did he consider significant enough to write down and send to them?

Respect. Your. Leaders.

A close examination of verses 12-14 makes it clear that Paul is talking about two different groups: "brothers" and another group described in three ways:
  • They work hard among you
  • They are over you in the Lord
  • They admonish you
These aren't people from outside the church (like Paul & his team) but people who are integrally involved in the daily life of the church. Putting together all the puzzle pieces, and comparing to other Scriptures, we can deduce that this three-fold description can only be referring to church leaders. These verses give insight both into how church leaders should do their job, and how church members - referred to here as "brothers" - can fulfill Paul's request to respect leaders.
1. Leaders work hard. Strong's dictionary defines the Greek word translated as "work hard" with this descriptive explanation: "1. to grow weary, tired, exhausted (with toil or burdens or grief)  2. to labour with wearisome effort, to toil a.of bodily labour". Simply put: Ministry is hard. Sometimes it's hard mentally, sometimes it's hard spiritually ... and sometimes it is physically demanding.

If you are in any kind of ministry, please don't get confused by the common but misguided notion that attempts to assure you that anything done for God will give energy. Yes, it is true that works empowered by the Holy Spirit and fueled by faith do feel different than works done in the flesh. We can feel spiritually renewed in the midst of ministry. But we can also know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we are walking in our calling and still get really, really tired. 

If you are not in church leadership, please remember this aspect of ministry. Respect your leaders by being aware of their fatigue and the burdens of ministry. Realize that your pastor, or his wife, or elders, or nursery coordinator, are carrying loads that you don't have to carry. Sometimes they may seem to be distracted when you're talking to them simply because they haven't slept in two nights. Maybe your pastor fumbled over a few words in the sermon because he was up all night preparing it. Demonstrate the respect that Paul asks of us by extending the same grace you want after a hard day's work and little sleep. If your pastor has a scheduled day off, respect his time and pray for his rest. In fact, keep your pastor, his family, and all your church leaders at the top of your prayer list every day. You can be sure that part of the "hard work" they do is praying for you, so respect them by returning the favor.

2. Leaders have spiritual authority. I know that word grates at the nerves of a lot of us, especially those of us in more egalitarian cultures. Please know that I am well aware of the abuses of authority that many of us have seen, both outside and sadly, inside, the church. However, hear this well: abusive authority is not spiritual authority. Consider the range of meanings wrapped up in the word translated "over you": "to set over; to superintend; to preside over; to be a protector or guardian; to give aid; to care for or give attention to." Spiritual authority boils down to this: Someone has to be responsible. Part of being responsible is protecting, guarding, helping, paying attention to details.

If you are in church leadership, first of all thank you for taking on this responsibility. See in this Scripture the Biblical authority God has given you over the church extends far beyond giving a message or arranging the Sunday service. Good leaders are the shepherds who guard the sheep; John 10 tells us that a good shepherd won't let any interlopers into the sheep pen. Pray for discernment, to be sensitive to every detail that God wants you to pay attention to for the care and protection of the people God has given you.

If you are a church member, you may read this verse and envy your leaders for their "higher calling." Scripture never makes the distinction that it's higher; only that it carries a heavier weight. Consider  Hebrews 13:17: "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." This verse gives very specific instructions on how we can respect our leaders in this area: Have confidence in them, and submit to their authority. If you chafe at the word "submit", remember the description of what spiritual authority means: They protect us, they care for us, they help us and pay attention to things on our behalf. When you submit to your church leaders' authority, you are not checking your brain at the door. You are simply allowing them to fulfill their God-given role of protecting you, caring for you, helping you, paying attention to things.

3. Leaders speak hard truths. "Admonish" is a word related to teaching and simply means warning or exhorting. When Scripture speaks of exhorting it is always in the context of the word of God, so this is essentially another way of saying that leaders tell us hard truths from the Bible. They highlight things we might want to skip over. They remind us of truths that we have forgotten. If they are walking in the spiritual authority God gave them as we just noted, they will be paying attention to things we might miss - so they will occasionally giving us Biblical warnings that we might otherwise miss. Of course, as Christ's under-shepherds (1 Peter 5:1-4) they will speak in love and with compassion. But they will speak it.

Leaders, always remember that God doesn't simply give you permission to speak hard truths - He assumes that you will do so. He will always be with you and empower you in anything He calls you to share.

Members, the next time you sense a difficult word coming from your pastor or another leader, pray for him and ask God to help you receive the message. Good leaders are prescient and will always be ahead of the people, so consider that he might be seeing something you just cannot yet see. Study the Scriptures he references and ask God to help you apply them to your own life. 
Paul wraps up this by telling the brothers not only to respect their leaders, but to hold them in high regard in love because of what they do. In a culture based on honor and shame, Paul is telling these church brothers to hold their leaders in a place of honor - not because the leaders demand it or expect it, but because they work hard. We are to do this in love - it's not a burden to show honor to someone who is protecting and caring for you and not seeking honor for themselves.

Finally, Paul wraps up this section by telling the believers to live in peace with each other. Leaders with non-leaders. All the brothers and sisters of the body with each other. Nothing shows respect and honor like peace!

In these two verses, Paul lays the groundwork for a healthy church: Leaders who watch out for the body, and members who let them do so. When the foundation is solid, then the church is able to fulfill God's purpose - reaching out beyond itself to a world that needs to know the love of God and the message of salvation through Christ.