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. 

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