17 April 2005
Text: I Thess.3:5-13
With this sermon we resume our journey through 1 Thessalonians--after a delightful excursion through the Easter season. For a considerable time in this letter, Paul, writing from Corinth where the Lord had sustained him with particular encouragement: (Acts 18:9 And the Lord said to Paul in the night by a vision, "Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent; Acts 18:10 for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city." Acts 18:11 And he settled there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.) But as Paul is writing, it would appear, Timothy arrives with news of the church in Thessalonica. Now he receives an answer to his prayers for truly he has not been neglecting, nor has he forgotten them. You may recall that he left them with great reluctance (2:17a “taken away”); had made repeated efforts to return (vv.17b-20 “time and again. . . But Satan hindered us“); and failing that had sent Timothy (3:1-5). As for his prayers we need only turn to 3:10-13 read this morning (“night and day praying exceedingly to see their face.”) Paul did eventually make it back to Macedonia, some four years later, prior to his second visit to the church at Corinth.
Today’s verses set forth for us the pattern for how a pastor ought to serve the gospel and the church--in that we have before us a picture of “heartfelt ministry.” Well, first in order is unbearable suspense and deep affection--the staying awake kind of thoughtfulness which blends with prayer. Paul just had to know how the believers were doing, the condition of their faith. Keeping in touch, maintaining contact with each other in the body outside of Sunday fellowship and worship is important for all believers but especially for the pastor--time with the right people at the right level. I believe that our discipleship groups and home groups help serve this purpose in our body because member to member contact is so essential to church health. But in Paul’s case this contact was maintained, out of necessity by others, by Timothy who “has come to us from you,” with “Good news of your faith and love.’ This phrase refers both to their dependence upon God and to their love/ devotion to one another, a love which includes Paul, Silas and Timothy. Paul is also blessed particularly, personally to hear that the people still thought well of them--that despite constant railing, negativity and criticism by the church’s enemies. And, not only that, the people also long eagerly to be reunited with their spiritual midwives. So, keeping in touch, spiritual contact is important, demanding, rewarding, although unspectacular and easily neglected. Simple pleasures and great joys are wrapped up in the affectionate bonds that ought to exist in the church. But let’s not miss the caution here that while they are important, they are also demanding (we must make space for each other in our busy lives or believer to believer contact just will not happen). The bonds of affection are rewarding, I say but unspectacular. A phone call, an e-card, a short visit simply to check in may be “pedestrian” forms of Christian loving. They may not be rescue missions, but they lay the foundation for being there in times of critical need; they built trust. I’m not sure why they are so easily neglected, but I suspect that we pull back because we are busy and, perhaps, because we are wired to spiritual EMT-ism so to speak. If there’s no crisis, no red lights flashing, we assume that things are just fine. So it is not so much distractedness--although there’s some of that--it more benign neglect!
The role of mutual encouragement in all this is significant as Paul writes “in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged.” (v.7) It impact was threefold: 1. We can breathe again (the unbearable suspense is over) v.5; 2. we can’t thank you enough (v.9) ; and 3. we now can pray with renewed purpose for the perfection of whatever is lacking in your doctrine and discipleship (v.10). The prayer here is steady and continual, not spasmodic, it is personal and particular not generic and purposeful and directed rather than vague. Paul had always longed for them to be complete and whole ( Eph 4:11-13 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, Eph 4:12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; Eph 4:13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.) Therefore, sensibly enough, Paul breaks into prayer with vv.11-13: may God clear the way for us to come, may God make your love increase to overflowing, may He prepare you for the day of His coming--so that you are about the business of watering, growing, living, praying, evangelizing and personal sanctification--holiness.
The subject of encouragement is addressed thematically throughout this letter; ultimately such encouragement it related to the rapture of the church. The rapture of the church becomes a practical, rather than fanciful, or speculative matter because the knowledge of it is encouraging to believers. Christ is coming for His own. Paul urged them to live in the midst of their trials as if this coming were imminent--which of course is how we are live even today. If we believe in the rapture, it should affect our behavior in concrete ways--such as inducing great concern for our holiness, our readiness for transport to heaven: John 14:3 "And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.” Jesus also says, elsewhere that we shall not be left orphans which some interpret to mean the coming of the Holy Spirit and others take it to mean this visitation, the rapture where He comes for His own. The impact of belief on behavior is critical--genuine belief changes behavior. Paul had been mother and father to those in this fledgling church. He embraces them as both his glory and joy at the coming of Christ (the parousia) when all believers receive their reward for the works God had prepared them for. Paul struggled because his love for them was deep, genuine. He sought the very best for them in terms of their spiritual welfare. So he sends a servant (diakonos) Timothy and fellow-worker in the gospel and so he continually prays.
Getting the word out, the preaching of the gospel. That’s the main thing. Some people criticize so-called fundamentalists because of this urgent priority but that is because they don‘t realize that preaching of the gospel has preceded, not followed, most of the great social reform movements of modern history. In England the reform of child labor laws emerged from the great Wesleyan meetings. Hospitals and mental institutions and the humane treatment of prisoners all emerged from the preaching of the message of the gospel. The atoning love of God that was preached transformed their lives and good works flowed out of that change--NOT the other way around. A major exception to this general work of benevolence emerging from gospel preaching is the so-called “welfare state.” It is an exception because it did not emerge from the gospel of Christ but from a humanistic sense of “do-goodism.” We know this as socialism. The disastrous result of this separation from the gospel is that welfare programs often end up encouraging immorality, breaking up the family unity, coddling people in sin, addiction and poverty not in setting them free. Welfare recipients tend to end up dependent on the state and in bondage to poverty. Faith-based programs, in sharp contrast, excel government programs in getting kids off drugs, keeping ex-convicts from returning to prison and in helping alcoholics remain free from addiction, putting people back into the work force living productive lives and paying their share of the social burdens. And, sad to relate, some churches have chosen to go along with these “secular,“ liberal “solutions” to current social problems as if these were the “Christian” thing to do. A lot more of doing good breaks out when the gospel is purely preached and people are discipled as children of God. Why? Because solutions rooted in the gospel tend to be lasting. When people are in a right relationship to God, they do better at fighting off temptation, at resisting worldliness and overcoming sin and selfishness.
That sense of how things works is behind Paul’s words “to establish” you. (3:2) This word expresses the understanding of what Hur and Aaron did for Moses as Israelites battled the Amalekites (Exodus 17). They held up the arms of Moses from dawn to dusk so that Joshua’s army might prevail. Timothy was sent back to Thessalonica to do just that, to strengthen people in their faith. That their afflictions should not disturb, defeat, or even deter them because afflictions/persecutions/trials are things that God has appointed us to for our refinement. Not only then will they occur, they ought to occur and if they don’t, then the believer has good cause to be worried. In John 16:33 Jesus declares: "These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world." But the Lord also says to be of good cheer even in the midst of trouble. Being a believer is no guarantee of a trouble-free life. What we are promised is help through the storm: He will be with us and He insures that we will reach safe harbor on the far side. 2 Tim 3:12 Yea, and all that live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. These troubles come on purpose to draw us nearer to God and to promote holiness in every one of us through refinement.
When Paul declares that Satan has hindered him from coming again to them, he is expressing concern that Satan, the tempter, has also troubled them at the same time. Troubles, tribulations as they are known, also serve the purpose of testing the genuineness of our faith. Passing through the tests life brings with your faith intact is the acid test of our Christianity. The good report from Timothy causes Paul to experience joy, “true life” if/since they held fast in their afflictions. Rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings (1 Peter 4:13) Here we glimpse what a wonderful, advantageous thing it is to be a Christian. Still Paul’s heart is full of longing to teach them even more. His labor of love--the active seeking of their good--is a purposeful activity: to establish their hearts in unblame-able holiness. Some Christians are so assimilated to the world that a forensic expert would have a hard time telling them apart from the good, but worldly unbeliever. There ought to be a measurable difference in holiness between us, or what’s the point? When we are caught up to be with the Lord, at His coming--prior to the establishment of His kingdom and even prior to the great throne judgment--, we will be ushered into the presence of God and there an then receive our reward, or loss thereof. Holiness is readiness. Now, perhaps, this passage makes more sense. I trust that it appears more urgent that we should grow in holiness as well as to abound in love and that this is done through heartfelt ministry as we stay in touch with God and one another.