Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Thessalonians Words ~ Day 31: Stand Firm

Day 31: Stand Firm

Today we end our words challenge through the books of Thessalonians with, not a word, but a phrase: Stand firm. These two words are a phrase that sums up Paul's hope for these young believers facing severe trials and sufferings, as well as his encouragement to them.

"For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord." 1 Thessalonians 3:8

"So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter." 2 Thessalonians 2:15

To stand firm is a metaphor Paul uses for perseverance. When he says to stand firm he means to be constant, to persevere, to remain steadfast, to continue on. This phrase is always connected with our faith in Christ. For it is only in the Lord that we have the ability to stand firm, to carry on despite our present circumstances. So often we witness or hear stories of people who have faced trials and ended up walking away from their faith in God as a result. Paul's concern for those who face trials is heard in his encouragement to stand firm, remain steadfast, grounded in your faith in Jesus Christ. The Lord will carry you through, if you just stand firm. Look at his use of this phrase in a few other passages.

"Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong." 1 Corinthians 16:13

"Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come...because it is by faith you stand firm." 2 Corinthians 1:21-22, 24.

Then in the book of Ephesians Paul gives insight into some of resources we have in Christ for standing firm:

"Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people." Ephesians 6:10-18
I'm so glad you have joined me as we have journeyed through 1 & 2 Thessalonians these past 31 days. I have found studying these two books to be so refreshing and also encouraging. We have been facing such a great trial during this pandemic -  one that has caused great sorrow and loss of life. One that has, unfortunately, deepened the division in our nation, when it should have brought us closer together. One that continues on with full deadly force. Hopefully for you, as it has done for me, these letters of encouragement have helped you find the path to standing firm in the Lord.

I pray that your faith and hope in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, fueled by the Holy Spirit, have allowed Paul's words in these letters to be a model for you as we face trials and suffering, awaiting His Second Coming. May you believe in the love and joy He produces in you, by the presence and power of His Spirit, as you face suffering and trials. He has called you to be sanctified in Him, because to live a holy life pleases God. Use Paul's instructions for the return of Christ, that those in Him - asleep or awake- will be secure in Him on the Day of the Lord, to encourage each other to Christ's perseverance in the trying days we ourselves face. Christ died for us, so we can pray day and night, and thank God the Father for His indescribable gift of grace, enabling us in power with the hope of glory promised by Him who is worthy of all honor and glory and praise. His peace is at work in our hearts enabling us to stand firm in the strength of the Lord.
Thanks again for joining me in 31 Words of Thessalonians!

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Thessalonians Words ~ Day 30: Peace

Day 30: Peace

Today's word is found in both of the ending prayers in Paul's letters to the Thessalonians.

"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 5:23-24

"Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you." 2 Thessalonians 3:16 

Peace that the Bible speaks of is much more than the absence of war or conflict, as we often think of it.  It's more than calm and quiet, and deeper than the restoration of what is broken and painful - although it does include all of those things as well. In Hebrew the word for peace is Shalom. Shalom is a sense of well-being and fulfillment that comes from God and is dependent on His presence. Shalom is wholeness, prosperity, security and fullness of life that only comes as a result of a restored relationship with God. In Greek, the Hebrew word is translated eirene, it means to join or bind together that which has been separated, making it one again. We see this biblical peace of binding together that which was separated in the work of God the Father through His Son.

"For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Jesus Christ}, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross." Colossians 1:19-20

"Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." Romans 5:1

God is the source and the giver of peace. Peace is God's nature. Paul's prayer for our sanctification in 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 reflects God's desire for our ultimate wholeness and encourages us in our journey of sanctification - the process of becoming holy - whole. This is one of my favorite prayers in the New Testament. It gives a picture of God at work in our whole self, drawing every part of us to live out the holiness He desires in us. Yet reminding us that, ultimately, it is He who is faithful in accomplishing this, reminding us to remain connected and dependent on the God of Peace.

In the midst of any trials and suffering that come our way, we can have peace because the God of Peace will, at all times, bring us the peace of God. He is with us always and in all ways. We can approach Him and speak to Him at any time. In this we have the "peace that surpasses all understanding" (Philippians 4:7).

May the God of Peace enable you to know His peace in your heart today.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Thessalonians Words ~ Day 29: Work

Day 29: Work

I have to confess that I've been looking forward to getting into this passage. Over the years I have heard verse 10 used repeatedly, out of context I believe, as an excuse for why Christ followers or churches should not help the poor and needy. I studied this passage after the first time someone in my church quoted it to me because I have a strong passion for serving those in need, and feel just as strongly that it is a call by God for the Church and for his people. I look forward to digging deeper into this passage with all of you.

6 "In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
11 We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. 12 Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat. 13 And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.
14 Take special note of anyone who does not obey our instruction in this letter. Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed. 15 Yet do not regard them as an enemy, but warn them as you would a fellow believer." 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15
So, first we need to discover what brought Paul to this teaching about work. This is not his first mention of this topic in these letters. In 1 TH 2:6b-9 we learn that Paul and his disciples worked to support themselves while they were in Thessalonica. Twice in these letters he states that they "worked day and night" (1 TH 2:9 & 2 TH 3:8),  "laboring and toiling" (2 TH 3:8), not wanting to be a financial burden on the Thessalonians (1 TH 2:9, 2 TH 3:8. Also see 2 Corinthians 11:9, 12:13-16). Although it seems in their day that being financially supported by the churches they visited (1 Corinthians 9:3-14) was acceptable, and even expected, Paul chose instead to lay aside his privilege and set aside his rights for the sake of preaching the gospel. In Acts 18:34, stating to the Ephesians, "You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions". Paul went from town to town preaching, but at the same time making tents (Acts 18:3) in order to support himself and his disciples. Paul lived among the Thessalonians showing them the example of working to support himself and encouraging hard work in them as well (1 TH 4:11-12, 5:12).
So when Paul comes to this point in his second letter why is he speaking about those who are idle and why does he say, "The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat"? Well it appears it was connected to the other theme we have seen in these letters: The Second Coming of Christ. While not stated implicitly in these letters, many commentators believe, based on the placement of this topic in this letter, that some of the Thessalonians, believing that Jesus would return soon had determined that working was a waste of time, and they should just prepare for His coming. Instead they were living off others in the church, and their idleness was leaving them too much time to the point that they became "busybodies" (2 TH 3:11), bothering others as they tried to work. There are two things we also need to note here: Paul is talking about fellow Christ followers in these passages. He is explicit, calling them brothers in 2 TH 3:6, some translations saying "believers". And the second thing to note is they are not unable to work, but rather unwilling (2 TH 3:10). They felt they had more spiritual things to do than work to earn a living.
Paul has some pretty tough words on how to deal with those who are idle. He is pretty kind about in in the first letter simply telling them to "warn those who are idle" (1 TH 5:14). But apparently by his second letter the problem must have gotten out of hand because his instructions take on a much tougher tone. He now tells the Thessalonians to "keep away from every brother who is idle" (3:6). He urges the idle to "settle down and earn the bread they eat" (3:12), and goes on to urge the church to "not associate" with those who do not change their behavior in hopes that they will "feel ashamed" (3:14). With his final exhortation  to "not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother" (3:15).
For Paul this whole issue was one of love and unity. Those who were not working were acting in unloving ways toward their brothers and sisters who were supporting them, and placing unnecessary burdens on them. For Paul, he sacrificed the rights he had as an apostle to be supported by the church financially, because to him this was both loving and an expression of the gospel of Christ. The idle in the church may have even been taking resources away for the helpless and needy in the community. Paul had a heart for and taught often about helping and providing for those in need. See some examples in Acts 11:27-30; Romans 15:26; 2 Corinthians 8:1-5; Galatians 2:10.

This is why context is so important to understanding meaning in Bible Study. When we pull out one single verse and use it to define our theology and practice, we actually can put ourselves in the position of disobeying God's Word. We are called to serve the poor and needy around us. We should do so with wisdom and stewardship and with love. Poverty in our nation is systemic and often not as simple to overcome as simply getting a job. As God's people we can also strive to be a part of the solution, seeking justice to change systems that do not actually help people get out of them. Most importantly, we can remember Jesus' own words in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew's gospel:
"For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me."
Matthew 25:35-36, 40, 45.

Paul's theology is one of hard work, holy living, serving and loving others - those in God's family and everyone else.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Thessalonians Words ~ Day 28: Hearts

Day 28: Hearts

"But the Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen and protect you from the evil one. We have confidence in the Lord concerning you, that you are doing and will continue to do what we command. May the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and into the steadfastness of Christ." 2 Thessalonians 3:3-5

In the previous verses of this passage Paul had asked the Thessalonians to pray for his ministry of preaching the message of the Lord, that is would be fruitful, and that he and his disciples would be protected from those without faith who are intent on evil actions toward them. He now shifts his focus back to the Thessalonians and their obedience to the message of the Lord.

Paul now goes into showing the Thessalonians the "both/and" of sanctification - the on-going process  of becoming holy, of living out the salvation we have received from God.  I call it "both/and" because, as Paul will point out to us in this passage, becoming holy is a process that requires both the sovereign work of God and the human responsibility of obedience, will, and action.  Paul points to God's sovereignty in verse 3 saying, "The Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one." God is at work both in us and around us to enable us by His power to become the holy people He desires. Paul then points out in verse 4 that he is confident that "they are doing and will continue to do the things we command". It is our responsibility to live out the commands of Scripture that show us to be God's holy people. We exercise free-will and must choose obedience and action.

There is another passage from Paul in his letter to the Philippians that shows us this same "both/and" principle:
"Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose." Philippians 2:12-13

The 'therefore' at the beginning of the passage refers back to Philippians 2:5-11, where Paul has told us to have the same attitude as Christ and then went on to describe Christ's attitude of servant-hood, humility and obedience. As a result of Christ's example then we are to imitate Him and obey. How? By continuing to "work out" our salvation with reverence. We have received salvation from God as a free gift of His grace through faith in His Son Jesus Christ. So we don't have to work for that initial salvation. But our complete salvation is an on-going process of growing in holiness that is lived out by us in humility, obedience and reverence as we obey God's commands for holy living. Yet even in our obedience and action we are not left on our own to strive in our own power, "for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.". God is at work in us, enabling us to have the will for obedience and to respond with action. So, Paul then, can say in verse 4 above, that it is "in the Lord" that he has confidence that they will obey.

Paul's confidence in the faithfulness of God and the obedient response he has witnessed in the Thessalonians, and his faith that they will continue in obedience leads him into a brief and spontaneous prayer in verse 5. "May the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and into the steadfastness of Christ." Let's walk through this verse to grasp its full meaning.

"May the Lord direct": The Greek word used here was a military term used of removing obstacles or clearing away the obstacles to make a direct route. It brings to mind Proverbs 3:5-6:
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart

    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight."

What is it Paul is praying for the Lord to direct? Their hearts. The heart in biblical terms is not simply our emotions, as we often consider it today. It encompasses the emotions, the intellect, the feelings, and the will. It speaks of our whole inner being. Leon Morris says, "The prayer is that Christ will open up the way for the whole of the inner life...". So when we read verses about trusting the Lord with all your heart or loving the Lord with all your heart, remember that it is a call to do so with your whole being, with all that you are. 

What is Paul praying that God will direct their hearts toward? "God's love and Christ's perseverance". Again we must think in terms of "both/and". Paul's prayer is that God's love and Christ's perseverance, or endurance, would be produced in us. AND that God's love and Christ's perseverance would inspire us to love and persevere as well. 

The Lord will remove obstacles creating a straight path for His work in our hearts that we may know know His love and Christ's perseverance, that these would be produced in us so that we can then live them out. Ironically, for the Thessalonians and for us, the obstacles God does not often remove are trials and suffering. Instead those trials and suffering help us depend even more on God's loving faithfulness, motivated by Christ's example of obedience and perseverance, and inspired by the hope of the glory that is to come when He returns. 

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Thessalonians Words ~ Day 27: Encourage

Day 27: Encourage

Although the theme of Paul's letters to the Thessalonians is often seen as teachings about the Second Coming of Christ, it appears that the underlying theme of encouragement may actually be the greater theme. Paul, throughout both letters, expresses his concern for how these young Christ followers are holding up under the pressure of severe trials and suffering. He sends Timothy to find out about them and to "strengthen and encourage" them in their faith (1 TH 3:2). Even in his teachings about the Second Coming of Christ or about how to live in the midst of suffering, Paul's words have less of a doctrinal sound and more of one of encouragement. He encourages them often in these letters to live holy lives with the hope of eternal glory as their motivation and encouragement. He urges them to use his letters to encourage them (1 TH 4:18) and implores them to make encouraging and building up each other a central part of their life together (1 TH 5:11).

Perhaps, though, one of the best ways I see Paul encouraging them is in His prayers for them:

"May the 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 TH 3:12-13

"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 TH 5:23-24

"May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word." 2 TH 2:16-17

It was obvious that Paul had a deep affection for the Thessalonian believers, referring to himself in parental terms in his letters. He saw his role with them as gentle, encouraging and comforting. His prayers reflect his love and devotion to them, and his feelings of responsibility for nurturing, teaching and leading them. In his prayers we find it is God who will strengthen hearts, He will sanctify us and move in us to live out His goodness, and He is faithful in all that He promises to do. Repeatedly Paul's prayers are reminders to take encouragement that God is just and loving and His people will be found holy and blameless when Jesus comes again.