Rules for Living

Paul’s 1st letter to the Thessalonians is coming to a close.  He’s praised them for their diligence and explained the mystery of the rapture and the end of days.  All in all, it’s a very positive letter.

And as Paul gets ready to put the letter in the envelope and mail it, he could have ended it with “Go in peace” or “good luck” or “Have a good one!”

Paul’s a little more verbose.  He gives like 18 bullet points on how they should live their lives.

That’s a lot of points.  I’ve mentioned this before about when I first studied the true definition of love in 1 Corinthians.  I thought, “I’m going to make an effort and practicing this, starting from the top.”  “Love is patient; love is kind.”  I don’t feel I’ve progressed past that point.  Think about it; love your enemies and be patient and kind with them.  And when I studied patience – how long does patience last?  An hour?  A day?  With the Lord, a day is like a thousand years.  I’ve never been able to graduate past the 1st two verses, “Love is patient, love is kind.”  I may never get to third grade of love.

And today?  We have like 18 bullet points to cover.  I’d email y’all the whole list, but you have a bible.  Turn to 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28 and read it.  I’ll help.

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.  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.

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.

When I first read this conclusion, it reminded me of all those final instructions Grandma gave after a visit to her house.  “Goodbye!  Be safe!  Eat well!  Study hard!  Wear clean clothes!  Look both ways before crossing the street!”  And she’d still be calling out all these instructions, even after the car window was rolled up and we were headed down the street and couldn’t hear her.  There is much more to these last instructions, though; Paul is telling the Thessalonians how they are to live together as a church of believers.

There are no indications the church at Thessalonica was divided at this time; Paul’s just encouraging and teaching them to be in harmony with each other.  In the first sentence, Paul calls them “brothers.”  Paul uses this word 27 times in the letters to the Thessalonians; as Christians, we are all adopted children of God, and Paul saw the local church as his family.

Family Leadership

No family is perfect; each and every one of us know the dysfunction in our own families.  We’re all imperfect and a little dysfunctional, but it is our love for our family that helps us overcome our dysfunctions.  And so it is with our local church. 

In each local family, we have a leader; without leadership, the family falls apart.  God’s structure for the family is for the husband to be the head of the family and sacrifice himself for the good of the family.  The wife is to stand next to him and make sure he sacrifices himself.  I mean, she encourages him and supports him in love and cooperation.  And the children are to obey their parents.  This is God’s structure, and the family becomes dysfunctional when we don’t respect that structure.

And so it is with the church.  Even though Galatians 3:28 says,

we are all one in Christ Jesus,

 Ephesians 4:11-13 tells us that God has created us each uniquely with unique spiritual gifts –

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

So some people are given gifts to pastor and teach the church so that the church as a whole may be raised up in maturity and prepare God’s people for service.  That is God’s purpose for the church, and God’s purpose for the spiritual leaders of the church. 

Paul’s letter, though, is not addressed to the leaders; it’s addressed to the brothers and sisters of Christ.  What responsibilities do we have as brothers and sisters in Christ toward those in leadership?

  1. Accept them. People in church leadership are doing their best to utilize the gifts God gave them.  Church leaders are not dictators, they are example to follow and have been given spiritual authority from the Lord.  As they follow the Lord, so we, too, must follow them.
  2. Appreciate them. Verse 12 says, “respect those who work hard among you.”  Spiritual leadership is both a great responsibility and a difficult task, whether one is serving as a pastor, deacon, director, or other spiritual leader like teacher, mission leader, social director, or Royal Guardian of the Lunch Ministry.  Encouragements are few, battles are many, and leadership is always under attack by Satan.  As brothers and sisters, we should pray for our leaders, encourage our leaders, and appreciate our leaders, and serve joyfully with them.  There is nothing wrong with honoring faithful servants as long as it is God who gets the glory.
  3. Love them. Paul chooses his words carefully, verse 12 says that our spiritual leaders are our brothers and are “among us,” but they are also leaders “over us in the Lord.”  This can easily strain relationships because leaders are called to speak the truth in love.  For a pastor to be “among us” and be “over us” at the same time requires the power of the Holy Spirit to be effective.  If our ministry leaders are just our good friends, their authority to be over us and lead God’s will is weakened.  On the other hand, if our ministry leaders are too authoritative, we view them as a dictator.  Our leaders have to practice fellowship and authority at the same time and it requires careful balance.
  4. Obey them.

Hebrews 13:17 says,

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Spiritual leaders are not always right in everything they do.  They’re human and often fail.  David, a king and a man after God’s own heart made serious errors in pride, adultery, and murder.  Peter denied Christ 3 times and is almost a study unto himself on how to say and do goofy things while in the ministry of Christ.  But wise leaders know this; they are jars of clay, prone to cracking, and they seek Christian counsel in their decisions.  As leaders, they are God’s servant, and when they call us to obey God’s word, then we must give them willingly our cheerful obedience unless it is obvious they are strayed from God’s message.

If we do these four things for our leadership – accept, appreciate, love, and obey them, then our church is supercharged in effectiveness.  Paul tells us that the fruit of this cheerful following is that we will be at peace among ourselves.  If there’s no peace and harmony, it’s almost always because of selfishness and sin on the part of the leaders or the followers or both.  This leads to dissension and division.  James 4:1-3 says

What causes fights and quarrels among you?  Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?  You want something but don’t get it.  You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want.  You quarrel and fight.  You do not have, because you do not ask God.  When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

I remember a pastor saying at a men’s retreat once was that it was easy to make a marriage thrive.  Stop being selfish, serve your wife.  But we are selfish – it’s our sinful nature trying to eat us, eat our spiritual walk, eat our relationships with God and with each other.

Which do we want as a church?  Peace and harmony, or strife and quarrels?  It’s clear that only through submission to those appointed as our leaders will we enjoy peace in the family.  But we cannot put the burden of peace and harmony squarely on our leaders, so Paul also talks about how we should get along with each other.

Family Relationships

In many churches, people expect the church to provide for them.  The laymen give their tithes, the church provides the services.  But church leaders can’t do everything, and then the people grumble, the leadership weakens, and the church becomes ineffective.

But that’s not God’s plan for the church.  The people of the church are supposed to do the work of the ministry.  The purpose of the leadership is to equip the people to do the ministry according to Ephesians 4:12 which we just read a moment ago.  Instead of blaming the church for the weakness we see, we are to step up and serve.  Titus 2 tells us that the older members of the church are to instruct the younger members.  As brothers and sisters, we help our brothers and sisters.  We don’t have to wait for the leadership to tell us to help.

Some of our brothers and sisters are… special.  Paul tells us specifically in verse 14 about three family members that need our help –

  1. The unruly.  The NIV calls these the idle, but the word means “careless” or “out of line.”  The word was usually applied to a soldier who couldn’t march in line.  Anybody in here want to admit to marching to the beat of a different drummer?  We’re all unique individuals with special gifts, but there are some rules we have to follow if we are to be a cohesive church.  We conduct this class according to certain rules, church starts at a certain time, we volunteer to fill specific roles.  Otherwise there is chaos.  As parents, we love to see our children grow and express individuality, but if that individuality leads to rebellion against our standards, it causes us grief.  Individuality is good, rebellion is chaos.
  2. The feebleminded, which the NIV calls the timid.  The literal translation means “little-souled.”  These are the quitters, the criticizers, the pessimists.  Paul calls us to encourage them and comfort them and help them grow into bigger souls.
  3. The weak.  Paul isn’t talking about the physically weak, he’s talking about the spiritual health of the church.  Paul means those that are weak in the faith of the Lord.  As Christians, we tend to think of the spiritually weak as new believers or those in danger of falling away, but Paul’s actually referring to those people that do not understand their freedom in Christ.  New believers in Paul’s time were still also trying to fulfill Jewish law, and they were full of condemnation for those that ate meat on holy days, did work on the Sabbath, and so on.  The spiritually weak among us may think we are strong, but if we criticize or condemn another brother or sister, *we* are the spiritually weak.  To be strong is to learn how to be encouraging instead of judgmental.

Ministering to the unruly, the timid, the criticizers and spiritually weak isn’t easy, especially if we don’t realize when *we* are the unruly and spiritually weak.  Paul tells us to keep three things in mind when we are ministering to our brother or sister –

  1.  Be patient.  Be patient with whom?  Everyone.  Patience is a difficult thing to learn, especially when dealing with others.  Everybody grows in faith at a different speed, and God speaks to us all individually in His perfect timing.  Romans 15:5-6, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
  2. Watch our motives.  Paul elaborates on this in Romans 12:17-18, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.”
  3. Be kind.  Paul tells us to be kind to each other and to everyone else.  While the bible is useful for teaching, rebuking and training in righteousness, too often we wish we had a really heavy bible so we could beat our unruly brothers over the head with it.  Criticism and complaining never yields the fruit Jesus expects from us; instead, use kindness and encouragement.  Kindness and encouragement is very effective at motivating others to grow.

Family Worship

Worshiping the Lord in church gives glory to God, and it’s what we are called to do as brothers and sisters.  We must start with worship, otherwise ministry becomes stressful, teaching becomes dry, and relationships aren’t fruitful.  All of our activities as a church must begin with worship and praise.  I bet Paul had instruction for us in worship, too.  Let’s run through verses 16-28; Paul gives us a bunch of instruction in rapid-fire –

  1. Be joyful always.  God wants a joyful family, not one of dissension or criticizing or irritation.  Each family member should contribute to the joy of all.  Worship in joy.  Then, when we give, give cheerfully.  When we serve, serve with joy.  Nehemiah 8:10 says, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.”
  2.  Pray continually.  Being a mature member of Christ means being in constant conversation with God.  I don’t mean we are to be constantly mumbling prayers, but that in our thoughts and actions we stay in touch with God to see if what we say and do pleases him.  We are called to “pray without ceasing.”
  3. Give thanks in all circumstances.  Thanks and praise must be an integral part of the family of God.  Ephesians 5:19-20 says “speak… to one another with psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Study alone is insufficient; application of God’s word begins with praise and thanksgiving to Almighty God.
  4. Do not put out the Spirit’s fire.  Many things can extinguish the Spirit’s fire.  Complacency, legalism, criticism, discouragement.  But when God is at work, halleluiah. 
  5. Don’t despise prophecies.   In 1 Corinthians 14:3, Paul says the purpose of prophecy is to strengthen, encourage, and comfort the church.  One way to quench the Holy Spirit’s fire is to look down on the work others are doing.  I know occasionally I criticize the “name it and claim it” preaching I hear from other pastors, but the Holy Spirit is at work, even when the message is incomplete.  It’s one thing to correct and rebuke, but despising the message is going too far. 
  6. Test everything, hold on to the good.  The “name it and claim it” messages may be incomplete, but they still contain some truth.  How do we know what is truth?  We practice being good Bereans.  We test it, compare it to the rest of scripture, and keep that part of the message that is true.  The Christian life involves hearing a lot of spiritual messages, and we must learn to keep the message that is authentic and discard errors and falsehood.  The only way to learn how to do that is to read God’s word and learn it.
  7. Avoid every kind of evil.  We’ve heard the instruction to be in the world, but not of the world.  Temptation abounds.  When we recognize it, we should avoid even the appearance of evil.
  8. Rely on God.  Whew.  Grandma’s almost finished with her goodbye instructions.  We’ve just read a whole lot of instruction to our family of believers about how to treat our leadership and how to treat each other.  Fortunately, we don’t have to do it alone.  Paul reminds us that God Himself, the God of Peace, is at work in us.  If we are in prayer without ceasing, Jesus is faithful and the Holy Spirit will give us the strength to be the brother and sister of Christ that encourages and builds up one another. 

Sixteen short verses; a lifetime of instruction to practice if we are to be a model family of believers.  There is a purpose to all these instructions; Jesus will return, and we are to be ready. 

In the meantime, as Chris would say, “How shall we live?”  These are pretty clear instructions.  Some Christians get baptized and then come to church occasionally, punching their church reward card, collect points toward luggage they can use in heaven.  I suppose.

Others take the opposite approach – can’t sit, work hard, get better, and criticize everyone who doesn’t keep up. 

I believe true Christianity is somewhere in between, balancing these two verses –

James 1:14, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?”

Matthew 11:29-30, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Don’t do things under your own power.  But don’t just sit there and do nothing.  God will guide you like a river, but the river must be flowing for God to direct it.  Get up, do something, encourage one another, give God all the glory.

And then, we reach the conclusion of 1 Thessalonians 5:23,

“May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

The Word of God is at work in our lives; let us continue to build the fire of the Holy Spirit in each and every one of us until the coming of our Lord and Savior.  Encourage, love, pray, and give glory to God, continually and without ceasing.

To God be the glory, Amen.