The Suffering Servant

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We’ve been studying Isaiah and fulfilled prophecy; today we reach the exclamation point of the entire Old Testament.

I once recently read that the entire bible points to Jesus. I had a hard time grasping that concept. I knew the New Testament told the story of Jesus, and I knew the Old Testament told the story of God’s relationship with Israel. But until the last few weeks, I never understood how much the Old Testament also points to Jesus. The passages we’re studying this week, Isaiah 49 through 53, are the heart of this prophecy. They are beautiful stanzas, beautiful poetry; they are descriptions of the Christ to come.

Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s plan for us. We have an egocentric, a “man-centric” view of this plan. God sent His son to die for *me* so that *I* may have a relationship with God. And that’s true, God did that for you and for me. For God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” But God has a “God-centric” view. Everything in God’s creation gives glory to God. That includes His son. That includes us. God sent His son to die for us so that we may bring glory to Him. God glorifies Himself by flooding our lives with mercy found in Christ.

Jewish scholars understood that Isaiah 40-53 were the messianic prophecies, a Messiah to come that would deliver Jews and Gentiles to the Lord. As Christians, we understand that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. Jews did not accept Jesus as the Christ, but continued to believe that a messiah was to come. Jewish scholars continued to hold this view well at least until the twelfth century. They altered their interpretation then; Jewish scholars now interpret these passages as a description of the suffering of Israel. That view has problems, for Isaiah 53:8 says that the Servant will die for the sins of Israel. How can Israel die as a sacrifice for Israel? And verse 9 says the Servant was innocent of sin and suffered unjustly, but who will claim that Israel is innocent of sin?

The original interpretation by Jewish scholars was correct; these passages point to an innocent individual who would take away the sins of the world. Today, Jews that study both Isaiah and Jesus come away convinced that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Servant.

Jay Sekulow grew up Jewish kid in New York. When he went to college, a friend named Glenn. This is from Jay Sekulow’s testimony

Glenn suggested I read Isaiah 53. My mind was boggled by the description of the “suffering servant” who sounded so much like Jesus. I had to be misreading the text. I realized with relief that I was reading from a “King James” Bible, and after all, that’s a “Christian” translation. So the first thing I said to Glenn after I read it was “Okay, now give me a real Bible.” I grabbed the Jewish text, but the description seemed just as clear. Even though this caught my attention, I wasn’t too worried. It still sounded like Jesus in the “Jewish Bible,” but there had to be a logical explanation.

I began to research the passage and I started to look for rabbinic interpretations. That’s when I began to worry. If I read the passage once, I’m sure I read it 500 times. I looked for as many traditional Jewish interpretations as I could find. A number of them, especially the earlier ones, described the text as a messianic prophecy. Other interpretations claimed the suffering servant was Isaiah himself, or even the nation of Israel, but those explanations were an embarrassment to me. The details in the text obviously don’t add up to the prophet Isaiah or the nation of Israel.

Jay could not explain these scriptures as anything other than the sacrifice Christ as made and today is a member of “Jews for Jesus.” He is also a prominent lawyer and Chief Counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice.

God’s plan has been evident from the beginning. Century by century, generation by generation, God gave men a promise of a blessing through the bloodlines of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Jesse, and David. Through Abraham’s seed, all nations of the world would be blessed, and the ruler’s scepter would never leave the tribe of Judah. Through David, his throne would be established forever. These were the earliest messianic prophecies.

Through Isaiah 7, we learn that the Messiah would be born of a virgin mother. Isaiah 9 tells us that the Messiah would be God incarnate, in the flesh.

The Servant is introduced in Isaiah 49; the Servant is the prophetic name for the future Messiah, Jesus Christ. The scripture here says the Servant of the Lord will summon Judah to return to the Lord and be a light for all peoples on the earth. All of Israel will be restored. You and I will be restored.

How can this be? How can imperfect people have a restored relationship with the powerful, perfect, and Holy God? We should fear even to look upon Him because of our character and who we are. I confess my pride yet again; sometimes I look at the blessings in my life and thank God. I have a beautiful and servant-focused wife that loves me with a depth that I am in awe of. Because of my service and faith in the Lord, I am truly blessed with deep friendships. And I look at the lives of other people and think that I am not like them. In the news I see horrors I cannot fathom, and know that it’s because I’ve devoted my heart to the Lord that I do not experience the same things in my life.

It’s as though my life was laid out on a beautiful green rolling hills. I am a lamb, enjoying the pastures God has given me. Picture such a hillside, with the bright morning sun shining on the grass and the blue lakes. And as I imagine myself as a lamb, what color is the lamb?

But now imagine a crisp, clear day after a snowfall. The same lamb on the same hillside covered in snow? Now what color is the lamb?

Am I a righteous person? Is there no blame in me? Are you a righteous person? We understand intuitively that we are not righteous, that somehow we should be a better person. Yet, when there is disagreement among ourselves, we never find the fault in ourselves. We find fault in others. When we cling to our own righteousness, we don’t realize that we are in fact clinging to our own guilt. We just need a scapegoat, someone else to take the blame for why we aren’t righteous. We have no righteousness apart from God. When we cling to our own righteousness, we cling to the sin of pride. All of our guilt and pride and sin must be given to Christ, and we must realize that if we have any righteousness at all, it doesn’t come from us. It comes only from Christ.

My life is but filthy rags, and the best I can hope for is a dingy gray next to the perfect life and sacrifice of our Lord. Isaiah 50 makes this distinction very clear. There is a strong contrast between the Servant’s perfect obedience and Israel’s sin. The disobedient, the spiritually adulterous, are temporarily divorced from the Lord. Isaiah 50 makes it clear this is precisely our problem; it’s because of our sins that we cannot be in the presence of the Lord. The Lord asks rhetorically in verse 2, “was my arm too short to deliver you? Do I lack the strength to deliver you?” The Lord God will send His Servant to Israel and we will mistreat Him, but the Servant will be vindicated by the Lord.

Isaiah 51 provides encouragement to the faithful, and the Lord promises joy and salvation that would be known throughout the ends of the earth. And then Isaiah 52-53 foretells the Servant of the Lord who would suffer, be rejected by His own people and die for their sins. He would be buried with the rich and then raised to life, then be exalted according to the will of God. The Servant Jesus would provide forgiveness of sins for all who put their faith in Him.

And then in Isaiah 53 we see God’s gracious plan to offer His son, the Servant, as a willing sacrifice as a means for us to restore the relationship with Him that we had lost through our sins. Isaiah 53:1 begins with, “Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?”

The question is clear. The message spoken through the prophets is clear. Yet the message reaches blind eyes and deaf ears. Most do not respond to God’s call, yet for those who do respond, unimaginable blessings await.

The Suffering Leads to Glory and Exaltation

Isaiah 53 is the pinnacle of the Old Testament; many scholars believe the beginning of the Chapter should start at Isaiah 52:13, so we’re going to start there. The New Testament quotes Isaiah 53 more than any other Old Testament chapter; there are at least 41 references. This is the fourth Servant Song, five stanzas of three verses each. I encourage you to go read the entire Servant Songs beginning in Isaiah 49, but we’ll focus today just on this last one beginning in Isaiah 52:13-15. First stanza –

See, my servant will act wisely;
he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.

Just as there were many who were appalled at him —
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
and his form marred beyond human likeness—

so he will sprinkle many nations,
and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
and what they have not heard, they will understand.

Verse 52:13 says the Servant will be exalted, and verses 14 and 15 say the exaltation will contrast the humiliation.

When Jesus was arrested and brought before Annas, he was spat upon, slapped and beaten on the head with fists. Brought before Pilate, Jesus was scourged with a instrument of torture with metal hooks that literally ripped the skin off the body. Prisoners often died just from the scourging. The graphic details are not found in the New Testament, though Psalm 22 tells of the horror the Son of God endured.

Many have asked why Jesus had to die for our sins. Jesus did not deserve this kind of death. But you and I do. When we study the details of the life of Jesus, we can find ourselves in the lives of the people around Him. In the judgmental Caiaphas, whose self-righteousness says he is above those he judges. Or the Roman soldiers who mocked Him and tortured Him. I once found myself in Peter, a self-proclaimed follower of Jesus who denied Him in order to fit in better with those around me. Only when I was in church did I claim publically to be a Christian. I was a coward for Christ.

Jesus knew this about me, and He knew it before I was knit together in my mother’s womb. Yet He loved me anyway, and willingly had the flesh stripped from His body as the punishment for my sins that I deserved.

We may read about the death of a person that arouses fear or sympathy or abhorrence. I once saw a video that was seared into my head forever during the early days of the Iraq war, where terrorists tortured an American until he confessed to something, anything, and during his confession, the terrorists slit his throat. But Christ’s death is more than just his scourging, his flesh ripped off, the nails pounded through his hands and then strung up on a tree. The gospel message is not that Christ died. The gospel message is that Christ died for our sins. You and I are just as guilty as Annas, Caiaphas, Herod Antipas, and Pilate.

Jesus laid down His life for me. Jesus laid down His life for you. He paid the price for our sin. He deserved life, yet we gave Him death. The wages of sin are death which we so very much deserve, yet He gave us life.

Verse 15 says kings will shut their mouths because of Him. Now we see why people are astonished when they understand the message of the gospel. The man we condemned to die has declared us condemned unless we turn from sin and trust Him. We condemn Him who is innocent, but it is we who are already condemned. And the one we tortured to death is our willing savior. We cannot rejoice in the good news until we first understand that we are condemned. Jesus did not suffer and die because He was guilty, but because we are guilty. It shuts our mouths.

The Suffering is Humiliating and Offensive

The second stanza, Isaiah 53:1-3 –

Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by others,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Verse 53:1 says the people did not believe the message. Verses 2 and 3 day the Servant was humble and rejected.

This is the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, a humble life, a rejected servant. Two primary themes in Isaiah are that the “arm of the Lord” is mighty to judge and also mighty to save. He is a God of perfect judgment and we stand condemned, yet He is also a God of perfect mercy. People regard the Servant as a nobody, a loser, despised and unwanted. He had no grand beginnings; he was born in a manger. In his adult ministry, they said, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” They put a cheap price of thirty pieces of silver on Him. Yet people still reject Christ because Christ does not represent things that people value, things like wealth, social prestige, reputation, power, personal comfort. We reject what God values. Yet God regards the Servant as a tender plant that He will care for.

The Suffering is Punishment and Redemption

Stanza three, Isaiah 53:4-6 –

Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

Verse 4 says the Servant’s suffering is punishment, and verses 5 and 6 say the punishment was redemptive.

This is the heart of the entire gospel. The innocent Servant dies as a sacrifice for sin. Expiation is the removal of guilt through the payment of the penalty. The heart of Israel’s religious system is the innocent animal that dies in place of the guilty sinner. While the wages of sin are death, God permits the blood of the innocent to be shed as a sacrifice for the guilty.

God’s amazing wisdom provides a method of redemption for all eternity. While the blood of one innocent creature can pay for the sins of one guilty person, who can wash away the sins of the entire world? A mere man cannot provide such redemption. The sacrifice must be omnipotent; only God is omnipotent. The sacrifice must be God.

But how can a perfect and holy God identify with our sins? Jesus not only bore our sins, but also identified with the consequences of Adam’s sins. The emphasis on these verses is on plural pronouns. Our griefs and sorrows, our iniquities, our sins. We have gone astray; we have turned to our own way. Jesus died, not for what He had done, but for what we had done. Jesus identified with us because He was also man.

And so he was pierced for our transgressions. The Jewish form of execution was stoning, but Jesus was pierced. His hands and feet were pierced with nails, His side pierced by a spear. And he was crushed for our iniquities; the word “crushed” means to be broken, bruised, shattered by a burden. Psalm 38:4 says that sin is burden that grows heavier the longer we resist. The burden of sin crushed our Lord and Savior.

Sin is serious. Isaiah calls it “transgression,” which means rebellion against God. We dare to cross the line that God draws. Isaiah also calls it “iniquity,” which refers to our crooked nature. In other words, we are sinners by nature, but also sinners by choice. By nature, we are born children of wrath, and by choice, we are children of disobedience. And Christ, though He kept the Law perfectly, took our punishment so that we may have peace with God. We are no longer condemned. How great is the grace of God to give us forgiveness instead of the condemnation we deserve!

The Suffering is Accepted

Stanza Four, Isaiah 53:7-9 –

He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.

He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.

Verse 7 says the suffering Servant is silent. Verse 8 and 9 say the suffering Servant was innocent.

A servant is not permitted to talk back. A servant submits to the will of the master. When Christ was accused by Caiaphas, He was silent. He was silent before the chief priests and elders, before Pilate, before Herod Antipas. And when the soldiers mocked Him and beat Him, He did not speak. The Ethiopian eunuch was reading this passage when the apostle Philip walked up to his chariot. The silence of the suffering Servant impressed the eunuch to want to know more about this Servant, and he was led to Christ by Philip.

Christ was silent in His suffering; Christ was silent in His trial and condemnation. But Christ was innocent of the charges. Everything about His trial was illegal. Yet Christ was silent, for to speak would proclaim His innocence. Christ did not come to be freed, but to free us.

And so Christ was killed for us. As a criminal, His body would have been left unburied, but God had other plans. His body was placed in the grave of the wealthy man Joseph so that all may witness the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Suffering Satisfies and is Effective

Stanza Five, Isaiah 53:10-12

Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.

After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

Verse 10 says the suffering was God’s will. Verse 10b and 11 says the suffering was for our justification. Verse 11 and 12 say the suffering will lead to His exaltation.

In this stanza, the prophet Isaiah explains the Cross from God’s point of view. Even though wicked men crucified Jesus, the death of Jesus for foreseen and determined by God. The death of Jesus was not an accident, nor did the death of Jesus make Him a martyr. Jesus was a willing sacrifice for the sins of the world.

And in triumph over evil, He did not remain dead. There is nothing that the wicked can accomplish that God cannot overcome. Jesus triumphed in His resurrection, He triumphed over every enemy, and He claims the spoils of victory. He was obedient unto death, and God highly exalted Him.

This obedience of the Servant satisfied the heart of the Father. God did not enjoyment in death, let alone the death of His son. But the obedience of the Son provided the redemption that God wanted for His people, redemption that God had planned from the beginning. The death of the Servant also satisfied the Law. God hates sin. It offends Him. It violates His Holy Law. In His holiness, God will judge sin, and the punishment is death. He cannot ignore sin, He cannot diminish it, He cannot compromise with it. His holiness is perfect. Yet His love, too, is perfect, and he desires to forgive us for our sins.

So how did God solve the problem of perfect judgment and perfect love? God is the judge and God is the prosecutor. In His amazing love, God also takes the place of the criminal. The Law is satisfied, and God can graciously forgive all who receive His Servant.

What did I do to deserve this love? What did you do? The answer is nothing. There is nothing we can do; we deserve the wages of our sin. Grace poured out for the sinners who will accept it. God will no longer keep a record of our sins. We are justified; we are sinners declared righteous before God. Romans 4:5 says that God has justified the ungodly.

He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our sins. The punishment that brought us peace was now upon Him. By His wounds we are healed. In five days, Good Friday is upon us. Reflect this week that if it wasn’t for the sacrifice of our savior, it should be us on the cross, paying the price for our sins. Christ died for you and for me, though we do not deserve this mercy.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

May we all truly appreciate what God has done for us this Easter.

Amen

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Faithful Inside and Out

Icon of Second Coming (also used for All Saint...
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I. Introduction
We’re wrapping up the letters of from Paul to the church of Thessalonica today. Paul’s 1st letter consisted mostly of encouragement as the church faced prosecution and urged Christians to live by high moral standards in an immoral society. Anybody think this might be applicable today? Paul also talked about Christ’s Second Coming, urged the faithful Christians to warn believers who refused to work, and gave guidance on how to live as Christians.
Paul must have received news that in spite of his first letter, the Thessalonian Christians still struggled with three major problems, so he wrote the 2nd letter to Thessalonica. In Chapter 1, Paul encouraged the believers that God is fair even if the world is not. God will punish those who punish the faithful, so we should leave judgment to Him. In Chapter 2, Paul provides additional information about the Second Coming of Christ and encouraging them to persevere despite the hardships and to seek correct doctrine and obey the Word.
Now, in Chapter 3, Paul asks his brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for him, and then addresses the growing problem of believers who not only won’t work, but also interfere with the work of others.

II. Faithful Outside the Church (2 Thessalonians 3:1-5)

Finally, brothers, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you. And pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men, for not everyone has faith. But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one. We have confidence in the Lord that you are doing and will continue to do the things we command. May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance.

Responsible Christians pray and obey to spread the Gospel. When Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to live morally in the immoral society they lived in, he’s recognizing one of the greatest truths of the bible: we cannot do God’s will in this world under our own power. The powerful Christian life always involves two forces; the power of God and the obedience of the believer. There is no doubt Paul was one of the most effective missionaries in the history of the world. Paul was knowledgeable about scripture, Paul was obedient, and here we also see Paul relying on the power of prayer. In verse 1 he asks for prayer that God’s will may be done through him. Paul constantly asked for prayers when he wrote his letters – Romans 15:30-31, Ephesians 6:18-19; Colossians 4:3; 1 Thessalonians 5:25; Philemon 22; the list goes on and on. It pleases God when we pray for His will to be done, and the prayers of a righteous man are powerful. Prayer has many facets to it –

a. Continual Prayer.

In verse 1, Paul says “Pray for us.” The tense indicates a continual prayer, not just a one time event. Paul recognized the need for constant prayer; in 1 Thessalonians 1:2, Paul says he prays for the Thessalonians constantly, and in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Paul tells them to pray without ceasing. The world is as lost today as it was in the time of the Thessalonians and is in need of a savior they don’t even know. Pray they hear the word; pray we tell them the word. Pray and obey.

b. Offensive Prayer

These continuous prayers should be both offense and defense in our earthly battle. The words Paul chose for “spread rapidly” implies an imagery from the Old Testament where God’s Words runs swiftly, as though a runner in a race. Psalm 147:15 says, “He sends his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly.” And “honor” – or “glory,” in some translations, indicates a winner. The runner receives glory through winning, and God’s Word receives glory when somebody comes to Christ. Evangelistic prayer encourages us to go on the offense and spread God’s message so He may receive glory.

Offensive prayer has a purpose. Our world, you may have noticed, is sick. Our world is dying. The Word of God is life-saving medicine. Paul prays that the medicine is spread rapidly because lives are at stake. Jesus had the same urgency in John 9:4: “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work.”

c. Defensive Prayer

Prayer is also defensive; we must never forget we are soldiers of Christ engaged in spiritual warfare. The breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the sword of the Spirit are all parts of the armor of God to protect us. We are at battle with spiritual darkness and the plans carried out by evil men. Evil men that have not only corrupted themselves but intent on corrupting others. Evangelists are on the front line on this battle, and need both offensive prayer to spread the gospel effectively, but also defensive, protective prayer against the evil that would stop them.

III. Faithful Inside the Church (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15)

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle 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 make ourselves a model for you to follow. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”
We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat. And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right.
If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.

Discipline inside a church is necessary. And just like we’d like God’s justice to reign down on somebody else while only God’s mercy reigns on us, we only want church discipline to be imposed on other people. Some people and even some churches use discipline to kick people out of a church. But church discipline as used by Paul is a loving act. Church discipline is demanded by scripture to bring our wayward brothers and sisters back to the church, back to the fold, to heal wounds, to restore them in love.

Listen to what Jesus says in Mathew 18:15-17

If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

The relationships we have with one another are those of brother and sister, and they reflect our understanding of the love God has shown for us. If we can’t show love to our brother or sister, do we truly understand love at all?

In Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus tells us that our relationships with each other are so important that until we are reconciled with our brother, our offerings to the Lord are of little value. Our service to the Lord, our tithes, our worship, worthless. Jesus says to put your offering down and go reconcile with one another. Then come back and give your offering.

How do we do that? The first step is simple communication with each other. Just talk. If that doesn’t work, enlist a friend or two to help. If that doesn’t work, take it to somebody in the church leadership. Do that as many times as necessary, it’s not a one-time thing.

Human nature being what it is, you’re thinking of somebody that you’d like to drag up before the church leadership. But what if somebody drags you to the church leadership? What sort of attitude should you have?

Removing somebody from the church body is serious. Remember the goal is to restore sinners and bring them back into repentence. We should give them every opportunity to respond. The most important thing to remember is that we never have the right to treat them in an non-Christ-like manner just because they are acting in a non-Christ-like manner. Regardless of how the other person acts, we are to love them.

Here in the case of the Thessalonian church, Paul was dealing with a specific issues. In 2 Thessalonians 1, Paul explained to the church how to act while under persecution. Chapter 2, Paul warned against false teachings. And now, Paul is addressing idle people. See, most of the Thessalonians were Greek and part of the Greek culture was a disdain for work. Work was beneath them, and so they owned slaves to do all their work. Did you know the Roman calendar at this time observed 156 holidays a year? Festival of feasting, Festival in honor of Mercury, Festival of Mars, Festival of Flowers, Festival of Childbirth, Festival of the Dead, Festival of Success. They even had a festival, Agonalia, honoring Janus, the god of gates and doorways.

The Greek Thessalonians used the return of Christ as an excuse not to do work. These idle Greeks became burdens to the church; rather than contributing to the benefit of all, the Greeks lived off the works of other church members, working hard to make a living and contribute to the church.

Paul begins his discussion on church discipline first by studying scripture, in verse 6 he says we must live according to the teaching we received. What does the Lord say about work?

Turns out God has a lot to say about work. Starting in Genesis 2:15, Adam’s job before the fall was to cultivate and keep the garden. In Ecclesiastes 9:10, Solomon says, “whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your might.” There are a dozen proverbs (Proverbs 6:6-11; 10:4-5; 12:11, 12:14, 12:24, 12:27; 13:4; 15:19; 18:9; 19:15, 19:24; 20:4; 21:25-26; 22:13, 22:29) that deal with work. Here’s Proverbs 6:6-11 –

You lazy fool, look at an ant.
Watch it closely; let it teach you a thing or two.

Nobody has to tell it what to do.
All summer it stores up food;
at harvest it stockpiles provisions.

So how long are you going to laze around doing nothing?
How long before you get out of bed?

A nap here, a nap there, a day off here, a day off there,
sit back, take it easy—do you know what comes next?

Just this: You can look forward to a dirt-poor life,
poverty your permanent houseguest!

Ok, so scripture is consistent about work. After making sure your exhortation is consistent with scripture, the next thing Paul commands is that you yourself aren’t guilty of the same thing. Jesus once said that before you judged another for the speck in his eye, you had to make sure you didn’t have a plank in your own eye. Paul had a vocation; he was a tentmaker and earned his living as he traveled. He reminds the Thessalonians of his example in verses 7-10. In order to be an effective witness for Christ, you must examine your own life first to ensure you are a worthy imitator of Christ. Paul didn’t have to work so hard; I’m sure he was fatigued after teaching all day, writing letters to churches, and then making tents at night. As an apostle, Paul was entitled to accept help from the church, but instead Paul went the extra mile to make sure he was an example worth imitating and relieving the church of the burden of supporting him.

First, examine the scriptures, then examine ourselves. The next step is to examine the situation. Why are the Thessalonians not working? Is it because they are unable, or because they are unwilling? Some people are unable to work. Perhaps they are disabled. Perhaps they haven’t found an opportunity or there are no job openings available. Our country is in a recession, and it appears it’s getting worse, not better. We should be diligent in applying ourselves to work as soon as possible.

Don’t take this to mean that the job must be a well-paying job, or that it pays at all. Some of the most demanding work is housework or taking care of children or ministry work. The point is that, as far as you are able, to contribute to work instead taking, to be busy at the things that pleases God instead of using idle time to simply please ourselves or meddle in the lives of others.

Look at verse 12 again. What commonsense advice does Paul give? As Christians, how can we apply this in our approach to society in general? What type of character is created by honest work?

Once the examination of scripture and examination of ourselves is complete, we may find that it’s time to confront another in the church out of love and to heal the body of Christ. Verse 13 is key to our heart at this point; Paul says we are never to tire of doing what is right. Doing what is right may be uncomfortable, but it can also be a time of significant personal growth. Here are some reasons for Christian confrontation –

i. Personal differences. This is probably the most common. We are so quick to judge others, yet are so blind to ourselves. The Thessalonians may have grumbled among themselves, “If they don’t have to work, why should I?” Sin is often unintentional, but sin nonetheless hampers God’s plan for us and for His church. When there is sin in the life of a believer, the health of the church is affected. Paul’s word for these believers were “disorderly” believers, people that marched out of step with others, disobeying Christ’s commands or the instructions of church elders. Instead of being busy, they were busybodies, and 1 Timothy 5:13 says that busybodies are more than just idle gossipers, they may be opposing God’s will by talking nonsense about others and doing Satan’s will. How tragic to find that we think we are good Christians but find instead that our idle talk is encouraging Satan instead of the church.

ii. Doctrinal error. We may find another Christian teaching the wrong doctrine. If they are doing it out of ignorance or lack of knowledge about scripture, we are to teach them the truth. 2 Timothy 2:25 says we are to do this so that God will grant them repentance and lead them to the truth. If they continue, Titus 1:10-14 says we are to rebuke them sharply. If the error continues, Romans 16:17 says avoid them, and 2 Timothy 2 says eventually we are to separate from them because their teaching will spread like gangrene.

iii. Another reason for righteous confrontation is if a believer has been overtaken by sin. This happens to believers, far more often than we think. Even the Apostle Peter denied the Lord, David yielded to lust, Moses to pride, and so on. Galatians 6:1-3 says that for these believers, we the church are to restore them gently. Remember Jesus and the adulterous woman? Jesus wasn’t harsh with her, He was gentle, admonishing to her to go and sin no more. The word “restore” literally means “to set a broken bone”. It takes gentleness and kindness and patience, not sudden judgment and condemnation.

iv. Then we get to the repeating troublemaker. Titus 3:10 tells us to warn them twice and then have nothing to do with them. These people are divisive, they often have good scriptural knowledge but because of their pride, they love to take side and encourage argument. They have a strong opinion because they love to get their way – they may argue about how the Lord’s Supper ought to be served or how the worship songs should be sung or even what kind of service to the Lord is more important. Pride is at the root of division, and Satan uses such heretics to divide a church.

v. And then, there is the church member living in open immorality. 1 Corinthians 5 deals with a case of incest within the church. The church was proud of their tolerance, how despite this open, flagrant sin, the church passed no judgment on him. There are many churches like this today that openly accept members and elders in open sin. Paul tells us that instead of being prideful of our tolerance, we should be in mourning. A believer in open sin should be expelled from the church. Paul warns us not to treat these people as enemies, because they are not. They are our brothers and sisters. Just like Lot fell out of fellowship with Abraham and the Lord because he moved to Sodom, Genesis 14:14 says, “When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan.” Our goal is to rescue our brother, not condemn him.

2 Thessalonians 3:14 says we should have such a purpose in our separation. When it comes to the idle, the busybodies, the heretics, the unrepentant sinners, after trying to restore them, rebuke them, disassociating with them, the purpose of our actions is to bring them back into the Lords will. Examine scripture first; make sure you are correct in your theology. Examine yourself, make sure you do not have a plank in your own eye and that you are a good example. Confront them individually, with another believer, with a church elder in order to restore them. And then, if all else fails, leave them alone and mourn that they are not in fellowship with the Lord.

Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you.
I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters. This is how I write.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

Paul wraps up 2 Thessalonians 3 with note that as Christians, the Lord of Peace himself will give us peace at all times and in every way. This peace is for all Christians; notice Paul says, “The Lord be with all of you,” and this includes those he just finished rebuking. This peace is for us. Let us examine ourselves and our church family and work for what is right for the benefit of all, to make a strong, healthy body of believers for our Lord and Savior.

In the two letters to the Thessalonians, Paul taught them how to live in fellowship as believers. The lesson Paul taught is just as true today. We don’t know when Jesus will return, but we do know that His return is eminent. Until then, we have tasks to do as His body. Work eagerly and joyfully at the tasks God has given us on this earth, all the while keeping an eye toward heaven. In this Chapter, Paul tells us about two of those tasks; we are to pray, and we are to earn a living. In all circumstances, we can take comfort in the peace given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ.

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Walking Together

Pittsburgh Steelers logo
Image via Wikipedia

Let’s talk football. Today’s the big day, Superbowl 43, Pittsburgh Steelers versus Arizona Cardinals. Pittsburgh is going for their 6th Championship ring, and they are a football dynasty. Arizona Cardinals last won an NFL title in 1947 and hold the record for the longest drought without a title.

There are great reasons to root for both teams. For instance, Diane is rooting for Pittsburgh because it’s her home town. My mother is going to root for the Cardinals because their uniforms match her fingernail polish. Both excellent reasons.

But there is something bigger going on behind the scenes this year. Kurt Warner, the quarterback of the Cardinals, is a Christian evangelical who gives thanks to God in nearly every interview. Before his NFL career, he was bagging groceries, and now he holds weekly bible study sessions with as many as 20 of his teammates. Kurt says, “You just have to embrace it, whatever God does in your life and wherever He puts you.”

Troy Polamalu, safety for Pittsburgh, is an Eastern Orthodox Christian, savage on the field but gentle in person. This week, Troy said, “I feel like faith is the foundation of everything I do on and off the field,” he said this week in Tampa. “It determines how you live your life when you love God.”

And the faith of the Steeler’s coach, Mike Tomlin, is the cohesion that holds the team together. Here’s a snippet from an article from BehindTheSteelCurtain.com


The cohesion of a football team is the direct reflection of its head coach. The 2008 Steelers are the ultimate model of individuals coming together as one. It is said that truly great people take more than their share of the blame and less than their share of the credit. Through Tomlin’s leadership, you can hear that mantra ringing from each and every player. Not only do Steelers’ players not snipe at each other and look to blame, they genuinely love each other and defend each other. The camaraderie on the 2008 team was as good as it gets. Stan Savran, popular Pittsburgh media personality, has been around the team for more than 30 years. Heading into the AFC Championship Game, Savran could feel the unity. “There’s something very special going on in that locker room,” said Savran. “You can feel it.”

Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can attest first-hand about Savran’s intuition. “We have a special group. We call ourselves ‘The Band of Brothers.’ The offense picks the defense up. The defense picks the offense up. Special teams picks us all up. We say that nothing can come between us. We’re a real close group. We really feel that way. We want to go out and play for each other.”

LaMarr Woodley, a young player in just his second year, is experiencing something that he’s never experienced before. “I never imagined feeling this way about teammates,” revealed Woodley. “We’re not playing for ourselves. We’re playing for the team. There are no individuals in that locker room. It’s really hard to explain, but it is very real and very special.”




And how does Mike Tomlin hold the Steelers together? He puts into practice what he’s learned as a Christian. This week in Tampa, Tomlinson explained his faith in Jesus Christ this way: “First and foremost, I want people to know who I am and what the most important thing is in my life, my relationship with Jesus Christ. I want to lead with a servant’s heart. Football is what we do; faith is who we are all the time.”

For further reading on Mike Tomlin’s faith, follow the link.

• What role do you believe unity has played in the success of the Steelers?
• How important do you think it is for us as Christians to be unified?
• How does unity affect our effectiveness as Christians to non-believers? To believers?

Does God want us to work as a team? Of course He does. The bible says that we are made in His image, and He is a relational God we can know. The love God shows to us, we are to model by loving our neighbors as ourselves. This is the message behind Paul’s conclusion to the church at Thessalonica at the end of 1 Thessalonians, so let’s turn there now. Here’s a scripture for today, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28 –


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.

I. 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 given each member of the church unique spiritual gifts –


was he [Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s 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?

a. 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.

b. 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 His Honor, 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.

c. 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 as 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.

d. 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 we win the Church super bowl. 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.




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.

II. 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 –

a. 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.

b. 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.

c. 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 they’re 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 12:17-17, “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.

III. 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 –

a. 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.”

b. 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.”

c. 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.

d. Do not put out the Spirit’s fire. Many things can extinguish the Spirit’s fire. Complacency, legalism, criticism, discouragement. But God is at work, halleluiah.

e. 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.

f. Test everything, hold on to the good. The “nam
e it and claim it” messages may be incomplete, but they still contain some truth. How do we know what is truth? 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.

g. 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.

h. Rely on God. Whew. Grandma’s almost finished. 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. “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.

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We Are the Message

Candle of Loreto
Image by Loci Lenar via Flickr

I’ve discovered the secret to time travel, and have successfully traveled into the future. I’m still doing it – at the rate of 1 second per second. I can’t seem to go any faster or slower.

It amazes me that Thanksgiving has been over for more than a week, and Christmas will be here and gone in a blink. I’m sure time moved slower when I was a kid. The time between December 24 and December 25 was at least a week.

Our Christian life changes over time. The Christian faith we had last year and the year before that should sanctify over time and draw us closer to the Lord. How many remember the day that you gave your life to Christ?

Most of us will fall into one of two groups. For some of us, including me, we gave our life to Christ as an adult. Christ changed our lives abruptly and we became new creatures in Him. Others became Christians as a child or a teenager; lifestyles changed little. I should have been in that last group; I was exposed to Jesus at a very young age and never turned my back to Him. But repentance requires more than that – I also never turned my face toward Him. I did my own thing, not His.

So now my time travel is limited to retrospection. What decisions, good and bad, have I made, and how they steered my life. Only one decision steered my afterlife. A young pastor noticed something – I was coming to church every week, but there was no fruit of my faith. Attendance every week is not fruit, it’s fertilizer that helps us grow.

I can look back with thankfulness for that pastor that devoted a couple of hours a week to me, making sure my faith was laid on a biblical foundation. And I can look back over the last 10 years and thank the Lord for His work in my life. Today, we’re going to look at 1 Thessalonians 1, new believers in Christ, who became wonderful example of Christians.

Paul was on his second missionary journey at this time, during the time in Acts 16-21. Around the year 51, Paul and Silas left Antioch, picked up Timothy in the town of Lystra, through Philippi. Paul and Silas are thrown in prison for their prison but freed by an earthquake. They travel to Thessalonica where Paul teaches in the synagogue for three weeks. The Jews stirred up trouble and then at night, Paul and Silas slipped away to Berea and began teaching in the synagogue there. The Jews from Thessalonica followed Paul to Berea and stirred up trouble. Paul leaves from Corinth and meets Pricilla and Aquila. Over the next 2 years while in Corinth, Paul writes two letters to the Thessalonians to encourage those he had to leave because of persecution.

So that’s our situation; Paul is in Corinth, encouraging new believers in Thessalonica. From the two letters Paul sent, we know a lot about Paul’s feelings. For one thing, he’ saddened he’s unable to return to Thessalonica, and later, Paul would send Timothy back to them to minister to them. Timothy later returned and brought a letter back to Paul.

The letter Timothy brought back concerned Paul. The persecution in Thessalonica had not ended, and the early church there needed encouragement to stand firm. Also, the enemies of the truth were spreading lies about Paul, claiming that Paul was only traveling to make money and build up his reputation. The enemies also claimed that Paul had stirred up the trouble and then fled, leaving the early converts duped into facing the consequences alone. Paul’s letters defended his actions and his integrity, encouraged the new church, preached against paganism that was creeping back into Thessalonica. He also taught them on several topics, including their reputation outside of the church, to love each other, to work diligently, and discussed the end times when Jesus returns, and then teaches them about the fundamentals of Christian living.

There. We finished 1st and 2nd Thessalonians 2 months early. Any questions? Actually, for such a short chapter, there’s a lot of information here. Let’s go a little deeper. 1 Thessalonians 1:1-4 –

Paul, Silas and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you.

We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you,

Paul expresses thanksgiving to the Thessalonians for the gospel in their lives and gives thanks to God. There are 10 verses in 1 Thessalonians 1, and Paul mentions God 7 times. Have you ever had anybody thank you for your faith? Do you give thanks to others for their faith? This is worthy of reflection when you consider the work of Jesus in your life.

Paul addresses this letter to the church of Thessalonica; the Greek word used is “ekklesia” and means a gathering of people called for a purpose. So Paul is letting the Thessalonians they have a purpose and that God has called them. Every church is called for a purpose, and every church has both a physical address and a spiritual address. Physically, the church was located in Thessalonica. Spiritually, the church was located in God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Those last four words, “our Lord Jesus Christ,” are beautiful together. “Our” reminds us that we have a uniquely personal relationship with God. “Lord” shows He is the ruler of our lives and our submission to His authority. “Jesus” reflects that God became one of us and reflects His humanity. “Christ” is our savior, the Messiah, fulfilling the prophecies that He came to save us for all eternity. “Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Paul encourages the church by letting them know he prays for them daily, giving thanks to God. Because of their faith, their work was evident. Because of their love, their labor was evident. And because of their hope, the early Thessalonian church was able to endure the persecution. This is why Paul gives thanks – these are new believers, yet their faith and their love, their hope and endurance was evident. Paul will tell us in a moment why all these are important.

Verse 4 tells the Christian brothers that they are loved and chosen by God. The credit for the existence of the Thessalonica church, and our church, too, belongs entirely to God, not to us. I think as believers in Christ we often take our salvation for granted, as though because we chose to become baptized that we have done a great thing in ensuring our eternal life. But our salvation is not something we earn by our choice, is it? Our salvation is a gift, and God chooses us first. While we make a decision to follow Christ, it is God who first calls us while we are still sinners. We do nothing to deserve salvation. That’s why Paul opens his letter with “grace and peace to you.” Grace is a uniquely Christian concept that God has shown us favor, even though we have done nothing to deserve it. On the contrary, we deserve judgment. But because of God’s grace, we have peace. God has called us and our salvation is secure in Him.

The Thessalonians were new believers, and Paul gave thanks for them. Not only that, it appears Paul had a daily prayer list that included praying for these new believers. This calling of new believers by God is the purpose He has set for us. Paul gave thanks because he could see the “work of faith”, the “labor of love,” the “endurance inspired by hope” in their lives. If somebody examined our lives, will they see the same? What evidence of our faith and love will others find if they examine our lives?
Many people hear the good news yet still refuse to accept Christ. The Holy Spirit does the work of convicting and converting, and Paul encourages the Thessalonians to respond to the Holy Spirit in their lives in 1 Thessalonians 1:5-6 –

because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.

The gospel Paul preached follows a specific order. First, the gospel comes to us with words. Faith is useless without knowing why we have faith. Then comes power, the ability to do something. When people hear and accept the good news, lives change. Then Paul mentions the Holy Spirit, God’s gift of Himself to every believer. When the Word of God and the Spirit of God meet in the life of a believer, there is joy and assurance that he or she has freedom from the bondage of sin and is now a child of God.

Notice how Paul encourages the Thessalonians to be imitators of the Lord, but also of himself. We are to be like Christ in our growth as Christians. Paul often asks people of faith to imitate him. In first Corinthians 11:1, he says, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” Ask yourself if you are a good imitator of Christ. Do you have the confidence of Paul? Can you imitate his transparency? If you don’t, why not? Can we be confident that our lives are so Christ-like that we would ask somebody to imitate us? What keeps us from this sort of confidence?

This is an important question because if we are not good imitators of Christ, then we are poor witnesses on His behalf. A good imitator of Christ is a good witness for Christ. We know Paul was a good witness, both by words and by action. The Thessalonians, in turn, became good witnesses despite persecution. They understood that their faith in Jesus Christ might mean temporary suffering but eternal joy. Instead of being embarrassed or hiding their faith, the Thessalonians instead welcomed the message with the joy from the Holy Spirit.

It’s just as important today to be joyful for the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives as it was for the Thessalonians. Just like the Thessalonians, we can worship every week with our church, read the scriptures, thank the Lord for the gifts in our lives, and pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit so we make good decisions. As a result of their faith, the Thessalonians became influential in spreading Christianity. Look at verses 7-10 –

And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.

Do you see the cycle of evangelism? First, Paul shared his faith by both word and action to the Thessalonians. The Thessalonians imitated Paul, and then shared their faith by both words and actions. The Thessalonians became an example of joyful Christian living to the Macedonians in northern Greece. The Macedonians, in turn, influenced new believers at least 200 miles away in Achaia in the southern part of Greece. Paul says their reputation has become known everywhere.

Paul called the Thessalonians to be like Christ, and offered his own life as an example to them. The Thessalonians, in turn, were an example to the Macedonians. And so on through the centuries, until you, too, heard the word of God and saw it modeled in someone else. The word Paul used for “example” literally translated meant the mark left by a hammer when making a coin. *Stamp*. You have an original that made an imprint, and now you have another just like it. In John 20:25, Thomas says he that unless he sees the imprint of the nails in the hands of Jesus, he would not believe. The word John uses for “imprint” is the same word Paul uses for example. *Stamp* We are to be just like Jesus. Jesus tells us (Matthew 5:48) that we are to be perfect, just as our heavenly Father is perfect. Like a coin made from a hammer, we are to bear the imprint of Christ.

The lifestyle of the Thessalonians provide an example to us today. Verse 9 and 10 summarize the lifestyle of a truly effective Christian in 5 points –

1. Repentence. They turned to God from idols. A saved life, a life in Christ, always begins with a deliberate decision to answer God’s call. A Christian turns from the negative and to the positive. This is repentance. Repentance is a deliberate change to turn from sinful ways and to face the living God. The Thessalonians turned from their lives of idol worship and to a life of faith.

2. Serving. They have a new master. Before, they were slaves to their sin. Slaves to power, to money, to self, to pleasure. Now they are willing slaves to Christ. The Thessalonians serve the living and true God.

3. Goal. They have a new hope. The Thessalonians wait for His Son to come from Heaven. When will this day be? We don’t know. Jesus says it will come like a thief in the night, and we won’t know until it is here. But we are to live every day, every hour, as though Jesus was coming today. If Jesus returned today, are you ready? Paul ends every chapter of 1st Thessalonians with a reference to the Second Coming of Jesus.

4. Foundation. They have a firm foundation. The Thessalonians were secure in their faith that Jesus was raised from the dead, that He was resurrected in accordance with thousands of years of prophecy. Jesus conquered sin, He conquered death for us. The gospel is the good news that we have eternal life with Him, and He really does have that power.

5. And finally, the fear of God. The Thessalonians were well aware of their sin, and that perfect judgment on sinful humanity before an all-powerful God means that by all rights the wrath of God should be poured out on us. God hates sin. The only reason God does not turn his righteous anger against us is because of his love for us. Only Jesus can rescue us. For that we are thankful and saved from His wrath.

Paul tells the Thessalonians that their lives are showing the cycle of evangelism that Christ calls us to live. First, everything begins with Christ, our perfect example. Second, Paul and missionaries such as Silas and Timothy imitated the behavior of Christ and spread the gospel. Third, the Thessalonians modeled their lives after Paul. Fourth, the new Christians throughout Macedonia followed the example of the Thessalonians.

Where are you in this cycle? What about your reputation? You’ve accepted Christ, and you live in a circle of influence. By your words and by your actions, you influence your spouse, your kids or your parents, your brothers and sisters, your friends and coworkers. If your reputation got back to you, what would it say about you?

Here’s a questionnaire on the last 3 verses of 1 Thessalonians 1. I want you to think about these questions. Wherever you are in your walk with Christ, you should be able to answer these questions to yourself. If you have an answer to these questions you’d like to share, I’d love to hear it. After all, everybody in this class is an example to me and if you tell me your answer, I can imitate you.

1. The evidence this week that I “serve the living and true God” is:

2. I demonstrate to myself that I “wait for His Son from heaven” by:

3. People can tell I believe God “raised Jesus from the dead” because:

4. Someone I know that needs to be rescued “from the coming wrath” is:

We are God’s message. God’s Word tells us who He is, but it is by our words and actions that others come to know Him. Everybody in here has a story of somebody that shared their love of God. We have all been evangelized. But we cannot keep this Good News to ourselves. The cycle is only complete when the evangelized becomes the evangelist. We do this through thanksgiving, through prayer, through encouragement. Like the Thessalonians, we demonstrate our works of faith, our labor of love, and our steadfastness of hope. We look back with thankfulness that the Holy Spirit and the gospel’s power changed our lives.

Are you waiting confidently for Christ’s return? Are you living a life that is a testimony to God’s grace and miraculous transformation of your life? Is your life “the message”?

Let’s offer thanks and praise that it is.

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Encouragement

In the

Home, home on the range
Where the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard
A discouraging word
For what can an antelope say?

Every spoken word, every action we take, effects another person. We either affect somebody positively or we affect negatively. Even many neutral actions, since they don’t affect another in a positive way, can be considered negative. We label ourselves as either an optimist who sees the glass half full, or a pessimist who sees the glass half empty. Or an engineer, who sees the glass as too big.

Some Christians look at the people around them and find fault with them. They gossip too much, they only hang around with their friends; they don’t serve like they should. Other believers seem to have a good word for everyone they meet. Which type or person do you like to be around? Which type of person are you?

If we’re critical of others, we make excuses for our behavior. I don’t feel good. I woke up on the wrong side of the bed. It’s just the way I am. God made me this way. Or, they’re just out to get me. They deserve it. Or we hide our criticism behind the phrase, “bless their heart.” You can say the absolute meanest, despicable things about somebody as long as you add the phrase, “bless their heart” to it. “He’s just a blathering idiot, bless his heart.” “She’s a wicked gossip who smells bad and dresses like a vagrant, bless her heart.”

Why do we do this? Like many sins, this one, too, is based on pride. We’re better than them. If they don’t know that, then we can drag them down and push ourselves up by criticizing them. We think so highly of ourselves that we don’t consider the other person’s feelings before we open our mouths.

That’s not God’s plan for us. God wants all of his children to encourage and lift one another. Proverbs 10:10-11,

He who winks maliciously causes grief,
and a chattering fool comes to ruin.

The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life,
but violence overwhelms the mouth of the wicked.

And Hebrews 3:13,

But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.

What day is it? That’s right, it’s Today. I just wanted to see if you were paying attention. And 1 Thessalonians 5:11,

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

And Ephesians 4:29,

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

Ok, so does God want us to encourage one another? Who can guess the answer to that question?

Today we’re going to study Acts 11 starting in verse 19 about a great encourager. This is a difficult time for the early church; the early Jews preaching the gospel were persecuted by Herod. Stephen had been stoned to death, and the early Christians were scattered. There was some confusion around this time about the good news of the gospel and who could receive it.

Then Peter has a vision; Fred touched on this last week in Acts 10. In Acts 11:1-3,

The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”

Criticism is everywhere; here, early believers are criticizing Peter, one of the original 12 Apostles. I can imagine them saying, “Well! He may have traveled and listed to Jesus for 3 years, but he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Why, just the other day, he was eating with so-and-so, you know, that ‘gentile’. He calls himself a follower of Christ but you sure can’t tell he’s one by the way he’s behaving.”

As a devout Jew, entering the house of an unclean gentile would cause Peter to become unclean, a fact other Jews pointed out to him. In verse 4, Peter tells them about his vision. He repeats it “precisely” to them; he saw a sheet coming down from heaven, and inside were four-footed animals, and a voice from the Lord saying, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

Peter’s response indicated Jewish thinking; he cannot eat those animals because Jewish law forbids it. “Surely no, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth!” And the Lord responds, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

When we study God’s word, we often stop right there and think that God’s message is that it’s ok to eat pork. Or shellfish. Or… scorpions. Or whatever. And indeed, the scripture tells us this. When you couple this vision with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17), “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them,” we can also conclude that we are not bound by the Old Testament laws because Jesus completed them. We are free in Christ.

But for Peter, the vision he received also addresses the salvation of gentiles. Gentiles are also made by God. Gentiles can also be made clean by God. Peter would not defile himself by walking into a gentile’s home. The Holy Spirit came upon some gentiles in Acts 11:15-18,

“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?”

When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.”

In verse 19, after the stoning of Stephen, the early Christians scattered but continued to preach. Those that went to Phoenicia, Cypress and Antioch taught only to Jews. Other early Christians from Cyprus and Cyrene also went to Antioch, but began to teach the gentiles, the Greeks. The early church began to grow rapidly. Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, the early church there began to hear of the conversion of gentiles in Antioch. Verse 22-24,

News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.

Barnabas is a great example of the Christian God wants us to be. In Acts 4:34-37, scripture introduces us to this man.

There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

His name was Joseph, but the early church gave him the nickname “Barnabus”. A complete reading of the word “barnabas,” gives a more complete picture of his name. Barnabas means –

• Son of encouragement
• Son of prophecy
• Son of refreshment
• Son of comfort
• Son of consolation
• Son of preacher

In Hebrew names, the prefix “bar-” meant “son of.” For instance, in Matthew 16:18, Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon bar-Jonah.” It meant “Simon, son of Jonah.” If Jesus had said, “Blessed are you, Simon bar-Smith & Wesson,” that could also mean “blessed are you Simon, you son of a gun.”

The selection of Barnabas by the early church was a wise decision. Barnabas is described in glowing terms in verse 24. He is the only man in Acts called “good.” He is “full of the Holy Spirit” and “full of faith.” And then Barnabas gives 3 examples of who we are to encourage. First, by going to Antioch to share the gospel with gentiles in verses 19-22, Barnabas encourages new Christians. These new Christians came not from Jewish backgrounds, but from pagan backgrounds. It is because of this encouragement that (verse 21) “the Lord’s hand was with them and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.”

Why do new Christians need encouragement?
• May have zeal and happiness, but not knowledge of scripture
• May fall into old secular habits easily
• If not welcomed, may seek inclusion elsewhere

We can definitely encourage new Christians by assuring them that God is at work in their lives, that God loves them and gave His son for them. We can encourage new Christians, not by looking at what they are doing wrong, but by affirming the positive qualities they have and the positive actions they do. We must approach them in love, not criticism or condescension.

I look at these early Christians, the aggressive evangelism they do to spread the Word, and the persecution they endured, and compare it to the safety and comfort of our modern church. We’re coddled by Christianity, but it’s the suffering of the early Christians that produced the hope and character of zealous Christians.

Another person Barnabas encouraged was Saul. Verse 25-27,

Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

Saul wasn’t exactly a new Christian; Saul was an educated Pharisee, a very devout Jew who had persecuted the Christians until Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. When Saul converted to Christianity, there was a lot of suspicion about him. After all, Saul was a witness to the stoning of Stephen; how could this man be so changed after his encounter with Jesus?

Barnabus went specifically to search for Saul and bring him to Antioch and together they helped grow the early church there. This was not the first time Barnabus had encouraged Saul; in Acts 9, immediately after Saul’s conversion, the Jews conspired to kill him and Saul tried to join the early church. But the Christians there were afraid of him and distrusted him. Then Acts 9:27, “But Barnabas took Saul and brought him to the apostles.”

Saul became Paul and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit wrote most of the New Testament, including the letter to the Hebrews, verse 3:13, “But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today.” While we think of Paul has an incredible teacher, how much of Paul’s writing can be attributed to the encouragement and joy of Barnabas?

Why do established Christians need encouragement?
• Initial zeal of forgiveness fades, tempted by world
• The stronger the Christian, the more Satan steps up his attacks
• Like Paul, Christians we encourage may contribute to God’s work in ways we could never imagine

It says here in Acts 11:26 that the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch. Here’s the rabbit trail for this week; up until this time, followers of Christ had sort of an identity crisis. For a while in Acts 1 through 4 they were called “believers”. In Acts 5, they referred to themselves as the church, and then in Acts 6 they called themselves disciples and then brothers. In Acts 9, they called themselves “The Way,” I assume because Jesus called himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life. They also called themselves the Lord’s people in Acts 9, the Followers in Acts 17, and the Flock in Acts 20. But it was here in Acts 11 that followers of Christ were first called Christians.

So back to Barnabus; he’s encouraged new Christians, he’s encouraged experienced Christians, and now Acts 11:23 it says Barnabus encouraged all of them, the entire church of Antioch. So Barnabus has shown by his example we are to encourage new Christians, established Christians, both individually and in groups. Did we miss anybody?

Acts 11 ends on a note that a severe famine began to spread throughout the Roman worlds, and in verse 29-30, ” The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.” Barnabus’ encouragement was not limited to words; he also encouraged them by his acts of service. There are many ways of providing encouragement; here’s a list called “8 Simple Ways to Encourage Others” :

• Take an interest. I believe this is one of the most effective ways of encouraging others. Show that you’re interested in what they’re doing. Get them talking. People like to talk about themselves and once you get them talking, you fire up their enthusiasm.
• Acknowledge what’s important. When you acknowledge what’s important to another, you provide validation about who they are and what they’re doing. Whether we admit it or not, each of us craves acknowledgement. Affirmation fuels confidence and self-esteem.
• Acknowledge a job well done. Worthwhile accomplishments take time and effort. You can encourage by acknowledging someone’s effort. A simple “well done” or “thank you” can have a strong effect, which can make the difference between going on or giving up.
• Show your appreciation. It’s common courtesy. Thank someone when they do something for you. Thank your partner after they cook a nice meal. Thank a friend for lending you a book. A simple thank you lets others know what they have done is meaningful to you.
• Return the favour. If someone does something nice for you, show your appreciation by returning the favour. This should not be seen as an obligation, nor as a contest. You’re not trying to top the other’s contribution, but to express what their actions mean to you.
• Do something unexpected. This is a step beyond returning the favour. Respond with something unexpected: out of the blue. Such a response has a strong impact and can reach others at an emotional level.
• Ask for advice or confide in them. Haven’t you felt important when someone asked for your advice or confided in you about something important? Didn’t you find you were energised and eager to help. Taking someone into your confidence can motivate them to show your faith in them is well founded.
• Lend a hand. Waiting for someone to ask you for advice is passive. You can take the initiative by offering to lend a hand. If a person sees you are willing to commit your time and energy to their interests, they will be more committed to seeing it through and less likely to give up.

What about you? Are you an encourager? Do uplifting words come from you, or do words of condescension and criticism come from you? Are you a Barnabas? Or are you a barnacle?

Let’s keep in mind that all Christians need encouragement. For new Christians, simply going to them and offering help is encouraging. For maturing Christians, we can encourage them by affirming their good work and character and helping them apply their spiritual gifts in service to the Lord. For all Christians, just being concerned about them and helping them is encouraging.

Nicole Johnson, a Christian author and encourager herself, wrote “Encouragement is to a friendship what confetti is to a party. It’s light, refreshing, and fun, and you always end up finding little pieces of it stuck to you later.”

Let’s go be encouraging confetti to someone today.

When All Hope Seems Lost

Coptic-Arabic manuscript, Ayyubid period, AD 1249-50. Images depict Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemene, the kiss of Judas, the arrest of Christ, his appearance before Caiaphas, Peter's denial at cockcrow, Christ before Pilate, and the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River.
This week we follow Joseph into prison. If we’re headed to prison with him, let’s recap how we got here. We know that Joseph was born into a family that was trying to follow God’s will but at the same time was highly dysfunctional. Joseph had eleven other brothers, born to four different women. His own mother had passed away. His father Jacob showed favoritism to Joseph because Jacob learned that from his father Isaac.

Joseph has a dream that God will make him ruler, and Joseph’s family will bow down to him. Joseph’s brothers are less than enthused by this dream, and they throw him in a well, expecting to kill him. Now, when I was growing up, my brother and sister and I fought, but we never threw any of us in a well. At least not that I remember. At least not for very long. And we never sold one of us to the Egyptians which is what Joseph’s brother decided to do, rather than kill him.

When Joseph was at the bottom of the well, things looked pretty hopeless. No food, no water, and the only people around that could get him out of the well were the same ones that threw him into the well in the first place. Joseph knew God’s plan for him held great things in store for him, but how were they possibly going to come true if Joseph is dying at the bottom of a well? I think we can learn from Joseph about how to handle serious setbacks in our life and how we should respond. I came up with four ways, but I’m not going to tell them to you yet because the lesson would be over and it’s too early for lunch.

Instead of killing Joseph, his brother decided to sell him to the caravan to Egypt. I was always amazed at that caravan to Egypt that “happened” to come by, right at that moment, while Joseph was at the bottom of the well. How many months had that caravan been traveling to reach that exact spot at that time? From Joseph’s perspective at the bottom of the well, things must have looked bleak. Things must have looked hopeless. But God was in control all along. He knew Joseph would be in a well that day, so months earlier he sent a caravan to pick him up and take him to Egypt to fulfill His plan.

And for a while, it certainly looked like Joseph was living the dream. Head servant to Potiphar, officer to the Pharaoh himself, Joseph is given great responsibilities and freedoms because of his faithfulness and trustfulness. But then, Joseph is a victim of seduction and false accusations. Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce Joseph, but Joseph denounces the seduction as a wicked sin. Potiphar’s wife isn’t named in the scripture; she’s one of the unnamed people in the bible, like Lot’s wife or David’s mother or the Magi. Scholars believe her name was Zulieka, married to Ptahwer, an officer of Pharoah Ahmenemhet III of the Twelfth Dynasty of Egypt. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Zulieka’s shade is observed by Dante in the Eight Circle of Hell. She doesn’t speak, but Dante is told the Eight Circle of Hell is reserved for perjurers that violate the ninth Commandment not to bear false witness and she will spend all of eternity with a burning fever. And this is the kind of thing that sidetracks me when I’m studying and I need to get back to Joseph. Joseph flees from the sin of temptation but he leaves some article of clothing behind, and because of this evidence, Potiphar has Joseph thrown into prison.

I think sometimes we tend to think that if we follow God’s will, we will only see God’s blessings. Or perhaps we think that if we’re going through some challenge, we’re in some dark well or we’re in prison to our sin that God has forgotten us. Joseph had been in a tough position, what would be sexual harassment today, a daily temptation. If he resists Potiphar’s wife, she’ll be mad, and if he gives in, Potiphar will be mad. God will be offended. Clearly, Joseph had no choice that was without serious consequences. Joseph chose to do the right thing and was thrown into prison for it. And again, where was God? Would God send the equivalent of another caravan to rescue Joseph? Let’s read Genesis 39:21 and see.

But while Joseph was there in the prison, the LORD was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the LORD was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that being the best darn prisoner in all of Egypt is not what Joseph expected when he decided to follow God’s will. But when all hope is lost, when we’re in a well or we’re in some prison and we don’t know how we’re going to get out, we can learn the first way we can respond to serious setbacks in our life. How many ways are we going to study? Four, that’s good, just checking to see if you were paying attention.)

I. We can trust God

We can trust God, that He has a plan and He will see His plan done. While Joseph was there in the prison, the Lord was with him. We might be tempted to ask, well, if the Lord was with him, why was he in prison in the first place?

Well, the Lord doesn’t seem to work like that; there is a place for suffering in the lives of Christians. Paul tells us in Romans 5:3-5 that suffering will produce perseverance, character and hope. James 1:2-4 tells us that the trials we face gives us spiritual maturity. Faith in an all-benevolent, gift-giving God is easy; to increase our faith, God grants us trials so we not only believe in Him, but we learn to rely on Him. God is interested in our circumstances, but He is far, far more interested in our response to our circumstances.

Joseph was in a place of hopelessness, a life imprisonment. The only he had going for him was the fact that Potiphar didn’t execute him, the customary punishment for adultery. Potiphar must have believed him, but it didn’t keep him out of prison. Joseph has no family to comfort him; it was his family’s actions that setup this circumstance in the first place. He’s a slave, in a foreign land. Joseph had one thing and one thing only. Scripture says the Lord was with Joseph.

Sometimes, when things look bleak to us, this is the only thing that can sustain us. The Lord is with us, even when we can’t see it. Family members hospitalized, troubled marriages, abuse, traumatic accidents, lost jobs.

Q: What does it mean to you to trust God? How does the promise of God’s presence build your trust in Him?

We know Joseph’s future. Joseph only has his knowledge of what the Lord has told him in a dream. If Joseph knew what we knew, having faith in prison for a crime he didn’t commit would be easy. Joseph didn’t have such knowledge, but he did have faith that God is true. And that’s the same thing we have. We have God’s word that He is with us, no matter what. You’ve heard it said that if it is written once in the bible, it’s important, but if it’s written twice, better sit up and pay attention? Look at Deuteronomy 31:6 –

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.

And Joshua 1:5 –

No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.

And Hebrews 13:5 –

…because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”

And Matthew 28:20, Jesus says,

“And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

God is with us. Emmanuel. God is with us. What’s our first step to dealing with troubles in our lives? Trust in God, for He is with us.

II. We can serve others

Let’s read Genesis 40:1-8 –

Some time later, the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt offended their master, the king of Egypt. Pharaoh was angry with his two officials, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, and put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the same prison where Joseph was confined. The captain of the guard assigned them to Joseph, and he attended them.

After they had been in custody for some time, each of the two men—the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were being held in prison—had a dream the same night, and each dream had a meaning of its own.

When Joseph came to them the next morning, he saw that they were dejected. So he asked Pharaoh’s officials who were in custody with him in his master’s house, “Why are your faces so sad today?”

“We both had dreams,” they answered, “but there is no one to interpret them.”

Then Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams.”

Joseph could have been wallowing in self-pity. He had a lot to wallow about. He could have used his situation as an excuse; “I can’t help you know, can’t you see I’m in prison? Sheesh!” But instead, Joseph looked to serve others. In verse 4, the term “served them” or “attended them” or “ministered to them” could mean he performed menial service, but Joseph’s care goes further than that. It was Joseph that noticed their faces were dejected. Joseph took the time to care about them, inquire about their welfare, and taking the time to listen to their stories.

And Joseph credited all the dream interpretation to God. Just like Joseph, even when we’re troubled, we can still find a way to minister to others. Joseph used his faith to reach out to others in their need, just as we can serve others in the Lord’s name as a way to comfort others.

Helping others is a sure fire way to take your mind off your own troubles. If you can do nothing else for somebody else, just take the time to listen to them.

One of the reasons we suffer is so that we may understand others who suffer. People afflicted with cancer relate better to a cancer survivor. Recovering alcoholics attend AA meetings to be with other people with the same struggles. A large reason Diane relates so well to the elderly is because many of the aches and pains they have, Diane identifies with them because she’s had them, too.

Nobody understood that better than Jesus. Jesus suffered, died and was buried for our sins. Do you think Jesus can’t identify with your pain? The humanity of Jesus gave him direct access to the worst pain that can be inflicted on a man, and His anguish troubled Him so much His sweat was like blood. Jesus knows suffering. 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 –

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.

Q: What kind of things can we do today that makes a difference in somebody else’s life?

III. We can seek help

So Joseph offers to interpret their dreams, and the chief cupbearer goes first. Genesis 40:9-15 –

So the chief cupbearer told Joseph his dream. He said to him, “In my dream I saw a vine in front of me, and on the vine were three branches. As soon as it budded, it blossomed, and its clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes, squeezed them into Pharaoh’s cup and put the cup in his hand.”

“This is what it means,” Joseph said to him. “The three branches are three days. Within three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your position, and you will put Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, just as you used to do when you were his cupbearer. But when all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison. For I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon.”

Just giving comfort to others helps us, consider that getting comfort from others blesses them, too. Joseph saw an opportunity for somebody to help him, and he wasn’t afraid to ask. Joseph’s ordeal had him in prison for the rest of his lift, and the prophecy of this dream coming true gave Joseph hope for the future. He was not afraid to ask for help. “Mention me to Pharoah and get me out of this prison.” Sometimes there is a solution to our problem that’s available if we just ask for it.

The cupbearer received good news from Joseph’s dream interpretation. The baker now asked for Joseph to interpret his dream. Genesis 40:16-19 –

When the chief baker saw that Joseph had given a favorable interpretation, he said to Joseph, “I too had a dream: On my head were three baskets of bread. In the top basket were all kinds of baked goods for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating them out of the basket on my head.”

“This is what it means,” Joseph said. “The three baskets are three days. Within three days Pharaoh will lift off your head and hang you on a tree. And the birds will eat away your flesh.”

Well. Sucks to be the baker, I guess. Actually, there is a lesson here. Joseph approached the cupbearer for help because he knew the cupbearer would eventually be in a position to help him. It’s important to use discernment when seeking help. Seek those who can provide Godly wisdom and comfort or who may be in a position to help. And don’t be a baker in Pharaoh’s prison.

Q: How did God use others to encourage Joseph? How has God used others to encourage and help you?

IV. We can be patient

And lastly, we can be patient and wait on God whose timing is perfect. Genesis 40:20-23 –

Now the third day was Pharaoh’s birthday, and he gave a feast for all his officials. He lifted up the heads of the chief cupbearer and the chief baker in the presence of his officials: He restored the chief cupbearer to his position, so that he once again put the cup into Pharaoh’s hand, but he hanged the chief baker, just as Joseph had said to them in his interpretation.

The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.

Patience is hard; patience is a virtue. Patience takes practice. There are many places we wait in life. We wait in traffic. We wait for the microwave to finish. We wait for the right job to come along. We wait for the right spouse to come along. We even wait on our spouse to become the spouse God intends, just like our spouse waits on us. We’re waiting for children to grow up, we’re waiting for children to move out, we’re waiting, waiting, waiting.

Have you ever considered that we’re sometimes just waiting in God’s waiting room? We see a situation in our lives or the lives of someone close to us, and we wonder why God doesn’t fix it now. Surely it is God’s will for this thing to happen. Why is He taking His time?

God has great plans for Joseph. Plans to prosper him and not to harm him, plans to give him hope and a future. But for now, Joseph is in God’s waiting room. And sometimes, we are, too. God has a plan for each and every one of us. He wants us to love Him, He wants us to love one another. He wants us to grow spiritually in a closer relationship with Him. And sometimes He uses time to accomplish His will.

Are you waiting on God for something? For somebody to come to faith, for somebody’s heart to soften, for somebody to apologize, for the pain to stop, for the health to improve? I understand, waiting is hard. God understands waiting is hard, but sometimes it takes time for God to work His will, not because God is slow, but because people are slow to respond. As Joseph is getting to depend on the Lord and serve the Lord, he’s waiting in prison. His hope for the chief cupbearer to tell Pharaoh at the birthday party about Joseph’s innocence did not happen. The chief cupbearer forgot. But God remembered, and when His timing was right, we’ll see Joseph delivered. But he has two more years to wait on the Lord.

Be patient. Whatever you are waiting on is a small part of the picture. God sees the whole picture in the fullness of time. When God acts, it may look like good timing, or bad timing, or no timing at all, but its God’s perfect timing. Keep Romans 8:28 in mind,

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

God will act when He knows the time is right. In the meantime, we continue to grow in Him by serving and studying and being obedient and praying. Timothy must have asked Paul about the persecutions and the injustice he saw, and Paul told him in 2 Timothy 3:14 to just continue.

Q: Why do you think the cupbearer forgot Joseph? Why is it so hard to wait when facing a hopeless situation?

Q: Which one of these four steps is the easiest to do? Which one is the hardest?

These four steps take practice. Pray and lean on Him when you’re going through difficult times. Our human nature often leads us to respond incorrectly and in ways that are ultimately destructive. Joseph could have responded with anger and bitterness. He could have said ugly things about Potiphar’s wife. He could have been mad at Potiphar. He could have harbored resentment towards his brothers. Joseph’s life so far includes abuse, abandonment, hatred, slavery, false witness, and now prison, all while Joseph tried to do the right thing. Can you picture Joseph years later, a 90 year man, eaten up with bitterness about how he was treated? Anger and bitterness are not the solution.

Or Joseph could have turned his back on God and taken the situation into his own hands. Joseph could have gossiped about Potiphar’s wife, you know how many slaves she sleeps with, she’s such a tramp. And that Potiphar, what an idiot for believing her. Sometimes we want to take charge of the situation and change it, only to make it worse. Some people see trouble and turn their back on God, not understanding the pain and the waiting could possibly be from a loving God. And they seek other sources of comfort in alcohol, drugs, infidelity, materialism, whatever. Others see the same pain and waiting and understand God’s perfect timing as a time of spiritual growth and develop a deep confidence in waiting on the Lord.

In an Expositional commentary to Genesis, I read this story told by Billy Graham. Billy Graham told a story of a friend that went through the Great Depression who lost his job, all his savings, then his wife and then his home. But he was a believer in Jesus Christ and held onto his faith even through he fought with depression about his circumstances. One day he stopped to watch some workmen doing stonework on a huge church. One man out front was chiseling a piece of stone into a triangle. Curious, he asked what the triangle was for.

See that little opening on the top of the spire? I’m chiseling this down here so it’ll fit up there. And his friend left with grateful tears; God was doing the same to him, shaping him for heaven by chiseling him through his ordeals.

So trust in God. Continue to serve, and to ask for help, and be patient and wait on God’s perfect timing.

Christian Behavior in God's Church

I’ve discovered how slow to understand I must be. We’ve been remarking that when Chris or Fred teach, they get large amounts of text to cover. Chris had the entire Beatitudes plus half of the New Testament to teach in 30 minutes. Fred gets, like, the entire Old Testament when he teaches. And when I teach, Got assigns me an entire sentence. Today’s no exception; we’re going to study Matthew 18 today.

At this point in the ministry of Jesus, the time of His death and resurrection was approaching rapidly, and Jesus’ teaching begins to focus on preparing His disciples to carry on after His crucifixion. Last week, Fred showed us how Jesus taught about the qualities of the church and how we worship and serve Him in unity and obedience; this week, Jesus teaches about interpersonal relationships and how we are to treat one another within the church.

I. Christian Humility (v. 1-9)

Who is the greatest person in America? George Bush? Hillary Clinton? And what makes a person great in America?

The qualities that make a person great in our society are different than the qualities that make a person great in the eyes of the Lord. In fact, sometimes the qualities are the exact opposite. “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

I read a story about Billy Graham, a man who has consistently demonstrated the light of Christ publicly without wavering. In his early ministry years, he was scheduled to preach in a small town and needed to mail a letter. He asked a young boy where the local post office was. The boy told him, Billy Graham thanked him, and then told the boy, “If you come to the Baptist Church this evening, you can hear me preach about how to get to heaven.” The boy answered, “I don’t think I’ll come. You don’t even know how to get to the post office.”

Let’s look at Matthew 18:1-4

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

What quality makes a person, not just great, but the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Humility. Probably the biggest sin in the bible is pride, because so many sins originate in pride. Pride tells us how important we are, how infallible we are. Pride tells us that we don’t need God.

Humility is the opposite of pride. Humility tells us that we need God. Humility tells us that everything we are, everything we have, and everything we are ever going to be comes from God. Humility helps us recognize that we have not been placed on this earth so that others may serve us, but for us to serve others.

Matthew 18:7 tells us that our world is a sinful place, full of pride and arrogance and independence from God. There’s no avoiding it; you don’t fill a glass full of mud and expect to drink fine champagne out of it. You don’t fill a world with sinful people and expect paradise on earth. “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!” As Christians, as Jesus’ church on earth, we should be diligent about making sure we are not the cause of a brother’s sin. Jesus goes so far as to say that if your foot causes sin, cut it off and throw it away.

Why does this warning come right after Jesus’ admonition to be humble? What does “humility like a child” have to do with worldly sin?

I think it’s related to the pride that is in all of us. None of us are too good to sin. Our human nature leads us to sin constantly. Disobedience to what we know God wants us to do. Gossip. Lust. The only one strong enough to resist the constant temptation in our world is the Holy Spirit that lives in us, and when we lean on the power of God, we can resist all temptation. When we try to do it on our own, we will most certainly fall. Humility helps us recognize the power of the Lord working within us, and not our own work.

II. Christian Attention (v. 10-14)

Humility also helps us see the importance of others. When we are within the church, we are spiritually strengthened. We can encourage and we can be encouraged. But what about those outside of the church? What about those inside the church but spiritually weak?

The human tendency is to see ourselves better than others, to pump ourselves up. Our church is better than that church, our family is better than that family, our country is better than that country. As a follower of Jesus practicing humility, we are instructed to continue to lift others up. See how in verse 10 Jesus says, “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” Since this phrase “little ones” comes so soon after the instruction about being like a child, “little ones” could mean a child, but it can also mean weak or marginal people. Every person in the Christian community is considered important to Jesus, and those who come to faith have a guardian angel that always sees the face of God. Hebrews 1:14 describes these angels as “ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation.” If these “little ones” are considered so important to God that they have their own angel, shouldn’t they also be important to us? We should take special care to look out for those who need looking out for most. For verse 11 says, “For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.”

[As an aside, sometimes when I’m studying, I come across “rabbit trails;” interesting tidbits of information that have little or no bearing on the lesson that the Holy Spirit is directing. Verse 11 was a particularly enticing rabbit trail; I discovered that the NIV doesn’t have verse 11 in it. We can talk about it at lunch, but after following this rabbit trail for too much time, I’ve decided that verse 11 should be in there.]

Jesus continues with a mini-parable about lost sheep in verse 12-14 –

Look at it this way. If someone has a hundred sheep and one of them wanders off, doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine and go after the one? And if he finds it, doesn’t he make far more over it than over the ninety-nine who stay put? Your Father in heaven feels the same way. He doesn’t want to lose even one of these simple believers.

As we grow in Christ, we should take care that we don’t grow in pride. We grow in humility; we grow in service and caring, and all the more sensitive to reaching out to those who need spiritual nourishment.

III. Christian Reconciliation (v. 15-20)

Jesus next gives His church instruction on how to resolve differences among believers. In verse 15-17 –

If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Let’s make sure we know who Jesus is talking about. In the first sentence it begins, “if your brother sins against you,” this is specifically to Christians within the church, when Christians are in conflict with one another. Of course Christians are in conflict with one another. It seems that every time we forget who’s Lord of our lives, we’re in conflict. The measure of our spiritual maturity is not whether we’re ever in conflict, but whether we use the conflict to grow spiritually.

This is so important – we have conflicts within the church, conflicts sometimes right here in this class. And perhaps, just perhaps, once or twice, we’ve had a conflict with our spouse. Unresolved conflicts among Christians destroy our unity, but learning how to resolve conflicts in a Christian way can bring us closer together. This is so important; a few chapters back in Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus says,

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

Leave your gift; first go and be reconciled. When you are at odds with another believer, your gift practically worthess. God doesn’t want your stuff; He created it, after all. He wants you to be in unity with His church. The unity in the church is what makes the church effective; the unity in the church is what motivates God to be responsive to our prayers.

Think about that; God is responsive when we are obedient and in unity with one another. Do you ever feel your prayers are unanswered? Is there unresolved conflict between me and my spouse? Is there unresolved conflict between me and somebody in this class? These questions are related.

A. Right Attitude

First, be honest with yourself about your role in the conflict. With humility, ask God to show you how you have contributed. Remember, this is conflict with another Christian. I can almost guarantee you that when I am in conflict with another Christian, when I am in conflict with my spouse, there is some measure of disobedience in me. As Christians, we certainly don’t argue because we think we’re wrong. No, I argue because I think I’m right, and my Christian brother argues because he thinks he’s right. If I can’t see my own contribution to this conflict, then I am blinded by my own pride. It’s only with humility that enables me to see my own disobedience. If you have unanswered prayers, ask God to show you how you have been disobedient to Him. Then, leave your gift at the altar and go be reconciled with your spouse or your brother or sister.

B. Right Approach

How do we reconcile? First, we go tell everybody else about the conflict. I mean everybody. “You know what so-and-so did to me? Well, let me tell you. She said this and she said that and I don’t know why God doesn’t send some sort of lightning strike to turn her into charcoal.” We should gossip to as many people as you can.

Or at least, that’s what we often end up doing. Jesus gives us different instructions, and they begin with a private conversation. Let your brother or sister know, with humility, what they’ve said or done that’s hurt you. Do it soon so that the problem doesn’t fester and make you bitter; remember, your prayers are hindered as long as the conflict remains. And do it face-to-face; it says go and *show* him. Don’t send a text message, don’t send an email, and don’t leave a voice mail.

This is the first step toward unity in our marriages and unity in our church, and we often miss this first step. It’s hard, but mostly because our own pride tells us that we’re right, they’re wrong, before we ever have a conversation with them. Humility and being honest with ourselves about our own selfish motives are required before we can resolve conflict with our brother.

Because we rarely complete this private meeting, we almost never get to step two when we bring a third party. Our tendency is to bring along somebody to gang up on them, but Jesus wants us to bring a neutral party as a witness. Step three is to bring the issue to the church, a pastor. Our effectiveness as a Christian, as a married couple, and as a church depends on the unity we create by humbly resolving the differences between us.

IV. Christian Forgiveness (v. 21-35)

And finally, Jesus instructs His church on Christian forgiveness. In verse 21-22 –

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Most manuscripts say seventy times seven; I’ve worked out the math, and that’s 490 times. I recommend getting a PDA so you can keep track of the number of times you’ve forgiven somebody, so that when you get to the 491st time, you know you don’t have to forgive them anymore. If you don’t have a PDA, try keeping a piece of paper in your pocket or purse with their name and a running tally of the number of times you’ve been forced to forgive them. I know Fred keeps such a list, and so far I’m only up to 112 things he has forgiven me for. I’m hoping his version of the bible says 490 instead of 77.

Why such a big number? Of course, we’re not supposed to keep track of our brother’s sins against us. We’re supposed to forgive every time; we’re supposed to constantly forgive. We’re a lot like Peter in this scripture; if we forgive our brother, if we forgive our spouse, we think we’ve done something magnificent. But we feel like there ought to be a limit, at some point, we don’t have to forgive anymore. I don’t deserve this, I can’t take that, I’m through with this. The Jewish rabbis at the time taught that forgiving 3 times was sufficient. Peter felt that by the time he got to 7, he should win some sort of medal. Wouldn’t you? We think we’re showing great faith and love by forgiving 7 times, but Jesus calls us beyond faith and love; he calls us to humility and service by forgiving seventy times seven. The definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13:5 says love keeps no record of wrongs. No record at all.

This is not blind or shallow or careless forgiveness. Philippians 1:9-10 tells us that abounding love also increases our depth of insight and our discernment, so there’s no reason we have to become a doormat. If Chris gives me $100 to go buy pizza for the class, and I decide to buy lottery tickets instead, should Chris forgive me? Of course he should. Should he trust me with $100 again? I sure hope so, cuz I was *this* closing to winning it big last time.

The parable told by Jesus in Matthew 18:23-35 illustrates the importance of forgiveness between brothers and sisters.

“The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. He couldn’t pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market.

“The poor wretch threw himself at the king’s feet and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt.

“The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, ‘Pay up. Now!’

“The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ But he wouldn’t do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king.

“The king summoned the man and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?’ The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. And that’s exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.”

The servant goes through 3 stages of forgiveness. In verses 23-27, the man is a debtor. He owes a lot of money, far more than he can ever pay back. But he thinks somehow that he can pay it all back, given enough time. There is a lack of repentance brought on by pride here; does the man say he’s sorry and confess and repent? No, he’s ashamed he’s caught. In 2 Corinthians 7:10 it says, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” Worldly sorrow is just being sorry you got caught.

This servant has no hope of paying off his debt, even if his pride tells him he can. His case is hopeless. The only thing that keeps him out of prison is the grace from the king.

In the second stage of forgiveness, the servant is also a creditor. When the servant thinks the king is out of sight, he comes across another servant that owes him pennies compared to the huge debt that the gracious king forgave. Instead of sharing with his friend the forgiveness that he has already received, the servant mistreats his friend. His friend’s words were almost identical – “I can pay it all back!” But instead of forgiveness, the servant mistreats his friend and demands the money is paid back. The servant was unwilling to be gracious even though he wanted others to be gracious to him.

The servant was absolutely with his legal right to demand payment, too. Nobody denies that he was owed the money. But even though he had a legal right, he didn’t have a moral right.

The last phase of forgiveness is really a stage of unforgiveness. He becomes a prisoner. Through the grace of the king, the servant had been released from prison. Through his own selfish unforgiveness, the servant puts himself back in prison. In essence, the king has given the servant a choice; he can live free through grace, or he can live imprisoned through the law. Through Christ Jesus, we are free. We were so far into debt, we didn’t even know how far in debt we are. We believed we could get into heaven just by paying the debt, by doing good works. But Christ freed us from our debts, and he wants us to experience not only being forgiven, but also forgiving others.

This parable was told to believers, to brothers and sisters in Christ. We have indeed received forgiveness from our Lord, but we often haven’t truly experienced forgiveness. We continue to live by justice, demanding what is ours. When we live this way, demanding justice from others, we are putting ourselves in prison, the prison of the unforgiving heart. We can be just like this servant, ready to receive the forgiveness of Christ, but stingy to share it. God forgives us frequently, readily, and endlessly.

It’s not enough for us to receive this forgiveness. To truly experience forgiveness, we must learn to grant forgiveness as easily as we received it. We have received so much that we don’t deserve, and all we had to do was say, “I accept.” To encourage the type of church of believers that Jesus wants us to be, let us practice forgiving others as our advocate as already shared with us, for it is with Christ Jesus that we have been set free from our prison. As it says in Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

edit I am reminded that holding back forgiveness is like putting the one who wronged you in jail – except you have no key to the door. You must stand there and hold the jail cell door shut. While your adversary may be in jail, you are too; you cannot go anywhere if you’re holding the door.

As Christians in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ, in order to build the church that He has called us to be, we must have a humble heart, recognizing the pride that keeps us from leaning on our Creator. We must watch for our spiritually weaker and younger brothers and sisters, making them feel welcome and loved so they do not drift away, for Jesus cares for each and every one of His sheep. We must recognize our own selfishness and disobedience and the conflicts that come between us, and lay our gifts at the altar and be reconciled with our spouses, our brothers, and our sisters. And we do this by forgiving them quickly, seventy times seven times, so that we do not become imprisoned by our own unforgiveness, just as we have been forgiven by our loving and gracious Lord Jesus Christ.