Model membership - 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 8th April 2001.

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People’s last words are often very revealing. Oscar Wilde was reported to have said on his death bed as he looked around him: "This wall paper is disgusting. One of us will have to go." I remember the first time I went on holiday without my parents, my mother dropped me off at the airport. And as I was about to go through passport control, all of a sudden there was a whole stream of instructions: "Make sure you keep your passport safe, make sure you wash, change your underwear, please send us a postcard home." Well sure enough, the moment I went through those sliding doors, I forgot everything, and duly delivered the postcard personally two weeks later!

Well I must confess that as a preacher my heart sinks when I discover that the NIV editors have thrown in the towel and gone for a catch all title like "Final Instructions" for our passage tonight. But actually these words we are studying tonight are not just the quick fire instructions of an anxious parent; rather they are the carefully crafted closing words of the apostle Paul as he writes to his beloved Thessalonian church. In fact, you’ll know from your own experience of reading the NT, that Paul’s letters don’t just dribble on to a pathetic conclusion. Rather every word is important. In fact it has been said that one of the best ways to see the big picture in Paul’s letters is to read the beginnings and the ends, for he often reveals his priorities in these sections. And 1 Thessalonians 5 is no exception. These verses are as important as any other in the letter.

Now if you’ve been with us over the last two months, you like me will have been on an extraordinary ride as we have worked our way through this letter of Paul’s to this young northern Greek church. And we’ve discovered that in many ways they are the model church. And three themes have cropped up time and again. They have a faith that works, a love that labours and a hope that endures. Those are the three marks of the authentic church- faith, love and hope. But the interesting thing to note is that this church were not super saints. They were just ordinary Christians like you and me. They had problems like you and me. Some had had close friends and relatives that had died, others were under huge pressure at work, some were being persecuted for their faith, others were very shaky in the faith, they were barely hanging on, whilst others were living lives which were displeasing to God or had poor understandings of scripture. I guess if we were to take a cross section of St. John’s we would find all those people in our congregation. And yet this young church was making progress: The gospel was ringing out from them all over Greece, their love for one another was growing and they had a firm hope for the future.

And it is these themes that Paul takes up again as he finishes his letter. But he’s not dribbling to a pathetic conclusion. Rather he gives seventeen short, punchy instructions which this church must take to heart if they are to stay on course pressing on to heaven. Now we have no hope of covering them all in detail. And so I have grouped them together under four headings which will help us to get the main thrust of what the apostle is saying. And it is these priorities which we must take to heart if we too are to become more like Christ together and stay on course to heaven.


1) Respect Your Leaders (vv 12-13)

2) Recognise Others’ Needs (vv 14-15)

3) Remember God’s Will (vv 16-22)

4) Rely On God’s Strength (vv 23-28)

1) Respect Your Leaders (vv 12-13)

So first, then, we are to respect our leaders. Now it is likely that Paul himself had not actually appointed these leaders. You’ll remember he’d only been there three weeks or so before he was kicked out by hostile Jews. And so what is likely to have happened is that leaders had arisen out of the congregation, but evidently some in the church didn’t respect them. So, what is expected of our leaders? It is said that "a leader is a person whom other people follow. If you are out in front and no-one else is following, you’re not leading, you’re just going for a walk." Well Paul gives us three marks of good leaders in verse 12. First they are people who work hard among you. These are leaders who don’t sponge off their congregations but toil and labour in preaching, teaching, guiding, visiting, caring and praying. It is toil. The word Paul uses is for hard labour which involves sweat and pain. That is the sort of work a Christian leader is to do. Secondly, a leader is "over them in the Lord". In other words they have a spiritual responsibility for the people in their charge, and they will have to give an account at the last day for how they have fulfilled that responsibility. And then thirdly in verse 12 , they admonish the church, which means warning the people and sometimes saying hard things. That’s why often in the pulpit the preacher must say hard things if the Bible teaches them, because it is for the good of the people and part of his task.

So those are the qualities that Paul expects of the leaders in this church. And for those of who are leaders, whether it be us who are paid to do it, or in the homegroups or in the children’s work or whatever, we need to measure ourselves against this plumbline. Are we labouring? Are we fulfilling our spiritual responsibility properly? Are we admonishing when we should be or do we shy away from saying the tough things that sometimes need to be said. And if you are thinking about becoming a leader, then think very seriously. Leaders will be judged more severely because they have more responsibility, not to mention that sweat and toil that comes with the job.

So what does Paul say to the people? Well they are to respect them in verse 12, and in verse 13: "Hold them in highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other." So the congregation are to respect their leaders. Now notice this doesn’t come about just because of the title. Rather leaders are to be recognised because of their function. They work hard and are over you in the Lord. Just because someone has the title Reverend, or most reverend, or really very reverend makes no jot of difference. Rather respect must be earned through hard work and fulfilling that spiritual responsibility properly.

I heard a story recently about some churches in South America who won’t allow anyone to train at a theological college until they have planted a church. And he is only allowed into the second year of theological college until he has planted another church. Imagine what would happen to our theological colleges if that were the case? And that is why anyone considering any sort of leadership in a local church must be seen to have the qualities needed, and he or she needs to have been proved in the field. He won’t be an expert but he needs to have those basic qualities. And notice whose work it is in verse 12. It is the Lord’s work. Leaders are over you in the Lord. So there is no personal kudos to be gained through God’s work. We’re not in it for the glory. It is the Lord’s work. And leaders must constantly check themselves against the danger of pride.

So leaders and people alike have a dual role. Leaders are to lead in a way which pleases God. And the people are to respect and support their leaders when they are doing that job well. And Paul says when that is the case, then verse 13 we can "live in peace with each other." How good it is to be in a fellowship where the leaders are supported. But let’s not take this for granted. Roast preacher is one the commonest choices for Sunday lunch. Now that is not say we cannot be constructively critical. But a church fellowship which is constantly sniping the leadership and doing them down will lose its peace. And many of us will know from painful experience how churches have been torn apart by such battles. So to the leaders Paul says do the job properly. To the congregation he says respect them and back them to the hilt so you can live in peace. Respect your leaders.


2) Recognise Others’ Needs (vv 14-15)

But then secondly, the church which is pressing on until Jesus’ return will recognise others’ needs. Now one of the little interesting facts about these letters of Paul’s to the Thessalonians is that it is clearly family orientated, that is, relating to the Christian family. In the two Thessalonian letters he calls them brothers (meaning sisters as well) twenty seven times. It shows how important the Christian community was. And here in verses 14-15, Paul is addressing the whole community, the whole church. Verse 14, he says: "We urge you, brothers…" What follows is not something just the leaders do, rather it is something the whole church is to be involved in, recognising and caring for one another’s needs. You see I need you this week to help me live my life as a Christian. We need one another. And so Paul says in these verses that we are to recognise the needs of others.

He mentions three needy types of people in particular. First, he says, warn those who are idle, literally the undisciplined. The word is used also of sentries who are not at their posts. Now in the context of the Thessalonians’ situation, it appears that these folk had given up their jobs and were waiting for Jesus to return, and as a result they were living off gullible Christians who were happy to feed and clothe them. Such people would probably say something like, "Oh we have the spiritual gift of waiters." Paul says in 2 Thessalonians that such people need to jolly well get off their backsides and get to work. Start living the Christian life in the workplace. And such people need to be warned. And still today. I doubt there are many who call themselves "spiritual waiters", but some are idle and need to be warned. Get serving we need to say to them, lovingly of course. Then secondly Paul says encourage the timid. Those who are perhaps easily shaken by trials or difficulties. Encourage such people, Paul says. Don’t write anyone off. Different people mean different problems, and everyone needs to be treated on an individual basis. Such timid folk need gentle care and encouragement to help them through. And then thirdly the weak need help. It’s possible by ‘weak’ Paul is referring to those who easily fall into temptation. Such people mustn’t be condemned, but helped.

So Paul says care for these individuals. But notice what we need most: It is patience. Verse 14: "Be patient with everyone." It is very easy to get annoyed with people in a church fellowship, but a little bit of patience helps enormously. And instead of getting people back and retaliating when things go wrong, rather, verse 15, be kind to one another, and to everyone else. So it is this caring patient quality that we are to exercise with one another, warning, encouraging, helping as needs be. And like any loving family, no-one will be cast off, and everyone will be cared for. I remember some while ago watching a programme on TV about this strange creature called the meercat which lived in the African desert. But the most amazing thing about it was its willingness to care for its fellow meercat. They all lived together in close extended families, and were devoted to one another. Well we can learn a lot from nature. We must be devoted to one another, and to recognise and care for one another’s needs.


3) Remember God’s Will (vv 16-22)

But then thirdly we must remember God’s will. And again Paul is talking to us not just as individuals but as a church gathering. And the key verse is verse 19: "Don’t put out the Spirit’s fire," or literally the verse reads, "Do not quench the Spirit." The verse looks both back to verses 16-18 and forward from verses 20-22. All these verses are describing life in the Spirit. Now the remarkable detail about this passage is just how Spirit centred the whole thing is. Did you notice as we read through just how many parts of the fruit of the Spirit are mentioned directly or indirectly? There is love in verse 14, joy in verse 16, peace in verse 13, patience in verse 14, kindness in verse 15, and you might argue goodness and faithfulness are there as well in terms of our dealings with other people. That is five of the eight mentioned explicitly, as well as two more being there implicitly. So Paul is describing in these verses (16-22) our life together in the Spirit which is life in union with Christ. In fact that is the way that the Good News version translates verse 18: "This is what God wants from you in your life in union with Christ Jesus." And that is what it means to do God’s will. God’s will in the Bible is simply doing what pleases him by the power of His Spirit. Let me spell out to you the logic of verses 16-20: "It is God’s will for us to be joyful, to pray, and to give thanks. If we do not respond to him in this way then we are not doing his will and that means we are quenching the Spirit’s work in our lives, which is as bad as despising prophecy. So Paul is saying that if we are to press on as a church looking forward to the coming of Christ, then we must be a church, and individuals, who will remember and obey God’s will which is to live our lives in the power of the Spirit. So what will this look like? Well as always Paul is very practical. And he gives four commands. First we must be joyful always. Now that sounds completely impractical. What is Paul saying here? Does he expect us to wear the SWEG all the time, the sickly wet evangelical grin? Well, no! Joy is different from happiness. Paul isn’t saying we must be happy all the time. That just doesn’t happen. He says be joyful always. And for the men and women of the Bible joy could be experienced even in tough times when there was little to be happy about, as the Thessalonians themselves could do. They were joyful in spite of severe suffering. So joy is rather a deep seated satisfaction and delight in God that causes us to rejoice even when we don’t feel like it. Paul also commands us to be prayerful. Christians must be in constant contact with their commanding officer, bringing all things to him in prayer. We’re to be thankful in all circumstances as well. And notice that we are to give thanks in all circumstances. Thankfulness sees God’s hand at work in all things, whether they are good or ill- in the good we thank God for that goodness. In the bad we can thank God he is keeping us. So these three qualities are to be a triad of beautiful Christ-like graces that are to adorn our church and our personal lives. And each one is a mark of the Spirit’s work in our lives. And if we fail to do these things then we are not doing God’s will.

But fourthly, we must not quench the Spirit in regard to prophesy, or what I have called the need to be discerning. Now what does Paul mean here. Well it is very clear from Scripture that the prophets and apostles were foundational to the early church. These were people like Paul and Peter and Luke for instance. In that sense there can be no more prophets like that today, for the simple reason that when a prophet of this order spoke God spoke. And we have their teaching today in the Bible. That book is now completed: God has said all that needs to be said for our salvation and godliness. The interesting thing here is that Paul tells them to test everything. If it needs testing, then it implies it may be phoney. So what is this type of prophecy which Paul urges them not to despise. Well gallons of ink have been spilt on what this type of prophecy is all about. But the writer John Stott has helpfully suggested that prophecy is "a remarkable degree of insight either into Scripture and its meaning or its application into the contemporary world." And it seems to be that sort of prophecy that Paul is urging the church not to despise. In the days when the Bible was not yet in existence, numbers of people may have had some word or wisdom to give to the church. Such words are to be tested. And if it is good, if it accords with sound doctrine, then accept it. If not, then don’t. And in many ways this sort of thing continues. If anyone claims to give us wisdom or to have a special message they should be tested. But what is clear is that Scripture must have the highest authority. What is notable is that in verse 27 Paul tells the church to read out his message, but he doesn’t mention the need to test it. Quite simply because he is one of God’s unique inspired writers. So stick to scripture and be discerning. And that is a vital lesson to learn as we enter the 21st century. So many churches have felt the need to abandon the Bible and turn to more so called contemporary messages. Never be deceived by that. God’s word is what we need, and with everything else we must be discerning. And in doing that we will be remembering and doing God’s will.



4) Rely on God’s Strength (vv 23-28)

Well Paul has taught some difficult lessons as he comes to the end of his letter, and the big question we may be asking ourselves is will I survive. How can I possibly keep going in the light of the huge task we have before us. Well Paul is a wise pastor and he ends his letter on a note of great encouragement. He urges us to rely on God’s strength. Just what he prays in verse 23: "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." In this letter Paul has been urging the Thessalonians and us to keep pressing on, to have a faith that works, a love that labours and a hope that endures. And he prays that God would do that work in them. He prays that God would sanctify them, that is make them more like Jesus, and keep them blameless until the coming of Jesus. And do you know what that means? It means that on that last day there will be no charges against you! Incredible isn’t it! And do you ever wonder whether God will do that? Do you ever doubt that you will last as a Christian? Have the last week’s struggles sucked all the spiritual life out of you so that you barely feel a Christian? Well be encouraged tonight by verse 24. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it. God will keep you. God is faithful. Rely on his strength. He is the one that will get you to that last day. Have no doubts and keep trusting. Our job is just to keep on keeping on. God’s job is to keep us. And Paul says that the one who calls you is faithful. So keep relying on God’s strength.

So, as he finishes his letter, Paul has taught us four key lessons, four priorities for a church heading for heaven. We must respect our leaders, recognise others’ needs, remember God’s will, and rely on God’s strength. And do you notice the very last sentence. May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. Paul began the letter with grace, and now he ends with grace. And it is grace that will keep us going to the end.



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