Gospel entailments - 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28
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Let me read you an account of what actually happened one Sunday morning in a church just outside Boston, Massachusetts: ‘It was the right hook that got him. Pastor Waite might have stood in front of the Communion table trading punches with the head deacon Ray Bryson all morning had not Ray’s fist caught him on the chin with two minutes and fifteen seconds into the fight. Waite went down at the altar where most members of Emmanuel Baptist church had first declared their commitment to Christ….Two tenors and a baritone jumped over the wooden railing of the choir loft and began exchanging punches with members from both sides of the aisle. Mary Dahl, the director of the Dorcas Society, threw a hymnal at one of the tenors, but the missile sailed high and wide and splashed down in the baptistery behind the choir. Sharon Carlson had given up on the organ and moved to the piano, where she tried to restore order by playing, ‘Blest be the tie that binds’….. The fight ended when the police arrived on the scene. They restored order, took down the names for the report they had to file, and recommended that some of the men seek medical attention. Ray Bryson’s hand was broken, and Mary Dahl’s knitting needles were confiscated.’ That’s called ‘the right fist of fellowship’ and by any standards that can only be described as a dysfunctional church. But it had not always been that way. But by a gradual loss of focus on Christ, pastoral insensitivity and manipulation and pure factionalism, things eventually broke down until one day, tempers flared and fists flayed.
So, here’s the question: how does a church ensure that that kind of situation doesn’t arise and that it is healthy and remains healthy? The answer is by working through the entailments of the Gospel which is what we see here at the end of Paul’s first letter to this little church in Thessalonica. You see, the church was founded by the Gospel, as we read in Chapter 1; the Gospel message came ‘with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.’ (v5). But what is more, the church is maintained by the Gospel, for it is in the Gospel that we discover what God’s will is for the church, namely, to be ‘sanctified’ (4:3), that is, set apart as being a different, an alternative society whose hallmarks are love and holiness. And what we have in these closing words of Paul is a penetrating application of the Gospel to the church family as a whole. So if we are serious about wanting to know how a church is to function well and to commit ourselves to helping it function well, then we need to pay very close attention to three Gospel entailments.
First, Gospel leadership, vv 12-13. When people think of church leadership they can go towards one of two extremes. On the one hand there is clericalism, so that the only person or persons who can exercise any form of leadership in the church is the ordained minister, whatever you may call him, the Reverend, The Rt Reverend, the Venerable or the Vulnerable. That is when you run the danger of the minister becoming a stopper in the bottle, since nothing can be done without him or, in some cases, by him. The other extreme is anticlericalism. Here it is asked: ‘Who needs specially called and trained leaders, after all don’t we believe in the ‘priesthood of all believers’?’ The problem with that is that you easily end up with a church full of self -appointed popes. But the Bible will have neither extreme. Now it is quite likely that Paul had not appointed any leaders to the church in Thessalonica, he didn’t have time before he was run out of town. But it is obvious that some folk did emerge as leaders, even though they didn’t have titles. So how are they identified? Look at the language Paul uses to describe them. First of all they ‘work hard’. I would hope the appointed ministers here do work hard, and if they don’t you should admonish them, but it is not a characteristic solely of the “clergy”. He seems to be talking about those who take the initiative in caring for God’s people and are good at it. Look around you and see who is working hard in the church and chances are, you will be seeing what are, in effect, leaders. But it is not just any hard work Paul is talking about, but those who are ‘over you in the Lord’. What does that mean? Well, it is not what the term tends to be associated with in our English translation. We think of someone being ‘over us’ as a dominating thing. It would be better rendered as ‘care’, that is the sense of the word, maybe instead of saying ‘being over you’, it is being ‘there for you’. So, those who are leading have the job of caring for God’s people. It’s not pushing them around, or even caring for people because it gives us a boost, a way of meeting our ‘need to be needed’ which can sometimes happen. No, you look around you and the folk who are working hard in caring for Christians, whether children, young people, students or older people- that is what leaders should look like. And what is their main aim in caring for Christians? That is shown in what they do in caring, they ‘admonish’ or ‘warn’. In other words, they care about how a Christian is living, how they are developing in Christian character- in short their concern is that they and their fellow believers become more and more like Jesus Christ. And that happens by bringing the Word of the Gospel to bear in people’ lives. That is why they work so hard. It goes back to doing God’s will in 4:3 and 5:23, that is, ‘sanctification’. This means that when this kind of leader sees one of you making progress in the Christian life, displaying Christ-like changes, taking small steps or large ones- he or she is absolutely thrilled. By the same token, when they see you backslide or start to coast in the Christian life it will nigh on break their heart and cause them to be concerned about you and work all the harder to try and restore you and chivvy you on- ‘admonish’- because they really do care. That is what a caring leader must do.
And what must you do in return? ‘Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.’ That doesn’t mean putting them on a pedestal, but it does mean esteeming and valuing them for what they are trying to do for you with all their hard work.
There are many leaders in this church which go way beyond myself, Lee, Scott and Jake- we are just the guys with titles and certain giftings and responsibilities, but when you take into account the rest of the staff team, the wardens, the PCC members, the children’s leaders, homegroup leaders, student leaders, music leaders- that is an awful lot of leaders- and there are many more beside those. And I know them all which is why I can tell you they really do care for you and work hard for you and so you will hold them in high regard in love won’t you?
And do you know what will happen as a result? There will be peace and harmony in the church- ‘Live in peace with each other.’ Take any voluntary organisation where there is infighting and backbiting and you will find that there is either ineffective leadership or a disregard of leadership. But there is one voluntary organisation where that should never be and that is the church. If leaders are working hard, caring by the loving and prayerful application of God’s Word, and people are valuing that and respecting them-then you will have a great church.
Secondly, there is Gospel fellowship, vv 14-15. Again let me paint for you two caricature extremes as to how some people view fellowship. There are those who turn up to church, and although it is nice that there is a crowd, in reality there needn’t be, because that is not why they are there. They see religion as a private affair, its all about ‘Me and Jesus’- in that order. Theirs is a ‘drive in church’ or it might as well be- for there is no meaningful contact with anyone else- it’s go in and do your ‘stuff’ and then get out. At the other extreme fellowship is everything. These folk want close, intimate, personal relationships, and so there is no space to take personal stock of one’s own spiritual state because it has been masked by a hive of activity in relating to each other. But just look at how Paul urges the Christians in Thessalonica- and us- how to relate to one another, verse 14, ‘Warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone.’
The healthy church is usually a mixed bag. So there will be those who are ‘idle’. The word suggests a kind of frittering away of the time, being undisciplined, never doing anything which contributes to the well being of others. They are slackers. Not a good thing, not an attractive thing, but something which needs correcting. So Paul says, you have folk like that in the fellowship, do them and everyone else a favour by ‘warning them’- it is the same word as in verse 12 translated ‘admonish’. It is a disgrace for a Christian to fritter away his time with the trivial. And so we have to ask ourselves: how much time is spent surfing the net aimlessly, being consumed with face-book, channel hopping and the like? That is the kind of idleness Paul has in his sights. Do you see the contrast with those he has just mentioned who work hard for God’s people? Now the question is this: into which category do you belong? Then ask: into which category do you want to belong? Idleness, time wasting, runs counter to true fellowship.
Next there are those who are ‘timid’ or ‘fainthearted’ in the congregation. These are people for whom life is a just too much. They are scared, anxious. That may well be you. Well, you are an important part of the fellowship and you need help in coping with life- and we want help you in that.
Then there are those who are ‘weak’- people who fail a lot. The world might dismiss them with that callous label, ‘losers’- but they are not losers to God- they are part of the fellowship and they need help, literally, ‘holding on to’- given some support.
And just in case anyone is missed out, Paul adds, ‘be patient with everyone’. ‘Long suffering’ is the word, it is more than putting up with each other, it is actively standing shoulder to shoulder with each other. Friends, that’s fellowship.
Now, hopefully you will have noticed that all of these people have something in common. They all have needs. But did you also notice what Paul’s focus is? He centres on supporting others in their need. So this raises a question for us: with what attitude do I come to church? Is it ‘how are my needs going to be met?’ Or is it: ‘How can I meet other people’s needs?’ And it as we come with the second attitude that true Gospel fellowship will be experienced. Do you see?
And it is the Gospel which enables this to happen- v15, ‘Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other (or more literally ‘seek each other’s good’) and everyone else’s.’ Why is it that you don’t payback somebody else with wrong because they have wronged you in some way- real or perceived? It is because God has not paid you back for the way you have wronged him. God would rather take the wrong upon himself on the cross than you should receive the penalty. Likewise, far better that we take the wrong on the chin than scratch our heads to think of a way we can get back at someone. Why should you seek the good of other Christians? Well, because God has been incredibly good to you- immensely good to you. Jesus not only died for you so that all the muck in your life could be washed away, he has made you into a son or daughter of the divine family and loves you with an intensity that aches. Is it therefore too much to ask that you show a little goodness to the brother or sister sitting next to you or behind you or perhaps more importantly the one you have avoided sitting next to? And God’s goodness isn’t restricted to Christians, it extends to everyone. And so should ours- ‘seek everyone else’s good’. We live in a society that is being increasingly starved of acts of goodness or kindness. Even little acts of kindness such as opening the door for someone, saying ‘thank you’ or being courteous are fading fast. Don’t you think that there will be a sharp intake of breath when a Christian child or teenager does one of these things? Those are the small acts but there are plenty of big acts of kindness for us to do as well. That, friends, is Gospel fellowship.
So what about Gospel discipleship? What does authentic Christian experience look like as we follow the Lord? Well, again, it might help to set this against two extremes. There is the extreme of those for whom Christian discipleship is mainly cerebral or formal. There are the sermon tasters; the followers of routine and ritual. But none of these things are allowed to touch the heart or the emotions. At the other end of the spectrum it is all emotion which ends in emotionalism, the mind is bypassed and the emotions targeted directly and the greater the emotion, the greater our experience of God- so it is thought.
Well, again, let’s see what Paul says is the experience of true discipleship, v16, ‘Be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you.’ Do you want to know what God’s will for your life is? It is this- that you are joyful always. ‘Ah’ you say, ‘Paul is being unrealistic. How can you be joyful when life is so hard?’ Well, that was what was happening to these Christians according to chapter 2, for they were being persecuted. But Paul can still say, ‘be joyful always’. In fact it was happening to Paul himself according to chapter 3. And yet he says, ‘be joyful always.’ A strange thought isn’t it, that in the midst of difficult circumstances, set-backs and disappointments you can know joy? Of course, joy doesn’t come in a vacuum, something to be sought in and of itself. When I think of my grandchildren, I experience joy. Its not that I am seeking joy, it is a by product. And so it is for the Christian. To think on the fact that I am God’s child and always shall be, that in the words of C.S. Lewis, ‘joy is the business of heaven’ and that is where I am heading, that when I look at you and what God is doing, then I experience joy. That is God’s will for me- and for you.
It is also God’s will that we pray constantly, not just once in a while when I am in trouble, but as a matter of day–to- day Christian living. And this is not just an individualistic activity, it is corporate- a ‘praying together’. If we are, for whatever reason, not praying together, then we are not doing the will of God. One of the reasons why Jesus hung on the cross was so that we could pray. Oh, not the praying of the pagans treating God like some celestial slot machine, but the praying of children, who can come into their heavenly Father’s presence with absolute assurance that he not only hears them, but delights to hear them. Don’t you want to delight you heavenly Father’s heart? Then pray- join us at the prayer meeting because it’s God’s will.
And ‘give thanks in all circumstances’- not for all circumstances- that would be unrealistic and perverse, but we can give thanks to our heavenly Father no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in because there is so much to give him thanks for. Gratitude is the mark of a true believer. Those are just some of the things we should be doing because they are the will of God.
But then, there are things we shouldn’t be doing such as ‘putting out the Spirit’s fire’ or as it is in some translations, ‘Don’t quench the Spirit’. Now this is a text that has been used by some to justify the kinds of emotional excesses I have just mentioned. So anyone who raises a question mark about the propriety of excessive emotional hype in a church service, howling like animals or falling about in uncontrollable laughter is said to be ‘quenching the Spirit.’ I would suggest to you that that is the exact opposite of what Paul is saying here. Paul has just shown us what the Spirit’s fire looks like in a congregation- joy, prayer and gratitude- suppress those things and you are putting out the Spirit’s fire. And far from suspending our critical faculties in order to ‘let go and let God’ Paul says, use them, think, assess- ‘Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.’ God’s word, the ‘prophecies’ whereby the Word of God is brought to bear on a situation, is not to be treated with contempt, shunted to oneside in favour of something else. The Word is our control which enables us to test everything and hold on to what is good while rejecting evil.
Let me tell you something. In 1801, what is sometimes called the ‘Second Great Awakening’, was said to have taken place in Kentucky. But this was very different from the great Revival which took place under George Whitefield and John Wesley half a century before. Here special camps were set up composed of hundreds of people. Also, general hysteria was encouraged by the preachers, the more people ‘twitched’ it was claimed, the more the evidence that God was at work. Some of the preachers called on their hearers to cry aloud to God because God, ‘can hear us, should we all speak at once.’ With the belief that the new age of the miraculous had dawned, ministers were thought to be no longer necessary, people through visions and dreams could minister to themselves, thank you very much. Do you know what happened? Many of the so called converts went back to their old way of life within a matter of weeks and there were a massive number of babies illegitimately conceived at those meetings. There was no testing- you see. Good was not held on to and evil was not avoided- all in the name of not quenching the Spirit.
A Gospel church that is working properly will produce different results and different behaviour, indeed, the very things Paul signs off on, ‘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 the Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.’
Let is pray.
 Charles Colson, ‘extending the Right Fist of Fellowship’ in The Body (WORD, 1992)
 Revival and Revivalism Ian H Murray, pp168-9
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