The Rest of the Story

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 (NAS)

Right away you notice Paul did not want the Thessalonians in the dark any longer. So too us! What he is about to explain needs to be known!

He is talking in the context of the grief that comes from losing a loved one. It does not have to be this way. While there is sorrow, those who die in Christ only sleep. Like Stephen who was stoned to death but was described as falling asleep, physical death for the believer is temporary. Those who drift off await a wake up call, for their bodies, that is, because if you are absent from the body, you are present with him in heaven (2 Corinthians 5:8). As such, our grief is abated by hope.

Those alive in Christ, on the other hand, look ahead to a glorious meeting with the Lord.  Here and in 1 Corinthians 15:50-58 what is referred to as the “rapture of the church” is explained. What a great comfort to believers to hope for the day when the Lord returns for us! It is a particular comfort that should be discussed and passed along as you would any other good news, like the death and resurrection of Jesus, and this word is from the Lord himself. See below.

15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. 1 Thessalonians 4:15–17

Any day now—the return of the Lord is imminent—with a sudden shout, angelic announcement, and heavenly trumpet blast, Jesus will descend in the clouds. First, the bodies of those who died as believers will be raised, and then those on the earth who are alive will ascend. It will happen in a split second. You might ask how a Christian burned alive will be reconstituted. Did not God create Adam from dust? Did not Jesus rise from the dead? So it shall be, and we will live forever with him.

But we will find that about seven years later we will return with Christ as he comes back to earth as conqueror and king, and we will rule and reign with him in his kingdom.

Fairy tales? Read the prophets, read Daniel, read Ezekiel, read the words of our Lord on the Mount of Olives (Matthew 24), and read Revelation.

And now you know the rest of the story.

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Brotherly Love

Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more. 1 Thessalonians 4:9-10 (NAS)

Society, although it does not realize it, benefits greatly from the presence of Christians in its midst. Paul refers to brotherly love (phileo) here, and it’s hard to apply such love discriminately. Consequently, our love as Christians spills over to those who may not deserve it. The deeper agape love is also be in view here, since it is surely wrought by God’s spirit (“taught by God”, and it surely would be something to strive for if we were to want to “excel still more.”

My wife tells me of her simple act of allowing someone to go ahead of her in line. The person asked, “Why are you being so nice?” Perhaps in today’s culture what used to be grace, deference, and good manners stands out like a sore thumb. Christians should naturally be like this.

As Paul refers to later in his letter, there will come a day when, in “the twinkling of an eye” (1 Corinthians 15:52), we all will be gone (4:17), and hopefully, in theory, sorely missed.

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Dirty Little Secret

For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. 3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, 5 not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. 7 For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. 1 Thessalonians 4:2–7 (NAS)

Every man knows what these verses are teaching. It’s the wild stallion within us that needs to be broken and trained. The only way we can possess our own vessels in sanctification and honor, short of the gift of celibacy, is to love and cherish one woman. In this God-ordained relationship all desires are fulfilled. There is, of course, the distinct possibility that a female can immorally possess her own body in lustful passion, i.e. it takes two, but these days a man can never leave his own home and fall deeply into sexual sin. Only the Holy Spirit can provide the effective firepower and shield to keep the hounds at bay, that is, to abstain from sexual sin.

On defrauding one’s brother, God has chosen the perfect mate for a man and woman to be united in purity, to become as one. Immorality acted out robs both parties of that purity. If my wife-to-be is defrauded by another man prior to or during that union, I am robbed, i.e. defrauded, of that perfection, short of the grace and mercy of God.

These are serious issues, more often then not casually treated, or worse, ignored in the church today. Thus, Paul’s warning to an otherwise loving church.

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He’ll Know Us By Our Love

Now may our God and Father Himself and Jesus our Lord direct our way to you; and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you; so that He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints. 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13 (NAS)

The only way we can come close to blamelessness on this earth is to be purified by love, for other Christians, and for all humankind. Only our love of the Lord gives us the ability to love others despite our tendency to hate them. Only he causes our love to increase. It is very hard if not impossible to be in the act of loving someone and be at fault. That’s how the Lord wants to find us when he comes for us.

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Firming Up the Foundation

Therefore when we could endure it no longer, we thought it best to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s fellow worker in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith. 1 Thessalonians 3:1–2 (NAS).

Despite all his hardships and afflictions, Paul’s thoughts were not trained on himself, but others. But reading his letters, it’s obvious he needed an entourage around him to function effectively. Here he tells of making the ultimate sacrifice of a trusted associate to satisfy his need to know if the Thessalonians’ faith had held firmly since he’d been with them.

As a mother never loses her concern for the welfare of her children, even when grown, Paul as a pastor only wanted the Thessalonians to remain strong in their faith in the face of opposition, uncertainty and temptation. When Paul listed all the slings and arrows that beset him in his ministry in his second letter to the Corinthians, he concluded, “Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern? (2 Corinthians 11:28-29).

Timothy’s report back proved his basic concerns to be unfounded, yet knowing the true nature of the enemy, Paul wanted and needed the church to excel still more.

Perhaps our faith is holding, but cracks in our firm foundation can develop due to relentless opposition, nagging uncertainty, or alluring temptation.

Permission to jump ahead in the letter to some pretty good advice for shoring up the underpinnings of our faith.

16 Rejoice always;
17 pray without ceasing;
18 in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
19 Do not quench the Spirit;
20 do not despise prophetic utterances.
21 But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good;
22 abstain from every form of evil.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-22

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A Life of its Own

The occasion of the writing of 1 Thessalonians was the coming of Timothy, who Paul sent to the city when he could “stand it no more” (1 Thessalonians 3:1,5), that is, not knowing if their faith had truly taken hold. The Apostle’s stay in Thessalonica (modern day Thessaloniki) was relatively brief, at least three weeks, but likely much more, with Paul and his party (Silas) settling into a trade there to make ends meet, so as to not be a burden to his hosts. Nonetheless, he was concerned that he did not finish the job, having to be escorted out of the city in the dead of night (Acts 17:10).

His young partner delivered good news though, that they had indeed already suffered as Paul did, having been opposed by the same kind of detractors when they in turn passed Paul’s gospel along, causing him to say, “You also endured the same sufferings at the hands of your own countrymen.” 1 Thessalonians 2:14.

In Thessalonica, Paul and his associates taught their message in a hostile environment, on the heels of being beaten and jailed in Philippi. Paul was not a glutton for punishment, but a faithful servant honoring his calling from the Most High (Acts 9:15) despite the cost, for he was emboldened and approved by God, entrusted with the gospel, and therefore, spoke the truth with authority. But fierce opposition and physical persecution was to be his lot:  “I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.” Acts 9:16

But Paul did not shout his message on the street corners. First, he “reasoned” with the Jews in the synagogue for three straight weeks, but he was forced into a less visible ministry in the household of Jason (Acts 17:5) as the Jews rose up against him. There he imparted God’s word to new converts as parents would to their children (e.g. as a nursing mother, as an encouraging, exhorting, imploring father). Nevertheless, he and his people had become notorious. “These men who have upset the world have come here also.” (Acts 17:6)

It is worth saying, as time goes by, and much more quickly these days, the opposition Paul faced we will face in our lives. Settling down to reason with someone over coffee may not be possible. Paul tells us in his second letter to Timothy:

But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal,  haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; avoid such men as these. 2 Timothy 3:1-5 (NAS)

We have witnessed recently in a very real way what opposition looks like. It’s aggressive and intimidating, it’s in your face, leaving no room for civilized discourse. It’s good to know that the spoken gospel of Jesus Christ will be enough to exclaim in these situations, and will discharge our responsibility. Remember, Paul says, to “avoid such men as these.” So even Paul knows you’ll not be successful in “engaging in a conversation.” You see, no amount of logic will cause these “revilers” to change their minds. We need to become convinced that in God’s message we have the opportunity to deliver powerful words that will take on a life of their own. So at least shout back the good news before you walk away.

Please note this. 1 Thessalonians 1:5 says, “For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” This gospel is so powerful on its own that the Thessalonians “turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). A dramatic reversal. So blown away at the Thessalonians’ response with so little runway was Paul, under so much opposition, he said this:

For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe. 1 Thessalonians 2:13 (NAS)

The lesson in this letter is that the message and messengers of Jesus Christ will always be opposed, sooner or later. Paul was doggedly pursued throughout his ministry, but he persevered. It is also apparent the gospel is resilient and transforming, and it speaks for itself.

It may very well be that in the difficult days ahead, all we’ll be able to get in edgewise will be, “Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life.” This is what I heard a believing police officer tell a protester who relentlessly harangued him from the street corner. As he walked away he shouted back, “Read the Bible, read the Bible, read the Bible.”

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Model Church

6 You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything. 9 For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come. 1 Thessalonians 1:6-10 (NASB, emphasis mine)

The church at Thessalonica was born in a tempestuous time span of three weeks. Paul, Silvanus (Silas), and Timothy came on the scene, stirred up trouble in the synagogue, and had to leave out the back door at night. Their host, Jason, was dragged before the magistrates to answer for these men who allegedly “upset the world.” Out of this chaos was born a special body of believers. They became the example of a local church body as they imitated their founding fathers and the Lord. So dramatic and obvious was their calling, one minute they’re following idols, the next they’ve turned 180 degrees to serve “a living and true God.” How was their authenticity so individually and collectively obvious? Acts of faith. Labors of love. Persevering hope, especially in the imminent return of the Lord and our rescue from the coming wrath.

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Called Out or Just Out?

9 Make every effort to come to me soon;
10 for Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia.
11 Only Luke is with me. Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service.
12 But Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus.
13 When you come bring the cloak which I left at Troas with Carpus, and the books, especially the parchments. 2 Timothy 4:9-13 (NAS)

I have been here before. Working with an “all in” person when I wasn’t all in. If I didn’t have the same struggles I would write off Demas as many do. He’s likely been the target of many a critical sermon, of how not to finish strong. We wag our heads at him. We cluck our tongues at him. How dare he leave behind the battered and beleaguered Paul in the dungeons of Nero!

But Demas wasn’t Paul. Did he abandon the faith? No. He abandoned Paul. I would think Paul would have said he was an apostate if he was. Demas served Paul with Luke and Mark and Aristarchus in prior campaigns, and could be considered to be on Paul’s “A” team. Further, Paul’s reaction to his desertion and the falling dominoes thereafter indicate he was quite useful to the apostle in the work. You’d think Paul would have sensed something was up! But driven “Type A’s” aren’t normally gifted with the sensitivity and awareness to assess the individual mindsets of the team. They’re just driven.

The one thing that bothers me, though, is Paul says that he “loved this present world.” You can’t put him in the homesick category as was Mark (also known as John Mark) at one time. And certainly Crescens and Titus weren’t guilty as well. Both seemed to have advanced to the stage that they had their own ministry visions in Galatia and Dalmatia, respectively.

No, Demas’ reason for leaving seemed to be the culmination of a preoccupation with what it’d be like to escape the drama who was Paul to live a more normal, comfortable, perhaps safe life. It’s likely that Thessalonica was Demas’ hometown. It was a big cosmopolitan city, capital of Macedonia, on the Via Egnatia, and he’d be free from the constant beck and call of one who some might call “a controlling individual.” It’d be like early retirement.

I’ve lived long enough to know you’ve got to be wary of the color of the grass on the other side, as they say. Yes, the “worldly life” is powerfully alluring, but could he not tough it out just a little bit longer with the world’s greatest missionary? But he had reached his breaking point, and it appeared that he completely “zoned out” the counsel of the Holy Spirit.

There are some lessons to learn from this incident.

  1. Think long and hard before you abandon a ministry, or perhaps a church. Instead of letting emotions and resentment get the upper hand, deal with it. It’s between God and you, and you may need to address an issue man to man. It’s much better to reach a mutually acceptable decision than to abruptly leave everything and everyone in the lurch. Pride is the biggest obstacle to getting real with your emotions and others.
  2. If you are a minister of God, and we all are to be in some form or fashion, you’ll always need to have something viable to go on to, another objective on your list. Both Crescens and Titus left Paul too, but they were setting out to continue to fulfill there own callings. Outside of Timothy, and certainly Luke, there was no one closer and more trusted by Paul than Titus. It stung for sure to see him go on his way, but Paul could understand his decision, since he himself left the Ephesian elders on the beach weeping.
  3. God always takes care of his people and his ministries. He’s ultimately responsible. There’s a saying that “the cemetery is full of indispensable people.” In Paul’s life, none of these men were that, but perhaps Luke, and he faithfully stayed on through thick and thin. Don’t think for a moment that all will be lost to the ministry or man you leave behind. God will restock what’s been expended. In other words, even you are expendable.
  4. I hope Demas just needed some fresh air, and that he found his spiritual legs ultimately. It’s a dangerous thing to separate from a godly work with only the world to sustain you. A writer said this about the world, that it’s “the moral or immoral atmosphere which at every moment of our lives we inhale, again inevitably to exhale, [that] subtle informing spirit of the world of men who are living alienated and apart from God.” Up to that time, Demas was living and breathing God’s word and will with Paul. Now he’d be exposed.
  5. I know that Mark did not wander off when he “deserted” Paul in Pamphylia. The word for “desert” in Acts 15:38 meant to “depart,” not the same word that meant to “abandon” someone or thing as Demas did Paul. The record shows Mark was always productive, that he attached himself to another giant of the faith (Peter), was greatly encouraged by and ministered with Barnabas, reclaimed himself in Paul’s eyes eventually, and was actively involved in his own ministries and pursuits in various places, including the penning of a gospel. I really admire his tenacity to get back on the field. One last point, he was again willing to depart on a missionary tour with Paul (Acts 15:37-39). Inwardly, it might have been quite disheartening to not be wanted by Paul, but he’d grown to the point that he could deal with it, and Barnabas was no slouch himself. So, the lesson here is leaving something for something else, even with strong personalities involved, may be God’s will for you and me.
  6. There are men out there who have been called to greatness. They need people to help then get where they want to be, and, as such, are quite demanding. You know this when you sign on. Even in prison awaiting death, Paul issues forth a request for Timothy to reorder his life and ministry to help his mentor. From the beginning Timothy followed orders, even to endure a painful circumcision later in life (Acts 16:3), and to take wine for his stomach when he was convicted not to (1 Timothy 5:23). I read about the cloak Paul wanted Timothy to retrieve from Carpus at Troas and bring with him. This cloak was made out of wool woven so thickly that the garment stood in a corner on its own. Then there were the unwieldy and valuable books and parchments the Apostle wanted. Maybe I’m just like this but I immediately would’ve envisioned the extra mileage I’d have to put on to gather all these items, much less carry them to Rome, not to mention the details necessary to rendezvous with Mark. Mark too would have to drop what he was doing. But Paul had it all worked out. Tychicus would take Timothy’s place in Ephesus. And when you work for a guy like Paul, you know full well what “make every effort to come soon” means! But there will be a time when you can’t or won’t want to do someone else’s bidding.
  7. A man’s dying request trumps everything, most of the time. Yes, you’ll want to have with you your most trusted and beloved people in the end, perhaps for one last commencement address. But in Paul’s case, he had to prematurely say his final goodbyes to Crescens and Titus, and to Tychicus, who delivered Paul’s mail to Ephesus and Colosse, and perhaps to Titus, and who was thought of by the Apostle as a faithful and fellow bond-servant.

So, I truly believe that Demas let things get out of hand, probably was burned out, and was at his wits’ end. If he deserted anything, it was going to quickly turn out to be his “peace of mind.” Cognitive dissonance awaited him at his very first turn. If we learn from Paul’s other partners in the ministry, we can avoid the same fate by steering clear of any dark road in our minds. If you are a Paul, check the temperature of your troops once in a while. But of all people to cut some slack, it’d be to the irrepressible, indomitable Apostle, and I do.

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Pillars of Society

When you get up in years, when there’s more past than future to ponder, at least for me, I can’t help but wonder if what was done mattered.

There are those in a community who accomplish great things, or give great sums of money, who are remembered. Why? Because they make sure their names have been etched in as many places as possible. They call these people “pillars of society.”

Most of us will never do anything to warrant a special mention. We just come and go. At best, fond memories get passed along by the family, some quest or quirk. Beyond that, the only thing etched with our name on it is in a “gated community” somewhere, modestly hiding in the shadows of someone’s grand monument, who made one last futile attempt to make a statement.

But as a Christian, what goes on down here does matter to God. He’s especially interested in our faithfulness and our keen focus on his return, and on the effective application of our little strength on his behalf. In these actions we will get our new name etched on our own pillar in his new city.

He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will not go out from it anymore; and I will write on him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God, and My new name. Revelation 3:12

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Just Say the Word

Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.” 2 Peter 3:3-4

I read this verse and I can think only of Twitter. In Noah’s day, you could hurl abuse at him only within earshot. Now, you can share your mocking to the world, as long as you can manage to keep it under 280 characters. Sitting courageously at their keyboards or standing alone with their phones, millions “indulge the flesh in its corrupt desires and despise authority.“ They are “daring, self-willed, they do not tremble when they revile angelic majesties.” 2 Peter 2:10

For when they maintain this, it escapes their notice that by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water. 2 Peter 3:5-6

Of course, Peter’s mention of a worldwide flood as judgement for runaway and rampant sin would be immediately scoffed at and ridiculed these days for sure. But it is true, that all things haven’t remained the same since creation. Oh, they don’t believe in creation either. Time for yet another tweet saying how Peter’s out of his [insert expletive here] mind, tacking on something I’m sure about “fairy tales.”

Peter was addressing this vile tendency to mock and scorn in a time of impending doom, warning it only takes one word from God to rain down fire and brimstone in judgement as promised, one word.

But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. 2 Peter 3:7

For now, he’s “patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)

But the point of all this is, he did eventually lose his patience, and he did say “the word.”

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