Finishing School

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass. 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24

We’ve read the entry list of requirements and heard Paul’s behavioral expectations as Christians (1 Thessalonians 5:12-22), and we realize, these are impossible to accomplish in our flesh. We can only get close by meticulous application of the power of the spirit in every aspect of our lives. This challenge can be frustrating and daunting to most. Even Paul expressed exasperation in his famous lament in Romans (7:14-15).

For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.

That’s why I think he concludes his first letter to the Thessalonians this way, with calming hope.

We’re led to believe from reading this epistle that the Rapture of the church is imminent. There are, in fact, three other references to this event in Paul’s letter, verses 2:19, 3:13, and 4:15. Since we are weak in our flesh to pull off all the previous admonitions, we, better I, fear I won’t be found on my best behavior when he summons me to meet him in the air, particularly if I’m driving!

Here’s a doxology that sets things straight. Only the God of peace can perfect me to the point I can be ready to meet him. He sees perfection because of Christ, but we struggle while bound to this earth to master our mind and body. Here’s his promise to make absolutely certain every element of what constitutes me has met the entrance requirements.

We will be sanctified entirely, preserved complete, and without blame at his coming. For he who called us in the first place will bring it to pass, for only he is totally faithful.

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In Conclusion, Part 2–1 Thessalonians 5:14-22

We’ve been told what we are to do as a church with our pastors and leaders (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13), now Paul turns to what we are to do with our brothers and sisters

 14 We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15 See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people. 1 Thessalonians 5: 14

This is not the pastor’s job but ours. We “brethren” are responsible for keeping the unruly (undisciplined) in line. This is not done by berating or belittling, but by cajoling with the Word of God. And let’s not envision someone wildly out of control, but those ever slightly off course.

First, understand that admonishing is a two-way street. Colossians 3:16 tells us we are  to admonish one another. We’re all guilty of some aspect of our life that can use some work. Done right, the body corrects itself with gentle godly reminders and conversations. The same approach works when we encourage and help the fainthearted and weak. Enhanced and directed by the Holy Spirit, this correction process is a beautiful thing, and it executed with patience!

15 See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people. 1 Thessalonians 5:15

Another aspect of the body “policing” itself is how adamant we need to be that vengeance remains in the Lord’s domain. We need to be always suggesting taking the high road. 

 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 5:15-22

Now Paul draws our attention to what we are to do with our Father.

A relationship with God our Father transforms us into a Spirit-filled dynamo! When others are distraught, we rejoice. When others anxiously grope for a way out, we pray. When life deals us a bad hand, we give thanks. Why? This is God’s perfect will for us.

What we don’t do is quench the Spirit. We allow him to flourish within us. We don’t look upon prophecy with disdain. We watch for its fulfillment. In the mean time, we learn from past prophetic utterances that have come true, and by all means, we love the Lord’s appearing! (2 Timothy 4:8)

Finally, we should be a discerning people. Like the Bereans (Acts 17:11), we adjudicate every thought for the presence of good and evil. If true, we cling to it. If evil, we abstain from it.

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In Conclusion, Part 1–1 Thessalonians 5:12-13

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians ends like a fireworks display, with admonitions of all kinds thrown up against a black sky. The Grand Finale if you will. What would the world be—Christiandom for that matter—if these actions were universally and eagerly applied? The Kingdom of God on earth. But it would be nice to get close, and Paul had high aspirations for the Thessalonians, as one would for a gifted child.

But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, 13 and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13

If you’ve been in church long enough, you will have lived through a Pastor War or Worship War or both. Satan tries his best to split the church asunder. A healthy church shows appreciation for its leaders.

Our gut reaction typically is to think why honor someone who gets paid for what he does? The Bible says, however, those who rule well are worthy of double honor. 1 Timothy 5:17

Where you need to be as a default position is honoring, respecting and encouraging those who live in the trenches. Pastoring is sometimes, perhaps most times, thankless. There are many “no win” situations that must be endured. Many who are incorrigible. Much sorrow and death to assuage that we lay people avoid like the plague. Paul knew exactly of which he spoke.

This is all about empathy. Putting one in someone else’s shoes. We want to go the extra mile with our leaders, especially those who put in tireless hours studying the word. The church is offered up so much pablum by so-called pastors these days! It is a blessing to be enriched weekly and sometimes daily by what a Man of God has mined from the word.

Live in peace with one another. 1 Thessalonians 5:13

Paul says to live in peace with one another in the context of remaining under church leadership.  Jesus said, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Mark 9:50 Here the idea is to act as a preservative. In Romans 12:18, Paul says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” Christians worth their salt do all they can do to live in peace in the church and in all walks of life.

In some cases, this may not be possible. But always make sure evil for evil is not returned, and all attempts to do good, and this may include to turn a blind eye for the greater good, are exhausted before dusting off your feet. 1 Thessalonians 5:15

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Ready or Not

1 Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. 2 For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. 3 While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape. 4 But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; 5 for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; 6 so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. 7 For those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night. 8 But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation. 9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5 1-11

The eschatologically-grounded Christian will not be caught off guard. He or she is sober, not somber. Alert, not asleep.

There is much written about end times in the Bible, and much exegeted  by theological stalwarts of the faith. We have no need to wonder what’s in store. We know what, but not when. Granted, there are no shortage of opinions about how it all “pans out” in the end. The pitfalls of full immersion into these topics are becoming lost in the theological weeds, or becoming no earthly good at all.

I’ve been alive long enough to pick up on what preachers normally do with eschatology. They do a practical study in James instead. To me, studying and understanding what is to occur in the latter days is within the grasp of mere mortals. There is no need to eschew the latter chapters of Daniel, or shelve the book of Revelation as too difficult to understand, or tiptoe through the book of 1 Thessalonians.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:18, we’re told to exhort, or beseech one another with the prospect of the Rapture. At the conclusion of our present passage, we are urged to encourage and edify one another with the hope of the salvation that is to come, and I might add, “all the more as we see the day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:25) How can we do these things without dwelling on, to some degree, “prophetic utterances?” Yet we have the tendency to “despise” them! (1 Thessalonians 5:20)

With that off my chest, the sober are alert to the signs of the times, and we intently study them, knowing, however, that we will never know the exact time or hour.

But knowing the exact hour seems different from knowing the “times and epochs.” It does not normally  storm without the formation of dark clouds on the horizon and the retreat of the sun. But in Matthew 16:2-3, Jesus warns us about the wisdom of sign-seeking. Nevertheless, if we learn to confine ourselves to the Bible, as Jesus did with what could be gathered from the story of Jonah, we will not stray into “foolish speculations.” (2 Timothy 2:23)

There has to come a day when the die is, or seems to be, all but cast.

This means that Paul and Peter’s warnings in their final letters about the characteristics of the “last days” are relevant, and an “Ezekiel 38” war with familiar warring factions (Russia, Turkey, Iran, Ethiopia, Libya versus Israel) can be on the table. There has to come a day when the die is, or seems to be, all but cast.

So then, there is a story unfolding before our eyes that is both exciting and terrifying. While we may not be physically present on earth when all is finally revealed, we will surely see it from above, and gloriously participate in the final scene. (Revelation 19:14) Isn’t that exciting!

Knowing all this, we are at the ready, with breastplate of faith and love strapped on, and the helmet of the hope of salvation buckled tight. We are not to be “so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good,” but focused on encouraging and edifying our brothers and sisters in Christ to work out our respective “salvations,” with all that this entails, while there is still time. This is done with fear and trembling! (Philippians 2:1)

Paul’s point in this discussion is that we need to be fully engaged, especially since in an instant we may be in his presence. If not, this message of staying at the plow would not be to exhort one another with the hope of Christ’s imminent return, but about how to endure the terrible storm that is to come, that is the Great Tribulation.

It is interesting to note the personal pronouns in our passage. For example, the use of “they” in the verse below.

While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape. 1 Thessalonians 5:3

As opposed to “us” in verse 9:

For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.

In this case, this is not referring to the wrath foreseen in the Great Tribulation, but the wrath of eternal separation from God, which is far worse. This certain fate for the lost is why we attempt to expand our ranks before Christ returns.

Jude calls the play in verses 22–23.

Have mercy on some, who are doubting; save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh.

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Dad, the Family Pastor

Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the judgments which the Lord your God has commanded me to teach you, that you might do them in the land where you are going over to possess it, so that you and your son and your grandson might fear the Lord your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged. Deuteronomy 6:1-2

How can a father best pastor his family? By praying over the meal? Family devotions? Book reading before bedtime? Commanding church attendance despite a late night out? Not that these “textbook requirements” aren’t effective, but they weren’t for me.

Now with the world turned upside down and the church rendered practically ineffective to minister to kids (at least for the time being), who else is going to keep the ship afloat? Live streaming’s not the answer. How can we expect a naturally “restless” kid to watch and benefit from a church service on TV, when even mom and dad can be distracted?

On top of this, with the world so egregiously and overtly evil, parents must seize the reins anyway before it’s too late. For too long we’ve tended to gravitate to churches that seemed to cover all the bases, and we’ve abdicated our responsibilities to do the heavy lifting when it comes to spiritually teaching our kids. Now the enemy really is at the gate.

What’s more, I’m also seeing even greater stress placed on moms, who have willingly accepted the role of family teacher, who are now in an almost continual “lockdown.” Now we’re asking that they do even more work. This is not to mention those who have to also work to make ends meet, with a whole new set of complications.

I wrote the following six years ago, believe it or not, in a much simpler day. The theme was Deuteronomy 6:4–7.

“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.”

A good dad teaches his family, particularly his children, 24/7. If he opens his eyes there is always a lesson that can be taught from life. Simply noticing nature and crediting the Creator will work. It does not take imagination, just a set of eyes. You see a man in a wheelchair, you tell your kid how Jesus healed the crippled. Most of all you tell him or her that God loves that man. In times of joy–perhaps after a first touchdown–you give glory to God. In times of sadness you spout a psalm of encouragement. How about when you screw up? Don’t say that doesn’t happen on occasion! Then you teach your kids about forgiveness, after you demonstrate how you ask for it!

Most important, though, is to be the keeper of the family’s spiritual journal. Dad, the family pastor frequently accounts for all God’s providential leading of the family, and in the lives of its members. “May we never forget the hand of God!” should be his mantra. You get the idea.

Another thought. More is caught then taught, they say. But what if you live an exemplary life, and also actively teach God’s word in real time in all aspects of life? I may have only led the family in a few purposeful devotions around the dinner table, but my sermons were given more often than not. As a father, you are God’s oracle to attach his greatness and purpose to all that occurs in life. Only then have you–have I–discharged my responsibility.

Oh yes, once you’re finished with your kids, begin again with your grand kids, as long as you draw breath.

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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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