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Series: Paul to the Thessalonians

Paul mosaicWe are finishing up our series on Paul to the Thessalonians today. There is much more we could cover, especially if we went on into 2 Thessalonians, but that will have to wait for another time. As we close, I want us to focus in on a theme that is in the background of 1 Thessalonians and can be easily overlooked. There is a strong contrast here between God’s kingdom and Rome’s; between the empire of God and the empire of Rome.

First a bit of background connected to –

Thessalonica’s devotion to Rome

Culturally, Thessalonica was a Greek city, although it held onto its local Macedonian political traditions and structures. In its religious life it had many different gods that were worshipped, and many temples, priests, and rituals. And this was entirely ordinary outside of Israel. It distinguished itself, however, in its devotion to emperor worship.

Thessalonica had taken the right side in a Roman civil war – siding with Augustus, and was handsomely rewarded for this. It was made a free city. It benefited economically from is close association with Rome. And it enjoyed the Pax Romana – the peace and security that the Empire brought to their region. So their relationship with Rome was important and actively cultivated by its citizens and leaders. It was a very pro-Roman city.

As I said, this was expressed through the cult of Emperor worship, specifically focused on Caesar Augustus. He was deified and worshipped as a god. There was both a statue of him and a temple dedicated to him in Thessalonica at the time Paul was there.

God versus Rome in 1 Thessalonians

This contrast comes out in several key words and phrases:

1. God’s “kingdom” – 2:12. To give it a bit more context, it says, we “charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”

This language of kingdom and empire, was well known in the Roman world. Rome claimed to have the most powerful and glorious kingdom ever. Yet here Paul’s speaks of God’s kingdom; of “his own kingdom and glory.”

2. “The Lord” – 2:19. This was used as a title for Roman emperors, and it is a general description of what they claimed with other terms. They had authority and power and ruled the world.

Paul’s use of this title is rooted in Biblical sources, but it also makes the counterpoint to Caesar clear. It is used often in 1 Thessalonians in reference to a different Lord, the Lord Jesus.

3. “Son” of God – 1:10. The full phrase is, “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son.” (vs. 9-10).

Augustus claimed to be the son of god. His father was Julius Caesar who, after his death was revered as a god. And so Augustus called himself “the son of god” and was worshipped as such in Thessalonica. There are coins that proclaim this, which were minted in Thessalonica at the time of Paul.

But in 1 Thessalonians Jesus is the true Son of God, the Son of the “living and true God,” not of a dead Roman leader.

4. “Good news” – 1:5, or gospel. This word has roots in Scripture, but also in the culture of that day. It was used in reference to Roman emperors to talk of their birth, their ascension to the throne and their good deeds that helped the empire. So for instance one could speak of the good news that Augustus had brought in a new era of peace and security.

This word is used six times in 1 Thessalonians in each case talking about the good news of Jesus, the true Lord and Son of God.

5. “Peace and security” – 5:3. This was a slogan associated with Rome and Caesar Augustus. He ended the civil war and had brought law and order to the region through military might.

Paul critiques this as a false security, for when Jesus returns, while they are saying “peace and security” there will be sudden destruction. That is, the security of Rome will not protect it against the coming judgment of God. True peace and security only come through Jesus, and it will cover the earth when Jesus returns and deals with all evildoers and evil.

6. The “coming” of the Lord – 4:15. The word for coming here was used for the visit of a god, an emperor or some dignitary to a place. The Thessalonians would have known this, since kings and dignitaries would have visited their city. Here it is applied to the coming of Jesus. He is the true emperor and Lord and will come to them.

7. “Meet” – 4:17. The phrase is we “will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” This was a term used for the welcoming committee that goes out to greet a visiting dignitary or emperor and escort them back into the city (Acts 28:15-16). Here it is applied to Christians going up to meet the Lord Jesus in the air when he comes, presumably to escort him to the earth.

One other note from 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4. However you understand the man of lawlessness, he is modeled on a Roman emperor (with Greek rulers also in the background; e.g. Antiochus Epiphanies. For instance the incident in 40 where Caligula tried to place a statue of himself in the Jerusalem temple, not too long before Paul wrote 1 and 2 Thessalonians). The day of the Lord will not come until, “the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.” These are very plausibly the actions of a Roman emperor with their arrogant claims and titles.

Paul’s point

 In all of these contrasts (and there are more) Paul is redefining their political identity in light of Jesus and the kingdom of God. His point is that God’s kingdom, ruled by the Lord Jesus, his Son is the real kingdom. And this is the community that the Thessalonians are now a part of. His point is that God’s gospel about Jesus and the salvation he brings is true salvation. And this is the salvation that the Thessalonians have received.

Rome is simply a parody of God’s kingdom (N.T. Wright). Despite its glory and power it is frail, feeble and flimsy in comparison to God’s kingdom which is eternal in power and glory.

The political implications of Paul’s claims were not lost on his opponents in Thessalonica or on the rulers of the city. This comes out in Acts 17:6-8. His opponents said, “’These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.’ And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things.”

They were disturbed because Paul’s teaching would upset the relationship they had with Rome. None of the Thessalonians wanted to lose their benefits and privileges. And this was certainly a source of the persecution directed at the Thessalonian believers. So they got these political implications and the subversiveness of his message, and they and reacted negatively.

Well, whether you think of it in these terms or not –

We live in an empire . . .

– perhaps the greatest, most powerful, most wealthy one ever. What does Paul’s message to the Thessalonians say to us?

1. Beware of nations or empires that assume a divine status. The more powerful the country, the more the temptation to take on an identity that only belongs to God’s kingdom.

This happens in our country when politicians of all stripes and of all ages apply Christian terms and categories to this nation. For instance calling this country “the light of the world. A city set on a hill (that) cannot be hidden” from Matthew 5:14. Well I’m sorry, but this phrase is already taken! It is talking about the people of God and the kingdom of God, not this country. Or seeing our country as the savior of the world come to unite people of all backgrounds into one under our banners and ideals. Again, this is what the kingdom of God will do as people of all tribes and tongues come to submit to Jesus and honor him.

When we mix Christian faith and our national identity, through what is called civil religion – a very watered down version of Christianity, we always get into trouble, biblically considered. Whatever God’s purpose is for a given country, it is not to be his kingdom. He has already chosen a nation for this – his church! It is arrogant to say that it is otherwise. In fact, it is idolatrous.   Certainly we as Christians should not be so foolish as to take part in this. Rather we need to remember our true, separate identity as members of God’s kingdom:

  • We are “the light of the world. A city set on a hill (that) cannot be hidden” – Matthew 5:14.
  • We are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” – 1 Peter 2:9.
  • “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” – Philippians 3:20.
  • Ours is a nation made up of people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, as Revelation 7:9 says.

Just as Paul worked to transform their political identity, so we need to remember this as well in our situation. Our country is one thing, the kingdom of God is an entirely different and better thing.

2. Beware of looking to your country for salvation. Don’t look to it for your security and peace and for meaning in life. There are a number of ideas and philosophies in our culture that come to us as alternative gospels; that promise us peace and happiness.

Financially there is the gospel of the American dream, of free market capitalism and consumerism where if we just keep buying more and more things we will be happy. This, even though we are taught to pray for daily bread and are to share with the poor.

Militarily there is the good news of peace and security via the US military and intelligence communities, even though such peace and security is only about preserving our lives in this world and we are called to lose our lives in this world in order to gain them in the next.

Politically there is the good news of democratic freedom, which is the equivalent of salvation, and we are to spread this by all means throughout the world. Even though freedom for the Christian is the freedom we have in Christ to serve God and to live under his theocracy.

Personally there is the gospel of autonomy and self-fulfillment; the casting off of restraints so that you can do whatever you want. Even though we will never find our true selves until we find ourselves in Christ by submitting to him.

Don’t look to these false gospels and the idols that they promote. True salvation only comes from God, through our Lord Jesus. And it will only fully come when our Lord comes and we meet him, as Paul told the Thessalonians. This is the good news. This is how we find peace, meaning and blessing.

(For the background material here I benefited most from Ben Witherington’s commentary on 1 Thessalonians)

William Higgins

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Series: Paul to the Thessalonians

Paul mosaic

We are in the fifth and final section of the teaching portion of 1 Thessalonians, which Paul began in chapter 4. And so we have looked at relationships with one another in the church, respecting Christian leaders, living in peace with one another, and helping those who struggle in various ways. We have also looked at relationships with everyone, inside and outside the church. And here Paul taught us not to return harm for harm, but to be patient with all, and to do good to everyone.

Today we look at vs. 16-22, focused on our relationship with God. There are eight statements which are held together by two themes:

– vs. 16-18 have to do with speaking to God in praise and prayer

– vs. 19-22 have to do with God speaking to us by means of prophecy (Ben Witherington)

  Let’s begin with vs. 16-18.

Talking to God: Praise and prayer

 “16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Rejoicing has to do with expressing our joy. This is quite similar to giving thanks (Psalm 97:12; Philippians 1:4; 1 Thessalonians 3:9), which is the expression of appreciation for benefits and blessings. Given that there is a prayer focus here (prayer comes right between them) these expressions of joy and thanks are given to God. I am calling this praise to God.

Now, rejoicing and giving thanks are a kind of prayer, but here Pau distinguishes prayer from these, so the focus in on petitionary prayer, or making our requests known to God.

  The phrase, “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” applies to all three of these things. It is God’s will for us to rejoice, give thanks and offer up our requests to him. God wants us to be in relationship with him; for us to communicate with him our praises and our concerns.

But how can we do these thing always? How can we rejoice always? How can we pray without ceasing?

If we take this literally, it doesn’t make sense. We have to sleep for one thing. But more to the point, you can’t both talk to God and also to someone else – at the same time. Or again, you can’t both rejoice with those who rejoice and also weep with those who weep, as Paul says (Romans 12:15) – at the same time

Rather, Paul is referring here to set times of daily prayer according to the biblical pattern. That is, morning and evening prayers, or perhaps also afternoon prayers. We see this all throughout the Old Testament in the Psalms and in Daniel for instance, as well as in the New Testament. In fact, there is a reference to this in 1 Thessalonians 3:10 – “we pray most earnestly night and day . . ..” This was a common Jewish way of talking about daily prayers in the evening and the morning.

Paul is saying, keep to your daily prayers, continue day and night; morning and evening. Always rejoice by coming before God constantly morning and evening. Unceasingly pray by coming before God morning and evening. And, of course, we can also pray and rejoice as we are able throughout each day. 

But there’s another part to this. Paul is saying keep praying even when things are hard. They were going through persecution, so the message is:

  • Keep on rejoicing, as individuals and as a group, not just when things are good, but when things are hard. This echoes Jesus in Matthew 5:11-12. When you are persecuted “rejoice and be glad.”
  • Keep on praying, as individuals and as a group, not just when things are easy, but when you have difficulty after difficulty. This echoes Jesus in Luke 18:1. “And he told them . . . that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.”

This also fits with v. 18 – give thanks “in all circumstances.” It’s easy to give thanks when things are just fine, but we are also to do this when things are not good – that’s what “in all circumstances” means.

But how can we rejoice and give thanks in bad times? Well, it’s certainly not based on our feelings or that we’re having a good day. It’s based on understanding what God is doing in our lives, and the bigger picture of the hope that we have, which is far greater than whatever temporary suffering we may have in this world. And we can do this because the Holy Spirit within us is the source of our joy (1 Thessalonians 1:6).

Some questions to consider . . . How is your prayer and praise life? Rate yourself:

  • Do you only come to God in an emergency?
  • Do you only pray and give thank on Sundays at church?
  • Do you have a private prayer life?
  • Are you constant in your prayer life?

Paul is teaching us here to be in this last category. Think about it. God spared nothing to be in relationship with us. He created us, bore with us, gave his only Son. But often we make little or no effort to spend time in relationship with God. This helps put things in perspective.

Are you overwhelmed by hard times? Paul calls the Thessalonians not to give up in persecution. And his word to us is don’t lose heart. When you have difficulty after difficulty piling up on you and it seems like praying is useless – keep at it. Press through. God will take care of you.

God talking to us: Prophecy

“19Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise prophecies, 21but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22Keep away from every evil kind.” I want us to look first at what is the key to understanding these verses, prophesy. And so I ask what is prophesy? We have to turn to 1 Corinthians since it is just mentioned here in 1 Thessalonians.

  • It consists of words the Spirit prompts you to say. It is a manifestation of the Spirit, like all spiritual gifts, which in this case comes in words – 1 Corinthians 12:7; 14:12. It might be a word of encouragement, insight or even challenge.
  • It is directed “to people,” in contrast to speaking to God – 1 Corinthians 14:3.
  • It is intended for “their strengthening and encouragement and comfort” – 1 Corinthians 14:3.

So prophecy is simply speaking out a word from the Spirit in your own words. It’s a part of the promise of Joel 2:28-29 that all believers will have the Spirit and prophesy. Although some are classified as prophets since they have a specific ministry in this, God can speak through any of his children to say a word of encouragement, insight or challenge.

Prophecy was a completely normal part of the life of the New Testament church. We see references to it throughout the New Testament. And it happens among us as well – from the pulpit, from Sunday school teachers, in our Sunday school classes and small groups and in our praise time. We don’t call it this necessarily, but it happens.

I wanted to give you a specific example today and so I asked God to give me a word for us today. I have actually already said it as a part of my teaching. If I were to say it as a prophecy in the congregation I would say it like this, “I believe the Spirit is asking us today – God spared nothing to be in relationship with us. So why do we make such little effort to be in relationship with him in prayer?”

Now let’s break down these verses and see how they fit together. “19Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise prophecies.” These two phrases basically say the same thing. For it is the activity of the Spirit that animates prophecy. And so to quench the Spirit is to despise prophecies.

Quench is a fire metaphor. It is when you put out a fire. The Holy Spirit is compared to fire in several places (e.g. Matthew 3:11). And so to quench the Spirit is to suppress or restrain the movement of the Spirit among us.

To despise prophecies is to look down on them, reject them, to treat them with contempt. So both of these phrases are about restricting prophecy.

Why restrict prophecy? The answer is simple – it’s easy to abuse. I have seen this and perhaps you have as well. People can speak out their own opinions as if they were God’s, or mix the two together. People can speak out wrong teaching (see 1 Corinthians 12:3; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2). People can speak out things that come from the flesh, from the world, from the evil one – and not from the Spirit.

  So there is certainly a temptation, perhaps especially by leaders, to suppress it; to look down on it. But Paul’s word to us is don’t quench it or despise it because of abuses, rather the answer is test prophecies (also 1 Corinthians 14:29; 1 John 4:1-3).

He doesn’t’ say anything here about how to do this but certainly testing it against the apostolic message, now written down in the New Testament is foundational (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

Once we test what is said, we are to “hold fast what is good.” That is, receive what is truly from the Spirit. But if it is not of the Spirit we are to “keep away from every evil kind” of prophecy – that is, keep distance from receiving bad or evil prophecies. (Notice the spatial language hold on to the good, keep away from the bad) (Gordon Fee’s discussion of these verses is very helpful).

So any prophecy has to be tested. Any if you want to share I encourage you to test it yourself before you share. It might be a bit embarrassing for me or the Elders to have to correct you in front of the whole group. But I will if necessary.

Some questions to consider . . . Are we OK with people speaking out by the Spirit? (Maybe we are more comfortable when we don’t call it prophecy). We will find out because I want to give you a chance to do this next week during the praise time. Think about this. Can we expect the Spirit to move among us, which is what we pray for and desperately need, but only on our terms and in ways that we dictate? “Oh Spirit come and do your work; give us revival; transform lives among us; bring people into your kingdom. But don’t do anything that we are not comfortable with; don’t use any spiritual gifts; don’t let our routines get messed up. We want you, but only on our terms.” Do you think God hears this prayer?

Finally, do you quench the Spirit in other ways? Do you restrain the work of the Spirit in ways beyond the topic of prophecy. When the Spirit speaks to you, but you don’t like what you are hearing – do you suppress the Spirit? When the Spirit seeks to lead you but you don’t want to go – do you quench the Spirit?

I will tell you plainly – we need the renewal and transformation of the Spirit among us as individuals and as a congregation. But we will only receive this when we open ourselves up fully to the Spirit – no strings attached.

William Higgins

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Relationships within the church:

a. With leaders We ask you, brothers and sisters,to acknowledge those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.

b. With each other – Be at peace among yourselves.

a1. With those who struggle And we urge you, brothers and sisters, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak.

Relationships with all:

Be patient toward all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.

 Relationship with God:

a. Talking to God: Praise and prayer – Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

a1. God talking to us: Prophecy Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything.Hold fast what is good. Keep away from every evil kind

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In vs. 15-22 there are numerous references to “all” or “always” (bold/italics). In vs. 16-22 the verbs all come at the end (underlined). This is a more literal translation.

Relationships with all:

15Be patient toward all.

See that no one repays anyone evil for evil,

but alwaysseek to do good to one another and to all.

Relationship with God:

16Always rejoice

17Unceasingly pray

18In all things give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

19The Spirit do not quench

20Prophecies do not reject

21but all things test

The good hold fast

22From every evil kind keep away

(The word πας is used 5 times – v. 15 twice, v. 18, v. 21, v. 22; the word παντοτε, which is from the root word πας is used 2 times – v. 15, v. 16; the word αδιαλειπτοως is used one time – v. 17)

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Talking to God: Praise and prayer

A.  Rejoice always

B. pray without ceasing

A1. give thanks in all circumstances

– for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you

God talking to us: Prophecy

C. Do not quench the Spirit/Do not despise prophecies

D. but test everything

C1. Hold fast what is good/Keep away from every evil kind

_________________________

A and A1, rejoicing and giving thanks are quite similar. The final phrase “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” qualifies all three statements. C consists of two synonymous parallels. C1 consists of two antithetical parallels.

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Series: Paul to the Thessalonians

We have begun unpacking the last set of instructions that Paul gives in 1 Thessalonians 5. And we saw how these various commands are held together by several themes. Last week the theme was relationships with one another in the church – with leaders, with each other and with those who struggle in various ways.

Today, in vs. 14c-15, the theme is relationships with everyone, those within and outside the church. Let’s read our passage together – “Be patient toward all. See that no one repays anyone harm for harm, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.” As we will see these verses deal with how to respond when you are wronged.

By way of  background to this let me make two points. First –

They were being persecuted

You remember that Paul had to leave Thessalonica before he wanted to because an angry mob chased him out of town. And even after Paul left, the Thessalonians continued to suffer for their faith.

Paul tells them in the letter:

  • “You received the word in much affliction” – 1:6
  • “You suffered” – 2:14
  • Paul was concerned that “no one be moved by these afflictions” – 3:3 – that is, give up.
  • “For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know” – 3:4

Certainly they suffered rejection by family and friends. Perhaps they were completely cut off, or maybe just looked down on. They would have been rejected by larger society since they no longer worshiped idols, or glorified Rome. So they would have been accused of not being good citizens; traitors; misfits. They would have been insulted. There would have been economic consequences, perhaps the loss of business or a job. They may have been harassed, as we see in Acts 17 – intimidation or perhaps some were wrongfully arrested.

There’s no indication that anyone had been killed at this point, but they were involved in a serious struggle and were being wronged by non-Christians regularly. But also –

Some were wronged by fellow believers

We don’t know all that went on, but two issues are mentioned in the letter. In chapter 4:6 some were wronged through sexual misconduct. And Paul addresses this by instructing them, “that no one transgress and wrong his brother or sister in this matter.” He is most likely concerned over an issue of adultery.

In chapter 4:11-12 some were being taken advantage of. They were giving generously, but those that received it didn’t get busy working but became busybodies.

With this background in place then, we have –

Paul’s instructions

“14cBe patient toward all.” (some translations add “them” connecting it to the previous commands, but this word is not in the original). Patience here means long suffering, which means you can suffer for a long time. It really has to do with the capacity to control one’s anger; being long-tempered vs. short tempered. So the issue here is that when you are wronged, you don’t give in to anger and strike out.

When Paul says be patient with “all,” this would apply to either situation, persecution by unbelievers or wrongs by fellow believers.

15See that no one repays anyone harm for harm . . .” (Some translations have “evil for evil.” But the better translation is “harm for harm” or “wrong for wrong.” The first gives the impression that as long as you don’t do anything that is morally evil to someone, or as long as you are getting back at them legally it is fine. But Paul is concerned here with payback of any kind. It is another way of saying ‘and eye for an eye.’) We know how this works, you do me wrong, and I will do you wrong; you harm me, and I will harm you. This is talking about retaliation or vengeance.

In the Old Testament this was expressed by the phrase ‘an eye for an eye.’ Moses allowed this, although the intention was to limit retaliation. That is, instead of unlimited vengeance, now it had to be a proportionate response, only what is comparable to the wrong done to you. You destroy my eye, I get to destroy yours, not kill you.

In Proverbs we begin to see some qualification of this eye for an eye, harm for harm teaching. “Do not say, ‘I will do to him as he has done to me; I will pay the man back for what he has done.’” – Proverbs 24:29 (also 20:22)

It is Jesus, however, who decisively teaches us to set aside all retaliation. He moves things further in the same direction as Moses, but this time from limited retaliation – to no retaliation.

  • In Matthew 5:38-39 he moves beyond ‘an eye for an eye’ (talking about how we should not repay oppression by rebellion)
  • And in Matthew 5:43-44 he teaches us not to respond in kind to our enemies – those who harm us.

And Paul is sharing this teaching of Jesus with the Thessalonians.

He goes on to say, “. . . but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.” The message is not just don’t return harm. Congratulations, you’re done. We are to seek to return good for harm.

This is also anticipated in Proverbs, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink . . .” – Proverbs 25:21.

However, once again, it is Jesus who decisively teaches us to return good for harm. Luke 6:27-28 – “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” This counterintuitive logic goes against our anger; our flesh. We want to retaliate and we want to go beyond and eye for an eye. But Jesus says, give love for harm, good for hate, blessings for curses, prayer for mistreatment.

Now let’s step back and look at the passage as a whole and I want to make two points. Let’s read our passage again “Be patient toward all. See that no one repays anyone harm for harm, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.”

First, there are three steps in these verses:

1. Keep your anger under control. This is the long suffering part. You can’t do anything else until you do this.

2. Don’t return harm for harm, refrain from this and instead –

3. Seek to do good to them

Second, this teaching has no limitation:

  • All Christians are to live by this teaching: “no one” is to repay harm for harm. There are no exceptions.
  • We are to treat all people this way: Be patient toward “all”; there is to be no harm for harm to “anyone”; we are to do good “to one another and to all.” There are no exceptions.
  • And we are to do this “always” – in all circumstances and at all times. There are no exceptions.

This teaching is found throughout the New Testament

We have already seen this in 1 Thessalonians 5 and also Matthew 5 and Luke 6. Listen to the various ways it is stated elsewhere:

  • Romans 12:14 – “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”
  • Romans 12:17 – “Repay no one harm for harm, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.”
  • Romans 12:19-20 – “Beloved, never avenge yourselves . . . To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink . . .’”
  • Romans 12:21 – “Do not be overcome by evil (so that you fall into the pattern of harm for harm), but overcome evil with good (that is, return good for evil).
  • 1 Corinthians 4:12-13 – Paul says, “When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly.” (NIV)
  • 1 Peter 3:9 – “Do not repay harm with harm, or insult with insult, on the contrary, repay with blessing . . .” (NIV modified)

So this is both distinctive to Christianity, rooted in Jesus’ teaching and is absolutely foundational to how we are to act toward others. And if we ask the question –

Why is this so central to Christianity?

It’s an expression in our lives – our words and actions, of the truth of the gospel. God was long suffering and patient with us when we were his enemies; when we wronged him. God didn’t return harm for harm to us, otherwise we would have been destroyed. Rather God gave us good for evil. He gave his Son to die for us, though we did not deserve it. He has given us love and grace and blessing, in return for our sin and rebellion.

And what we have received from God, is what we are to give to others. Those who receive grace from God must give grace to others (Matthew 18). That’s why we return good for harm, love for hate, blessing for insults.

Let me end by saying –

This is really hard to do . . .

Let’s say someone insults you. It’s hard not to give into anger; to be longsuffering. It’s hard not to payback, even beyond an eye for an eye, much less respond with a blessing. Or if someone tries to hurt someone you love. And you restrain him. Well, this isn’t harm for harm. But once you do this, do you give in to anger and beat him in retaliation? In both of the cases we need grace from God to overcome our anger.

Let’s say someone steals something from you. Well, there’s anger. But then there is also the question of whether or how to use the legal system, which is by and large about an eye for an eye. We ought not use the legal system to return harm for harm for us. But sometimes seeking what is good for your enemy might well include them going through the criminal justice system. It depends on the circumstances . . .. And for our part what our motivation and purpose is. And so it’s difficult to make these kinds of decisions. We need wisdom from God.

Let’s say someone harms our country and there is a war. And let’s say you overcome your anger. Even so, it’s still hard. When everyone is stirred up and waving the flag and saying, let’s get them back, let’s kill our enemies – it’s hard to go against the stream to do what Jesus teaches and models for us. It’s hard to do what Paul teaches us here – to always to good to all. We need courage from God to stay true to Jesus.

Let’s say someone at church breaks a confidence. This person tells a bunch of people your deepest, maybe even most shameful secret. How do you respond? Will you gossip about them? Or, remembering how God has treated you will you find love and grace to respond by returning good for evil?

Perhaps you are in a situation where you have been wronged. I want to pray for you this morning – for God to help you, to give you grace to overcome your anger, wisdom to know how to return good for evil and the courage to do this even when everyone else thinks it is stupid.

William Higgins 

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 Series: Paul to the Thessalonians

We are coming near to the end of 1 Thessalonians and today we launch into Paul’s final section of instructions to them. He has already dealt with:

  • Sex, or how we are to control our own bodies in holiness and honor.
  • Mutual love, or how we should give generously to the needs of others. And how we ought not take advantage of such generosity to become idle busybodies.
  • The resurrection of the righteous and how the dead in Christ will not be left out, but will come with Jesus when he returns to be resurrected.
  • And then last week was the day of the Lord, that is, the judgment that will come upon the world when Jesus returns. And how for those who are ready for his coming it will be a day of deliverance and salvation.

Let’s take just a moment to look at this last set of instructions –

 Overview of 5:12-22

These verses might seem like a grab bag of instructions, with no rhyme or reason, short sentences on numerous different topics, but this isn’t true. For instance our verses today, 12-14b, have to do with relationships within the church:

A. With leaders – We ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.

B. With each other – Be at peace among yourselves.

A1. With those who struggle – And we urge you, brothers and sisters, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak.

The rest of the material, also has an order to it:

  • Relationships with everyone (including outsiders) vs. 14c-15. We are to be patient with all and do good to all.
  • Relationship with God: vs. 17-22, talking about praise and prayer, and prophecy in the congregation.

Let’s look now at our verses, where Paul addresses three sets of relationships within the church. He tells us first of all to –

Respect Christian leaders

“12We ask you, brothers and sisters to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.”

Paul is talking here about those who were functioning as elders among them. (Perhaps better proto-elders since the church is so new. These were likely leaders of households, who had leadership experience and who were also devoted to the cause of Christ. We even have a name for one of them – Jason, as we read in Acts 17:5. The use of plurals shows that there are several leaders in Thessalonica.)

And we have in these verses a good description of what Christian leaders or elders do.

  • They “labor among you.” This word “labor” means hard work or toil. It is often used by Paul for the work of ministry (1 Corinthians 15:10; 16:16; Romans 16:12; Colossians 1:29).
  • They are “over you in the Lord.” The word here can be translated as “rule, lead or manage you,” or also as “cares for you” or “gives aid to you.” These dual meanings present a nice description of the role of a shepherd, one who leads and also cares for those in their charge. “In the Lord” means they are leaders in the Christian community.
  • They “admonish you,” which has to do with teaching, correcting and warning when someone is on a wrong path.

  It’s easy for there to be tension between leaders and church members.

– Leaders make decisions, all of which are not popular.

– Leaders give direction, which not all will agree with.

– Leaders have authority, and not all like it that some have authority.

– Leaders teach and even correct, and this can make some mad.

 And, of course, there are many stories of grumbling and the undermining of leadership in the Old Testament.

There isn’t any indication of tension in Thessalonica. It’s just that Paul knows these things can happen, and so Paul deals with this forthrightly. As church members they are to “acknowledge,” or it can be translated, “respect” their leaders. They are to acknowledge their leadership and position of authority. And they are to “esteem them very highly” – to think highly of, or hold them in the highest regard. 

Why? Not because of their personality, their social status, or wealth, or worldly accomplishments. The reason is “because of their work” laboring in the Christian community. And this is to be done “in love.” Not as a tedious  obligation, but based on Christian love between believers in Christ.

So Paul give us instructions for relating rightly to Christian leaders. And, of course, this applies to me as well, since I am a part of an elder group here, and I also have leaders over me on the Conference level.

But let me ask, how is your relationship with your Christian leaders? And yes, I mean at Cedar Street. Is it governed by what Paul says here?

For my part, I would say, if you have concerns you can always talk to me or the Elders. And then we can work at whatever issues concern you. And remember, we cannot always tell when someone has a concern – so please communicate! Maintain good relationships with your leaders here.

Second, Paul tells us to –

Live in peace with one another

As Paul puts it here in v. 13 – “Be at peace among yourselves” as fellow church members. This same admonition can be found in different forms in lots of places in the New Testament. Here are some other examples from Paul:

  • Romans 12:16 – “Live in harmony with one another.
  • Romans 14:19 – “let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual up-building.
  • Colossians 3:15 – “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body.”
  • 2 Corinthians 13:11 – “live in peace”

Just as there can be tension between members and leaders, so there can be tension between members. We can easily offend or hurt one another. And this leads to several temptations. One is to be angry and break off the relationship. Another is to withdraw and be hurt within. And another is to sweep things under the rug and pretend that everything is OK (because you know that you are supposed to live in peace with one another).

But Paul is saying, actually have wholesome, healthy and good relationships with each other. I use this language, because the biblical idea of peace means wholeness and well-being, not just absence of conflict. So this means we have to deal with issues that arise in good and Christian ways. We must deal with hurts, disagreements and conflicts as they come up. Paul is saying maintain your relationships with one another.

Are you living in peace with your fellow believers? Think about this for a moment. Who do you not have peace with? Let me encourage you to act on Paul’s words this morning. Work toward peace with that person. In a spirit of love and forgiveness, seek healing in the relationship.

Finally, Paul tells us to –

Help those who struggle

“14And we urge you, brothers and sisters, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak.” Now although this verse may seem to be particularly directed to leaders, in terms of what they do, it is really directed to the whole congregation. All are to be involved in these activities.

  • Admonish the disruptive idle. As we saw in chapter 4:11-12 some were not working but were living off of the generosity of others. And since they didn’t work, they became busybodies getting into the affairs of others and being disruptive of the community. The Thessalonians are to teach, correct and warn these because they are out of line. (We have Paul’s example in chapter 4:11-12 – “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs and to work with your hands . . . and be dependent on no one.” He is even more direct and blunt in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 – recommending church discipline for those who don’t listen.)
  • Encourage the fainthearted, those who are worried, discouraged, fearful and in danger of giving up. Paul has already told them to encourage those who are grieving excessively those who have died (4:13) and those who have excessive fear of the day of the Lord (5:11). And certainly given their persecution, life would have been difficult – social rejection and economic difficulties because of their faith. Whatever the reason, they are to encourage them to be strong, to not give up, to keep moving forward!
  • Help the weak. This is very broad. It could be physical weakness, social or economic weakness or spiritual weakness. Whatever the case, they are to help their brothers and sisters in the Lord in whatever way possible. They are to give of their strength to strengthen them.

Let me ask you, do you help those who struggle among us? We too are to admonish those who are on the wrong path, whatever that might be. We are to help them by teaching and warning them.

We too are to encourage the fainthearted. Do you keep an eye out for those who are down or discouraged to lift them up and help them move forward?

Do you help the weak among us?

Let me end by saying that this passage reminds us once again of the importance of our relationships with each other in the church. Today Paul gives us strong encouragements to tend to our relationships and to keep them healthy, whole and functioning – with our leaders, with each other and with those who struggle. May God give us the courage and the wisdom to do just this.

(The teaching of Jesus found in Mark 9:33-50 is most likely being alluded to in these verses. Jesus talks about those who are the greatest – the 12, the leaders. Their work is to humbly serve even the lowest among them. And he also talks about “little ones” with a concern about their stumbling and being lost. These need special care. And it ends with the command to be at peace with one another – Mark 9:50.)

 William Higgins

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