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Series: Paul to the Thessalonians

Today in our series on Paul to the Thessalonians we are up to 1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:13. As we work our way through this passage, I want us to pay attention to the love that we see demonstrated in Paul for these believers. We can really see his heart for those he ministered to.

But first let’s remember together –

The story after Paul had to leave

  • Because of persecution Paul and team were sent away by the new church – Acts 17:10
  • They went to Berea and ministered there – Acts 17:10-12
  • But some opponents from Thessalonica came to Berea and stirred up trouble – Acts 17:13-14
  • The believers sent Paul off to Athens, but Silas and Timothy stayed behind – Acts 17:14-15
  • Paul ministered in Athens, speaking at the Areopagus– Acts 17:16-34
  • Silas and Timothy came to Paul in Athens – 1 Thessalonians 3:1
  • Paul sent Timothy back to check on the Thessalonians – 1 Thessalonians 3:2, 5 (possibly Silas was sent somewhere in Macedonia as well – Acts 18:5)
  • Paul went on to Corinth and began ministering there – Acts 18:1
  • Silas and Timothy met up with Paul in Corinth – Acts 18:5
  • Paul heard Timothy’s report concerning the Thessalonians – 1 Thessalonians 3:6

This is when Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians in response to this and almost certainly sent it back by means of Timothy.

With this background in mind, let’s look at our verses.

Paul’s desire to see the Thessalonians

1. He tried to visit. “17But since we were torn away from you, brothers and sisters, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, 18because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us.”

Paul is saying, ‘Hey, it’s not for lack of trying that we haven’t come back.’ The reason is that Satan hindered us. This may refer to synagogue opposition, or restrictions put on Paul by the authorities in Thessalonica, or maybe that he was too sick to travel that far. But he tried several times.

“19For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20For you are our glory and joy.” Here he assures them that his not being able to come is no reflection on his concern for them. They are his crown of boasting, that is, his victory wreath that will be made know when Jesus returns. He says, “you are our glory and joy.”

2. Paul sent Timothy to check on them.  “1Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, 2and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, 3that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. 4For 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. 5For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain.”

Paul was really in anguish not knowing how they were doing as new believers under persecution (for Paul’s anxiety for his converts see also 2 Corinthians 11:28-29).

His concern was that they would give up their faith (the phrase “your faith” is used five times in this passage). He is concerned that they would be “moved by these afflictions;” that “the tempter had tempted them” so that they no longer had faith in Jesus.

So he says twice that when he could bear it no longer (3:1, 5) he sent Timothy to check on them, even though it meant he was left alone (3:1). It’s likely that if the obstacle was opposition in Thessalonica Paul would have been immediately recognized, but Timothy was not such a public figure. Timothy’s mission was to check on their faith and “to establish and exhort them.”

Just a note on suffering. Paul says, “we are destined . . . to suffer affliction” – 3:3-4. This is something that he taught them ahead of time. How different is so much teaching in America, where the gospel is all about self-fulfillment and prosperity. Something to think about.

3. Timothy’s report to Paul in Corinth. Just as you can feel the anguish of Paul in the verses before this, so here you can feel the relief he had after hearing Timothy’s good report.

“6But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you— 7for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. 8For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. 9For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, 10as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?”

Timothy reported that they had not abandoned their faith, nor their love for Paul. Paul’s response to this is overflowing thanksgiving to God joy and great comfort.

Our passage ends with 4. A prayer to see them. “11Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, 12and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, 13so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”

His prayer to see them was eventually answered as we see in Acts 20:1-2.

He also prays for much of what he will be talking about in the next two chapters: love for others, holiness, and Jesus’ return.

Now we turn to our focus –

Paul’s love for the Thessalonians

This is clear in several places in this letter, but especially out text.

1. He has affection for them. 2:17 – he talks about being “torn away from you” but “not in heart.” 2:8 – he says you are “very dear to us.”

2. He wants to be with them. 2:17 – “we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face.” 3:6 – “we long to see you.”

3. He wants to know what is going on with them. 3:5 – “I sent to learn about your faith.” 3:5 -“when I could bear it no longer” that is, not knowing, he sent Timothy.

4. He is concerned for their well-being. 3:3 – “that no one be moved by these afflictions.” 3:5 – he speaks of his “fear that somehow the tempter had tempted” them and their faith was now gone. 3:8 – when he heard good news he said “for now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord.”

5. He wants to help them. 3:2 – “to establish and exhort you in your faith.” 3:10 – to “supply what is lacking in your faith.”

6. He takes joy in them. 2:20 – “for you are our glory and joy.” 3:9 – “for what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God.”

7. He prays for them as we see in vs. 11-13.

How is your love?

In his prayer Paul prays, “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love as we do for you” – v. 12. Notice the last phrase – “as we do for you.” Paul uses his expression of love for them as an example for what God might do in them. And in the same way, this morning I want to use Paul’s expression of love to challenge us to grow more and more in our love for others.

Let’s look at this in several areas:

1. Paul was in a relationship with them as one who ministered to them. So we can ask – How is your love for those you minister to? Think for a moment about who you do minister to. Maybe it is a Sunday school class, or a friend going through a hard time, or sharing your faith with someone. Do you:

–         Have affection for them?

–         Want to be with them?

–         Want to know what is going on with them?

–         Have concern for their well-being?

–         Help them?

–         Take joy in them?

–         Pray for them?

2.  Paul relates to them as a parent because he brought them to faith. In 2:17 he likens himself to a nursing mother who is gentle. In 2:11 he likens himself to a father in his exhorting them. So we can ask, as parents or grandparents – how is your love for your children? Do you:

–         Have affection for them?

–         Want to be with them?

–         Want to know what is going on with them?

–         Have concern for their well-being?

–         Help them?

–         Take joy in them?

–         Pray for them?

3. Paul uses “brother/sister” language to speak of them as fellow Christians. So we can ask how is your love for one another in our congregation?

–         Do you have affection for them? Do you show concern?

–         Do you want to be with them? Do you miss them when they don’t come to church for a while? Do you have time in your busy schedule to spend time with them to build relationship?

–         Do you want to know what is going on with them? Do you check in on them?

–         Do you have concern for their well-being?

–         Do you help them? Do you even know what their needs are?

–         Do you take joy in them? Do you rejoice in their growth in faith?

–         Do you pray for them earnestly?

How does your love measure up? Do you need to increase and about in love more? May God challenge each of us to grow and increase in our love – just as we see in the example of Paul’s love for the Thessalonians.

William Higgins

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Alright, we have been looking at the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6. And last week we covered the section on Dealing with Enemies. Jesus teaches us here to love our enemies. He tells us, just as you want what is good, so give good to others – whether they deserve it or not.

He also told us that living by ‘an eye for an eye’ gets you no reward, for even sinners do this. But living by love for enemies gets you great reward. That’s because the heavenly Father loves his enemies. And since, ‘like father like son,’ you show yourself to be a son of his, that is, an inheritor of his blessings.

Last week I needed to spend the whole time working with the text trying to lay out what it means. So this week I want to get more into some of the practical realities of loving enemies. I want to do something a little different and tell you some stories and then draw out some lessons I have learned.

Our hostile neighbors

We had been in our house for several years when new people moved in behind us. We lived on a flag lot, so the neighbor’s  property was surrounded by our house and other church property. As soon as they moved in they started making claims that a part of our driveway was actually their land. And it got worse from there.

We had a tree on the border that needed to come down. A part of it had fallen onto our house the last winter in an ice storm and it was diseased. So we told them, but they became hostile. They wanted the tree to stay. In fact, they claimed it was on their land, along with a part of our backyard.

He had anger issues, to say the least. He also liked his alcohol which made things worse. A police man who was later involved in an incident called him “Mr. Testosterone.” He was abusive and a bully. And if anything, I thought she was worse. At one point she was hanging over the fence, taunting and insulting me and the church as I worked in my backyard.

Anyway, I had a trustee over for dinner and told him about all this since our house was owned by the church at this time. I had to go talk to the neighbor about some issues, so we both went over to his house. He went nuts. I was nose to nose with him, kind of looking down on him because I was taller. And he was just screaming and threatening. My trustee and I calmly walked away.

At another point, when I wasn’t home, my wife engaged him about the tree and at that point, full of alcohol, he threatened to shoot her in the head. That’s when the police were brought in to try to talk some sense into him.

Well after the lawyers were brought in an agreement was made whereby the tree would come down and the church would survey the border and put up a fence (which we wanted).

I have to admit it was funny. After the surveyor was done I happened to see the neighbor wife come out to see where the  stake was put. She was standing on it looking out beyond it into our yard, thinking it was hers. But, of course it wasn’t. The border was pretty much right where we thought it was.

It was also sad in a way. The truth is that they had two structures that were too close to the border, without a variance. Although we never required it, it was a bit surreal to see him one day with a chainsaw cutting a part of an overhang off of his house – about four by twelve feet, because it was too close to our driveway.

#1. It’s really hard to love enemies. It doesn’t come naturally. When someone harms me, especially if there’s no cause, I get angry (not as much as I used to thankfully). And there is a part of me that wants to strike back – harm for harm. I want to show them how wrong they were and have them feel some of what they gave to me. So for me, to love enemies requires God to be working in me. Because there is nothing in my flesh that wants to do this. And I am guessing that this is true of most, if not all of you.

#2. If we want to overcome evil with good we have to deal with our anger. Romans 12:21 says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” We are not to let someone’s evil deeds to us, change us so that we do the same thing back to them. That’s what it means to be overcome by evil. Rather we are to overcome evil with good, by returning good for evil.

So all through out this (it went on for months) I had to learn to give my anger over to God. Otherwise I would have been right there with him ‘in the flesh’ screaming and threatening and worse. I had to trust that God would take care of the wrong that was done to me.

What I learned is that when you do this, and I had to do it daily there for a while, it frees you up to focus on doing good and being Christ-like, which is our job as Christians. Instead of focusing on getting even, I could give mercy.

This was a good thing because I learned later that after provoking previous neighbors he had tried to sue them for their responses.

#3. Loving enemies is different than nonresistance. I remember that some in the congregation said that if the neighbor wanted a part of the backyard, it should be given to him, under the idea that we are not to resist the evildoer, but yield and even give more than he asks. This didn’t seem right to me. And, of course, in this case he would have asked for the whole property.

So I really began to struggle with these texts. What do they mean in this situation? What I came to over the next few years was a clearer understanding, I believe, of the context of nonresistance – as I said last week. It has to do with enemies who are also authorities.

And so what should guide my behavior in this kind of a situation is simply the command to love and do good and to pray for my neighbor, which I did.

And also, if love is the standard, not nonresistance, then I have a great deal more freedom in how I respond to my neighbor. As long as I also act with love toward him.

#4. God can intervene on our behalf. Romans 12:19 says, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” God can and does act for us many times even now, when we refrain from acting ourselves in the flesh to get even.

I believe this happened in this case. First of all the neighbors moved away not long after the tree came down. And then I heard from a former friend of his that he had a stroke that paralyzed one side of his face. And his doctor told him he needed to calm down for his own health’s sake. We found out that he had moved from house to house fixing them up and selling them, and also harassing neighbors wherever he went. We certainly hoped that this would put a stop to it.

A story about Fred

(I have changed some things in this story to hide “Fred’s” identity).

I met Fred in church one day. We hit it off pretty good and he was interested in the Bible and identified himself as a Christian. His was a sad story – mental illness and time in jail.

Later Fred became angry with the church, and he focused his anger on me and one other person in the church. His demeanor changed, like he was a different person. As I understand it, he was off his medications.

Once he came to the door of my house and was pounding on it – obviously angry. I decided to go out and talk with him, but locked the door behind me. He was making various threats. Stacey was inside and she decided it was time to get the police involved. We had talked about this before as an option.

Another time he showed up at church during Sunday school, high, playing with a knife he had brought along in a menacing way. My goal was to get him away from the church, so I asked him if he wanted to go for a ride and talk. And so we did. I drove him far away and then dropped him off near a family member’s home.

#5. Love and harm are not always a contradiction. I believe that what Jesus forbids to us is non-redemptive harm. This has to do with revenge, retribution, pay back or an eye for an eye. It’s ‘non-redemptive’ because it is meant only to hurt and punish.

Redemptive harm, by contrast, has to do with causing harm to the person for their greater good, or at least with their best interests in mind. This could be called tough love. I always use the example of a doctor that amputates a leg to save a life. This is different than someone who just cuts off your leg!

In this case we called the police. My aim was to get him a psychological evaluation and hopefully get him back on his meds. That isn’t what happened – they just held him for 24 hours. But even then, the situation was stopped. And if he had physically assaulted me I would have sought to restrain him, even if it meant causing him pain.

#6. You can trust God with your life. Matthew 10:29-31 says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Based on this, this is what I believe: If I’m walking in God’s way, I’m not going to die unless God allows it. If I have someone with a knife at church or threatening me at home – I know that it’s not up to them if I live or am hurt. It is up to my Father in heaven. This frees you up to say and do what you need to, to address this situation.

#7. Love will never let me kill someone. This was certainly true with Fred or my neighbor. No matter what they did, I would not be able to do this because I am called to love them.

But this is also why I teach that Christians should not participate in war. There are many issues involved in this, of course, but for me only one is decisive. If love means what the Bible says it means – to give good to others, and I am supposed to love everyone including my enemies, then how can I kill someone and still be faithful to Jesus? How can I both destroy someone and love them at the same time? Even if the government tells me to, I have to refuse. Because as Peter said, “we must obey God rather than men” – Acts 5:29.

#8. Always be open to reconciliation. Luke 17:3 says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” We became good neighbors with the former friend of our hostile neighbors, even though he was there standing by as threats were made against us.

Also, Fred and I did reconcile. His anger subsided and he apologized. I didn’t see him as much, but talked to him from time to time when he stopped by the church. Last I heard he was doing better and I am grateful for that.

Finally, and not connected to these stories – #9. This teaching isn’t just for “enemies.” Several of you mentioned after last week’s message that you weren’t sure who your enemies are today. In general an enemy is anyone who harms you or tries to harm you.

But even beyond this sometimes it is our spouse who does something that hurts us, or a child, or a friend or a church member. But we would not say they are “enemies.” So in some cases it is best to drop the word enemy, but still apply this teaching.

In these situations as well, don’t respond in kind. Always give what is loving and good to the other – whether they deserve it or not.

  • When your  spouse says something hurtful, don’t simply say something hurtful back. Seek to return good. Deal with the issue in a kind way.
  • When your child is misbehaving, don’t discipline them in anger as payback. Give them something good – loving discipline.
  • When someone cuts you off on the road, don’t transform into a vigilante. Return good and be kind.

It’s natural to highlight more dramatic examples when we talk about returning good for evil. But these more common examples may well be harder to live out – day in and day out.

William Higgins

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Last week we began to look at the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” from the story of Cain and Abel. And we saw how even though Cain asked it to try to avoid any responsibility for his brother, the question actually has to be answered with a “yes.” Cain did have a responsibility to his brother. And as well, we all have responsibilities to our brothers and sisters, and neighbors.

We also spent a good deal of time looking at Scriptures that show that we are to care for and help our neighbor – especially those who are weak and in need.

Well today, I want us to look at a specific example of suffering and need, one that has been on my daughter’s heart for several years now. And then we will look at some ways to respond.

Marie: Darfur comprises the three westernmost regions of Sudan, the largest country in Africa. 99% of the population is Muslim and most speak Arabic. They are mostly rural farmers. The people of Darfur have been marginalized since Sudanese independence in 1956 when power was given to the northern Arab elites. They deliberately tried to keep Darfuris out of school. There were no hospitals, roads, schools or economic systems in place. They had no political representation, and were left poverty-stricken.

Omar al-Bashir, the dictator of Sudan has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for 7 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity and 3 counts of genocide and extermination.

In 2003 rebel groups from Darfur attacked the capital, Khartoum. After some successful attacks in spring of 2003 the government responded by killing the Darfuris. They hired an Arab militia called the Janjaweed which literally translates to “devils on horseback.” The government gives them uniforms, money, arms, plunder, livestock, land and impunity. They even let criminals out of jail and pay them to burn villages and slaughter their fellow  countrymen.

There are many different forms of oppression there. They suffer starvation because their crops and livestock are burned. The government poisons their water supplies by stuffing dead bodies down their wells. The government denies access to humanitarian aid and even kicked out 13 of the major groups last spring. The militias and the government adhere to a scorched-earth policy in Darfur. Women and girls are forced to get water and firewood for cooking, but then face the risk of being raped. If the men go, they will be killed so the “better alternative” is having the women go since they only get raped. Government planes bomb their own peoples’ villages. Then once the survivors flee to a refugee camp, they are bombed there as well. The Darfuris suffer abductions, torture and murder. Facial mutilations are also common by other terrorist militias that haunt Darfur.

The dead are estimated to be between 400,000 and 600,000 and 2.7 million people have been displaced thus far. These results are devastating especially considering that Darfur only has a population of 6 million.

Now there are so many situations in the world and, no doubt, others of you would focus on a different one, because God has put that on your heart. But this gives us an example to work with. And I think it will help us to see what we can do with a tragedy that is far away from us. You know, when it’s in your neighborhood you can just roll up your sleeves and get to work. But so often the need is an ocean away.

There are certainly ways to work at this through earthly political mechanisms. That is, trying to get the United States government, the United Nations or the African Union to act to address Darfur. But this isn’t what I want to talk about. If you want to learn more about this you can find ample resources on the internet.

My purpose is to help us see what we can do precisely as Christians, with the resources of the kingdom of God to help those in Darfur; to be our brother and sister’s keeper.

1. Pray for God to act

We know that, “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.” – Psalm 103:6. And “The Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and will execute justice for the needy.” – Psalm 140:12.

And so we should call on God to be true to his nature and intervene to bring the suffering to an end. Remembering that “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” – James 5:16.

Here are some things to pray for in Darfur:

1. For the evildoers, both individuals and governmental powers, to be put down; that is to lose their power to harm and kill.

2. For resources to meet the material needs of those who are suffering and the refugees.

3. For peace and healing for the many who are broken and traumatized by this war. Even if the war were to end today the effects would go on for decades. And there will be great need for work at healing.

2. Help to relieve suffering

Now, God might well call some of us to go and help with the situation in Darfur. To be there in person. But apart from this, any of us can give resources from here to be shared in Darfur and with the refugees.

And Jesus teaches us to give to those with needs. He said, “give to the needy” – Matthew 6:2; and “give to the poor” – Luke 12:33.

Jesus also told the story of the Good Samaritan who helped one who was not like him. The people of Darfur are different than us.  And he told us to “go and do likewise” – Luke 10:37. The people of Darfur are different than us. They are Muslim and speak Arabic.

Paul says, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone . . ..” – Galatians 6:10. And in context he is saying, don’t just help fellow believers, also help others.

If you would like to give toward this need, you can give to Christian Aid, a British interdenominational Christian aid organization, which does work in Darfur. (Freepost, London, SE1 7YY; or online at christianaid.org.uk/give).

3. Speak out in the name of the Lord

This particular tragedy is not the result of a natural disaster or an accident. The suffering in Darfur has come from the hands of humans. And so there is an element of human sin that needs to be addressed in our response and which must stop for the suffering to stop.

Now when I say speak out, I’m not referring to politics. I am talking about representing God’s point of view on what is going on in Darfur. We speak in the name of the Lord to name the evil that is being done; to call for repentance, and to warn of God’s judgment on sin.

It is not right or Christian to know of and to watch great evil happen while saying nothing. This is a way for you to make your voice heard as a representative of the kingdom of God.

The prophets did this, for instance Amos speaking to rulers in his day. And  Jesus did this speaking to the authoritative teachers and the leadership of Jerusalem – Matthew 23:13-36. And we should also speak up when there is need.

I have written a letter to send to the government of Sudan, and I am going to sign my name to it. If you would like to add your name, just let me know.

“To the Government of Sudan – Hear the words of the one, true God: “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Psalm 82:3-4.

Hear the cry of those who suffer in Darfur – innocents including women and children. So many have been terrorized. So many have died. So many are refugees. God calls you to change your heart and bring this to an end!

But know this, if you do not hear their cries, God does. And God will incline his ear “to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed, so that those from earth may strike terror no more.” Psalm 10:18.

And God hears the blood of the innocent as it cries out against you even now. And God will not forget what has happened. “For he who avenges blood is mindful of them; he does not forget the cry of the afflicted.” Psalm 9:12.

Will you hear what God says? Then weep for your evil deeds. Humble yourself before the Lord. Lift up those who are bowed down, and bring healing to those you have broken.”

Finally, and more radically, there is –

4. Intercessory suffering

We talked about this in the Sunday School class on loving enemies, but let me say a few words about this.

It goes like this. When you suffer oppression, instead of returning evil for evil, endure it and call on God to act for you. And God will act to bring justice. This is biblical nonresistance, as I understand it (or cruciform holy war).

We see God acting to bring justice in the story of Cain and Abel. Even though Abel suffered death, God said to Cain, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” – Genesis 4:10. And then God judged Cain.

We also see this in Jesus’ words in Luke 18:7-8. “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.”

And you can do this on behalf of others, this is the intercessory part, by going to suffer with them and calling on God to act.

This is what Jesus did for us. Jesus came and suffered with us without returning evil for evil. Rather, he called on God to act for him. And both spiritual and political powers were brought down:

  • Satan was cast out of heaven – Revelation 12:9
  • And the authorities that killed Jesus were judged in 70 AD when Jerusalem was destroyed, as he predicted -Matthew 23:32-24:2.

Alright these are some specifically Christian ways to respond. And I certainly encourage you to respond as the Lord leads you.

William Higgins, Marie Higgins

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“Am I my brother’s keeper?”

I begin with a question today, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Or to say it another way, “Are you your brother’s keeper?” And, of course, the question refers to both brothers and sisters.

This question is a haunting one. It challenges us to think about our responsibilities to others. And whether we have kept them, or not. It comes from –

The story of Cain and Abel

This is a familiar story, from Genesis 4. Let’s remember it together:

  • They both brought an offering to the Lord
  • God had regard for Abel’s. But God did not have regard for Cain’s, who was the older brother.
  • Cain became angry and depressed.
  • God counseled Cain to do well and to beware of sin.
  • Cain, however, murdered his brother while they were in the field together
  • So God confronted Cain, “Where is your brother?” Now, of course, God already knew what had happened, but he is inviting Cain to confess and take responsibility for his actions.

And this brings us to –

The question

– which is our focus. Cain responded to God, “I do not know (where Abel is); am I my brother’s keeper?’” – Genesis 4:9.

First of all he lies. He knew where his brother was. And second his question communicates his belief that he has no responsibility for his brother and his well being. This belief shows up clearly in that he could murder Abel, and yet evidence no hint of sorrow; there is not a shred of guilt in any of his responses.

But let’s look at the question more closely, because there’s a lot going on here. The word “keeper” means “to watch over, to guard, to have charge of.”

  • It is used in Genesis 2:15 of Adam as the keeper of the garden of Eden – which was his full-time job as it were.
  • It is used in Genesis 3:24 of the angel that constantly guarded the tree of life to keep Adam and Eve away from it.

So Cain uses this word to exaggerate what God wants from him. What he is saying is that, “Hey, I can’t be expected to keep up with every detail of my brother’s life! That’s not my full-time job; I’m not his body guard.” And he asks the question in this way because he’s seeking to evade any responsibility for his brother.

But even though he asked it as a way of avoiding responsibility, the question has a way of coming back to condemn him nevertheless. That’s because even though Cain is not responsible for every aspect of his brother’s life, he does bear responsibility to care for him and help him. And in this regard he failed in the worst possible way.

So the answer to the question is actually, “yes.” Cain did have a responsibility to his brother. And we have a responsibility to help and care for our brothers and sisters, that is to say our neighbors – especially when they are weak and in need.

This point is made abundantly clear in Scripture, and I want you to see this, so we are going to look at a lot passages. We begin with –

The call to be our brother and sister’s keeper

This shows up in different ways in Scripture, but it is certainly clear in the command to love our neighbor. Leviticus 19:18 says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We are to act for their good; for their well-being. In Matthew 5:44 Jesus expands this to cover all people when he teaches “love your enemies.”

We are especially to help and care for those who are weak and vulnerable. Psalm 82:3-4 says, “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” In Acts 20:35 Paul says, “We must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'” And in I Thessalonians 5:14 Paul says simply, “help the weak.”

Now let’s look at some specific –

Examples of being our sister and brother’s keeper

We are to care for the needs of widows and orphans. Exodus 22:22 says, “You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child.” Isaiah 1:17 says, “Bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” James 1:27 tells us that we are “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction . . ..”

We are to care for immigrants, most of whom are, by definition, weak both economically and socially. Leviticus 19:33-34 says, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself . . ..”

We are to care for the disabled. Deuteronomy 27:18 says, “Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind man on the road.” Rather we should help the one who is disabled.

We are to honor the poor. James 2:9 indicates that if you dishonor a poor person, “you are committing sin.” Proverbs 17:5 says, “Whoever mocks the poor insults his Maker.” Rather we should give honor where others give disdain.

We are to give food, clothing and shelter to the needy. Ezekiel 18:7 gives a description of a righteous person. Among other things, he “gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment.” Isaiah 58:7 teaches that true fasting means to stop all oppression and “to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him.”

In Luke 3:11 John the Baptist said, “Whoever has two tunics (or items of clothing) is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.’” In Luke 12:33 Jesus said, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” We are to do this instead of storing up our excess wealth for ourselves.

We are to give the poor economic assistance. Leviticus 25:37 says, “You shall not . . . give him your food for profit.” That is, sell your food at cost.  Leviticus 19:10, speaking of gleaning says, “You shall leave [some of your harvest] for the poor and for the sojourner.”

Deuteronomy 15:7-8 says, “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor . . . you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” Exodus 22:25 says, “If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor . . . you shall not exact interest from him.” Jesus sais in Luke 6:35, “Lend, [even to your enemies] expecting nothing in return.”

We are to invite the needy to share in our celebrations. There are several examples of this in the Old Testament. This one has to do with the tithe feast. Deuteronomy 14:28-29 says, “At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled . . ..”

In Luke 14:12-14  Jesus said, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”

Alright we have spent quite a bit of time looking at this in the Scriptures, because I want to ground this truth in God’s word. And that truth is that we are indeed our brother and sister’s keeper. We are to care for and help others, especially when they are weak and in need.

But you might say, Pastor,

There is so much need in the world!

And it is easy to get overwhelmed. Just the crises of one week, like flooding in Pakistan and landslides in China are enough to overwhelm. And then you have things like the gulf oil spill and Katrina which continue on for years.

So, yes, it is easy to throw up your hands and say, what can I do? But we have to be careful that we don’t do something similar to what Cain did. We can’t use the vastness of the need as an excuse; as an out for not acting; for not taking responsibility.

It’s true we can’t do everything. But we can do something. We can help some people. And we can care for some needs. And that is what God asks of us.

Next week we will look at a specific example of suffering, and talk about what we can do.

William Higgins

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Let us love one another

What is on my heart this morning is Jesus’ call for us to love one another.

I’ve shared with you before that it is my deepest desire that we be a congregation that is characterized by love for one another. Of all the things we can be known for: a program, our outreach, our music, whatever – the depth of our love for one another is the most important.

And since we are partaking of the Lord’s supper today, it seems like a good time to focus this.

This is what Jesus says in John 13:34-35,

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

He also says in John 15:12-13,

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.”

As you can see from these verses the call of Jesus is clear. We are to love one another as brother and sisters in the Lord. But this raises the question –

What is love?

Sometimes we get confused about this as Christians. So let’s look at some clues in our verses as to what Christian love means.

First, we have the word “love” in the phrase, “love one another.” When you look at the whole of the New Testament , this word means – to act for the good of another person.

And it is a choice of the will; a commitment that is made.

  • It is not based on feelings or emotion like with romance.
  • It is not based on whether you like the person, or have lots of things in common, like with friendship.
  • And it is not based on how the other person responds to you, or whether they like you or not.

It simply means doing what is best for the person, no matter what.

Second, we have the phrase “lays down his life” for someone in John 15:13. This phrase is used several times in Scripture:

  • In John 10 Jesus uses it to speak of risking your life for others. This is what the good Shepherd does for the sheep. In contrast, the hired hand who doesn’t care about them and runs away when there is danger. (John 10:11; 13).
  • In John 13:37 Peter uses it to speak of dying for someone (Mark 14:31). He is talking about his willingness to die for Jesus.
  • And then, in 1 John 3:16-17, John uses the phrase to speak of helping a brother or sister in need by giving of your resources.

So, to lay down your life is to act for the other person’s good, even to the point of self-sacrifice.

And then finally as a clue, we have Jesus’ statement that we are to love one another “as I have loved you.” Jesus’ love for us models what our love for one another should look like. How did Jesus love us?

  • Jesus acted for our good in that he ministered to our needs. He gave of himself. He healed people. He taught people. He prayed for people. He was a true servant.
  • Jesus also acted for our good in that he died on the cross for us, literally laying down his life for us so that we could be saved.
  • And Jesus did all this even for those who despised and rejected him.

This is how Jesus loved us.

So we have these three clues and they show us –

How we are to love each other

Love involves:

*         acting for the good of each other.

*         ministering to each other’s needs; being servants to one another.

*         sacrificing for each other’s good.

*         doing all this, even if the person doesn’t like you.

This might mean:

  • helping with a material need, as I John 3:16-17 talks about; giving of what we have to help a sister or brother in a time of crisis.
  • giving someone our time, letting someone share their burdens and concerns.
  • helping someone work through a problem.
  • encouraging someone who is overwhelmed and ready to give up.

There are so many practical ways that love is expressed – showing kindness, forgiving someone. And in all of these ways, we lay down our lives for each other, and we love each other as Jesus loved us.

Now, I have certainly seen this love among us. And I want to encourage us this morning to continue to do this and to love each other still more.

Love is the true witness

Let me end by reminding you that when we love each other deeply from the heart, then we will be true witnesses. You can have all the outreach you want, but if there is no love it doesn’t get you anywhere.

Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:35. People will look at us and say, “Hey, they act just like Jesus did. Jesus laid down his life for others, and look how they lay down their lives for each other. They must be true followers of Jesus.”

This kind of selfless love isn’t natural. It’s supernatural – from God. So when people see this, they know that something different is going on. And this draws them to come and find out what it is.

May God help us to love each other in this way.

William Higgins

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Hospitality: Hebrews 13:2

Do you remember a time when you were a stranger; the new person? Maybe a new school or a new job. You don’t know anyone, you don’t know how things work and you feel awkward. But then on top of this you were left out, treated rudely or made fun of? Well then you have an experiential understanding of the need for hospitality, which is our topic today.

Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” This is an interesting verse. It clearly teaches us to show hospitality to strangers. But it also talks about the possibility of entertaining angels, which we will come back to in a moment.

The meaning of hospitality

The Greek word, translated as “hospitality” in Hebrews 13:2, means literally, “stranger love.” As the phrase suggests, it means that you show love to a stranger. It is a form of the command to love your neighbor as yourself – the neighbor who is new to you and new to your community.

If you look up our English word “hospitality” it means “treating strangers in a warm, friendly, generous way.” You receive someone you don’t know, who is not apart of your group – as a guest; so that they feel comfortable and at home. This is the exact opposite of ignoring them, treating them rudely or making fun of them.

Now, in the ancient world hospitality also included housing, food and protection. That’s because there were no hotels or motels, like today. So travelers had a lot of needs to take care of. They were away from home and in a strange place, without a place to stay or social networks to rely on. They didn’t know who to trust. And also, because of this, they were vulnerable and easily taken advantage of by the locals.

So the virtue of hospitality, or being kind to and taking care of strangers and travelers was highly prized in society and, as we will see, by God.

In Scripture –

The model of hospitality is Abraham

We find this is the story in Genesis 18:1-8. This passage, by the way, is most certainly one of the incidents referred to by Hebrews 13:2 when it talks of entertaining angels.

“And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him.”

So he has some strangers standing before him.  What will he do?

“When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on— since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate.”

Let’s look at all the things he did:

  • He ran to them
  • He was humble before them – he bowed down
  • He invited them to stay
  • He offered them water to wash their feet
  • He offered them rest under the shelter of the tree
  • He brought them food and drink to refresh them
  • He waited on them while they ate

We see in this passage that Abraham made himself the servant of his guests. It was hot out and he was resting. But as soon as he saw them, he worked hard to make his home, their home. And he sacrificed of what he had to do this.

Well, if Abraham is the model of hospitality, then –

The model of inhospitality is Sodom

And this story is found in the next chapter, Genesis 19. I will just mention this briefly since you know the story.

  • Two of the same angels that Abraham had just hosted came to Sodom to see if it needed to be judged.
  • The people of Sodom sought to take advantage of these strangers – by means of a same-sex sexual assault. They sought to degrade and humiliate them.
  • And you know the result. The evil of the city was confirmed by the angels and so Sodom was destroyed.

Ezekiel 16:49-50 tells us that the sin of Sodom was that they “did not aid the poor and needy.” And I do not doubt that this is talking about refusing hospitality and trying to take advantage of and exploit the weak and vulnerable strangers who came to them. And the two angels were just the latest example. This is why Lot told them not to sleep in the town square. There was a pattern here.

This incident shows that such evil inhospitality is a serious thing in God’s eyes. And it is wrong, even if one doesn’t go to the extreme that the people of Sodom did.

So in these two chapters we have contrasting portraits concerning hospitality. And God calls us to imitate Abraham in his love and concern for strangers. Since this is so, let’s look now at –

Putting hospitality into practice in our lives

We are to be hospitable anytime we meet strangers. Hebrews 13:2 is quite broad – “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.” No qualifications are stated. But here are some specific examples.

We are to be hospitable to immigrants. Leviticus 19:34 says, “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

Here stranger love is applied to immigrants, and connected to the command to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Why? Because the Israelites were once strangers as well. And because the Lord commands it.

We are to be hospitable to fellow Christians. 1 Peter 4:9 says, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.” The little note at the end points to our human nature. It is not always easy to be a servant to others and so we are to make sure that we don’t complain.

But the specific application I am interested in this morning has to do with welcoming those who come as visitors to our church. And of course, I am mindful while I share this, that we are having our ‘Open House’ next week.

Now, we have all visited churches where we didn’t know anyone. So we know what it feels like. And, I believe, we all know how to make guests feel at home. But let’s remember together. [Open time for suggestions from the congregation.]

Here are some things I thought of:

  • A warm greeting
  • Talk to them. It is easy to just talk to people you know. But go out of your way to talk to visitors and include them.
  • Answer questions about the congregation – where things are, how we do things. Help them feel at home.
  • Help them connect to others in the congregation. For instance if we find that they have common ground with others.
  • Give up your seat so that a new family can sit together.
  • Invite them over/out for a meal

Let us show love and warmth to our guests. Let us be servants. Let us make them feel comfortable and at home. Let us remember Abraham.

You never know, perhaps we will have angels visit our congregation. So be on your toes! This is the message for today.

William Higgins

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We are beginning a series on the seven letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation. I want us to see what Jesus says by the Spirit to these churches and also what he might be saying to us.

Today we begin with the church in Ephesus. But before we get to this, a bit of . . .

Introduction

John the prophet is in exile on the island of Patmos, as a punishment for his faith. While he is there he has an amazing set of visions of Jesus and his return. And as a part of this revelation, he is told to write letters to seven churches, which is found in Revelation  2-3

Each letter has five sections: 1. the address; 2. a description of Jesus; 3. Jesus’ review of the church; 4. a call to hear; and 5. a description of the reward for faithfulness. We will be focusing on section 3 of each letter.

Ephesus was the most prominent city in the Roman province of Asia and it was the seat of Roman government in this area. It was a real commercial hub and a part of this was its prominent sea port. It was also known for its temple of Artemis, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Ephesus was also one of the most important cities in early Christianity. Paul spent three years there and helped establish the church. Ephesians and I Timothy were written to this church. Paul also wrote 1 Corinthians while he was in Ephesus. Also, the gospel and letters of John are traditionally associated with Ephesus.

Coming to the message in these verses, first of all we see that . . .

Jesus encourages the church

Verses 2-3 form an inverted outline:

A. “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance”

B. “and how you cannot bear with those who are evil but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.”

`A. “I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.”

In the A sections the emphasis is on hard work and especially endurance. In the B section the focus is on opposing false teaching. Both sections seem to be talking about the same situation – opposing false teachers and enduring the conflicts this must have generated.

First of all, these verses tell us that they worked hard at exposing false teachers. Given their prominence as a church and as a city, with numerous travelers coming through, they would have had many itinerant teachers coming around looking for disciples. And they would also have had resident false teachers. V. 6 gives an example of their encounter with false teachers – “Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” We will encounter this group again in later letters.

Secondly, their opposition to false teachers may have caused much contention, which they had to endure. They may have been slandered as false by the false teachers, and so they experienced a measure of persecution for speaking up for the truth.

So Jesus commends them for enduring and holding on to right teaching. But next . . .

Jesus admonishes the church

v. 4 – “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” This doesn’t seem to be a problem with loving God. They have a zeal for the truth and have accepted persecution for the name of Jesus.

The focus seems to be on loving other people. They have abandoned their acts of love for others. They are not caring for the needs of others. Or perhaps they are not caring for each other’s needs, helping the weak among them.

1 John 3:16-18 talks about the necessity of this kind of love. “By this we know love, that he (Jesus) laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”

Perhaps a part of this is that, because of their bad experiences with false apostles, they aren’t giving any support or hospitality to true teachers who come through. This is kind of support is called “love” in 3 John 5-6. (If this is the case, their strength – weeding out false teachers – also leads to their weakness – not receiving any teachers.)

Whatever the case, next comes . . .

Jesus’ strong call to repentance

v. 5 – “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.” They are to think back and remember how they used to love others, and then they are to have a change of heart and mind, and do what they used to do.

“If not, (Jesus says) I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” In Revelation 1:20 we see that the lampstand represents the church. So what this means is that Jesus will extinguish their life as a church. This is a powerful warning and certainly a motivation to repent and make things right.

Jesus speaks to us

V. 7 says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Notice the plural. Jesus’ words to the church in Ephesus go beyond just Ephesus. They are also words for us. And, as he says, we need to listen to his words.

1. It is good to test teachers (vs. 2, 6). Jesus was pleased that they did not bear with false teachers, but tested them and that they hated the works of the Nicolaitans.

Testing teachers is a common theme in Scripture:

  • We are to test their moral lives. Jesus says in Matthew 7:20, “you will recognize them by their fruit.” False teachers will act in wrong ways.
  • We are to test their words. Jesus says in Matthew 12:34 to the Pharisees, “How can you speak good, when you are evil?” False teachers will speak and teach wrong things.

The lesson here is that, just as with the Ephesian Christians, Jesus is also pleased with us when we test teachers and expose the false ones.

2. Jesus can be offended by our behavior (v. 4). Jesus had a serious concern with them. He said, “I have this against you.”

Do we recognize that Jesus can be upset with us? That Jesus can have a problem with us? That he can have something “against us” or against me?

This goes against the popular picture of Jesus as always being warm and fuzzy, and completely accepting. But the truth is that Jesus can be unhappy or angry with us.

And we are no better than these Ephesian believers. We too will be judged if we as a church or as individuals allow sin in our lives.

3. You can’t live off of yesterday’s faithfulness (vs. 4-5). They used to have acts of love. The phrase “at first,” is repeated two times. This is referring to when they first believed and were founded as a church. But they don’t practice such love anymore.

And the point is that their previous faithfulness doesn’t cancel out their current unfaithfulness, which is why they are warned to change or be judged.

The same is true with us. If we used to be faithful in an area, and then cease, our previous faithfulness will not cancel out our current unfaithfulness. We too will be subject to judgment from Jesus.

4. It’s not enough to have right teaching, you have to have love others (v. 4). They had a love for the truth, but not a love for others – which is to miss the point. I Corinthians 13 says, “If I have . . . all knowledge . . . but don’t have love I gain nothing.” Right knowledge or teaching is inadequate by itself. And besides, right teaching is supposed to lead us to love!

Do we love each other? Or do we focus on what is easier – thinking about truth, arguing about the Bible, things that are not connected to people. Jesus calls us to love one another, to care for one another, to sacrifice for one another, and also those who are not a part of our church. Do we love other people?

___________

Lets end with Jesus’ words of encouragement for faithfulness in v. 7 – “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”

William Higgins

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