Monday, August 07, 2006

Final Words

For the past three or four weeks my daughter Brittany and I have been walking together early in the morning. We both wanted to get into shape, but I really think we wanted to spend more time together before she moves to Nashville. I won’t speak for her—but I know that is part of my motivation!

It’s interesting how focused our conversation is becoming. Yes, we talk about a wide variety of things—but I find our conversation centering more and more on what we would call “important things.” It’s as if we know our time is short and we want to say what is most on our hearts. I imagine when we drop Brittany off at Lipscomb there will be some more intense conversations and last minute: “Now, don’t forget: this important stuff” conversations.

We do that, don’t we? It seems we save most important things for last, or we go back and review most important things when it’s time to say goodbye. This is my last chance—so here it is!

I think Paul does this in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28. He has covered a lot—but now at the end of his letter, he becomes very focused. And what seems to be important? Does he discuss in-depth complex theological teachings or esoteric knowledge? No, he comes back to what he started with: relationship with God and with each other. The two great theological truths of the Bible: love God, love others.

In these last paragraphs Paul instructs the Thessalonians how to treat each other—both leaders and congregants—and how to relate to God.
Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.

And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not put out the Spirit's fire. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject whatever is harmful.

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.
Paul begins by encouraging the Thessalonians to love and honor those who serve as leaders. He says honor those who have the task of caring for and counseling you. Whether he is referring to elders or teachers the important thing to grasp is how we are to relate to those who serve in this function. We are a body—we are a family. We are called to love each other—especially to honor those who work hard to serve. He then says “live in peace with each other”—according to at least one scholar I’ve read, some Greek manuscripts actually read “live in peace with them.” Either way, most agree this is in reference to those who serve the functions of caring and counseling. Evidently, there is a hint of some disruption going on between those who care for and counsel and others within their group. Paul is saying: “love on these folks who work hard at caring for you—don’t make life unnecessarily difficult for them! Show them your appreciation and respect. Let them know you love them.”

This was a gentle reminder. Now Paul extends a more strongly worded appeal. He uses the phrase “I urge” for a third time—again denoting mainline information. This is not merely a suggestion to the leadership—it is a command to everyone.

Warn the idle and disruptive. Your translation probably omits the word “disruptive.” The actual word most often refers to people who are being undisciplined and unruly. We get a clearer picture of these people in 2 Thessalonians 3:11-15
We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat. And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good. Take special note of those who do not obey our instruction in this letter. Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as fellow believers.
Some have suggested these people have given up working because they think Jesus’ return is just right around the corner. Evidently they expected the church to care for them financially. With time on their hands they end up going around sticking their noses in everybody else’s affairs and spreading gossip. Paul says “warn them”—and adding his note from 2 Thessalonians, mark them if they don’t change and avoid them.

Paul continues: encourage the disheartened or “small of soul”, help the weak and most importantly, be patient with everybody. Make certain everyone treats each other with gracious actions (make sure nobody pays back wrong for wrong). Among Christ-followers we have two extremes: those who avoid any kind of conflict and those who love nailing people to the wall! Paul says: no! Take the disruptive, the easily discouraged, the disadvantaged, the poor and patiently work with them. If they need confrontation, confront. But don’t lose your patience. Be gentle. Be gracious and encourage others to show the same behavior.

Paul moves on to how the Thessalonians relate to God. In so doing, he writes a sentence that has generated intense discussion among Christ-followers throughout the years. Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. So, we’re to always be happy, pray every second of the day and thank God for letting my dog get run over—right?

Well, no.

This is a parallelism—Paul is emphasizing different facets of the same thing. It is God’s will that we should constantly keep him in mind. No matter what is happening around us, our lives should reflect joy, thankfulness, and communion with God. Notice Paul does not say “thank God for all circumstances—but in all circumstances.” You don’t have to pray: “Thank you God for giving me a crippling disease!” But thank him in spite of your suffering. Thank him for allowing you to hang on to him even in the middle of suffering and pain. This is not a positive mental attitude—this isn’t pop psychology. Paul is telling us to keep God at the center of our every day lives.

He continues and writes “Do not quench the Spirit.” It is so easy to ignore the Spirit. It is so easy to let the day in day out routine of family and work grind down our focus on the Spirit. I'm probably the only person who believes this verse belongs with the sentence before, rather than after. Don’t quench the Spirit who gives joy, who intercedes in your prayers, who leads you into God’s will! Look for his activity in your life every day and in every situation confronting you.

There is no more effective way to quench God's Spirit than removing God from the center of your day-to-day life.

This transitions to his final instruction: do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them and hold on to what is right and reject what is not. Perhaps he is speaking of those exercising prophetic gifts—however, I find it interesting that he doesn’t say “prophets” but “prophecies.” Regardless, he calls all of us to use discernment.

It bothers me to hear people from my tradition run down authors or speakers who are not part of the tradition as if we are the only ones who know anything about God or the Bible. While I won’t elevate man’s writings to the level of prophesy, I do think we should be willing to read widely and listen with an open mind. Even so, we are called to test everything rejecting the bad and accepting the good. Notice very closely Paul is not addressing the leaders or an elite group of teachers. He is speaking to the whole church. This is not a call for leaders to police Bible study materials—it is a call for everyone to use discernment.

So, you’re walking with your child who’s about to leave—what do you tell her? You tell her important things, don’t you? Things you don’t want her to forget.

Paul says to his children in the faith—this is what is important: love on those who dedicate their lives to care for you, love on each other, keep your focus completely on God and what he has to say to you. Love God and love each other.

And would you bless your child? Of course. And so Paul blesses the Thessalonians—

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.

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