When the disciples asked why they couldn’t drive a demon out of a boy who had seizures, Jesus replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Mt. 17:20NIV). The reason was also given as “This kind can come out only by prayer” (Mk. 9:29).
They lacked faith and prayer. Because of unbelief, they didn’t pray about it. The mountain is a figure of speech for the obstacles and difficulties being faced. They should have exercised their faith in God by praying about the problem. The prayer would be answered if it was in accordance with the conditions for prayer and the commands and promises given in the Bible. Miracles can happen when we pray under these circumstances.
On the Monday before his crucifixion, Jesus cursed a fig tree because it was unfruitful. He them taught his disciples how to deal with the problems of fruitlessness and obstacles and difficulties. Once again the mountain illustrates the obstacles and difficulties. This is described in two gospels:
Mark 11:22-24 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
Mt 21:21-22 Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
They were to exercise their faith in God by praying about the problem. God promised to answer if they believe and don’t doubt. This is a necessary but not sufficient condition for answered prayer. Such confidence needs to rely on a promise from God or an assurance that the request is according to God’s will. The ultimate source of such confidence is the words of Scripture or the witness of the Holy Spirit. So the prayer needs to be in accordance with the conditions given in the Bible.
We can approach God confidently in prayer because He promises to answer prayers that are “according to His will”. “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of Him” (1 Jn. 5:14-15). That’s how Jesus prayed at Gethsemane (Mt. 26:39, 42) and how He told His disciples to pray (Jn. 14:13-14). And of course, God’s will is given most clearly in the Bible.
Other conditions for answered prayer include: forgiving others (Mk. 11:25), confessing and repenting of sin (Ps. 66:18), obeying God’s commands (1 Jn. 3:22), right motives (Jas. 4:3), and persevering in prayer (Lk. 17:1-8). They also apply to other passages which may seem to imply that we can get whatever we ask for (Mt. 7:7-8; Lk. 11:9-10; Jn. 14:13-14; 15:7, 16; 16:23-24; 1 Jn. 3:22).
God’s promises to give believers whatever they ask and move mountains for them are not unconditional. They also rely on the Bible’s conditions for answered prayer being satisfied. So, how are you praying?
Written, September 2013
As there will be people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” in heaven, it seems that some of these would not have heard about Jesus before they died (Rev. 5:9-10). I believe that infants go to heaven when they die because they are not accountable for their sin. We will look at other people in two categories, those who lived before and after Christ.
The Bible says that those who trusted God in Old Testament times go to heaven. Although most of the promises they were given were physical, they also had a heavenly hope. They realised that this earth was not their final home: “admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth” (Heb. 11:13NIV). Instead they were looking towards heaven: “they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16a). We are told that God “has prepared a city for them” (Heb. 11:16b). In particular, Abraham “was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10).
These people are commended in Hebrews as those who lived by faith. The Bible says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). The Jews were told, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13). This faith was based on a revelation from God.
“Enoch walked faithfully with God” (Gen. 5:22, 24). So did Noah (Gen. 6:9). This means they obeyed God. “Noah did everything just as God commanded him” (Gen. 6:22). “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going” (Heb. 11:8). Job repented after God revealed His power through nature (Job 38-41; 42:6).
So those who trusted in God’s revelation to them before the formation of the Israelite nation go to heaven. In their case, God usually spoke directly to them.
God spoke to the Israelites “at many times and in various ways” (Heb. 1:1). It is stated that Moses accepted “disgrace for the sake of Christ” (Heb. 11:26). But as Moses lived about 1,450 years before Christ, this seems to be a figure of speech. It means that Moses choose to be loyal to God and to associate with his fellow Israelites. The reason given is that “he was looking ahead to his reward”. As Hebrews was probably written about 65AD, the writer knew that the Messiah was the one through whom God guaranteed their promised future.
So the Israelites who trusted in God’s revelation to them in Old Testament times go to heaven. In their case, the revelation was usually miracles and the law given through Moses.
We know God revealed Himself to the Israelites as they were His people during this period of time. But what about the Gentiles? The Israelites were told to follow the laws that God gave them through Moses so that other nations would come to know God: “Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?” (Dt. 4:6-8).
Rahab is a Gentile who trusted God (Heb. 11:31). She told the Israelite spies, “I know that the Lord has given you this land … for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Josh. 2:9-11). Because of what she had heard of the Exodus and the defeat of the Amorites, she realised that the God of the Israelites was greater than the Canaanite gods. So she rejected the Canaanite gods to follow the God of the Israelites.
Also Ruth the Moabite told her Israelite mother-in-law, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Likewise, she rejected the gods of the Moabites to follow the God of the Israelites. God’s interest in the Gentiles is shown in the book of Jonah where Jonah was sent to Nineveh with a message of God’s judgment and the people repented of their sin (Jon. 3:1-10).
So the Gentiles who trusted in God’s revelation to them in Old Testament times go to heaven. God revealed Himself to them through the Israelites when they heard about their law and the miraculous preservation of their nation.
All the above are examples of people who go to heaven without hearing about Jesus. But the Bible says the following about Jesus, “There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12NLT). And Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). This means that the only way to get into heaven is through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Before Christ’s death people were saved according to their acceptance of God’s revelation to them. It was based on the future work of Christ. So those who trusted in God’s revelation in Old Testament times go to heaven because their faith in God was equivalent to faith in Jesus Christ. They were saved on credit. “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of His blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in His forbearance He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished” (Rom. 3:25). In this way God overlooked the sins of those who trusted in Him before Christ’s death and resurrection.
In Romans, God reveals that we are all sinners (Rom. 3:23) and we can only get to heaven through trusting in Christ’s sacrifice for us (Rom. 3:22-26). But it also says that people are judged according to God’s revelation to them: “All who sin apart from the law (Gentiles) will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law (Jews) will be judged by the law” (Rom 2:12). The two main ways that God reveals himself to people who haven’t heard about Jesus are creation and conscience.
Firstly, the physical world demands a Creator. Its design requires a Designer. The laws of nature require a Lawmaker. By looking at our universe, anyone can know that there is a creator God. “The truth about God is known instinctively. God has put this knowledge in their hearts. From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made. They can clearly see His invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God” (Rom. 1:19-20NLT). Enough of God is revealed in His creation that there is no excuse for not believing in Him. Those who reject this revelation follow idols and practice sinful behaviour and suffer God’s judgment (Rom. 1:18-32).
Nature is a testimony of God. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Ps. 19:1-4). Also, Paul said “We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. In the past, He let all nations go their own way. Yet He has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; He provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” (Acts 14:15-17).
So if people haven’t heard about Jesus, they can be judged according to their response to the revelation of God in creation. If they turn from idolatry and seek the true God, then God may give them additional revelation. For example, Cornelius was a Gentile who sought God. So God sent Peter to tell him about Jesus and salvation (Acts 11:14). God can appear to people in many ways throughout their lives. He can send people to inform them (Rom. 10:14-15). Because God doesn’t want anyone to perish in hell and wants everyone to repent of their sin, we must trust that He has made a way for those people (2 Pt. 3:9).
Secondly, everyone is born with a conscience. We all have an instinctive knowledge of right and wrong. For example, most people know it is wrong to lie, steal, and commit adultery and murder. The Bible gives God’s standards for humanity. But for those who are ignorant of this it says: “They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right” (Rom. 2:15NLT). Anyone who has not heard about what the Bible says will be judged according to their conscience. God will say, “What did you think was right and wrong?” The next question is, “Did you always do the right and not the wrong?” By that standard, of course, everyone fails. The conscience proves that we are sinners like the law does for the Jew.
The issue is their response to a guilty conscience. If they were sorry for their behavior and would repent then they would probably go to heaven. This reasoning is based on the fact that God is just and wants all to be saved. He has made a way for all, but few accept it.
Like those who lived before Christ, the issue is whether they responded to God’s revelation to them. So through the creation and our conscience, God gives everyone the opportunity to turn to Him and be saved from the penalty of their sinfulness and go to heaven.
Lessons for us
Like the Israelites, a Christian’s behaviour can influence an unbeliever to repent and follow God and go to heaven. “Live such good lives among the pagans (your unbelieving neighbors, NLT) that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Pt. 2:12).
Although people can to be saved without hearing about Jesus, it isn’t likely to occur in very many instances. The usual way to go to heaven is to respond to hearing about Jesus. “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:14). That’s why it’s important to tell people about Jesus as much as possible and support others in this work.
Characteristics of a godly congregation
Children are born into families whose goal is to raise them to maturity. As Christians, God has placed believers in a spiritual family which will last forever. Let’s look at some key goals for our spiritual family, the local church.
The Greek word “ekklesia”, which means a “calling out”, is used in the Bible to describe a gathering, meeting or congregation. It has also been translated as a “church” or “assembly”. This word is used in the New Testament to describe Christians in either a global or a local sense. This article focuses on the local church, which is comprised of believers in a particular region who meet together regularly. For example, Paul begins his letters “To the church of God in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2 TNIV); “To the church of the Thessalonians” (1 Th. 1:1); “To the churches in Galatia” (Gal. 1:2).
When He was here, the Lord promised “I will build my church” (Mt. 16:18). The church began on the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Christ’s death, when the Holy Spirit indwelt the Lord’s followers (Acts 2). So, don’t look in the Old Testament to learn about the church, because it was unknown in those times.
The Church Revealed to Paul
God used Paul to bring us the most complete revelation about the church by revealing a new truth, which was unknown to previous generations (Eph. 3:2-12). The Greek word for mystery, “musterion” occurs three times in this passage (v.3, 5, 9) and means a secret, which in this case was made known by divine revelation at a time appointed by God. It has been referred to as, “The mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people” (Col. 1:26).
What was this new truth? “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:6). The church was to be comprised of Jews and Gentiles who followed the Lord. This truth was also revealed by the Holy Spirit to other New Testament apostles and prophets (Eph. 3:5). The gospel message that Christ as the Son of God offered up His life to enable a company of forgiven people to become members of the church was the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20; 1 Cor. 3:11).
Before this time, the world was divided into two classes of people: Jew and Gentile. But Jesus introduced a third class: the Christian church (1 Cor. 10:32). All Christians are equal before God and have equal access to God because the distinctions between people under the Old Testament law have been abolished: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
One of God’s goals is to show the angels His manifold wisdom through the church (Eph. 3:10-11). They see how a loving God triumphed over sin by offering His Son so that sinners of all races and nations could have a heavenly inheritance of eternal life. They see the church as being part of God’s new creation.
Churches in the New Testament
Before He ascended back to heaven, Jesus told the apostles, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
On the day of Pentecost, the first church was formed at Jerusalem. Later when the church was persecuted, Christians were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1) and churches were established. Then they travelled to Phoenica, Cyprus and Antioch (Acts 11:19) and churches were established. Later Paul in a series of missionary journeys established churches in Galatia (now part of Turkey), Asia (now part of western Turkey; this is where the seven churches of Revelation 2-3 were located); Macedonia (now part of Greece), Achaia (now part of Greece), and a church was established in Rome before Paul was taken there. So, churches were established across the known world around the Mediterranean Sea.
Since that time missionaries have travelled across the earth and churches have been established in all countries.
The believers at Thessalonica became a model to all the believers in Greece (1 Th. 1:7). The reason given by Paul for this was, “You became imitators of us and of the Lord” (1 Th. 1:6). In the context of seeking the good of others, Paul wrote “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Also, in the context of being kind, compassionate and forgiving, “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2). Two characteristics are mentioned here: love and sacrifice. We will look at the topic of “love” shortly. Christ sacrificed His life for us; He gave up His life. That’s an example for the church to follow.
One of the metaphors of the church is a body, with Christ as the head. This illustrates the close connection between Christ and the church. As a head directs its body via the nervous system, the church should be directed by Christ. That’s why an essential goal of the local church is to imitate the Lord. After all, it’s His representative on earth. So, the local church is to be Christlike and godly.
“The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:26). The word “Christian” means “follower of Christ”. Although probably originally used in a derogatory sense, it took over from the term “The Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 24:14, 22).
So the saying “What would Jesus do?” is a good one when looking at goals for the local church. The best way to find Christ’s example is to see how the apostles wrote about this between Acts and Revelation, because these letters were written to the church. We can also learn from the Gospels, but we need to realise that, although they were written after the day of Pentecost, they record what happened when Jesus came as Messiah to the Jews. They fill the gap between the Old Testament and the church, describing what happened while Christ was on earth before the church commenced.
Faith, Hope and Love
Paul commended the Thessalonians for “your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th. 1:3). Later he says, “since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet” (1 Th. 5:8). They were motivated by faith, love and hope. These are the characteristics of a godly life: dependence on God, love for the Lord and for one another, and the hope of Christ’s return. They are often mentioned together in the New Testament and we will look briefly at each of these.
The Greek word for faith, “pistis”, means a spiritual conviction. It is used in the New Testament to describe: trust, trustworthiness and by metonymy (a figure of speech in which the name of one thing is used for another associated with it), what is trusted (“the faith”). Faithfulness is a fruit of the Spirit that accompanies salvation (Gal. 5:22-23).
This word is used to describe living by faith; “… let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:22-24). We trust in God because He gave Christ as our Saviour. He is “faithful”; He keeps His promises. In the case of the believers in Thessalonica, their faith in God became known everywhere (1 Th. 1:8).
This word is also used to describe the truth we trust: “dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life” (Jude 20-21). Here the faith is the truth of the gospel and the doctrine of the New Testament. The church is built up by studying and obeying the Bible. In the case of the believers in Thessalonica, they shared the gospel with their neighbours and friends—“The Lord’s message rang out from you” (1 Th. 1:8).
The Greek word for hope, “elpis”, means favourable and confident expectation. It is something that is certain, not something that is doubtful.
In the context of waiting eagerly for the resurrection of our bodies, Paul wrote, “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Rom. 8:24-25). Hope accompanies salvation. It involves the future, “what we do not yet have”.
The believers in Thessalonica had “hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” and waited “for His Son from heaven” (1 Th. 1:3, 10). Despite severe suffering, they had an attitude of joy. They saw the big picture that God was in control of their circumstances and their eternal destiny was secure. (1 Th. 1:6)
We have the hope of eternal life in heaven. It’s a part of the gospel. This hope is a reason to be faithful and loving: “we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all His people—the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard in the true word of the gospel that has come to you” (Col. 1:3-6).
Our hope comes from God: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13). “Through Him you believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and glorified Him, and so your faith and hope are in God” (1 Pt. 1:21). Because He is the Son God who died for our sin, Christ is our only hope of getting to heaven: “Christ Jesus our hope” (1 Tim. 1:1).
As a church we need to be optimistic, not pessimistic. We may experience disappointment and hardships, but God is working towards the time when we will be taken to be with Him in heaven where we will be like the Lord. This will be a great celebration, like a wedding feast where the Lord will be the groom and we will be the bride.
One of the Greek words for love, “agape”, means God’s deep and constant love of sinful humanity (seen in the gift of His Son) that fosters a reverential love in them towards God and a practical love towards others.
In all His actions, God is loving: “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8). His plan of salvation through Christ was an act of love that should cause us to love one another: “This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:9-11).
Love accompanies salvation; it is a fruit of the spirit (Gal. 5:22). When we experience the Lord’s amazing love, it causes us to respond by loving Him and others. This love distinguishes Christians who comprise the church. Jesus told His disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:34-35). Also, “He has given us this command: Those who love God must also love one another” (1 Jn. 4:21).
In 1 Corinthians 13, “love” is mentioned 7 times in 13 verses and Paul emphasises that everything must be done in a spirit of love. This love is a selfless concern for the welfare of others. It concludes, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love”. One of the reasons for this is that love is eternal.
With regard to the church Paul wrote “speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:15-16). The truth must be taught in a loving manner if we are to become more Christ-like. Like a human body, the church should develop with time so that it matures and becomes more loving as it carries out its functions.
The Thessalonicans service for God was motivated by love to the Lord; in their “labour prompted by love”, they served “the living and true God” (1 Th. 1:3, 9).
Initially the church in Jerusalem and Judea was Jewish, but then God showed Peter (Acts 10:1-11:18), Paul and Barnabas (Acts 11:19-24) that Gentiles could now also be a part of God’s people. Combining such people with different cultures and traditions together in the church was one of the biggest issues in the early years of the church. Firstly, some Jewish believers went from Judea to Antioch teaching that the male Gentile believers needed to be circumcised as the Jews were in the Old Testament times (Acts 15). Some likeminded Christians in Jerusalem were teaching that the Gentiles were also required to keep the law of Moses. This matter was discussed and resolved amongst the church at Jerusalem who then informed those who had been affected by this controversy.
Paul also told those at Corinth to stop following different leaders because this was divisive, but to have unity instead (1 Cor 1:10-13; 3:1-9). In the letter to the churches at Galatia, he opposed legalism because it divided the church. In Romans he dealt with tensions between Jewish and Gentile believers over eating meat that had been offered to idols and over Jewish festivals (Rom. 14:1-15:7; 1 Cor. 8).
The church in Ephesus was told that the Jewish and Gentile believers were “fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of His household” (Eph. 2:19). Consequently the hostility between them was to be replaced with peace (Eph. 2:14-18). They were to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:3-6). While it takes an effort to promote unity, all these spiritual things we have in common are powerful unifying forces in the church.
Lessons for us
As a congregation are we imitating Christ? What are we willing to give up to follow the Lord’s example? The local church depends on people giving up their time, resources, abilities and energy. When we make corporate decisions we should include the question, “What Would Jesus Do”?
What about the core qualities of faith, hope and love? If our faithfulness is strong, we will witness for Christ. If our hope is strong, we will be encouraging and optimistic about what God is doing. If our love is strong, we will be humble and compassionate.
Are we faithful in studying and obeying the Bible as a congregation? Are we sharing our faith in the gospel message? Are we optimistically looking forward to being with the Lord? Are we joyful to be a part of His new creation? Are we known for our love for one another? Does an attitude of love permeate all we do in word and deed?
If we imitate Christ and strengthen our faith, hope and love, surely we will have unity. Nevertheless, we need to be reminded as a congregation of the many spiritual things which we have in common, and which are more important than our differences.
Let’s be more Christ-like, faithful, hopeful, loving and united and develop these goals to become the congregation that God wants us to be.
Written, November 2007
Abraham: Trusting God’s Promises
God has given Christians many promises that can help them face the circumstances they encounter each day. Let’s look at why these promises are important in living a life that pleases God.
God’s Promises To Abraham
Abraham lived in the Middle East about 4,000 years ago. He was an ancestor of both the Jews and Arabs, which is why they still struggle over control of the Tomb of Patriarchs in Hebron where Abraham is buried. During the 40 years between leaving Ur and coming to Mt. Moriah, Abraham was given four great promises: a promised son (Isaac), a promised people (Jews), a promised land (Canaan), and a promised blessing for all people, (Jews wrote the Scriptures; Jesus Christ was Jewish).
There were two problems with the promises he was given at Ur (Gen. 12:1-4). First, all the promises depended on them having a child, and his wife Sarai was unable to have children (Gen. 11:30). The fact that they had no hope of having any children was devastating, when families usually had many children. Second, the promises required that Abraham leave his country and family, and go where God directed (Acts 7:2-3; Heb. 11:8-9). This 1,100 mile trip from Ur to Haran and then to Israel, was extremely long when the only means of transport was walking and using animals.
Ur was the capital of the second Sumerian state. The Sumerians practiced polytheism, and a form of astrology which associated the planets and stars with their many gods. After Ur was destroyed, Babylon replaced it as the dominant city in the Middle East.
The next 40 years of Abraham’s life are summarized in the figure below in terms of whether he was trusting God’s promises or doubting them. The graph goes up when he trusted the promises and down when he doubted them. These episodes of Abraham’s life are summarized according to whether he trusted or doubted God’s promises.
Trust: At the beginning of Abraham’s journey of faith he obeyed the Lord and left Ur and travelled to Haran on the way to Canaan (Gen. 11:31).
Doubt: But Abraham and his family stopped and settled in Haran, about half-way to Canaan. He did not trust God as he had not yet left his family.
Trust: After God intervened and his father died, Abraham, now 75, traveled to Canaan, the Promised Land (Gen. 12:4-8; Acts 7:4). He was not afraid even though the land was occupied by the Canaanites. After God renewed His promise, Abraham built an altar and worshiped. When his faith was strong, he built a new altar each time he moved to a new locality.
Doubt: Later, when he visited Egypt, Abraham doubted God and forgot His promises which couldn’t be fulfilled unless he was alive to father a child (Gen. 12:10-20). He feared that Pharaoh would kill him to take his beautiful wife for his harem. Rather than seek God’s protection, Abraham took matters into his own hands and deceived Pharaoh. But God intervened and Abraham and his household were cast out of Egypt.
Trust: After this, Abraham worshiped the Lord again and the promises were renewed (Gen. 13:4,14-18). The Lord told him to explore the Promised Land and this gave him a vision of God’s provision.
Doubt: Abraham, still childless, thought his servant Eliezer would be his heir as this was the law at the time (Gen. 15:1-3). He had forgotten God’s promise of numerous descendants; he was living by sight not faith.
Trust: After God promised him a son and repeated the other promises, Abraham “believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). God accepted Abraham because he believed His promises: he trusted God. God then confirmed the promises unconditionally.
Doubt: Sarah, unable to have any children, persuaded Abraham to father a child by her servant, Hagar (Gen. 16:2). The child was Ishmael, the ancestor of the Arabic people. It was 11 years since Abraham heard the promise of many descendants and a great nation. They lacked faith and took matters into their own hands again.
Trust: Thirteen years later the promises were repeated by God (Gen. 17:1-16). As a sign of the promises they were instructed to circumcise every male in their household. Abraham’s faith was renewed and he worshiped because of these reminders of unconditional agreement.
Doubt: When they were told that Sarah would have a son, Abraham worshiped and laughed in amazement, while Sarah laughed in disbelief as she was past the childbearing age (Gen. 17:17-18; 18:9-15). In this case Sarah doubted and needed to hear, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”
Trust: God responded to Abraham’s request and said that Ishmael would be blessed and have many descendants, and on that day Abraham circumcised all the males in his household (Gen. 17:18-27). This obedience indicates that his faith was strong.
Doubt: Later, Abraham doubted God again because he thought he would be killed by King Abimelech, because of his wife’s beauty (Gen. 20:1-18). This was a repeat of his failure in Egypt 20 years earlier. It shows how prone we are to sin. Once again, Abraham was living by sight, not faith. Fortunately God intervened again to rescue Abraham and Sarah.
Trust: The miraculous conception and birth of Isaac to parents aged 100 and 90 was a pinnacle in the life of Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 17:17; 21:1-7). This happened “at the very time God had promised.” Abraham circumcised Isaac, and Sarah acknowledged God’s miracle. This was the only promise fulfilled in their lifetime; it strengthened their trust in Him.
After 40 years, Abraham’s faith was tested when God ordered him to offer Isaac as a burnt offering (Gen. 22:1-14; Heb. 11:17-19). Isaac was the promised son through whom the other promises were to be fulfilled! But Abraham obeyed God even though it looked like the death of Isaac. He had learned his lesson to trust without doubting. He believed God could bring Isaac back to life to fulfill His promises. He passed the test, being confident in God, while God stopped it before harm could come to Isaac. Surely, Isaac remembered this close encounter all of his life! God then encouraged Abraham’s faith by repeating His promises (Gen. 22:15-18).
God’s Promises Are Important
A promise is a commitment to do/not do something. The receiver has the right to expect fulfillment. God’s promises are trustworthy; He “does not lie” and “has the power to do what He has promised” (Tit. 1:2; Rom. 4:21).
The Bible contains many promises. The first, “He will crush your head” alludes to the destruction of Satan; the last, “I am coming soon” refers to Christ’s return (Gen. 3:15; Rev. 22:20). The main theme of the Bible is a promise of salvation for all who trust in the effectiveness of Christ’s death and resurrection. It is accepted by faith.
Christians are also called to “live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). We can’t see the Lord, but we trust and obey Him daily. This is an act of faith. In fact, we need God’s saving power daily, and He has given us the pattern – He has given many promises. We should exercise faith and trust in His promises, offering thanks for His provision and goodness.
God’s promises are an important part of living by faith. Trusting God is trusting that His promises will come true. They are the objects of our faith and they help us to look ahead rather than behind (Heb. 11:10).
God’s promises also help us live a life that pleases Him. “He has given us His very great and precious promises, so that through them we may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Pet. 1:4). God’s promises allow us to participate in the divine nature, and escape the corruption of the world.
Lessons From Abraham
Abraham’s example is mentioned in Galatians, Hebrews and Romans, which also says that “everything … was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). The example of Abraham’s faith journey was written for all who believe that God raised Jesus from the dead (Rom. 4:23-24). Because of their faith, Christians are viewed as “children of Abraham.” Like Isaac, we are “children of promise” and heirs (Rom, 4:16; Gal. 3:7, 29; 4:28).
Faith is a gift from God (Rom. 12:3). For 25 years Abraham’s faith wavered, but he learned trust, becoming known as “the father” of all the faithful (Rom. 4:16). We see in the graph that although his faith went up and down, it increased with time. He made many mistakes and had many doubts before he trusted God consistently. Because of human weakness we will also have times of doubt; but our faith should grow as his did.
Abraham learned to trust God over a long period of time. Isaac was born 25 years after the promise given at Ur. He was 40 when he married Rebecca; they had twins 20 years later. Abraham waited 85 years after the promise before he had a grandchild! In fact, when he died at 175, he had one son aged 75 years and two grandchildren aged 15 years – a slow beginning to the promises of numerous descendants and a great nation!
Like Abraham, we too are called to leave idolatry and walk by faith on our journey to the Promised Land. He trusted God when he was reminded of God’s promises, when he obeyed God, and when God did great things in his life. Likewise, our faith is strengthened as we are reminded of God’s promises, obey God and see the great things He’s doing through His Spirit.
The evidence of faith: Abraham is a great example of faith in action. “Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac? … His faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend” (Jas. 2:21-23).
The attitude of faith: The key was that Abraham believed and trusted God (Rom. 4:3-5). He trusted that God could perform a miracle, regardless of circumstances (Rom. 4:18-21). Personal faith and trust are essential for a life that pleases God, but it must have a reliable foundation. Abraham’s faith depended on God, the only reliable foundation for our faith.
Barriers to trusting God: Abraham had doubts when he was fearful, impatient, and took more notice of others than of God’s promises.
• Circumstances: The Guinness Book of Records states that the oldest mother gave birth at age 57. When Isaac was to be conceived, Abraham faced the fact that 90 year-old Sarah was too old to have children, but he didn’t let the circumstances destroy his faith (Rom. 4:19).
• Possibilities: It’s hard to believe a promise when it seems too good to be true. But things impossible to us are possible to God. “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be’” (Rom. 4:18).
• Impatience: “After waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised” (Heb. 6:15). He waited 25 years for a son and 85 for a grandson!
Benefits to trusting God: The following blessings were a result of Abraham’s trust in God’s promises: his faith was strengthened – Abraham became convinced of God’s power (Rom. 4:20-21); God was exalted – Abraham gave God the glory (Rom. 4:20); the promises came true – Abraham had a son and his descendants grew great in number (Acts 7:17).
Relying On God’s Promises
God’s promises are a vital ingredient in a life that pleases God. We should always remember, from Abraham’s example, that God keeps His promises. Don’t let the barriers of impatience and circumstances suppress our hope in God’s promises. Use the eyes of faith, not just those of sight.
Know God’s promises: Abraham’s faith increased when he was reminded of God’s promises. We have them in the Bible. Some apply to the present and others to the future. We need to know them, claim them and rejoice in them. Then we will progress on the journey of faith.
Focus on God’s promises: Ishmael mocked Isaac and was banished (Gen. 21:8-14). Likewise, we should banish anything that stops our focusing on God’s promises and using the faith He has put in our hearts (Gal. 4:21-31).
Claim God’s promises: We display trust in God’s promises by reminding others of them and claiming them in prayer. Live in view of God’s promise of a heavenly future and add the eternal dimension to life (Heb. 11:16).
Thank God for His promises: Abraham worshiped God long before Isaac was born, and he never saw the fulfillment of the other three promises. Likewise, we should thank God for His “great and precious promises.”
Published, November 2002
How should we respond to Jude’s advice?
Build yourselves up in your most holy faith
The church. Are believers growing and maturing in the Christian faith? Is the younger generation being trained to maturity, so they can train the next generation (2 Tim. 2:2)? Are there processes to ensure this happens, whether in large or small groups? Do you know who your teachers are? Are they teaching? Are we teaching important principles and not majoring in minor ones? Are we teaching on current issues? Do we speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15)?
Yourself. Are you ready to learn from the Bible and from others? Do you know your spiritual gifts? Are you a teacher? Should you be teaching others? Do you study the Bible? Do you have a teacher to help with questions you may have? Are you willing to respect the opinion of others on debateable matters where Christians may disagree?
Pray in the Holy Spirit
The church. Do we encourage people to get to know each other well enough to share their needs and to pray for the important issues of life? Does this include spiritual needs? Are there small groups where this can happen? Do you have people who can discern God’s will or do you function mainly according to custom and tradition?
Yourself. Do you pray for the needs of others and for God’s purposes? Do you have some friends that you can share and pray together with?
Keep yourselves in God’s love
The church. Is the Lord’s love evident in your meetings such as the Lord’s Supper and times of fellowship? Are these joyful occasions and ones where people are encouraged and will want to attend? Do you include new songs? What about fellowship with believers in other churches in your area? Remember, they are also part of the body of Christ.
Yourself. Do you attend and contribute to meetings where God’s love is expressed? Do you examine and judge yourself to stay in fellowship with God? Do you express hospitality to others?
Wait for the Lord’s return
The church. Do we give believers hope for the future by reminding them of the Lord’s return? Do we give people a reason to have an optimistic view of their future?
Yourself. Does this help you to live a pure life? Do you expect that the Lord could return at any moment of time?
Reach out to help others
The church. Do we encourage outreach by evangelists and missionaries? Do we identify and help those with this gift? Do we invite evangelists and missionaries to visit; share with them and help them practically?
Yourself. I hope you don’t isolate yourself from non-believers. Do you make friends with them so they can be introduced to the gospel? Do you pray for and support the work of evangelists and missionaries?
Written, April 2002
Jude’s advice on living for God
The letter of Jude addresses apostasy in the church. An apostate is someone who professes to be a believer but is not a true Christian—the Greek word means defection or revolt. They deny the fundamentals of the faith. Judas Iscariot is a good example—he travelled with Jesus and the apostles, but showed his true character when he betrayed the Lord.
The apostates at that time were the Gnostics who regarded matter as being inherently evil and spirit as being good. This lead to hedonism as a result of the idea that the body could do anything it wanted to. They were selfish immoral heretics, who denied that Jesus was God’s son, that He died for the sins of the world and that He rose back to life (Jude 4,18). They also divided the church and didn’t have the Holy Spirit with them (Jude 19).
How should a Christian respond to such opposition, gross sinfulness and ungodliness? In this case it was coming from within the professing church. Jude lists five things that they could do in this situation. These would apply to any believers facing opposition and ungodliness. It describes how Christians should live for God in a sinful world.
Build yourselves up in your most holy faith
The first activity is to “build yourselves up in your most holy faith” or build your lives on the foundation of your most holy faith (Jude 20NIV). The Greek word used for “build” in this verse is used elsewhere to describe:
- God and the Bible (Acts 20:32)
- teaching in the local church (1 Cor. 3:10, 12, 14).
- teaching of the writers of the New Testament (Eph. 2:20)
- Living as though Jesus is Lord: “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness” (Col. 2:6-7). This is similar to Jude 20 and shows that the building is linked with being “strengthened in the faith”.
These are the things we should be building on and with—they are the contents of our belief, that is Christian “faith”. As they come from God, they are called “holy” (Jude 20).
Building up conveys a sense of growth and strengthening. Jude had urged them to “contend for the faith” (v.3) they had been given. This is a command to guard and defend Biblical truth. Similarly, Paul writes that believers should contend for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose them (Phil. 1:27-28). So the Christian faith as given in the Bible is entrusted to us and we need to know it well enough to defend it.
When we accept Christ as Savior and Lord, we begin a lifetime of spiritual growth—we are to keep on building: “continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel” (Col. 1:23). This is a personal responsibility: “build yourselvesup”. Some effort is required here to respond to all God has given us in the Bible by assimilating it into our lives. Paul expressed a similar thought, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pt. 3:18). There are two parts to this growth; grace and truth! This means becoming more like Christ (Jn. 1:14).
The fundamentals of the Christian faith should be taught by preachers and teachers and understood by believers. When this happens there is a response of thankfulness (Col. 2:7). Preachers, teachers and small group leaders are builders in the local church (1 Cor. 3:10-17). They may build using “gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw”. Teaching can either be of lasting worth or only of passing value or of no value at all. It can be tested against the teachings of the Bible.
Paul and Barnabas strengthened believers and encouraged them to remain true to the faith (Acts 14:21-22 ). We should help each other in this: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” (1 Th. 5:11). So, it should be a corporate activity, not just an individual one.
Pray in the Holy Spirit
Next Jude writes that we should “Pray in the Holy Spirit” (Jude 20). This means to pray as guided by the Holy Spirit. It’s a part of living each day by the power of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:25).
Paul writes, “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should” (Eph. 6:18-20). We need an active prayer life. Share your life with God; after all you are His ambassador. Pray for each other. Paul doesn’t ask to be released from prison, but that he may declare the gospel.
Praying in the Spirit also means praying in accordance with God’s will as the Holy Spirit reveals it to us through Scripture. “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of Him” (1 Jn. 5:14-15).
Prayer replaces anxiety with peace. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).
The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit prays for us! “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will” (Rom. 8:26-27).
Keep yourselves in God’s love
Then Jude calls Christians to “Keep yourselves in God’s love” (Jude 21). The word “keep” has been used to describe how Jesus watches us and protects us from evil (1 Jn. 5:18; Jude 1). This would have been comforting to those experiencing persecution.
To “keep” often means to guard—Paul was guarded in prison (Acts 12:5,6; 16:23). He also guarded the Christian faith (2 Tim. 4:7). He asked us to guard our lives by keeping free from sin (1 Tim. 5:22). To keep yourselves in God’s love means to live in God’s love—to guard our lives so that His love controls us (2 Cor. 5:14-15).
Of course, no-one can separate us from God’s love (Rom. 8:35-39). God always loves us, but when sin comes into our life we longer enjoy His love. Let nothing come between us and God—if it does, then confess it and turn away from it (1 Jn. 1:9). Then we can enjoy His love and let it influence us and express it to others.
Is God’s love central in your mind, will and emotions? Paul wrote, “May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance” (2 Th. 3:5). When this happens it is evident in how we live, “if anyone obeys His word, God’s love is truly made complete in him (1 Jn. 2:5). Similarly, “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love” (Jn. 15:10). Also, “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me” (Jn. 14:21).
To live in God’s love means to show it to others (1 Jn. 3:16-18). So, it includes what we do as well as what we say. God’s love for us should flow through to our love for each other, “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:11).
Another mention of “love” in Jude’s letter is the “love feast” (v.12)— a common meal eaten by early Christians before the Lord’s supper. Times of fellowship and the Lord’s supper should help us to live in God’s love.
Like learning Christian doctrine and prayer, living in God’s love has a corporate component—we can’t do it all by ourselves. “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25). We need to encourage one another in these important aspects of the Christian life whenever we meet together.
It is interesting to note that these first three activities were practiced by the early church; “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).
Wait for the Lord’s return
Jude also urges Christians to “wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life” (Jude 21). To “wait” means looking forward and expecting a favorable reception. Paul wrote that believers should “wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Tit. 2:13). Christ’s coming is to “bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him” (Heb. 9:28). When Christ returns He will come to take His people home to heaven. This is the next phase of God’s great work of salvation; they will be like Christ, with new bodies and free from the presence of sin (1 Jn. 3:2). Ultimately, we are looking forward to “a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Pt. 3:13).
In the New Testament, the word “wait” is closely connected with how we live our lives. For example, we should “say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives” and be “eager to do what is good” while we wait (Tit. 2:12-14). Also, we “ought to live holy and godly lives” as we wait (2 Pt. 3:11-12). So waiting for the Lord’s return involves changing our behavior!
The prospect of the Lord’s second coming should encourage us; “Therefore encourage each other with these words” (1 Th. 4:18). We have hope regardless of what our situation may be. We should use it to encourage one another; we are on a journey and we haven’t reached our destination. The best is yet to come. It should help us to live godly lives—“Everyone who has this hope will keep themselves pure, just as He is pure” (1 Jn. 3:3).
Reach out to help others
Finally, Jude calls Christians to “Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh” (Jude 22-23).
In the case of apostasy in the church and those following false teachers there are three situations. Firstly, leaders and those actively promoting this behavior need to be dealt with firmly. This is the responsibility of the elders (Acts 20:28-31). For example, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work” (2 Jn. 10-11). We should not show hospitality to such people.
For the remainder there are two courses of action. Secondly, “be merciful to those who doubt”—show kindness by helping and correcting them. The word “doubt” means lack of faith. Jesus expressed mercy in healing the demon-possessed man, while lack of mercy is illustrated by the servant who should have forgiven his fellow-servant (Mt. 18:33; Mk. 5:19). We need to reach out compassionately to these people and help them replace their doubts with true Christian faith. This is how Jesus responded to people, “When He saw the crowds, He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt. 9:36). So He healed, fed and taught them (Mt. 14:14; 15:32, Mk. 6:34).
Thirdly, “snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh”. Remember Lot had to be snatched from the city of Sodom before it was destroyed (Gen. 19:15-17). Some need strong warning, instruction or action to stop them following false teachers or to remove them from bad situations. But be aware of the influence of sin. In Old Testament times the clothing of those with infectious skin diseases such as leprosy had to be burned (Lev. 13:47-52). This illustrates the care that must be taken when dealing with people who have been involved with serious sins. Sin is tempting and can be contagious, we must do all we can to avoid catching it. In these situations it is best not to act alone; get others to pray and help in any rescue mission.
Those living in fellowship with God will show mercy to others (Jas. 2:13). An example of “mercy mixed with fear” is “If someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted” (Gal. 6:1).
Of course, like Jesus, our compassion should reach those outside the church. We should encourage each to reach out to those who don’t know God and who are slaves of sin.
Living for God today
Today we often face apathy rather than apostasy. I think Jude’s advice applies in both situations. What world view are you building your life on? What are you keeping because of its value? What are you waiting for in anticipation? Are you praying? Are you reaching out to help others?
Whatever challenge you face, contend for the faith by following Jude’s advice. Build yourselves up in your most holy faith—learn about it from the Bible, which is how God speaks to us. Pray in the Holy Spirit—speak to God. Keep yourselves in God’s love—apply the Bible to your life. Wait for the Lord’s return and reach out to help others. These should be top priority for Christians and for local churches. We can’t control what happens around us, but we can influence our response to it and live godly lives.
If you are faithful in this, God promises to “keep you from falling” down here (like apostates and false teachers) and to “present you before His glorious presence without fault and with great joy” up there (Jude 24). Then you will respond in praise, “to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore!” (Jude 25).
Written, April 2002
Paul was a missionary who established churches around the Mediterranean Sea. His second missionary journey took him to Greece, then known as Macedonia and Achaia. Thessalonica, the capital of Macedonia, with a population of over 200,000, was a busy seaport. Christianity came to Thessalonica when Paul preached the gospel and some Jews and Greeks became believers (Acts 17:1-10). When the jealous Jewish leaders rioted in the city, Paul and Silas escaped at night to Berea. Paul later fled to Athens. He sent Timothy to check on the Thessalonian believers (1 Th. 2:17-3:3) while he went to Corinth. Timothy brought news of how they were standing firm despite opposition.
Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church in 50-51 AD to address the issues they faced. Jews claimed that Paul was not a real apostle; pagans persecuted them because they worshiped one God instead of many; sexual immorality was common in Greece; there were misunderstandings about the second coming of Christ; tensions arose between the congregation and the elders; and some stifled the Holy Spirit’s work, treating prophetic teachings with contempt.
Paul encouraged them “to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more” (1 Th. 4:1 NIV). This letter can be divided into six sections: model believers; Paul’s example; Paul’s joy; living to please God; the coming of the Lord; and living as a Christian. In part one we look at model believers.
“Paul, Silas and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you” (1 Th. 1:1).
The letter begins by telling us who it was from. Whenever he could, Paul worked with others, and here he mentioned them by name. He also referred to the believers as “the church” in Thessalonica. In the Bible, “church” refers to a group of believers, not a building. Because the Greek word for “church” meant any gathering of people, the believers were referred to as being “in God … and … Christ” to distinguish them from pagans, as the rioters in Ephesus were also referred to as an “assembly” or “church” (Acts 19:32). Years later, the word “church” came to mean a gathering of Christians, instead of a gathering of any kind.
Saying they were “in” God the Father and Christ indicates two relationships. First, the Greek word for “Father” means “a nourisher, protector, upholder.” God’s relationship to a believer is that of father to child. Second, the Greek word translated “Lord” was a title for one with power and supreme authority, such as Caesar, the absolute monarch. It could be translated as “ruler,” “master,” “God” or “owner.” It was also a title of honor and respect, with which servants greeted their master. Christ’s relationship to us is that of master to servant. Christians are those who confess “Jesus as Lord” (Rom. 10:9,13). By placing “God” and “Christ” together, Paul says Christ is part of the godhead.
“We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th. 1:2-3).
Paul regularly prayed for these believers. They were his children in the faith. He thanked God for the changes in their lives – their spiritual birth and growth, shown by their “work produced by faith,” their “labor prompted by love,” and their “endurance inspired by hope.” His thanksgiving preceded instruction.
Their “work produced by faith” was their conversion; they “turned to God from idols” (1:9). Faith is exercised when a sinner accepts the Savior and then lives in that faith. Faith is the act of trusting God (Jn. 6:28-29). This work includes the life of faith which follows conversion. Their “labor prompted by love” was their service for God motivated by love for Christ; they served “the living and true God” (1:9). Their “endurance inspired by hope” was their anticipation of Christ’s return. They waited “for His Son from heaven” (1:10; 4:13-18). Although persecuted for their faith, they didn’t give up.
Here we see that the motivation for Christian activity is faith, love and hope. The faith that God gives us results in love for God and the hope of Christ’s return, which in turn produces action such as labor and endurance.
Faith In Action
“For we know, brothers loved by God, that He has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction” (1 Th. 1:4-5).
This letter was written to both men and women. The Greek word for “brothers” means “brothers and sisters” or “the community.” Here, Paul commended all the Christians in Thessalonica and called them model believers. And he reminded them of two things. First, they were loved. God loves all of us, even before faith is evident in our lives (Jn. 3:16; Rom. 5:8). He loves us so much that His Son died for us. Second, they were chosen by God (Jn. 6:44). After they became Christians it was evident from their behavior that they had been chosen by God (Eph. 1:4). The Bible teaches that people have the choice to accept or reject the gift of salvation. They accepted.
The dramatic change in their lives occurred after Paul preached to them the gospel of God and Christ (2:2,8; 3:2). It came “with” four things. First, “with words” he preached about the Old Testament promises of God, who Jesus was and what He had done. Second, “with power” there was conviction of sin, repentance and conversion. The gospel has power to change lives. Third, “with the Holy Spirit” identified the source of that power. Fourth, “with deep conviction” they knew that Paul spoke for God and they gave their lives to Him. They accepted that Paul spoke God’s Word, “which is at work in you who believe” (1 Th. 2:13). His Word changes people as they obey it (2 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 4:12). They heard the message and acted upon it and it changed their lives.
Love In Action
“You know how we lived among you … You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers … The Lord’s message rang out from you … your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Th. 1:5-9).
The Thessalonians imitated Paul and Christ, and were a good example to other believers (1:6-7), even though they were persecuted. Their love was shown in three ways. First, they stopped complaining and started rejoicing. They saw that God was in control and their eternal destiny was secure. Their suffering was short compared to their eternal salvation in Christ. Second, they shared the gospel with their neighbors and friends: “The Lord’s message rang out from you.” The gospel was worth telling because it gave joy and hope. Third, they trusted God to care for them daily; their “faith in God” was well known. Trust in God is needed to spread the gospel effectively. They did this so well that Paul didn’t need to repeat the gospel message.
The Thessalonians had made a great start in their Christian life. First, they repented of selfish living and turned to God from many forms of idols, from carved images to strong desires to possess things (Col. 3:5). Second, they served God out of love, which is a sacrificial concern for others (Jn. 13:34-35). Theirs was “labor prompted by love” (1:3).
Hope In Action
“They tell how you turned to God from idols … to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath” (1 Th. 1:10).
They were also waiting for Christ’s return (Jn. 14:3; 1 Th. 4:13-18; 1 Cor. 15:51-58). God promised to take believers to be with Him. This can happen at death: “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). It can also happen at the rapture. Jesus said, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (Jn. 14:3). The Christian should live expecting the Lord to come at any moment.
Our hope is knowing that what God has begun through Christ’s work on earth, He will complete at His return. The trials of this life are temporary and bring endurance in spite of difficult circumstances. God is in control, and knows what He’s doing.
What does Paul mean when he refers to Jesus’ rescuing us from “the coming wrath”? The same thought is in 1 Th. 5:9, in the context of the “day of the Lord.” This is a coming time when God’s wrath will be poured out on the world (Mt. 24:21) immediately before His return in power and judgment (Mt. 24:27-31). When Christ returns at the rapture to take believers to heaven, He will rescue them from the tribulation that will occur between the rapture and His appearing (Mt. 24:4-28; 1 Th. 5:1-11; 2 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 3:10).
The Thessalonians imitated Paul and Christ and were good examples for other believers in Greece. They are also good examples for us. But are we a good example for others? Are we a help or a hindrance to those we come in contact with? The gospel produced a radical change in these believers: a new faith – they followed God instead of idols; a new love – they served God; a new hope – they anticipated the second coming of Jesus Christ; a new joy – they knew God was in control; and a new mission – spreading the gospel. God wants us to be like them.
Published, January 2009
See the next article in this series:
- Paul’s example
After the apostle Paul rescued a slave girl from demon possession, her owners realized that they could no longer make money from her fortune telling. So, they seized Paul and Silas and accused them before the magistrates (Acts 16:16-24). A crowd joined in this attack and Paul and Silas were stripped, flogged and thrown into the inner prison. This disappointing and painful situation could easily lead to depression and disillusionment. How did Paul and Silas react? Luke records: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25 NIV). In a seemingly hopeless situation, they sang praises to God. Where did their joy and encouragement come from?
God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are the sources of encouragement for the believer (Acts 9:31; Rom. 15:5; 2 Th. 2:16-17). This kind of encouragement is not something we have, but something we get from God. The Greek words translated “encourage” and “encouragement” in the New Testament are paraklesis and parakaleo. The most common ways to get encouragement are to meditate on certain Scriptures, on the gospel message of salvation through Jesus Christ, on Christ’s return and on our Christian faith shared with other believers.
The Bible is encouraging because it is God’s special message to humanity. Paul wrote, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). This means that the Scriptures are encouraging, and following them brings hope into our lives.
Paul taught that a local church was to be led by a group of elders (Ti. 1:5-9). One qualification of an elder was that “he must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Ti. 1:9). The “trustworthy message” that was taught by Jesus Christ, Paul and the other apostles has been recorded in the Bible. An elder encourages the congregation by teaching and following the sound doctrines of the Bible, the truths of Scripture.
After urging the believers to “stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter,” Paul wrote, “May our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who loved us and by His grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word” (2 Th. 2:15-17). Also, prophets brought the message from God before the New Testament was available in a written form; and their messages “encouraged” the believers (1 Cor. 14:3,31).
The Gospel Message
The gospel is encouraging because it is the key to forgiveness of sins and eternal life. When the synagogue rulers said to Paul and Barnabas, “If you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak,” Paul preached the gospel (Acts 13:15). He began with the Old Testament and concluded with, “I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (Acts 13:16-41). The gospel of Jesus Christ is always encouraging.
Paul described his mission this way: “My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ” (Col. 2:2). Here we see that encouragement is linked to an understanding that all believers are part of the Church (Col. 1:26-27). Paul also wrote, “We sent Timothy … God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith” (1 Th. 3:2).
Christians “may be greatly encouraged” because they “have fled to take hold of the hope offered to them” in the gospel (Heb. 6:18). In this image they are fleeing to heaven from a world bound for judgment.
The return of Christ to bring all His followers into heaven is encouraging because it means an end of the sorrow, suffering and disappointment of this sinful world. Believers are commanded to encourage each other with the fact that they “will be with the Lord forever” (1 Th. 4:18). The promise of Christ’s return so believers “may live together with Him” is a great encouragement (1 Th. 5:10-11). In view of Christ’s return and the resurrection of the dead, believers should “meet together” to “encourage one another” (Heb. 10:25).
The Christian faith is encouraging because it is the practical demonstration of living according to the Bible, the gospel and Christ’s return. Paul longed to visit the believers in Rome so they could be “mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (Rom. 1:11-12). The encouragement here is from each other’s faith, not any external circumstances. He also wrote, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus” (Rom. 15:5). Here, encouragement and unity are associated with following the Lord. Paul was also encouraged when he heard about the faith of the believers at Thessalonica (1 Th. 3:7). Likewise, John had “great joy” when told about believers who continued to “walk in the truth” (3 Jn. 3-4).
Let’s be encouraged by God’s promises in the Scriptures, in the good news of salvation, in Christ’s return and in the faith we share with other believers. These are all linked, with the gospel being the core message conveyed by the Scriptures and Christ’s return being the hope of the gospel. It’s interesting that these facts do not depend on our circumstances, but in fact bring encouragement amidst struggles and suffering.
Also, let’s “encourage one another daily” in the faith so we will not be “hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Heb. 3:13). We are told to use these same means to encourage others (2 Cor. 1:4). Those with the gift of encouragement should exercise their gift amongst believers (Rom. 12:8). It seems as though Barnabas had this gift as his name meant “son of encouragement” and he encouraged the church at Antioch (Acts 4:36; 11:22-23).
When life is difficult, remember Paul and Silas in prison. Don’t follow your feelings or seek encouragement only from circumstances, as you soon will be disappointed. Don’t forsake the Lord when life gets tough. Instead, encourage yourself and others by remembering all that God has done.
Published, April 2008