Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Christian living

The Canberra Declaration

Canberra declaration 1This document was drafted in 2010 by a number of concerned Christian leaders from various backgrounds. It is a national declaration about the Judeo-Christian foundations which have made the West and Australia free, prosperous and democratic. It directs us to some of the key issues and values facing not just this nation, but all nations. The values listed here are very much under threat, and need to be vigorously and courageously championed.

The Preamble to the Australian Constitution contains the words, “Humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God”. As Australian citizens we continue to declare that we too put our trust in Almighty God.

For centuries, to speak of Western civilization was to speak of Christian civilization. The two were in many ways synonymous. The values that we have cherished and sought to strengthen are in large measure founded on the Judeo-Christian belief system. The many freedoms, advantages, opportunities, values and liberties which characterize the West owe much to the growth of Christianity with its inherent belief in the dignity of the human person as created in the image of God and the code of behavior that flows from this belief.

The Canberra Declaration follows on from the 2009 Manhattan Declaration and the 2010 Westminster Declaration. It declares that when Christian values are respected and allowed freedom of expression, not just confined to so-called sacred spaces but in the public arena as well, society is richer and healthier.

We wish to emphasize three areas that demand particular attention in our contemporary Australian society, namely religious freedom, marriage and the family, and the sanctity of human life. Were we to undermine any one of these values, the social fabric of our nation would be seriously weakened, to our personal and collective detriment.

Religious Freedom

Religious freedom includes freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. The importance of these freedoms is shown in countries where they are threatened or absent. Police states and totalitarian nations inevitably begin with the curtailment of basic liberties, including religious freedom and the right to speak one’s mind and conscience. This includes the right to change one’s religious beliefs.

We affirm the basic necessity of freedom of conscience, having the liberty to speak publicly about one’s faith and beliefs, and having the right to practise the religion of one’s choice. If these freedoms are removed – even in the name of supposed benefits – the prized values of democracy and liberty are seriously undermined.

In Australia today these freedoms are being restricted by laws which, although appearing positive on first reading, have the potential to lead to unintended and unacceptable consequences. These laws include anti-discrimination legislation, hate crime laws and legislation on religious and sexual vilification – each of which may be interpreted in a way that effectively works as a barrier to religious freedom and freedom of speech.

Thus the signers of this declaration affirm the fundamental right of Australians to religious freedom and freedom of speech, and we oppose legislation which denies such freedoms. We likewise oppose laws subjugating our nation to foreign powers and instrumentalities which restrict these freedoms.

Marriage and Family

Another vital package of values and social benefits is the long-standing institution of the natural family resulting from marriage between a man and a woman – as affirmed by the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act: “…the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”.

No other social institution has done so much good for people and for nations, yet marriage is being undermined, to the detriment of children, individuals, and society itself.

Lifelong marriage between a man and a woman guarantees children their biological birthright to a mother and a father and has a proven track record of providing them with protection, education, welfare, support and nurture. No other arrangement has improved upon the benefits of marriage.

In the face of competing alternatives and moves to redefine marriage, we affirm the importance and social utility of marriage between a man and a woman and the families formed thereby.

Human Life

The third important set of values revolves around the sanctity of human life which is being undermined in much of the Western world, through abortion, euthanasia, and some of the new reproductive technologies.

We believe that all human life, being made in the image of God, has intrinsic and equal value from conception to life’s natural end.

The very heart of a humane and civilized society is based on the way it treats its most vulnerable and innocent members including the unborn and the disabled. We therefore insist on the right of all persons, including those who are vulnerable or dependent, to protection from conception to natural death. We will support, protect, and be advocates for such people, since to do anything less is to weaken our humanity and despise our personhood.

We will not comply with any directive that compels us to participate in or facilitate abortion, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide, euthanasia, or any other act that involves the intentional taking of innocent human life.

Conclusion

Religious freedom, marriage and family, and the sacredness of human life have provided the foundations enabling Western democratic societies to flourish. We erode these foundations at our peril.

The faith which is at the heart of many of the values and strengths underpinning the Australian nation now compels us to speak up in their defence.

For the future of this nation, and for our children’s future, we call upon all like-minded citizens to support and sign this declaration.

Posted, April 2017


True worship

worship 400pxWhat is “true worship”? You may think that worship is limited to a church meeting or the singing in such a meeting. But it’s much more than that!

In Romans Paul shows that worship is an important part of our Christian lives. After 11 chapters on doctrine (what we believe about what God has done for us), he turns to practice (how we should live in view of what God has done for us).

This turning point in the book of Romans begins, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (Rom. 12:1NIV)

Christians are urged to do something here. It says that our actions, conduct and behavior should flow from an appreciation of what God has done from us. He says, “I urge you”. It’s not a command from a dictator, but an appeal from a friend. God is urging us to live in fellowship with Him.

This appeal is in view of “God’s mercy”. All that God has done for us and given us is described in the previous 11 chapters. This includes: salvation, forgiveness, justification, grace, redemption, righteousness, peace, hope, love, reconciliation, a spiritual life, the Holy Spirit, being released from the law of Moses, and being children of God, heirs of God, and co-heirs with Christ. It’s so amazing that Paul concludes this section with a doxology expressing awe and wonder at what God has done and continues to do though Jesus (Rom. 11:33-36). That’s the basis of why we should live for God.

Paul says “offer your bodies” to God as a living sacrifice. This means to offer our whole lives to God, like sacrifices were offered in the ancient world. It’s our whole body, soul and spirit and all we do, not just in a meeting at church. It’s a total commitment.

It’s a “living sacrifice”. Like animals were sacrificed daily to God in the Old Testament, we are to be the sacrifice. We give up our rights and obey God. Our sacrifice is to be “holy”, exclusively for God. Just as in marriage we give ourselves fully to our spouse, so we give ourselves fully to God. The sacrifice is also to be “pleasing to God”. We are to live to please God.

This is “true and proper worship”. It’s what worship is! It’s offering ourselves to God because of all He’s done for us. It’s our logical and reasonable response to God.

We have seen that Romans 12:1 describes what worship is for each believer. It’s a way of life. It’s individual worship. This worship is not just a church meeting or singing, but the whole of our lives.

So according to the Bible, worship is a part of our response to God’s revelation. It is an attitude and an action. The attitude is offering adoration, respect and honor to God (Phil. 2:9-11; Rev. 5:14). And the action is showing this respect by a life of service, obeying God (Rom. 12:1). Everyone worships something or someone. It’s evident in how we spend our time and money.

But God also calls us to collective worship (1 Cor. 11: 23-33). That’s how our individual worship can be combined and expressed corporately. It’s an opportunity to express our adoration, respect and honor of the Lord collectively. Corporate worship is focused on what the Lord has done in dying for us. That’s one of the purposes of the Lord’s Supper. Like individual worship, this should engage our minds, wills and emotions.

Let’s worship the Lord “in the Spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:23-24).

Written, March 2017


The ethics of IVF

ivf-4-400pxInfertility can be devastating for couples who desire to have children. But medical technology now enables some of these to have their own children.

I have been asked about what should be the Christian attitude towards in-vitro fertilization (IVF)? The world’s first baby to be conceived by IVF was born in July 1978. In 2012, about 3.5% of all children born in Australia were conceived as a result of IVF treatment. And many Christians consider IVF an acceptable means to overcome infertility.

In this blogpost we look at IVF which uses the gametes of a husband and wife, and not the use of eggs or sperm that are donated by a third party. So only the sperm and egg of the married couple themselves are being considered and not surrogacy.

IVF procedure

The process of IVF consists of taking a woman’s eggs (ova) and a man’s sperm, fertilizing them outside the body, and then implanting them back into the woman’s womb with the goal of pregnancy and childbirth. It generally involves the following stages.

Pituitary suppression – The mother’s natural menstrual cycle is switched off with drugs.
Ovarian stimulation – fertility drugs are taken to stimulate the ovaries to produce several mature eggs, instead of just one.
Egg collection – Under a general or local anaesthetic, fluid is removed from the mother’s follicles, which contain eggs. The average number of eggs collected is 8-15. This number is required because of the attrition that occurs during the IVF cycle.
Sperm collection – Sperm is obtained from the father. And the best sperm are selected.
Fertilization – After the eggs are removed from the ovarian fluid, they are placed in a dish with the sperm and allowed to fertilize. Approximately 60-70% of the eggs will fertilize. If the sperm fertilizes an egg, it becomes an embryo, which is grown in a special incubator.
Embryo transfer – After 5-6 days, the embryos are in the blastocyst stage, when the embryo is transferred to the mother’s uterus. The healthiest one or two embryos are chosen for transfer. In Australia single embryo transfer is usually recommended unless the mother is over 40 years old, if the embryos available are of suboptimal quality or if there have been several previous unsuccessful IVF attempts.
Pregnancy – If an embryo successfully implants, the mother becomes pregnant.

Some differences between IVF and natural fertilization are:
– the mother experiences large dosages of hormones and invasive medical procedures.
– several eggs are fertilized at once instead of one at a time.
– the fertilization is occurring in the laboratory (outside the body) instead of inside the uterus.
– the sperm and eggs that fertilize have been selected artificially instead of naturally. Natural conception is a complicated process that is not fully understood and so can’t be replicated in the laboratory.

What happens to surplus embryos?

IVF generally produces more embryos than those that are transferred to the mother. But what happens to these excess embryos? Poor quality embryos are usually discarded, while healthy (good quality) embryos not transferred are usually frozen and stored. What happens to these frozen embryos?
– They may be used in subsequent IVF cycles.
– They may be used in medical research and then discarded.
– They may be discarded after pregnancy and childbirth is achieved.
– They may be stored indefinitely and even completely forgotten about.
– They may be donated to couples seeking children. But donating embryos does not ensure they will survive.
– They may be implanted at a time where pregnancy is very unlikely. This is actually a means of discarding embryos.

If several embryos are made for every woman who undergoes IVF, and about half of the embryos are discarded (or frozen) during or after the process, then millions of embryos have been discarded (or frozen) over the past 40 years.

When does human life begin?

There have been many suggestions as to when life begins including:
– The moment of fertilization when 23 chromosomes from each parent are combined to comprise the genetic makeup of a new and unique individual, known as a zygote. The zygote begins as a single cell which can subdivide by mitosis.
– About six days after fertilization, when the zygote (known as a blastocyst) is implanted in the uterine wall. The blastocyst is comprised of about 200-300 cells.
– About 14 days after fertilization, when occasionally the embryo can split to produce identical (or Siamese) twins. Twelve countries restrict in vitro research on human embryos to within 14 days of fertilization. Now that the culturing of human embryos in vitro beyond 14 days seems feasible, there is pressure to relax this restriction.
– About 20 weeks after fertilization, when the thalamus (a central part of the brain that plays a role in consciousness) is formed.
– When the fetus can exist outside the mother’s womb, which with current medical technology is about 24 weeks after fertilization.
– About 26 weeks after fertilization, when brain and neural pathways are developed enough to enable mental activity.
– At birth when breathing commences.

After fertilization, an embryo usually grows within the mother’s uterus until its birth. The unborn baby is alive before it’s born as its movements can be felt by the mother and monitored by ultrasound (Lk. 1:41-44). The characteristics of life include: sustenance, growth, responsiveness and reproduction. The smallest unit of life is a single cell that has these attributes. An organism is alive when it is comprised of living cells.

As functional genetic information and cell division are characteristics of a living cell, I think that a human embryo is alive from the time of its conception (fertilization).  An embryo has a distinct human genetic code and exhibits metabolism, development, the ability to react to stimuli, and cell reproduction. And if the baby’s life is not interrupted, the embryo will someday become an adult man or woman.

As an unborn baby undergoes continual development with time, we can trace backwards in time to when life begins. But where do we stop in the list of suggestions given above? The most logical beginning of life seems to be the moment of fertilization when a new genetic organism is formed from the male and female gametes. The other suggestions are steps in the development of the fetus, with no one being more important than the other – they are all equally important. Only fertilization is unique because it’s the beginning of the sequence.

The Bible refers to the unborn as an actual person by using personal pronouns (Ps. 139:13-16). This indicates that God considers the unborn to be a person. Some contest this by saving that the passage is poetic. Here’s another passage that is more definitive:
“If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Ex. 21:22-15NIV).

The context of this passage is Israelite laws for dealing with personal injuries. It is interesting that a pregnant woman is described in the Hebrew language as being “with child” (harah, Strongs #2030). So an unborn fetus is described as a “child”. In the first case there is a fine when a child is born prematurely because a pregnant woman was accidently injured. According to the Brown-Briggs-Driver lexicon, it was an “untimely birth”. But in the second case, injury to either the child or the mother incurs a more severe punishment. The same penalty applies to the unborn child and the mother. They are considered to be of equal worth under the laws that God gave Moses at Mt Sinai. So the Bible values the life of unborn children and teaches that it is wrong to harm or kill them. In this case it was accidental harm. The same would apply to intentional harm. This means that the Bible forbids intentional abortion. The Bible does not give us permission to destroy innocent human life—this would be murder (Jas. 2:11).

This understanding of the beginning of human life means that embryos are alive as a human being at the beginning of their life. What about an embryo that aborts naturally? Should we be concerned about this as the death of a human being? As this is a natural occurrence which happens according to the will of God, it isn’t necessarily wrong. Sometimes the mother may be unaware of this event. But if the parents are aware of it, then they can experience grief and loss. But for reasons only known to God, He allowed that to happen. We just need to be assured that that was the best outcome for the baby and the parents (Rom. 8:28).

Implications for IVF

One’s view of IVF will largely depend on one’s view of human intervention in the process of conception and one’s belief on the beginning of human life. If you are against human intervention, then IVF is not for you and you should seek other more natural ways to promote conception. On the other hand, if you believe that human life begins at or after implantation, then the use of IVF may be acceptable. In this case a young embryo is just a bunch of cells with the “potential” to be a baby, but it’s not a living being. However, you also need to appreciate the financial cost of IVF and the physical impact of the procedure on the mother.

IVF is more problematic if you believe that human life begins at fertilization. This means that the embryos produced in the laboratory by IVF are human lives. Usually the embryos that are not implanted are frozen or discarded. As these are not usually given the opportunity to develop into adults, their fate is equivalent to abortion. To destroy an embryo is to destroy a human being near the beginning of their life. If you want to respect human life and not destroy a human being, then IVF is only acceptable if no embryos are discarded. God values human life and does not condone murder (Exodus 20:13; Jas. 2:11).

Is the ethics of IVF a debatable matter?

As one’s view of IVF will largely depend on one’s view of human intervention in the process of conception and one’s belief on the beginning of human life, the ethics of IVF could be a debatable matter (like tattoos). These are secondary matters that are not essential to the Christian faith (Rom. 14:1 – 15:7; 1 Cor. 8:1-13; 10:23-33). The Biblical principles that can help us determine God’s will in debatable matters are given in the Appendix.

What about freezing embryos?

Excess embryos are often frozen for future usage. However, in practice the majority of these are eventually discarded. As mentioned above, this is a concern if you believe that human life begins at fertilization, as it represents the death of a human being.

Another possibility is that excess (frozen) embryos can be donated to other infertile couples. Embryo donation programs exist to enable this process. Embryo donation is legal in Australia. Some clinics have a policy that you can only donate two or more embryos, but other clinics will facilitate a donation of a single embryo. Also, the NSW Health Central Register allows for information to be shared between donors and donor conceived children with the consent of both parties.

However, when excess embryos from IVF are frozen, they are placed in immediate danger and face an uncertain destiny. It’s not possible to guarantee that the frozen embryos will be kept safe.

Are there any alternatives to IVF?

Some alternatives to IVF are mentioned on the internet, but these may not be widely available. For example, in natural cycle IVF, there is no ovarian stimulation and only one egg is collected and one embryo implanted. So there are no excess embryos. However, it appears as though there is a lower probability of pregnancy than for normal IVF.

Mild stimulation IVF also works with a woman’s natural cycle, and uses mild ovarian stimulation. In this case 2-7 eggs are typically collected and the probability of pregnancy is similar to normal IVF. In-vitro maturation (IVM) also uses significantly less hormone drugs than IVF. Artificial insemination (also called intrauterine insemination, IUI) is a simpler process that introduces sperm into the woman’s uterus.

Also, one could use a natural method to enhance the possibly of natural conception such as the Billings or Creighton or Sympto-Thermal Methods which involve identifying the fertile period during a woman’s menstrual cycle.

Options for a Christian

If a couple believes that life begins at fertilization, then they would probably want to ensure that any human embryos are not intentionally lost or discarded. This could make it difficult to use IVF unless they can find a clinic that is willing to limit the number of eggs collected to the number that they plan to implant in the womb and willing to donate any excess embryos to other couples that are unable to conceive themselves. Unfortunately, this approach usually reduces the probability of pregnancy. This means that the woman may have to go through additional procedures and expense to have more eggs collected later on.

Conclusion

IVF is a product of medical technology which can enable some infertile couples to have children. Some people accept it as an example of modern technology, while others have some concerns. For example, it is an artificial way of producing human life. Also, many of the human embryos created by IVF are discarded. The ethics of dealing with these embryos depends on one’s view on the commencement of human life. If you believe that human life begins at fertilization and if you want to respect human life and not destroy a human being, then IVF is only acceptable if no embryos are discarded. This seems to be difficult to achieve. And although they can be donated to infertile couples, the majority of embryos that are frozen are eventually discarded.

What do you think?

Appendix: Biblical principles for debatable matters

The Bible gives principles that can help us determine God’s will in debatable matters.

God’s honor

First, we are to honor God with our bodies (1 Cor. 6:19-20). When Paul said to “flee from sexual immorality”, he gave the following reason: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). This means considering questions such as: Will it honor or dishonor God? Will His reputation be enhanced or harmed? Will God be exalted or disgraced? Will others think less of God, His church or of His word?

A related principle is that whatever we do should be done for the glory of God. When Paul discussed whether to eat meat that had been offered to idols he concluded, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

The next six principles involve the welfare of others.

Acting in love (Rom. 14:15)

With regard to debatable matters, Paul wrote, “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others” (1 Cor. 10:23-24). In this area, although there is freedom of action, acting in love means that we consider the impact on others, particularly those whose conscience is weak or strict (1 Cor. 8:7). As a result of this we may need to modify our behavior and not enjoy all the liberties that we could otherwise.

Acting in love means forbearing those with a stricter conscience, not insisting on doing what we want without considering the views of those around us, in order to build them up; “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please Himself …” (Rom. 15:1-3a).

Acceptance

The practice of acceptance features in the passage in Romans, which begins with “accept those whose faith is weak” (Rom. 14:1). Those whose convictions allow them more freedom are to accept those with stricter consciences on debatable matters. Despite our differences of opinion with regard to debatable matters, believers should accept one another just as Christ has accepted us; “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Rom. 15:7).

Our fellowship with one another shouldn’t depend on one’s viewpoint on such matters. As Christ died for all believers and they have been accepted as His children, we should accept them as well (Rom. 14:15). The call to the Christian is to accept every other believer without having to pass judgment on every opinion they hold. In other words, we are to allow for differing opinions, because differing opinions do not necessarily mean a differing faith.

Harmony

With regard to debatable matters Paul wrote, “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Rom. 14:19). This means promoting peace and spiritual growth and determining whether the matter would help or hinder the harmony of believers.

Don’t quarrel

Paul also wrote, “Accept those whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable (or debatable) matters” (Rom. 14:1). One way of accepting other believers is to not engage in disputes about their strict views and not force our convictions on them (Rom 14:22). We can share our opinion, but it is important to give others space to grow and to allow for the possibility that we may be wrong.

Don’t judge

Those with a strong conscience shouldn’t despise those with a strict conscience; “The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not” (Rom. 14:3a). On the other hand, those with a strict conscience are not to judge others as being sinners; “the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them” (Rom. 14:3b).

As far as our service goes as the Lord’s servants we are all accountable to Him, not to each other (Rom. 14:4, 10-13). This means respecting each other’s opinion as we can have differing views on what pleases the Lord (1 Th. 4:1). We are to allow for differing conclusions of honest believers seeking the mind of Christ, without criticism, without contempt, and without judgment (Rom. 14:10). Don’t judge one another critically to put others down (Rom. 14:13). React with love not criticism. Remember, God has accepted them. He is the judge in these matters, not us.

Note that these verses are dealing with debatable matters. We can certainly make judgements about matters that involve the fundamentals of the faith and sinful behavior.

Don’t hinder spiritual growth

There are many references to not stumbling a weaker believer (Rom. 14:13, 15, 20-21; 1 Cor. 8:9-13; 1 Cor. 10:32-33). This means refraining from doing something that is not forbidden in Scripture if it hinders the spiritual progress of those with a strict conscience, by causing them to act against their conscience. Otherwise, both parties sin.

Don’t let debatable matters destroy the work of God. Paul even extends this principle to unbelievers because he wanted them to accept Christ as their Savior; “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (1 Cor. 10:32-33). It’s loving and unselfish to think of others above ourselves (Rom. 14:15; 15:1-2).

Order in the Church

Finally, there should be unity within the local church. When he was addressing disorder in the meetings of the church in Corinth, Paul wrote; “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people” and “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Cor. 14:33; 40). In this situation, Paul imposed some boundaries to ensure there was order instead of disorder.

Some debatable matters can affect the unity or functioning of the local church. Because the local church is to operate in an orderly way, in the case of debatable matters that directly affect the unity or functioning of the local church, there should be boundaries on what is taught and practiced. In these situations, what is taught and practiced within the church needs to be consistent and it will not always match everyone’s opinion because after all, we can have various opinions on these topics.

Written, March 2017

Also see: What does the New Testament say about Christians getting tattoos?


Encouragement for tough times

call-to-prayer-400pxI’m currently visiting Morocco and France. The Muslim call to prayer (five times each day) and poverty are common in Morocco. About 1% of the people are Christians and most of these are foreigners. Attempting to convert a Muslim to another religion is punishable with up to three years imprisonment and a substantial fine. So, it’s difficult being a Christian in Morocco. Although France is still culturally Catholic, most of the French are essentially secular (atheists). And less than 1% are evangelical Christians. Cultural and religious pressure makes it difficult to be Christians in these countries.

There is a temptation to give up following Jesus in difficult times. But tests and trials of our faith are inevitable (1 Th. 3:3; 2 Tim. 3:12; Jas. 1:2-3; 1 Pt. 4:12-13). The letter of 1 Thessalonians was written to Christians who were being persecuted for their faith. This post addresses the highlights of this letter where we see that the prospect of Christ’s second coming encourages those facing adversity and trials.

Context

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). After the jealous Jewish leaders started a riot, Paul and Silas escaped at night to Berea.

The believers at Thessalonica experienced trials, severe suffering, and persecution (1:6; 2:14; 3:3-4). Paul wrote to them 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” (4:1 NIV). This letter can be divided into six sections: model believers; Paul’s example; Paul’s joy; living to please God; the Lord’s second coming; and living as a Christian. Firstly, their joy in the middle of persecution was an example to all the Christians in Greece.

Model believers (1:1-10)

Paul regularly prayed for these believers (1:2-3). They were his children in the faith. He thanked God for their spiritual birth and growth, shown by their “work produced by faith (conversion),” their “labor prompted by love (service)” and their “endurance inspired by hope (anticipation of Christ’s return)”. 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.

Although persecuted for their faith, they didn’t give up. But Paul reminded them of two things (1:4-5). 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 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 as 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 and acted upon it and it changed their lives.

The Thessalonians imitated Paul and Christ, and were a good example to other believers (1:6-9), 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.

The Thessalonians had made a great start in their Christian life. First, they repented of selfish living and turned to God from many idols. 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).

They were also waiting for Christ’s return (1:10; 4:13-18; Jn. 14:3; 1 Cor. 15:51-58). God promised to take believers to be with Him 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 despite 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 Thessalonians 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. 24:4-26) 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 (5:1-11; 2 Pt. 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 meet? 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.

Paul’s example (2: 1-12)

Paul preached in Thessalonica despite opposition from the Jewish leaders (2:2). Why did Paul persist in preaching the gospel to them despite its unpopularity? Paul says it was not for any of the three reasons given by the opposition (2:3-6). First, Paul was not a false teacher. He didn’t promote his private conviction, but instead preached God’s truth. Second, he didn’t encourage people to indulge in immoral behavior and do whatever they liked. Third, he did not deceive nor delude his hearers with fine words.

Then he told why they continued to preach even though it led to trouble: God had entrusted them with the gospel; It was God’s message, not theirs; They were not trying to please people but God; They knew that God’s opinion counted more than that of others.

Paul then countered two more reasons given by the opposition – flattery and greed. They never used flattery to influence others or to please people (2:5). They didn’t preach for money, even though they were entitled to support (1 Cor. 9:3-14; 2 Cor. 11:7-11). He said that God was his witness as only God can know our motives.

After dealing with the accusations against him, Paul gave more information about their behavior in Thessalonica (2:7-8). Paul’s team behaved like a nursing mother caring for her children. They were gentle, protective and loving. As a mother puts the interests of her baby ahead of her own interests, they put the interests of the Thessalonians ahead of their own. As a mother expends energy day and night for her baby, so they spent time and energy shepherding the Thessalonians. They cared about them individually. What a contrast to the false accusers!

Paul was a hard worker, a tentmaker by trade (2:9). He could have relied on the support of others, but he worked to pay his own expenses and not be dependent on them. When he was not preaching, teaching and shepherding new believers, he was making and repairing tents. He worked so he wouldn’t be a burden to the poor and persecuted, and he didn’t want to hinder the gospel message in any way.

Paul described their conduct in three ways (2:10). First, they were “holy” – set apart to God from sin. They had a good relationship with God. Second, they were “righteous” in character and conduct. Third, they were “blameless” towards God and people. This doesn’t mean they were sinless, but that they had confessed and knew that “God … tests our hearts” (2:4). Paul set a high standard of integrity. This is the standard of living that we should aim for; not one of wealth, but one of integrity. It is the pattern of life of those who desire to please God.

Paul also coached like a father (2:11-12). In that culture the wife did most of the nurturing and the husband was responsible for the training. Paul’s goal was that they “live lives worthy of God.” This training was one-on-one discipleship: “We dealt with each of you.” A father coaching and training his children would include three elements: “encouraging, comforting and urging.” True discipleship takes time and patience. To grow to spiritual maturity, a new Christian needs all of these elements of discipleship.

What can we learn from Paul? First, he was an apostle. While we don’t have apostles today, as they were the founders of the Christian Church (Eph. 2:20), we do have elders to provide leadership in the local church. Second, Paul was a preacher, particularly to the Gentiles. The mission to spread the gospel is a responsibility for all believers, especially those with the gift of evangelism. Third, Paul was a teacher who wrote a significant portion of the New Testament. Elders, preachers and teachers can learn from Paul who said he was a servant to the Church (Col. 1:24-26). He worked hard to bring people to the Christian faith and to help them grow in it.

Is our lifestyle drawing people to Christ? Let’s follow Paul’s example and live lives worthy of God. His key message was the gospel. His motive was to please God. His manner of living was one of courage, gentleness, hard work and holiness. He showed love to new believers. He was bold, honest, full of integrity, and a toiler. His speech and behavior brought glory to God. The Thessalonians became model believers by imitating Paul’s example. Whether we are elders, preachers, teachers or servants, we can all imitate Paul.

Paul’s joy (2:17-3:13)

Paul believed that his most important work was helping new believers grow in the Christian faith (2:19-20). As his spiritual children, they were his hope of reward and great rejoicing in heaven. The believers at Thessalonica were also Paul’s “glory and joy” on earth (2:20). His investment of time with them resulted in believers who would praise God forever. Such investments are the best we can make because the reward extends into eternity. What a great incentive for this type of work!

Paul had heard no news and wanted to find out how they were doing (3:1-2). He sent Timothy, a spiritual brother and co-worker in God’s service (1 Cor. 3:9), to accomplish three tasks: strengthen and encourage them in their faith (3:2); ensure they were not being unsettled by persecution (3:3); and check their progress in the Christian life (3:5). Paul was afraid that they may have been seduced by Satan to escape persecution by giving up their faith. The choice was loyalty to Christ or personal comfort. If they chose personal comfort, the church would wither and die and Paul’s work would have been in vain.

Paul had already reminded them to expect persecution (3:4). Timothy would have told them to expect opposition and to persist through it. He would have also reminded them of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the fact that God was training them through their hardship.

Timothy’s good report from Thessalonica filled Paul with joy. His labor was not in vain. Their faith and love were obvious. They had pleasant memories of Paul’s visit and longed to see him again. His response was to write this letter. They were living according to his teaching and showing this by loving one another (3:6). They had the right attitude towards God, towards others and towards Paul. Although he was suffering “distress and persecution,” Paul was greatly encouraged because of their faith (3:7). He was relieved to know they were doing well (3:8). In fact, words couldn’t express His thankfulness to God (3:9).

When the Thessalonians were persecuted, Paul prayed most earnestly, frequently and specifically (3:10-13). He knew what they were going through and prayed night and day. It’s not surprising that they were “standing firm in the Lord” (3:8). Paul mentioned four things specifically in his prayer. First, he wanted to see them again. Second, he wanted to teach them further truths from God. Third, he wanted God to “clear the way” for him to come to them. God answered this prayer when he returned to Thessalonica (Acts 20:1-3). Fourth, he prayed that their love for others might increase.

In Chapter 1, Paul noted their “labor prompted by love” (1:3); they had made a great start. Their love was to include both believers and unbelievers – and even their enemies. This was the kind of love that Paul modeled. It is a love that is to be practiced continually. Our expression of love in this life leads to blamelessness in the next. If we love one another and all humanity, we will stand “blameless and holy” when Christ returns to reign on earth. The Greek word used to describe believers in the New Testament means “holy one” or “saint.” Positionally, believers are holy (set apart for God), and practically should be becoming more holy in character by the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:15-16).

This is a lesson in the importance of follow-up work. It is not enough to lead sinners to the Savior; they must also be discipled towards maturity. Remember that Paul revisited many of the cities where he had preached and established a church. He sought to build up the believers in their faith, especially teaching them the truth of the Church and its importance in God’s program. The aim of such missionaries is to establish self-sustaining churches.

Making disciples was Paul’s passion. Are we like Paul? Do we encourage younger believers? Do we long to know how they are doing? Do we rejoice in their progress? Do we pray for them? Do we train them like Timothy, and then release them to do God’s work?

Are we like the Thessalonians? Do we stand firm in the Lord? Is our faith strong during suffering and temptation? Do we trust God despite the difficulties of life? Is our love evident and increasing? Are we living godly lives?

Living to please God (4:1-12)

Although the Thessalonians were pleasing God, Paul urged them to do so more and more (4:1). The Christian life is one of continual progress. Each day there are new challenges and opportunities to please God. These are important instructions for those who claim to follow the Lord. (4:2). They show us the way to live for Him.

God’s will was that the Christians in Thessalonica be sanctified. Sanctification means being set apart for God. There are three phases to sanctification – positional (at salvation), progressive and perfect (in heaven). In this passage Paul addressed progressive sanctification in daily living – a process over time, not a single event. Paul then gave two examples of sanctification – avoiding sexual immorality and pursuing brotherly love (4:4-10). And he gave them three steps to avoid sexual immorality: control sexual desires (4:4); respect the rights of others (4:6); and listen to God and love one another (4:7-10).

This passage addresses the sin of sexual immorality in the Christian community. We live in a world where many don’t know God’s biblical guidelines. Sexual immorality is promoted in movies, television and magazines. But a Christian has a different standard. Because our natural functions need to be controlled, the Thessalonians were urged to control their sexual desires (4:4) instead of indulging in “passionate lust like the pagans” who don’t trust God. This should be one of the areas where a believer should differ, or be set apart from an unbeliever.

Our behavior affects others, so there is a need for boundaries if we are to continue to be friends. Paul wrote, “No one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister” (4:6a). Sexual sin harms others besides those who engage in it. Outside of marriage, there is no such thing as safe sex. In adultery, the spouse is wronged. Premarital sex wrongs one’s future spouse. Believers should respect others and not harm them by the consequences of sexual sin. “The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before” (4:6b).

We need boundaries if we are to maintain a good relationship with the Lord (4:7-10). Paul reinforced that this instruction was given by God and confirmed by the Holy Spirit. These are not Paul’s words, but God’s. He wants us to control ourselves and not fall into sin. The Holy Spirit lives within us to help us please God. Believers should follow His instruction about sexual sin.

Because our mission is to please God, we should avoid sexual immorality as it destroys the beauty of a sanctified and holy life. Sexual purity is the key to holiness. The three steps to achieve it are: controlling sexual desires, respecting the rights of others, and loving one another. Don’t follow your feelings; instead engage your mind and don’t give in to society’s sexual pressures.

Paul now changes the topic to love, and mentions two types of love. The first is the affection shared by brothers and sisters in a family – a heart love (phileo). The other is a deliberate decision to act in the interests of another – a love of the mind (agape). The relationships between believers should be driven by both loves. Our care and concern for each other is a Christian obligation, but it should be expressed with affection. It holds us together and attracts others to Christ.

Although the believers in Thessalonica loved one another and all believers in Macedonia, Paul urged them to do so “more and more.” He had already mentioned this earlier: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you” (3:12). Each day there are new challenges and opportunities to love one another. But how can we “love one another” daily?

Paul gave these believers three examples of loving one another (4:11-12). First, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.” Some who misunderstood the promise of Christ’s return were restless and panic-stricken. Others retaliated against persecution. He told them not to seek the limelight, live a life of selfish ambition or clamor for recognition, but to lead a peaceful life.

Second, he said, “mind your own business.” Some idle Thessalonians were taking undue interest in other people’s lives (2 Th. 3:11). He told them not to be busybodies who interfere in the lives of others in unnecessary, unhelpful ways. Idleness and meddling in the lives of others is incompatible with love.

Third, he said “work with your hands” to provide for your families (1 Tim. 5:8). Paul, Silas and Timothy had worked hard while they preached in Thessalonica so they wouldn’t be a burden to others (2:9). Because of their belief in the imminent return of Christ, some in Thessalonica stopped working and relied on others for support. Two reasons were given by Paul for working: “to win the respect of outsiders” who were watching and judging Christianity and God’s Word by their behavior; and to “not be dependent on anybody”. Living quiet lives, minding our own business and earning a living are all acts of love.

The Rapture and the day of the Lord (4:13-5:11)

The Thessalonians knew of the Second Coming as part of the gospel message. In fact, some were so sure it would be soon that they gave up their jobs to prepare for it (5:14; 2 Th. 3:6-12). But further teaching was needed on this topic. The Thessalonians who were expecting the Lord to return any day (1:10) must have been worried about those who had already died. Would they miss Christ’s coming and His Millennial kingdom? Paul wrote this passage to allay their fears.

He used “asleep” three times to describe the state of the believer after death (4:13,14,15). When someone is “asleep” or resting, we can have contact with them again after they wake. This metaphor teaches us that death is not the end; as waking follows sleep, resurrection follows death. Paul said they were “asleep in Jesus” (4:14), meaning they were in His care.

When a believer dies, there is sorrow but not despair, because there is the hope of heaven and reunion (4:13). The basis of our hope is the resurrection of the Lord (4:14). Because Christ rose, so will all believers who have died. We are assured of this because God will bring them to heaven with Jesus at the rapture (4:14).

The “coming” of the Lord “down from heaven” (4:15-16) is derived from the Greek word parousia (Strongs #3952). It means both “arrival” or “coming” and “presence with.” It is the opposite of absence. In the Bible, parousia is associated with: the Rapture, when Christ returns for all true believers (4:15); the Judgment Seat of Christ, when rewards are given to believers for service (2:19; 5:23); and the appearing, when Christ returns to earth in great power and glory (3:13; 2 Th. 2:8). So the Second Coming (or “presence”) of the Lord will be a series of events that occurs over a period of time, not all at once. When we think of the Lord’s coming, we should think of a period of time, not an isolated event. For example, Christ’s first coming to earth (“presence”) was over a period of 33 years; that’s how long He was physically present on earth.

The sequence of future events can be inferred from the book of Revelation: at present the Church is on earth (Rev. 2-3); next is the Rapture, when Christ returns to take all believers (dead and alive) home to be with Him; then the Church is in heaven (Rev. 4-5); and the Tribulation is on earth (Rev. 6-18); followed by the appearing when Christ returns to earth in great power (Rev. 19); then the 1,000 year millennial kingdom (Rev. 20); and finally the new heaven and new earth, a new eternal universe (Rev. 21-22).

The Rapture (4:15-18) was a new revelation, referred to as a mystery or truth previously unknown (1 Cor. 15:51). Two categories of Christians are mentioned – those living and the dead. The bodies of the dead will not be left behind at the Rapture. The sequence of events is in four steps. First is the Lord’s return, when Jesus will come down from heaven with a loud command, the voice of the archangel and the trumpet call of God. Second is the resurrection of the dead, when the “dead in Christ” will rise first, with God recreating from the remains of dust the bodies of all who have died. Third is the transformation of the living believers who will be “caught up” (rapturo in Latin) together with the dead. Fourth is the reunion, when we will meet the Lord in the air to be with Him forever.

The truth of resurrection was not the mystery, since it appeared in the Old Testament; the change of the living believers at the Lord’s return was the mystery. Paul’s answer to their concerns was this: When the Lord returns, your loved ones who have died will not miss His appearing or the Millennium.

Likewise, the “day of the Lord” is not a 24- hour period (5:1-4). In the New Testament, it refers to God’s future time of judgment of the world (5:2; Acts 2:20; 2 Pt. 3:10). There will be judgments on God’s enemies as described by the seals, trumpets and bowls in the Revelation. The “day of the Lord” is used to describe events in the Tribulation, the appearing and the final destruction of the heavens and earth with fire.

The “day of the Lord” will be a time of judgment of unbelievers; note the words “them” and “they” (5:3). Paul gives three characteristics of that time: it will be unexpected (“like a thief in the night”), destructive (“destruction will come on them suddenly”) and inevitable (“and they will not escape”). Life will go on as usual until God removes His people, and then His judgment will come on the earth. Paul likens it to the labor preceding birth. Once it starts birth follows soon after. So the world cannot escape God’s terrible judgments. The great distress only ends when the Lord comes in great power and glory (Mt. 24:29-31).

Paul said that there is a way of escape (5:4-5). The words “you,” “we” and “us” (5:4,5,6,9,10) tell us that Christians will not go through these judgments. Paul contrasted two groups: Unbelievers are in darkness and night, while believers are in light and day. In Scripture, “light” represents what is good and true, while “darkness” represents what is evil and false (Acts 26:18; 2 Cor. 6:14; 1 Jn. 1:5-7). He said that only those in darkness will experience these judgments (5:9-10). Instead of suffering judgment, believers will receive salvation. They will be raptured, that is taken away as Noah was taken away from destruction of the flood and Lot from the destruction of Sodom.

Paul urged believers to live consistently as children of the day and of the light, alert and self-controlled (5:6-8). We should be expecting Christ’s return at any moment, living for Him and not being lazy, careless, distracted, self-indulgent, or living in sinful behavior. He then said believers should exercise faith, love and hope like armor that protects us from losing control. Faith involves depending on God. Our love for the Lord and for each other can help us live for God today. And Christ’s return is our hope. The prospect of heaven helps us live for God today.

Paul’s passages on the Rapture and the day of the Lord both conclude with: “Encourage one another” (4:18; 5:11). The Rapture will be a great reunion of believers both dead and alive. Like the first century Christians, we should expect it to occur at any moment. Are we encouraging each other as we eagerly wait for it?

Living as a Christian (5:12-28)

Paul ended his letter with practical guidelines on Christian living. He addressed godly attitudes and behavior in relationships with church elders, other believers and God. The congregation was given two responsibilities about the elders (5:12-13). It was to “respect” them and “hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.” This means to value them because of their important work, not because of their personality, spiritual gifts, wealth or anything else. Paul also encouraged them to “live in peace with each other.” Harmony should be characteristic of all Christian relationships, as peace is a fruit of the Spirit and we follow the God of peace (5:23; Gal. 5:22).

Next Paul shows us how we are to live with three types of people. (5:14-15) We are to “warn those who are idle.” Apparently, some Thessalonians had stopped working to prepare for the second coming of the Lord (2 Th. 3:10-13). They lived off others, were disorderly and became busybodies disrupting the local church. Paul’s solution was that they get back to work to support themselves and their families. He warned that anyone “who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” Paul said don’t help them by feeding them; instead let them experience the consequences of their behavior. This admonition is followed by two examples of caring.

“Encourage the disheartened.” Those who are disappointed with life are to be encouraged by individuals coming alongside and empathizing with them. Circumstances can cause people to think they don’t belong and have nothing to contribute. But we all have God-given gifts. We need to help such people find their place in the church and encourage them in their work. “Help the weak” refers to those who may not be sure of their salvation because of their past, or who may doubt God’s power. They need our encouragement, friendship and help.

Paul then mentioned three attitudes required when warning, encouraging and helping others: First, “Be patient with everyone.” This means trying again and again even though there may be no response from those you are warning, encouraging and helping. Second, “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong.” Christians are called to forgive, not retaliate (Mt. 18:21-22; Rom. 12:17). Be patient and continue to show Christian kindness and love. Third, “Always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else”. The goal of warning, encouraging and helping others should be to achieve what is best for them in the Lord.

It is God’s will that believers be characterized by joy, prayer and thanksgiving (5:16-18). Paul began with “Rejoice always” to encourage us not to let things get us down. This joy is to be shown in all circumstances including suffering and persecution (Jas. 1:2-4; 1 Pet. 4:13). The Thessalonians were persecuted (1:6; 2:14; 3:3-4). Paul sang while in prison (Acts 16:22-25). How can this be? Their joy was an internal attitude that was not overtaken by external circumstances; it is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), with Christ as its source and subject. He controls our circumstances and through Him we have victory. We develop joy by focusing on God’s promises and spending time with joyful believers. Joy is contagious.

Then Paul urged them to “pray continually” – at regular times and as needed. When trials come we need to pray our way through them. Paul also told believers to “give thanks in all circumstances.” We don’t have to give thanks for everything that happens to us; it says “in” our circumstances, not “for” them. But we shouldn’t complain or grumble. Thanking God is not a feeling, it’s a choice. We can develop an attitude of praising God in all circumstances.

“Do not quench the Spirit” is a metaphor for hindering or extinguishing the operation of the Holy Spirit in an individual or the church (5:19-22). This may be caused by sin, disunity or suppression of the Spirit’s gifts. Instead, we are to follow Paul’s instructions to be joyful, prayerful and thankful, and follow the Spirit when He prompts us to do what is right or stop doing what is wrong.

“Do not treat prophecies with contempt, but test them all” The early Church did not have a completed Bible so the gift of prophecy was God’s way of getting His message to His people. Now that the canon of Scripture is set, this takes place as His Word is taught and preached. Instead of despising prophecies, the Thessalonians were to evaluate them. They were to test them against the apostles’ teachings. Then they could accept what was good and reject what was bad. In Acts, Luke told the Jews in Thessalonica to learn from the Bereans who “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).

The Thessalonians couldn’t live like this in their own strength, so Paul prayed for them as only God could make their efforts successful (5:23-24). Paul prayed that their (progressive) sanctification (holiness) would extend to their whole being – spirit, soul and body. The spirit is our link to God, the soul is our mind, emotions and will, and the body is the physical part housing the spirit and soul. It is God who makes us holy, and Paul was confident that He would complete what He began (Phil. 1:6). He is faithful to keep His promises. The end of this progression is the coming of our Lord, at the judgment seat of Christ, when each Christian’s life will be reviewed as he/she stands before Him.

After he prayed for them, Paul asked the Thessalonians to pray for him (5:25-28). Three keys to living together as Christians alluded to here are prayer, fellowship and Bible reading. Paul ended this letter with a benediction of grace for the Thessalonians – God’s unmerited favor through the saving work of Christ.

Let’s develop godly attitudes and behaviors in our relationships with church elders, with other believers and with God. Get to know the elders of your church, and value them because of their work. Obey them and encourage them in their work. The same principle applies to ministry leaders within the church. Believers should serve one another through encouragement, practical help, patience, peaceable living, and by treating everyone as equals in Christ. Our attitude toward God should be one of joy, prayer and thanksgiving in all circumstances. We should not stifle the work of the Holy Spirit in an individual or in the church. The standard by which we should test all preaching and teaching is the Word.

Lessons for us

Let’s read the book of 1 Thessalonians when life is bleak and we are facing tough times. It reminds us: to be good examples for other believers by imitating Paul and Jesus Christ; to encourage and disciple others in the Christian faith; to please God by avoiding sexual immorality; to eagerly anticipate the second coming; and to have godly attitudes and behavior in relationships with church leaders, other believers and God. That’s how to keep following Jesus despite the difficulties of life.

The return of Christ to bring all His followers into heaven encourages those facing adversity and trials because it means an end of the sorrow, suffering and disappointment of this sinful world. This is important because it’s mentioned in each chapter of this letter (1:9-10; 2:19-20; 3:13; 4:13-18; 5:23-24). Believers are commanded to encourage each other with the fact that they “will be with the Lord forever” (4:18). The promise of Christ’s return so believers “may live together with Him” is a great encouragement (5:10-11). And it’s one of the greatest motivations for Christian service.

Let’s encourage one another to keep following Jesus. May we use the resources God has provided to live for Him until the Rapture when Christ returns to take us to be with Him forever.

Written, November 2016

Also see these posts on 1 Thessalonians:
Model believers
Paul’s example
Paul’s joy
Living to please God
The Rapture and the day of the Lord
Living as a Christian


Why the new covenant is better

Because the old covenant is partially obsolete and the Sabbath is obsolete

moroccan-water-sellers-2-400pxMoroccan water sellers carry water in goat skins. This reminds me of the illustration of wine skins. Jesus said, “no one puts new wine into old (inelastic) wineskins. For the old skins would burst from the (fermentation) pressure, spilling the wine and ruining the skins. New wine is stored in new (elastic) wineskins so that both are preserved” (Mt. 9:17NLT). Jesus’ ministry was not a revitalization of Judaism but a new entity – “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn, 1:17NIV). Mixing Judaism (the old) and the ministry of Jesus (the new) is like putting new wine into old wineskins. So Jesus taught that the Old Testament laws are not a part of Christianity.

In a previous post I stated that the law of Moses (or the old covenant) is now obsolete and has been replaced because Christians have been “released from the law” (Rom. 7:6NIV). As a commentator disagreed with this viewpoint, I have decided to investigate the relationship between the old covenant and the new covenant in this post.

The law (Exodus to Deuteronomy) was given to the Israelites before they entered the promised land (Ex. 31:13), while the new covenant was promised to them before they were expelled from Judah and it was initially implemented by Jesus Christ (Jer. 31:31-34; 1 Cor. 11:25). The new covenant is an unconditional agreement which God will make with the people of Israel when the Lord Jesus sets up His kingdom on earth. Believers today enjoy some of its blessings, but its complete fulfillment will occur when Israel is restored and redeemed nationally.

What Paul says

When Paul was criticized by men in Corinth who mixed law with grace by teaching Christians that they must observe certain portions of the law of Moses in order to be fully accepted by God, he responded by comparing and contrasting the old and new covenants.

He (God) has made us (apostles) competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter (the law of Moses) but of the Spirit (the gospel); for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone (the law of Moses), came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! 10 For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. 11 And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!” (2 Cor. 3:6-11).

Paul says that the old (first) covenant (the law) brought:
– Condemnation because of our sin (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:10). Under this covenant, blessing was conditional on people’s obedience (with curses and death for disobedience). It was a covenant of works. But because it depended on humanity, and no one could perfectly keep the law, condemnation (and punishment) was inevitable.
– Death (v.6-7) was the penalty for disobedience and all humanity are guilty lawbreakers.
– And it was transitory (v.11), “The letter” (v.6) (the law of Moses), and that which was “engraved in letters on stone” (v. 7) (the ten commandments) was superseded by the new covenant. It was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Note that this isn’t just the ceremonial laws, but it includes the Sabbath day requirement, which was “engraved in letters on stone”.

This is contrasted with the new covenant (the gospel) which brings:
– Freedom from the condemnation because of our sin (Jn. 8:35, 2 Cor. 3:17). Under this covenant, God promises to bless people through Christ’s sacrificial death. Because it depends on God, the new covenant is able to deliver its promised blessing to those who accept the good news of salvation. It’s a development of the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, which were both unconditional (Gen. 15:9-21; 2 Sam. 7:5-16).
– Spiritual life (v.6).
– Righteousness (an inward transformation, v.9; 2 Cor. 3:18).
– More glory (v.7-11).
– And it is eternal; “it lasts” (v.11).

Clearly the new covenant is superior to the old one. Only by trusting in Jesus Christ can the condemnation and the sentence of death pronounced by the law on the lawbreaker be annulled and be replaced by the life-giving grace of the new covenant (2 Cor. 3:6, 16-17).

What Hebrews says

After the writer of Hebrews says that Jesus is greater than a Jewish high priest, he writes,

6… the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs (Jewish high priests) as the covenant of which He is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.
For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said:
“The days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
and I turned away from them,
declares the Lord.
10 This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel
after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
11 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
12 For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
13 By calling this covenant “new,” He has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear” (Heb. 8:6-13).

This message is similar to Paul’s. The new covenant is a “better/superior covenant” (Heb. 7:22; 8:6) because of:
– Better promises (v.6).
– Its unconditional nature (Jer. 31:31-34). It depends on God’s faithfulness.

And the old covenant is inferior because in the first century:
– It was replaced by the new one (v.7).
– It was “obsolete and outdated” (v.13).
– It “will soon disappear”(v.13).
– It was conditional. It depended on people’s faithfulness, but they were unfaithful (v.8-9).

Hagar and Sarah

In his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul illustrates the difference between legalism and grace with the story of Hagar and Sarah. See Genesis 16 and 21 for the original account.

21 Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. 23 His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.
24 These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written:
“Be glad, barren woman,
you who never bore a child;
shout for joy and cry aloud,
you who were never in labor;
because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.”
28 Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. 30 But what does Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” 31 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.
1It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 4:21 – 5:1),

The story had a symbolic application where Hagar represents the old covenant (the law, or legalism) and Sarah the new covenant (the gospel). Paul uses it because he said that legalizers threatened “the freedom we (Christians) have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves” (Gal. 2:4). He saw a similarity between the freedom of Christianity (the new covenant) compared to the slavery of legalism (introducing parts of the old covenant); and the freedom of Sarah/Isaac compared to the slavery of Hagar/Ishmael.

This passage teaches that the old covenant:
– Enslaves (Gal. 2:4; 4:1, 22), because sinners are slaves to sin (Jn. 8:34; Rom. 6:16).
– Its followers persecute those following the gospel (v.29).

But the new covenant:
– Liberates and brings freedom (4:22; 5:1). This is freedom from sin being the dominant power in our lives (Rom. 6:15-18) and from the penalty of sin.
– Will be followed by more people that the old one (v.27).
– Its followers shouldn’t go back to the slavery of legalism (5:1).
– Its followers should separate from legalism and not tolerate it in the local church (v.30).

Discussion

It’s obvious from these passages of Scripture that the new covenant is superior to the old one. But is the law of Moses (or the old covenant) now obsolete and has it been replaced? The answer seems to be yes (for Christians) and no (for non-Christians).

For Christians, the old covenant (including the Sabbath day) is obsolete and has been superseded by the new one because it was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. So the teaching that believers must keep the Sabbath day is contrary to Scripture, which is consistent with “do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Col. 2:16-17). So the Sabbath day symbolized the type of eternal rest to be enjoyed by all who would believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (Heb. 4:3a, 9). But now that Jesus has come, the symbol is obsolete because it has been fulfilled.

However, the ministry of the law to unsaved people hasn’t ended: “the law is good if one uses it properly” (1 Tim. 1:8). The proper use of the law of Moses is to produce the knowledge of sin and so lead to repentance – the law was designed to show people their sinfulness (Rom. 3:20b; 5:50; 7:7). But as the Sabbath day law isn’t to be practiced by believers today, it can’t produce the knowledge of sin in unbelievers and so lead to repentance – “the law is made not for the righteous” (1 Tim. 1:9). In this respect, it is unique in the ten commandments. This is a consequence of the Sabbath day command not being repeated in the portion of the New Testament that’s addressed to the church.

old-new-400pxConclusion

The new covenant is superior to the old one. For believers, the old covenant (including the Sabbath day) is obsolete and has been superseded by the new one.  But for non-believers, the old covenant (except the Sabbath day) can produce the knowledge of sin and so lead to repentance. So in both cases, the Sabbath day is now obsolete.

Written, November 2016

Also see: What about keeping the Sabbath day?
What does the New Testament say about the Sabbath?
I’ve been told that Christians should keep the ten commandments as they were God’s law and not the law of Moses.  Is this true?
The Sabbath day difference between Jesus and Paul
I went to a church service that was held on Saturday instead of Sunday and was told that was when we should worship God. What dos the Bible say on this topic?
Is insistence on Sabbath-keeping legalism?


Strong and weak spiritual foundations

Storm 2 400pxHeavy rain, strong winds and high tides battered the eastern coast of Australia recently. Sections of some seaside homes in Sydney were washed into the ocean during huge swell. And floods caused extensive damage in Tasmania.

This reminds me of the story that Jesus told about two builders (Mt. 7:24-27; Lk. 6:47-49). The wise one built their house on a strong rock foundation, while the foolish one built their house on a weak sandy foundation. When a storm came, the house on the strong foundation wasn’t damaged, but the one on the weak foundation collapsed and was destroyed.

This blogpost looks and our spiritual foundations and how these can be strong or weak.

Types of spiritual foundations

An awareness of the spiritual aspect of life can help us get through tough times. This can give us a different perspective on life and help us see the big picture. But what sort of foundation is our spirituality based on? Obviously, strong robust and reliable foundations are better that weak fragile and unreliable foundations. As a building’s foundations affect the building, so our spiritual foundations affect our spiritual life and thereby our physical life.

In many ways our spirituality and our interpretation of doctrine and theology is based on what we believe is the source or foundation of our spiritual authority. This authority or foundation depends on our assumption about God’s revelation to humanity. There are two main viewpoints or paradigms. The first is that God has revealed Himself only in the Christian Bible. And the second is that God continues to reveal Himself by means outside the Bible.

The Bible also says that God is revealed in a general sense in His physical creation (Rom. 1:20) and in the human conscience (Rom. 2:15). But these types of general revelation aren’t addressed in this post.

Only Biblical revelation

The first main viewpoint about how God reveals himself to us is based on the historical record in the Bible, which was written between 1430 BC and AD 95. There are two main sections in the Bible. The Old Testament is God’s revelation before the birth of Christ, when the Israelites were God’s people. It was written by prophets who received the message from God “as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pt. 1:20-21NIV). The New Testament is God’s revelation in the first century AD. It has two subsections: the gospels describe the final years of the old Jewish covenant, while the remainder describes the early church, when Christians were God’s people. The Bible teaches that together the Old and New Testaments provide all we need to know about God and His interaction with humanity.

Although the Bible wasn’t written to us, it contains information and principles that are still relevant today. When we apply a Bible passage to our lives we need to discern who it was written to, the era being described and the universal principle being taught. In particular, we need to be careful interpreting and applying passages written about the Jewish era because we live in the Christian era, not the Jewish one. We will now look at some Bible passages that support this viewpoint.

In the context of persecution of Christians and dealing with false teachers, Paul told Timothy, “from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:15-17). So the words of the Bible are the words of God Himself. Also, the Bible is both necessary and sufficient to show us the way of salvation and to equip us for Christian living. Salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ, not via any of the teachings given below under “Continual revelation”. The gospel of Jesus Christ described in the New Testament is the only strong spiritual foundation (1 Cor. 3:11; Eph. 2:20).

In the context of disunity within a local church, Paul quoted the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written” (2 Cor. 4:6). He wanted the believers in Corinth to evaluate everything and everyone by the Scriptures. He didn’t want them to put other teachers or other teachings above Scripture. Their authority was to be Scripture and nothing else or no-one else.

Canon complete

The last commandment in the Bible is a warning, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll” (Rev. 22:18-19). There are similar warnings in the Old Testament (Dt. 4:2; Prov. 30:5-6). As the subjects of the book of Revelation are woven throughout the Bible, this passage condemns any tampering with Scripture. Since the book of Revelation was completed, no new written or verbal prophecy has ever been universally recognized by Christians as divine truth from God. The Scriptures are final and complete.

Jesus told the apostles that the Holy Spirit would “teach you all things” and “guide you into all the truth” (Jn. 14:26; 16:13). We have this truth recorded by the apostles and their associates in the New Testament. Today the Holy Spirit can use Scripture to guide us into all the truth. Paul told the Ephesians “the whole will of God” (Acts 20:27), which was “revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets” and written down in Scripture (Eph. 3:4-5).

Jude said that the Christian faith documented by the apostles was “once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3). This means it’s complete and not subject to change. So the Bible is a closed system of truth, with no new revelation being given through inspired prophets or apostles. It’s God’s complete revelation, containing all the spiritual truth that God wants us to know. Through it, God has revealed everything He wants us to know about spiritual matters. And nothing has been lost from God’s revelation.

go-kart-tragedy 2 400pxIn April 2010, a 26-year-old woman was driving a go-kart at Port Stephens, when part of her clothing became entangled in the drive axle of her vehicle, strangling her and resulting in her death. The operator was fined $32,000 with costs of $18,000 for failing to comply with two Australian Standards for amusement rides and devices. The standard says go-kart riders were required to “not wear loose fitting clothing that could become entangled in any part of the kart” and the moving parts of the go-kart must be covered. Failing to follow this safety standard was physically dangerous. Likewise, failing to follow the Bible is spiritually dangerous because the Bible is God’s spiritual standard for us.

Continual revelation

The second main viewpoint is that God continues to reveal Himself by means outside the Bible. These extra-biblical revelations may include religious teachings, religious books, traditions, or ongoing revelation via dreams, visions or prophecies.

In this case it is assumed that Christ’s promise to send the Holy Spirit to “guide you into all the truth” implies that new truth will continue to be revealed after the Bible was complete (Jn. 16:13). However, this promise was written to people who attended a Jewish synagogue, so it wasn’t written directly to us today (Jn. 16:2). Instead the new truth was revealed after the day of Pentecost and written in the New Testament for us to learn about today.

Other religious teachings

Some religious teachings aren’t consistent with the teachings of the Bible. For example, the teachings: that salvation is by grace plus works, that salvation can be obtained after death, that Jesus isn’t God, that God isn’t a trinity, that baptism is necessary for salvation, that infants should be baptized, that hell isn’t eternal punishment, that Sabbath worship is for the churches today, that Revelation 6-22 is not about the future, that God has finished with Israel and the church has replaced Israel, that Mary was sinless, that the Pope is infallible, that prophets are infallible, and that God decides who will be saved and who will be condemned.

Because they differ from what the Bible teaches, these beliefs should be rejected. To accept such teachings as a spiritual authority or foundation means giving them more authority than the Bible. In the previous section we saw that the Bible is the only reliable standard of spiritual truth. It’s superior to these other religious teachings, which contain the thoughts of fallible people like us.

As Scripture is the ultimate spiritual foundation and authority, all religious teachings should be tested against the Bible. Only those consistent with the Bible are reliable and to be accepted. The rest should be rejected as false human ideas.

Other religious books

Religious books like the Book of Mormon, the Muslim Koran, the Hindu Shruti, the Buddhist Tripitaka, “Science and health with key to the Scriptures” of Christian Science, Education in the New Age, and the Scientology Handbook, claim to be the word of God. And the evolutionary ideas of Darwin’s “On the Origin of species” are used to promote atheism. But these books always contradict the Bible in some way. For example, the Koran teaches that Jesus was just another prophet, whereas the Bible teaches that He was the divine Son of God -– the way, the truth and the life. Only one of these can be right. They can’t both be right! If you try to combine the two, then you must disregard some of the teachings of the Bible. So to accept another religious book as a spiritual authority or foundation, means giving it more authority than the Bible. We have seen that the Bible is the only reliable standard of spiritual truth. It’s superior to the other religious books, which contain the thoughts of fallible people like us.

None of these sacred books can meet even one of the standards on which the canon of the Bible was established. For example, their authors don’t satisfy the biblical definition of a prophet or an apostle or have a direct link to such a person (like Mark, Luke and James).

As Scripture is the ultimate spiritual foundation and authority, all religious books should be tested against the Bible. Only those consistent with the Bible are reliable and to be accepted. The rest should be rejected as false human ideas.

Other human traditions

After the Jewish religious leaders asked “why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders” … Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (Mt. 15:1-6). So Jesus placed Scripture above tradition. In this case, a tradition had been developed to avoid supporting aged parents.

Paul warned, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (Col. 2:8). Here he writes against religious teachings that aren’t based on the Bible. These human speculations become traditions when they are adopted as customs.

To accept such traditions as a spiritual authority or foundation means giving them more authority than the Bible. We have seen that the Bible is the only reliable standard of spiritual truth. It’s superior to other traditions, which contain the thoughts of fallible people like us.

As Scripture is the ultimate spiritual foundation and authority, all traditions should be tested against the Bible. Only those consistent with the Bible are reliable and to be accepted. The rest should be rejected as false human ideas.

Extra-biblical visions

Paul warns those in Colossae: “a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind” (Col. 2:18-19). They loved talking on and on about their spiritual experiences (which probably included visions of angels), but in reality these were only coming out of their own mind. Dreams and visions are subjective experiences. In those days, the Gnostics entered into ecstatic experiences which had no basis in biblical revelation. Since the canon of Scripture (the list of books that belong in the Bible) has closed, there is no further need for more revelation from God.

In contrast to the written word of God, spiritual experiences and feelings are also subjective and can’t be verified. And when interpreting Scripture, we need to ensure our experiences and biases don’t distort the process. Instead, we should test our experience against the Bible.

To accept dreams, visions and spiritual experiences as a spiritual authority or foundation means giving them more authority than the Bible. We have seen that the Bible is the only reliable standard of spiritual truth. It’s superior to dreams, visions and experiences, which contain the thoughts of fallible people like us.

As Scripture is the ultimate spiritual foundation and authority, all dreams, visions, and experiences should be tested against the Bible. Only those consistent with the Bible are reliable and to be accepted. The rest should be rejected as false human ideas.

Extra-biblical prophecies

The Bible says that prophecy is a direct message from God (Dt. 18:18). In the chapter on love, Paul wrote “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease … For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears” (1 Cor. 13:8-10). The Corinthians had been occupied with spiritual gifts like prophecy but Paul says love is more important because it lasts longer than prophecy.

So, before the completion of the New Testament, God gave messages to the church by prophecies, but sometime after that the prophecies would cease and disappear. When is that time? The Bible says it’s “when completeness comes”. There are two main views about this.
– When there is perfection, which occurs when we go to heaven.
– Or when the New Testament was complete, which was about 40 years after Paul wrote this letter.

The second view is the best explanation. Two situations are being compared in this passage, the “partial” and the “complete”; the “now” and the “then” (v.9-10, 12). The gift of prophecy in the New Testament church was God’s partial revelation before His full revelation was available when the Bible was completed. Paul gives two illustrations of this (v.11-12). The first compares childhood to adulthood (or immaturity to maturity). The second compares seeing something in a dim mirror to seeing it in a clear mirror (or limited sight to full sight, or indistinct to distinct). Then he says, “now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (v.12). As the “know in part” was individual prophecies, the “know fully” was the complete collection of prophecies. So at a future time this knowledge changes from being partial to being complete. The complete revelation in the New Testament gives us all we need to know from a divine viewpoint.

Then he says, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (v.13). So, after prophecy has “ceased”, faith hope and love “remain”. They last longer than prophecy. How long? Faith and hope last in our lifetime; that is until we get to heaven, which means when we die or when Christ returns at the rapture. That’s when our faith will be replaced by sight and our hope will be realized (Rom. 8:24; Heb. 11:1). But love is the greatest because it goes on for eternity when we will be with God, who is love.

Why is this a better explanation than saying that prophecy continues until the rapture? First, it’s obvious that all physical activities such as spiritual gifts finish when we die. That’s a no-brainer! So if this was the meaning, why mention it all? Second, the text implies that prophecy ceases before faith and hope. They don’t cease at the same time. Third, it’s consistent with the canon of the Bible being complete. Because new revelations (or prophecies) would be adding to what’s in the Bible. Fourth, the context is revelation from God, not fellowship with God. Fifth, “complete” (or “whole”) is a better match for “partial” (they are both quantitative words), whereas “perfect” (or “unblemished”) doesn’t match “partial” (one is quantitative and the other is qualitative). Sixth, the Greek word translated “complete” (teleios Strongs #5046) is also used in James 1:25 to describe Scripture.

So the spiritual gift of prophecy was temporary for when the apostles were writing the New Testament. During this period divine guidance was provided through gifts such as prophecy. Each prophecy provided only a part of the complete revelation given in the New Testament. For example, Paul didn’t have the writings of John. In the Bible, the Old Testament is called a “prophetic message” and the New Testament “prophetic writings” (Rom. 16:26; 2 Pet. 1:19-20).

Going back to the builders mentioned at the beginning of this message. The wise builder is like those who obey Scripture, while the foolish builder is like those who disobey Scripture (Mt. 7:24, 26). In the same passage, Jesus also said that true and false prophets are distinguished by their fruit, where good fruit symbolizes those who obey Scripture and bad fruit symbolizes those who disobey Scripture (Mt. 7:15-20). So Jesus taught the Jews to use Scripture to test prophecies. Likewise, we should use Scripture to test prophecies.

As the Scriptures are final and complete, there is no need for new prophecy (direct revelation from God) today. The revelation God has given in Scripture is totally adequate to instruct us in the things of God now. As Scripture is complete, any teaching or revelation that’s not consistent with the Bible is not God-given. There’s no ongoing new revelation.

To accept new prophecies as a spiritual authority or foundation means giving them more authority than the Bible. We have seen that the Bible is the only reliable standard of spiritual truth. It’s superior to these prophecies, which contain the thoughts of fallible people like us.

As Scripture is the ultimate spiritual foundation and authority, all prophecies should be tested against the Bible. Only those consistent with the Bible are reliable and to be accepted. The rest should be rejected as false human ideas.

Lessons for us

In the age of the internet and the credit card, we are warned about financial scams. Recently one of our credit cards was cancelled because of a rouge transaction of $970. But what about spiritual scams? Are we spiritually intelligent to distinguish the true from the false? Or are we gullible? Do we reject error?

We have seen that the only strong, robust and reliable spiritual foundation is the Christian Bible. Do we base our spiritual life on Scripture? Do we trust objective Scripture more than we trust our subjective feelings? This is the only spiritual foundation that can help us survive the storms of life. It’s important because our view of Scripture can affect our eternal destiny.

Other spiritual foundations which rely on religious teachings, religious books, traditions, dreams, visions, experiences or modern prophecies and are inconsistent with Scripture are weak, fragile and unreliable. Are we confused with all the foundations available in the spiritual supermarket? Do we test everything against Scripture? Do we only accept what is consistent with the Bible? Or in the spirit of tolerance (which is the spirit of our age), do we accept these weak foundations and risk our lives collapsing in the storms of life?

Let’s take the safe option of a strong spiritual foundation (Eph. 2:20).

Written, June 2016


Never give up!

Runner 1The Jamaican singer Sean Paul said “The whole world is under pressure right now — the financial meltdown, war, terrorism, people are dealing with a lot so I wrote ‘Never Give Up’ about how I felt and how other people are feeling, too”. It’s a powerful song with a message of hope and strength for people who are struggling in Jamaica.

The book of Hebrews was written to Christians who were struggling and were tempted to give up following Jesus. This post addresses the highlights of this book where we see that we can keep following Jesus despite adversity.

Context

Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were being persecuted for their faith (12:4-13; 13:3). Because of their hardship and suffering, they were tired and weak (12:3, 12-13). This also impacted their spiritual lives. They were being tempted to give up following Jesus and turn back to their Jewish customs. They were spiritually weak.

The book is written like a sermon, rather than a letter. It’s a “word of exhortation” and the same phrase is used in Acts to describe a sermon (Acts 13:15; Heb. 13:22). Also “say” and “speak” are used consistently instead of “write” (2:5; 5:11; 6:9; 8:1; 11:32).

Hebrews deals with the struggle of leaving one religious system for another. In this case it was leaving Judaism for Christianity. Leaving the inferior for the superior. It promotes the supremacy of Jesus Christ above all other spiritual teachers. This book also shows how to deal with persecution and keep following Jesus even when we are tempted to give up. It also stresses the danger of not believing the gospel message.

As Hebrews was probably written to a church in about AD 67-70, which is well after the early days of the church, we can generally apply the principles in it to us today without needing much consideration of the changes since then.

Hebrews tells them what God wanted them to know and to do. They were to know three things. The first thing they were to know is that Jesus is better than all their Jewish heroes.

Jesus is greater than …. (Ch 1-10)

Jesus is superior to the prophets (1:1-3). The revelation of God’s truth is added progressively in the Bible as we move from Genesis through to Revelation. The Old Testament was written by the prophets. What Jesus taught is summarized in the gospels. His teachings supersede those of the Old Testament prophets. Other reasons why Christ is superior to the prophets are that He made the universe and sustains it. He is the divine God. While the prophets predicted the Messiah (Acts 10:43), Jesus was the Messiah. Through His death, our sins can be forgiven. And after His resurrection and ascension, He now sits on a place of honor and privilege at God’s right hand. So of course He is greater than the prophets. Today we can say that Jesus is greater than experts and scientists.

Jesus is also superior to angels (1:4-14; 2:5). Angels brought messages from God and protected God’s people. As Son of God, Jesus has a close relationship with God the Father. The angels praised God at His birth (Lk. 2:13-14) and will worship Christ when He returns to rule over the earth (1:6). Jesus is in a position of honor and power at God’s right hand, while angels serve God’s people (11:13-14). Jesus did what angels couldn’t do, He became a human being and offered His perfect life as a sacrifice for our sin. So of course He is greater than the angels. Today we can say that Jesus is greater than those promoting spiritual experiences.

Jesus is also superior to Moses and Joshua (3:1-6; 4:6-11). Jesus represents God to us and also represents us before God. He is a mediator or go-between. Moses served the Israelites, but Jesus was equal with God who made them His people. While Joshua was unable to provide rest for the Israelites in the land of Canaan, it is available through Jesus Christ. So of course He is greater than Moses and Joshua. Today we can say that Jesus is greater than the leaders of nations.

high priest 2 cropped 400pxJesus is also superior to the Jewish high priests (4:14 – 5:10; 6:20 – 8:2). He represents God to us like a high priest did for the Jews. But the eternal priesthood of Jesus has replaced the temporary priesthood of Aaron. Because of Jesus, both the Jewish priesthood and the Jewish law have been replaced. When Jesus died this was signified by the tearing apart from top to bottom of the curtain to the Most Holy Place in the temple. (Mt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45). Jesus didn’t need to offer sacrifices for His own sins because he was sinless. Also, “He offered Himself”, not an animal. So of course He is greater than the Jewish high priests. Today we can say that Jesus is greater than the religious leaders.

Jesus’ sacrifice is also superior to the Jewish sacrifices (8:3 – 10:14). His sacrifice only needed to be offered once, not annually like Yom Kippur. It was “once for all”. It brought in a new covenant that could include all nations, not just Jews. So of course Jesus’ sacrifice is greater than the Jewish sacrifices. Today we can say that Jesus’ sacrifice is greater than our good works.

Because Jesus is greater than all our heroes and all our desires, He’s the greatest of all. So let’s follow and live for Him.

After Hebrews 10:18 the book changes from doctrine to practice, and the next two chapters give reasons to keep following Jesus even when we feel like giving up. The second thing they were to know is that following Jesus is like running in a marathon.

Keep on running (Ch 10-12)

The writer says the Christian life is like running a marathon and urges them to endure and persevere. It’s not an easy jog. We must be ready to continue, persist, and keep going. That’s why this blog is titled, “Never give up!”. A key passage of the book is:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (12:1-3NIV)

He gives them three ways to keep following Jesus. First, by focusing on God and Jesus and believing God’s promises given in the Bible. We don’t run in our own strength because Jesus creates and completes our faith. We can “draw near to God” by meditating on God’s word the Bible and praying to Him. Second, by encouraging one another to love and good deeds. This means putting others above ourselves and not giving up meeting together. And third, by removing obstacles that hinder us following Jesus. We can throw them off by establishing boundaries and practicing discipline.

Hebrews also gives five reasons to keep following Jesus even when we are tempted to give up. These are: because Jesus is the greatest example (He is the only way to a relationship with God and has paid the price for access to heaven), because of other people who lived by faith (Hebrews 11 gives many other examples of people who lived by faith in Old Testament times), because of our past experience (they had endured persecution and suffering in the past), because of God’s promises (their spiritual blessings were more valuable than their physical possessions, and they could look forward to the coming resurrection), and because adversity develops our character (God is teaching us, correcting us and transforming us like a parent trains a child).

For these reasons we can keep following Him even when we feel like giving up when facing adversity.

The third thing they were to know is the danger of not believing the gospel message because this excludes people from heaven and leads to eternal punishment for one’s sins.

God’s greatest warning (Ch. 2-12)

Five warnings are also included in the first 12 chapters of Hebrews. These warnings are written in strong language. They are imperatives and commands, not just models to follow. While Noah and the Old Testament prophets warned their generations of God’s imminent judgment (2 Pt. 2:5), these warnings apply to us today.

The first warning is against “drifting away” and ignoring God’s gift of salvation by remaining in unbelief (2:1-4). The Bible says ignoring the gospel leads to disaster. The second is against “unbelief”, which is dangerous because it leads to missing out on heaven (3:7 – 4:13). This book was written to professing Christians; they were not all true believers. Some were unbelievers; they had “sinful unbelieving” hearts. The third is against “falling away”: the danger of apostasy, which is hearing the gospel and renouncing it instead of accepting it (6:4-8). In this case, it’s impossible for them to repent. The fourth is against “deliberately sinning after knowing the truth”, because the apostate will be punished severely for rejecting the gospel and opposing Christianity (10:26-31). This punishment is worse than death – because it goes beyond death. Finally there is a warning against “turning away”, where unbelievers are warned of a greater punishment than experienced by the Israelites in the wilderness (12:25-29).

So, unbelief and apostasy are dangerous. God’s greatest warning for us is the danger of not believing the gospel message because this excludes people from heaven and leads to eternal punishment for one’s sins. Are we warning unbelievers? In particular an apostate (a professing Christian who becomes a traitor or spiritual terrorist who undermines Christianity) is doomed to punishment in hell. You can read all about them in the book of Jude.

The only way to escape God’s anger, judgment and punishment is to accept Christ’s sacrifice in the place of sinners like us. Let’s do this and turn around (repent) and persevere by trusting God day by day.

Once they knew these truths the final chapter tells them what to do about it.

How to please God (Ch 13)

Hebrews 13 400pxHebrews 13 begins with three outward things (13:1-3). They were to love one another like siblings in a spiritual family, to be hospitable to strangers and to have empathy for Christians who are suffering by sharing their feelings.

It then looks at two inward things (13:4-5). They were to be sexually pure because sexual sin impacts one’s relationships, family and Christian witness. It has more influence on one’s life than other sins (1 Cor. 6:18). They were also to be contented in order to avoid the love of money. This is possible by realizing that the Lord is always with us by His Spirit and can be trusted for our safety, protection and economic welfare.

Hebrews 13 then looks at how we live our spiritual lives, beginning with a source of strength to live a Christian life. They were to respect and follow godly church leaders (13:7-8, 17). The leaders kept following Jesus throughout their lives – they were faithful despite the difficulties, and they finished well. They also cared for their spiritual welfare.

Next they are urged not to return to the false teachings of Jewish legalism (13:9-12). Holiness doesn’t come from following rituals and food laws, which were some of the false teachings they were being tempted to follow. Only God’s love and kindness shown to us by Jesus can empower believers to live holy lives through their relationship with God. It takes inner strength gained by following Jesus to live the Christian life as it is described in Hebrews 13.

Because of Jesus, Christians don’t need to sacrifice animals. Instead they offer different sacrifices, including suffering for Christ, words of praise offered to God through the Lord Jesus, and good works (13:13-16). God is pleased when we live like this, because it shows that He is more valuable than the things of this world.

Then they are urged to keep on praying because prayer is another way to seek God’s help to live a life that pleases Him (13:18-19). Finally they are to recognize God’s work through Jesus Christ, whose death paid the penalty owing for the sin of humanity (13:20-21). His prayer was that God would give them the desire and resources to do His will and the power to carry it out. And that they would let God work through them.

Let’s use this checklist in Hebrews 13 to keep following Jesus and not turning back to our old ways. Then we will please God by doing His will.

Lessons for us

Let’s read the book of Hebrews when we are struggling and tempted to give up following Jesus. It reminds us that Jesus is better than all our heroes, that following Jesus is like running in a marathon, the danger of not believing the gospel message, and how to please God.

Do we realize that Jesus is superior to all our heroes? He is greater than all other spiritual teachers. Because He is unique, let’s encourage each other to follow Jesus as Lord. Are we reminding each other of the greatness of Jesus and what He has done and God’s promises in Scripture?

Are we encouraged to persevere and keep following Jesus even when we are tempted to give up? This is evidence of genuine faith in Christ. Let’s encourage one another to keep following Jesus.

Do we know the danger of not believing the gospel message because this excludes people from heaven and leads to eternal punishment for one’s sins? Have we accepted God’s rescue plan by confessing our sins and trusting that Jesus has paid the penalty for them?

So from the book of Hebrews we see that we can keep following Jesus despite adversity.

Written, December 2015

Also see:
Jesus is greater than … – Heb. Ch 1-10
Keep on running – Heb. Ch 10-12
God’s greatest warning to us – Heb. Ch 2-12
How to please God – Heb. Ch 13