Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Trials

Encouragement for tough times

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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


Responding to terrorism

france-Charlie Hebdo vigil 400px

france-Charlie Hebdo vigil 400pxPrayer calms anxiety & relieves stress

I’m in France where thousands rallied in the streets after the recent Charlie Hebdo massacre in a massive nation-wide demonstration of solidarity. “I am Charlie” (“Je Suis Charlie”) signs are still posted on city buildings.

Some people felt helpless and feared for their safety. I was asked: “Are you still going to France?” How can we cope when we feel helpless when facing trials, troubles and tragedies? In this blog we see that Psalm 4 shows that because God is in control, if we pray in these times, He calms our anxiety and relieves our stress.

Context

Psalm 4 was written when the Israelites were living in Canaan under King David, one of their greatest kings. It was about 1,000 BC and before the division into the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. These are the lyrics of one of the songs they sang when praising God. So it has a poetic structure.

It was a model for the Israelites to follow, not a command or a report of events. As they sang it they would have been reminded to pray when they are in trouble. And that the fact that God would look after them and replace anxiety with peace.

The surrounding texts (Ps. 3 and 5) also cover the topic of praying for deliverance from enemies. It’s a major theme in many of the Psalms.

Lyrics

“Answer me when I call to you, O God who declares me innocent. Free me from my troubles. Have mercy on me and hear my prayer. How long will you people ruin my reputation? How long will you make groundless accusations? How long will you continue your lies?
Have mercy on me and hear my prayer. How long will you people ruin my reputation? How long will you make groundless accusations? How long will you continue your lies? Don’t sin by letting anger control you. Think about it overnight and remain silent. Offer sacrifices in the right spirit, and trust the LORD. Many people say, “Who will show us better times?” Let your face smile on us, LORD.
You have given me greater joy than those who have abundant harvests of grain and new wine. In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, O LORD, will keep me safe” (Ps. 4:1-8NLT).

David addresses both God and David’s enemies in turn. He begins with a prayer of request for God’s help (v.1). Then he addresses his enemies asking questions, making statements, and giving advice (v.2-5). He seeks the Lord’s favor and praises Him for the change he has experienced already (v.6-8). David finishes with a prayer of thanksgiving for what God has already done (v. 7-8).

Trials

David has a problem. Although he was a godly king, some of his subjects were trying to bring him down by using slander, lies and false accusations to ruin his reputation (v.2). They were blaming David for the nation’s problems saying he should be replaced as their leader so they could have better times (v.6). It looks like he’s going to be deposed. This had been going on for some-time and there was nothing David could do about it (v.2). So he seeks relief from his distress. And prays for deliverance from these attacks.

“Answer me when I call to you, O God who declares me innocent. Free me from my troubles. Have mercy on me and hear my prayer.” (v.1)
He knows that God is a righteous judge who knows the facts of the situation and isn’t deceived by David’s enemies. That’s why he goes to God for help. He wants relief from his anxiety and stress.

Then he names the problems and challenges the offenders.
“Have mercy on me and hear my prayer. How long will you people ruin my reputation? How long will you make groundless accusations? How long will you continue your lies?” (v.2)

This means that they have an opportunity to consider the situation, to acknowledge their part in it (their sins) and repent and change their ways. Obviously this didn’t happen because David needed to challenge them again (v.4-5).

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the people of France responded in public rallies. They didn’t pray to God or ask spiritual questions, because they live in a secular society that seeks all its answers in humanity.

We mightn’t be a king facing his downfall or someone facing a terrorist attack, but we all face trials, troubles and tragedies that worry us from time to time. How do we manage when these bring depression and anxiety and there seems to be no relief? Do we seek help? Or do we give up? Do we pray to God?

Trust

“Have mercy on me and hear my prayer. How long will you people ruin my reputation? How long will you make groundless accusations? How long will you continue your lies?” (v.3)
David warns his enemies that God will answer his prayer and intervene because he is part of God’s Old Testament people, the Israelites. So they should realise that their efforts to bring down the king will be futile. Paul wrote, “If God is for us, who can ever be against us?” (Rom. 8:31).

“Don’t sin by letting anger control you. Think about it overnight and remain silent. Offer sacrifices in the right spirit, and trust the Lord.” (v.4-5)
Then he tells them what to do. Instead of blaming someone else for their troubles, they needed to tremble with fear before God and change their sinful ways by meditating as they lay in bed and then repent of their ways and trust God.

His enemies needed to control their anger and not let it lead to violence. Paul told Christians they could be angry for God, but it should be limited and not carried over into another day (Eph. 4:26-27).

At night they were to think about the stupidity of fighting against God. This should lead them to acknowledge, confess, and repent of their sin. And “trust in the Lord”. David told them to offer sacrifices in the right spirit to demonstrate this change in their lives.

Offering animal sacrifices was part of a godly life for an Israelite. We live under a different covenant. The new covenant brought in by Jesus has replaced the Old Testament law. We don’t approach God through the sacrifice of animals, but through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

‘Many people say, “Who will show us better times?” Let your face smile on us, LORD.’ (v.6)
Here David contrasts himself with his enemies. They are blaming David for their problems and are looking for another leader to replace the king, but David looks for God’s favor. He does this because He knows that God is the one we should trust in, not just another human leader. God is the only one who can bring lasting improvement in the situation. They seek all the benefits of a godly life, but they don’t want God.

A smiling face was a common expression for acceptance and favour. It was a metaphor for blessing and deliverance. Though many are discouraged, David asks the Lord to intervene and transform the situation. The opposite is to hide your face or turn your face from people’s need. In this case there is no blessing and no deliverance. David knew the image of God’s shining face from the priestly blessing (Num. 6:24-26).

Australian Prime Ministers are usually replaced when their approval rating gets too low. Kevin Rudd’s rating dropped to 58% and Julia Gillard’s to 53% before they were replaced. But now her replacement Tony Abbott is rating at 50%! What a big change since he was elected 16 months ago in September 2013. In fact the two major national political parties in Australia have gone through 10 leaders in 10 years!

Are you like David? If you trust in God are you assured that He will answer your prayers?

Or are you like David’s enemies? Can you control your anger? Do you know that human solutions will disappoint if you ignore God? Are you willing to look at the sins in your life with a view to acknowledging, confessing, and repenting of them?

Triumph

“You have given me greater joy than those who have abundant harvests of grain and new wine” (v.7)
God has already answered his prayer by giving him inner joy even though He hasn’t been delivered yet. But he is confident that God will deliver him.

“In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, O Lord, will keep me safe” (v.8)
We’ve now come to the end of the song. It began with David pleading to God to free him from his troubles and give relief for his distress. It ends with David sleeping well because he leaves his safety up to God. So his anxiety has subsided and been replaced with assurance and peace. He is confident of God’s protection. He found that prayer relieves anxiety and stress.

Paul said, “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6-7).

A new mobile phone app enables children and other users to send emergency alerts and broadcast their GPS location to trusted contacts. It’s called Thread. It can connect users immediately to 911 (or 112 or 999 or 000) and their nominated contacts. It can allay someone’s anxiety and fears. Likewise, Christians have a hotline to God that can allay their anxiety and fears.

Have you accepted God’s provision for our trials, troubles and tragedies? Or do you face them alone?

What about terrorism?

Terrorists are enemies of particular groups of people. What else can we learn from what the Bible says about dealing with our enemies?

In Psalm 109, David uses strong language to ask God to judge and punish his enemies (v.6-21). He wants them to receive the consequences of their sinful behavior. He wants revenge. This language is acceptable for Old Testament times, but not now.

What’s changed since then? Jesus brought a new covenant. He prayed for His enemies (Lk. 23:34) and taught His followers to love their enemies (Mt. 5:44-45). Paul taught that we are to never take revenge, but leave that up to God (Rom. 12:19-21). Because, doing good to one’s enemy, instead of taking revenge, may bring about repentance.

Our real enemy is Satan who directs the terrorists (Eph. 6:12). This means that it’s spiritual warfare that requires spiritual weapons. That’s why when facing all kinds of dangers and threats, the Psalmist could say “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth!” (Ps. 121:1). We need the God who made the universe on our side, because He’s stronger than Satan.

Do we have the same attitude as Jesus and Paul? Do we leave the problem of terrorism up to God? Do we pray to God about it? Do we pray for our enemies?

Conclusion

We have seen that David prayed for help and deliverance when he faced serious trials, troubles and tragedies. His song taught that God answers prayer and that prayer relieves anxiety and stress.

When we feel helpless when facing trials, troubles, tragedies or terrorism we need to realize that because God is in control, if we pray in these times, He calms our anxiety and relieves our stress.

Written, January 2015


How to survive tough times

Fire damage - Oct 2013

Fire damage - Oct 2013Recently we saw the terror and devastation of bush fires in the Blue Mountains of Australia. It was a tough time for those in the path of the fire. They didn’t get much warning and had to escape for their lives. Afterwards, some returned to see their house in ruins. They searched through the rubble to recover what they could. What if our house and belongings are destroyed in a fire?

How do we respond when our dreams are shattered? When our relationships break down? When our health is threatened? Or when we are overcome by the emptiness of loneliness? Do we plunge into depression, despair and discouragement when there is disappointment, stress or tragedy? What can help us get through tough times?

Some say “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”. But we will see that this is not God’s way. Today we are looking at how to survive tough times. We will see from Ezekiel’s vision that, because God will rescue us, we can survive tough times (Ezek. 37:1-14).

In particular, so we can survive tough times we will determine: Who will God rescue? How will God rescue? And when will God rescue?

Context

Ezekiel was a Jew captive in Babylon. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 586 BC was a tragedy for the Jews. Everything they lived for was gone and the Babylonian gods had triumphed over their God. They were devastated. The Bible says they had bitter memories in Babylon, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion” (Ps. 137:1-4NIV). They could no longer sing the songs of Jerusalem or play their musical instruments. Jeremiah described their misery; “Streams of tears flow from my eyes because my people are destroyed” (Lam. 3:48).

The verses before the vision say they were scattered and in exile because of their murder and idolatry (36:16-21) and they also predict Israel’s restoration (36:22-38). The Jews will return to Israel from other countries. There will be a great spiritual revival and prosperity and other people will acknowledge God. God does the restoration, which is associated with their repentance. The words “I will”, are mentioned 15 times in 15 verses. He will give them a new heart, a new spirit and forgive their sins.

The verses after the vision also predict Israel’s restoration (37:15-28). The Jews from both Israel and Judah will return to Israel from other countries. They will have one king, “my servant David”, who is Jesus Christ, a descendant of David. They will live as God’s people and there will be no more idolatry. The result is that once again God will be their God and they will be His people (37:27).

The vision of the dry bones is about the restoration and revival of the Jewish nation because it’s mentioned both before and after the vision. After they were plundered, scattered and captured it looked like the end of the Jews. It was a hopeless situation. But God said no; I will intervene.

valley of dry bones croppedWho will God rescue?

Ezekiel’s vision is a valley full of dry bones. They had been dead a long time. There was no life in them. Then God brings them back to life, first as a body lying on the ground and then as a body with breath that stands up. God says, “these bones are the people of Israel” and He calls them “my people” (v.11). They had been slain in battle and they rose as a vast army (v.9-10). It’s a picture of Israel’s army slain by the Babylonians.

What else do the dry bones symbolise? In the vision they say “our hope is gone, we are cut off” (v.11). The dry bones illustrate the hopelessness of the Jews in Babylon. They are over 1,000 km from their homeland and their capital city and temple has been destroyed. Although they are God’s special people they are spiritually dead with nothing to live for. Every day they are reminded of the demise of their nation and the Babylonian victory. They are captive in a foreign land with a foreign language (Jer. 5:15).

So, who will God rescue? His people. They will be rescued because they are God’s people, not because of anything else that they had done. Because of this promise they can survive tough times.

Hostages Tehran 1980 2In 1980, 52 Americans were hostages in the US Embassy in Tehran in Iran for 444 days. They were treated cruelly, beaten, placed in solitary confinement and threatened with execution. An American military operation planned to rescue them, but this was aborted after a helicopter crashed into a transport aircraft. In tough times we can feel like a hostage in a foreign land in a hopeless situation. It’s not unusual.

Christians are the people of God today (1 Pt. 2:9-10). The Bible says we are citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20). And we will also be rescued because we are God’s people, not because of anything we have done. Like the Jews in Babylon, because of this promise we can survive tough times.

Now we know who God will rescue. But how will he rescue them?

How will God rescue?

In Ezekiel’s vision, God says how it will happen;“I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life” (v.5-6). Also, “ I will bring you back to the land of Israel … I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land (v.12-14). Notice that “I will” is mentioned 5 times. So it’s all God’s doing, they had no part in it. They didn’t deserve it. He rescues them when they are in a seemingly hopeless situation and unable to rescue themselves. He’s a God of grace. God does the restoration and brings them to repentance after Ezekiel called them to repent (33:11; 36:31).

In the rescue they would return to their homeland and there would be a spiritual revival. God used an illustration to help them understand it. He said, “I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them” (v.12). The rescue will be like a resurrection, where a dead body comes back to life. It’s a radical change, from exile to their homeland and from spiritual death to spiritual life. The prospect of the rescue gave them encouragement and strength to endure the tough times.

It’s all part of the big picture in the Bible of God rescuing people from their sinful ways. Ever since the time of Adam and Eve, people are spiritually dead. At that time, God promised that He would defeat Satan. Since then He has carried out His rescue plan. For example, He rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. After the times of king David, God promised the Israelites that a Messiah would come to lead them. He was the servant-king predicted by Isaiah (Is. 42, 49, 50, 52-53). The New Testament shows that Jesus was this Suffering Servant (Mt. 12:14-21). This shows why God will rescue. It’s because it’s His main plan for humanity and the universe. To restore it to be like He made it in the beginning. It’s part of His character. He’s a rescuing God.

God also promises that Christians will return to their homeland (Jn. 14:1-3; Phil. 3:20-21). But our home is not Jerusalem, but heavenly Zion (Heb. 12:22-24). This rescue will include resurrection, when the dead come back to life (1 Cor. 15:50-55). And it won’t be a botched rescue, because it will be by the same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead. In this way, Christ is our Rescuer and Savior. This promise helps us survive tough times.

What about the promise of spiritual revival? When a person turns around to follow Jesus, they undergo a spiritual revival. They are now “in Christ”, a new creation and indwelt by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19; 2 Cor. 5:17). Because of their spiritual revival, Christians can survive tough times (1 Cor. 10:13).

Now we know who God will rescue and how he will do it. But when will He rescue His people?

When will God rescue?

In Ezekiel’s vision, God says when it will happen, “I will bring you back to the land of Israel …  I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land (v.12-14). It’s when they return to their homeland and are spiritually revived. This happened in part when some returned to Israel in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. God used the Persian king Cyrus to defeat the Babylonians and allow these Jews to return to Jerusalem (Is. 45:1-8).

But the full extent of their restoration is yet to come; when their land will be like the garden of Eden (36:35), when all the 12 tribes will be united (37:15-22), and when their king will once again be a descendant of David (37:24-23). So there was a partial rescue after the exile, but their complete rescue is yet to come. Maybe this was illustrated in the vision when the bones came to life in two stages.

Mine rescue Beaconsfield 2In 2006, two miners were rescued from a gold mine in Beaconsfield in Tasmania after being trapped underground for 14 days. When we go through tough times, we can feel trapped in a dark place with no way out.  There were two stages to their rescue. First a 90mm hole was drilled to give them food, fresh water and for communication. Second a 1m hole was drilled to enable some miners to crawl in and get them out. In the first stage they were sustained. In the second stage they were released.

Likewise there are two stages to our rescue. First, through God’s power when we chose to turn around and follow Jesus, we are rescued spiritually. We change from being spiritually dead to being spiritually alive. Second, through God’s power when we die, our spirits go to be with the Lord and when Christ returns our bodies will be resurrected and changed (1 Cor. 15:50-55). So the two stages of our rescue are a spiritual revival, which sustains us in tough times; followed by a homecoming, which releases us from the tough times. At present we are half way. We can look back to stage one and ahead to stage two.

So, because through Christ’s death and resurrection Christians have spiritual life which sustains us, we can survive tough times. And because of the promise of being with the Lord and released, we can survive tough times. Clearly we can only survive tough times, in God’s power.

If you lack this power to get through tough times, then this is a reason to turn your life around to follow Jesus. The saying “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” is wrong because we don’t need to toughen up and work hard to survive tough times. Instead, let’s rely on God’s saving power in Christ and His sustaining power in the Holy Spirit.

It would be wrong to use Ezekiel’s vision to claim that God will remove our tough times on earth. Ezekiel probably died in Babylon before the partial return to the homeland (he would have been ~85 years of age if still alive when the first exiles returned to Judah under Zerubbabel in 538 BC). Even though he didn’t reach stage 1 of the rescue, the promise helped him endure the tough times. Recently I spoke to a believer struggling with a chronic disease. He felt he had nothing to live for. He was disappointed in God, saying, “What’s God doing about it? It would be a great witness if I was healed”. In the Bible Abraham told the rich man in Hades, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Lk. 16:29-31). People are not convinced by miracles. How often do we pray for a miracle, when God promises survival through tough times on earth, not removal of these tough times? After all, we are in stage 1 of the rescue, not stage 2.

Because God will rescue us, we can survive tough times

So let’s remember the vision of the dry bones that came back to life. When they were doing it tough in Babylon in the darkest period of their history, God gave the Jews comfort and strength. Because He promised to rescue them, they survived the tough times. Some of them returned to Israel and Christ was born about 500 years later. After another 2,000 years more Jews have returned to Israel and it is a nation once again. And God has promised there will be a spiritual revival when they recognise Christ as their Messiah in a coming day.

Because God is a rescuer, we can survive tough times. We have seen:
– Who He rescues: His people. In future, all believers will be fully rescued from their tough times.
– How He rescues: by spiritual revival and bringing us home.
– And when He rescues: partially now and fully later.
He has already rescued us and promises to rescue us even more in the future. This gives us encouragement and strength. Remember this promise when you are going through tough times.

Because we know that God will rescue us, we can survive tough times.

Written, November 2013


Resisting temptation

Resist temptation

When you pay at a store or gas (petrol) station, have you been asked if you would like to buy something else with that? Then you see loads of snacks, fast food and sugary drinks. It’s a food temptation called ambush marketing. We also have temptations in supermarkets, in shopping centres, in advertising, in marketing, in our entertainment, in technological hardware and software and even on our Facebook pages! We live in a sea of temptation.

Temptation entices us to do something that is sinful. Fortunately God has provided three ways to resist the temptations we face in life: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13NIV). The Greek word translated “temptation” and “tempted” in this verse can mean either outer trials that test our faith or inner temptations to sin. Here we will apply it to the inner temptations to sin.

Context

Corinth was a wealthy pagan Greek city. Paul wrote this letter to their church to instruct them about problems that they faced. There were divisions in the church, they accepted sexual immorality, they were taking their disputes to pagan courts, they were abusing the Lord’s supper, and there was false teaching about the resurrection of the dead. There were questions about married life, about eating food that had been sacrificed to idols, about church meetings, and about the use of spiritual gifts.

This verse comes from a passage on eating food that had been sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8:1-11:1). Paul begins by stating the principle that we shouldn’t stumble a believer with a weak conscience by causing them to act against their conscience with regard to a debatable matter (1 Cor. 8). So Paul would not exercise his right to eat food that had been offered to an idol if there was a Christian present who thought this was sinful. Then he illustrates this principle (1 Cor. 10). First, although as an apostle Paul had the right to be supported financially by the church, he didn’t claim this so that people couldn’t say that he was preaching for money. Second, he followed the customs of those he was preaching to, so they would be more likely to accept the gospel message. Third, like an athlete he exercised self-control and discipline when serving the Lord so as not to miss his reward. Fourth, the Israelites lacked self-control. In the exodus God rescued them from slavery, but they were punished for idolatry, sexual immorality and grumbling to God (1 Cor. 10:1-10).

So this verse was written to a church that was out of control. They lacked self-control. It is Christian teaching on self-control. They needed to learn how to recognise the temptations they faced and how to resist these temptations.

Warning

Then the Bible applies what happed to the Israelites to us today (v.11). They are examples for us. They are warnings for us. The Bible was written for our benefit (Rom. 15:4). It has many lessons for us. The warning of this passage is spelled out “if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (v. 12). To think we are “standing firm” against temptation means being confident or complacent about temptation. The warning is to be careful we don’t yield to temptation. We all face temptation on a daily basis. We are all prone to giving in to temptation and sinning against God. We can all lack self-control.

Then three ways are given to resist temptation.

Temptation is normal

The Bible says, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind”. So, “The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience” (NLT). Sometimes we think why am I so weak? Why do I always yield to this sinful desire, and give in to that addiction? Why am I always being tempted?

But our temptations are not unique. Every temptation we face is “common to mankind”. We all face temptation. Everyone is tempted. Temptation is normal for humanity. It’s usual. It’s common. So, don’t be surprised when you are tempted. It happens all the time. Expect to be tempted. For example, Paul warns us to beware when helping someone who has been sinful, because we may also be tempted to sin (Gal. 6:1).

Because temptation is normal, it’s not new. It’s been around since the days of Adam and Eve. Temptation is not a modern invention. For this reason, we can learn from the temptations faced in Biblical times and the ways they were resisted.

The normal process of temptation

The normal process of temptation is described by James: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death”  (Jas. 1:13-15).

Resist temptationTemptation begins as an “evil desire” in our mind. Jesus said that “evil thoughts” lead to sin (Mt. 15:18-20; Mk. 7:20-23). Since the fall of humanity into sin we have a tendency towards evil desires. We are now self-centred. Given time, the temptation from an evil desire leads to sin and then to spiritual death and other consequences. Even if the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak (Mt. 26:41). The evil desire is influenced by Satan and our sinful nature. The process stops if we resist the temptation and there is victory over the temptation. So there is a choice to yield to or resist the temptation as shown in the diagram.

Satan is called the tempter (Mt. 4:3; 1 Th. 3:5). He tempts us in order to make us fail (1 Cor. 7:5). He entices us like a fisherman entices fish with bait or a lure. Satan is deceitful and seductive. He is our enemy (1 Ti. 5:14; 1 Pt. 5:8).

Temptation is not sinful. We know that Jesus was tempted by Satan, but didn’t sin (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pt. 2:22; 1 Jn. 3:5). But yielding to temptation is sinful.

So temptation is like when fish see a fisherman’s bait or lure. If they eat it they are hooked. Otherwise, they can swim on their way. Likewise, if we take the bait when tempted then we are hooked and dragged away into sinful behavior and its consequences. That’s the normal process of temptation. But if we don’t take the bait and resist the temptation, we can continue serving the Lord.

The normal tools of temptation

The normal tools of temptation are described in this warning, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world” (1 Jn. 2:15-16).

This describes Satan’s tools, the aspects of the sinful world that he uses as bait to lure us into sin. They are evil desires arising from:

  • The lust of the flesh. This is our sinful human nature. Our sinful appetites.
  • The lust of the eyes. This is what we see. It can also symbolise our minds. What we think about.
  • The pride of life. This is boasting about what we have and what we do. Selfish ambition. Seeking to create a sense of envy, rivalry, and jealousy in others.

For example, the Israelites were tempted to eat, drink, indulge in revelry, indulge in sexual immorality, worship idols and grumble to God (1 Cor. 10:7-10). These are still normal temptations today. Have we ever been tempted to: eat too much, drink too much, party too much, commit sexual sins, let someone or something take the place of God in our lives, or complain to God?

So, temptation is a common experience of all human beings. But temptation is not only normal, it is also bearable.

Temptation is bearable

The Bible says, “And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear”. So, “He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand” (NLT) and “He’ll never let you be pushed past your limit” (Message). God doesn’t promise that we won’t be tempted, but He does promise to limit its intensity. Life is tough. Temptation is common. But there is no such thing as an unbearable temptation.

God knows our strength greater than we do. He knows how much we can handle, and how much we cannot. One of the basic principles of sports and athletic training is to strengthen us to do things we don’t think we can do right now, to put more pressure on us than we think we can handle. And we discover we can handle it. This is what God does with us. He allows temptations when the pressure on, but it is controlled pressure. It will never be more than we can handle. Let’s look at some examples of this.

Bearable temptations in the Old Testament

The heroes of faith in Old Testament times are listed in Hebrews 11. They endured much shame and suffering rather that give up on God. They could have avoided this by renouncing God. That would have been a great temptation to them. Instead they resisted this temptation and continued to trust God’s promises.

Here’s what they went through (Heb. 11:33-39). They faced the dangers of lions, fire and swords. They were tortured, flogged, imprisoned, jeered, murdered, homeless, persecuted and mistreated. Because they remained faithful, we know that their temptations were bearable. Also, Job remained faithful after he lost his family, his wealth and his health. His temptations were bearable.

Bearable temptations in the New Testament

Paul is one of the heroes of faith in New Testament. Here’s what he went through.
2 Cor. 11:23-27: “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews 39 lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.”

Paul would have been tempted to avoid all this by stopping serving the Lord. Because he remained faithful, we know that his temptations were bearable.

So, the temptations faced by God’s people are bearable. But temptation is not only normal and bearable, it is also escapable.

Temptation is escapable

The Bible says, “But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it”. So, “He will also provide a way of escape” (HCSB). Not only does God promise to limit the intensity of our temptations, He promises a way to resist them. God enables us to resist the temptation to sin. He will provide a way out for us.

The Bible says, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1). When those heroes of faith faced their troubles, all human support was usually stripped away. They learnt that God alone strengthens us at these times. He gets us through life’s temptations. In this sense, He is the way out. The way of escape. The Message says, “He’ll always be there to help you come through it”.

Joshua was told that God “will never leave you nor forsake you” (Dt. 31:8). David faced trouble without fear because God was with him (Ps. 23:5). God was close beside him. Likewise, God is with us in our temptations. He will not leave us or forsake us. He will provide a way of escape.

So, how did Joseph and Jesus escape temptations?

How Joseph escaped temptations

Joseph was a slave of Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard in Egypt. Potiphar put him in charge of his household. Here’s how Joseph responded to temptation.
Gen. 39:6-12 “Now Joseph was well-built and handsome, and after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he refused. “With me in charge,” he told her, “my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care … My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” And though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her. One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside. She caught him by his cloak and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house.”

When Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him, Joseph “refused to be with her”. He avoided the temptation as much as possible. Unlike Sampson, he didn’t give in to the pressure that went on “day after day” (Jud. 14:17; 16:16-17). So let’s avoid situations where we are likely to be tempted.

When Joseph was confronted again he “ran out of the house”. He had an escape plan. We have fire escape plans, but do we have plans to escape temptations?

How Jesus escaped temptations

At the beginning of His ministry, Jesus was tempted by Satan (Mt. 4:1-11):

  • To use His supernatural powers to satisfy his hunger by turning stones into bread.
  • To jump from the highest point of the temple to test God’s promise of protection and attract public attention.
  • To avoid the suffering of the cross and take an easy shortcut to world domination.

In each case Jesus responded to temptation by quoting from the Bible. He answered, “It is written …”. So Satan can tempt those controlled by the Holy Spirit, but they can resist him with the truths of Scripture. The Israelites knew, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Ps. 119:11). The truths of Scripture in our mind can protect us from yielding to temptation. Bible knowledge can help us to resist temptation.

Our mind is important. Let’s think about “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8). Are the truths of Scripture planted in our mind?

Lessons for us

So let’s be warned by the history of the Israelites of the danger of yielding to temptation. Don’t be hooked and dragged away by Satan. Resisting temptation requires self-control, which is part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). So the Holy Spirit helps us to resist temptation.

Remember the promise: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13).

Because temptation is normal, we can resist it.
Because temptation is bearable, we can resist it.
Because temptation is escapable, we can resist it.
Because temptation is normal and bearable and escapable, we can resist it.

God has given us these reasons to exercise self-control when we face temptations. Let’s remember and use these ways to resist the temptations we face.

Written September 2013


Facing trials

Unconscious

UnconsciousDealing with the difficulties in life

A month ago my nephew was rushed to hospital by helicopter with serious brain injuries after a motor cycle accident. Since this time he has been unconscious. There were anxious moments when the doctors operated to alleviate the swelling of the brain. The Christian faith of his family is being tested at this difficult time. Many questions come to mind during such trials, hardships and tragedies.

The Bible says that problems, trials and troubles are inevitable in our lives. Jesus said “In this world you will have trouble” (Jn. 16:33NIV). James wrote about “whenever you face trials of many kinds” (Jas. 1:2). We can’t stop them happening. We can’t control them. They are unforeseen and uncontrollable. Our only choice is how to respond to them.

So how does the Bible say that a Christian should respond when trials and troubles come our way? First, some bad responses. We shouldn’t complain and grumble, rebel, have self-pity or give up. Looking at each of these in turn:

  • Complain and grumble. Paul wrote “do not grumble as some of them (the Israelites) did” (1 Cor. 10:10). The Israelites constantly grumbled against Moses who had been appointed by God to lead them from Egypt to Canaan (Num. 16:41; 17:5). They complained and grumbled at Marah, at the desert of Sin, at Rephidim, after the spies explored Canaan, and at Kadesh (Ex. 15:22-24; 16:1-3; 17:1-3; Num. 14:1-3; 20:2-5). They complained when there was no water and they detested the manna that God provided for food (Num. 21:4-5). The Bible says not to be like them and act as though we know better than God.
  • Rebel. The Israelites also rebelled against Moses and God. Miriam and Aaron talked against Moses (Num. 12:1-2). And after the spies explored Canaan, the people said “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt” (Num. 14:4; Dt. 1:26-33). Then they disobeyed God by attacking the Amorites (Dt. 1:42-44). Also Korah and 250 men opposed the leadership of Moses and Aaron (Num. 16:1-3). The Bible says don’t be like them and take matters into our own hands. Don’t try to resolve problems in our own power. Don’t boast that we can overcome difficulties in our own power. Such self-confidence downgrades God’s care for us.
  • Self-pity is self-indulgently dwelling on our own misfortune, sorrows or trials. For example, Moses asked to be excused from leadership and Jonah was more concerned about a plant that protected him from the hot sun than the children of Nineveh (Ex. 4:10-13; Jon. 4:8-11). They were focused on themselves. The Bible says don’t be like them thinking only of ourselves and seeking the sympathy of others. Because when we focus on ourselves we can’t focus on God or others. Those who pity themselves because of the circumstances of their lives fail to see God at work in them. Such self-pity is associated with self-centredness, loneliness and despair.
  • Give up. The Bible says “do not lose heart” when facing hard times (Heb. 12:5). When he was suffering, Paul said, “we do not lose heart” (2 Cor. 4:1, 16). Giving up doubts God’s care for us. When we feel like giving up, we should think of what Jesus went through: “Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:3). So the Bible says don’t give up on God in tough situations.

Second, some good responses to trials and troubles (Heb. 12:4-12; Jas. 1:2-12). Two of these evident in these passages of the Bible are:

  • Endure and persevere. Hang in there to let God work in the difficult circumstances.
  • Optimism. Be positive, not negative. Realise that God always has our best and eternal interests at heart (Rom. 8:28).

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (Jas. 1:2-4).

“Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love Him” (Jas. 1:12).

“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children” (Heb. 12:7).

Trials enable us to develop endurance and perseverance which leads to strengthened Christian character (Heb. 12:11). Paul said, “we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom. 5:3-4).

Our Christian faith is being tested. The physical trials of life enable a baby to grow into a child and then an adolescent and then an adult. Likewise the spiritual trials of life enable a Christian to grow more Christ-like and have the fruit of the spirit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23).

This is expressed in the song “Through It All” by Andrae Crouch which says:

I thank God for the mountains, and I thank Him for the valleys,
And I thank Him for the storms He’s brought me through.
For if I’d never had a problem, I’d never know that God could solve them,
I’d never know what faith in His Word could do.
Through it all, through it all,
I’ve learned to trust in Jesus, I’ve learned to trust in God.
Through it all, through it all,
I’ve learned to depend upon His Word.

Lessons for us

So when things are tough, do we complain? Are we arrogant and defiant? Do we indulge in self-pity? Or do we give up? How has our character been moulded through it all? And how has our trust in God been affected through it all?

Let’s persevere and grow more Christ-like through all the trials that come our way.

Also see – What’s the use of trials

Written, August 2013


No hospitals in heaven

Patient monitor 200px

Patient monitorToday I visited my nephew in hospital. He was in a critical condition with head injuries after a motor cycle accident. As he lay in a coma I was reminded of the fragility of life and the contrast to spiritual life and heaven.

Accidents happen. When Jesus was on earth 18 people died when the tower of Siloam collapsed in Jerusalem (Lk. 13:4).

Physical life depends on an adequate supply of oxygenated blood to our vital organs. In the big picture, life is brief. It’s transient. The Bible says it’s like a cloud or mist that appears for a while and then disappears. It’s also like a shadow and grass and flowers (1 Ch. 29:15; Job 7:6-10; Jas. 4:14; 1 Pt. 1:24). Life is unpredictable: “you do not even know what will happen tomorrow” Jas. 4:14 NIV).

Spiritual life is the main theme of the Bible. It says, “repent of your sins and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped away” (Acts 3:19NLT). This life is robust. It’s not interrupted by physical death (1 Th. 5:10). What a contrast to our physical lives!

Another difference is that there are no hospitals in heaven – God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Also, there are no cemeteries there. What a contrast to the sufferings experienced on earth (Rom. 8:18).

Can you look forward to a time when there will be no hospitals or cemeteries?

Written, July 2013


Looking back and looking ahead

Coffin Mar 2014 cropped

IMG_4587 resizedBased on a message given at my mother’s funeral on 3 April 2013

A funeral usually involves memories and reflections of the life of the person who has died. But the funeral of a Christian can also look ahead in anticipation of what lies ahead.

Help from God the Creator

The source of a Christian’s help and protection throughout life is described in Psalm 121NIV.

“I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—He who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you—the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm— He will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”

When this song was written about 3,000 years ago, God’s people knew that the only reliable help and protection comes from the God who made the universe – “the Maker of heaven and earth”. In this context the Hebrew word for “heaven” means the atmosphere and the stars and galaxies. A God with the intelligence and power to create the universe and populate it with living plants, animals and people was surely able to help them! The Bible says He was the source of life on earth whereas all other gods and philosophies are the product of the human imagination.

Unfortunately in our modern world we have largely lost this knowledge and this confidence. We have forgotten about God the Creator. Even though we have wonderful technology, science can’t explain how matter was created from nothing or how life originated, and we often replace God the Creator with the idea that things created themselves.

So when we struggle in life where does our help come from? Some people go to counsellors for help who encourage them to get help from outside themselves. Because people usually can’t solve their own problems, they need to get help from someone else. In a similar way, we all need “outside help” to sustain us and God the Creator is the ultimate outside help!

Psalm 121 ends with, “The Lord will watch your coming and going both now and forevermore”. Here those who trusted God the Creator were promised that God would protect them throughout life and into the future. They could live with assurance and confidence that God would continue to help them. Likewise Christians can have the assurance that God will sustain them during their life and afterwards.

A different world

You may ask if God created everything in the beginning, why is there so much suffering in the world? The world today is very different from the one God made originally. We live in a different world. In the beginning it was a perfect world with harmony between God, people and the natural environment. But when people turned against their Maker, it changed and sin, evil, suffering and death came into the world. This change was caused by people like us. We live in a world with consequences – an act has a consequence and an effect has a cause. Because people turned against God our relationships have been ruined. We ignore God and are separated from Him, we can’t get along with other people, and we exploit the natural environment. Another consequence is that the Bible says we are destined to eternal punishment. Because we are the cause of this problem, we need outside help. Because each of us is guilty, we can’t help each other. The only reliable help available outside humanity is God the Creator.

Help from God the Lifesaver

Fortunately, God didn’t only create the universe and the laws of nature in the beginning, but He also continues to sustain it. He is not only incredibly powerful, but He is also incredibly loving. We remember His special act of love at Christmas and Easter when we celebrate the unique birth and death of Jesus Christ. God knew that mankind was doomed to eternal punishment unless He provided them with outside help. He did this about 2,000 years ago when Jesus Christ lived on earth and died and came alive again. Jesus was unique; He was God living as a human being. He showed His power over our world by the miracles He did. When He died by crucifixion, He took the eternal punishment that we deserve. If we turn towards God by being sorry for our behaviour and accepting the fact that Jesus has taken the penalty for our sin, then He promises eternal joy instead of eternal punishment. This is called eternal life. So Jesus is like a lifesaver – He can rescue us from the eternal consequence of our selfish behaviour. In this way God is making a new creation and He gives us the choice of being a part of it. Although we spoilt God’s original creation, and there is now sin, evil, pain, suffering and death, these will be absent in God’s new creation. Instead we can be reconciled with God, we can love one another and we can look forward to the restoration of creation like it was in the beginning.

Because a Christian has accepted Jesus as their Savior they can have an inner assurance, joy and peace.

Coffin Mar 2014 croppedDeath

What happens when a person dies? Not only do the lungs stop breathing and the heart stops pumping. The Bible says that at death a person’s invisible soul and spirit is separated from their body. If they trusted in Jesus the Savior, their soul and spirit goes immediately to be with God in heaven. After death they are enjoying a perfect place. That is why Paul could say, “To die is gain” (Phil. 1:21) and that he preferred to be “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). So they are in a better place. Their death is a loss for us, but a gain for them.

Resurrection

But there is more! On Easter Sunday we recall that the body of Jesus was raised back to life after being buried in a grave. The Bible describes a coming day when the bodies of believers, who trusted in Christ the Savior will also be raised back to life:

“What I am saying, dear brothers and sisters, is that our physical bodies cannot inherit the kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever. But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies. Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:50-57NLT).

This is also described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18. As part of God’s new creation they will have new bodies which won’t wear out and die (1 Cor. 15:42-49; Phil. 3:21; 1 Jn. 3:2) and they will be transported to be with God in heaven – spirit, soul and new body. This will be a great victory over the sin, suffering and death of our world. That’s why Christians can look forward confidently to the coming resurrection. There’s victory ahead!

Summary

The hymn, “How great Thou art”, summarises the greatness of God and the reasons for our Christian faith.

The first verse is about God the great Creator and source of life on earth. It says “Your power throughout the universe displayed”. Do we see God’s power in His creation?

The third verse is about Jesus Christ the great Lifesaver and source of eternal life. It says “On the cross, my burden gladly bearing, He bled and died to take away my sin”. When we stand before God, will He be like a lifesaver or like a judge? If we turn towards God by confessing our sins we can be ready to meet Him.

The last verse is about the great resurrection when the bodies of those who have trusted in Christ will be raised and changed to be with Him forever. It says “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and take me home – what joy shall fill my heart”. Are you ready to experience this joy?

Written, April 2013