Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Trials

How to overcome fear

Jesus calms a storm

Fear is a response to a perceived threat or danger. Some common fears are of spiders, snakes, heights, flying, dogs, thunder and lightning, injections, public speaking, being alone, darkness, death, failure, rejection, the future, terrorist attacks, nuclear war and germs.

This post looks at when Jesus’ disciples were afraid of drowning in a storm, which is described in the Bible. We will see that because everything is under God’s control, Christians can trust in God no matter how bad the circumstances instead of suffering from fear and anxiety. (more…)


When to praise God

Emotions are a powerful part of our lives. But do we control our emotions or do our emotions control us? For example, do we only praise God when we feel like it?

Job was a wealthy man with a large family who lived before the time of Moses. One day four separate disasters wiped out all his possessions and children. His oxen, donkeys and camels were stolen and his sheep were killed by lightning. This was a total loss because there was no insurance in those days. And his children died when a house collapsed on them in a severe storm.

How did Job respond to these calamities? He would have been devastated and stricken with grief and loss. Did he stop trusting in God in such trying circumstances? (more…)


Facing slander – Psalm 27

What’s the source for our confidence?

How do you cope with your fears and anxieties? Some take time out, or use breathing techniques, or face their fears, or imagine the worst, or look at the evidence, or don’t try to be perfect, or visualize a happy place, or talk about it, or have a meal, a walk and a good night’s sleep, or reward themselves. David, the shepherd who became king of Israel, experienced many dangerous situations. What can we learn from the poem that David wrote when he was facing slander (Ps. 27ESV)?

1 The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid? (more…)


Responding to external problems

What keeps you awake at night? According to the World Economic Forum, the biggest risks facing our world in 2019 are climate change, natural disasters, large-scale conflicts and cyber attacks. And many people struggle with poverty. David wrote many psalms in the Bible and it seems as though he spent many sleepless nights. One of the biggest problems he faced was that king Saul wanted to kill him. During this time period, David lived as a fugitive, seeking refuge in various places and moving around to avoid Saul and his men (1 Sam. 18-30). He feared for his life. Also, the Philistines were a perennial enemy of Israel and David faced them in battles. The best known of these is his victory over Goliath.

25 of the psalms are prayers by David for God’s help against his enemies. But most of these (84%) end up praising God and with an assurance that God has heard his prayer and will answer it (see Appendix). And only 8% have no praise or assurance. For example, in Psalm 54 David prays for deliverance from enemies (Saul’s supporters) who are trying to kill him (v.1-5NIV). The Ziphites betrayed David by revealing his location to Saul (1 Sam. 23:19-20). So David writes: (more…)


Responding to personal problems

chemotherapy 3 400pxMy parents in-law are going through tough times with weakness because of chemotherapy and confusion because of dementia. We can all experience such internal problems, which can be physical or mental. After all, Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble” (Jn. 16:33NIV).

Twelve of the psalms are prayers for God’s help for illness or depression (See Appendix; Ps 6, 13, 16, 30, 38, 41, 42, 43, 71, 88, 102, 116). In these lament psalms the psalmist brings their problems to God. But most of them (83%) end with praise to God. For example, Psalm 13 describes David’s suffering:

1How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts [he was depressed]
and day after day have sorrow in my heart [soul, spirit]?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
(more…)


Following Jesus in a hostile world

Floods 4 400pxIn the last few days, millions of people were evacuated due to floods and landslides in Japan. Tough times come to everyone at some point. Serious illness, disability, unemployment, financial problems, family strife, conflict at work, the death of a loved one. Life doesn’t always work out the way we would like it to. We find ourselves thinking, why is this happening to me? How could a loving God allow this hardship? Why aren’t you doing something about this, God?

And we wonder, how can we get through such difficult times? In particular, how can God help us get through hardship? In this article we’re going to answer this question from the letter of 1 Peter in the Bible. There will be three main  points:
– God helps us through the privileges of salvation.
– God helps us through Christ’s example.
– And God helps us through godly living.

Context

Peter was a disciple of Jesus and an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry. He was put in jail more than once for proclaiming that Jesus had risen from the dead (Acts 4:3; 5:18; 12:4). He knew that Christians had faced opposition since the beginning of the church. They were jailed and interrogated by the Jewish leaders and commanded not to speak about Jesus (Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-42). These leaders seized Stephen and made false accusations against him and stoned him to death (Acts 6:8-7:60). Then “a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1NIV). Some went to Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch (Acts 11:19). Saul made “murderous threats” against the Christians and went to Damascus to arrest them and take them as prisoners to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1-2, 21). Then king Herod arrested some Christians “intending to persecute them” and he executed James the brother of John who was an apostle like Peter (Acts 12:1-2). Paul also suffered for following Jesus (2 Cor. 11:23-26).

1 Peter is a letter from the Apostle Peter to Christians living in provinces of Asia Minor (now Turkey). It was written about AD 62, in the middle of the reign of Emperor Nero, who persecuted Christians. You can see this on Peter’s timeline. These Christians faced threats, slander and the possibility of having to “suffer for what is right” and to “suffer for doing good” (1 Pt. 3:13-17). And they were being persecuted, which is described as to “suffer grief in all kinds of trials”, “abuse”, a “fiery trial”, “the sufferings of Christ”, being “insulted because of the name of Christ”, to “suffer as a Christian”, unjust suffering, and being wrongfully accused of wrong doing (1:6, 17; 2:121; 4:3-4, 12-16). This hostility towards Christians was being experienced across the Roman Empire: “the family of believers throughout the [known] world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings” (5:9).

Peter timeline 700px

The purpose of the letter is to encourage them to persevere and endure in their trials and suffering and not give up.

1 Peter’s themes

Peter says that those following Jesus will face trials and suffering. It’s inevitable. They will “suffer for what is right” and “suffer for doing good”. They lived in a world that was hostile to Jesus. And so do we. Do you notice how often Christians are ridiculed in the media? So we will look at this letter as though it was written to us.

Responses to suffering 400pxThemes in 1 Peter 400pxIf trials and suffering are inevitable in the life of a Christian, what do we do about it? We have a choice to trust God and endure the suffering or go our own way into bitterness and resentment. Will we draw near to God or turn away from Him? These two responses are shown in the schematic diagram.

Peter says we are to prepare for suffering and hostility beforehand, and endure it by persevering in the Christian faith. He gives three ways to ensure endurance. These are: the privileges of salvation, Christ’s example, and godly living. We will look at these themes in turn and they are shown in the schematic diagram.

Prepare for suffering

Some people stumble in their faith when they are impacted by suffering. They think how can a good God allow such suffering?

Peter tells them how to get ready to face suffering because it’s coming (3:13-17; 4:2-6). When they face criticism and hostility they should, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. And do this with gentleness and respect” (3:15-16).

If we live in a wildfire (bushfire) zone, we need a wildfire (bushfire) emergency plan. If we live in a flood zone, we need a flood emergency plan. We need to get ready and be prepared. Likewise. Christians need to be ready to face criticism, ridicule and hardship. This means being ready to answer questions like. How can anyone believe in God after a disaster? Hasn’t science disproved God? Why would you read the Bible? Why do you go to church? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why don’t you sleep with your girlfriend or boyfriend?

We don’t know when this situation will occur. Can we say why we are a Christian? Are there good reasons for what we believe? Have we thought through what we believe so we can testify to others? We need to know why we believe what we believe. Do we respect those we are witnessing to? Is what we say supported by a consistent life? We need to both show and tell.

So it’s good to prepare for suffering. But what should we do when trials and suffering appear?

Endure suffering

Peter also tells them how to cope with suffering (4:12-19):

  1. He says, don’t be surprised about suffering as a Christian. It’s not unusual. It’s the normal Christian experience.
  2. “All kinds of trials” can test our faith (1:6-7). Traffic jams, the slow queue at the supermarket, cancer, depression, mental illness, marriage problems, and hostility from others because of our faith, all test our Christian faith. Some of these things happen to us sooner or later. Hard times prove our faith is genuine. James says that the testing of our faith by “trials of many kinds” produces perseverance (Jas. 1:2-3).
  3. Also, suffering can train us and mould our character. Those who endure suffering are strengthened and become more spiritually mature (5:10).
  4. And suffering is temporary; “for a little while” (1:6; 5:10). It’s only for this life. “And the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will Himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (5:10).
  5. Peter also says, “it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God … But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God” (2:19-20). God is pleased when we endure undeserved suffering without retaliation. “Endure” means to hang in there. To carry a heavy load without complaining. To be strong. God gives that ability. He does not want us to suffer from a sense of duty but from a conviction about His purpose for us. He wants us to patiently endure suffering even when we do good. How much hostility can we take? Are we resilient?

At the end of the letter, Peter says, “I wanted to encourage you and tell you how kind God really is, so that you will keep on having faith in Him” (5:12CEV). It was written to encourage them to endure and persevere in trials and suffering and not give up trusting God.

The summary statement for Christian suffering is, “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (4:19). Nothing can happen to us without God allowing it. He wants us to put our trials into His care. He will sustain us. “Doing good” means to the benefit others. Hardship isn’t an excuse for wrongdoing.

So it’s good to prepare for suffering, and to endure during trials. But Peter also reminds them of some other reasons for enduring and persevering in trials and suffering.

God helps us through the privileges of salvation

The first way that God helps us through hardships is through the privileges of salvation. Peter focuses on three of these: our secure future (1:3-12), our direct access to God (2:4-8), and the fact we are special to God (2:9-10).

We have a secure future

The Bible says that “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” Christians have “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade” (1:3-4). And “this inheritance is kept in heaven [by God] for you”.

It‘s human nature to break promises. Governments make and break promises. Advertisers and politicians make and break promises. And people make promises to each other which are often broken. Many of these promises do not materialize. Thankfully, God’s promises are not like ours. Every promise He makes, He keeps. The promise of a secure future is certain to be fulfilled.

So Christians should be confident about their future. Their inheritance is guaranteed.
And God is protecting them until it’s revealed when Jesus comes back. This promise gives them joy even “though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1:6). They have inner peace despite these trials.

We have direct access to God

Peter says that each Christian is like a “living stone” in a new building and Jesus is like the cornerstone. God builds this spiritual building by adding Christians to the global church. One day this building will be finished, then Jesus will come again. This spiritual house is like the temple in the Old Testament, where the priests had access to God. Today Christians are like these priests: they have direct access to God. They are “to be a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices” to God.

When a relationship breaks down and the couple have children, the Family Court may deny one parent contact with a child if there is a serious physical or emotional risk for the child. In this case, one parent has direct access to the child, but the other doesn’t. In the same way, Christians have direct access to God, they are no longer separated from Him. This means they can pray to God anytime. We can confess our sins to God, pray for others and offer ourselves to God.

We are God’s people

The Bible also says that Christians are God’s special people (2:9-10). They are “a chosen people”. Like the Israelites were God’s chosen people in Old Testament times, Christians are His chosen people today. They are “God’s special possession”. They are safe because of His protection. And their purpose is to praise God.

At the Australian State of Origin Rugby League Football game this week, supporters were praising their teams. And Queenslanders even think they are chosen people, but those from New South Wales don’t agree! Anyhow, this gives people an identity, a purpose and something to celebrate. In the same way, Christians have a special identity, a purpose and something to celebrate. So we can feel safe and represent God in our world.

So their secure future, their direct access to God, and their identity as God’s people helps believers to endure and persevere in trials and suffering. They don’t worry about ridicule or persecution. Besides these privileges of salvation, Christ’s example can also help.

God helps us through Christ’s example

The second way that God helps us through hardships is through the example of Jesus who suffered when He was unjustly crucified (1:11; 2:24; 3:18; 4:1, 13; 5:1). It’s mentioned in every chapter of this letter.

Jesus was a model for how to deal with a hostile work situation (2:21-25). After commending those who bear up “under the pain of unjust suffering”, and who “suffer for doing good” under harsh employers, Peter says, “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in His mouth’. When they hurled their insults at Him, He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted himself to Him [God] who judges justly” (2:21-23). Peter also says, “since Christ suffered in His body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude [as Jesus], because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin” (4:1).

In Peter’s day, retaliating to a personal insult or injury was considered a virtue. Non- retaliation was interpreted as a sign of weakness. Our society is much the same. Our heroes tend to be those who fight back with physical strength or litigation. But Jesus didn’t do that when He suffered unjustly and for doing good. Instead He prayed for His killers, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34). When He was falsely accused, insulted and abused, He didn’t retaliate. Instead, He left these things in the Father’s hands.

Christians should expect hostility because they follow Jesus. They should be prepared to endure trials and suffering. Believers have a choice between sin and suffering. If we live like an unbeliever, we can avoid hostility and suffering. But if we live in a godly way and not under the power of sin, we will face hostility. Do our friends know that we follow Jesus? Are we willing to endure ridicule because of this?

So the privileges of salvation and Christ’s example can help us to endure and persevere in trials and suffering. Godly living can also help.

God helps us through godly living

The third way that God helps us through hardships is through godly living. The previous helps were what to know (doctrine), now they are told what to do (practice). They are instructed how to live and behave in a pagan society where they were misunderstood and insulted for their faith.

First, they are urged to be holy (1:13-2:3). God says, “for it is written [in the Old Testament]: ‘be holy, because I [God] am holy’”. This would have reminded them of the Israelites who were to be devoted to God and different from the other nations by following God’s laws for them (Lev. 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7, 26; 21:8). Now Christians are to be holy and live for God and so be different to unbelievers.

The hippies who dropped out of society in the 1960s were counter-cultural. Today it might be those who aren’t online watching things like Facebook or Youtube. Or those home schooling. Or those in an outlaw bikie club. These ways of life and attitudes are completely different from those accepted by most of society. Likewise, God wants Christians to be different from our pagan society.

Christians are like foreigners on earth because our ultimate allegiance is to a heavenly kingdom (2:11). We are to behave differently to our previous sinful lifestyle. God wants us to be like Him and He gives us the Holy Spirit to empower us. We are to be driven by the Holy Spirit and not the sinful nature (Gal. 5:16). The standard for distinguishing what’s sinful and what’s holy is the Bible, because it’s God’s message to us.

An example of holiness is the fruit of the Spirit which is “ love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23NLT). What do we do with our sexual desires and how to we use our money? We are regularly bombarded with temptations by the media. How do we react to these?

Second, Peter urges them to show godly behavior in their relationships with others.
He mentions at least four areas of life where we should be humble, submissive and respect others. These are: towards governing authorities (2:13-17), at work (2:18-20), in the family (3:1-7), and in the church (3:8-12; 5:1-10).

The media often depict those in positions of authority as incompetent, disrespected, and corrupted. And if we criticize a teacher, a cop, or a spouse, it shows our lack of respect for authority figures. If we want our kids to respect us, we need to demonstrate that we respect others.

So the privileges of salvation and Christ’s example and godly living can help us to endure and persevere in trials and suffering.

Enduring hostility today

Jesus faced hostility. Peter faced hostility. The Christians that Peter wrote to faced hostility. And today Christians face hostility. Since the times of Jesus, the world has been hostile to Christ and His representatives.

In our postmodern world, Christians are viewed as intolerant and unloving bigots because of their view on marriage, abortion and euthanasia. They are characterized by hate, fear, oppression, abuse, power, and violence. And Christianity is misrepresented and ridiculed. While non-Christians are seen as being tolerant and compassionate because of their love, justice and mercy.

How resilient are we? When trials and suffering come our way, do we choose sin or suffering? Trouble is meant to draw us closer to the Lord, not push us further away.

Peter quotes from the Old Testament to prove his point. We need to substantiate what we believe from the Bible. That’s why it’s important to read and study the Bible.

Summary

Our original question was, “How can God help us get through hardship?” To answer this we have looked at the letter of 1 Peter. And we’ve seen three ways that God helps us get through trials and suffering. He helps us through:
– The privileges of salvation – like our secure future, our direct access to God and being God’s people.
– Christ’s example, of enduring unjust suffering.
– And godly living, by being holy and respecting others.

Conclusion

Trials and suffering can cause us to sin and give up following Jesus. But God offers us the privileges of salvation, Christ’s example and godly living. Now we must use these to persevere in hard times and not give up.

Cave rescue 1 500pxIt’s the Football (Soccer) World Cup once again. But the team getting most attention last week was the one rescued from a flooded cave in Thailand. It was a great example of perseverance, hope, heartbreak, and victory. Just like the way Christians should respond to a hostile world. They escaped a dangerous situation. But the Bible says that those who don’t follow Jesus are in a more dangerous situation. The letter of 1 Peter was written to those who followed Jesus. As we have seen, they have plenty of resources to endure tough times. To get these resources we need to realize that our relationship with God the Father is broken. And if we trust in Jesus’ death for us, we can be reconciled with God. And He can become the cornerstone of our life.

Written, July 2018


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