Grieving with hope
We’re living in unusual times. In order to control the spread of COVID-19 we’re staying home as much as possible. People are working from home and some businesses are closed.
Some people have lost their jobs and are now unemployed. There are travel restrictions. Social activities and celebrations are cancelled. There is physical (social) distancing. We have less freedom. It’s almost like wartime. There’s economic gloom with the possibility of a depression. These are unprecedented times for us. (more…)
The headline didn’t shout. It didn’t need to. This wasn’t a slow news day. It read, ‘In one week 10% of Australia’s workforce have lost their jobs’. In India, a nation of 1.3 billion people were given four hours notice to lock down inside their homes for 21 days. People found outside afterwards were subsequently beaten.
Always, in the world somewhere, there’s an extreme situation – a flood, a famine, a war. Less frequent, though, are situations involving the whole world. The COVID-19 pandemic is such a time. (more…)
It seems cold and unfeeling to make lists of good things in the midst of all this pain – especially while things are fresh and even still happening. But part of making sense of what’s happened and finding meaning in despair is finding the good.
While the bushfires [wildfires] have burned in Australia the media have reported on all sorts of stories of hope and positivity. Which has been enormously encouraging. For example, bush regeneration that’s already begun, the heroism and selflessness of our amazing volunteer firefighters, the brilliant effort to save the rare Wollemi Pine, the fact that more people are now thinking about how to care for the environment and live with an unpredictable climate. (more…)
Christianity provides the most comforting and comprehensive way of life which addresses the fundamental aspects of human life. Some of the major questions we ask are: Where do we come from? It’s a question of human origin. The Bible says that God created humanity in the beginning. Who are we? It’s a question of human identity. Christians are children of God. What is the meaning of life? Why are we here and what is the purpose of human existence on earth? It’s a question of human purpose. Where are we heading? And where are we going? It’s a question of human destiny. Christianity doesn’t only provide a reasonable answer to these questions for believers alone, but it addresses every human being. Is this post we look at the last topic: Where are we going? What is our destiny? This blogpost is a summary of a presentation on this topic by Dr. Xavier Lakshmanan.
Heaven and hell
It’s very important for us to understand that the question of human destiny is based upon the question of the Jesus’ identity. Who Jesus is and what He is doing for us is determining human destinies. If someone believes in Jesus and His sacrificial death for human sin, then their destiny is fixed with Him. But if someone doesn’t believe in Jesus and His death for human sin and for the destiny of the world, then that person’s destiny is fixed without Christ for the whole of eternity. So Jesus is the decisive person here and now. The choice we make here in relation to Jesus and in relation to the good news (gospel message) in Scripture is going to decide our future destiny.
What does the Bible generally say about the destiny of human life? In this post, we will not look at what happens immediately after death or future events such as the tribulation or the millennial reign of Christ. But we are going to focus on the final destiny of human life. The Bible says that “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27NIV). So death is certain. It’s like we all have a terminal disease. Some will die early and some will die later, but we will all die. This is a consequence of Adam’s rebellion against God. And after death there is judgement. There are various kinds of judgements described in the Bible. But God’s final judgement is going to divide everyone who ever lived from Adam down to the end of time into two groups. “Then they [unbelievers] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous [believers] to eternal life” (Mt. 25:46). The first group is unbelievers (who don’t trust in Jesus Christ) who face eternal punishment (hell). And the other group are believers saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, who face eternal life (heaven). This post describes heaven, and the next one describes hell.
The Bible addresses human need, but not human curiosity. For example, it doesn’t tell us what Lazarus experienced after death. The Bible is like a love letter from a Father to His children saying that I am in control, trust me as we pass from death to eternity. We are excited about heaven. But heaven isn’t a surprise. Instead it is an outcome of all the decisions and the choices we make today. A small, simple, clear decision and encounter with Jesus we make is going to decide that destiny.
What is heaven?
According to the Bible, heaven is where Jesus is. It’s a place that God promised to prepare for us where there is no sin, no disease and no death. But is heaven going to be a place? It can be a spiritual place. We understand things through comparison, and analysis, and verification, and through examples. We don’t have realities in this world to compare with the heavenly. But we have symbols to express these realities like parables, similes and metaphors, which are the language we use to speak about the eternal and the heavenly and things that we do not know but are revealed in the Bible.
The word “heaven” is used in the Bible for three main purposes. It’s meaning in a particular passage is determined by the context. It’s “shamayim” in the Old Testament Hebrew language and “ouranos” in the New Testament Greek language. It is used for the atmosphere (sky), the universe (stars and galaxies) and the abode of God (the third heaven). In this post we are looking at the third meaning of heaven. The Bible says that this heaven is:
It’s a spiritual home. A place of God’s being. When Jesus was teaching His disciples to pray, He said “This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven …’” (Mt. 6:9). So, heaven is a place where God is. It’s God’s home. And in the Bible the word heaven is synonymous with God Himself. And Jesus told them, “My Father’s house has many rooms” (Jn. 14:2). So, heaven is our Father’s home.
The believer’s promised home
Jesus told His disciples “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And 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. 14:2-3). So heaven is also a place for believers. Jesus promised to return and take believers to be with Him in heaven. What a great promise to encourage us when we face the pain, struggles, tears, weakness, and challenges of life.
The believer’s citizenship
Paul told the Christians in Philippi, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables Him to bring everything under His control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body” (Phil. 3:20-21). We are travelers and sojourners here. Our life is very short. It’s temporary. The brevity of life is going to give way to the permanent citizenship of heaven. Are we happy to be a permanent citizen of heaven? Mortality will be swallowed up in immortality. Corruptibility will be swallowed up in incorruptibility. And the temporal will be swallowed up in the eternal. Are we waiting for these joys of heaven?
The believer’s eternal home
After Paul described the rapture of the dead, he said “After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them [resurrected believers] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we [all believers] will be with the Lord forever” (1 Th. 4:17). At the rapture all believers will leave the earth to live with the Lord. It will be an endless life in heaven. It’s a great destiny which is described in the Bible as follows.
A place of inheritance
An inheritance is kept in heaven for those who trust in Jesus. Peter writes, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In His great mercy He has given us [believers] new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you [believers], who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time “ (1 Pt. 1:3-5). Its been said that “he is not a fool who gives away what he cannot keep for the sake of what he cannot lose”. Believers are not fools. They give up the perishable things of this world to secure, gain and keep forever the imperishable things to come. It’s an eternal inheritance. In heaven, God will deliver all believers from the presence of evil and sin.
A place of hope
Paul often thanks God for the faithfulness of His people, “we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people—the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven” (Col. 1:4-5). This hope is not a virtue or an attribute. Jesus Christ is our hope: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). It’s the assurance of eternal life in heaven (Tit. 1:2). Jesus Christ is returning to take His followers to be with Him. Are we ready to meet Him with confidence?
A place of God’s presence
A passage about the eternal state says, “God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and He will dwell with them” (Rev. 21:3).
A place of perfection
John wrote, “now we [believers] are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2). They will not become gods or semi-gods. But they will be like Jesus in His risen body. In His resurrected glory. Christlikeness is their destiny.
A place of joy
A passage about the eternal state says, “‘He [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). Everything will be new. No more suffering or physical ailments.
A place of glory
A passage about the eternal state says, “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp” (Rev. 21:23). God provided light so that the Israelites could travel by night (Ex. 13:21-22). But this eternal light will be more glorious than that. We can’t imagine what it will be like. There will be no time, space or mass.
A place of resting
Believers are promised eternal rest. “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from His. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience” (Heb. 4:9-11). What a great prospect for those who live in a restless world.
A place of worshipping and serving
But what are believers going to do in heaven? There will be plenty to do. There is worship. In this passage three groups of people are worshipping God 24/7. They are the multitude of believers, the 24 elders and the four living creatures. And the elders, “lay their crowns before the throne”, showing that God alone is worthy of praise and worship (Rev. 4:10).
In a coming time when God defeats those who persecute His people, there will be praise and worship in heaven. “After this I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting: “Hallelujah [Praise the Lord]! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are His judgments. He has condemned the great prostitute who corrupted the earth by her adulteries. He has avenged on her the blood of his servants.” And again they shouted: “Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever.” The twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God, who was seated on the throne. And they cried: “Amen, Hallelujah!” Then a voice came from the throne, saying: “Praise our God, all you His servants, you who fear Him, both great and small!” Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give Him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb [Jesus] has come, and His bride [believers] has made herself ready” (Rev. 19:1-7).
A place of fellowship and celebration
In contrast to the law of Moses [the old covenant], the new covenant is described as, “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:22-24). Believers are not alone in heaven. They are with a crowd of angels and human beings who are resurrected, restored, and enjoying the presence of God in celebration. Heaven is a place of celebration and joy and fellowship with God. Are you excited? Live up to that. Then one day Jesus will call, “Come on! I’m ready. Come out of your graves! Come out of your bodies, and pain and tears and suffering. Servants of God, who have put their trust in Jesus. Come home. Enjoy your rest”. May God keep us focused on the fellowship and celebration of eternal glory. May we cherish the eternal heaven of God which is our home, promised for us forever and ever.
Heaven is our destiny if we trust in the death of Christ on the cross to forgive our sins. It’s God’s home, the believer’s promised eternal home, and the believer’s citizenship. It’s a place of eternal inheritance, hope, God’s presence, perfection, joy, glory, resting, worshipping and serving, and fellowship and celebration.
Let’s not forget our faith or our journey with Jesus. And never lose the enjoyment of God in our life because that’s what’s going to keep us going until we reach our heavenly home.
Acknowledgement: This blogpost was sourced from a presentation by Dr. Xavier Lakshmanan on this topic. Dr. Lakshmanan is Head of Theology in the Australian College of Christian Studies.
Written, October 2018
Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles
Recently a friend of ours died of leukaemia. His family cared for him while he was in palliative care. It was a hopeless situation. They knew he wasn’t going to be healed. Yet they prayed for God’s will to be done and the funeral was a celebration that he had been delivered from his suffering and was now with the Lord.
Jeremiah’s letter to Jewish exiles in chapter 29:4-23 shows that for God’s people, the situation is never helpless or hopeless because He promises ultimate deliverance and restoration.
Jeremiah prophesized during the last 40 years of the nation of Judah (626 – 586 BC). At this time Judah was influenced by three foreign powers: Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia. There was tension between these super powers for world supremacy (like between USA, Russia and China today). Power shifted from Assyria and Egypt to Babylonia when Assyria was conquered in 612BC and Egypt conquered in 605BC. These large nations dominated the smaller ones. The Assyrians and Babylonians used their overwhelming military force to terrorize the people of the lands they invaded. They also took heavy tribute and deported masses of people into slavery. So Judah was a weak nation that was surrounded by many enemies.
Jeremiah prophesized during the reign of five kings: Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jahoiakim, Jehoichin and Zedkiah. All of these kings except Josiah “did evil in the eyes of the Lord”.
Jeremiah was part of a line of Old Testament prophets. At the beginning he was a contemporary of Zephaniah and Nahum and later of Obadiah and Habakkuk.
The prophets before Zephaniah announced God’s judgment and God’s restoration of Judah. This was also Zephaniah’s message. Nahum predicted the destruction of Nineveh, the largest city of the time. This would have been good news for Judah who had been threatened by Assyria since the fall of Samaria in 722 BC. It showed that God judges His enemies.
Later in Jeremiah’s period, Obadiah pronounces judgment on Edom, one of Judah’s closest enemies and predicts Israel’s restoration. Habakkuk complains to God because He’s doing nothing about the terrible violence, wrongdoing, destruction, strife, and injustice in Judah. He is perplexed when told that the pagan Babylonians were going to invade Judah. But God reassures him that the Babylonians will eventually be punished as well.
In the book of Jeremiah, he speaks out against the sins of Judah (Ch. 1-38). He warned them for at least 23 years (Jer. 25:2-3). The punishment for these is that they will be invaded by Babylon and taken captive. Chapter 29 is a letter that Jeremiah wrote to all the Jewish captives in Babylon (Jer. 29:4). After chapter 29, Jeremiah predicts that the Jews will be released from captivity and able to return to re-establish their lives in their homeland. He also predicts living under the Messiah with a new covenant.
The letter, written by one of God’s prophets, is comprised of commands and promises (Jer. 29:45-23). This means that it was a command to be followed by the Jewish exiles and promises they were to believe.
The Babylonians attacked Jerusalem three times. On the first occasion in 605 BC, Judah became a vassal state and paid tribute to Babylon and a group of people including Daniel was carried off to Babylon (2 Ki. 24:1-2). Then they laid siege to Jerusalem in 598-597 BC, replacing the king, taking tribute, and taking about 10,000 Jewish captives to Babylon (2 Ki. 24:8-17). Then they laid siege to Jerusalem again in 588-586 BC, destroying the city and taking more Jewish captives to Babylon, including the king (2 Ki. 25:1-21). Instead of being a nation, Judah was now a province of the regional superpower. The remaining Jews, including Jeremiah, fled to Egypt for safety (Jer. 41:16 – 44:30). This wasn’t unexpected because it was the ultimate punishment for breaking their covenant with their God (Lev. 26:31-33; Dt, 28:49-68). Everything that God had done for them since they left Egypt would be destroyed. The goal of the punishment is their repentance (Lev. 26:40-41).
So after being warned for at least 100 years, Judah has finally been punished for their sins. The captives in Babylon were suffering grief and loss, forced relocation and slavery. They probably feared the worst and thought their fate was similar to that of Israel in 722 BC. Over 136 years ago, the Assyrians invaded and destroyed the kingdom of Israel and took captives and the people were scattered to other nations. That was the end of the kingdom of Israel and there was no way it could be restored. It seemed the same when Babylon invaded Judah. So the Jews in Babylon thought this was the end of their nation. They cried in despair as they were in a helpless and hopeless situation (Ps. 137:1). Jeremiah also lamented because he saw the destruction of Jerusalem (Lamentations).
Jeremiah also predicts the destruction of those who didn’t go into exile (v.15-19). It’s punishment for their disobedience. They didn’t deserve God’s protection like those sent into exile (Jer. 24:5-7).
What a surprising letter from Jeremiah! They are told to prepare for a long captivity (v.4-7) by settling down to live for a long time in Babylon. To establish families and raise children among themselves; but don’t intermarry with foreigners. God wanted them to grow in number, not dwindle.
Usually captives hate their captors. But the Jews are told to pray for Babylon! To pray for their enemy! To seek Babylon’s peace and prosperity so things will go well for them as well. To pray for the prosperity of their enemy!
What did the exiles think of Jeremiah? Whose side was Jeremiah on, first he says to surrender to the Babylonians and now when they are prisoners of war (POW) he says this? Has he lost his marbles?
Australian POWs in World War 2 endured hard labor working on roads and battling to survive the harsh Austrian winter. Under their German masters, it seemed a hopeless situation. But after 12 months they began receiving Red Cross packages with food clothes and medicine, which were like a ray of light in a sad, dark part of the world. These helped many POWs to survive.
Through the fall of Jerusalem, the exiles learnt that God eventually judges sin (many died, others were POWs, some escaped and their capital city was destroyed). Also, what seemed to be the worst to the captives (being POWs), was actually the best because they would be kept safe in Babylon (most of the rest died). Also, they were to accept the situation that God had placed them in and not hope for something better.
Then God warns the exiles not to be deceived by false prophets who were prophesying lies in God’s name (v.8-9, 21). They contradict the words of Jeremiah (Jer. 27:16-22; 28:3). The captivity was to be 70 years, not two (Jer. 25:11-12; 28:3, 11; 29:10)! God’s prophets predicted disasters, but the false prophets predicted peace (Jer. 14:13-16; 23:17; 28:8). One of them sent a letter to the priests rebuking them for not putting Jeremiah in prison (v. 24-27). Because of their lies and adultery, Jeremiah predicted they would be put to death by the king of Babylon (v. 21-23).
Jeremiah tells the captives to not be gullible by believing their lies. Instead, they should ignore them and not listen to them.
After the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over the Ukraine in 2014, the Russians claimed that the missile was fired by a Ukrainian fighter jet. They were telling a lie.
So the lesson for the exiles to learn was to be discerning and listen to God’s prophets and not the false ones. They needed to know the difference between the two.
Next Jeremiah predicts deliverance and restoration for the exiles. He says that God will bring them back to their homeland after 70 years of exile. Those still alive at the time and their descendants would be able to return to Judah and rebuild Jerusalem, including the temple and the city walls. This restoration was predicted over 900 years beforehand (Dt. 30:3-5).
“For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord” (Jer. 29:11-14NIV).
God hadn’t forgotten them. In fact He had planned their future lives. These plans were for their collective good, to prosper them collectively and give them a hope and future to look forward to. There was hope for their nation after all. But the benefits wouldn’t come for 70 years! In the meantime they were POWs.
God’s plans to prosper the exiles and give them hope and a future (v.11) are described as their return to Judah from exile (v. 10, 14) and these plans were fulfilled with the decree of Cyrus in 538 BC (Ezra 1:2-4; Jer. 29:11). So this promise has already been fulfilled.
God also predicts that by that time they will return to following Him once again. This implies that they will confess and repent of their sins. The Bible teaches that their restoration was conditional on their repentance (Dt. 4:29-31). This shows God’s mercy and His commitment to the covenant made with their ancestors.
Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste has just been released after 400 days in an Egyptian prison. He said the experience was a “baptism of fire” that helped him learn more about himself. It felt like a “near-death experience”, but also like a “rebirth” because he was given an opportunity to look back at his life.
So the lesson for the exiles to learn was that repentance was the way to a restored relationship with the Lord and to their release from being POWs in Babylon. This repentance was essential for their deliverance and the restoration and rebirth of their nation.
They also learnt that their situation is never helpless or hopeless because God promises ultimate deliverance and restoration from whatever situation they are in. The way to optimism is to remember that God has plans for their future. But there was no shortcut; they had to go through suffering along the way.
What are the lessons for us today?
What’s changed since then? We are God’s people today, but we are not a nation with their own home-land like the exiles. 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.
The lesson that God eventually judges sin applies to us as well. People say, what’s God doing about the evil in the world? He seems absent. But the Bible says that He is patiently waiting for more people to turn to Him before He brings judgment (2 Pt. 3:9).
Also, what seems to be the worst for us may be the best because He knows us better than we know ourselves and He ensures that everything that happens to us is for our benefit (Rom. 8:27-28). That’s why God doesn’t always answer our prayers in the way we would like it.
The lesson to accept the situation that God had placed us in and not hope for something better applies to us as well. Paul gives an example of this for marriage (1 Cor. 7:17-20). He also wrote, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th. 5:16-18).
Do we believe all we see on the internet? How gullible are we? How do we know what to believe? Do we compare what people say and write with Scripture? Because there are false teachers out there. In Jeremiah’s day they ignored gross sinfulness and said, God’s not going to judge us. They wanted God’s blessing without going through the suffering of the captivity. But the Bible teaches that suffering precedes blessing and glory, with Jesus the greatest example (Rom. 8:18; 1 Pt 3:18, 22). Christians should expect to suffer for their faith (1 Pt. 4:12-19). We should be skeptical of those who teach an “easy” Christianity that brings lots of benefits because our benefits are largely spiritual (Eph. 1:3-14). Also, beware of false hopes.
The lesson that repentance is the way to a restored relationship with the Lord applies to us as well. In the New Testament, God doesn’t promise to release us from our physical problems (if this happens it is a mercy), but deliver us from our spiritual ones. The steps of repentance include “Come near to God and He will come near to you” (Jas. 4:7-10).
As God’s plans to prosper the exiles and give them hope and a future was fulfilled in 538 BC, this promise isn’t for us today. But what sort of plans does God have for us? We can ask God in prayer (Jas. 1:5). Of course, He wants us to be faithful to Him in everything we do by following the commands and principles He gives for believers in the New Testament. We can begin by being faithful where we are (Mt. 25:21). As we do this, God usually reveals the next step. It’s one step at a time, not a jump to our final destiny.
The lesson that our situation is never helpless or hopeless applies to us as well. However, our ultimate deliverance and restoration is spiritual, not physical. When there’s despair, discouragement or bad news our hope is the good news of Jesus. Heaven is the ultimate hope for Christians, though we may have to go through suffering along the way.
We have seen from Jeremiah’s letter to the Jewish exiles that God judges sin (which is why they were POWs), and cares for His people and warns them not to be deceived by false prophets.
It shows that for God’s people, the situation is never helpless or hopeless because He promises ultimate spiritual deliverance and restoration.
Written, February 2015
Characteristics of a godly congregation
Children are born into families whose goal is to raise them to maturity. As Christians, God has placed believers in a spiritual family which will last forever. Let’s look at some key goals for our spiritual family, the local church.
The Greek word “ekklesia”, which means a “calling out”, is used in the Bible to describe a gathering, meeting or congregation. It has also been translated as a “church” or “assembly”. This word is used in the New Testament to describe Christians in either a global or a local sense. This article focuses on the local church, which is comprised of believers in a particular region who meet together regularly. For example, Paul begins his letters “To the church of God in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2 TNIV); “To the church of the Thessalonians” (1 Th. 1:1); “To the churches in Galatia” (Gal. 1:2).
When He was here, the Lord promised “I will build my church” (Mt. 16:18). The church began on the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Christ’s death, when the Holy Spirit indwelt the Lord’s followers (Acts 2). So, don’t look in the Old Testament to learn about the church, because it was unknown in those times.
The Church Revealed to Paul
God used Paul to bring us the most complete revelation about the church by revealing a new truth, which was unknown to previous generations (Eph. 3:2-12). The Greek word for mystery, “musterion” occurs three times in this passage (v.3, 5, 9) and means a secret, which in this case was made known by divine revelation at a time appointed by God. It has been referred to as, “The mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people” (Col. 1:26).
What was this new truth? “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:6). The church was to be comprised of Jews and Gentiles who followed the Lord. This truth was also revealed by the Holy Spirit to other New Testament apostles and prophets (Eph. 3:5). The gospel message that Christ as the Son of God offered up His life to enable a company of forgiven people to become members of the church was the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20; 1 Cor. 3:11).
Before this time, the world was divided into two classes of people: Jew and Gentile. But Jesus introduced a third class: the Christian church (1 Cor. 10:32). All Christians are equal before God and have equal access to God because the distinctions between people under the Old Testament law have been abolished: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
One of God’s goals is to show the angels His manifold wisdom through the church (Eph. 3:10-11). They see how a loving God triumphed over sin by offering His Son so that sinners of all races and nations could have a heavenly inheritance of eternal life. They see the church as being part of God’s new creation.
Churches in the New Testament
Before He ascended back to heaven, Jesus told the apostles, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
On the day of Pentecost, the first church was formed at Jerusalem. Later when the church was persecuted, Christians were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1) and churches were established. Then they travelled to Phoenica, Cyprus and Antioch (Acts 11:19) and churches were established. Later Paul in a series of missionary journeys established churches in Galatia (now part of Turkey), Asia (now part of western Turkey; this is where the seven churches of Revelation 2-3 were located); Macedonia (now part of Greece), Achaia (now part of Greece), and a church was established in Rome before Paul was taken there. So, churches were established across the known world around the Mediterranean Sea.
Since that time missionaries have travelled across the earth and churches have been established in all countries.
The believers at Thessalonica became a model to all the believers in Greece (1 Th. 1:7). The reason given by Paul for this was, “You became imitators of us and of the Lord” (1 Th. 1:6). In the context of seeking the good of others, Paul wrote “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Also, in the context of being kind, compassionate and forgiving, “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2). Two characteristics are mentioned here: love and sacrifice. We will look at the topic of “love” shortly. Christ sacrificed His life for us; He gave up His life. That’s an example for the church to follow.
One of the metaphors of the church is a body, with Christ as the head. This illustrates the close connection between Christ and the church. As a head directs its body via the nervous system, the church should be directed by Christ. That’s why an essential goal of the local church is to imitate the Lord. After all, it’s His representative on earth. So, the local church is to be Christlike and godly.
“The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:26). The word “Christian” means “follower of Christ”. Although probably originally used in a derogatory sense, it took over from the term “The Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 24:14, 22).
So the saying “What would Jesus do?” is a good one when looking at goals for the local church. The best way to find Christ’s example is to see how the apostles wrote about this between Acts and Revelation, because these letters were written to the church. We can also learn from the Gospels, but we need to realise that, although they were written after the day of Pentecost, they record what happened when Jesus came as Messiah to the Jews. They fill the gap between the Old Testament and the church, describing what happened while Christ was on earth before the church commenced.
Faith, Hope and Love
Paul commended the Thessalonians for “your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th. 1:3). Later he says, “since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet” (1 Th. 5:8). They were motivated by faith, love and hope. These are the characteristics of a godly life: dependence on God, love for the Lord and for one another, and the hope of Christ’s return. They are often mentioned together in the New Testament and we will look briefly at each of these.
The Greek word for faith, “pistis”, means a spiritual conviction. It is used in the New Testament to describe: trust, trustworthiness and by metonymy (a figure of speech in which the name of one thing is used for another associated with it), what is trusted (“the faith”). Faithfulness is a fruit of the Spirit that accompanies salvation (Gal. 5:22-23).
This word is used to describe living by faith; “… let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:22-24). We trust in God because He gave Christ as our Saviour. He is “faithful”; He keeps His promises. In the case of the believers in Thessalonica, their faith in God became known everywhere (1 Th. 1:8).
This word is also used to describe the truth we trust: “dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life” (Jude 20-21). Here the faith is the truth of the gospel and the doctrine of the New Testament. The church is built up by studying and obeying the Bible. In the case of the believers in Thessalonica, they shared the gospel with their neighbours and friends—“The Lord’s message rang out from you” (1 Th. 1:8).
The Greek word for hope, “elpis”, means favourable and confident expectation. It is something that is certain, not something that is doubtful.
In the context of waiting eagerly for the resurrection of our bodies, Paul wrote, “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Rom. 8:24-25). Hope accompanies salvation. It involves the future, “what we do not yet have”.
The believers in Thessalonica had “hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” and waited “for His Son from heaven” (1 Th. 1:3, 10). Despite severe suffering, they had an attitude of joy. They saw the big picture that God was in control of their circumstances and their eternal destiny was secure. (1 Th. 1:6)
We have the hope of eternal life in heaven. It’s a part of the gospel. This hope is a reason to be faithful and loving: “we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all His people—the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard in the true word of the gospel that has come to you” (Col. 1:3-6).
Our hope comes from God: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13). “Through Him you believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and glorified Him, and so your faith and hope are in God” (1 Pt. 1:21). Because He is the Son God who died for our sin, Christ is our only hope of getting to heaven: “Christ Jesus our hope” (1 Tim. 1:1).
As a church we need to be optimistic, not pessimistic. We may experience disappointment and hardships, but God is working towards the time when we will be taken to be with Him in heaven where we will be like the Lord. This will be a great celebration, like a wedding feast where the Lord will be the groom and we will be the bride.
One of the Greek words for love, “agape”, means God’s deep and constant love of sinful humanity (seen in the gift of His Son) that fosters a reverential love in them towards God and a practical love towards others.
In all His actions, God is loving: “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8). His plan of salvation through Christ was an act of love that should cause us to love one another: “This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:9-11).
Love accompanies salvation; it is a fruit of the spirit (Gal. 5:22). When we experience the Lord’s amazing love, it causes us to respond by loving Him and others. This love distinguishes Christians who comprise the church. Jesus told His disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:34-35). Also, “He has given us this command: Those who love God must also love one another” (1 Jn. 4:21).
In 1 Corinthians 13, “love” is mentioned 7 times in 13 verses and Paul emphasises that everything must be done in a spirit of love. This love is a selfless concern for the welfare of others. It concludes, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love”. One of the reasons for this is that love is eternal.
With regard to the church Paul wrote “speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:15-16). The truth must be taught in a loving manner if we are to become more Christ-like. Like a human body, the church should develop with time so that it matures and becomes more loving as it carries out its functions.
The Thessalonicans service for God was motivated by love to the Lord; in their “labour prompted by love”, they served “the living and true God” (1 Th. 1:3, 9).
Initially the church in Jerusalem and Judea was Jewish, but then God showed Peter (Acts 10:1-11:18), Paul and Barnabas (Acts 11:19-24) that Gentiles could now also be a part of God’s people. Combining such people with different cultures and traditions together in the church was one of the biggest issues in the early years of the church. Firstly, some Jewish believers went from Judea to Antioch teaching that the male Gentile believers needed to be circumcised as the Jews were in the Old Testament times (Acts 15). Some likeminded Christians in Jerusalem were teaching that the Gentiles were also required to keep the law of Moses. This matter was discussed and resolved amongst the church at Jerusalem who then informed those who had been affected by this controversy.
Paul also told those at Corinth to stop following different leaders because this was divisive, but to have unity instead (1 Cor 1:10-13; 3:1-9). In the letter to the churches at Galatia, he opposed legalism because it divided the church. In Romans he dealt with tensions between Jewish and Gentile believers over eating meat that had been offered to idols and over Jewish festivals (Rom. 14:1-15:7; 1 Cor. 8).
The church in Ephesus was told that the Jewish and Gentile believers were “fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of His household” (Eph. 2:19). Consequently the hostility between them was to be replaced with peace (Eph. 2:14-18). They were to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:3-6). While it takes an effort to promote unity, all these spiritual things we have in common are powerful unifying forces in the church.
Lessons for us
As a congregation are we imitating Christ? What are we willing to give up to follow the Lord’s example? The local church depends on people giving up their time, resources, abilities and energy. When we make corporate decisions we should include the question, “What Would Jesus Do”?
What about the core qualities of faith, hope and love? If our faithfulness is strong, we will witness for Christ. If our hope is strong, we will be encouraging and optimistic about what God is doing. If our love is strong, we will be humble and compassionate.
Are we faithful in studying and obeying the Bible as a congregation? Are we sharing our faith in the gospel message? Are we optimistically looking forward to being with the Lord? Are we joyful to be a part of His new creation? Are we known for our love for one another? Does an attitude of love permeate all we do in word and deed?
If we imitate Christ and strengthen our faith, hope and love, surely we will have unity. Nevertheless, we need to be reminded as a congregation of the many spiritual things which we have in common, and which are more important than our differences.
Let’s be more Christ-like, faithful, hopeful, loving and united and develop these goals to become the congregation that God wants us to be.
Written, November 2007
Paul was a missionary who established churches around the Mediterranean Sea. His second missionary journey took him to Greece, then known as Macedonia and Achaia. Thessalonica, the capital of Macedonia, with a population of over 200,000, was a busy seaport. Christianity came to Thessalonica when Paul preached the gospel and some Jews and Greeks became believers (Acts 17:1-10). When the jealous Jewish leaders rioted in the city, Paul and Silas escaped at night to Berea. Paul later fled to Athens. He sent Timothy to check on the Thessalonian believers (1 Th. 2:17-3:3) while he went to Corinth. Timothy brought news of how they were standing firm despite opposition.
Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church in 50-51 AD to address the issues they faced. Jews claimed that Paul was not a real apostle; pagans persecuted them because they worshiped one God instead of many; sexual immorality was common in Greece; there were misunderstandings about the second coming of Christ; tensions arose between the congregation and the elders; and some stifled the Holy Spirit’s work, treating prophetic teachings with contempt.
Paul encouraged them “to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more” (1 Th. 4:1 NIV). This letter can be divided into six sections: model believers; Paul’s example; Paul’s joy; living to please God; the coming of the Lord; and living as a Christian. In part one we look at model believers.
“Paul, Silas and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you” (1 Th. 1:1).
The letter begins by telling us who it was from. Whenever he could, Paul worked with others, and here he mentioned them by name. He also referred to the believers as “the church” in Thessalonica. In the Bible, “church” refers to a group of believers, not a building. Because the Greek word for “church” meant any gathering of people, the believers were referred to as being “in God … and … Christ” to distinguish them from pagans, as the rioters in Ephesus were also referred to as an “assembly” or “church” (Acts 19:32). Years later, the word “church” came to mean a gathering of Christians, instead of a gathering of any kind.
Saying they were “in” God the Father and Christ indicates two relationships. First, the Greek word for “Father” means “a nourisher, protector, upholder.” God’s relationship to a believer is that of father to child. Second, the Greek word translated “Lord” was a title for one with power and supreme authority, such as Caesar, the absolute monarch. It could be translated as “ruler,” “master,” “God” or “owner.” It was also a title of honor and respect, with which servants greeted their master. Christ’s relationship to us is that of master to servant. Christians are those who confess “Jesus as Lord” (Rom. 10:9,13). By placing “God” and “Christ” together, Paul says Christ is part of the godhead.
“We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th. 1:2-3).
Paul regularly prayed for these believers. They were his children in the faith. He thanked God for the changes in their lives – their spiritual birth and growth, shown by their “work produced by faith,” their “labor prompted by love,” and their “endurance inspired by hope.” His thanksgiving preceded instruction.
Their “work produced by faith” was their conversion; they “turned to God from idols” (1:9). Faith is exercised when a sinner accepts the Savior and then lives in that faith. Faith is the act of trusting God (Jn. 6:28-29). This work includes the life of faith which follows conversion. Their “labor prompted by love” was their service for God motivated by love for Christ; they served “the living and true God” (1:9). Their “endurance inspired by hope” was their anticipation of Christ’s return. They waited “for His Son from heaven” (1:10; 4:13-18). Although persecuted for their faith, they didn’t give up.
Here we see that the motivation for Christian activity is faith, love and hope. The faith that God gives us results in love for God and the hope of Christ’s return, which in turn produces action such as labor and endurance.
Faith In Action
“For we know, brothers loved by God, that He has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction” (1 Th. 1:4-5).
This letter was written to both men and women. The Greek word for “brothers” means “brothers and sisters” or “the community.” Here, Paul commended all the Christians in Thessalonica and called them model believers. And he reminded them of two things. First, they were loved. God loves all of us, even before faith is evident in our lives (Jn. 3:16; Rom. 5:8). He loves us so much that His Son died for us. Second, they were chosen by God (Jn. 6:44). After they became Christians it was evident from their behavior that they had been chosen by God (Eph. 1:4). The Bible teaches that people have the choice to accept or reject the gift of salvation. They accepted.
The dramatic change in their lives occurred after Paul preached to them the gospel of God and Christ (2:2,8; 3:2). It came “with” four things. First, “with words” he preached about the Old Testament promises of God, who Jesus was and what He had done. Second, “with power” there was conviction of sin, repentance and conversion. The gospel has power to change lives. Third, “with the Holy Spirit” identified 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, “which is at work in you who believe” (1 Th. 2:13). His Word changes people as they obey it (2 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 4:12). They heard the message and acted upon it and it changed their lives.
Love In Action
“You know how we lived among you … You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers … The Lord’s message rang out from you … your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Th. 1:5-9).
The Thessalonians imitated Paul and Christ, and were a good example to other believers (1:6-7), even though they were persecuted. Their love was shown in three ways. First, they stopped complaining and started rejoicing. They saw that God was in control and their eternal destiny was secure. Their suffering was short compared to their eternal salvation in Christ. Second, they shared the gospel with their neighbors and friends: “The Lord’s message rang out from you.” The gospel was worth telling because it gave joy and hope. Third, they trusted God to care for them daily; their “faith in God” was well known. Trust in God is needed to spread the gospel effectively. They did this so well that Paul didn’t need to repeat the gospel message.
The Thessalonians had made a great start in their Christian life. First, they repented of selfish living and turned to God from many forms of idols, from carved images to strong desires to possess things (Col. 3:5). Second, they served God out of love, which is a sacrificial concern for others (Jn. 13:34-35). Theirs was “labor prompted by love” (1:3).
Hope In Action
“They tell how you turned to God from idols … to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath” (1 Th. 1:10).
They were also waiting for Christ’s return (Jn. 14:3; 1 Th. 4:13-18; 1 Cor. 15:51-58). God promised to take believers to be with Him. This can happen at death: “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). It can also happen at the rapture. Jesus said, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (Jn. 14:3). The Christian should live expecting the Lord to come at any moment.
Our hope is knowing that what God has begun through Christ’s work on earth, He will complete at His return. The trials of this life are temporary and bring endurance in spite of difficult circumstances. God is in control, and knows what He’s doing.
What does Paul mean when he refers to Jesus’ rescuing us from “the coming wrath”? The same thought is in 1 Th. 5:9, in the context of the “day of the Lord.” This is a coming time when God’s wrath will be poured out on the world (Mt. 24:21) immediately before His return in power and judgment (Mt. 24:27-31). When Christ returns at the rapture to take believers to heaven, He will rescue them from the tribulation that will occur between the rapture and His appearing (Mt. 24:4-28; 1 Th. 5:1-11; 2 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 3:10).
The Thessalonians imitated Paul and Christ and were good examples for other believers in Greece. They are also good examples for us. But are we a good example for others? Are we a help or a hindrance to those we come in contact with? The gospel produced a radical change in these believers: a new faith – they followed God instead of idols; a new love – they served God; a new hope – they anticipated the second coming of Jesus Christ; a new joy – they knew God was in control; and a new mission – spreading the gospel. God wants us to be like them.
Published, January 2009