I went to a funeral yesterday, which had been postponed until after the birth of a baby. The safe arrival of a baby can bring joy amidst despair. It is good news. This was particularly true in the days before modern medicine when some mothers and babies didn’t survive child birth. It’s a significant event that is anticipated by the parents and their family and friends. But the birth we remember at Christmas was unique in bringing joy to both earth and heaven. We see that God changes despair into joy.
Joy on earth
At Christ’s birth the shepherds were told, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk. 2:10-11NIV). This was good news for a nation that despaired for at least 500 years when they were ruled by foreign powers and lacked a proper king (Herod was not a Jew). They were looking for the promised Messiah to lead a rebellion against the Romans and bring them lasting peace and prosperity (Is. 9:6-7; Lk. 23:2-5). They also knew that their Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2, 4; Jn. 7:42).
God revealed to two elderly people that baby Jesus was the promised Messiah. Simeon could now die in peace (Lk. 2:29). Anna thanked God and told others who were looking forward to being freed from foreign domination (Lk. 2:38).
But the good news was not restricted to Jews in Israel. Gentile astrologers from east of Israel came to worship “the one who has been born king of the Jews” (Mt. 2:1-2).
On 22 July 2013 a son was born to Prince William and Kate Middleton The birth of an heir to the throne, such as Prince George, brings joy to a nation. Because Christ’s was a royal birth, there was joy in Israel. But what made this event different to the birth of Prince George?
Joy in heaven
Prince George was given a family name. Jesus was also given a family name (the same as Joshua: “Jesus” is from Greek, while “Joshua” is from Hebrew), but it was “because He will save His people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21). The Jews wanted to be delivered from Roman rule. But instead they are promised to be saved from their sins!
There was also joy in heaven at Christ’s birth – the angels praised God, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests” (Lk. 2:14). They also declare that Christ is the source of peace on earth. This peace is available to those who repent of their sins and receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. That’s how people are saved from their sins. This joy continues today because there is rejoicing in heaven when a sinner repents and turns to God (Lk. 15:7, 10).
From despair to joy
Through the birth of a baby, God changed the Jewish despair into joy. However, Jesus wasn’t only a Savior for the Jews, but for all the people of the world (Jn. 3:16; 4:42). Through Jesus joy is available to those who accept His gift of salvation and this joy extends to heaven.
Do you realise the significance of Christ’s birth? The significance of His life, death, resurrection and ascension? Have you caused rejoicing in heaven? Let’s remember these things at Christmas (Lk. 2:19).
Remember God can change despair into joy.
Written, December 2013
In Scripture, the word translated “heaven” has three meanings: the atmosphere/sky, the universe, and the dwelling place of God and the angels. The meaning is determined from the context in which the Hebrew or Greek word is used. In this article we are looking at the heaven where God is.
Revelation 21:1 – 22:5 is the main Biblical passage about the eternal state, which we call heaven. This passage describes the change from time to eternity.
Everything is new
Chapter 21 begins: Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away (21:1NIV). Here we see that God will create a new heaven and a new earth. The creation of the first heaven and earth is described as the beginning of the Bible (Gen. 1:1-2:4). The change described in Genesis was from eternity to time, while that in Revelation is from our temporal world where there is past, present and future to eternity where time is meaningless. Of course, the heaven that will be renewed is not the place where God lives, but the universe that has been affected by the sin of mankind.
When we become a Christian, our soul is redeemed. It’s like a new life has begun – it has been called being born again (2 Cor. 5:17). It’s a new spiritual creation that is not completed until our bodies are also redeemed at the rapture. In fact all of God’s creation is looking forward to when Christ returns to the Earth when it will be changed and redeemed. In this part of Revelation we read about the final change into the eternal state. The old universe is transformed and replaced with the new. It will be free from death and decay, which are the results of sin (Rom. 8:20-21). It will be paradise, like in the Garden of Eden before sin entered. Also, believers will have new bodies, like that of the risen Lord (Phil. 3: 21).
God says I am making everything new! (21:5). Then He says It is done. When He has created the new universe, redemption is complete. God has finished His great plan of salvation. So, what is heaven like? It’s different to anything that we have experienced. One of the reasons it’s so hard to describe is that it is not just another place but another dimension, another creation.
No more …
The Bible says that in heaven, 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. (21:4) and No longer will there be any curse (22:3)
In heaven there will be no more: pain, crying, sorrow or death (21:4). No more sin or its consequences – the curse of God (22:3). Everything that caused pain and sadness on earth will not be present in heaven. The old sinful world has passed away, and Satan, his demons and those who chose to follow him will have been cast away from God’s presence (Rev. 20:10-15).
Besides no more crying, sighing, or dying; there will be: No hospitals or graves! No aging or wrinkles. Nothing will ruin, rot, or rust. There will be no thirsting, or hungering. No itching, no blindness, no deafness, no diabetes, no cancer, or heart attacks, or scars, no witchcraft, no drugs, no alcohol, or tobacco! No divorce, child abductions, accidents…and no more bills! What a place to look forward to!
So pain is replaced by peace and joy. Heaven is a place of relief. There will be no need to worry. As we found out earlier, it’s different to anything that we have experienced.
John wrote The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city (22:3) This is the city in heaven, which we will look at shortly.
“The throne” is mentioned four times in this passage and 39 times in Revelation. When John was taken to heaven, the first thing he saw was the awesome throne of God the Father (Rev. 4). The throne is central in heaven and in the book of Revelation. From it God reigns over the whole universe; both physical and spiritual. He is the Lord God Almighty (21:22).
“The Lamb” is mentioned four times in this passage and 26 times in Revelation. In heaven John “saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the centre before the throne” (Rev. 5:6). It symbolises that the Lord Jesus Christ was a sacrifice for our sin. He receives honor and praise because he died so that many people can be in heaven. He paid the price for their entry.
So heaven is God’s home.
The home of the redeemed
An angel told John, Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb (21:9)
“The bride” is mentioned twice in this passage and 4 times in this context in Revelation. It refers to “God’s people” or those whose names are written in the “book of life” (Rev. 19:7; 22:17). This metaphor illustrates the close intimacy we will have with the Lord in heaven, who is the bridegroom. They will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads (22:4) – just as a bride bears her husband’s name and sees his face, the redeemed have a close relationship with the Lord.
This intimacy is also shown by Him calling us His children (21:7). God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and He will dwell with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God (21:3). Like in the Garden of Eden, they will be able to walk with God in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8). It will be Immanuel, “God with us” and us with God; forever.
Paul wrote about the rapture: “After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Th. 4:17). Heaven is being with the Lord forever.
So heaven is also the home of the redeemed, our common home with the Lord.
The new Jerusalem – city of light
Jesus told the disciples “I am going there to prepare a place for you” (Jn. 14:2). This place is described in our passage as a spectacular city. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband (21:2) and One of the … angels … came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God (21:9-10).
As the city comes down towards the earth from heaven where God lives, we see that in the eternal state the distinction between heaven and earth loses its significance. God now lives with the redeemed and the redeemed live with Him.
It (the city) shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal (21:11). Is this literal or symbolic? I think it is both at the same time. God loves to use literal things as symbols. For example, the prophecy of Joel in the Old Testament opens with a vivid description of a plague of locusts that ate up every green thing. Joel describes them in dramatic and accurate terms but his description soon becomes a description of the invasion of a great army from Babylon that would come into the land. So the plague was also symbolic of the invasion.
God also pictures something invisible by means of a literal event. For instance, the sun is literal, but it can be a symbol of light, knowledge and truth. Likewise, fire is literal, but it can be symbolic of torment, torture and judgment.
Revelation is an unusual blending of the literal and the symbolic– many events and things in it are both literal and symbolic. Fortunately, most all of these symbols are given to us elsewhere in the Bible.
The New Jerusalem seems to be a great visible magnificent city which will also illustrate activities and relationships of the redeemed (21:12 – 22:3). What can it symbolise?
|City||A community; filled with people who interact with each other|
|High wall||Protection; separation from others; intimacy|
|Brilliant appearance (eternal light, no darkness)||God is light|
|12 Gates (entry and egress; always open)||None of God’s people will ever be shut out from His presence; Widespread service|
|Names of tribes of Israel on the gates||A reminder that salvation came from the Jews (Jn. 4:22)|
|12 layers of foundations||Stability; permanence|
|Names of the apostles on the foundations||Taught the gospel; enabled it to spread across the world.|
|Number 12||The number of government (12 tribes; 12 apostles)|
|Shape (maybe a pyramid; symmetry)||Perfect proportions; harmony|
|Building materials (precious gemstones)||Valuable|
|Pearl gates (beauty out of pain)||Christ sacrificed His life for the redeemed (a pearl of great value; Mt. 13:45)|
|River||Holy Spirit (Jn. 7:38-39)|
|Tree of life||Jesus; spiritual nourishment|
What a wonderful place! A place of great beauty.
What will we be doing?
You may wonder if we don’t have to work to pay the bills, what will we do in heaven? Here are three things that are mentioned in Revelation.
First, offering thanks and praise. Worship and praise to God characterise all the descriptions of heaven in Revelation (Chs: 4, 5, 7, 11, 15, 19). For example, after God has dealt with sin and the fall, He will be honored universally (Phil. 2:10-11; Rev 5:13). Second, serving the Lord (22:3). The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and His servants will serve Him (22:3). We will be active. Third, reigning with the Lord (22:5). As God reigns over the whole universe, I’m sure there is a lot to look after.
So in heaven we will be worshipping, serving and reigning.
Before the eternal state begins, Jesus promised to return for His people at the rapture and then to return in power and glory to judge the sinful world and usher in his millennial reign over the earth. Although believers look forward to this time, we don’t know when it will occur. Later in Revelation 22, Jesus says three times “I am coming soon”.
But you may think, John wrote Revelation about 1,900 years ago and the Lord hasn’t come yet. Remember, we have just looked at our destiny and the transition from time into eternity. For us, this transition happens the minute we die, which could be very soon. Although there may be some time before the events described in Revelation occur, it will not be long before each of us leaves time and enters eternity. In this sense, heaven and hell could be a breath away.
Lessons for us
John has given us a glimpse into what Heaven is like. In the Bible, future events are always foretold in order to bring about changes in our present actions. What does this mean to us today?
Firstly, will you be there? The Bible clearly states that heaven is only for God’s people; those who have trusted in Christ’s sacrifice for their sin. The rest are said to be outside suffering in the lake of fire. They are unbelievers and their names are not written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev. 20:12; 21:27). If this is your case, please consider God’s gift of salvation and eternal life in heaven. The Bible says that God loved the people of the world so much that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him will not perish in hell but have eternal life in heaven (Jn. 3:16).
Christians have a wonderful destination. Knowing our destination is important because it provides direction for the journey of life, makes it meaningful, and fortifies us when the journey is difficult. It doesn’t matter what we face, if we have the hope of heaven, we don’t have to give in to fear.
All the above is a promised inheritance for the redeemed; it’s also called “the heavenly prize” (21:7; Phil. 3:14). Peter calls it a living hope for an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade (1 Pt.1:4).
Heaven means being forever with the Lord; Paul says it’s being “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:6). Peter wrote: “we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Pt. 3:13). Are we all looking forward to heaven?
Written, May 2010
See the other article in this series:
– What is hell like?
Surviving difficult times
Life doesn’t always go smoothly. We all face times of sadness, sorrow, struggle and disappointment. However, for the believer the sorrow of difficult times should flow into joy. This is an important principle for the people of God.
The Promised Messiah
The Holy Spirit made revelations to the Old Testament prophets which they didn’t always understand. Nevertheless, these were recorded for the people of God down through the ages. Many prophecies concern the Messiah who would restore Israel as a nation, judge wickedness and rule over the earth (Is. 9:6-7). Peter said they “predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (1 Pet. 1:11TNIV). This is also what Jesus told the two on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:25-27). With hindsight we see that passages such as Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 describe the sufferings of Christ, but this may not have been evident in Old Testament times. In particular, they didn’t know that the suffering would occur during His first visit to the earth and the glories during His second visit to the earth. However, Daniel was told that the Messiah would be put to death (Dan. 9:26).
When the long-awaited Messiah was born in Bethlehem, the angel told the shepherds “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk. 2:10-11). The Jews were waiting for the Messiah to come and release them from the oppression of the Roman Empire. Instead they had to learn that honor and glory is preceded by suffering.
Although Peter recognized that Jesus was the Messiah, he could not accept the idea that Jesus would be rejected and killed (Mt. 16:16, 21-22; Mk. 8:31-32). Because their concept of the Messiah was one who would be a victorious leader, the disciples didn’t understand when Jesus told them that He would suffer (Lk. 9:45; 18:34). They were looking for a Messiah who would release them from Roman domination and set up His kingdom immediately (Lk. 19:11; 24:21; Acts 1:6).
Near the end of His ministry Jesus told His disciples: “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy” (Jn. 16:20-22). He foretold that they would experience sorrow at His crucifixion, but this grief would turn to joy after the resurrection. This transformation would be like the pain of a mother giving birth being replaced by joy. They were assured “no one will take away your joy”.
Jesus said that the reason for this teaching was: “so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33). The prospect of joy enabled the disciples to have peace of mind amidst their troubles.
Today we can learn from these examples in Scripture. When we face sorrow and grief let’s remember that Christ had to go through the sorrow before He will experience glory, honor and joy at the second coming. The sorrow is temporary, while the joy is eternal.
Unlike the disciples, we don’t have to wait for the resurrection to experience joy. Instead we look back on the resurrection as the basis for our joy. Likewise, we don’t have to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit to indwell us to experience joy. Instead we rejoice that He is always present within us (Gal. 5:22). That’s why we can have peace with God despite the trouble in our world. But we do look ahead to the second coming as another basis for our joy. Until Christ comes to reign on earth, God’s people anticipate His final victory.
Written, December 2007
In this Series on 1 Thessalonians we have seen that Paul visited and preached in Thessalonica and a church was established. Because he couldn’t visit them for some time, he wrote a letter of encouragement. From 4:1 to 5:11 Paul reminded them how to please God – avoid sexual immorality and excel in holiness and brotherly love. Instead of grieving for those who had died, they were to look forward to being reunited with them and to be awake and sober as they looked forward to the Lord’s return. Paul ended his letter with practical guidelines on Christian living. He addressed godly attitudes and behavior in relationships with the elders, other believers and God.
Living With Church Leaders
“Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.” 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 NIV
These verses address leadership in the local church. The Bible teaches that each church is to be led by a group of qualified elders who share this responsibility. Several characteristics of elders are mentioned here. They are to “work hard” at caring for people. They are to be “over” the congregation, meaning that they are to maintain or rule. In other letters Paul said that they “direct the affairs of the church” and “lead” (1 Tim. 5:17; Rom. 12:8). Both Paul and Peter likened their care to spiritual parents caring for a family (1 Tim. 3:4,5,12; 1 Pet. 5:2-3). Elders are also to “admonish” or gently reprove the congregation. Paul used the same word when he told them to warn anyone who didn’t obey his instructions (2 Th. 3:15). Elders are to remind the church of God’s truths and the dangers of living a self-centered life.
In this passage, the congregation was given two responsibilities with respect to the elders. It was to “respect” them. This Greek word is translated as “acknowledge” (TNIV), “know” (KJV), “recognize” (NKJV), “appreciate” (NASB) and “honor” (NLT). The congregation needs to know the elders if they are going to trust and follow them. They are also to “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.
In this context Paul encouraged Thessalonians 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 (1 Th. 5:23; Gal. 5:22). There is a need to value all the elders, as favoring one divides the congregation. Also, elders should serve the whole congregation, not just part of it. Paul wrote elsewhere that we should “make every effort to do what leads to peace” and “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 14:19; 12:18).
Living With Believers
“And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.” 1 Thessalonians 5:14-15
Here Paul shows us how we are to live with three types of people. We are to “warn those who are idle.” Apparently, some Thessalonians had stopped working in order to prepare for the second coming of the Lord (2 Th. 3:10-11). 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 (2 Th. 3:10-13). 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. Paul also taught that we shouldn’t stumble those who are weak in the faith (Rom. 14:1-15; 1 Cor. 8:13). 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). When someone hurts us, we should not get angry and retaliate, but rather seek reconciliation (Mt. 18:15-17). 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.
Living Before God In All Circumstances
“Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
It is God’s will that believers be characterized by joy, prayer and thanksgiving. Paul began with “Be joyful always” to encourage us not to let things get us down. In Philippians 4:4 he added that our rejoicing should be “in the Lord.” 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 Th. 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. For example, when Peter was in prison, the believers prayed and he was released (Acts 12:1-19). We should “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests … and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people” (Eph. 6:18).
Paul also told believers to “give thanks in all circumstances.” Believers should be “overflowing with thankfulness” (Col. 2:7) even in the trials and difficulties which mature us. 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. Daniel prayed three times a day, “giving thanks to his God” even though his life was in danger (Dan. 6:10-12). We can develop an attitude of praising God in all circumstances.
Living Before God As He Guides
“Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22
“Do not put out the Spirit’s fire” is a metaphor for hindering or extinguishing the operation of the Holy Spirit in an individual or the church. This may be caused by sin, disunity or suppression of the Spirit’s gifts. Instead, we are to keep the Spirit’s fire burning by following Paul’s instructions to be joyful, prayerful and thankful, and by following the Spirit when He prompts us to do what is right or stop doing what is wrong.
“Do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything.” 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. Paul also said that those listening to prophets should discern or “weigh carefully” what they say (1 Cor. 14:29). 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).
“May God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The One who calls you is faithful and He will do it.” 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
The Thessalonians couldn’t live like this in their own strength, so Paul prayed for them as only God could make their efforts successful. There are different aspects to sanctification (holiness), and here he addressed progressive sanctification. Paul prayed that their sanctification 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.
“Brothers, pray for us. Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss. I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:25-28
After he prayed for them, Paul asked the Thessalonians to pray for him. The kiss was a normal greeting of that day, similar to a handshake in western countries. It expressed friendship with fellow believers. Paul wanted “to have this letter read to all” brothers and sisters, a statement not found in any of his other letters (5:27); he thought it was that important. We should read it with this in mind.
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.
Lessons For Us
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.
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.
Published, June 2009
See the next article in this series: Encouragement during trials and suffering (2 Thessalonians 1)
In this series we have seen that Paul preached in Thessalonica and a church was established. These people turned from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for His Son from heaven. They were also a good example for all believers in Greece. Paul loved new believers like a mother caring for her baby, and coached them like a father training his children. He was a hard worker. He knew the opposition the Thessalonians faced because he had faced it as well.
In Part 3 we look at Paul’s joy, which is mentioned three times (1 Th. 2:19,20; 3:9). We will see his priorities in life and his attitude towards new believers.
“But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you – certainly I, Paul, did, again and again – but Satan stopped us. For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when He comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy.” (1 Th. 2:17-20 NIV)
Paul explained his failure to return to Thessalonica (2:17-18). Perhaps his critics accused him of being afraid to go back because of the opposition he faced, but Paul said that his separation from them was like being “torn away.” He felt like an orphan – their close relationship was like family.
His concern for the Thessalonians is clearly evident. Although he was forced to leave the city, he still thought about them regularly. In fact, he had an “intense longing” to know how they were doing, and did all he could to visit them again. He tried at least twice, but his plans were blocked by Satan (2:18). But God always overrules Satan’s opposition, and in this case He used Paul’s delay so this letter would be written and believers in all eras could benefit from Paul’s example.
Satan wants to hinder the spread of the gospel and the spiritual growth of believers. When we face hindrances in God’s work, Satan is often behind them. Paul wrote: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against … the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). Satan and his demons are the real enemy, not the people or circumstances that they use. Satanic opposition is permitted by God. Remember how Satan got God’s permission before he afflicted Job. It is God’s way of getting our attention. Nothing happens by chance to Christians.
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. He also said that the believers in Philippi were his “joy and crown” (Phil. 4:1).
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!
“So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you and our efforts might have been useless” (1 Th. 3:1-5).
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.
Hardship And Opposition
Paul had already reminded them to expect persecution (3:4). When he revisited Pisidia he said, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). The journey for believers before they share in Christ’s glory involves suffering (2 Tim. 3:12; Jn. 16:33). The Lord warned His disciples that to follow Him meant facing opposition: “If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you also” (Jn. 15:20). We know that Christ and the apostles were persecuted (1 Pet. 2:21). 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.
God uses opposition, persecution, suffering and trials to discipline and train us (Heb. 12:7-11). They can test and prove our faith and weed out those who profess but don’t have true faith (Mk. 4:17; 1 Pet. 1:6-7). As we experience God’s comfort, we can encourage others who are going through difficult times (2 Cor. 1:4). Difficulties also develop character (Rom. 5:3; Jas. 1:3) and make us more zealous in spreading the gospel (Acts 8:3-4).
“But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?” (1Th. 3:6-9).
Timothy’s good report from Thessalonica filled Paul with joy. His labor was not in vain. Their faith and love were clearly evident. 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. To the Galatians Paul wrote: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6). And to the Ephesians he wrote: “Since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints I have not stopped giving thanks” (Eph. 1:15-16).
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). His attitude was like John who wrote, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 Jn. 4).
“Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith. Now may our God and Father Himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May He strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all His holy ones” (1 Th. 3:10-13).
When it’s hard to know what to pray for Paul wrote: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with God’s will” (Rom. 8:26-27).
When the Thessalonians were persecuted, Paul prayed most earnestly, frequently and specifically. “Most earnestly” is a compound Greek word meaning “most exceedingly.” 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). 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. 5:16-17).
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 Th. 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).
Lessons For Us
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.
The Lord’s command to His disciples was, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20). 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 in the midst of suffering and temptation? Do we trust God despite the difficulties of life? Is our love evident and increasing? Are we living godly lives?
This was Paul’s desire for the Thessalonians, and for us.
Published, March 2009
After the apostle Paul rescued a slave girl from demon possession, her owners realized that they could no longer make money from her fortune telling. So, they seized Paul and Silas and accused them before the magistrates (Acts 16:16-24). A crowd joined in this attack and Paul and Silas were stripped, flogged and thrown into the inner prison. This disappointing and painful situation could easily lead to depression and disillusionment. How did Paul and Silas react? Luke records: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25 NIV). In a seemingly hopeless situation, they sang praises to God. Where did their joy and encouragement come from?
God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are the sources of encouragement for the believer (Acts 9:31; Rom. 15:5; 2 Th. 2:16-17). This kind of encouragement is not something we have, but something we get from God. The Greek words translated “encourage” and “encouragement” in the New Testament are paraklesis and parakaleo. The most common ways to get encouragement are to meditate on certain Scriptures, on the gospel message of salvation through Jesus Christ, on Christ’s return and on our Christian faith shared with other believers.
The Bible is encouraging because it is God’s special message to humanity. Paul wrote, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). This means that the Scriptures are encouraging, and following them brings hope into our lives.
Paul taught that a local church was to be led by a group of elders (Ti. 1:5-9). One qualification of an elder was that “he must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Ti. 1:9). The “trustworthy message” that was taught by Jesus Christ, Paul and the other apostles has been recorded in the Bible. An elder encourages the congregation by teaching and following the sound doctrines of the Bible, the truths of Scripture.
After urging the believers to “stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter,” Paul wrote, “May our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who loved us and by His grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word” (2 Th. 2:15-17). Also, prophets brought the message from God before the New Testament was available in a written form; and their messages “encouraged” the believers (1 Cor. 14:3,31).
The Gospel Message
The gospel is encouraging because it is the key to forgiveness of sins and eternal life. When the synagogue rulers said to Paul and Barnabas, “If you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak,” Paul preached the gospel (Acts 13:15). He began with the Old Testament and concluded with, “I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (Acts 13:16-41). The gospel of Jesus Christ is always encouraging.
Paul described his mission this way: “My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ” (Col. 2:2). Here we see that encouragement is linked to an understanding that all believers are part of the Church (Col. 1:26-27). Paul also wrote, “We sent Timothy … God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith” (1 Th. 3:2).
Christians “may be greatly encouraged” because they “have fled to take hold of the hope offered to them” in the gospel (Heb. 6:18). In this image they are fleeing to heaven from a world bound for judgment.
The return of Christ to bring all His followers into heaven is encouraging because it means an end of the sorrow, suffering and disappointment of this sinful world. Believers are commanded to encourage each other with the fact that they “will be with the Lord forever” (1 Th. 4:18). The promise of Christ’s return so believers “may live together with Him” is a great encouragement (1 Th. 5:10-11). In view of Christ’s return and the resurrection of the dead, believers should “meet together” to “encourage one another” (Heb. 10:25).
The Christian faith is encouraging because it is the practical demonstration of living according to the Bible, the gospel and Christ’s return. Paul longed to visit the believers in Rome so they could be “mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (Rom. 1:11-12). The encouragement here is from each other’s faith, not any external circumstances. He also wrote, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus” (Rom. 15:5). Here, encouragement and unity are associated with following the Lord. Paul was also encouraged when he heard about the faith of the believers at Thessalonica (1 Th. 3:7). Likewise, John had “great joy” when told about believers who continued to “walk in the truth” (3 Jn. 3-4).
Let’s be encouraged by God’s promises in the Scriptures, in the good news of salvation, in Christ’s return and in the faith we share with other believers. These are all linked, with the gospel being the core message conveyed by the Scriptures and Christ’s return being the hope of the gospel. It’s interesting that these facts do not depend on our circumstances, but in fact bring encouragement amidst struggles and suffering.
Also, let’s “encourage one another daily” in the faith so we will not be “hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Heb. 3:13). We are told to use these same means to encourage others (2 Cor. 1:4). Those with the gift of encouragement should exercise their gift amongst believers (Rom. 12:8). It seems as though Barnabas had this gift as his name meant “son of encouragement” and he encouraged the church at Antioch (Acts 4:36; 11:22-23).
When life is difficult, remember Paul and Silas in prison. Don’t follow your feelings or seek encouragement only from circumstances, as you soon will be disappointed. Don’t forsake the Lord when life gets tough. Instead, encourage yourself and others by remembering all that God has done.
Published, April 2008
The message of the first Christmas carol
Christmas is a great time of festivity, celebration, exchanging gifts and expressing love and goodwill toward one another. It is one day of the year when conflicts and wars are often suspended and there is a semblance of “peace on earth.” The spirit of Christmas is expressed in the words joy and peace. We sing “Joy to the world, the Lord has come” and “O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.”
The Need For Carols
But life is not always joyful and peaceful. We have uprisings in African nations, strife in the Middle East, guerrilla warfare in South America. These bring fear rather than peace. Even in democracies, governments can act like dictators. And so can people.
My wife and I usually go to a restaurant to celebrate Christmas with our friends. On one occasion after most of us had eaten, we were rudely asked to leave to make room for more customers. The manager acted like a dictator; there was no joy, peace or goodwill in his attitude.
Of course we all face troubles and barriers to peace from time to time – at work, among friends, within marriages and families. How do we react? Do we ignore them and battle on, like an ostrich putting its head in the sand? Do we attack like a dictator, always wanting our own way? Or do we try to resolve the matter by removing the barrier and restoring peace? This is the approach we should use, as we are reminded at Christmas of how God reacted to our troubles.
There is a great need for peace in our world. The main purpose of the United Nations is to maintain international peace and security. They have peace-keeping missions in many places around the world including the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa, East Timor in Asia, Haiti in the Greater Antilles, Kosovo in Eastern Europe and Iraq in the Middle East. Like the peace at Christmas, these places show us that peace in our world is often very temporary.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa deals with racism, discrimination and the human rights violations that had occurred under the policy of apartheid (strict separation of races). Its aim is threefold: to uncover the truth of what happened in the past, to enable national reconciliation, and to prevent more racial and ethnic strife. They had the right idea – find the truth and seek reconciliation. But they found that reconciliation is difficult: when the guilty refuse to apologize because they say they have done nothing wrong; when there are others who wish they could forgive, but feel too deeply hurt; and when there is little conviction of wrongs and the need for forgiveness when God is left out.
We all need to face the truth and seek reconciliation if there is to be any lasting peace in our lives. At Christmas we remember the coming of the Savior who brought truth and reconciliation to our world (Jn. 14:6; Rom. 5:11; Col. 1:20).
Carols Are Songs Of Peace And Joy
There is much truth in Christmas carols; they are not all about snow, sleigh bells and reindeer. The word “carol” means “a song of joy and peace.” And so we sing, “Come sing a song of joy, for peace shall come my brother” and “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.”
But singing about peace will not bring peace. One Christmas carol is titled “The Tradition of Christmas.” Traditions do not bring lasting peace either. We can’t have peace without involving the Peacemaker. Jesus Christ is known as the Prince of Peace and we sing “Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace.” He came to make peace (Isa. 9:6; Jn. 16:33; Eph. 2:14-17). True and lasting peace only comes when the Prince of Peace is allowed to control our lives.
Christ’s birth was announced as “good news of great joy … for all people” (Lk. 2:10). That’s unusual. How could so many benefit from the birth of a baby? The answer is given in the very next verse of Luke 2 which tells us that this baby was the Savior and the promised Messiah.
Another response expressed in Luke 2:14 was, “Glory to God … and on earth, peace, goodwill toward men.” Peace and goodwill are part of the “good news.” In a sense Jesus was “Peace on earth,” as He is the Peace-maker; He came to earth to destroy the sin barrier so we may have peace.
Later, Jesus promised His followers the gift of peace, and Christians are said to have “peace with God” (Jn. 14:27; Rom. 5:1 niv). Do you have this peace? Do you know “the way of peace” (Rom. 3:17)? Are you willing to seek this peace? It takes two parties to make peace. God has done His part. What about you?
Many of the Christmas carols contain the secret to true joy, peace and goodwill. They concern historical events that occurred about 2,000 years ago, that are recorded in the Bible as the life of Jesus Christ, whose birth divided all history into B.C. and A.D. These carols speak the truth about our need to be reconciled to God and to one another.
The First Carol
The words of the angels after Christ’s birth, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Lk. 2:14), can be viewed as the very first Christmas carol. The angels told of Christ and the salvation He came to bring to earth. This is a salvation that brings glory to God and peace to mankind. It is the theme of later carols such as “The First Noel,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Gloria In Excelsis Deo” and “Angels From The Realms Of Glory.”
The angels announced “peace on earth” – a place where there had been no peace since Adam and Eve disobeyed God. Real peace can only be found in the message of Jesus. It transcends all understanding and will guard our hearts and minds as we live in relationship with Him (Phil. 4:7).
And they announced that peace to “those on whom His favor rests” (Lk. 2:14). They are those who respond to the Good News by repenting of their sins and receiving Christ as Lord and Savior. They have accepted God’s generous gift of salvation.
The angels announced Christ’s birth with gladness and rejoicing, and the shepherds responded by glorifying and praising God. Likewise, Christians should be glad and rejoice in God’s salvation that was achieved through Jesus. Christians should be full of joy and rejoicing at Christmas time and all during the year (Phil. 4:4). Similarly, they should communicate the good news with a joyful confidence.
This first carol of the angels also has a future aspect. Today, very few people praise and honor God, and trouble seems more prevalent than peace. But there is a time coming when God’s kingdom will come and His will will be done on earth as it is in heaven, and there will be peace on earth (Mt. 6:10). Also, in the future everyone will offer praise, honor and glory to God (Rev. 5:13). Why not praise Him now and be one of His agents for peace and reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-21)?
Your Own Carol
How can you put Christ in your Christmas, making it one of true peace and joy? The first and most important thing you can do is make peace with God. Admit that you’re less than perfect and decide to turn away from your sin. Ask Christ to forgive your sin and control your life. After doing this, make peace in your family and peace with others (Rom. 12:18). Then remember that regular prayer, confession and repentance are needed to maintain inner peace (Phil. 4:6-7; 1 Jn. 1:9). By doing this, you will come to share the joy, peace and goodwill of the Christmas carols, and have a real reason to celebrate Christ’s coming.