1 Thessalonians 5:12-22
December 1, 1996
“The mark of true Christian faith is that it changes everything you do and say.”
We have come to the last few verses of 1 Thessalonians. As we begin our study, I would like to remark for a moment upon the words quoted above from Ray Stedman. In his sermon on this text he remarked at the low standard of living exhibited by many people who claim to be born again Christians. It’s not our leaders who have failed us. In the words of Pogo, we have met the enemy and he is us!
Pastor Stedman goes to the heart of these issue with this burning indictment:
I do not understand what has happened to the Christian community. Believers who go regularly to church and profess to believe the Bible often seem to go along with practices of the world around them with hardly any consciousness that what they are doing is unbiblical and really wrong. They lie without hesitation. They evade paying their bills. They cheat on their taxes. They ignore needy people. They fail to keep appointments. They freeload shamelessly. They lose their tempers. They grow critical and caustic. They desert their mates. If the apostle Paul were here he would be very concerned about this. To him, the mark of true Christian faith is that it changes everything you do and say. It affects every area of your life.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
The Christian faith is nothing if it is not practical. Or perhaps I should say, the Christian faith is no faith at all if it is not practiced. Some of you will remember a certain brand of tire that advertised its worth as being “where the rubber meets the road.” That expression has become a proverb for putting any truth into practice.
You might say that our text is where the rubber meets the road. If you look at it, you will find that it consists of 16 short exhortations, brief staccato commands that Professor John Grassmick of Dallas Seminary has called “16 exercises for body building.” To use a contemporary term, these commands are all about “Christian Aerobics.” They are aerobics for the soul. They keep a church strong and healthy.
There are basically four divisions to these 16 exercises. The first three deal with the church and its leaders. The next four with the leaders and the congregation. The next five cover believers and their relationships. The last four speak apply to believers and spiritual gifts.
I. The Church And Its Leaders 12-13
The great apostle begins with the leaders because that’s where you have to begin in assessing the health of the church. “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.” Please don’t restrict these words to elders or pastors or deacons or elected leaders in general. They apply to Sunday School teachers, Awana works, Caraway Street workers, leaders in the Allied Force and Power Connection, choir officers, and anyone who has a leadership position at Calvary.
Here’s how you spot a leader. First, they work hard among you. Second, they are “over you” in the Lord. Third, they admonish or challenge you to spiritual growth. It’s an interesting combination. Leaders are people who come from the congregation, who work among the congregation, who stand over the congregation, challenging believers to grow in Christ. They are from, among, and over the people of God. They are part of us, they work among us, they have authority over us.
Paul lays down three commands for us to follow regarding our leaders:
1. Respect them 12
2. Hold them in high regard 13b
3. Live at peace with them 13b
There are three words or phrases here—and each one is important. The word “respect” literally means to “know” your leaders. It means to recognize them for who they are. To “regard” means to hold in the highest possible esteem. Living at peace means just what it sounds like.
Do You Know Your Leaders?
The general thrust of Paul’s message is quite clear. First, you need to know your spiritual leaders. That’s why we print the names of the staff, elders, deacons and deaconesses on a regular basis. Do you who is teaching your children in Sunday School? Do you know who leads your son’s Allied Force Impact Group? Have you ever tried to find the names of the leaders of the ministries that touch your family? You need to know them by name.
Then you need to pray for them. That’s the highest and best thing you can ever do for those who minister to you and your family. I try to stress then whenever we have a membership seminar. I will ask them, “Have you prayed for your pastor today?” I need the prayers of God’s people. But not me—all the staff members, all the elders, all the deacons, all the teachers, all the workers—we need your prayers that we might be men and women who are pleasing to God.
Finally, I think living at peace means you speak highly of them and refuse to criticize them behind their back. Nothing is more evil than gossiping church members who attack their leaders over the phone. More churches have been split by malicious gossip than by all the doctrinal heresies that have ever been invented.
I think it’s better to leave a church than to stay and attack the leadership. It’s not a sin to leave a church, but it is a sin to stay and sow discord in the body. Thankfully, we’ve had very little of that here at Calvary in the years I have been here. For the most part we’ve loved one another and treated each other with respect even if we haven’t always agreed on everything.
You don’t have to agree with the leaders on everything, but you do have to respect them for the position God has given them. Or to say it another way, it’s okay to disagree so long as we disagree agreeably.
II. The Leaders and the Congregation 14
Having stated the responsibilities of the church to its leaders, Paul now considers the duties of the leaders to the people. He offers four-fold job description for the leaders to follow: “And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” For those who don’t mind a dose of reality, here is the same verse from the Cotton Patch Version of Paul’s Epistles, “We encourage you, brothers, to straighten out the cantankerous, lend a hand to the spiritual runts, doctor the sickly, and get along with everybody.” Frankly, I like that version a lot better.
` 4. Warn the idle 14a
`The NIV has it, “Warn those who are idle.” Actually the other version is better: “Straighten out the cantankerous.” The Greek word is ataktous. It’s a military expression that means to break ranks, to get out of line. Demosthenes once used this word to describe those ancient Greeks who refused to serve their country. It refers to those who are undisciplined and irresponsible, soldiers who are idle because they are out of position.
In the church there are those who are ataktous. Some of them are spiritual draft-dodgers. Some are idlers, some are gossips, some are busybodies. They are unruly, irresponsible and undisciplined.
Paul says we are to “warn” them. A better word is “admonish.” This is an exceedingly strong Greek word. It literally means to “put into the mind.” When a brother or sister becomes unruly, Paul says we are to “put them in mind.” You might say we are to talk some sense into them.
It implies a personal, face-to-face confrontation, precisely the kind of situation most of us want to avoid at all costs. It is hard, painful, difficult work. It is very scary. In its barest form, it means to speak to someone about his conduct.
5. Encourage the timid 14b
If the first way is severe, this one is the opposite. Not everyone is unruly. Many are fainthearted. The word is very unusual. It literally means to be “small-souled.” This group of people is easily discouraged and despondent. They are overwhelmed by stress and burdened with problems. They are discouraged because the courage they need, they cannot find. It especially includes those who shrink before persecution, who fall under great temptation, who face trials at home, at work, at school, who find the Christian life one continual struggle.
Paul says we are to “encourage” them. That is, we are to put courage into them. The word means to appeal to the emotions. We would say it means to find these people and give them a little TLC—Tender Loving Care
6. Help the weak 14c
There is a third group of people you can serve in the church. Paul calls them “the weak.” It simply means those without strength. These are people who are a step beyond being fainthearted. They have completely run out of gas. They are the ones who are exhausted, burned out, wrung out and worn out. They are morally and spiritually and physically drained. They feel as if they cannot go on.
Often these are most easily overlooked. The weak drift in and then drift out and a growing church never sees them. They slip in late, sit toward the back, and slip out as soon as the service is over. They are on the periphery, looking, searching, hurting. The fainthearted were running strong and then were worn out. The weak never got in the race.
Paul says to “help” them. It means to “hold oneself over against.” It is a very close, intimate term. It means to cling to someone. Paul says, “Don’t let the weak go. Hold them tight. Don’t let them drift away. Pick them up and carry them along.”
7. Be patient with everyone 14d
There is yet one more way you can serve the Lord. Paul adds it lest anyone think that ministry to individuals is easy. It’s the last phrase in verse 14, “Be patient with everyone.” The word means to be long-tempered. It has the idea of being tough and durable under pressure. Be slow to anger, slow to give up. Don’t lose your patience as you help others. We must not give way to exasperation. (Sometimes I hear people say, “I lost my temper.” I want to reply, “You didn’t lose it, you found it!” Some of us need to lose our temper and never find it again.)
There are two problems we face whenever we try to help someone else:
1. Many people are slow to respond.
2. Others will refuse our help altogether.
When they are slow to respond, we tend to get discouraged. When they refuse our help, we tend to get disgusted. That’s what Paul is warning against.
Matthew Henry wrote these words 300 years ago. He said that when we try to help other people we:
“must not be high in our expectations
nor harsh in our resentments
nor hard in our impositions,
but endeavor to make the best we can of everything
and think the best we can of everybody.”
That fairly well sums it up.
Now if you don’t care and never get involved with others, this doesn’t apply to you. And if you only hang around the beautiful, clean, healthy types, you won’t need much patience.
But if we get involved with others, patience is our greatest need. Remember what Charlie Brown said: “I love the world. It’s people I can’t stand.” It’s easy to feel that way, so we need a great deal of patience.
III. Believers and Their Relationships 15-18
Paul goes on to give four exercises that cover our relationship with others. These words are exceedingly practical. “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else. Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” The first two go together, as do the last three.
8. Don’t seek revenge 15a
9. Be kind to everyone 15b
These words are revolutionary in their impact. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught us what this meant when he said, “If someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other cheek. If he takes your tunic, give him your cloak. If he compels you to go one mile, go the second mile for free” (see Matthew 5:38-42). This is more than non-retaliation, it is also the Golden Rule in action. Jesus taught us to pro-actively return good to those who have done us evil. For most of us, it will be all we can do not to smack someone in the face. To turn the other cheek is a truly supernatural act.
The next three commands speak of our relationship with God.
10. Rejoice always 16
11. Pray without ceasing 17
12. Give thanks in everything 18
(Do you know the shortest verse in the New Testament? Many people think it is “Jesus wept” (John 11:37). But that’s only true in the English version. In the Greek text “Rejoice always” is the shortest verse.)
Someone has called these three commands “the standing orders of the gospel.” They are “standing orders” because they always apply to every Christian in every situation. The Greek makes this very clear because these imperatives are all in the present tense. You could translate it “continually rejoice, continually pray, and continually give thanks.” The command that causes the greatest problem is the middle one—”pray without ceasing.” What exactly does that mean? The word translated “without ceasing” was used elsewhere for a persistent, hacking cough. If you tell someone that you are coughing all the time, it doesn’t mean you’re coughing every second, but it does mean that you are coughing repeatedly and continually. We are to pray like that—repeatedly and continually.
This is a great challenge, isn’t it? After all, we would have no problem if the text said,
“Give thanks when you feel like it.”
Thankful in All Circumstances
In fact, that’s the way most of us live—on the “sometimes, occasionally, when you feel it” plane of life. How do we rise to the higher level of “always,” “without ceasing,” and “everything?” I think the answer goes back to what we talked about last week—believing in the goodness of God all the time.
Last Monday we received an e-mail messages from the Kirschners, our missionaries in Nigeria. Greg and Carolyn serve Christ as medical missionaries at the Evangel Hospital in Jos. They live with the four children in a very difficult and sometimes dangerous area of the world. Yet they believe this is where God wants to be. After recounting many of the setbacks and heartaches that are routine to missionary work, they included this telling paragraph. As much as anything else, it explains how a person can rise to the level of giving thanks in every situation:
But what of those for whom the outcome is poor–can they find something to be thankful for? This morning the pastor at our ECWA church spoke on Phil 3:7-11. Paul here speaks of knowing Christ, both in the resurrection and in the fellowship of his suffering. What powerful words for every Christian! Are we really ready to be identified with the suffering Christ–to the point of our own suffering ? Nigerians frequently have a “Thanksgiving” offering, or even special service. These offerings are usually given by grateful members of the congregation–even
after a tragic event. Yes, in ALL things we are to give God our thanksgiving and gratitude. It is interesting that one of the standard greeting lines here is: Q: “How is the work?” A: “We thank God.”
I do not mean to suggest that this is easy, only that it is absolutely necessary. As hard as it may be to rejoice always, what is your alternative? To give in to despair and anger? If you refuse to give thanks in every situation, you are virtually saying that you know better than God how to run the universe. By giving thanks when we don’t feel like it, we are proclaiming that God’s wisdom is greater than ours. That simple act of giving thanks in the midst of sorrow and heartache is a testimony worth more than 10,000 words spoken when things are going well.
Early this week Mabel Scheck sent me a sweet message. Mabel has been part of our church for over 50 years. Several years ago the doctors told her she had cancer. Many of us prayed and with the help of the Lord the chemotherapy was effective and the cancer disappeared. Recently it has come back again and the long-term outlook is unclear. This was her comment to me:
We indeed do have a wonderful Lord and much, much to be thankful for. I am home for a few days and feeling good. Tuesday I meet with my doctor and if I am strong enough will continue the next round of chemo. If not we will wait another week but the treatments are to continue as long as possible.
I want to take this opportunity to thank all who have been praying for me, the wonderful encouraging cards and notes, the phone calls and visits from everyone. Thank you again!!!
There is a wonderful note of victory in those words. Mabel has learned to give thanks in every circumstance. Not even cancer can destroy her faith.
The Foundation of Gratitude
Let me share one more quote I ran across this week:
The foundation of gratitude is the expectation of nothing. If one expects nothing then anything is bonus If one expects more than he receives, then he is disappoint. We are so prone to complain because roses have thorns than to give thanks because thorns have roses.
There is profound insight in those words. Many of us complain about the thorns when we ought to give thanks for the roses. If we expected less, we would be more grateful. We complain because we think we deserve more than we have. “The foundation of gratitude is the expectation of nothing.”
“In everything give thanks.” How do we do this in a practical sense?
First, thank him for your blessings.
Second, thank him for how he has helped you in your trials.
Third, thank him for his presence every day.
Fourth, thank him for his promises for the future.
As a Christian, your whole life is to be one great, “Thank you, Lord.” This is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
IV. Believers and Spiritual Gifts 19-22
“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.” This final section deals with our response to the work of the Holy Spirit and the ministry of spiritual gifts. In Paul’s day there was great confusion in this area, and we are still confused today.
13. Don’t stifle the Holy Spirit 19
14. Don’t despise the preaching of the Word 20
15. Test everything carefully 21
16. Hold fast to good, reject every form of evil 22
Here we have a balanced approach to the question of supernatural experiences. On the positive side, don’t put out the Spirit’s fire. The Bible often uses the symbol of fire to picture the action of the Holy Spirit. Like a blazing fire, the Holy Spirit warms the heart, enlightens the mind, empowers the spirit, and burns away the dross of carnality. When the fire of the Spirit begins to move in a congregation, the results may be so supernatural that some believers may be tempted to “quench” the work of the Spirit.
How might that happen? First, you might do it by quenching the Spirit’s work in your own life. That happens whenever we say no to God. Perhaps He is calling you to take a step of faith, to follow His divine guidance, to move out of your comfort zone, to exercise your spiritual gifts in a brand-new way, to demonstrate the reality of forgiveness and reconciliation in a broken relationship. Saying “no” in those situations is like throwing cold water on the fire of the Holy Spirit. Don’t be surprised when your life begins to grow cold.
Second, you might do it by stopping the Spirit’s work in someone else’s life. I Corinthians 12 speaks of various manifestations of the Holy Spirit. It speaks of differing operations and differing gifts. This can be a risky concept because we aren’t all alike! God made you an absolutely unique creation. He gave you a combination of gifts, talents and abilities that He gave to no one else in all the world. It’s all too easy to become harsh and critical toward others believers who don’t see things exactly as we do. It’s perfectly legitimate to say that the Holy Spirit may work in your life differently than He may work in my life.
But that leads to a second question: Are we supposed to accept everything people say and do? The answer of course is no. To accept everything is to become naive and gullible. Which is why Paul says “Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” (I Thessalonians 5:21-22) The word “test” means to examine anything that purports to be from God to see if it is genuine. Hold fast to that which is good, i.e., in accordance with God’s standard of truth. Reject everything that either appears to be evil or produces an evil result.
We might paraphrase I Thessalonians 5:19-22 this way: “Be open to the work of the Spirit in the body through various gifted people. Examine everything carefully. Hold on to that which is good and true. Reject everything that is evil or produces evil.” To the grumpy, supercritical believer who is closed to the work of the Spirit, God says, “Be open.” To the gullible, untaught believer easily swayed by supposed supernaturalism, God says, “Be careful.” A balanced approach says, “Let the Spirit move freely in your midst and let everyone carefully examine the results.”
This standard is not hard to apply. Suppose you watch some TV preacher who claims to have a message from God. Test it. What if somebody comes to you and says, “I’ve got a message from God for you.” Test it. When a friend says, “I had a vision and this is what I think God wants us to do,” test it. That is what the Bible says. Test it. Don’t put out the Spirit’s fire. Don’t despise what the prophets say. But test everything. Hold onto the good. Reject that which is evil.
We have come to the end of our Christian Aerobics. These 16 exercises will make your soul strong. But I warn you—to live like this is not easy. Without Jesus it is impossible.
I don’t think I have mentioned my friend Ken Sibley to you. Ken and I grew up together in the same small town in Alabama. He was a freshmen in high school when I was a senior. In the twenty-six years since I graduated my path has taken me all over America. Ken chose to stay in Alabama. Consequently our paths have not crossed much. In fact, I think I’ve only seen him once the last 20 years or so. I knew that he had moved to Birmingham and was very successful in his field, which I think was related to real estate, but I’m not even sure about that.
Last year when I visited my home town, someone said, “Have you heard about Ken Sibley?” No, I hadn’t heard a word in years. A few months earlier he had noticed a slight slurring in his speech and some balance problems. Like most people he assumed it was stress-related. But when it didn’t go away, he went to the doctor who referred him to a neurologist who ran some tests. Eventually the diagnosis came back—ALS. Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It is the progressive atrophy of every muscle in the body. Someone has called it the exact opposite of Alzheimer’s Disease. When you have ALS, your mind stayed strong while your body slowly deteriorates. In the end you lose all muscle control and live imprisoned in you own body.
A few days ago another longtime friend sent me a message saying he had just seen Ken and that he hardly recognized him. He had trouble walking and could not talk at all. Would I send him an e-mail message? Yes, I would be glad to do that, but what do you say in such a circumstance, especially when you haven’t been in contact for many years? I simply told him I knew about his situation and would be praying for him.
Yesterday he replied by e-mail. Here is part of what he said.
I cannot speak but I get around still. I work 4-5 hour a day, drive, etc. This has been a 2 Chronicles 20 time in my life. I just stand back and watch the Lord fight the battle. As far as I know, no one has ever recovered from Lou Gehrig’s Disease. I plan on being the first unless God tells me different. I hope to keep cooperating with him and believing him to bring to pass his will as it is revealed. Thsee are difficult but exciting times. May I bring honor to him as I fight this disease and endeavor to keep a positive and hopeful attitude. Pray that I as in Psalm 25:15, Keep my eyes on the Lord and not my feet entagled in the hunter’s sname. Ray, we have a Lord who makes a way where there is no way. Now is the time where I see if I really believe that. Pray that I don’t fail him.
To live like this is not easy. In fact, it’s not natural at all. It’s easier give in to despair, to let your circumstances overwhelm you. As I read the words of my friend Ken Sibley I thought of 2 Corinthians 4: 16-17, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all”
He Came For Us
Today is the first Sunday Advent. These days leading up to Christmas remind us that Jesus left the glories of heaven for the squalor of earth. No one made him do it. If Jesus had been ashamed to associate with sinners, he would have stayed in heaven. He never would have set foot on the earth.
But he made the trip, didn’t he? Born in a manger, born in Bethlehem, born in obscurity, born like a servant and not like a king.
We weren’t beautiful, but he came for us.
We weren’t rich, but he came for us.
We weren’t clean, but he came for us.
We weren’t noble, but he came for us.
We weren’t healthy and whole, but he came for us.
We weren’t trustworthy, but he came for us.
We weren’t good, but he came for us.
We were a pretty miserable lot, but he came for us. We rewarded him by hanging him on a cross. And when he died, he died for us. And all our sins were laid on him. And that’s the Gospel truth.
No, it’s not easy to rejoice always and to give thanks in everything. It’s a long road from earth to heaven, and for some of us, the road is filled with bumps, potholes, endless delays and unexplained detours. But there is this recompsense. When we live this way, when we give thanks in the worst moments of life, we are gaining an eternal reward we can never lose.
By faith day by day—in good times and in bad, in strength and in weakness, in sickness and in health–we are following in the steps of the man who came from heaven. At least we know we’re not alone.
Lord Jesus, this kind of life is not natural. It is not in us to live this way. Yet you came from heaven to show us how to live supernaturally. You showed us how to live and you showed us how to die.
May your life flow through us this week so that no matter what happens we may be always rejoicing, continually praying, and giving thanks in everything.
Grant that our lives might be one loud “Thank you, Lord” for all the world to hear. Amen.