The young man standing at my door bore only a slight resemblance to the pudgy little kid that used to live next door. Now twenty-two and serving our nation in the military, this young man had the look of a well-chiseled frame, taught of muscle and sharp in features. I could scarcely see in his eyes the youth and uncertainty that once marked his steps. This was no kid; he was now a US Marine.
I wonder… How did those who were engaged in making Marines out of our boys manage to press deep disciplines into undisciplined, sloppily-dressed apathetic youths? They took them through what has come to be known as “basic training.” They worked to transform these young men with rigorous training, discipline and constant contests against each other and their own lazy inclinations. They tested, tried, taunted and troubled them into transformation of mind and body. They repeated exercises until muscles responded in memory when the brain was still mostly asleep. I don’t know much about the process, but there is the one this anyone who passes through the experience can tell you: Discipline comes at a price. No one becomes well-trained in a passive and unintentional environment.
Dear ones, I have been spending time with believers in a number of places. God is at work in many corners of our planet, and I am blessed to be a part of many things far larger than I ever could have imagined. The believers I have been with come from many parts of the world, and they don’t all share the same experiences, cultures, languages and politics. Yet, it is clear to me as I journey that I am encountering many of the same attitudes and practices no matter where I turn. Out of a heart of concern, I say to you that I believe the world is impacting the believer, in many cases, far more than the believers are impacting the world. Collectively and individually, our salt is in danger of losing its saltiness.
I know that most of you know this basic truth of Scripture:
Believers are called, first and foremost to be “distinct” (the meaning of the word “holy” in Scripture).
When we lose that distinctiveness in look and sound, the “salt loses its savor” and becomes worthless for the purpose of witness and impact on our world. It offers nothing to flavor the world that is unique. Though our worth to God is not in question, our worth in witness is reduced to bland mimicry of the world’s ways. Let’s say it this way: No good cook reaches for salt shakers filled with beach sand to flavor the stew.
How can we go back to the training we received in the beginning to help us recover our individual paths of transformation? That is the question I want to explore for the moments we have together.
Maybe the place to begin is where instruction in our faith began. To that end, I want to look back at where the writings of Paul began to instruct the church to begin their impact on the world around them – by allowing the Spirit to transform them from within. I want to look briefly at his first two letters that were addressed to the Thessalonian believers of the first century. Here is what I believe will become obvious from our study…
Key Principle: The call of the believer is to cling to Jesus while His Spirit transforms us to a distinctiveness we cannot achieve on our own.
Drop your eyes into 1 Thessalonians for a few minutes. In the time allotted, I cannot offer a deeply detailed study, but I am not persuaded that is truly necessary to make the point Paul wanted us to take away.
Transformation by the Spirit can and does happen. It doesn’t always take ions of time and volumes of copious notes. It does, however, take intentional and focused submission to Jesus as we let Him lead us.
Paul’s first epistles opened with simple reminders of the authors and their intended recipients (1 Thessalonians 1:1 and 2 Thessalonians 1:1)
“Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
It is worth recalling that this wasn’t a tiny country village off the beaten track, but rather the capital and largest city of the Roman province of Macedonia. Located on the Egnatian Way, a major road from Rome to the eastern provinces, the city served as center of trade and commerce.
We know about the beginnings of this church.
The establishment of the church is recorded in Acts 17:1-9. This was on Paul’s incredibly difficult second missionary journey, He and his companions (Silas and Timothy) had just left Philippi and passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia to arrive at Thessalonica. As was his custom, Paul immediately located the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews for three Sabbaths concerning Jesus Christ. While some of them were persuaded, including a great number of devout Greeks and leading women, the unbelieving Jews became jealous and created uproar within the city. It became necessary to send Paul and Silas away secretly by night to the city of Berea, almost one hundred fifty (150) miles away!
Despite ominous beginnings, a strong church was established in Thessalonica (cf. 1:2-10). Mostly Gentile (cf. 1:9), its members included Jason (Ac 17:9), Aristarchus, and Secundus (Ac 20:4).
In spite of their initial troubles, Paul tried to open each letter (one written shortly after the other) with something “upbeat.” Listen to how positive his words were, considering the shortness of their time to get underway:
1 Thessalonians 1:2 We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; 3 constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ…
5 for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction…
6 You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit…
Leaders need to see past the troubles into the joys. Good leaders highlight the good things. They see the problems, but they also balance that with God’s good hand in the midst of the struggle. Paul demonstrated that.
We know about the specific circumstances surrounding the letters.
From the letter itself (1 Thess. 3:1-6), and the record of Paul’s travels in Acts (Ac 17:10-18:11), it appears that Paul wrote this letter soon after arriving in Corinth on his second journey. This would put it somewhere around 52 CE, when Paul was in his late 40’s in age. His concerns were used by God to ignite his writing career, and give us the bulk of the New Testament by his life’s end.
It is obvious when reading, that his abrupt and forced departure from Thessalonica so soon after the beginning of the church left Paul anxious about the condition of the brethren in that city. When Timothy joined Paul at Athens (cf. Acts 17:14-16), his concern prompted Paul to send Timothy at once back to Thessalonica to encourage and ground the new disciples in the faith, and to learn how they were enduring persecution (cf. 3:1-5). When Timothy returned to Paul in Corinth (cf. Ac 18:5), the news was mostly encouraging (cf. 1 Thess. 3:6-7).
Despite persecution they had remained strong (1 Thess. 2:13-16), and even proved themselves to be an example to others (1 Thess. 1:6-8). Yet, as with any young church, they needed further instruction concerning holy living and the work of Jesus in them.
We know about the problems they were facing.
The letters made clear issues were lurking beneath the surface. The three most prominent problems in Thessalonica were persecution, confusion and discouragement.:
In 1 Thessalonians 2 and 2 Thessalonians 1, Paul noted the church barely got started, and was swamped with persecutors and problems – they needed confidence that God understood their problem.
One of the most powerful attacks of the enemy is PERSECUTION. It is not simply the act of beating down believers that he uses. He seeks to get believers stirred with a rage of injustice in order to get them to doubt God’s reality or perhaps question God’s true goodness. Troubles make us impatient at best, cynical at worst. This is an old ploy – and the enemy has used it since the beginning of the church. Because people are against your message does not mean that the message is wrong. It may mean their hearts are the problem. If you look closely, the condition of the attackers hearts will become apparent.
Paul made clear God is not unaware of the unfair attacks believers suffer – He simply awaits the proper time to respond. This is the nature of 2 Thessalonians 1. Be careful of being led away from sharing Jesus because of the injustice of an irrational lost world. It is a trick. Judgment will come in due course – but not until the last man, woman or child is reached by a sharing believer! If we allow ourselves to get stirred up, love will dissipate, and anger will suppress our call to obedience.
In our world, “wrong” (as defined by God’s Word) will be called “right.” God will be mocked by mutineers. People will make outrageous charges against the people of the truth – and allow others who are clearly sinister to walk by untouched by accusation. We must anticipate it, and we dare not allow ourselves to be distracted by it. God promised His unending presence; not unabated fairness.
By the time of 2 Thessalonians 2, it seems some were shaken by a false letter and forged explanations of eschatology that were designed to throw them off track of following the truth – they needed clarification of what Paul already taught them.
The enemy loves CONFUSION in the church. Sometimes it is the muddling of false doctrine that emerges from improper use of the text of Scripture. Sometimes it is the elevation of false scripture – or the relentless charges against the true Word of God. Still other times, it is the misguided and poorly formed teaching of a wayward pulpit. After two thousand years, the enemy has played a role in all of these.
Both letters show that some were upset and distracted by undisciplined and disorderly Christians, who were not living the truth – they needed a charge to make certain their responses.
This third attack invokes DISCOURAGEMENT. It is hard to serve God when you see so many believers that act with disregard to the Word and God’s Spirit! Paul ascribed the bad behavior in the wayward as undisciplined behavior. He didn’t simply call them lazy, he argued that proper disciplines in life that were essential to obedience were simply lacking – and that resulted in dependencies on others that were not right.
In the letters, I could seven direct calls toward transformation. That doesn’t cover every detail of the two epistles, but it does give the essentials to the basic training in the first of the manuals given to the church by God.
Seven Calls to Transformation
Drop directly into 1 Thessalonians 4, where Paul picked up on the opening instructions of seven points of transformation, and look at their purpose:
1 Thessalonians 4:1 Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. 2 For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.
There it is! The clear purposes of each letter was to:
• Make a special request: erōtáō (from eromai, “ask”) – make an earnest request, especially by someone in a “preferred position” – as Paul obviously was.
• As well as offer a special encouragement: parakaléō (from pará, “from close-beside” and kaléō, “to call”) – properly, “make a call” while being “close-up and personal.”
• The point of these personal requests were that they “excel more” (perisseúō: meaning “to exceed previous levels”) in a holy (distinctive) walk.
Don’t miss that verse two says the commands came from Jesus (1 Thess. 4:2) so they were essential.
What were they? Follow the line of his writings in the rest of the first epistle and in the second letter as well.
Call One: Live in Distinctive Purity
Paul started with the believers surrendered use of their body for God’s purposes. He wrote:
1 Thessalonians 4:3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, 5 not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God … 8 So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you.
Sexual freedom as defined by our society is a masquerade for godless, pagan, rebellion. It isn’t rejection of the church – it is the rejection of God’s right to be God. He made us. He called us to define right and wrong NOT BY OUR FALLEN DESIRES but by His carefully stated and illustrated Word.
I plead with you if you know Christ today to learn to curb the desires of your body and walk in obedience to Jesus Christ. One million years from now, you will celebrate that victory. Don’t excuse your bad behavior by your desires. We all have them. They shouldn’t define you, nor should they control you. You and I are called to be different than the world around us.
Call Two: A Call to Distinctive Focus
If you keep reading, Paul offered a second word – and this one is about the sparkling objects to which we most pay attention. This one is about where we focus…
1 Thessalonians 4:10b “…But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more, 11 and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, 12 so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.
We live in a time when many will spend hours surfing the web and picking up causes over which they can fume. They will read about injustice. They will read about abuses. They will fall into the negative trap of believing that offering an opinion is what will change the world.
The believer should spend more time loving the girl who got pregnant out of wedlock and drawing her to Jesus than protesting Planned Parenthood. The latter deserves to be derided, but not more than caring for the people in our lives. Get busy doing more than criticizing what is wrong with our world. I would humbly suggest the world has more critics than it needs already. Get involved in something that stirs your heart and make a difference. Work hard. Be a person with that reputation. You and I are called to be different than the world around us.
Call Three: A Call to Distinct Understanding
Paul kept the fire hot and wrote…
1 Thessalonians 4:13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. … 15 …we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive [n]and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words. 5:1 Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. 2 For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. … 6 so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. …11 Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing.
Believers are to understand the times we live in. Some of us will die, but the body sown in the ground will get recycled at the coming of Jesus. Jesus can deal with all of it when He returns, and HE WILL RETURN. It will be sudden, when the world has tossed aside the idea that He ever came, let alone the idea that He will return.
Because we know He is coming again, we should be encouraged. We should be watchful. We should care about how we use our time, our talent and our treasure. We only have what we have because He gave it to us. You and I are called to be different than the world around us.
Call Four: A Call to Distinct Gratefulness
Look for a moment at the reminder of how we should sound concerning those God has given us to serve with in the Kingdom…
1 Thessalonians 5:12 But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, 13 and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work.
Paul noted the way to do that is:
• 13b “…Live in peace with one another.
• 14b “…admonish the unruly.
• 14b “…encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone.
• 15 See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people.
• 16 Rejoice always;
• 17 pray without ceasing;
• 18 in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
• 19 Do not quench the Spirit;
• 20 Do not despise prophetic utterances. 21 But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good;
• 22 Abstain from every form of evil.
What if believers lived out those truths? What if the people of our churches focused on getting along instead of sharing dirt behind the scenes? What if we lovingly built relationships where correction wasn’t a mallet, but an act of love? You and I are called to be different than the world around us.
Call Five: A Call to Distinct Courage
Paul offered in 2 Thessalonians 1 some inspiration to oppressed and persecuted Christians as he wrote these words:
2 Thessalonians 1: 5 [This is] a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you will be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering. 6 For after all it is [only] just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and [to give] relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire…
He noted that believers must “take heart” in persecution?
If the days grow dark, we are to keep growing and know that our testimony is enhanced by the testing of persecution. We must learn to be settled in recognizing that God will deal with those who are hurting you (1:6). We have to remember that the Magnificent One is on His way! (1:10). We have to understand that God will use your lives powerfully to glorify Jesus (1:11-12). Ask the Coptic Christians that withstood fear in the face of Muslim Brotherhood. Ask the Iraqi believers who endured the horror of ISIS.
Massive numbers of followers of Jesus have sprung from those events. Though pushed out of some places in the Middle East, there are plenty of new congregations and believers. We have to be courageous. We have to stand firm. We have to stop trying to appease evil. You and I are called to be different than the world around us.
Call Six: A Call to Distinct Commitment
Paul offered instruction to perplexed Christians with this simple command:
2 Thessalonians 2:1 Now we request you… 2 that you not be quickly shaken …or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. 3 Let no one in any way deceive you, for [it will not come] unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, … 7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains [will do so] until he is taken out of the way. … 11 For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false… 15 So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught…
Believers are called to recognize that God clearly holds our future in His hands!
When trouble came, they tried to decide if they were in the wrath of the “Day of the Lord” – but they weren’t (2 Thess. 2:1-2). Knowing the Word and resting in its surety would have saved them much in anxiety. Paul made clear that first came the “snatching away” and then the “Man of Sin” would be revealed (2:3).
The Greek noun “apostasia” is used twice in the New Testament (here and Acts 21:21 referencing Paul as “teaching Jews among the Gentiles to forsake (apostasia) Moses.” The term is “apo” or from and “istemi” “stand” with a core meaning of “departure”. The Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon defines “apostasia” as either “a defection or revolt” or a “departure or disappearance.” Is this the rapture of the church? Is this the falling away of the church? I cannot say for sure, though I have an opinion.
The point is that we are called to understand the times based on the revealed truths of the Word. God isn’t playing games, and times must be seen through the glass of the Word.
What is clear is there is a restraint on the lawlessness that is growing, and will come to an explosion when the end comes. (2:4-7). Lawlessness means “making up our own rules.” The pressure is building, and that shouldn’t surprise us – but there is a God-ordained restraint upon him right now. Don’t be dismayed, Jesus will deal with his power! (2:8). The enemy will work, and God will dull minds, but it will all be dealt with in the coming judgment (2:9-12). Be thankful with us that God has called us to rescue and deliverance! (2:13-17). Don’t let discouragement over the behaviors you see take over your heart. You and I are called to be different than the world around us.
Call Seven: A Call to Distinct Discipline
At the heart of Paul’s “Injunctions to disorderly Christians” he the need to deal with the unruly in the church. Many will be the voices that suggest we should ignore bad behavior because we don’t want to come off as “judgy.” Here is what the Word says:
2 Thessalonians 3: 6 Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we [kept] working night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you; 9 not because we do not have the right [to this], but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, so that you would follow our example…
There will always be wayward ones in our world. Paul made clear:
• Back away from them during their disobedience (3:6).
• Keep walking in discipline and work hard (3:7).
• Don’t try to get things from others for free – work hard (3:8-10).
• Remember that people need productive work to do or they will multiply sinful behaviors (3:11).
• Recognize that practical instruction is part of the work of the church (3:12).
• Don’t tire of doing right and walking in obedience (3:13-14a).
• If someone won’t follow the Word, mark them and admonish them in brotherly affection (3:14b-15).
The point is clear: The call of the believer is to cling to Jesus while His Spirit transforms us to a distinctiveness we cannot achieve on our own.
Before we are finished, let’s hear two warnings:
First, while we are called to walk well, I won’t hesitate to remind you, that isn’t our ultimate focus. In fact, if we focus on doing right, our works will be good. If we focus on walking with Him, that relationship will help us begin to understand holiness – true distinctiveness. The two do not end in the same place because they come from a different place. One is rooted in accomplishment; the other builds on relationship.
Second, Jesus said that when He left, He sent the Spirit of God to work in the LOST to bring conviction. (John 16:8-9). Look at what a comfort that truth is!
• We do not ARGUE people into the Kingdom of God.
• We don’t PROTEST them into the throne room of the King.
• We don’t SHAME them into following Jesus.
We teach His Word – and do it with love and grace. We accept their harsh words, as those who “know not what they are doing” but stand unapologetically by the Word of the King.
How does that “weak” and “unaggressive” method work in such a “dog eat dog” world? It works incredibly well – because we have the privilege of laboring beside the powerful partner of the Spirit of God.