Good News for Unfinished People

Before I went into full-time ministry I worked as a Fitter-Turner. If you don’t know what that is, it’s a person who makes parts out of steel so that they fit exactly into other steel parts so that machines and devices and other equipment work properly. One thing that I miss about that job was seeing the results of a finished product. I’d take a piece of steel and I’d cut and form and shape it until it was perfectly sized for the job it needed to do. Then my foreman would say, “nice job Peter” and take it and give it to a customer who would look at it and say, “how do you guys make stuff like that?” There’s a great feeling of satisfaction that goes with that.

I don’t have that same sense of satisfaction in my present job. I have a pile of projects – all really good kingdom projects that are sitting on my desk. None of them are complete. I have plans I’m working on with the elders for a new leadership structure for our church. That’s not complete. Then there are all the people under my spiritual care. They are also a work in progress. None of them are complete either.

The truth is, there is something comforting and reassuring to know that we are a work in progress isn’t there? We are far from perfect. We make mistakes. We make promises and then fail to keep them. We place high expectations on ourselves (and others) and fail to meet them. Our love for God fluctuates and our obedience to God vacillates. It’s a wonder that God puts up with any of us.

And yet he does. God loves the people he created – in spite of their flaws and sin. But God has a special love for those who are his own. He adopts them into his family. He calls them his sons and daughters. He has set his seal upon them; he says, “I have redeemed you; you are now mine.” But it doesn’t stop there. God says, “Now I am going to change you, I’m going to transform you and make you whole.”

This truth is powerfully portrayed by way of a prayer by the Apostle Paul at the end of a letter he wrote to the believers in Thessalonica. He writes,

“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely. And may your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will do it.” (1 Thess 5:23–24)

Paul begins with the ultimate source, strength and security of our sanctification. It’s not us. He doesn’t say, “Lord, would you help them as they try as best they can to make themselves holy.” No, he says, “May the God of peace sanctify you completely.” Sanctification is the work of God.

Paul desires that God would sanctify the Thessalonians completely (or “entirely” or “wholly” as other translations have it). It’s a very rare word in the New Testament. It comes from two Greek words – holos, from which we get holistic (like holistic medicine), and telos, which means the end, or completion. When you put the two together – holoteles, you get something which means “whole, to the end, all the way through.” The NIV perhaps has the best translation of this – “may the God of peace sanctify you through and through.”

That’s not all. It gets better. Paul arranges all these Greek words in a chiastic structure. Hang in there now, I’ll explain. A chiasm (derived from the Greek letter X) is a literary device where a sequence of ideas are presented and then repeated in reverse order. The result is a “mirror” effect as ideas are reflected back for emphasis.

Let me give you a couple of examples: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” That’s a chiasm. The words “going” and “tough” are repeated in reverse order in the second half of the sentence. The word “tough” is at the centre for emphasis. Jesus’ words in Mark 2:27, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” is a chiasm. The words “Sabbath” and “man” are repeated in reverse order, with “man” at the centre. Man is what matters to God, not Sabbath rules. It’s a simple, yet very clever and effective device to drive a point home.

Now watch how Paul uses it in 1 Thessalonians 5:23. Here is how the verse is arranged in Greek:

Starting at the top and bottom we have God, the source and power of our sanctification, beginning where we are in the present and culminating with the return of Jesus. Coming in one line you have “sanctify” and “blameless” which are synonymous so they are mirrored. Then we have “you” mirrored with “spirit, soul and body.” At the very centre is Paul’s focus which is believers being sanctified completely, entirely – “through and through.”

You’re probably thinking, “That’s marvellous Peter. 10 points – you passed your Greek exam. But what does it mean?” It means that the God is so utterly committed to this process of sanctification that no part of you will go untouched, no area will be unaffected, no fragment of your life – no matter how damaged or broken or marred will be ignored. When God gave up his Son on the cross to save you, he was committed to rescuing and redeeming every single part of you.

You know, as well as I do, there are parts of our lives we’ve given up on. We just can’t fix them, no matter how hard we try. God’s got them. He’s going to fix them. There are certain bodily afflictions or disabilities we might have, or there are mental deficiencies we might struggle with such as depression or some other disorder. God is going to heal those disorders fully. There are certain besetting sins or weaknesses you’ve been trying to overcome and some of you have given up. God’s not giving up. He’s committed. And I tell you, if you’re a true Christian – if you belong to Jesus, the Spirit of God is going to prod you and poke you and trouble you over that weakness because God wants you to know HE will never give up.

When God sets about the work of saving and sanctifying a person my friends, he saves and sanctifies them to the uttermost. That’s Paul’s point of the “spirit, soul and body” part. There are all these theological arguments as to whether Paul is a trichotomist (we are made up of three parts: body and spirit and soul) or a dichotomist (we are made up of only two parts: body and spirit/soul). But honestly, who really cares? Paul’s point is when it comes to God’s saving work in us, no part is left untouched. No area goes unscathed. You might give up on God, but he will never give up on you.

Does that encourage you? Does that give you hope? I tell you; it gives me great hope.

Since the day I became a Christian, I entered into battle; I entered into war with the world, my flesh and the devil. There are certain sins – flaws, weaknesses, and habits that continue to plague me today. There are certain bodily appetites that, if not controlled, work to overtake and control me. It’s tempting sometimes, to want to give up. But God’s Word keep driving me forward.

Paul says in Philippians 3:12,Not that I have already reached the goal or am already perfect…” “I haven’t attained it,” he says. “I’m not there yet.” “But I make every effort to take hold of it because I also have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus.” Do you see? Jesus has a hold of me, so I’m taking hold of his claim on me. I don’t give up or give in. I press on. Forgetting what is behind I reach forward to what is ahead. I press on.

Finally, Paul ends with the words,

“He who calls you is faithful; he will do it.” (verse 24)

Those are encouraging words for weary saints, aren’t they? I love how the NASB puts this: “Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.”

Do you know what Paul is saying? He’s saying, “I’m praying something I know will be answered. Because God is the one sanctifying you, I know this is a done deal.” How do you know that Paul? “Because God is faithful.”

“Those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified.” (Romans 8:30)

God is faithful. He is dependable. And he is powerful. What he starts he always finishes. I am sure of this,” says Paul, “that he who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6) What God promises he always fulfils. He’ll be faithful to hold you up. He’ll be faithful not to allow you to be tempted beyond what you can handle. He’ll be faithful to keep you.

When it comes to sanctification, don’t depend on your own cleverness and strength. Depend instead on the power and promises of God.

 

 

Don’t put out the Spirit’s fire

We’re all familiar with the imagery of fire. We use fire for cooking and heating, smelting and forging, and many other purposes. Fire, in a controlled form, is a welcomed commodity in our world. This is another form of fire however, that is not welcomed, and that is the kind that we have seen raging through parts of Australia over the past few months. That kind of fire, in an uncontrolled state, can be deadly and must be put out.

In the bible, God is often portrayed as fire. There’s that famous scene in Exodus 3 where God appears to Moses in the burning bush. Later he appears on top of Mount Sinai in fire and smoke. He appears to the people of Israel in the wilderness as a pillar of fire which guided them by night. On the day of Pentecost, when the church was birthed and the Holy Spirit came and filled Jesus’ followers, there appeared tongues of fire on top of the heads of each one of them. The symbolism was clear: God’s presence, which once filled the tabernacle and temple, now fills the people of the new covenant.

Today, every follower of Christ has God’s Spirit indwelling and filling them, empowering them for ministry and enabling them to live the Christian life. Paul reminds Timothy of this in 2 Timothy 2:6 when he says, “I remind you, rekindle the gift of God that is in you.” In other words, the fire is there Timothy – throw some more wood on it, get it started again, it’s low. Paul gives a similar command to the Thessalonians when he says to them, “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thess 5:19). Or as the NIV puts it, “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire.”

The Holy Spirit wants to operate with the power of his presence among us. He wants to inflame our hearts with a hunger for God and his Word. He wants us to be eager to experience his gifts at work in our midst. Paul is warning us not to go the way of the proverbial “bucket brigade” and douse his activity due to ignorance or fear.

So, what are some of the ways that we could stifle or quench the Holy Spirit – both personally (in our own lives) and corporately (in the life of the church)?

Ways in which we can quench the Holy Spirit

1. First and most obviously, we stifle the Spirit when we say “no” to God.
The Holy Spirit is at work in you, prompting you and enabling you to obey God. When you disobey, you resist the Spirit’s work. You grieve him.

2. Another way in which we stifle or quench the Spirit is by harbouring sin.
The Holy Spirit is often likened to light. He shines into the innermost recesses of our lives. He uses God’s Word to expose our sin so that we might confess and repent of it. Then he points us to Christ. When we refuse to have our sin and unbelief exposed, we are like the unbelieving Jews that Stephen rebuked in Acts 7:51 who were always resisting the Holy Spirit.

 3. We quench the Spirit when we rely on any resource other than the Holy Spirit for anything we do in life and ministry.
Any attempt to depend on human philosophy, worldly wisdom, and man-made strategies and techniques to improve our Christian life or our churches, we stifle the Spirit’s work. And we see plenty of that going on today. There has been a marked shift in the church away from prayer and the preaching of God’s Word toward an experience-focused, man-centred spirituality. Any talk about sin is avoided. It’s all about feeling better about ourselves. This is contrary to what the Spirit is trying to achieve, which is to expose sin and point us to our only solution: the gospel. The results are telling. Our churches are filled with Christians who are spiritually malnourished and ill-equipped to deal with the difficulties of life.

 4. Another way we quench the Spirit is when we start directing or legislating his supernatural activity in the church.
The Holy Spirit must never be dictated to. We never tell him what he can and cannot do. This applies, I believe, to cessationists who teach that the miraculous gifts of prophecy, miracles, healing and speaking in tongues ceased with the completion of the canon (the 66 books of the bible) of Scripture. Did the Spirit of God tell us that? Do we find that in Scripture? It’s a popular view and an easy way to deal with charismatic excesses. But aren’t we at the same time in danger of stifling the Spirit’s activity?

5. We quench or put out the Spirit’s fire when we despise prophetic utterances.
In Thessalonians 5:20, Paul says, “Don’t despise prophecies.” There are many different views among Christians as to what the gift of prophecy entails. But whatever it is, when prompted by the Holy Spirit, it must not be rejected or treated with contempt. Our temptation, whenever we see a particular spiritual gift being abused, is to shut it down and forbid its use. But Paul gives us a better solution in the very next verse. He says, “Test all things” (1 Thess 5:21) and “hold on to what is good.” The gift of prophecy must be weighed and tested (1 Cor 14:29-31). The spirit of the prophets must always be subject to the prophets (14:32). God has liberally given to his church spiritual gifts of wisdom and knowledge and discernment. If we wisely utilized these gifts and the people who have them, we will be able to carefully filter out what is from God and what is not.

6. We quench the Holy Spirit also whenever we suppress or discourage heartfelt emotions and affections in worship.
This is prevalent in more conservative churches. It might be subtle, but it is there. You can sense it in their worship services. Paul says in Ephesians 5:18-19, “Don’t get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless living, but be filled by the Spirit: speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music with your heart to the Lord.”

There is a joy and vibrancy and freedom of expression when the Holy Spirit has his way in the life of a believer. John Piper comments, “If you disapprove of those expressions – when people are raising their hands or closing their eyes in response to God; if you fold your arms and say, ‘I’m not joining in that – I’m not doing that kind of thing’ – you may very well be quenching the Spirit.” There was a time in my Christian life – I’m ashamed to say it, that I did that. I looked down on my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who were enjoying the presence of God. Then God convicted me of this. He showed me I was sinning. I changed. I became more open to God’s Spirit working in me.

Conclusion

Perhaps you’re thinking, “All this talk about the Holy Spirit makes me feel uneasy. It might open the door for abuse and excess.” There’s a lot of things about God that makes me feel uneasy – believe me! I think we all need to ask the question: what or who are we trusting? God’s wisdom or our own? Do we know better than God?

It is not good enough to take the conservative road and do a ‘let’s play it safe’ – not allowing for certain gifts of the Spirit simply because, ‘we don’t want that sort of thing here.’ Paul would have very strong words to say to us. That’s resisting the Spirit’s work in our midst. We don’t want that. We desperately need his presence and power – in our preaching, our witnessing, our worshipping and our Christian living. On the other hand, we must not throw caution to the wind and allow for any and everything that claims to be of the Spirit. Because the Spirit is working through fail, fallible people, everything must be tested.

As one pastor I read said, the path God calls us to walk is marked by eager anticipation of the Spirit’s work coupled with careful discernment. May that be the testimony of all our churches, not only today but for generations to come.

A Christmas Journey

What would it look like to step back in time to the first Christmas? Who would you meet? What would you see? This December, we are going to do the impossible – we can take you there. You’ll enter a time capsule that will transport them back in time over 2000 years ago to the land of Israel. You will be led on a tour by a Centurion to a discovery of a lifetime. You will experience the sights and smells and sounds of a Bethlehem marketplace. You will hear from angels and shepherds; Mary and Joseph and get to experience the Christmas story as it is told in the bible. You’ll be amazed as they see it all come to life.

When The Christmas Journey production was first launched two years ago, there was a huge response from the public. Something resonated in the hearts of people seeing an ancient story come to life. Things they had heard by way of stories and Christmas carols (if they’re lucky) came to life. Disjointed bible quotes and bible characters came together in a way that was coherent and understandable. When it came to the final scene, with Mary holding baby Jesus in her arms, singing about who he really is and what it all means, many were brought to tears.

This year we’ve made some changes. Previously, the journey began with a Centurion’s greeting and an announcement about a mysterious star he had seen in the sky. Then people would be led to the first scene with Isaiah the prophet foretelling Jesus’ birth (Isaiah 7:14), followed by a scene with Mary greeting Elizabeth (Luke 1). For someone who was familiar with the Christmas story, it was great. For someone who was not, it would seem a little strange and detached. Hundreds of years separate those two scenes. For a lot of people, that would have gone right over their heads. So, we decided we needed to go back to the drawing board and put some of our best creative minds to work.

We needed a lead-in to help people see we were portraying history, not a Disney story. These events actually happened and were the fulfilment of hundreds of years of bible prophecy. So how do you transport people from 2019 to 700 BC and then forward to the start of AD? Answer: a time capsule. The visiting group is now greeted by an air hostess who invites them to take their seats in a time machine. Once seated, they watch on a big screen a clock spin back in time revealing past events in New Zealand and around the world they will be familiar with. Suddenly the clock goes out of control, over-shooting the target of 0 AD to 700 BC. That’s how we get Isaiah the prophet in there. The hostess apologises for the “error” and the clock goes forward to where it should be. The group is then led out of the capsule to meet the centurion in the land of Israel.

We think it’s important that people understand the difference between fact and fiction; reality and fantasy. We are portraying real people who actually lived and real events that occurred in time and a place. As for the miraculous and mysterious components, such as the virgin birth and divine nature of Jesus, and the repercussions of all that for each and every one of us today, that is for people to ponder over for themselves.

How about you? Do you know how the first Christmas came about? Do you know why it matters to us today? If not, would you like to know? If you’re keen to explore its meaning without committing to anything, and if religion and ‘church’ is not your thing, then you are the perfect candidate to come along. If you live anywhere near Nelson, I’d encourage you to book for a tour, while there is still space: (https://gracechurch.brushfire.com/TCJ2019/459364). Bring your family – bring a friend, for an experience of Christmas you won’t find anywhere else.

And look out for me. I’ll be in a Centurion’s uniform.

 

Joy amidst a miserable week

My week started off badly. I woke up Sunday morning not quite feeling right. By the time I arrived at the pre-service prayer meeting I felt dizzy in the head. Halfway through the message my nose started running and wouldn’t stop.

Fortunately, I wasn’t the one preaching that day. Nevertheless, I felt awful. I put on a brave face at our church café lunch, drove home, took some Panadol and crawled into bed. Two and half hours later I woke up, drank a glass of water and got ready for our monthly “Coffee with the Pastor” at our house. It’s a voluntary thing – sometimes new people show up; sometimes they don’t. This day I was secretly hoping it would be the latter. The problem is, the Lord knows our secrets! I checked my attitude and uttered a quick prayer: Lord, if you want someone here tonight, that’s OK. Just please give me the strength to bear it. When I opened my eyes there was a knock at the door. That answers that prayer. Afterwards, my wife said how amazed I did. “No one would have guessed you weren’t well,” she said. “You even had me fooled.”

I’ve experienced this before. I’ve felt miserable and wondered how on earth I would be able to function preaching or leading a meeting, prayed for God’s strength, and just for that period of time he gives the grace I need to accomplish that task. Then I go back to feeling how I was before. I expect the Apostle Paul experienced the same. That guy was a machine. Yet he must have got sick (surely?). He never mentions it, so I figure a lot of the time he pushed on through, leaning like I did on God’s grace.

I woke up Monday morning (feeling no better than the day before) and looked at my text that I needed to prepare to preach on for this coming Sunday.

Rejoice always,
Pray constantly,
Give thanks in everything; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
(1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Any pastor worth his salt knows he cannot preach what he’s not putting into practice (though some do, to their own peril). So there I am, feeling sick as a dog, with what feels like a hydraulic press behind my eyes squeezing my sinuses, staring at a command in the bible that tells me I need to rejoice always, pray constantly and give thanks in everything.

Great. Marvellous. I can hardly wait to start.

Then I looked again:

“for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

  • This is God’s will for you, even when you have to prepare a sermon when you are sick
  • This is God’s will for you, even when you got hurt by someone you love
  • This is God’s will for you, even when you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer
  • This is God’s will for you, even when there’s no money in the account to pay the next bill
  • This is God’s will for you, even when you are feeling discouraged and have lost all hope
  • In your deepest, darkest hour, this is still God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

How can this be? There are times when it is humanly impossible to obey these commands. No one – not even Jesus could do this! (actually, he could and did, but that’s another story). The answer is when God gives an impossible command, he also provides the enablement for that command when faith is active.

Let’s take the first command, “Rejoice always.” My knee-jerk reaction is to say, “That’s impossible, especially in the condition I am right now.” But instead, I say, “Lord I know what you are commanding, and what you are commanding is humanly impossible, so I am trusting in you to produce this joy in me.” Then I step out in faith. So, in my case, while my head is throbbing and I am feeling miserable, I say with the Psalmist, “the nearness of my God is my good… my flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart (and my aching head) and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:28,26).

The result is joy – deep joy.

Joy is not the same as happiness. Happiness is dependent on happenings or happenstance. Something “happens” that makes us feel good and so we are happy, for that moment. Joy is altogether different. It’s on another level – a divine level. Joy is found in God. As David said in Psalm 16 verse 11, “In your presence is abundant joy; at your right hand are eternal pleasures.”

There is no event or circumstance that can occur in your life if you are Christian, that can steal away your joy. It might make you unhappy, but it won’t take away your joy. Why? Because joy – the joy produced by the Holy Spirit, rises above our circumstances and sufferings. The Apostle Paul puts it this way, “As sorrowful, but always rejoicing.” (2 Cor 6:10).

The more you are grounded in the Word of God, the more you will experience this joy. You’ll get to understand God’s ways. You’ll understand his plans. You’ll understand his will. You look at all his promises and say to yourself, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). This will give you strength and stability and confidence to face whatever you have to face, knowing that no matter what, God is in control and has the ability to work it for good (Rom 8:28).

That is how, in the midst of a miserable week, I was able to maintain joy.

Like a thief in the night

You might be familiar with the well-known Scout motto. It simply says, “Be Prepared”. Be prepared means being in a state of readiness, having thought out beforehand any accident or situation that might occur, so that you know the right thing to do at the right moment.

To be forewarned is to be forearmed. If you know a hurricane is coming, you’ll batten down the hatches. If you know a tsunami is approaching, you’ll make sure you get to high ground. The bible warns about an event far more deadly than a hurricane or a tsunami we need to be prepared for. It’s the day when God comes to put an end to evil, freeing our world from corruption and bringing about the good and perfect world that he had planned for us from the beginning. It is what the bible refers to as, “The Day of the Lord.”

The prophet Joel warns of this day when he says,

“Woe because of that day! For the day of the Lord is near and will come as devastation from the Almighty… Indeed, the day of the Lord is terrible and dreadful— who can endure it?” (Joel 1:15; 2:11)

The prophet Isaiah says about this day,

“For a day belonging to the Lord of Armies is coming against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up—it will be humbled—” (Isaiah 2:12)

For those who felt very comfortable about this day; that because of their affiliation with the nation of Israel they were somehow safe, the prophet Amos says,

“Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord! What will the day of the Lord be for you? It will be darkness and not light. It will be like a man who flees from a lion only to have a bear confront him.” (Amos 5:18–20)

It is the day when God moves in judgment on our world and those who govern it; when he moves in judgment on man’s greed and selfishness and pride and arrogance. It is when God deals with those who mock him, ignore him and reject his wise, caring and loving rule over them.

Regarding this event, Paul says to the Thessalonians,

“About the times and the seasons: Brothers and sisters, you do not need anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. When they say, “Peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, like labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.” (1 Thessalonians 5:1–3)

Paul provides us with two metaphors to illustrate Jesus’ coming:

Like a thief in the night

The trouble with burglars is that they do not tell us when they are coming. They make no prior announcement of their arrival (that is a bit rude isn’t it?) They could at least send us a postcard or even a Facebook message – “Breaking into your house tomorrow night between 2 and 3 am. Please leave the back door open to avoid getting a locksmith.” No, it doesn’t work that way. It’s never when we expect it. So it will be with the Lord’s return. It will be sudden and unexpected.

Like a woman in labour

Show me a pregnant woman and I can tell you one thing for sure: a baby is coming. You won’t know exactly when. You have a due date. But the baby comes in its own time, not your time. When those contractions reach a crescendo, there is no way you are going to slow that baby’s arrival down.

If we put these two metaphors together, we could say Christ’s coming will be 1) sudden and unexpected, and 2) sudden and unavoidable. In the first case, there will be no warning, in the second there will be no escape.

What Paul is teaching here is nothing new. It’s an almost word-for-word reiteration of what Jesus taught in the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24:

“Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and they will deceive many. You are going to hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, because these things must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these events are the beginning of labor pains.” (Matthew 24:4–8)

Wars, famines, earthquakes and people who claim to be Jesus. You say, “There’s always been wars and famines and earthquakes.” Yes – but have you noticed the increasing rate and intensity of these things? Jesus said these events are the beginning of birth pains.

It’s like a train that is coming. You hear the horn and the engines far off. You hear the humming on the tracks even before you can see the train itself. If the train were not coming, those noises would not exist. It’s like the coming of a storm. There are dark clouds; there is wind, and rain, and hail, and lightning, and thunder—all of which are a part of the storm but tell us that the storm is coming. The signs we see today – they are not random, disconnected events. Rather, they are a part of His coming.

Jesus continues:

“Now concerning that day and hour no one knows—neither the angels of heaven nor the Son—except the Father alone. As the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be. For in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah boarded the ark. They didn’t know until the flood came and swept them all away. This is the way the coming of the Son of Man will be.” (verses 36-39)

It took Noah 120 years to build the ark. But do you know what else he was doing? Warning people. “There’s going to be a flood. God is going to judge your sin. You need to get right with him or else you’ll perish.” Did they listen? No, they ignored him. It was business as usual. Then the flood came, and it was too late.

“Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding grain with a hand mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore be alert, since you don’t know what day your Lord is coming.” (verses 40–42)

If I knew that a bomb was going to go off in your street and I never warned you, that would be a crime, wouldn’t it? You’d never forgive me for it. If you are a believer in Jesus, you know of something far worse that’s coming. So what are you doing about it? Are you telling anyone? Have you ever shared with someone, with tears in your eyes, what will happen to them when Jesus return? Because if you haven’t, I’d call that heartless. How can we sit back and take our ease when people are going to a lost eternity?

Paul then speaks directly to the Thessalonian Christians:

“But you, brothers and sisters, are not in the dark, for this day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or the darkness. So then, let us not sleep, like the rest, but let us stay awake and be self-controlled.” (1 Thess 5:4–6)

Paul takes something we are familiar with in the natural realm – day/night and light/darkness and applies it to the spiritual realm. Darkness in the bible represents the old creation in Adam – the world system that is opposed to God. Day and light represent the new creation in Christ. Everyone in the human race belongs to one realm or the other.

This is a call to spiritual alertness – staying awake spiritually. It’s looking out for temptation. You don’t want to be ensnared by some sin. It’s looking for opportunities to talk to people about Christ. It’s looking at the way we use our money and time – are we investing in the kingdom of God or material stuff? It’s looking for ways God is at work in the world and in your life. We want to be at our best when Jesus returns, not asleep. Then Paul says in verses 7-8:

“For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled and put on the armor of faith and love, and a helmet of the hope of salvation.” (1 Thess 5:7–8)

In light of this coming day let us be self-controlled. In other words, maintain a proper balance in life. Know your priorities. Have the discipline to say “no.” Give attention to things that matter. Avoid excess. Avoid extremes.

Then Paul mentions two important pieces of spiritual armour – the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of salvation. The breastplate is the armour that covers the vitals and the heart. “Heart” in the bible refers to the core of who we are. It’s the mission control centre. It’s that part of us that needs to be guarded by faith. The helmet protects our head – our thoughts – the focus of our minds. Fill your life with the Lord Jesus Christ. Give Him the supreme place He deserves in your heart. Invest much time building a close walk with Him in your daily devotions. Walking with the Lord every day of your life is your most powerful safeguard against falling asleep spiritually.

Paul concludes with these words in verses 9-10:

“For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.” (1 Thess 5:9–10)

Those are encouraging words to hear, aren’t they? No matter how hard things get, no matter how often we fail, the outcome is fully assured. God ensures that we win. What encouraging verses to the weak and weary Christian, who is watching and waiting for the return of Christ.

Conclusion

The Day of the Lord is coming. It’s coming as sure as the sun rises and sets each day. There’s no way to avoid it. But you can be delivered from it – by putting your trust in Jesus. By believing his death on the cross atoned for your sin. By turning from living for self and the world and following Jesus.

If you have never done that; if you have never come to a point in your life where you made a deliberate, conscious choice to surrender to the Lordship of Jesus, I plead with you to do that today.

Don’t delay. As with those in Noah’s day, it might cost you your life.

This post is based on a sermon of the same title. It is part of a current series in our church on the book of 1 Thessalonians. You can listen to the full audio on our website here.

Making Sense of the Rapture

We are living in a day where people are experiencing a great deficiency of hope. Sadly, there appears to be little for people to hope in. The rise of global terrorism, economic uncertainty, and increasing health problems are all taking their toll on society. If that is not enough to depress you, throw global warming in the mix. The United Nations says we have twelve years to avoid climate catastrophe. Apparently, we are amidst the world’s sixth mass extinction, the worst since the time of the dinosaurs.

In contrast to all the bad news, the Bible gives us every reason to hope. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 we have some of the most encouraging, comforting, uplifting, and hope-filled words in all the New Testament. It’s what is commonly referred to as “the blessed hope”; that glorious moment when Jesus returns and takes his own to himself.

Most of us know this as the go-to passage on the rapture. But that’s not actually Paul’s primary concern here. His main concern is to provide comfort and encouragement to those who are troubled. The Thessalonians Christians were worried their loved ones who have died might miss out on Christ’s return. Paul calms their fears. He provides comfort with three words of encouragement:

1. RETURN

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, concerning those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.” (verse 13)

Sleep is a New Testament metaphor used for Christians who have died. However, it always refers to the body, not the soul. You might have heard about something called “soul sleep.” It’s not in the bible. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). In Philippians 2:13 Paul says, “I long to depart and be with Christ.” There is no intermediary sate or state of unconsciousness. You are either here or you are with Christ.

Paul says, “Regarding those who have died in the Lord, I don’t want you grieving like the rest, who have no hope.” Why? Because you haven’t lost them. They are just away on a trip. And they are coming right back.

“For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” (verse 14)

Paul says, “Those loved ones of yours who have died, those ones you grieve over and you wonder where they are; they aren’t going to miss anything because Jesus is bringing them with him. They’re coming right on down with him. And that’s not all – they get their resurrection bodies before you.”

This leads us to the second great word of encouragement in this passage:

2. RESURRECTION

“For we say this to you by a word from the Lord: We who are still alive at the Lord’s coming will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are still alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” (verses 15–17)

The word for “coming” is Parousia. It means “coming,” “arrival,” or “presence.” It’s the same word used in 2 Thessalonians 2:8 to describe the Lord’s coming to destroy the Antichrist. It’s also used in 1 Thessalonians 3:13 where Paul says, “May he make your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming [parousia] of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” Parousia is also used by Jesus himself in Matthew 24:27 where he says, “For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the [Parousia] coming of the Son of Man.” 

Paul tells us in verse 16 this great “arrival” or “presence” of Christ will be accompanied by three great sounds: a shout, the voice of the archangel and the trumpet call of God. What is interesting is these very same descriptions are used by Jesus in the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24.

“Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the peoples of the earth will mourn; and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. He will send out his angels with a loud trumpet, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.” (Matt 24:30–31)

Notice the similar language Paul uses – the Lord’s coming, a loud trumpet blast, angels and the gathering of God’s people. Similarly, in Mark 13:26-27 Jesus says,

“Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. He will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” (Mark 13:26–27)

It appears the scene Jesus is describing and what Paul is describing in 1 Thessalonians both refer to the same event: the glorious return of Jesus.

Back to 1 Thessalonians 4: Paul gives a clear description of the order of events when Jesus returns:

  1. The Lord will descend from heaven (v.16a). What a sight that will be!
  2. The dead in Christ will rise first (v. 16b). All those who have trusted in God and gone to be with God are coming back with Jesus and being joined to their newly resurrected bodies on the way.
  3. Those who are alive are caught up together with them (v.17a)

This brings us to the third great encouraging word of the text:

3. REUNION

“Then we who are still alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” (verse 17)

Paul explains what happens to living, breathing believers when the Lord returns to the earth. They aren’t dead, so they don’t need to be resurrected. They have bodies and need to be translated to heaven, so they must be changed somehow. 1 Corinthians 15:51 describes the event:

“Listen, I am telling you a mystery: We will not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we will be changed.” (1 Cor 15:51–52)

The Greek word for “caught up” is harpazo. It means “to seize, catch up, snatch away, carry off by force.” In Latin, this word is rapturar, from which we get our English word, “Rapture.”

  • In John 6:15 the word is used to describe the crowds intending to take Jesus by force and make him king
  • In John 10:12 it is used of the wolf snatching [harpazo] the sheep
  • In John 10:28 Jesus says, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch [harpazo] them out of my hand.” (John 10:28)
  • In Acts 8:39 the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took [harpazo] Philip away
  • In 2 Cor 12:2 Paul was caught up [harpazo] to the third heaven

It’s sudden. It’s unexpected. And there’s an element of aggressiveness in it. That’s what is going to happen to believers who are alive when Jesus returns. They’ll be snatched up and suddenly transformed.

You say, “Wait a minute here. I thought the rapture was supposed to be secret. Christians suddenly disappear and the rest of the world doesn’t know what is going on.” That is what is called the Pretribulation Rapture view. In this view, Jesus comes back not once, but twice. The first is secret, prior to the tribulation. The church is raptured and taken to heaven for a period of 7 years. Then Jesus returns, with his church to judge the earth. The view is built on an interpretation of the 70 weeks prophecy of Daniel 9:24-27. It teaches between the 69th and 70th week where God stops the prophetic clock to allow for the church age (an unknown length of time). Then, just prior to the tribulation Jesus raptures his church and takes it away while the rest of the world faces the antichrist. Then Jesus returns to destroy the antichrist and judge the earth.

My problem with that view is it is not taught anywhere in the New Testament. Those who hold this view even admit that. Tim LaHaye, co-author of the popular Left Behind series of books says:

One objection to the pre-Tribulation Rapture is that not one passage of Scripture teaches the two aspects of His Second Coming separated by the Tribulation. This is true. But then, no one passage teaches a post-trib or mid-trib Rapture, either.[1]

Later, in the same book, LaHaye repeats his comment about there not being one Scripture passage that supports any of the rapture positions.

No single verse specifically states, “Christ will come before the Tribulation.”

When we look at the entirety of the New Testament, and align Jesus teaching in Matthew 24 and Mark 13 with Paul’s teaching in both 1 and 2 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians 15, we see one great and glorious appearing, one return of Christ, and one great regathering of God’s people – those coming from heaven with those on earth as we welcome our victor to the earth.

The Greek word for “meet” (apantēsis) in verse 17 appears in only two other NT texts:

  1. In the parable of the virgins in Matthew 25, the virgins wait for the bridegroom, whom they “meet” and welcome back to the wedding feast.
  2. In Acts 28:15, Roman believers travel out to the Forum of Appius in order to welcome Paul and bring him back to Rome with them.

In both cases, the action of meeting involves going forth to greet an honoured person, then promptly returning with that guest. This is what I believe Paul is envisaging. While the world goes about its business, the sky bursts apart and the Son of God appears with all his saints. Those who are still alive are suddenly snatched up to meet as he arrives. Then we all descend with him in his triumphant arrival.

Paul ends with these words in verse 17,

“And so we will always be with the Lord.”

Isn’t this what the ultimate plan of all history has been, from the beginning? It’s what God desired in Eden. God and man, dwelling together. It’s the picture we are given at the end of the Bible in the book of Revelation. Life together, with Jesus, in the new heavens and new earth. That’s the comfort Paul wants to give to the Thessalonians.

Whatever your particular eschatological view of the rapture is, this one thing we know: Jesus is coming someday and when he does, we will all be together with him.

This post is based on a sermon of the same title. It is part of a current series in our church on the book of 1 Thessalonians. You can listen to the full audio on our website here.

[1] Tim LaHaye, No Fear of the Storm: Why Christians Will Escape All the Tribulation (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1992), 69. This book was later republished as Rapture Under Attack

Shoe-leather Christianity

The name Dwight Lyman Moody may not mean a lot to people today but in his day he was a household name. Moody often spoke to audiences of ten thousand to twenty thousand people. He presented the plan of salvation, by voice or pen, to at least one hundred million people. Moody, on his part, never set out to become great. He was a simple and practical man. The son of a bricklayer, Moody had the equivalent of a year 10 education. He left school and got a job as a shoe salesman. Then one day God got hold of his heart and he was filled with a burning zeal to win souls for Christ. It was Moody who said, “Every Bible should be bound in shoe leather.”

In other words, the truths of the Christian faith can’t stay on the pages of our bibles; they should be lived out on two feet. Our lives – in a very real way, become a bible to those who have never read one. That’s not the case with the religions of the world. You can be a Buddhist and treat your wife badly and no one is going to call you on it. You can be into New Age Spirituality, but it may have no effect on your morals or workplace ethics. Not so with the Christian faith. The gospel touches every part of our life. It walks the streets.

This is exactly what the Apostle Paul is driving at when he wrote to the Christians in Thessalonica. He says to them in chapter 4:

“About brotherly love: You don’t need me to write you because you yourselves are taught by God to love one another. In fact, you are doing this toward all the brothers and sisters in the entire region of Macedonia. But we encourage you, brothers and sisters, to do this even more, to seek to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you,” (1 Thess 4:9–11)

Paul highlights four basic, everyday duties that characterize shoe-leather faith.

1. Love one another

The word for “brotherly love” is philadelphia. It refers to the love of family members for one another. It comes from two Greek words: philos – “tender affection, fondness, and devotion” and adelphos – which means “one born of the same womb.” All believers in Christ are all born of the same Spirit. They have the same Heavenly Father. They are members of God’s family.

The spiritual love God places in his children is deeper, richer and more real than the natural love and affection within our earthy families. I have vivid memories shortly after I became a Christian, of experiencing a deep spiritual love and affection for fellow Christians whom I’d never met before in my life. It was uncanny. I had never experienced anything like it.

Regarding this love, Paul says he has no need to write them about this because they themselves are taught by God to love one another. He’s saying, “You guys don’t need me to teach you about this, you don’t need external motivation or instruction – you’re getting it internally, you are God-taught.” Then he says, “but we encourage you, brothers and sisters, to do this even more.” A Christian never gets to a place where he says, “Well I’ve got this love thing down now. I’m ready to go on to higher things.” Love is not a concept that you learn. Love is something you do. And not just once, but over and over.

You can love other people in all kinds of practical ways:

  • Taking time to sit and listen to people when they are hurting
  • Forgiving people when they offend you
  • Taking a meal to someone when they are in need
  • Looking after someone’s kids so they can have a night off
  • Leaving some money in an envelope in someone’s letterbox
  • Writing someone a note of encouragement
  • Pray for someone regularly

The world is starving for this kind of love. They are looking for place where there is truly love in action. That’s the first and most important duty for shoe-leather faith. The second is:

2. Lead a quiet life

The NIV says, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.” That sounds contradictory. Make it your ambition to be quiet. That sounds a little difficult – particularly for some of us! Is that what Paul is saying here? I think he has something very different in mind. If you were to do a little homework on this word “quiet” you would find it was used in early Greek literature to speak of refraining from disturbing activity; of living peacefully and orderly.

It appears that the Thessalonians were getting worked up and causing some disturbance and attracting the wrong kind of attention. Paul says, “Hey guys, settle down. Don’t create unnecessary turmoil. You’re turning people off the gospel. Calm down. God has all things in control. Don’t make trouble for yourselves. God has given each of you a job to do. Be faithful with that. Don’t get worked up about things you don’t need to get worked up about.”

Living quietly doesn’t mean we stop making an impact. You can live a quiet, calm and peaceful life and have a powerful impact in this world. Think about people like C.S. Lewis, who quietly went about writing, making a major impact on his generation (and today). Think about Susanna Wesley, the mother of John and Charles Wesley. She was just a nobody, but a nobody who faithfully and diligently poured her life into raising her children, praying and writing. It was Susanna Wesley who said, “I am content to fill a little space if God be glorified.” That says it all, doesn’t it?

That leads to another duty for shoe-leather faith:

3. Mind your own business

You probably didn’t know there was a command in the bible to mind your own business! It appears there were some in the church at Thessalonica who couldn’t help meddling in other people’s affairs. We can all think of someone we know like this. They feel they are called to mind their own business – and yours too. They can’t help sticking their noses in other people’s affairs, trying to solve other people’s problems and straighten out other people’s issues. Paul says don’t do that. Don’t meddle in other people’s affairs. Look to your own affairs. You’re not here on this earth to solve the world’s problems. The world doesn’t need another Messiah. The first one will do fine.

What does shoe-leather Christianity look like? Loving one another, leading a quiet life, minding our own business, and fourthly:

4. Work hard with your hands

Paul is not saying we should all be labourers. He’s not saying if you’re a manager or an administrator or work in IT you need to get out from your desks, roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. He is simply telling us we need to earn a living. We should not be a drain on society. We should not be people who are always looking for a handout. We should not be those who expect to be given things we didn’t earn. We should resist the “entitlement” mentality.

Someone has said, “It is a terrible thing for religious people to have nothing to do but be religious.” Do you want to make an impact for Christ in this world? Get up in the morning, go to work and do your best for your employer without complaining. If you’re a teacher, be the best teacher you can be. If you’re an electrician, put everything into your job. If you’re a nurse, go the extra mile to care for people. Worship in your work. What you do on Monday is just as sacred in the eyes of God as what you do in church on Sunday.

The Outcome

Why do all this? What is the purpose? Paul tells us in verse 12:

“So that you may behave properly in the presence of outsiders and not be dependent on anyone.” (verse 12)

There are two ways you’ll make a difference in the world: 1) you will win the respect of outsiders, and 2) you will not be dependent on others. There is a healthy kind of independence we should all strive for. It’s the kind that comes from working hard, paying our bills on time and not living above our means. That frees us up to give and not borrow. It enables to be givers and not takers. And that helps our testimony.

Conclusion

How can the church be relevant to the world? It’s simply by living lives that are consistent with the gospel. It’s by loving each other constantly, sacrificing personal time, effort and money wherever it is needed. It is by living a calm and quiet life, and not causing unnecessary disturbance. It is by keeping our noses out of other people’s business and not meddling in their affairs. And it is by working diligently at our jobs, giving no cause for those on the outside to criticize the Christian faith.

If we want to make an impact on our world, this is where it all begins.

This post is based on a sermon of the same title. It is part of a current series in our church on the book of 1 Thessalonians. You can listen to the full audio on our website here.