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TEXT: I Thessalonians 5:12-22
SUBJECT: Thessalonians #9: What to Do Till Jesus Comes
The title of today's sermon is What to Do Till Jesus Comes. The Thessalonians believed in the Second Coming of Christ, and they looked forward to it with great enthusiasm. They were right on both counts. The Lord is coming again, and for believers, this will be the happiest day of our lives.
When will the Lord come back? In the first part of this chapter, Paul tells us: Jesus Christ will return when nobody is looking for Him. The ungodly will be saying, Peace and Safety at that time, but they'll be wrong. For them, the Second Coming is anything but peaceful and safe. Sinners do not know when the Lord will return, and neither do the saints (including the ones who say they do). Even to us, He comes as a thief in the night, that is, unexpectedly.
If we don't know when Christ will come again, we've got to live every day as though it were the day of His return. This is the obvious teaching of our Lord's great parable: Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming.
So, what do we do with ourselves until the Second Coming? How do we please the Lord in the Last Days? What should End Time Christians be up to?
We don't have to guess. Paul tells us quite plainly what we should be doing till Christ returns. The list is not complete, but it's long enough to occupy a lot of our time, and-if obeyed-it will save us from the folly of so much that goes for End Time teaching. So, let's get to it: What to Do Till Jesus Comes.
The list is found in today's text, I Thessalonians 5:12-22. How many items are on it? It all depends on how you read it, where you place the commas, whether you group some of them or not. To me, it doesn't much matter.
But two things matter very much. In the first place, nothing on the list stands out as uniquely End Time living. Things like rejoicing and praying and helping others are the duties of God's people in every age-from Eden to Armageddon. There are no special rules for living in the Last Days.
Secondly, End Time living is done in community or fellowship. Many of the commandments cannot be obeyed in isolation. Of course, we can rejoice all by ourselves, but we can't warn the unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, (or) be patient with all alone. These things are to be practiced in the believing community. And the only believing community found in the New Testament is the local church.
Thus, we're not to leave our churches in the Last Days, but to stay in them and commit ourselves more fully to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls Life Together.
Before we get to the duties, I want you to notice how Paul presents them. These are commands--there's no question about that. But rather than taking a hard-line, scolding approach, Paul makes a brotherly appeal-and we urge you, brethren.
These people are very dear to Paul, and not only to Paul; they're even more dear to Christ. But how to we speak to the ones we love most? We speak with tenderness and generosity.
There's nothing mean or sarcastic in what Paul says or how he says it. He assumes they want to do the right thing, and when told what it is, he believes they'll do it. Is he being naïve or wise? Well, if he were writing on his own, you might say 'naïve'. But he isn't writing alone. Though they're his own words, they're not only his words. They're also the Word of Christ. And He's nobody's fool.
You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar may be an old saying, but we still have it because it happens to be true. There's a time for firmness and laying down the law, but it's always after-way, way after--the gentle approach.
Pastors need to hear this first. The Lord's People are sheep, not wild dogs. This means they need to be led, not kicked and beaten with sticks.
But if pastors need to hear this, so do husbands and parents. We say our wives and children mean more to us than all the world. But I wonder if others think so when they hear us talking to them? Are we contrary, negative, sarcastic, mean and ill-tempered to the ones we love? If so, we need to learn the gentle and patient ways of Jesus Christ.
A soft answer (still) turns away wrath,
But harsh words (still) stir up anger.
I've already spent more time than I meant to getting to the duties, so let's get to them. Now. What do you do till Jesus comes?
PASTORSIn the first place, you
Recognize those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake.
The ones who labor among you, are over you in the Lord, and admonish you are pastors. What are we to do for them? Two things: Recognize them, in the first place. This means you accept their authority over you. The pastor's authority is not in himself or in his office, it's in the Word. As pastors teach and apply the Word of God, we're to respectfully listen to them and do what they say. Why? Because what they say is what God says! Not perfectly, not infallibly-I know that. But faithful preaching is the Word of God.
Should we follow pastors when they stray from the Word of God? Of course not! But this does not give us the right to nitpick every word they say and to dismiss them for making minor mistakes in reading, interpreting, and applying the Scripture.
The other thing you're to do for pastors is esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake. 'Esteem' means 'respect'. We shouldn't bow and scrape to pastors and only speak to them in our 'church voices'-no! But we should respect them, and that means we should give them the benefit of the doubt. Rather than assuming they're up to no good, we ought to think as highly of them as we can.
But respect is not enough: it's a loving respect Paul wants. We're to love our pastors. Why? Not because all pastors are lovable, but because of what they do for us. I may not like the doctor, but if he saves my life, I ought to love him. In the same way, some pastors have personalities that rub you the wrong way. Yet if he preaches the Word of God to you, you ought to overlook his annoying habits and love him because he's preaching the Word of God to you, which is the Word of Life-your life, eternal life, the life of God in Christ!
If you can't think of anything else to do, respect and love your pastor!
Closely related to this, Paul says,
Be at peace among yourselves.
Some scholars take this as a separate duty, and not part of the command to love and respect your pastors. They may be right, but I don't think so. It seems to me that the peace the verse is calling for is peace in the church in respect to the pastors.
That's clear as mud, so let me unmuddy it if I can. Nothing will divide a church faster than an excessive regard for one pastor over others. Now, there's nothing wrong with liking some teachers better than others-we all have our preferences. But when you think so highly of Paul that you look down on Peter, you've got a problem. This is what was dividing the church in Corinth-I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Cephas, I am of Christ.
Faithful pastors are not rivals, they are teammates. Thus, we need to live in peace by loving and respecting all good teachers-and not just the ones we like best.
To play favorites is childish (Paul says in I Corinthians 3). And, a bit later, he says it's to behave like mere men, by which he means.unsaved men!
So, if you can't find anything to do till Jesus comes, live in peace by respecting and loving every faithful minister of God's Word.
The believer's duty does not stop with respecting the pastor. Paul goes on to say, think of others in the church as well, and help them,
Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all.
Paul assumes the church is made up of different kinds of people. Some are pig-headed, and they need to be sternly warned. Others are fainthearted, and they need to be assured of God's love and yours too. Some are so weak that you've got to do nearly everything for them, and dealing with anyone requires patience.
This means three things: First, you have to know people before you can help them. There's no such thing as a stock character; everyone is unique. You look at a man and assumes he's proud and in need of humbling. So you rebuke him with great energy. The problem is, his 'pride' is only a mask for an inner weakness. He goes to pieces under heavy correction. Had you known the man better, you would have chosen a better way to help him.
What effort are you making to get to know people? This is hard for some of us-believe me, I know. But the effort has to be made, if we want to help each other.
It also means it's your job to help others. In some things, the pastor may be better qualified than you are to help others. But, most of the time, God is calling you to do it. If you read the New Testament, you'll find dozens of verses containing the words, one another: Exhort one another, Have compassion for one another, show hospitality to one another, comfort one another, pray for one another, consider one another, teach one another, on and on it goes.
What are you doing to help others? A man once came to me very upset at how dead the church was: Nobody does anything around here. I told you, Then why don't you do something? He was very offended and mumbled something about a lack of leadership!
I've never been good about organizing things-and that's a weakness. But most things that need doing in church don't need organizing-they need doing! Not committees to explore doing, but doing!
So, if it needs doing, why don't you do it? And, if you can't think of anything else, start with supporting the weak or warning the unruly.
The third duty may be the hardest,
See that no one renders evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good, both for yourselves and for all.
Don't take revenge on people who have done you wrong. Don't avenge yourself directly by punching them in the nose, let's say, or indirectly by gossiping about them behind their backs. Revenge is far worse than we think it is. It is not only an act of disobedience and malice, but more than that, it is a blasphemy! For it denies God's Right to avenge by affirming your own!
But don't leave it here-at not striking back. Go on to pursue the good of the ones who've done you wrong. This is precisely what our Lord commands in the Sermon on the Mount-
Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use and persecute you.
Love is an attitude, but not only an attitude. It's also a set of good works. What are you doing for people who don't like you, who hate you, even, and who have hurt you badly and often? If you're not doing anything against them-good. But what are you doing for them?
The fourth duty is directed to God alone.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
Rejoicing always is not the result of everything going well all the time. Things don't go well all the time, and often many things go wrong at the same time-and keep getting worse. But rejoicing always is the result of knowing God is for you always!
We don't rejoice in our circumstances, but in our God, who is working all our circumstances together for our good.
To pray without ceasing doesn't mean to pray every waking hour, but stay in the habit of prayer-to not give up because you're tired or discouraged or because God isn't answering you as soon as you want Him to.
To give thanks for everything is to remember that life is a Gift. All of life is-eternal life, but also life under the sun. From the forgiveness of sin, to the warm sun on your face, to the laughter of little children-nothing is earned, but everything is given. Given by God. Given by grace.
In Jesus Christ, it is God's will for you to remember the Gift-ness of life and to thank Him for it!
To rejoice always means to be happy with God-whatever He does. I've only met two people who told me they were unhappy with God.
THE HOLY SPIRIT
Next we have our duties to the Holy Spirit,
Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophecies.
The Holy Spirit is compared to a fire, bringing light and warmth. Now, if you'd rather be shivering in a dark room, you can be. By quenching the fire. In the same way, if you'd rather not know the truth and feel the love of God, you can have that experience. By quenching the Spirit. We quench the Spirit by despising prophecies.
That had a special meaning in 50 AD that no longer applies (it seems to me). But the general meaning does. Taking prophecies to be the Word of God, we quench the Spirit by not listening to Him.
Let me be frank: You quench the Spirit when you stay home from church for no good reason! You quench the Spirit when you let days slip by without reading the Bible, or by reading it without a thought in your head or any intention of obeying it. You quench the Spirit by not hearing His wisdom in the advice of your brothers and sisters in Christ. The result of quenching the Spirit is like putting out a fire-you've got no light or heat.
Next we have our duty to doctrine,
Test all things, hold fast what is good.
This means be discerning. Don't let the confidence or the intelligence of a teacher make you believe him because he says so. If he quotes Bible verses, look them up and see if they mean what he says they mean.
Can an ordinary Christian discern truth from error? Yes he can. Because he has three things: the Word of God, the Holy Spirit, and the Church. All things necessary for salvation can be found in the Bible. Not everything is equally clear to everyone, but everything you need to know is clear enough that you can know it by reading the Bible with care and a real desire to know.
The Holy Spirit gives us understanding of the Word.
But what about the Church? Unlike Roman Catholics, I do not believe that the Church is the organ of the Holy Spirit! I do not believe that God leads His people by Word and Tradition, no less by the pronouncements of popes and councils. But saying this does not mean the Church has nothing to say about the interpretation of the Bible and the formulating of doctrine.
For one thing, pastors and teachers are the Gifts of Jesus Christ to the Church (Ephesians 4). And what are they given for? Not to make up new doctrines, but to help us understand the ones God gave us in the Bible-That we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine.
For another thing, the consensus of the Church helps us to understand doctrine and to detect error. Is the Apostles' Creed part of the Bible? Of course not! But this does not mean that it's authority is no greater than yours or mine. Why? Because the Sheep know the voice of their Shepherd, and for more than 1,500 years, they have heard His voice in the Creed. This does not mean it couldn't be wrong-because it could be. But it means the burden of proof is on the teachers who deny it. They have to prove-not just suggest-that a widely accepted doctrine is not so.
It's sad that people who most object to creeds and confessions of faith are often eager to follow one man over against the received wisdom of God's People for centuries.
Thirdly, the church helps us to understand the Word of God by talking things over with us. Doctrine should be discussed in church, and where we have gone wrong, we should gladly accept the correction of our brothers and sisters. Not because they know everything, but because we don't either!
Finally, Paul tells us what our duty is to sin,
Abstain from every form of evil.
Sin takes many forms. Some are more physical, like gluttony, drunkenness, or laziness; others are more spiritual, like pride and idolatry.
But whatever form sin takes, we're to stay clear of it. The Bible nowhere permits us to get as close to sinning as we can. It says the opposite: flee idolatry, flee fornication.
SUMMARY AND CLOSE
If Jesus Christ is coming again, we're to live as though He is. How do we do that? Not by digging bomb shelters or by leaving the church or by running around like a maniac.
We live for the Second Coming by living the same old Christian lives that Paul did in the First Century, Luther did in the Fifteenth, and our grandparents did in the 1930's!
That's what it means to be ready when the Lord comes. It means to have Him find you living in love.
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