The Lord's Day Morning
August 26, 2012
“Living Life in Light of Jesus’ Return: A Parting Request, Greeting, Charge, and Blessing”
1 Thessalonians 5:25-28
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to 1 Thessalonians chapter 5. As we come to the end of this letter, we've studied it all along under the rubric of “Living Life in Light of the Return of Jesus” and now in the final few words the apostle Paul is going to give us again important counsel and exhortation and encouragement for the living of the Christian life. Next Lord's Day, God willing, we will begin a study of 2 Thessalonians under the rubric of “Enduring Trials in Light of Jesus’ Return.” And so Paul picks up on some of the themes that we've already been introduced to in 1 Thessalonians and reintroduces them in another context in 2 Thessalonians.
But if you’re like me, sometimes you don't know exactly how to end the letter. You put a lot of thought into the content of that letter, you want to express your love and your respect for the person to whom you’re writing; you don't know exactly how to end it. And it's very apparent that Paul knew exactly how he wanted to end this letter. Also, there's an indication if you look at verse 27, that Paul himself actually picks up the pen and finishes the writing of this letter himself. The content of what he says in verse 27 and 28 indicate to us that this is in Paul's own writing. His normal practice was to have an amanuenses, a secretary, who took down the words that he spoke as he dictated them out loud and wrote them in a nice, Greek hand so that they were very readable to the churches as they were sent around, and then it was Paul's practice to sign the letters or write the last few verses of the letter in his own hand so that people couldn't come up with false letters and attribute them to Paul. Isn't it interesting that the churches of Asia Minor got to the point where they could recognize Paul's writing? They said, “Ah, that's Paul's —“ What would they have said? “Is that Paul's scrawl?” Would they have said it was scrawl or was that Paul's elegant hand? I don't know which it was but they could recognize Paul's writing. He indicates in one of his letters that he may have written in extra large letters just to let them know now, “This is Paul writing here at the end of this letter.”
Well in this letter, the apostle Paul has some very important exhortations and encouragements for us, even in the very end, in those final words that so often, in our letters, are kind of throw-away language that we just sort of pick up from social custom. You know, you end with a “Yours sincerely,” or a “Yours something else.” Well Paul's ending is filled with significance for the Christian life. Let's pray before we read it.
Heavenly Father, this is Your Word. We ask that You would help us to remember that the privilege of hearing it read in our own language is a true blessing. There are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of people in this world today that have never heard the Word of God read in their own language out loud. And so we pause to thank You that many of our forbearers gave their lives so that we could hear the Scripture read aloud in our own tongue. We pray then, that by the Spirit, we would respond to it by believing You, trusting in the Word, and understanding it, having it applied to our own hearts by Your grace, so that we love it, and believe it, and live it, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
This is God's Word. Hear it in 1 Thessalonians chapter 5 beginning in verse 25:
“Brothers, pray for us.
Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.
I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Now in these parting words, the apostle Paul manages to give us a request, a greeting, a charge, and a blessing. In four sentences, a request, a greeting, a charge, and a blessing, and I'd like to look at those four things very briefly with you this morning.
A PARTING REQUEST
First of all, if you look at verse 25, the apostle Paul gives a parting request. Before he goes, he has one more request to make of the Thessalonians. And what is that request? It is a humble plea for prayer. “Brothers, pray for us.” Now before we get to the plea itself, I want you to notice to whom he addresses it. He addresses it to brothers. Now this is one of three times just in these four verses where Paul uses the word, brothers. “Brothers, pray for us…greet the brothers…I charge that this letter be read to all the brothers.” And we need to pause and think about what that means for a moment.
First of all I want to address my sisters in Christ this morning. If you are a woman in Christ today, you are a brother. Every woman who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ is a brother, just like every man who is united to Christ is a Bride. There are different terms that are applied to all of God's people in the Scriptures in order to bring out certain truths about the blessings that God has heaped upon us. We are all part of the Bride of Christ. Men and women both, who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, are part of the Church, which is the Bride of Christ. We’re all Brides. And every sister in Christ is a brother. That, first of all, means that we are a part of the family of God. But especially in that culture where daughters did not inherit, it indicated that even sisters in Christ are brothers because they are united to their elder brother, Jesus Christ, just like their earthly, physical, male, Christian companions are inheritors, co-inheritors with Jesus Christ. So if you are a woman who believes in Jesus Christ today, you are a brother. And Paul is addressing, every time he says brothers, he's speaking about you just as well as the mal members of the congregation.
But especially, Paul is drawing attention with the use of this language “brothers,” to the fact that we are a part of a family. We have been brought into a fellowship; we are a part of the household of faith, the family of the living God. Christ is our elder brother and we are part of God's household. But in this plea, he specially pleas for prayer. And you will remember, we've seen Paul say to the Thessalonians already three times that he regularly prays for them. The letter begins, if you look back at chapter 1 verse 2, the letter begins with Paul telling the Thessalonians that he thanks God for them constantly in his prayers. So he begins his letter by saying, “I pray for you, Thessalonians.” And then if you look at 1 Thessalonians chapter 3 verses 12 and 13, he tells you again exactly what it is that he regularly prays for them – that the Lord will make them increase and abound in love for one another and that He will establish their hearts blameless in holiness before their God and Father at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. And then just a couple of verses above our passage, if you look at chapter 5 verse 23, he tells them again what he prays for them — that the Lord would completely sanctify them at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. So Paul tells the three times that he prays for them.
And then he closes this letter by saying, “Would you please pray for me?” And I want you to think for just a moment about the humility and the reciprocity of that plea, of that request for prayer. It's a humble thing, isn't it, to think of an apostle asking a congregation to pray for him. Paul had been caught up into the third heaven and had seen things which a man is not allowed to say, he had been invested with apostolic authority, he had seen Jesus Christ face to face on the road to Damascus, he had been given Christ's authority over all the churches, he had the capacity to do miracles, he could speak in tongues, give real prophecies, and give words of knowledge and yet he says to this congregation, “Would you please pray for me?” Why did Paul do that? Because he believed in prayer. He believed in the power and efficacy of prayer. The apostle Paul knew that God was sovereign but he also knew that God exercises His sovereign providence over the world and over the church through means. And one of those great means that He has given is prayer so that we can say that almost no blessing comes to us that does not come to us through prayer. Paul believed in prayer and he coveted it for himself.
And the apostle Paul knew that he needed prayer because of the work that he was in. He was peculiarly vulnerable to the assaults of Satan and so he asked for prayer from the congregation. There's a humility in that and there's a reciprocity in that too. “I've been praying for you,” Paul says. “Would you pray for me?” Your pastors and staff and deacons and elders pray for you monthly, weekly, and even daily. Our staff never gets together when we do not pray for you by name. Now it takes a long time for us to pray for you by name because there are a lot of you, but we do that every time we get together. You can bet on Tuesday morning between nine and ten or maybe a little bit later, you are being prayed for regularly by your staff. When the deacons gets together and the elders get together on their meetings, monthly, they pray for you. The shepherding groups pray for you. There are all sorts of contexts in which you pastors, your staff, your deacons and your elders are praying for you. May I ask you, on all their behalf, pray for them? And may I be specifically greedy and ask that you pray for your ministers? Your ministers stand in special need of prayer. I have been acutely aware in the last two or three years of the spiritual warfare and the Satanic opposition which we face. And there have been many times where I have felt that the difference between standing and falling was prayer, that the only thing between me and collapse was the prayer of God's people. Pray for your ministers.
Two weeks ago we had an ordination service and we put the vows that ministers take in the ordination service bulletin just to show you the things that they vow to God. One of the things that every minister in the Presbyterian Church in America vows is that we are pursuing the ministry, in so far as we know our own hearts, out of a sincere love for Christ. But my friends, even in the hearts of ministers, love for Christ can wax cold. And we need prayer that our hearts — just like Elizabeth Prentiss led us to sing just a few moments in that wonderful hymn, “More Love to Thee, O Christ,” that our hearts would not wax cold in love to Christ. So pray for your ministers. We need it.
Paul says, “Brothers, pray for us.” Come to the prayer meeting and pray for us. If you’re not involved in a discipleship group, come to the prayer meeting and while you’re praying for the needs of the whole congregation, pray for those who shepherd your souls. David Felker will be preaching the prayer meeting in September and many of the ministers will be involved in assisting in that service. Come and pray for the shepherds of the church in prayer meeting. Come to the prayer meetings that happen during the services on Sunday morning and pray for the shepherds of the church. Come to the Saturday morning prayer breakfast for men and pray for the shepherds of the church. “Brethren, pray for us.”
A PARTING GREETING
Secondly, if you look at verse 26, Paul adds to this parting request a parting greeting. He's asking his greetings to be delivered to the congregation and he says, “Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.” Now the holy kiss was an expression of love and fellowship. It was part of that culture. We know some cultures today where, when you greet people, there's a kiss on either cheek or on one of the cheeks. That's a part of many cultures today. There are even sub-cultures within the south where that's a very common greeting. In ministerial culture today, there's a lot of hugging going on. Ministers will get together for a fraternal and big bear hugs will be exchanged between the men, but that differs culture to culture. Derek Thomas was amongst us for fifteen years and his British sensibilities never did catch on to hugging! He was always stiff as a plank when a hug came! (laughter) And you know, even in Britain today, sometimes you’ll stick out your hand to shake hands and it's like they don't know what you’re doing. Different cultures have different physical expressions of fellowship and respect and affection.
Well Paul's speaking of one which was apparently common in this culture, the holy kiss. And he said, “Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.” In other words, he's saying, “Convey our love, convey our greeting, convey our affections. And don't just do it verbally, express it tangibly. Show the love and kinship and fellowship of the Gospel not only by genuine, gracious, warm, verbal expressions, but even show them by culturally appropriate physical signs. Paul's doing this because it's so important for us to understand that the local church is supposed to be a community of mutual love and affection. The Gospel is to create a family and that's to be expressed in the life of the local congregation where we're genuinely glad to see one another and we want to express that.
It's easy to experience that and express that in smaller circles in the church. Perhaps you've been meeting with a group of friends for many, many years with whom you've prayed and you've shared triumphs and disaster, joy and heartbreak, and it's easy for you to hug one another or shake hands or cry in one another's presence or you naturally break into a big, beaming smile when you see one another. But outside of those circles, perhaps you've not so deliberate in expressing your delight to be a fellow member of the local congregation. All of us ought to be deliberately committed to cultivating a strong, loving fellowship in this congregation and expressing it, not just verbally, but with other culturally appropriate physical, tangible expressions. That's what Paul is saying to this congregation — “We send our greetings; show those greetings, that love, that sense of kinship and fellowship tangibly, from us to you and to one another.”
A POWERFUL CHARGE
Third, if you look at verse 27, Paul gives a powerful charge here and when the commentators get to verse 27 they are all struck by the language that he uses. And the ESV catches it very potently — “I put you under oath before the Lord.” Now we're not used to hearing that kind of language addressed to us in the context of church. More often we would hear that language in a courtroom. “I put you under oath before the Lord.” What in the world is he about to say? Here's what he says — “to have this letter read to all the brothers.” Now friends, if I were to write a First Epistle article and open it by saying, “I adjure you all, I put you all under an oath before the Lord, to have this First Epistle article read publically before the church,” the elders would be knocking on my door very quickly. I don't have the authority to do that, but the apostle Paul did because he was an apostle, because he was invested with that authority by the Lord Jesus Christ and because he was very aware that the words that he was speaking, the words that he's speaking are God's words.
Look back with me to 1 Thessalonians chapter 2 and look at verse 13. “We also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the Word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the Word of God, which is at work in you.” In other words, Paul is keenly aware that he is not merely speaking human words, that under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, this letter that he is sending to the Thessalonians will not simply be listened to by the Thessalonians but will be read by millions and millions of Christians for thousands of years until Jesus comes again as divinely inspired Scripture. This is a word both about apostolic authority and it is a word about the authority of Scripture.
And it shows the importance of the Word of God to us. Do we realize our need for the Word of God and our need to sit publically under the Word? Do you remember one of the last things that Paul said to Timothy in his letter to Timothy? He said, “Timothy, give attention to the public reading of Scripture.” Now he said other things to him, but one of the things he said was, “Give attention to the public reading of Scripture.” Now there was a time in Western culture, and especially since the Protestant reformation, when it would have been almost impossible to conceive of believers going through a week without reading the Word of God or hearing the Word of God read. But today, when we all have twenty copies of the Scriptures lying around in our house, we probably read the Word of God less than ever before, and it is not uncommon for Christians to get to church on Sunday and not have read the Bible at all during the week. And this means that the reading of the Word of God is more important than ever. This is one reason why we don't just read the Word of God at the time of the sermon but we read a healthy portion of Scripture every Lord's Day because the Word of God is a means of grace. And this very word that Paul says, charging the leaders in the church there in Thessalonica to read the Word publically to that congregation, is an indication that that congregation needs the Word of God to be read to them.
A PARTING BLESSING
And then fourth and finally, if you look at verse 28, Paul ends with a parting blessing. He bestows an apostolic benediction. So there's a parting request — “Pray for us;” there's a parting greeting — “Greet one another with a holy kiss;” there's a parting charge — “Hear the Word of God read publically to you all;” and then there's a parting blessing, an apostolic benediction — “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” Paul used that benediction in almost every letter that he wrote. It is his common benediction. We might even say it's his favorite benediction. Now notice something. Turn back to verse 1 of chapter 1. How does Paul begin this letter? “Grace to you and peace.” And how does he end the letter? “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” He begins with grace and he ends with grace. Why? Because grace is the blessing that we need. Grace is not just something that we need at the beginning of the Christian life so that we are forgiven for sins; it's something that we need to live the Christian life.
What is grace? Grace is God's free gift to us in Jesus Christ, that in Christ, He lived for us a life that we couldn't live, He died for us a death that He didn't deserve, so that we might receive a forgiveness for which we did not pay, and an eternal fellowship with Him that we did not deserve — all at His expense, freely given. God's grace is both forgiveness and power. And throughout this letter, Paul has been expressing that our growth in the Lord, our maturity in the faith, our sanctification in holiness is dependent upon God's grace being at work in us. And so he concludes the letter by saying, “Grace to you.” He calls us back to the Gospel. John Stott said this, “If a local church is to become a Gospel church, it must not only receive the Gospel and pass it on, but also embody it in a community life of mutual love. Nothing but the grace of Christ can accomplish this.” And so Paul's last word is grace to you. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you” because that is what we need.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for these parting words of Paul, not just to the Thessalonians but to us. We ask that You would make us a people of prayer, a people of mutual love, a people who love and sit under Your Word, and a people who live and move and have our being in the free grace that You provide. We ask this through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
As Paul points us to the Lord Jesus Christ in this final benediction, let's take our hymnals in hand and turn to number 647 and sing, “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds.”
Do you feel that weakness that John Newton sings about? “Weak is the effort of my heart?” Well then, receive the Lord's benediction. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.