The Lord's Day Morning
August 5, 2012
“Living Life in Light of Jesus’ Return: A Pastor's Exhortations”
1 Thessalonians 5:12-15
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. We’re going to be looking at four brief verses today, from verse 12 to 15, of this passage. John Stott, in his wonderful commentary on this passage in The Bible Speaks Today series, calls this section, running from verse 12 down to verse 28, “Christian Community” or “How to be a GospelChurch.” Well that's a great title for this section and he in fact outlines it in three parts. He's looking, of course, a little bit further than the passage we're going to study today, but in verses 12 and 13 he says, “These verses teach us how pastors and people should relate to and regard one another.” Then, secondly, in verses 14 and 15, he said, “These verses show how church members should relate to and care for one another.” And then in verses 16 to 28 he says, “Paul turns out attention to how the public worship of the church should be conducted.”
Well today, we're just going to be looking at verses 12 to 15. And if you count them up, depending on how you count, you end up with either eight or ten exhortations from Paul in the span of those four short verses. Now relax, this is not going to be either an eight or ten point sermon! We’re going to look at this passage in four parts and I want you to look and be ready as we hear the Word read, be ready to listen for those four parts. The first will come in verses 12 and 13, the first half of verse 13. And in that passage, Paul indeed talks to the congregation of the Thessalonians about what elders do and how they are to relate to those elders.
Then secondly, if you look at the second half of verse 13, Paul talks there about what all of us should aspire for our experience as a congregation. He says, “Be at peace among yourselves.” He's talking about our aspiration for a fellowship that is at peace with itself.
Third, if you look at verse 14, there are four exhortations alone in verse 14, but the overarching theme is this. How do you relate to different kinds of church members appropriately? And Paul, in that passage, has at least three kinds of church members that it talks to us about how we ought to relate to them. And then he has a general statement at the end of verse 14 about how we're to relate to everybody in the church. So in that verse he's talking to us about how to appropriately relate to the different kinds of church members.
And then finally, if you look at verse 15, there Paul is talking about how we can have a church that is characterized by forgiveness and kindness, how to be a community characterized by forgiveness and kindness. So be on the lookout for those four things as we read the Word of God. And before we do that, let's pray and ask for His help and blessing.
Heavenly Father, this is Your Word given by inspiration meant for our profit, for our wellbeing, that we might be equipped for every good work. Your Word is truth. Sanctify us with Your Truth. Open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your Word. Teach us, Lord, what it means to be a Gospel church. We ask all these things in Jesus' name, amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it, beginning in 1 Thessalonians 5:12:
“We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
We want to be a Gospel church. To be a Gospel church, of course in the first place, means that we are a church that has been brought together by the Gospel. We wouldn't be a part of this congregation if it were not for the grace of God to us in the Gospel and if it were not for our faith response to the claims of the Gospel. We realize that God is our Maker, He made us, and we owe worship to Him. But we also realize that sin is our failure. We have sinned and rebelled against Him and we deserve His condemnation and we realize that Christ is our Savior, the only Savior that there is who, in His person, came to die in our place that we might be reconciled to God and we recognize that faith is the answer to God's free offer in the Gospel, that we must rest and trust on Jesus Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel and that new life then flows from that saving faith. It's a pleasure for us to live in that new life where we've been freed from the bondage of sin. That's what brings a church together. It's so amazing, isn't it, to hear Paul, the Hebrew of Hebrews, the citizen of Israel, one descended from the tribe of Benjamin, of a Pharisee according to the law, speaking to these pagans, these Gentiles, these Greeks in Thessalonica and calling them “brothers.” Isn't that wonderful? It's a picture of how the Gospel had brought them together. There's nothing in their heritage, in their ethnicity, in their religious background that would have brought Paul and that crew of Greeks together but the Gospel.
So the Gospel brings us together as a church but the Gospel also shapes our life as a church and there are different ways that the New Testament describes the effect of the Gospel in shaping our lives in the local congregation. But one way it does is it describes the church, the Gospel shaped church, as a family. And we aspire to be a family. Now it's very hard to do that, very frankly, with three thousand folks spread over a couple of services. It's hard to know one another. Do you ever find, like me, you run into a college or university student and you haven't talked to them in a number of months and you ask them how it's going and they say, “Well, I graduated three years ago and I'm working for Morgan Keegan”? And you’re embarrassed because you thought you were keeping up and you thought they were a junior but they've been out of school and they’re doctors and lawyers and financial planners and all sorts of things and you didn't know that because it's hard to keep up. It's hard to keep up with about more than two hundred people and really be involved in their lives so we have to go a little extra mile in order to really be a family in our congregation but it's something that we aspire to and this is something that is clearly on Paul's mind here because a Gospel church is a family.
A Gospel church is a family. It's a family loved and chosen by God; we're brought together by God in the first place. We draw our life from God, and we manifest God's life in us in the graces of the Christian life, especially love. And if you wanted an overarching theme for this whole section, from verses 12 to 13, it's “How Christian Love is Manifested in Our Relationships,” whether it's in the relationships between pastors and people, elders in the congregation, whether it's our general aspiration for the life of the church, whether it's the way we relate particularly to different kinds of people in the congregation, or whether it's how we build a community that's characterized by forgiveness and kindness. All of this is about the application of Christian love.
Now as I said, if you count them there are either eight or nine or ten exhortations for our life together in this passage and do you notice, not one of these can be obeyed by yourselves. You know, if I were giving you exhortations for the Christian life and I said, “Read your Bible every day” you can do that by yourself. Of if I said, “Pray more often,” you can do that by yourself, but none of the exhortations that Paul gives in this passage can be done by yourself. They all require you relating to other people. And that points out what is so often the truth of the New Testament – that you can't grow in grace, you can't become more mature in Christ without one another. We need one another. We can't grow to Christian maturity apart from one another because so much of our growth is in our relationships with one another — in the heartbreak of being let down and having to forgive people who've let us down, in the difficulty of having to walk alongside of friends in Christ who are under enormous burdens and discouragement, in the give and take of normal life where we defer to one another and seek to serve one another and forbear with one another and all of those other dynamics of life, well, kind of like in your own family. Families get on one another's nerves; families have to learn to forgive. Families can be places of tension and contention but we don't want it to be that way. We want a family that's shaped by the Gospel. What does that look like? Paul tells us in four parts.
RESPECT, ESTEEM, AND LOVE YOUR ELDERS WHO LABOR,
LEAD, AND HELP YOU LEARN
First, if you look at verses 12 and 13, Paul says this – respect, esteem, and love your elders who labor, lead, and help you to learn. Now did you notice how I got six things into that one sentence? Respect, esteem, and love your elders — I'm going to show you where I got that in verses 12 and 13 in a minute — who labor, lead, and help you to learn. That's Paul's exhortation about how people and pastors are to relate. A couple of Sundays ago a congregation member saw this text coming and she stopped me after the first service and she said, “Is it going to be kind of awkward to you to preach a sermon to the congregation about how we're supposed to respect and love you more?” And I said, “Well, I haven't quite figured out how I'm going to do that one yet!” And I'm going to do a Paul thing because Paul is actually not talking about the Thessalonians respecting and esteeming and loving him more, he's actually talking to them about respecting and esteeming and loving their leaders in that local congregation more. You respect and love me more than I deserve so let me focus the attention right now on your respect, esteem, and love for your elders, for your leaders in this local congregation and for the other pastors here.
Let me give you the context. Apparently, you remember chapters 3 and 4, there have been several errors in Christian practice that have been going on in this congregation. There have been some people who, because they believe Jesus is coming again very soon, have stopped working and now they've become a burden on the congregation because other people in the congregation are having to feed them. They’re not working because Jesus is coming again and the rest of the congregation is having to take care of them. And there are others who are very, very fearful about the nature, about what's going to happen to their loved ones that have already died and Jesus hasn't come yet. And there've been all of these tricky pastoral problems going on that we've described in chapters 3 and 4, and the elders, the leaders in this local church, have had to confront people in the church and apparently hasn't gone so well. And the result has been — there are people in the congregation who are critical of their leaders.
Now you say to me, “This passage doesn't say anything about elders.” Well it's true, it doesn't say the word elder, but notice three things that the people who are talked about do here. They, 12, “labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you.” Notice that these people, who you’re called to respect and esteem and love, labor, they are over you, and admonish you. Now what are those three jobs that elders have? Labors are called to labor among you. Pastoral work is hard work, believe it or not. A mother in the congregation stopped me a few days ago and said that she overheard her son talking with her husband saying, “I wish that you could have a job like Dr. Duncan so that you could be with your family more. You know, he only has to work on Sunday!” Well I understand that there are a lot of you that think of the pastoral ministry like that, and lazy people can work in the pastorate, I promise you, but it has always been my endeavor not to be one of those. You can call me a lot of things but I've endeavored for you not to be able to call me lazy. My mother's motto in life was, “You might be smarter than me but I’ll outwork you.” And I've tried to live that out in the way that I've conducted myself here. So Paul's describing people in the pastoral ministry as “laborers.” They work hard.
Secondly, he says that they are over you. They are there to guide you, to shepherd you, to lead you, and they’re there to admonish. Now the word “admonish” means to hold the Word of God up before your eyes and say, “The Word of God calls us to this way of life. It calls us to do these things; it calls us to not do these things.” It's a word that's used in the context of moral exhortation. Now those three things are things that elders do. So here we are in Thessalonians, one of the earliest books, if not the earliest book of the New Testament, and Paul is already talking about the duties of the eldership. Now that shouldn't surprise us because Luke, in the book of Acts, describes Paul, wherever he goes, making sure that elders had been ordained in the churches because that followed a pattern that stretched all the way back to the Old Testament, not just in the days of the synagogue but all the way back to Moses! So Paul is speaking to this congregation about respecting their elders because apparently, as those elders have been involved in addressing some touchy situations in the congregation, there's been some blow back and people have been less than respectful towards their leaders and Paul says, “Respect them, esteem them, love them, because they labor and lead and help you to learn.” Paul is calling on the congregation to show a due regard for the ministers, the elders, that the Lord has put in the congregation.
And your culture doesn't help you do that. This is not a culture — the culture that we live in is not a culture that just loves authority. You know, if we were to speak to our grandparents about the way our generation speaks about people in authority today, I think our grandparents would all be horrified. It's a very, very different world, fifty years ago to now, from the way we speak about people in authority. So the culture isn't going to help us here. We’re going to have to be shaped by the Gospel. Jesus lived as a man under authority. What did He say to His disciples? “It is My meat to do the will of Him who sent Me.” He loved to be under the authority of His heavenly Father and doing the work of His heavenly Father. And so Paul is calling on pastors and people to have appropriate relationships here and especially for the people to esteem the work of their elders, their leaders in the local congregation.
PURSUE PEACE AND UNITY WITH THE BRETHEN
So there's the first aspect of a Gospel shaped church. The second one is this, and it's an aspiration. You see it at the end of verse 13. “Be at peace among yourselves.” Paul is telling us here to pursue peace and unity with the brethren. Peace and unity do not just happen. They take deliberate commitment. One of the things that you vow – if you are a communing member of First Presbyterian Church, you have answered this question: Do you promise to study or strive for the purity and peace of the church? That's a beautiful question and it comes right out of the apostle Paul and this verse could be a proof text for it – 1 Thessalonians chapter 5 verse 13 second half. Striving or studying the purity and peace of the church is a very important part of our membership vow because peace doesn't just happen. Unity doesn't just happen. It has to be cultivated and it can't be cultivated unless we aspire to it, unless we value the peace, not just the lack of dissention but the real spiritual unity that exists in the church.
One of the things that we're going to sing when we sing, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” in a moment, is that our hearts long for the same thing. One of the stanzas has a beautiful representation that our goals, our heart, our aspiration is unified, it's one. Well is that really the case? You have to work to that end to really be unified around one mission, one goal, one cause, one aspiration in a local congregation. And Paul's calling us to that here. Pursue peace and unity with the brethren.
REPSOND APPROPIATELY TO EACH DIFFERENT
KIND OF FAMILY MEMBER
Then, if you look at verse 14, you’ll see a third thing that Paul says. We are to respond appropriately to each different kind of family member. You know, family, it's amazing; you have two, three, four, or more children and you begin to see very, very different aspects of their characters and personalities and it's like that in a local church too. There are different kinds of people. And Paul tells us that we don't respond to everybody in the same way. There are different ways to respond to different kinds of family members. Look at verse 14. “We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak.” Let's just stop right there and then we’ll look at the general exhortation. “Admonish the idle.” Idle here is a military term referring to somebody who's out of step with the other guys marching in the rank, maybe because he's lagging or loafing, but whatever the case is, he's out of step with everybody else. And Paul says, “What you need to do is admonish him.” Now it's the same language that's used up in verse 12. What are the officers, the elders, the leaders of the church supposed to do? They’re supposed to admonish us. They’re supposed to hold the Word of God up before our eyes and say, “This is the standard of the Christian life. This is what we're to do; this is what we're not to do.” And so this person is going to be exhorted with the Word of God. But Paul is saying that the whole congregation is to be doing this to one another. Don't just leave it to the pastors or the elders; we as a congregation are to be exhorting one another in this way.
Then he says, “Encourage the fainthearted.” Notice, not, “Admonish the fainthearted,” but “encourage the fainthearted.” Now the fainthearted here may refer to some of the people, end of chapter 4 beginning of chapter 5, who were struggling because of their concerns about dead loved ones missing out on the blessing of the second coming so they’re very easily discouraged, they’re fainthearted. Or it may refer to people who are constitutionally timid, or both, and more. But notice Paul says for them the response is not to get touch on them, to get on their case —l encourage them, strengthen them.
And then he says, “Help the weak.” Now again, the weak could refer to people who are spiritually immature, they’re less mature in Christ than they ought to be, or it could even refer to people who are stumbling and struggling with sexual immorality. You have to go back and look at the three previous chapters that we've just been studying and see some of the sin that Paul's addressing in this congregation and try and draw some parallels. But notice, kick them out? No, “help the weak.” Three very different responses for three very different kinds of church members, people in different settings. The weak are to be aided, the fainthearted are to be strengthened, those that are out of step, they’re to be confronted, and we're to be doing that with one another. In other words, we're looking out for one another; we're concerned about one another's spiritual wellbeing. It's not that we're being busybodies. It's not that we're all collectively big brothers spying in on one another's lives, but we care enough about one another to engage with one another about important things in the Christian life.
And then what's the overall rubric? What's the last thing that Paul says in verse 14? “Be patient with them all.” Ouch. That hurt, because I so often excuse myself, rather proudly, “Lig, you’re just impatient.” But do you know what I'm actually saying when I say to myself, “Lig, you’re just impatient,” feeling a little bit prideful about that? I'm actually saying that I'm unloving because Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 that love is patient so when I am impatient I'm actually showing a deficit of love because patience is an expression of love. Notice again how all of these exhortations boils down to the expression of love in a Christian congregation. So how do we deal with one another? When we see someone out of line do we expect them (snap, snap, snap), “Get back in line”? Nope, we're patient because the Lord was patient with us. And so patience is overarching in our dealing with one another. And so Paul is teaching us here how we respond appropriately to every different kind of church family member in verse 14.
CULTIVATE A COMMUNITY OF FORBEARANCE,
FORGIVENESS AND KINDNESS
And then finally if you look at verse 15, Paul here tells us how to cultivate a community of forbearance and forgiveness and kindness. Look at his words. “See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.” Look at the three parts of that sentence. “See that no one repays evil for evil.” So we're not going to deal with one another via the way of reprisal. Our standard operating procedure is not going to be getting even, it's going to be forbearance and even forgiveness. Obeying this exhortation means that our community is going to be characterized by forgiveness and that means real forgiveness, and real forgiveness hurts; it's costly because we can really, really mess up with one another. And Paul says, “When that happens, the way I want you to deal with one another is not by getting even but by forbearing.”
And then he says — look at the second thing — “Always seek to do good to one another.” There, he's talking about our cultivating kindness towards one another or actually thinking, “How can I do good to my fellow congregation members?” This is just like Jesus, who, Himself refused to revile when He was reviled and who came not to be served but to serve. In other words, this church is going to be so Gospel shaped that we're going to look like, we're going to act like Jesus acted in His earthly ministry to us. We’re going to seek to do good to one another.
But notice the last three words, “and to everyone.” It's not just doing good to one another, our standard posture, our standard operating procedure towards the world is going to be to bless, to do good to the world. This is very important for us to bear in mind because as evangelical Christians become a smaller and more hated minority in Western culture, it will be our tendency to get mad about that at the majority secular culture and all they will see is our sort of red-faced anger at them, that they've messed up this wonderful country that we've built. And Paul says, “No, no. Our attitude towards that culture is we want to do good to you. We want to be good to you. It doesn't matter whether you like us, it doesn't matter whether you hate us, we want to do good to you because Jesus did good to us when we didn't deserve it and when we were rebelling against Him and He died for us and He spared us by the shedding of His own blood and we want to reflect that same kind of goodness and kindness and love to the culture around us.”
This is a Gospel shaping of a local church. That's what Paul's talking about and that's what we aspire to. So many of these things, you know I really can say this congregation, by God's grace, has done a pretty good job of, but we've got a long way to grow. May God grant us the aspiration to grow and then by His Holy Spirit work that growth in us. Let's pray.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word. We ask that You would enable us to respond by seeing our own sin and repenting of it and by aspiring to this beautiful vision of what a church shaped by the Gospel should look like. We ask this in Jesus' name, amen.
Now let's sing about this. If you’ll take your hymnals in hand and turn to number 359, this is a very, very familiar hymn and it would be possible for you to sing the whole thing and not think about a syllable. Please pay close attention to the words that you’re singing and mean them as you sing them. Let's stand and sing.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.