Learning from a Different World

Travel can be transformational. By travel, I don’t mean layovers in airports en route to somewhere else (I’ve unsuccessfully visited some significant countries this way!)  No, I mean genuinely visiting.

Let me share two examples and then make my point for us.

A “Third World Country” – How often have you heard people return from a missions trip and say that the local people taught them so much? It is a consistent message! I remember visiting an East African country and experiencing a completely different life. 

There was the food, the wildlife, the weather, and the transport. The cultural differences hindered my teaching, but then again, they also supported it. There was that more remote tribe where the children could pick out their friends in a picture on my camera. And yet they could not recognise themselves because they had never seen a good reflection before. And there was much to learn from the simple lifestyle, not to mention the sacrificial hospitality. It was like stepping into a different world, and I came home changed by my visit.

A “Second World Country” – I visited an Eastern European country some years ago. We walked past the jail where political prisoners, including pastors, used to be held and tortured. Communism never has room for dissenters, free thinkers or any God except the state. Therefore church leaders and Christians are always a threat. 

I remember asking a man driving me to a meeting what it was like to live under communism. He spoke of how some things worked, but nobody was free. He gave me two examples. He described living in a world where one in three people worked for the government as an informer. It meant that you would never speak openly about politics or religion. You never knew who would inform and lead to your arrest and the suffering that might also come to your family. And he described how everyone would dutifully buy the newspaper, signalling that they were good citizens. But they would never read it because everyone knew it was all government-controlled lies.

I have thought a lot about that conversation over the years. It was like a haunting warning from another country at another time. I often think about how our culture is moving towards that kind of community spying. We now live around people ready to call out anyone who breaks the brand new moral codes related to gender, sexuality and race. And we have technology constantly monitoring every click of the mouse, message from our keyboard or even word uttered by our mouth. And perhaps most concerning is the number of people who digest the messaging disseminated through our news media but don’t realise how controlled the messaging is. It is not hard to imagine our world morphing into another iteration of communism with millions of people naively celebrating such a sinister transformation of society! After all, it always comes out of a crisis for the good of the people.

The bottom line – Travelling to a different culture and meeting people who’ve lived in other times can hugely impact us. It should have a significant impact on us. Insightful lessons that will enrich our lives. Haunting warnings to protect us. If we have the privilege of travelling and go eager to learn, it will change us.

So, what do we do as Christians when we open our Bibles? What happens when we preach the Bible to others? We get to travel to a different world.

1. A different world geographically & culturally – Good bible study and biblical preaching will take our imaginations to the battlefields of ancient Israel, the throne rooms of ancient kings, the living rooms of ancient peasants, and the discussion forum of ancient philosophers. We will visit the Sinai peninsula’s wilderness, the fishing villages of Galilee, the arid hills around Jerusalem, the stormy Mediterranean sea, and strategic cities around one section of the Roman empire.

2. A different world educationally – Good bible study and biblical preaching will take our hearts right into the crowd hearing Moses preach. Or we might join the crowd hearing an Old Testament prophet proclaim God’s message. We might sit on the grass and hear Jesus teach. Or perhaps overhear the apostles announcing the resurrection. We will spend time being mentored by the experience of a young shepherd fighting for his nation, a want-away prophet running from his calling, or a height-challenged tax collector hiding in a tree. Wonderful enrichment for life and haunting warnings await us if we just travel into the Bible with our hearts open and ready to learn.

3. A different world entirely – Good bible study and biblical preaching take us to faraway lands and insightful mentors and, beyond that, give us a glimpse into another world. The Bible is not an old travelogue. We are earthbound and tend to think very “down here” kinds of thoughts. But heaven has broken into our world, and we can hear from the world of love where God is forever reigning, without caveat or coup. We might pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In the Bible, we get not only those words to pray but also the life-changing revelation of what that all means. 

Every day we have the privilege of travel with all its life enrichment, haunting warnings and unique mentoring opportunities. Open your Bible with an open heart. And every time we share our biblical travels with others in conversation or preaching, we can take them with us. Don’t shortchange yourself or others by simply grabbing for an applicational point or a quick anecdote. 

Too many of us visit the world of the Bible like a traveller in transit through an airport. We might pick up a local bar of chocolate in a kiosk, but we haven’t truly been to the country, and our lives show no evidence of impact. What would it look like to really go? To meaningfully visit? To spend time with the people, to see the sights, to be lastingly changed? 

_________________________________

By the way, after going through the Psalms in 2022 on YouTube, I am planning to spend the next months offering short videos related to the subject of studying and enjoying our Bibles. Please let me know, at any time, if you have an idea that would help that playlist become more useful to you or your church!

Definition Matters – 7 Pro-Am Preaching Points

Definition matters massively. One person might say, “professional preachers are the problem!” Then another person might say, “amateur preachers are the problem!” And both might be right. It all depends on what they mean by what they say.

1. “Professional” can be referring to very different issues. What image does the term “professional” bring to mind? You might think of a person’s skill, or how they handle their communications with customers, or their manner in person, or their motivation for what they do. That is already four variations of potential meaning for the term “professional.” Perhaps an electrician is called to solve a problem in your house. They might be a real professional in their work (positive – they knew exactly what to do), their invoice was very professional looking (positive – good communications), their conversation and manner in conversation might have been a bit professional (negative – cold or aloof communications), and their reason for working may have seemed too professional (negative – it was all about the money).

2. “Amateur” can be referring to very different issues, too. What image does the term “amateur” bring to mind? You might think in the same categories as before. Perhaps the electrician was amateur in their work (negative – they did not know what to do), their invoice looked very amateur (negative – sloppy communication), their conversation might convey the enthusiasm of an amateur (positive – they love what they do), and their reason for work may have been the best side of an amateur (positive – they do it for the love of their craft).

3. In terms of skill, be professional. I don’t want someone showing “amateurish” skill levels when they fix my car, cut my hair, or operate on me. Skill is good. In reality, some of the most skilled people in the world may not be paid for what they do, while some who are paid should not be allowed anywhere near your car, your scalp or a scalpel. So actually, pay is irrelevant. The point is about skill. So as a preacher, it does not matter to this point whether you are paid to preach or not. In terms of skill, be as professional as possible. Read, learn, study, grow. Be a good steward of the ministry opportunity God has given you.

4. In respect to motivation, be amateur. When someone’s vocation has been “professionalised” then their motivation becomes suspect. This is why a nationally known car exhaust company may not be trusted (did they do more work than was needed in order to get more of my money?) Or why it is a problem if your medical practitioner is incentivized by drug companies to prescribe treatments to as many people as possible (whether they need the treatment or not!) In this respect, skill is not the issue. The point is about motivation. A highly skilled mechanic who rips off the customer is not to be celebrated. A brilliant clinician who risks lives to increase their income should be prosecuted. So as a preacher, your skill level (in this point) is not my concern. In terms of motivation, be as amateur as possible. Love God, love people, and love your craft. Be driven by the privilege of getting to speak God’s Word to people for their benefit.

5. And in the area of interpersonal communication, be genuine. I have underlined issues of skill and motivation, but interpersonal communication is also part of the package. Coming across as too professional can be problematic, even when you are not preaching. Coming across as an amateur might be an issue too. Instead, how about we settle on the need to be genuine? It does not resolve all the complexity of conversational dynamics, but it does leave us with two clear points to finish.

6. As a preacher, let’s do what we do as well as we can. If that means being professional in some sense, so be it. We certainly don’t want to be amateurish.

7. As a preacher, let’s do what we do with heartfelt motivation. If that means being amateurs in some sense, so be it. We certainly don’t want to be professionalised.

The definition of labels is important. This is an example worth pondering as far as preaching is concerned and how we might view our ministry. We should preach as professionals in the sense of “to the best of our ability” and as amateurs in the sense of “with the passion of a captured heart.” We should not preach as professionals in the sense of “relying on our own ability,” or “just for money,” nor as amateurs in the sense of “to a poor standard.”

It is also an example to keep in mind in a world where labels so easily get applied as a pejorative, and the mud sticks because people don’t question what is really meant.

______________________________________

In the next week or so I will be completing my short video collection through the Psalms. Please do check it out and share with any who may find it helpful as a reference, or better yet, as a companion through the Psalms in 2023!

The Incarnation is Not Just for Christmas

We all say it every year. Where did this year go? Before we know it, the year has slid past, the temperatures have dropped, and the shops swell with Christmas sights, sounds, and shoppers. In church, we are busy preparing for the nativity play and dusting off the carols for their annual airing. We will hear the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, a briefer reading from Isaiah’s Immanuel section, or Micah chapter 5, and soon Christmas will be all over.

But the Incarnation is not just for Christmas.

The Incarnation is critical to the Christian faith. At some point during these weeks, someone will point out that Easter is the reason for the season. They are not wrong. Jesus had to be born to live the perfect life and then die in our place. But that is not the whole story. The Son of God became one of us for several reasons, including God’s great rescue mission.

I have introduced three more reasons that the Incarnation is not just for Christmas. To read the article, please click this link and then check out all the other great resources on the Union website!

Work To Really Know a Passage – 7 Thoughts

This might seem like a really obvious thing to say, but I think it needs to be said. We have to really work hard in order to really know a passage before we preach it.

It is very easy to assume we know a passage. It is very hard to recognize how much we don’t know. But learning to think clearly about your own thinking is a critical skill for the preacher.

Here are some thoughts to consider:

1. Knowing a passage involves more than knowing some highlights or landmarks in it. After reading a passage and spending some time in study, you may be able to identify some key features of the passage. You might be able to say that there is the truth in verse 3, and the truth in verse 5 and then the conclusion in verse 9. Do you know the passage? No, you are aware of some highlights in the passage.

2. Knowing a passage involves more than being able to launch preaching points from phrases in it. You might feel ready to preach because verse 3 mentions justification (and you have some things to say about justification), and then verse 5 mentions hope (and you have a nice illustration you want to share about hope), etc. Are you ready to preach the passage if you have some good preaching points ready to launch? No.

3. Knowing a passage involves more than being able to talk about each phrase with theological truth. But what if your preaching content is not illustrations, but rich theological truths? Maybe you have a whole theology of justification that you can launch in verse 3, and then you can make a presentation on sanctification because of a key word that appears later in the passage? Surely if it is rich theological truth, then you are ready to preach? No. Not if the passage is not saying what you are planning to say. Just because wind appears in John 3 does not mean that I should preach about God’s view of changing weather patterns from it.

4. Knowing a passage involves more than reading some commentaries about the passage. It is not a bad idea to have some conversation partners in your study. Other live humans can be super helpful. As can published ones. But even if I can quote from impressive commentaries, it does not mean that I really understand the passage yet. By all means use the best resources you can access, but remember the goal is still for you to understand the passage, not just to have studied things written about it.

5. Knowing a passage involves understanding the details as they work together in a coherent whole. This is where many preachers seem to stumble. They do reasonably well with the details. They speak theological truth. They associate that truth with the wording in the passage. But if they don’t recognize how the details are working together in the passage, they don’t know the passage. Remember, your goal is not to study a passage in order to find a sermon. Your first goal is to study it in order to understand it.

6. Knowing a passage involves understanding the flow of thought in the passage, with an awareness of context. A passage sits in a book, as part of the whole. If you don’t understand how the passage works in the book, how can you really grasp what the passage itself means? So we need to study each passage in its whole book, as well as whole Bible, context. The point is, each passage was written to communicate something specific, and we need to figure that out. Our job is not to generate meaning by creativity, but to find meaning by dogged humble persistence.

7. Knowing a passage means being able to explain it so that the original author would affirm your grasp of its essential meaning. That sounds like a bold goal. It is. That is why we can’t just study until we feel a message emerging. As preachers we can generate messages out of nothing. But God has given us something very specific. And unless we grow in our confidence that it is possible to communicate the essential meaning of a passage to a level where the original author would affirm our explanation, then we will not put in the work necessary to be ready to preach.

Implication? The big implication of this post is simple. Don’t be so confident that you know the meaning of a passage. Study more. Study longer. Study humble. Study persistently. Make it your goal to know the passage better than you ever have before, to be able to handle questions about specific aspects of the passage, and be willing to explain the meaning of the text even to the original author himself…and then start thinking about how you will preach it!

The Gospel is Not Amnesty

Recently an article in The Atlantic has created a stir.  In it, Emily Oster called for a pandemic amnesty.  She gave the examples of cloth masks and closed beaches, which both turned out to be pointless actions – but at the time, she points out, we didn’t know.  She writes that we need to learn from our mistakes and move on, focussing on the future rather than getting into a “repetitive doom loop” by analysing what went wrong.  She recalls being called a “teacher killer” for advocating that children were a low-risk group and should be allowed back into school.  She thinks it best that we do not dwell on things from a time when people just didn’t know better.  

I generally do not flag up articles from political publications of any persuasion, but I think this is important.  Why?  Because if the media decides to push an idea, that idea will become part of our everyday vocabulary.  I can imagine well-meaning Christians then taking that notion and seeking to co-opt it for the communication of the Gospel.  But the Gospel is not an amnesty.

What is amnesty?  An amnesty is an official pardon generally offered by governments to political prisoners for specific offences.  Technically, it differs from a pardon because it is offered to those not yet convicted but subject to prosecution.  A pardon relieves the convicted from the burden of punishment, but an amnesty forgets the offence ever took place.  An amnesty allows a nation to move on after political turmoil, especially where punishing such crimes would only entrench division and make national unity impossible. 

Notice that the cultural contradiction here is striking.  On the one hand, if we did anything wrong in the past two years, then there should be an amnesty.  After all, we didn’t know.  (And if we “fact-checked,” censored and silenced every scientist and doctor who did not support the official narrative; or if we vilified anyone who dared to question the prescribed behaviours; or if we dismissed the many voices who tried to tell us otherwise?  Well, that doesn’t matter because we are saying that we didn’t know.)

However, let’s say someone in the distant past can be connected somehow to a current issue of concern.  If that person ever expressed an opinion or even wrote a footnote that is now considered unacceptable, what then?  Well, there can be no pardon or understanding that they lived in a different time.  They will be tarred with one vast brushstroke of condemnation if we choose.  Then we must tear down their statues, ban their books, and erase them from our museums, libraries and education system.

Of course, there is something incredibly self-serving in this contradiction.  If the offender was in the past, I can signal my virtue by raging without knowing anything about them.  If the offender might have been me, I can protect myself and my tribe from scrutiny or accountability by signalling my virtue and calling for amnesty.  In the recent past, we didn’t know, so amnesty will allow us all to move forward.  In the distant past, they didn’t know, but we will show no mercy!

What are the implications of this call for amnesty?  Don’t investigate me or my tribe, we don’t want any scrutiny; let’s just move on.  Don’t convict me or any of my tribe; let us be considered innocent.  Don’t hold me or anyone I like accountable; let’s forget our offences.  (I mentioned at the beginning of this post that the article’s author, Emily Oster, pushed for schools to re-open.  To be balanced, I should note she also advocated for more stringent lockdowns, plus employer and student vaccine mandates.  In the article, it is clear her call for amnesty does not extend to the perceived offences of people on the other side.)

I think most people understand that in the initial weeks of the pandemic, so much was not known.  People were willing to do whatever they could that might help to save lives.  But that period gave way to a much longer season with a very different tone.  In this subsequent season, anyone questioning or offering evidence contrary to the official position was vilified, cancelled, censored and silenced.  It is still happening.  Critical voices remain banned from social media.  Leading doctors are losing their medical licences.  Ignorance cannot excuse the casting aside of fundamental human rights while censoring and vilifying any who might be better informed.  If this approach is allowed, the result will be a society where quietly obeying the official opinion is the only safe position to take.  The dangers of such a society are unfathomable.  You do not have to look far back in history to see the devastation caused by such regimes.  And so, any pursuit of justice is not with the members of the public.  They repeated the only information they were supposed to hear.  The pursuit of justice must be with policymakers at all levels of government and medicine, their influencers, their mouthpieces on TV, and the thought police in social media offices.

Does amnesty help the future, or would the future be better served by genuine inquiry and accountability?  Surely there must be accountability, or it can all happen again.  The job of decision-makers is to seek out the best data and make the best decisions.  Evidently, they did not have adequate data for all their assertions.  Yet those assertions were deemed unquestionable and were made with such certainty.  Now it is too late to go back and restore lost lives, or give families the final goodbyes they should have had in the hospital and at the funeral, or give the diagnoses that were missed at a more treatable stage of the disease, or give the withheld medical care that was needed.  It is too late to restart the destroyed businesses, or fix the harm done to children’s education, mental and physical health, or restore trust in those vilified for speaking truth, or restore the months of church gatherings, social gatherings, travel for family visits, or restore the economy, etc.  No, there is a lot we cannot undo.  But if there is no accountability, how will lessons be learned?  How will fundamental human rights and the principles of a free society be protected from such abuse in the future?  Amnesty is not a legitimate solution for our post-pandemic world.

We could pursue this discussion concerning so many specific pandemic issues past and present.  But actually, this is not a post about Covid-19.  It is a post about amnesty and how it is not the Gospel.

Three Gospel points to ponder:

1.  The Gospel includes justice and accountability.  If the media push the notion of amnesty, it will become part of our current vocabulary as a society.  And some in Christian circles will use the word because they long to laud the wonders of a God who believes the best and overlooks all offences.  This “no judgment” theology tends to come from people who have lived in a safe country and have not personally experienced the kinds of evil that are so prevalent in much of the world.  When evil runs rampant, people understandably long for justice.  Ultimately, every eye will see that God is perfectly just, and the price of every sin in human history will be fully paid.  The idea of a non-judgmental God may resonate with our culture, but it is not good news!

2.  Amnesty avoids unresolvable tension, but only true forgiveness forges genuine relationship.  When a new government offers amnesty to political opponents, it does not remove the differences or guarantee actual unity.  It merely makes possible a pathway forward.  But when someone owns their sin, confesses and repents, we can see a genuine relationship established and strengthened.  Too many parents offer amnesty to their children and wonder why their relationship is not closer as they move forward. Amnesty is undoubtedly easier, but maybe true reconciliation is worth the necessary work in a family or society. God certainly didn’t choose an easy route.  He makes us his children by inviting us to humble ourselves as he offers full forgiveness to bring us into the closest possible relationship with Him.  That invitation is in light of all he has done in Jesus’ atoning death on the cross.  God doesn’t hide from our sin; he dealt with it in full and then invited us to humble ourselves and accept genuine forgiveness. 

3.  The Gospel reveals that the true God is not just angry, nor is he merely loving.  Justice and mercy meet perfectly in the God of the Bible.  His heart toward a fallen and rebellious humanity is both just and loving.  God does not simply overlook offences for the sake of a future with tensions lingering below the surface.  Amnesty offers absolution without addressing justice – no payment, punishment, or accountability.  God does not offer amnesty.  God has paid the great and humiliating price for true justice, thereby inviting once rebellious sinners into his glorious embrace as his beloved children. 

Perfect justice, wondrous love.  God offers so much more than mere amnesty.  And that is genuinely good news!

__________________________________________

Here is the link to the Oster article.

Useful article along similar lines to this post – The problem with declaring a pandemic amnesty

and a pre-pandemic article worth considering – The Gospel is better than amnesty

8 Pulses to Check this December

As we come to the end of another year, the finish line is in sight.  Christmas plans are in place, and all those events will soon be over.  Before you know it, we will be into 2023 with all the familiarity of a New Year and the uncertainties of a new year.  We know people will join the gym and try to read through their Bible, but we never know what is about to happen.

Between the Christmas events finishing and the launch of 2023, let’s take a moment to take the pulse, actually, several pulses.  If you are involved in church ministry, then here are some pulses you need to be checking:

1.  God.  How does God feel about your church?  How does God’s heart beat for all that matters to you?  God’s heart is your ultimate concern.  Knowing God’s heart doesn’t require mystical guesswork.  It requires time in the Bible and time in prayer.  We should prayerfully prepare every sermon we preach, and I think it is wise to seek God’s heart for each passage and how it should land in the hearts of your listeners.  But why not take the year-end as an opportunity to seek God’s heart about your church, your ministry, and your part in His plans? 

2.  Society.  Are you aware of what is going on in society?  There is a whole edifice presented by the media, the news, and the current catalogue of acceptable issues and concerns.  We need to have our finger on the pulse of society, whether we agree with all of it or not.  That sense of what is normal will throb in the veins of the people you encounter daily.

3.  Reality.  Are you in touch with what you are not supposed to think?  There will usually be significant parts of society that are not convenient for reality as presented in the media.  It is good to have a sense of what people are thinking but not saying.  Or what they are saying but you are not allowed to hear.  It is good to know what is happening, and sometimes others will need you to point beyond the cultural narrative they are constantly hearing.

4.  Congregation.  Your congregation is not a perfect representation of your society.  The culture is pushed along by sophisticated ideas and/or unsophisticated entertainment.  Still, your congregation is a specific group in a particular location.  The country could be thriving while your part of town is economically depressed, or vice versa.  The nation could be gripped by avant-garde notions, while your congregation may seem to be living a generation behind.  Who is in your church?  What are their concerns?  How are they doing?  The culture may be focused on saving the planet, but your people may be more worried about staying warm and paying their bills this winter.

5.  Future Congregation.  It is understandable that we tend to focus on the flock God gave us.  But it is also wise to ponder what the future may look like for your church.  If you have a very established congregation, you still need to preach to people new to the church.  They may not even be coming yet, but preach to them anyway.  Your congregation will not feel comfortable bringing them along if you don’t make it a suitable environment.  So, what kind of people might God want to add to your church in the coming years?  Why not prayerfully think about preaching as if they are already attending so the church is ready to receive them when they do?

6. Co-Workers.  If your church program gives you room to breathe, be sure to prayerfully consider the health of your coworkers.  You know that your church is not your church.  You cannot do everything yourself and your church would be in dire straits if all your coworkers were to quit or burnout.  Whether they are paid staff members, or busy volunteers who give sacrificially of their “spare” time, how are they doing?  Pray for them.  Reach out to them.  Write them a note to thank them.  Make sure that you do not head into 2023 unaware of warning signs from those around you.

7.  Me.  Ministry can take its toll.  How are you doing?  Are you in a good place with God?  How much has your ministry depleted your energy reserves?  Are any situations weighing heavily on you and setting off warning lights?  Are you letting yourself slide in any areas, succumbing to temptation, or developing unhealthy habits?  The end of the year is an excellent time to take your pulse before launching into another year.  Take your pulse spiritually, physically, mentally, and emotionally.  How is your walk with Christ?  Are you looking after yourself properly?  Do you have the relationships you need to thrive?  Is someone mentoring you?  Are you mentoring someone?  Who can you be open with as a peer?  Who is looking out for your heart?  Are you proactively meeting people outside of church circles?  Oh, and don’t trust yourself to self-evaluate.  Ask God to search you and try you, and ask those close to you for their perspective as well.

8.  Family.  Ministry can take its toll.  How is your family?  It is easy to sacrifice your family on the altar of ministry, but is God honoured when you do that?  Suppose you have a child who is not thriving spiritually. Would it make sense to devote more time to your primary responsibility of parenting?  You might even do well to consider a sabbatical or taking a step back to pursue their heart for a season.  I know it is complicated if you depend on ministry for your income, but many readers are not receiving a salary.  And whether you are or not, it could be a significant example to others to see you put family first and seek to win the hearts closest to home.  It is not a simple decision.  Nevertheless, I raise it because too many of us would not even consider stepping back from the ministry that gives us too much of our identity to care for the people God has most entrusted to us.  Nobody else can be your spouse’s spouse, and you only get a limited window with that child still under your roof.  Of course, you may find such drastic changes are not needed.  But perhaps you need to tweak some things at home so that your church ministry can flow out of greater strength at the family level?

I know we are taking a deep breath before the chaos of Christmas.  I pray that your Christmas events will proclaim the peace that only Christ can bring into this desperately needy world.  And I also pray that we will all get the opportunity to take a deep breath after it is all over.  May we all take the opportunity to check the pulse in these areas and head into the New Year looking to Christ for each of the needs we discover!

________________________________

This year’s video quest through the Psalms will soon reach the finish line. Here is Psalm 139:

Christmas Shopping?

I am really grateful to the team at 10ofThose for all their hard work getting great Christian books out at a great price. They are now fully launched in the USA as well, so I wanted to unashamedly point you to their website!

The good folks at 10ofThose have revamped the affiliate pages for us. If you are thinking about Christmas gifts, why not take a look at this page and go hunting through the rest of the site. If you are in the USA, you may not know about 10ofThose yet, but you should – a great company run by great people!

Click on the appropriate link below, and a small percentage of your spend will also go to our support (thank you!)

If you are in North America:

If you are in the UK/Europe:

Different (1 Thessalonians – part 5)

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is like a training manual for a young church. He has taught about the impact of the gospel in chapter 1, giving ourselves to build up the body of Christ in chapter 2, and praying for each other to thrive spiritually in chapter 3. Then in chapter 4, he offered some truths that would make a difference in their lives. So now, in chapter 5, he lands the letter underlining some differences that the gospel makes for believers. In a sense, he has come full circle.

How is the church you preach to supposed to be different?

1. Not naïve, but alert & hopeful. How easily we can lose our bearings as believers. Especially as relatively comfortable believers. It is so easy to get caught up in the hype of our society and fall into the naïve trap of thinking, “there is peace and security.”  After all, our country has been free and secure for generations. And the everyday stuff of life is carrying on as it has for as long as we can remember: the sports calendar, the TV series, the progression of seasons, the endless cycle of monotonous news, etc. Yes, our world is declaring certain destruction of the planet and will pat itself on the back for every effort to rescue our future from its terrible fate. Meanwhile, some of the loudest voices continue to buy their beachfront properties while proclaiming the scientific certainty of destructively rising sea levels. And so we must all play along with their panic. But despite all the shouts, most people still have a naïve confidence that nothing will actually change. The news is just noise. There is no credible threat to my safety and sense of peace.

And yet, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 seems to expect Christians to be different. Christians are supposed to be marked by alertness, discernment, sobriety, readiness and hope. Our faith, hope and love are not typical of humanity in any age. We do not stand apart by pretending all is well or spouting nice Christian platitudes. This world is heading for sudden destruction and wrath. And amid a society that tinkers as the empire heats up, we know our salvation is in Christ, so we encourage and build one another up.

2. Not self-absorbed, but purposeful. How easily we can reflect the relational dynamics of our fallen world. When selfish materialism gripped society, it was easy for Christians to play that game with a smug sense of sanctification (God is blessing me!)  What if society is now becoming enchanted by a new, but still self-serving, moral ideology? Well, it will also be easy for Christians to play that game. Many already are. We only need to learn hypersensitivity to certain moral trigger concepts and remember to celebrate brand-new self-defined and unquestionable identities. The morality of intersectional identity politics is replacing the ethics of liberal democracy. However, Christians will still simply add a Bible verse to their version of it and fit right in. 

And yet, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-14 seems to expect Christians to be different. Like many in the New Testament, this passage describes a community gripped by a counter-cultural perspective that shapes a more purposeful and selfless set of relational dynamics. Instead of a subtle rebellion against leadership, there is to be respect, esteem and love. Instead of interpersonal squabbling, whether the garden fence gossiping of yesteryear or the proactive and unfiltered taking of offence and wholesale interpersonal condemnation of today, Paul’s language of living at peace is radically different. And instead of using the community for my selfish goals (think classic networking in strategic gatherings or contemporary social narcissism on the media platform of your choice), the Christian community differentiates need among people so it can selflessly address each need. A loving Christian community should feel radically different.

3. Not worldly, but distinctly His.  How easily we can lose our distinctness as followers of Jesus. We are like fish swimming in a spiritually fallen fish tank and still assume what we experience is normal. And since our experience defines normality, our conduct will tend to reflect it. We compete. We get our own back. We moan. We can be prayerless, thankless, and unspiritual. We can live only by what we see. We can indulge.

And yet, 1 Thessalonians 5:15-28 seems to be urging us to be different. There are instructions that counter the list of normal behaviours listed above. And there is the closing benediction, where Paul prays that the God of peace will sanctify, set apart, make holy, transform, and distinguish. How much? Completely.  How blameless? Every aspect of our being. And is that transformation down to us? No, God is faithful and will surely do it. The Christian church should be radically and progressively more different because we are not called to fix ourselves, but we are called by the One who can bring about the necessary change in us. 

___________________

Hacks (1 Thessalonians – part 4)

1 Thessalonians is like a training manual for a young church.  So far, we have thought about the impact of the gospel, giving ourselves to build up the body of Christ and praying for each other to thrive spiritually.  Chapter 4 is like a catalogue of Christian truth-hacks – things that will help people to thrive in a challenging world.  As pastors and preachers, we need to know these truths and share them with our churches:

1.  They can know God’s will.  Bruce Waltke made a fascinating point in his book about guidance.  He says that divine guidance is often treated as a bit of a conundrum.  However, he points out that in the ancient world, pagan religions were obsessed with finding some sort of guidance from the higher realm.  They would diligently study the ashes, entrails, or whatever other indication they could find in order to get a hint from beyond this world.  Sometimes Christians act like we are in an ancient superstitious religion trying to make something out of nothing.  In reality, we have an entire collection of books inspired by God.  In some churches the Bible is subtly (or not so subtly) pushed aside in favour of some kind of speculative new revelation and guidance from God.  People engage in a game of celestial hide and seek with a God who is never easy to pin down.  And yet, we have the Bible.  Properly read, it will not tell you which specific college to attend or person to marry.  But it will tell you the kind of wisdom needed to make such decisions.  It will reveal God’s values so that as you know him more and more, you can better reflect his values in the decisions you make.  And in chapter 4 of 1 Thessalonians, it does underline something that should be self-evident if you have spent time in God’s Word – his will for you is your sanctification.  You do not have to wrestle with whether or not God wants you to succeed in your sinful scheme.  He does not.  And if your goal is to please Him, then you already have the Spirit of God, so live holy.

2.  They can know a human shortcut for decision-making.  There is always complexity in making decisions, but sometimes the Bible gives us some simplicity too.  For the Thessalonians, they were loving one another, and they simply needed urging to do so more and more (see 1Thess.4:9-12).  It is a bit like Colossians 3:12-14, where Paul gives a list of instructions and then says, “above all these, put on love, which binds them together in perfect harmony.”  They should live in such a way that they are not making an unnecessary show of themselves, or being an unnecessary burden on others, or giving an unhelpful testimony to outsiders.  Do the loving thing.  I know there is complexity in that, but let’s be thankful for the simplicity too!

3.  They can know encouragement in the face of death.  This young church was introduced to the hope of Christ’s return during Paul’s brief visit to their town.  Bizarrely, we live in a time when secular reporters and political leaders might use the language of “disasters on a biblical scale,” “Armageddon,” “apocalyptic,” etc.. Yet, the church can be eerily quiet on our subject of eschatology.  The Thessalonians were not concerned with sinister global plots.  They were concerned because some of their fellow believers had died.  When death hits a congregation, the focus is understandably localised.  Did those who had died miss out on Christ’s return?  Paul wrote to encourage them, and to encourage them to encourage one another.  That’s what a biblical understanding of the end times will do for a church – it will stir hope and a heavenward, Christ-ward gaze.  Death is brimming with the pain of separation.  But we have a hope that answers that pain.  Those who have died will be brought “together with” Jesus when he comes (v14).  When Christ calls, we will be caught up “together with them” in the clouds.  Together, our forever state will be “together with the Lord” (v17).  Death, for believers, stirs anticipation of being together!  As death becomes a more prominent feature of your congregation’s experience in the coming years, let’s encourage one another with these words (v18).