Tuesday, September 30, 2014

BACK TO UGANDA 2014

In just a couple of weeks I’ll be boarding a flight in Seattle destined to Entebbe by way of London.  It will be my sixth trip there and I’ll be joining 11 others, six from the east coast and six from the west.  We will be there from October 16th through the 31st.  Please pray for us in our travels and as we serve.

Every trip to the region has been special in its own unique way according to the dynamics of its team and the particulars of its goals.  This upcoming trip is special both in respect to the size of the team and the ambition goals that have been set forth.  We will be conducting the same type of ministries (i.e. pastor conferences; home visits; medical assistance; ministry to youth).  But our plan this time is to conduct five separate pastor conferences in five different locations for the five pastor alliances.

That the ministry has grown in such a short period of time to encompass these five different alliances, with all of their associated pastors and churches, is a remarkable thing in itself.  When I first visited, there was but one pastor alliance.  Pastor Bob Emrich and Paul Mwesigwa had worked together with a group of pastors to facilitate the creation of that first alliance.  The pastors agreed to cooperate according to a basic statement of faith and some guiding principles.  The “pastor’s alliance” provided a venue through which outside assistance could be provided (i.e. training, Bibles, resources) and mutual support and encouragement could be obtained. 

That first pastor’s alliance proved to be of tremendous benefit to the pastors and soon there was another nearby group that wanted what the first group had.  A second alliance was formed, then a third, then a fourth, and now a fifth.  What started as a ministry to the pastors and churches surrounding Kabaale Village has grown to encompass well over 100 pastors and churches in a large region of the Masaka District (and even beyond).  God is at work in these churches.  Pastors and churches are being strengthened and the gospel message is going forth.

These are the kinds of things that God does.  He works by His grace according to a “far more abundantly than we ask or think” manner (Cf. Ephesians 3:20).  The beginnings of the ministry of Hope and Mercy Mission can be traced back to a prayer uttered over a decade ago.  Paul Mwesigwa and his family, dismayed by the plight of the numerous orphaned children, prayed asking God what could be done for them.  The answer was God’s provision through Paul of a Christian school.  That school quickly filled.  Some years later a bigger school building was built.  Churches from America came and built other buildings and dug a well.  Hope and Mercy Mission was founded.  Medical folks came to care for people.  Others came to train pastors and conduct children’s ministries.  What started in a simple prayer in one place has grown into a ministry that encompasses over 100 churches.

On my last visit to Uganda I was particularly blessed by an unexpected surprise.  I had written a book entitled “First Steps with Jesus” that was then translated into Lugandan that it might serve as a resource for the believers in the region.  We took 500 copies of that book with me on the last visit and will be taking 700 this time.  I worked hard on putting a cover together for the book, searching through hundreds of Uganda pictures for a picture of a path that would coincide with the book’s title.  I finally found just the right one.  I didn’t think too much about that until my Uncle Bob asked me, during that last trip, about the picture on the cover.  It turned out that the picture was one he had taken on a previous visit and had then passed on to me.  He said that he could show me the spot where the picture was taken.  So we got out of our chairs and crossed through the village and descended a path to a spot that overlooked a valley and some hills beyond.  Bob shared with me how he had come to that spot and prayed asking God to take the gospel message beyond those hills.  In the work of Hope and Mercy mission God has indeed answered Bob’s prayer. 

There is another exciting thing about this upcoming trip to Uganda.  40 years ago or so I was not long graduated from high school and would soon be joining the Navy.  About the same time my Uncle Bob was living in Seaside and was attending the local community college.  My Uncle Frank was tending bar in Beaverton.  None of us were saved.  None of us knew a thing about the Bible.  In fact, no one in our entire extended family knew Jesus.

About 40 years ago or so 3 teens went out from Lewis and Clark Bible Church knocking on doors and talking to people about Jesus.  They knocked on my Uncle Bob’s door.  He invited them in.  He deemed them foolish and had fun at their expense.  They returned to the church and asked people to pray for him.  He came to the church, but not for the right reasons.  He dressed in smelly clothes and parked his truck with a dog in the back next to the building (knowing that it would bark incessantly during the service).  He expected the people to turn him away, but that’s not what happened.  They greeted him and reached out to him and not too long afterwards, having heard the gospel, he trusted in Jesus.  He began praying for his brother Frank.  Despite Frank’s antagonistic response, Bob continued to witness to him.  And then one day Frank trusted in Jesus too.  They both were praying for me.  And then God intervened in my life and I was saved.  We’ve all been pastoring in our respective churches for decades, but we’ve never had the opportunity to serve together before.  We’ll be together doing that on this trip. 

I’m thinking that those teens who knocked on Bob’s door some 40 years or so ago would have never deemed possible that which has transpired as a result of their visit.  That God would work such that in the course of years three pastors would travel half-way around the world to share the same message that they shared with Bob that day. 

Paul’s family’s prayer for their village, Bob’s prayer for the region, a church praying for a lost person—these inconspicuous prayers have all been answered by God in a dramatic and unexpected way.  For He is able to do “far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Cf. Ephesians 3:20).  “To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:21)!

WIDOW CARE (1 Timothy Chapter 5)

1 Timothy 5:3-16, “Honor widows who are truly widows.  But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God.  She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day, but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives.  Command these things as well, so that they may be without reproach.  But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.  Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work.  But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith.  Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not.  So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander.  For some have already strayed after Satan.  If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them.  Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows.”

This passage represents the Bible’s most extensive treatment on the subject of care for widows.  God, who “executes justice for the fatherless and the widow,” cares about how we care for them (Cf. Deuteronomy 10:17).  Jesus concerned Himself with seeing to His widowed mother’s future needs (Cf. John 19:26-27).  That He fulfilled His responsibility while dying for the sins of all mankind speaks to the priority God places on such matters.  The early church cared for its widows.  When a conflict arose over partiality shown in the distribution of food to widows, the apostles immediately intervened.  They appointed well-qualified men to oversee the matter so that every widow would be provided for and treated fairly (Cf. Acts 6:1-6).

The church needs to honor its widows.  A widow typically receives much attention and assistance immediately following the death of their loved one.  But what about the proceeding weeks and months?  This passage speaks to the need for the church to honor certain widows—those who are said to be “truly widows” (1 Timothy 5:1, 5, 16)—by providing ongoing practical support for them.  There were differences in that day as opposed to ours.  There was no such things as Social Security.  There were no government programs or social agencies tasked with caring for folks in need.  The church was tasked with the responsibility of caring for its members, and especially for those who had no visible means of support—like widows and orphans (Cf. James 1:27). 

Practical need for help is not sufficient grounds in itself for providing assistance.  There are certain qualifications that need to be met.  The widow’s circumstances and reputation are to be examined before she is to be enrolled on the list of those widows to be provided for (Cf. 1 Timothy 5:9).  With respect to her family situation she is to be all alone and without family able to help her out, for it is the family that is first obligated (Cf. 1 Timothy 5:4, 8, 16).  Another practical consideration is her age.  She is to be “not less than sixty years of age” (1 Timothy 5:9).

These are all matters related to the need of the church to exercise good stewardship.  But the care for widows has also to do with the church’s testimony.  On the one hand, as a component of that, there is the need for the church to demonstrate Christ-like love by caring for those in need.  On the other hand, it could potentially damage the church’s testimony if assistance is provided to a widow who possesses a bad reputation.  In order to guard its testimony the church can only subsidize the activities of widows who prove themselves to be exemplary in their conduct.  Such widows are those who set their hope on God and devote themselves to prayer (Cf. 1 Timothy 5:5).  They are those who have been devoted mates, mothers, and good deed doers (Cf. 1 Timothy 5:10).  They likewise have demonstrated their capacity to serve others in various ways (Cf. 1 Timothy 5:10).

Our society is an aging one.  There are many elderly folks, men and women, who may not have need of financial assistance, but genuinely have need of someone who cares.  They long for nothing more than to hear from or see their loved ones—but far-too-often nobody calls or visits.  The church has an obligation to provide practical assistance to those who are truly widows, but we all have an obligation to care.  God cares about the bereaved and lonely.  We should too.

Monday, September 29, 2014

DIET AND EXERCISE (1 Timothy Chapter 4)

1 Timothy 4:6-8, “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in words of the faith and of the good doctrine which you have followed.  Have nothing to do with irreverent silly myths.  Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”

As most everyone knows maintaining a good diet and regular exercise are both essential to one’s health.  I’ve had some experience in these matters this year.  Over the course of six months I lost a lot of weight by making some drastic changes to my diet and exercise routine.  It was a lot of work, but the result was well worth the effort--I’ve got much more energy and my knees are happy for the reduced burden.  What is true in the physical realm holds true in the spiritual.  Maintaining a healthy spiritual diet and regular exercise are both essential to one’s spiritual health.

The immediate context of our passage has to do with Paul’s counsel to Timothy regarding false teachers (Cf. 1 Timothy 4:1-5).  Amongst other falsehoods, these false teachers were forbidding marriage and advocating the abstinence of certain foods (Cf. 1 Timothy 4:3).  They had erroneously supposed such activities to be of some spiritual benefit.  But, as Paul instructed Timothy, “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:5).

Essential to a person’s spiritual heath is “being trained in words of the faith and of the good doctrine” (1 Timothy 4:6).  The NASB translates the phrase “being trained” as “constantly nourished.”  The term means to “train up, nurture” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary).  In this context it relates to the “good doctrine” which is essential to one’s spiritual growth (Cf. 1 Peter 2:2).  The term translated “good” means “to be healthy, sound in health” (Vine’s).  There are other kinds of unhealthy doctrines, like the spiritually poisonous junk food that the false teachers were peddling (i.e. “teaching of demons”, 1 Timothy 4:1; “irreverent silly myths”; 1 Timothy 4:7).  Those kinds of doctrines need to be rejected.  In the spiritual sense, we need to be careful what we “eat.”  Our bodies depend on the nutritional benefit garnered in partaking of good, healthy foods.  We are likewise spiritually healthy to the extent we are ongoingly nourished through the good doctrine assimilated through the Word. 

There is also the need to “train yourself for godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7).  The KJV translated “train” as “exercise.”  The term is related to the English word “gymnasium” and speaks to the spiritual exercise that contributes to godliness.  Paul compares this kind of training with “bodily training” because there is a correspondence between the two.  Both require regular discipline.  Both involve sacrifice.  An Olympic or professional athlete might devote years of regular practice to enhancing his or her skills and abilities.  No one would expect to attain success apart from devotion to such disciplines.  But that kind of devotion is only “of some value” because it is limited in scope to this life only (Cf. 1 Timothy 4:8).

The training which is for godliness is “of value in every way” (1 Timothy 4:8).  Godliness is “that piety which, characterized by a Godward attitude, does that which is well-pleasing to Him” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary).  Godliness is “godlikeness”.  It is exemplified and unveiled to us in Christ (Cf. 1 Timothy 3:16).  It is set before us as desirable inasmuch as it hold promise “for the life to come.”  It has to do with heaven and the glorious destiny God has set before us.  We are therefore to train ourselves to this end.  We are to devote ourselves to the exercise of the spiritual disciplines which contribute to godliness (Cf. Philippians 3:14; Hebrews 5:14).  Spiritual discipline is necessary in all aspects of life, but there are some particular disciplines that are essential if we are to grow and be strong in Christ.  They should not be viewed as religious duties.  They are Spirit-led disciplines that work towards a glorious end.  The Spirit of God is our “spiritual trainer.”  He exhorts and instructs us through the Word in matters related to growing in Christ. 

Three such disciplines are of utmost importance.  The first is here in the context—“being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine” (1 Timothy 4:6) and speaks to the need for us to be “in the Word.”  Likewise there is the need to “continue steadfastly in prayer” (Colossians 4:2).  The maintenance of fellowship is also essential aspect of one’s training unto godliness (Cf. Hebrews 10:24-25).  How’s your spiritual diet?  Are you getting enough spiritual exercise?  Apart from paying careful attention to such things we will inevitably suffer from a kind of spiritual anemia that will leave us weak and vulnerable as believers.  It is important to be healthy, but to be spiritually strong and healthy is of even greater importance for it “holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8).

Friday, September 26, 2014

MAINTAINING TRUTH (1 Timothy Chapter 3)

1 Timothy 3:15, “…the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth.”

The church of the living God is a pillar and buttress of truth.  It stands in this lofty and privileged position before the world.  God has positioned her there by grace according to His sovereign decree.  He has firmly established her in truth and bids her to live it out and proclaim it. 

Two terms are used to describe the church in its relationship to truth.  Both terms relate to a structure which is fitting inasmuch as the church is elsewhere identified to be a “holy temple in the Lord…a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:21-22).  The church, as a building, has been “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20).  It has been well founded on the truth.  Webster’s dictionary offers this definition for truth: “A transcendent, fundamental or spiritual reality.”  The truth, in this context, has to do with the manifestation of unseen spiritual and eternal realities.  We live in a “there-is-no-such-thing-as-truth” kind of day (Cf. John 18:38; Romans 1:18), but the truth stands unassailable irrespective of what people think of it.  Jesus is the embodiment of truth and came to bear witness to it (Cf. Ephesians 4:21; John 18:37).  God’s Word is truth (Cf. John 17:17).  The gospel is “the word of truth” (Ephesians 1:13).  The truth is a beautiful thing inasmuch as we are saved through its transforming influence and destined to its glorious reality.

The two terms used in reference to the church—in its relationship to the truth--are both structural terms.  The first “pillar,” refers to “a column supporting the weight of a building” and is used metaphorically “of a local church as to its responsibility, in a collective capacity, to maintain the doctrines of the faith by teaching and practice, 1 Tim. 3:15” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary).  The second term, “buttress,” means “a support, bulwark, stay.”  Metaphorically, the buttress speaks of that which lies at the foundation (The KJV translates the term “ground”).  Both the “pillar” and “buttress” serve a building in a supportive role, but there is a difference in their particular functions.  The buttress is the foundation, which generally lies unseen beneath the structure.  The pillar extends the supporting strength of the foundation to the superstructure of the building.  It differs from the foundation inasmuch as it is visible.  In fact, in NT times pillars served not just to support, but to adorn a building.  They were sometimes intricately carved and thus worked to beautify the structure.

The church has such a role in the world.  It does not embody truth, but adorns it.  It does that as it proclaims the truth and is changed by the truth.  It is important to note that the church of the living God is the pillar and support of this particular virtue.  Others are elsewhere esteemed in Scripture, but none can be possessed apart from truth.  Truth therefore stands in a preeminent role and all is lost if truth is forsaken.  God has given the church this truth maintaining and manifesting role.  The local church serves in this role.  Lives changed by truth adorn the truth (Cf. Titus 2:10).

It ought to be that if a person visits an evangelical church he or she would find truth being proclaimed and practiced.  But that is not always the case.  Charles Spurgeon once spoke to this need, “Remember how your fathers, in times gone by, defended God’s truth, and blush, ye cowards, who are afraid to maintain it!  Remember that our Bible is a blood-stained book; the blood of martyrs is on the Bible, the blood of translators and confessors. The pool of holy baptism, in which many of you have been baptized, is a blood-stained pool: full many have had to die for the vindication of that baptism which is ‘the answer of a good conscience toward God.’ The doctrines which we preach to you are doctrines that have been baptized in blood, swords have been drawn to slay the confessors of them; and there is not a truth which has not been sealed by them at the stake, or the block, or far away on the lofty mountains, where they have been slain by hundreds. It is but a little duty we have to discharge compared with theirs. They were called to maintain the truth when they had to die for it; you only have to maintain the truth when taunt and jeer, ignominious names and contemptuous epithets are all you have to endure for it. What! Do you expect easy lives?...Be ye the pillar and ground of the truth. Let the blood of martyrs, let the voices of confessors, speak to you.  Remember how they held fast the truth, how they preserved it, and handed it down to us from generation to generation; and by their noble example, I beseech you, be steadfast and faithful, tread valiantly and firmly in their steps, acquit yourselves like men, like men of God, I implore you! Shall we not have some champions, in these times, who will deal sternly with heresies for the love of the truth, men who will stand like rocks in the center of the sea, so that, when all others shake, they stand invulnerable and invincible?”

Thursday, September 25, 2014

ONE WAY (1 Timothy Chapter 2)

1 Timothy 2:5-6, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”

It is wrongly supposed by many that all paths lead to heaven.  To believe otherwise is to be criticized as a “narrow-minded” or judgmental person.  This passage speaks to the truth that there is only one God, one Mediator, and one means of salvation.

There is only One God.  He is the creator of all thing and is right and just by nature and in all His ways.  He is sovereign over all and has the right to exercise judgment.  It is against Him that we have rebelled (Cf. Colossians 1:21).  Yet He nevertheless desires our salvation and has gone to great lengths to make it possible (Cf. 1 Timothy 2:4; John 3:16).

There is but one Mediator between God and men.  A “mediator” is “one equal with both parties” and was used in NT times in a legal sense in reference to a person who served as a negotiator or intermediary (Cf. 1 Corinthians 6:5).  Jesus was a man and fully so, but He was no ordinary man.  He, the divine and eternal Son of God, “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).  As the hymn puts it, “He left His Father’s throne above, so rich and infinite His grace, and emptied Himself of all but love and bled for Adam’s helpless race.”  To serve as an Advocate in the courtroom of Divine Justice one would need to be qualified.  Jesus, the God-man, is the only one qualified to do that.  He’s passed the divine “bar exam.”  He is equal with both parties.  He is God.  No sinful human can plead his own case before God.  What would we to say?  We are guilty of sin and guilty as sin.  Look into your heart.  Examine your thoughts, your words, and deeds.  The truth that we “fall short of the glory of God” is painfully obvious (Cf. Romans 3:23).  How could we ever suppose that a “not guilty plea” could stand before the omniscient and “thrice-holy” God (Cf. Isaiah 6:1-5)?  But in Jesus we have a “high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26).  A mediator who “always lives to make intercession for us” for us (Cf. Hebrews 7:25).  He is man.  That’s the focus here in 1 Timothy 2:5, “the man Christ Jesus.”  To be qualified to serve as our mediator it was necessary for Him to be made equal to us.  And He was.  Galatians 4:4-5, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Cf. Hebrews 2:14; Philippians 2:7-8; 1 John 4:2).  Not only did he become one of us, He was identified with us in every way (Hebrews 4:15); was made “to be sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21); and bore the punishment that we deserve (Cf. Isaiah 53:4-7). 

There is only one way of salvation.  “(He) gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6).  The term “ransom” translates a Greek term which means to release by payment of a price.  The particular term used here has a prefix which adds a vicarious sense to its meaning.  In other words, Jesus did just pay a ransom, He gave Himself as the ransom.  That was, of course, the purpose for which He came (Cf. Mark 10:45).  He deliberately “gave himself.”  Many hold to the mistaken notion that the cross represents the tragic end to a good man’s life, but that’s not what happened.  God the Father sent the Son.  The Son fully submitted Himself to the Father’s will.  In His arrest He could have called on 12 legion of angels to rescue Him, but He purposed to die for you and me (Cf. Matthew 26:53).  Jesus died, and His precious blood, as “of a lamb without blemish or spot” was shed, to set us free from the penalty and power of sin (Cf. 1 Peter 1:19).

He gave Himself that through His death He might deliver us from sin.  And His work represents the sole means by which any person can be delivered.  Remember the old Evangelism Explosion question, “Suppose that you were to die today and stand before God and he were to say to you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ what would you say?”?  One would suppose that the question has been responded to with a host of varied answers.  But there is only one right response inasmuch as there is only one way of salvation.  Salvation is by grace through faith in Christ and His finished work on the cross (Cf. Ephesians 2:8-9; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4; 1 Peter 3:18).  There is One God, only One, and we’ve all sinned against Him (Cf. Romans 3:23).  There is One Mediator, only One, who can adequately serve to intercede on our behalf.  There is One Salvation, only One, and it is a salvation procured only on the merit of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice.  God sets the terms when it comes to salvation.  Here are His terms—“believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31; Cf. John 1:12-13).  Believe, not with mere intellectual faith, for even the demons have that.  No, what is necessary is a sincere, heart-level, faith of the kind that relies solely on His work and receives Him as Savior and Lord (Cf. Romans 10:9).  He is the One Way (Cf. John 14:6; Acts 4:12).

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

GOD'S GLORIOUS GOSPEL (1 Timothy Chapter 1)

1 Timothy 1:11, “…in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.” 

The “gospel of the glory of the blessed God” is here spoken of in contrast to the “different doctrine” promulgated by false teachers (Cf. 1 Timothy 1:3).  They wanted “to be teachers of the law” thought they didn’t know what they were talking about.  In contrast to the falsehoods they were espousing, it is the gospel alone that is powerful to save and transform (Cf. 1 Timothy 1:6-10; Romans 1:16).

This passage represents one of at least five in Scripture which speak to the details related to Paul’s conversion (Cf. Acts 9:1-19; 22:3-21; 26:2-18; Galatians 1:12-17; 1 Timothy 1:12-17).  Each has a unique emphasis related to its specific context.  Here the emphasis is on the “by grace” nature of salvation exemplified in Paul’s conversion experience.

In this respect it is amazing to consider who Paul (Saul) was before he was saved.  Every lost person is radically depraved and undeserving with respect to salvation, but that is not always as obvious as it was in Paul’s case (Cf. Ephesians 2:1-3; Colossians 1:21).  He was “breathing threats and murders against the disciples” (Acts 9:1-2).  When they were being “put to death (he) cast (his vote against them” (Acts 26:10).  In “raging fury against them (he) persecuted them” (Acts 26:11).  “(He) persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13).  He was “a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” (1 Timothy 1:13).

Saul was not in any way seeking after Christ.  He was engaged in his murderous activities at the time of his conversion.  He would have undoubtedly been voted “least likely to be saved,” had any such vote been taken.  So repugnant was his reputation that God had to convince Ananias to go to him (Cf. Acts 9:10-14).  It was to such a man that Christ appeared.  How are we to account for his salvation?  Obviously there was no Pauline contribution to it--no goodness of heart or work of his own which led up to it.  He was headed in the wrong direction when God turned him around.  Years later Paul himself explained that which transpired—“But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 1:13a-14).  By what means was Saul saved?  By the love, grace, and mercy which are found in Christ Jesus.  We deserve judgment.  Through Christ’s mercy and graced we receive forgiveness instead.  The distance between what we deserved and what we have received is infinite and speaks to the “overflowing” nature of the grace of God revealed to us in the gospel.

Paul spoke of God’s saving work in terms of a “trustworthy saying deserving of full acceptance,” saying, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).  Jesus came into the world to save lost sinners like Paul.  And Paul explained why he himself was shown mercy: “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16).  In other words—if Jesus Christ could save Paul, He can save anybody.  His ability to pardon exceeds our ability to comprehend (Cf. Isaiah 55:6-9).  Paul’s was a glorious and radical transformation and speaks to Jesus’ ability to “save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him” (Hebrews 7:25).  Paul was evermore speaking of the glorious nature of God’s grace.  His proclamation of the gospel was not theoretical, his own personal testimony was, in fact, very personal (i.e. He “loved me and gave himself for me;” Galatians 2:20).  “By the grace of God I am what I am,” he said (1 Corinthians 15:10).  By God’s grace he was radically transformed from a hate-filled persecutor into a loving Apostle.

John Newton, the writer of “Amazing Grace,” once said, as he was nearing the end of his life: “When I was young, I was sure of many things.  But now that I am old, there are only two things which I am sure of:  That I’m a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior!”  As with the Apostle Paul, that former slave-ship-captain-turned-pastor experienced, by grace, a miraculous salvation and transformation through the glorious good news of the One who came into the world to save sinners!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

"A BULWARK NEVER FAILING" (2 Thessalonians Chapter 3)

1 Thessalonians 3:3, “But the Lord is faithful.  He will establish you and guard you against the evil one.”

There has been much discussion lately in the news regarding the terrorist group ISIS and its evil and barbaric activities.  Just last night a bombing campaign against ISIS was initiated in Syria.  In ISIS the whole world civilized world faces a real and substantial threat.

Though not visible--and frequently disregarded or ignored--there is a greater and more imminent evil threat which none of us can avoid.  There is an evil one who has evil plans for the souls of men.  The “evil one” is Satan.  He is the “ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” and “the accuser of our brothers” (Revelation 12:9, 10).  The “whole world lies” in his power (Cf. 1 John 5:20). 

The evil one has an evil plan.  He is “the god of this world (and) has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4).  He “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).  He deceives (Cf. 2 Corinthians 11:3), tempts (Cf. 1 Thessalonians 3:5), and accuses (Cf. Revelation 12:10).  He has schemes (Cf. Ephesians 6:11) and designs (Cf. 2 Corinthians 2:11) through which he exercises his evil plans.  He has many such devices at his disposal.  In his book, “Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices,” Thomas Brooks wrote, “From the power, malice and skill of Satan, doth proceed all the soul-killing plots, devices, stratagems, and machinations, that be in the world….A man may as well tell the stars, and number the sands of the sea, as reckon up all the devices of Satan.”

Paul was well aware of the reality of the evil one and his evil plans, but was confident of the Lord’s protection over His people.  His confidence was founded in the truth regarding the Lord’s faithfulness.  “Faithful” translates a Greek term meaning “to be trusted, reliable” (Cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:24).  The Lord can be counted upon to “establish” and “guard” those who belong to Him.  He can be trusted with respect to what He has purposed and promised to do in salvation. 

The terms “establish” and “guard” are of warfare terminology.  To “establish” is to means “to fix, make fast, to set” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary).  The term translated “guard” means “to guard, watch, keep” (Vine’s).  Jesus used the same term with respect to protection over His true disciples, saying, “While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me.  I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction” (John 17:12).  He is faithful to exercise that same degree of protection over all those who belong to Him. The evil one, “our ancient foe, doth seek to work us woe” and is “armed with cruel hate.”  He tempts, but “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability” (1 Corinthians 10:13).  The evil one accuses, but God “is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).  “He who calls you is faithful” and “will surely do” what He has purposed to do all He has promised to do with respect to salvation (Cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:24; Philippians 1:6).  Through “him who loved us” we are “more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37).  He is “a bulwark never failing…our helper...amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing” (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God).

The battle against the evil one is not won through human means, as the hymn puts it, “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing, were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing.  Dost ask who that may be?  Christ Jesus, it is He—Lord Sabaoth His name, from age to age the same, and He must win the battle.”  From “age to age” He is the same.  He is faithful and has promised “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).  He must “win the battle.” 

“Did ever saint find this friend forsake Him?”  What’s the answer to the question put forth in that hymn?  “No, not one!”  Do you have Him now for your friend?  If not, you need Him, for there is no other like Him (Cf. Acts 16:31).  He alone will faithfully work to keep you “safe and secure from all alarms.”

Monday, September 22, 2014

EXERCISING RESTRAINT (2 Thessalonians Chapter 2)

2 Thessalonians 2:7, “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work.  Only he who now restrains it will do until he is out of the way.”

Some in the church in Thessalonica had succumbed to a false teaching that the day of the Lord had already arrived.  This teaching had come to them “by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from (Paul)” (2 Thessalonians 2:2).  Alleging to speak for the Spirit, false teachers had promulgated their teaching in their messages to the people.  So devious was their conspiracy that they had apparently signed Paul’s name to a letter espousing their beliefs.  As a result of this false teaching--being dismayed by the erroneous notion that the day of the Lord had already come--some of the believers were “shaken in mind or alarmed” (Cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:2).

Paul responded to their fears by affirming the truth that the day had not yet come.  And in this context he spoke of matters that would precede its arrival, including the appearance of “the rebellion” and “the man of lawlessness” (2 Thessalonians 2:3).  The “man of lawlessness” is elsewhere referred to as the “antichrist” (Cf. 1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7).  He is the personification of evil and is described to be “the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god and object of worship, so that he take his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thessalonians 3:b-4).

Though the “lawless one” is yet to be revealed, the “mystery of lawlessness” is already at work (Cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:7-8).  Vine’s Expository Dictionary defines the term mystery as follows: “In the NT it denotes, not the mysterious (as with the English word), but that which, being outside the range of unassisted natural apprehension, can be made known only by divine revelation, and is made known only in a manner and time appointed by God, and to those whose who are illumined by His Spirit.”  In this context, according to Vine’s, the term “mystery” has reference to “the spirit of disobedience to God.”  Though we are given some insight into this “spirit of disobedience” (Cf. Ephesians 2:1-3), there are aspects of it yet to be revealed to us.  The “spirit of the antichrist” is “now in the world already,” but in the unveiling of the antichrist, the nature and extent of lawlessness will be fully made manifest.  The “mystery of godliness” has been unveiled to us in the person of Jesus Christ (Cf. 1 Timothy 3:16).  The “mystery of lawlessness” will be unveiled in the “lawless one” (2 Thessalonians 2:8).

There is something acting now to “restrain” lawlessness.  The term “restrain” means “to hold fast or down.”  Who is it that is now acting to do this?  A number of possibilities have been suggested: the Roman Empire, human government, the church, the Holy Spirit.  While it is true that government does exercise such a role (Cf. Romans 13:1), its influence is of a limited extent.  J. Dwight Pentecost has commented on this, “Human power does not seem to be a satisfactory answer to the identity of the restrainer…it would seem a preferable interpretation to view all restraint of sin, regardless of means, as proceeding from God as a ministry of the Holy Spirit.”

As bad as things are in this world, one can only imagine how bad they might be were it not for the restraining work of the Spirit of God.  In His ministry of convicting “the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” He has worked to hold back the flood of iniquity that would otherwise overwhelm this world (Cf. John 16:8).  Wherever and whenever His influence has waned evil has triumphed and lawlessness has escalated.

The day is coming when the restrainer will be taken out of the way.  It is reasonable to assume that this will take place in the rapture when the church itself is taken out of the world.  One of the means by which the omnipresent Spirit exercises His restraining influence in this world is through His indwelling of the saints (Cf. John 16:8 & Acts 24:25; Matthew 5:13; Philippians 2:14-16; 1 Timothy 2:1-4).  This aspect of His restraining ministry is underestimated by most.  What will things be like when the restrainer is taken out of the way?  Imagine the flood of water than would ensue if the Columbia River dams were to fail.  Imagine the flood of evil that will overwhelm all humanity when the lawless one is met with no restraint (Cf. Genesis 6:5).  As bad as things are now (and most Americans believe that morality is in serious decline), they are nothing compared to that which is to come.  There is but one means by which a person can avoid that evil day and that is by trusting now in the Savior.  He who “knows how to rescue the godly from trials” works not only to “deliver us from this present evil age” but, through the rapture, from that which is to come (Cf. 2 Peter 2:9; 1 Thessalonians 1:10).

Friday, September 19, 2014

THE GREAT DIVORCE (2 Thessalonians Chapter 1)

2 Thessalonians 1:7b-10, “…when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.  They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.”

Several years ago we had a regular attender who decided that the doctrine of “hell” was a delusion and that a loving God would never allow people to go to such a place.  He was so adamant in his false belief that he purposed to share what he had “discovered” with others in the church.  Members of the church lovingly admonished him, but he held on to his view and eventually decided to leave our church. 

Such thinking is nothing new.  Years ago C. S. Lewis wrote his classic fiction, “The Great Divorce,” in part to respond to a fellow who had written a book entitled “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.”  That man supposed that “everything is good and everywhere is heaven.”  Dismissing the truth or relevance of the doctrine of hell is not uncommon (e.g. Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived”).

The reality is that two distinct destinies await two different groups of people.  This passage is of particular relevance to this matter as it puts forth the two alternatives in clear and concise fashion.  Unbelievers are destined to a place of “eternal destruction” called hell.  Believers are destined for the glory of heaven.

Those who will suffer “eternal destruction” are those who “do not know God” and “do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 1:8).  There is but one way to avoid God’s righteous judgment of sin and that is to “obey the gospel” (Cf. 1 Peter 1:22; John 6:29; Romans 3:23, 6:23).  It is through faith in Christ that a person receives the eternal life which constitutes knowing Him (Cf. John 17:3; 1 John 5:11-12).  Religious credentials—even if they include a proper profession or impressive religious deeds—will avail no deliverance from hell for those who do not know (and are not known by) Him (Cf. Matthew 7:21-23; 2 Timothy 2:19).  “Eternal destruction” does not equate to annihilation.  A never-ending catastrophic destiny, “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,” awaits those who refuse the good news of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. 

The believer’s destiny, on the other hand, is of a glorious nature.  He possesses it solely because the “testimony to (him) was believed” (1 Thessalonians 1:10).  The gospel works to save sinners from hell (Cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4; Romans 1:16).  Instead of judgment, the believer lives with the confident expectation of being “glorified” with Jesus in heaven (Cf. Romans 8:17-18, 30).  Though we “do not now see him” the day is coming “we shall see him as he is” (1 Peter 1:8; 1 John 3:2).  On that day He will be “marveled at among all who have believe” (1 Thessalonians 1:10).  The term translated “marveled” means to wonder, admire, or be astonished” at something.  We might admire a beautiful sunrise, but how glorious will be the view “when the day dawns and the morning star rises in (our) hearts” (2 Peter 1:19)!  We will be awestruck by Him and will forever more enjoy unimaginable blessings when we enter into HIs presence.

J. Vernon McGee once wrote, “Hell is ridiculed today, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  Our beliefs are sometimes only wishful thinking…we might as well face the fact that there is a hell.  Christ is returning this earth someday.  First He will take HIs own out of the earth, and then His coming will be a terror to the wicked; it will be a judgment upon those who ‘know not God, and that obey not the gospel of Lord Jesus Christ’…That is what the Word of God teaches.”

It is the response to the gospel that works to determine the destiny of a person.  John 3:36, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”  Heaven or hell, eternal life or eternal destruction, a glorious and intimate eternal fellowship with God or a foreboding and tragic existence—all depends on one’s response to the truth of the gospel (Cf. 1 John 5:11-12).  It will do no good to wish the truth of hell away.  The reality of it should motivate us all the more to be “striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27).

Thursday, September 18, 2014

FOOL'S GOLD (1 Thessalonians Chapter 5)

1 Thessalonians 5:21, “But test everything, hold fast what is good.”

During the gold rush days, na├»ve miners sometimes happened upon what they supposed to be the mother lode only to later find that what they had discovered was merely iron pyrite (fool’s gold).  Though fool’s gold looks something like the real thing, it is relatively worthless.  There is even a story of a 1500’s ship captain who erroneously and embarrassingly transported a shipment of fool’s gold back to England.

It is quite possible to be deceived in spiritual matters.  “Satan, who deceives the whole world” is a well-trained master of deception (Cf. Revelation 12:9; 2 Corinthians 11:3).  He who first deceived Eve—and brought sin and error into the world--is at work to this day.  On the one hand, we are encouraged to “not quench the Spirit” and to not “despise prophecies” (1 Thessalonians 5:19-20).  The Spirit of Truth has something to say to us and we need listen (Cf. John 15:26; Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22).  On the other hand, we need to be careful to ascertain that what we are hearing has indeed come from Him (Cf. 2 Corinthians 11:4).  We can only do that when we are careful to “test everything” and only “hold fast to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

This particular verse of Scripture meets with ready application in the postmodern environment in which we live.  Most people (and many professing believers) deny the existence of an “absolute truth” (Cf. John 18:38).  The “culture-bound” modern church is far too gullible in this respect.  Exasperating the problem is the church’s tendency, in its unwillingness to “endure sound doctrine,” to “accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Timothy 4:3).  The tragic result is that many are “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14).  Much that is espoused to be “Christian” in our day is in reality like fool’s gold.  It may look like the real thing, but is in reality far from it. 

This present state of affairs is all too apparent.  A new so-called Christian movie or book or song targets a Christian audience and is met with hearty reception—even if its message or contents are antithetical to the truth revealed to us in the Bible.  The church has experienced a radical de-emphasis in the importance of sound doctrine.  I remember, as a young believer, visiting a Christian book store in Portland.  The shelves were filled with books related to Bible study and doctrinal matters.  Today such stores feature a lot of fictional books and even more Christian gifts and “trinkets”—because that’s what appeals to folks.  But Christian trinkets can hardly serve as a suitable substitute for sound doctrine.  Just because a thing is labeled to be “Christian” does not make it so, at least not in the Biblical sense. 

Years ago, soon after we were married, my wife and I attended some evening classes at Multnomah School of the Bible.  I was especially blessed by a study through Hebrews taught by John Lawrence (Mr. Lawrence taught up until ten days before the Lord called him home in 1995).  He approached the Scriptures with a degree of reverence and desire that was contagious.  He would often say, “If the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.”  Mr. Lawrence had absolute confidence in the authority, inspiration, and inerrancy of the Bible (Cf. 2 Timothy 3:16).  He had adopted a “But what does the Bible say?” way of thinking about all he believed and put into practice.  That kind of perspective is a foundational necessity if we are to exercise discernment.

The term translated “test” in this passage was a term used of the testing of metals.  It is here in the present tense implying the need for constant vigilance regarding the need to examine the things we are exposed to.  Fool’s gold can be distinguished from the real thing by examining its shine, hardness, and the residue it leaves behind.  Error can be identified for what it is when it is measured against the standard of God’s inspired Word (Cf. 2 Timothy 3:16). The “Jews (in Berea) were more noble minded than those in Thessalonica” because “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).  Theirs is a good example for us to follow.

In this respect it is not enough to merely go to church on Sundays to hear what the pastor has to say.  Every true believer in Christ has the Spirit of God as a teacher (Cf. 1 John 2:27).  The Spirit of God will never speak contrary to the Word of God (Cf. John 4:24; Ephesians 5:18-20 vs. Colossians 3:16-17).  It is incumbent on the Spirit-indwelt believer to be a good student of the Word, maintaining a “but what does the Bible say?” way of thinking about things (Cf. 2 Timothy 2:15).  In this manner the believer is delivered from the embarrassing prospect of latching on to some error (i.e. fool’s gold) as a substitute for the real thing and being “led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3).

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

I'LL FLY AWAY (1 Thessalonians Chapter 4)

1 Thessalonians 4:17, “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.  Therefore encourage one another with these words.”

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 has to do with what is commonly referred to as the “rapture.”  The term “rapture” itself does not appear in the text, but is from the Latin Vulgate translation of the Greek harpazo (translated “caught up” in verse 17).  Harpazo means to “catch or snatch away” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary).  The verb is in the future tense and passive voice.  At some point in the future the Lord will come and snatch away from earth all those who belong to Him.  This “rapture” is imminent (i.e. it could happen at any time inasmuch as there is no other event in God’s prophetic timetable that must precede it).

The context of the passage indicates that the believers in Thessalonica had not been informed of this important truth (Cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:13), Paul not previously having had the opportunity to instruct them about it (Cf. 1 Thessalonians 3:10).  Some of their fellow believers had died and those still alive wondered about the status of their loved ones with respect to the Lord’s coming.  Paul’s instruction regarding these matters was to alleviate their concerns.

The passage represents the ultimate basis for the hope of the believer in Christ.  The “blessed hope” is the hope (“confident expectation”) of Christ’s return (Cf. Titus 2:13).  It is that to which we are to “set our hope fully” (Cf. 1 Peter 1:13).  Two separate groups of believers are referred to in the passage, the rapture applies to both.  As the hymn puts it, “I know not when my Lord may come, At night or noonday fair, Nor if I’ll walk the vale with Him, Or ‘meet Him in the air’” (“I Know Whom I Have Believed”).  There are those “church-age” believers who will have died previous to the time of Christ’s return.  They are those who have walked “the vale with Him” (i.e. “those who are asleep;” 1 Thessalonians 4:13).  And there are those who will “meet Him in the air” (i.e. “who are alive” at the time of His return; Cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:17).  A great heavenly reunion of both groups will take place on that day—“so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17).

It is because of this truth that we as believers do “not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).  That does not mean that we do not grieve.  Jesus Himself wept at the tomb of Lazarus.  Paul was spared from “sorrow upon sorrow” when God showed mercy towards Epaphroditus who was “ill, near to death” (Philippians 1:27).  But there is a difference between the grief of those who possess no hope and the grief of those who do.  In one way or the other the Lord will bring those who belong to Him “safely into his heavenly kingdom” (Cf. 2 Timothy 4:18).  “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us” and “neither death nor life”…”nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39).

There is a genuine and abiding reason for hope bound up in the glorious truth represented to us in this passage.  There are troubles and trials in this life, but they quickly fade from view as the assembly of believers takes flight.  As the hymn “I’ll Fly Away” puts it, “Just a few more weary days and then, I’ll fly away, to a land where joys shall never end.”  No longer will they experience death or mourning or crying or pain or tears (Cf. Revelation 21:4).  Face to face with Christ, He will then be “marveled at among all who believed” (2 Thessalonians 1:10; Cf. 1 John 3:2). 

“Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:18).  John Walvoord commented on the comfort we find (and can share) in the expectation of Christ’s coming: “Oh the prospect, the joy of looking forward to the coming of the Lord, and of resting in these precious truths!  There are so many ills of life that nothing can heal except the Lord’s return.  How many loved ones are on the other side and how many problems of this life, incurable diseases, pain, sorrow, difficulties will be made all right. As we face the duties and the challenges and the trials of life, God has given us this blessed hope, this hope of the Lord’s return.  May we take it to our bosoms, may we live in its reality, and may our hearts be refreshed by this precious truth. This hope can be the certain prospect of anyone who will trust in Jesus Christ the Son of God, who loved us and died for us, who shed His blood that we might be saved, and who rose in victory that we might have hope.”

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

HOLDING FAITH (1 Thessalonians Chapter 3)

1 Thessalonians 3:1-5, “Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God's coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know.  For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain.”

Paul, having been separated from the church in Thessalonica, sent Timothy to bring back word to him of their spiritual condition (Cf. 1 Thessalonians 3:1-5).  He knew of the “afflictions” they were enduring (Cf. 1 Thessalonians 3:2).  He was fearful that the devil might have used their afflictions to undermine their faith.  The term translated “afflictions” in verse 3 means “to crush, press together, squash, hem in, compress.”  It was used of the process through which oil was extracted from olives or juice from grapes.  William Barclay wrote of the usage of the term, “In ordinary Greek always describes actual physical pressure on a man...In the early years of Christianity the man who chose to become a Christian chose to face trouble. There might well come to him abandonment by his own family, hostility from his heathen neighbors, and persecution from the official powers. It is always a costly thing to be a real Christian, for there can be no Christianity without its cross.”  The believer in Christ should not be surprised by suffering (Cf. 1 Thessalonians 3:3; 2 Timothy 3:12; Philippians 1:29).  And though Paul had warned them of this (“we are destined for this”; 1 Thessalonians 3:3), he was nevertheless concerned that somehow the tempter might use their sufferings to discourage them.

The tempter (i.e. “the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world;” Revelation 12:9) is always at work.  He is referred to as “the tempter” here and in Matthew 4:3.  He who was the tempter of our Lord is also the tempter of His people.  He has many devices at his disposal.  In his book, “Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices,” Thomas Brooks wrote, “From the power, malice and skill of Satan, doth proceed all the soul-killing plots, devices, stratagems, and machinations, that be in the world….A man may as well tell the stars, and number the sands of the sea, as reckon up all the Devices of Satan.”  He tempted and deceived Eve (Cf. 1 Timothy 1:13; 2 Corinthians 11:3) and has been tempting ever since.

A much-utilized weapon in his evil arsenal is afflictions.  The seed that fell upon the rocky places was likened to the response of one who “hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away” (Matthew 13:21).  Paul was concerned for the Thessalonians—that the tempter might likewise use their sufferings to upset their faith (Cf. 2 Timothy 2:18).

The phrase “your faith” appears four times in this chapter (1 Thessalonians 3:2, 3:5, 3:6, 3:10).  The word faith translates the commonly used Greek term, pistis.  Vine’s defines the term as a “conviction respecting God and His Word and the believer’s relationship to Him.”  The definition goes on to discuss the main elements of faith in God, which include: 1) “a firm conviction, producing a full acknowledgement of God’s revelation or truth”; 2) “a personal surrender to Him”; and 3) “a conduct inspired by such surrender.”  The term represents more than merely believing the facts about Jesus.  It involves personal trust—the kind of trust that supersedes and overcomes obstacles.  This aspect of faith is deemed virtuous in each of the examples cited in the so-called “Heroes of Faith” chapter of the Bible, Hebrews chapter 11.  The men and women cited were those who trusted the unseen God in the context of observable and substantial obstacles.  The believers in Thessalonica were met with a similar challenge—to continue to trust God though it was their faith itself that had given rise to their afflictions.

The tempter works to discourage faith.  “War the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience” Paul urged Timothy (1 Timothy 1:18-19).  There is a battle going on.  There is a need to “stand firm”—to keep on trusting, obeying, and serving.  The tempter would have us to doubt God, abandon HIs Word, leave our post, and give up in the fight.  Its one thing to believe and another thing to continue to believe amidst challenging circumstances.  Paul himself had that kind of faith (Cf. 2 Timothy 4:7).  Timothy returned to Paul and Paul and was reassured and comforted by his report (Cf. 1 Thessalonians 3:6-7).  The Thessalonians had suffered affliction.  They were tempted by the tempter to abandon their Savior.  But their faith held (Cf. 1 Timothy 1:19).  Paul’s labor had not been in vain (Cf. 1 Thessalonians 3:5). 

Monday, September 15, 2014

RECEPTIVITY (1 Thessalonians Chapter 2)

1 Thessalonians 2:13, “And 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 believers.”

The word translated “work” in this verse is the Greek “energeo” from which our English word “energy” is derived.  It means “to be active, operative” and speaks to the ability of a thing to accomplish something.  “Energy” is something we are aware of, thought we tend sometimes to take it for granted.  Electrical energy heats and powers our homes.  We notice right away if for some reason it is disrupted.  An electrical lamp serves to light up a room, but only if it’s plugged in to a receptacle.  It needs to receive electricity from the supply in order to work.

What’s true in the physical realm holds true in the spiritual.  The energeo spoken of in this verse is ultimately traced back to God.  The omnipotence of the God who spoke creation into existence is fully invested in HIs powerful-to-save-and-transform Word.  The Bible is no ordinary book.  The believers in Thessalonica “accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).  “All Scripture is breathed out by God” and therefore possesses divine ability to accomplish that which He purposes (Cf. 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21; Isaiah 55:11). 

The believers in Thessalonica were saved through inner working of the Word of God.  Paul visited their city and “reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead” (Acts 17:3).  The gospel came to them “not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thessalonians 5).  God’s word is powerful to save (Cf. Romans 1:16).  The Apostle Peter traced the miracle of new birth in Christ to its influence—“You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23).  No power or entity on earth is able to do that which the Word can do.  The “living and active” Word alone possesses God’s ability to impart life to sin-dead souls (Cf. Ephesians 2:1, 5; Hebrews 4:12).

In their reception of the truth these believers “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9).  In the pagan worship of dead idols they had been held captive in a futile manner of life (Cf. 1 Peter 1:18).  Through the working of the Word they were set free to worship God.

God’s powerful-to-save-and-transform Word is at work in the believer to enable him to serve and cause him to grow.  It is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-19).  We can “grow up into salvation” only through the influence of the Word of God (Cf. 1 Peter 2:2).

Paul was thankful for the receptiveness of the Thessalonians to the Word.  The term translated “accepted” in this verse means “to receive by deliberate and ready reception of what is offered” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary).  Theirs was a “deliberate and ready reception” of the Word of God.  We might say “they purposed to put out the welcome mat” to the Word.  Receptivity is the key when it comes experiencing the working of the Word in our lives.  An electrical appliance cannot work if it is not plugged in.  We should not expect to experience the inner-working power of God’s Word if our hearts are not eager and ready to receive it.  The Apostle Peter likened the necessary response to the Word to that of a newborn baby with respect to its mother’s milk.  Newborns possess an instinctive desire for it.  The healthy newborn can’t go long without it and will loudly voice his or her displeasure if it is withheld.  Mother’s milk possesses all the necessary ingredients to cause a baby to grow.  The Word does the same for the believer.  There is power in the Word to save and transform, but it is availed to us only if we are plugged in—receptivity is the key. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

THE REAL THING (1 Thessalonians Chapter 1)

1 Thessalonians 1:2-3, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In many respects the church in Thessalonica was a model church.  In his epistle Paul cited no cause for rebuke or condemnation, instead there is much for which they were commended.  These introductory verses mark the beginning of a long series of reasons for which Paul gave thanks regarding them (Cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:3-10).  In a sermon on this passage John MacArthur summarized these as follows: they were saved (Cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:5), submitted (1:6), willing to suffer (1:6), soul-winning (1:8), and second-coming oriented (1:10).

1 Thessalonians 1:3 cites three particular commendable virtues—faith, love, and hope.  This triad of virtues are both praiseworthy and complimentary.  These are similarly related to each other in other passages in Scripture (1 Corinthians 13:13; 1 Thessalonians 4:8; Galatians 5:5-6; Colossians 1:4-5; Hebrews 6:10-12, 10:22-24; 1 Peter 1:21-22; Romans 5:2-5).  All three virtues have to do with fundamental aspects of the believer’s relationship to God and respectively emphasize aspects having to do with the past (faith), present (love) and future (hope).

“Work of faith.”  Though some tend to an erroneous intellect-alone way of understanding of faith, the Greek term has a broader sense of meaning.  According to Vine's Expository dictionary of New Testament Words, it means: "primarily, firm persuasion, a conviction based on hearing."  Vines goes on to explain that the word, as it is used of faith in God, includes three elements: 1) A firm conviction, producing a full acknowledgement of God's revelation or truth; 2) A personal surrender to Him; and 3) A conduct inspired by such surrender.  It is the last aspect of the definition that has direct bearing on Paul’s commendation.  Salvation is not by good works (Cf. Ephesians 2:8-9), but it inevitably leads to them (Cf. Ephesians 2:10).  A faith unaccompanied by works is “useless” (James 2:20).  Martin Luther once wrote of faith, saying: “Faith is something very powerful, active, restless, effective, which at once renews a person and again regenerates him, and leads him altogether in a new manner and character of life, so that it is impossible not to do good without ceasing.”  The Thessalonians had that kind of faith.

“Labor of love.”  According to Vine’s the term translated “labor” means “toil resulting in weariness, laborious toil, trouble.”  “Love” translates the Greek term “agape.”  The love referred to here is that love intrinsic to God Himself, who is love (Cf. 1 John 4:16).  It involves more than mere sentiment or emotion, it is that kind of love defined for us by Christ in His sacrifice on the cross (Cf. 1 John 3:16).  There is labor involved in love.  The transformation of a selfish sinner into a selfless saint is ultimately a work of the Spirit, but submission to His leading along the way is not without effort.  1 Corinthians 13:4-7 speaks of love in Christ-like terms.  Loves is a verb--it “does” and “doesn’t do” certain things.  It “does not insist on its own way” and sacrificially prefers the needs of others to one’s own (Cf. 1 Corinthians 13:5; Philippians 2:3-4).  The believers in Thessalonica had this kind of love for one another.  They’d been taught by God to love (Cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:9) and labored in it according to Christ’s example. 

“Steadfastness of hope.”  Biblical hope is the confident expectation regarding some future result.  We’ve been born again to a living hope (Cf. 1 Peter 1:3) that anticipates the glory of heaven (Cf. Romans 8:23-24).  There can be no steadfastness (i.e. endurance) apart from hope, “but if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:25).  The Thessalonians possessed a Spirit-imparted hope that revealed itself in their steadfastness amidst trials (Cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:6).

Chuck Swindoll commented regarding this matter, “The Thessalonians’ unseen attitudes of faith, love, and hope were like hidden roots that produced the fruit of good works, loving labor, and patient endurance.  How lush and fragrant these qualities were in Paul’s memory now that he was so many miles away…In his heart he carried with him a bouquet of encouragement, gathered from his brief encounter with the Thessalonian believers.”  Real faith works.  True love labors.  Genuine hope perseveres.  Paul thanked God for the Thessalonians.  With respect to salvation, the visible evidence of the fruit of these virtues, reassured him that they possessed the real thing.