When A Church’s Faith Is Healthy
February 24, 2008
I read the story of a man who became a great industrial leader in his life. He described how his courage got its start. When he was a young boy, his dad gave him the job of going out to the barn close to bedtime to make sure that all of the livestock that was supposed to be in there was secure and that the doors were closed. This young boy confided in his father that he was a little bit intimidated by that job because the old lantern that he had to carry at the time would only shine as far as the yard gate. He was afraid of the dark. His daddy advised him, “Take the lantern and go to the gate where the light shines and you will find out that when you get there, it will shine as far as the corral fence. Go to the corral fence and you will find that the light will shine over to the windmill. Go to the windmill and you will find out that the light will shine as far as the barn door. Go to the barn door and you will find out that the light will fill up the barn, and you will be able to do what I sent you to do. Son, always remember, ‘Just go as far as the light will take you.’”
That is quite a bit like the message of the last half of Paul’s letter that we call I Thessalonians. He writes very affectionately to his brothers and sisters at Thessalonica out of concern for their faith. He wants them to go as far as their faith will take them. They have received the word that he has taught as it truly was – the word of the Lord. They have embraced it. They have been obedient to it. However, he wasn’t able to stay there with them for very long. And he has had to send Timothy back to find out how their faith is doing and whether they have gone as far as their faith would take them. And he writes to them in 1 Thes. 3:8-10, “For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?”
An Answered Prayer
Please think for a moment about the joy and the thanksgiving and the comfort Paul found through the faith of the church at Thessalonica. And while you do, will you notice with me that there is in the background of this letter and then the beginning of the next one an answered prayer. This is a very important part of our study this morning.
Notice at the end of verse 10 in chapter 3, “We pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith.” Paul wanted to come and see them. He wanted to help them by teaching them and encouraging them so that whatever they had not had time to accomplish by way of faith yet, might be helped and might be strengthened and might be supplied for them.
Then skip over to the beginning of the second letter to the church at Thessalonica and notice verse 3 of chapter 1. Here Paul writes, “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.” Look at that. Don’t we enjoy finding cases of answered prayer? Van mentioned our Bro. Clay to us. How many prayers have been answered just in the improvement that he has shown so far! And, of course, there are many other cases of that kind of answered prayer we could think about. But here is one of the most important. Paul was praying fervently, earnestly, night and day that what was lacking in their faith might be supplied. And when he writes to them again, and most Bible scholars will tell us that this second letter couldn’t have been written very long after the first one, he says, “Your faith is growing abundantly and your love is increasing.” He prayed for faith to be supplied, and he got what he asked for and more! Their faith was growing and their love was increasing.
An Awesome Implication
Now think of the awesome implications of this answered prayer. It is no surprise that Paul would be so interested in the faith of these dear people. After all, he had risked his life going over into Macedonia with the gospel of Christ. He had taught in the synagogue at Thessalonica for three Sabbath days, and when some people began to get jealous they stirred up a mob against him and they ran him out of the synagogue. Apparently he went to the house of a Gentile who was named Jason, and when many of the Gentiles began to believe that Jesus was the Christ, the mob attacked the house of that man and Paul and Silas and Timothy had to be ushered out of town (Acts 17:1-10). He had risked his life for their faith. He had taught them the gospel so that their faith could be established and they could believe in the Lord, and in their obedience of faith to him they could have life. If you notice here in 1 Thes. 3, Paul brings up their faith five times just in these few verses. In verse 2 he tells them he had sent Timothy to them to establish and exhort them in their faith. In verse 5 he said, “I sent to learn about your faith for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor had been in vain.” In verse 6 he mentions that Timothy has brought them the good news of their faith and love. In verse 7 he mentions that he has been comforted through their faith. In verse 10, again he brings up his concern over what is lacking in their faith. Notice that. It is no surprise that this great man would be interested in how their faith was doing. I wonder if you and I are as interested in how the faith of our brothers and sisters in Christ are doing as he was.
Neither is it any surprise that there had been some things lacking in their faith. All we know for sure is that Paul got to stay in Thessalonica for three weeks to teach at the synagogue. Now it may be that he got to stay a while longer and work among the Gentiles. We are not sure about that, but at the very best thought, he didn’t get the opportunity to be there very long.
But, how long have you and I had the opportunity to hear the good news of Christ? How long in your life have you, week in and week out, over and over again, been privileged to sit down at the feet of someone who had studied and to look into the word of the Lord together and to equip yourself with the knowledge of what the Lord has done for us and what he wants for us? These people hadn’t had that opportunity. Especially if they were from a Gentile background, they hadn’t had the opportunity to be grounded in what the Old Testament had taught about God or his purpose. They lived in a city which was the capitol of the Roman province of Macedonia. It was a city which was on the Ignation Way, a commercial route through the Roman Empire. All kinds of moral problems passed through there. The tempter was at work, according to verse 5 of chapter 3, to hinder their growth and their progress in the faith. No wonder Paul could make mention of something lacking in their faith. They were new believers, and there were all kinds of challenges for them to face.
Yet, what is amazing is that their faith was still able to flourish so. They were standing firm. They were loving each other already. Their faith was still growing. There were some things that they needed to do more and more, but isn’t
it amazing under the circumstances that their faith was able to flourish like it was.
An Abundantly Growing Faith
The question comes to my mind, “How?” How can you have an abundantly growing faith in a congregation of the Lord’s people under those circumstances? We have spent years looking for it? How do we get people to a place where they will love each other and not get offended the moment someone has a weakness, and how do we have faith that is growing more and more into what God wants us to be? Well, let’s use what Paul tells us here in between the mention of what is lacking in their faith and the mention of how their faith is growing and increasing to say to ourselves that a church’s faith is alive and well when these following things are going on.
First, a church’s faith is alive and well when the hearts of the members are becoming blameless in holiness before God. In I Thes. 3, verses 11 and following, Paul mentions this, and he says in verse 3 that his prayer is that “God may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father.” He wants them to grow to the place where their hearts will be open to God’s gaze and they won’t be embarrassed by it; they won’t be afraid of what God will see there; their hearts won’t be out of place in the presence of the throne of God. That is what he is really praying for.
And essential to this thought is the idea that they increase and abound in love for one another and for all (v. 12). The kind of love he is talking about here is the love that involves thoughtful consideration of other people and their feelings. It is the love that is willing to put itself out to do what is best for them. It is willing to do that even when they don’t deserve it. It is the God-kind of love, in other words.
If you will, exercise yourself for a moment to think about what is it that might cause our hearts to feel ill at ease in God’s presence. If you will think about it, it will always be knowing that we did not love other folks like we should have. In Romans 13:8 and following, Paul describes how love causes us to fulfill the law toward other people. He says that love causes a person to not commit adultery, not take somebody else’s wife or someone who is not your own. Love would cause us to respect life and not to kill. Love would cause us to respect property and not to steal. Love would cause us to rejoice with somebody else’s good fortune and not to covet.
If you think about what Paul says in 1 Cor. 13 about how love actually behaves, you will notice that the things that would make a person ashamed are the opposite of this kind of behavior. Love is patient. I’m ashamed when I’m impatient and aggravated and frustrated with other people for being human. Love is kind. I have never been ashamed for being kind. I have been ashamed when I have acted mean toward other people. Love does not envy, it doesn’t wish somebody else ill, in other words. It doesn’t boast; it is not arrogant. You would be embarrassed for being proud before God. It is not rude – thoughtful enough to exercise good manners. It doesn’t insist on its own way. It isn’t so childish or immature as that. It is not irritable or resentful. It doesn’t rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. That kind of behavior gets our hearts ready to be in God’s presence. When faith is alive and well in a church, its members are developing hearts like that.
Secondly, a church’s faith is alive and well when each one of the members knows how to control his own body in dedication and in honor. In 1 Thes. 4, Paul brings up the very practical matter of sexual morality, purity. He makes the point that while the world around us may be one in which people’s lives are dominated by lust, that God’s will for his people is sanctification, which he defines in terms of holiness that comes through purity in this area.
McGarvey and Pendleton give the record of a historian who says of sexual morality in the ancient world, “Heathenism had made the crime (sexual immorality) trivial, jocular, rather smart and even religious and right.” That’s the way the pagan world looked at the matter of sexual morality. When I read that, I don’t think it is very different from what I would see if I were to watch the Oscar ceremony tonight and notice what is honored in our own culture. It is just assumed that how we treat other people to gratify ourselves doesn’t really matter.
Paul prays in verse 4 of chapter 4 that these people will each one know how to possess their own vessel, their own body, in holiness and honor. And he insists that this must be done for some very practical reasons. First, he says, in verse 6 that our behavior here, if it is inappropriate, will wrong someone else. The lie of American culture is that sexual immorality only involves the one person who engages in it. It always involves somebody else, and that somebody else will be someone else’s son or daughter, husband or wife, brother or sister, and the consequences of it will affect the whole society, not just those engaged in it.
Then he says that the Lord is an avenger in these things, at the end of verse 6, that God holds us accountable for such selfish behavior. Then he says in verse 7 that God has not called us for impurity. He hasn’t called us to go on living like we were, but instead he has called us for holiness. A church where faith is alive and well is made up of people who know how to live pure lives in this world.
Next, I would like you to notice that what Paul teaches here emphasizes that where faith is alive and well the members of the congregation are living properly and responsibly before the community (1 Thes. 4:9-12). I ran across a little Peanuts comic strip where Lucy is saying to Charlie Brown, “I hate everything. I hate everybody. I hate the whole wide world.” Charlie brown says to her, “But I thought you had inner peace.” And Lucy replies, “I do have inner peace, but I have outer obnoxiousness.” We have sung this morning, “It Is Well With My Soul.” Our task this week now is going to be to live like it is.
In verse 12 Paul says that his goal is that these people may live properly before outsiders. The word “properly” may be translated “becomingly” or “to live in a way which is seemly,” in other words which is beautiful to look at. Now what kind of way would that be? In verse 9 it involves brothers loving each other – a church where everybody in the community knows that these people have an affection for each other, that there is brotherly love among them. It is a congregation where people aspire to live quietly. In other words, they are ambitious to be unambitious, as one commentator says it. They are restlessly at work to rest. There is a certain quietness and calmness that characterizes their lives as they are good neighbors and friends and community members. They mind their own affairs. They are not in a hurry to run everybody else’s business. They work with their own hands, he says. They go about life responsibly. They have things to do that keeps them busy doing what they should. That is the kind of thing that goes on where faith is alive and well.
Where faith is alive and well, the members of that congregation can cope with heartbreak and grief hopefully. 1 Thes. 4: 13 and following talks about this. Paul’s point is that we not grieve as others do who have no hope. That phrase might not sink on our ears as much as it should. I notice that writers who describe how the world of the 1st Century looked at death describe the contrast between the heathen or the pagan approach and the Christian approach. “The pagan world,” Barclay says, “stood in despair in the face of death. They met it with grim resignation and with bleak hopelessness.” Here are some of the translations of phrases that he found from early writers. One said, “There is hope for those who are alive but those who have died are without hope.” Another said, “When once our brief light sets, there is one perpetual night through which we must sleep.” A tombstone epitaph had carved on it, “I was not; I became; I am not; I care not.” Isn’t that a sad way to live life?
Leon Morris offers the contrast here between the pagan and Christian attitude toward death with these two statements. Here is the pagan one: “Irene to Taunnophris and Philo, good comfort. I was sorry and wept over the departed one as I wept for Didymas. And all things whatsoever were fitting, I did, and all mine …. But, nevertheless, against such things one can do nothing. Therefore, comfort ye one another.” Is that comforting to you? Against all such things one can do nothing. Therefore, comfort one another!
Here, on the other hand, is the Christian view about that same time, from Aristides: “And if any righteous man among them passes from the world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God and … they escort the body as if he were setting out from one place to another near.” That is quite a contrast, isn’t it, in attitudes toward this loss!
In this passage in 1 Thes. 4, Paul is talking about the grief that comes among brothers and sisters in Christ when some of them finish their journeys. That should be understood. It is not claiming that it is saying everything about grief. But the reasoning here runs like this. A Christian is totally and completely identified with Christ. But we believe that God has raised up Christ from the dead. Did you see the implication of that? What Paul is saying then is that just as God brought his son from the grave, the time will come when he will bring the grave with his son. The Lord will appear from heaven, it says. He will bring with him those who have died in him. He will change the rest of us to be caught up to be with him and them and we will be with him forever.
I notice two things about grief as I deal with people, or have over the past number of years. First, it has become more and more common to hear people when they suffer loss say, “I don’t want anything sad to be said.” It has never been my way to try to go to a memorial service and make it as sad as I could. I don’t believe that ought to be done. But I find it fascinating that we want to act like nothing sad ever happens. There is grief. Being a Christian doesn’t protect you from it, but it does enable you to cope with it.
The second thing that I notice about this process is that we try to handle grief in a way other than what Paul recommends here. He writes about it, and then in verse 18 he said, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” Don’t try to encourage somebody else by saying “it is just the Lord’s will.” Those are not the words that are said here. Don’t try to say, “Well, it was just his time.” What is said is, “The Lord still loves you. If we live in the Lord, when we die we are still with the Lord and some day we will be back together in the Lord.” Those are the kinds of things that he says encourage.
And then I want you to notice that faith is alive and well whenever there is a sense of alertness and steadiness among the members of the body of Christ. In 1 Thes. 5:1-11, there is a contrast between those who are in darkness. Those who are asleep now, not physically like the previous paragraph, but morally and spiritually asleep - they are careless and indifferent. They are paying no attention to the great issues of how life is supposed to be lived or what will happen when it’s over. But Paul insists we as Christians are not in darkness (v. 4). He says we are children of the light (v. 5), and then he says, “So then, let us not sleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.” Let us be alert. Let us be sensible and calm and steady about the use we are making of our lives (v.8). “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”
How do you tell if faith is alive and well? Are our hearts ready for God’s gaze? Are we controlling our bodies morally and with purity? Are we living responsibly and properly before outsiders? Are we coping with grief and loss when it has to be dealt with among us? And are we alert and paying attention to the great moral and spiritual issues of our lives? It’s pretty practical.
I went this past week for my yearly checkup, and as he did last year, everything pretty much started with “for a guy your age.” But everything was alright. If we were to apply this checkup to us spiritually, would everything be alright? Timothy brought news to Paul that at Thessalonica they are dealing with affliction and they are dealing with distress and temptation, but their faith is alright. And Paul said, “For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord.” Would you this morning please be sure you are standing fast in the Lord? You come to be in the Lord by believing so much in him that you say it with your mouth and you turn away from sin in your life and you are baptized into him. He transfers you into Christ. You stay there by walking in the light from day to day. You can be in the Lord this morning if you will.