|From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase|
Part three of a series. Read part two.
First Thessalonians shows us that the problems of the 21st-century church are not new. They may have different names and circumstances attached to them, but at their core they are the same struggles Christians have always faced, and the solution is the same as ever. In 1 Thessalonians chapters 4 and 5 the Apostle Paul addresses three of them.
In the previous article of this series, we saw that the Holy Spirit through His inspired writer found three commendable attributes among the members of the Thessalonian church. First, they were a truly regenerated people, not merely outward professors with no inward life, and their openly visible embrace of the truth of Gospel powerfully demonstrated this. Second, they were a witnessing people, and their Gospel witness had gone far beyond their own city with powerful effect. Thirdly, they had endured persecution from both Jews and Gentiles while living in a very spiritually hostile environment, and had remained faithful. In these things they are examples to authentic Christians in all ages, and this is certainly the case in our day.
The Dangers of a Spiritual Starvation Diet
But the Thessalonian believers were not a perfect people, as we are not today. As sinners saved by grace, they needed to grow in sanctification and in sound doctrine. The Apostle Paul deals with these matters in chapters 4 and 5. It is noteworthy that Paul begins his corrective exhortations to the Thessalonian church by making it clear that he did not want them to be on a spiritual starvation diet that would fail to support and advance their growth in Christ.
At the heart of many problems in the church today is the sad fact that most self-described Evangelical churches have their members on a spiritual starvation diet. Many churches today effectively affirm people in their sins. They do not confront people, from Scripture, with their natural state of rebellion against God, and their need for true repentance and faith in Christ. They do not confront people with the Biblical teaching that those who are truly born from above, while they are not perfect people, will desire and strive to live changed lives as a result of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Often a focus on "acceptance" and "affirmation" means that today's church turns a blind eye to mankind's total depravity, the eternal consequences of sin, and the immense price that had to be paid for sinners' redemption by the Son of God Himself. A therapeutic pseudo-gospel that leaves people feeling better about themselves, but still eternally lost, replaces the Bible's clarion call to repentance from sin and faith in Christ. Religious bookstores (it is a step too far to call most of them Christian bookstores anymore) are full of books and videos that supposedly present the Gospel of God's provision of salvation from sin for eternity. But instead they offer nothing more than psychological self-help for the here and now, and leave people in their lost condition.
What is the approach in most churches today? When a church has lost its doctrinal anchor, sin is often trivialized: "We've all made mistakes" - "We've all made some poor choices in life" - "Nobody's perfect" - "Some of us have made poor lifestyle choices." Cohabitation outside of marriage used to be called "living in sin" and considered shameful. But it is rare to hear such preaching today.
Examples of the trivialization of sin in the Evangelical church abound. According to a recent survey, less than 10% of adults in Evangelical churches cite the Bible as the primary basis of their worldview and behavior. According to another recent survey, over 25% of those who are living with a partner outside of marriage identify themselves as Evangelical Christians.
A well-known mega-church in the Midwest that is built on the Purpose-Driven Church model did a confidential survey of its membership. They found that although 91% of their people stated that their highest value in life is having a deep personal relationship with God, 25% of the church's singles, 38% of its single parents, and 41% of its divorced members "admitted to having illicit relationships outside of marriage within the last 6 months."
The leadership of that church was shocked and surprised. But they should not have been. They stopped preaching the one true Gospel long ago. They started doing what Paul warns against in the opening verses of 2 Timothy chapter 4 long ago. They had been teaching what amount to postmodern fables instead of the truth of God.
But in writing to the Thessalonians, as in all his letters, the Apostle Paul will have none of this. Scripture teaches that right doctrine produces right living. The two are inseparable. And so in chapters 4 and 5 he instructs them in the kind of sound doctrine that produces right living. How does this principle apply in Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians?
We read in chapter 4 verses 1 through 8 that there were problems of immorality. These problems of the flesh were a holdover from their past pagan lives. Promiscuity had been a way of life for many of these people before they turned to Christ. Acts of immorality were an integral part of the pagan worship of that time. This of all sins is one of the hardest to put to death. It is a deep problem in the postmodern Evangelical church in our time, as we saw a moment ago. But the answer is not postmodern psychobabble, it is the truth as we find it in Christ and His Word.
Finally then, brethren, we urge and exhort in the Lord Jesus that you should abound more and more, just as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God; for you know what commandments we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one should take advantage of and defraud his brother in this matter, because the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also forewarned you and testified. For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore he who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who has also given us His Holy Spirit.
In chapter 4 verses 9 through 12 we find that there were problems of sloth or laziness among some of the Christians at Thessalonica. Some people were not doing what was necessary to earn their own living and provide for their own needs. This was becoming a bad reflection on their witness to the watching world. So Paul warned them about this, and he exhorted them to lead a quiet life - mind your own business, work with your hands, and thus bear a good testimony to the unbelievers around you.
But concerning brotherly love you have no need that I should write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do so toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, that you increase more and more; that you also aspire to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, that you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and that you may lack nothing.
Misunderstandings About Christ's Return
In chapter 4 beginning at verse 13 through chapter 5 verse 11 we find that there were misunderstandings about the Second Coming of Christ, and misunderstandings about the state of Christians who had already died. Many of the Thessalonian believers 2,000 years ago had thought that Jesus should have returned by then. So they were, in some ways, discouraged. Some in the church were teaching things about the Second Coming of Christ that simply were not true. Others were saying that Christ had already come. And so there was great confusion among them about this vital point of doctrine.
Therefore Paul endeavors to correct their understanding. He explains what is going to happen when Christ comes. But his reason for doing this is not simply to give them information. His purpose is twofold. He desires to give them comfort, and he desires to encourage them to watch for the coming of Christ while leading godly lives so that they would not be ashamed if Christ came back in their time. We likewise need to think and act in this way.
But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.
But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, "Peace and safety!: then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day.
We are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him. Therefore comfort each other and edify one another, just as you also are doing.
We find great confusion in the church about the Second Coming today. I have actually heard of deacons in fundamentalist churches saying that their church does not have to be worried about paying off the mortgage on its building, because Jesus is coming back soon. Some professing fundamentalist Christians claimed that the death of Billy Graham was a prophetic sign of Christ's imminent return. Where do we find these things in the Bible?
First Thessalonians shows us that the problems of the 21st-century church are not new. At their core they are the same ones Christians have always faced, and the solution is the same as ever - growing in the knowledge of Christ and His Word. In our time the Thessalonians' problems may have different names and circumstances attached to them, but they are essentially the same. And God's timeless Word tells us how to deal with them. God's Word is as up-to-date as ever.
Next: Short But Weighty Exhortations in Chapter 5
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