After 11 weeks, it was easy to think that we were winding down the series on 1 Thessalonians, but there is much in these final verses. The message was called “The Life of the Waiting Church” (although, having preached it, I would probably now call it “The Work of the Waiting Church.”)
It is tempting to skim the last few verses of Paul’s letters; surely we have had the “meat” already! The heading in the ESV doesn’t help: “final instructions and benediction” doesn’t sound particularly exciting.
However, these verses are important. They flow out of all that we saw last week (5v1-11). Last week’s message contained principles about being ready for Christ’s coming. Today’s message shows some of the ways in which the church should live while we wait.
These things are the natural outflow of Christian living in a local church. They are especially a part of the “encourage and build one another up” of v11. V12 should start with “but” or “now” – indicating that this is a continuation – encourage each other in this way.
Also, our vision statement says that we are called “be a worshipping community of God’s people.” This passage is a glimpse of what a worshipping community looks like as we wait for the Lord to come. Today we will look at worship in general – all of life is worship – this is how we live for the glory of God. Next week we will look at worship in the narrow sense of our coming to God with our thanksgiving and prayers.
I) Respecting the leadership (v12-13)
This is “asked” (v12) – asking as an equal. Paul is not lording over and commanding, but asking as a brother. He is encouraging strongly them that this is the right thing to do, because the church needs to be rightly led.
V12: We are called to “respect” (know/acknowledge/recognise) our leaders, to recognise their role, to acknowledge them as genuine leaders and, conversely, avoid false ones.
Paul then explains some of the things that church leaders (especially pastors and elders) do (or should do):
- “labour” (verb form of 1v3, labour of love). This means hard work and effort to the point of wearying. A leader is a leader not for status, but to work hard for the good of God’s people, as a servant.
This is reinforced by the end of v13: “…for their work.” This is work in the sense of duty/responsibility. It is responsibility before the Lord. This is what a leader does: he works for the good of the people of God. It is not a career progression, it is an opportunity for service and for hard work.
- Leaders are to be “over you in the Lord.” While leaders are to be hardworking servants of the Lord and His people, they are meant to lead. This is not lording over, but leading to serve and for the good of the fellowship – leading “in the Lord”. Those leaders who lead for themselves and not “in the Lord” are not leaders and should not be recognised.
- Part of leading is to “admonish”; that is, when necessary, to warn the flock of the dangers and consequences of their behaviour. This should be warning with instruction. Preaching can fall into two categories: 1) Teaching of doctrine; 2) Exhortation about how to live.
Admonishing requires both: it challenges the flock how to live but does so from the truth (doctrine) of scripture. Thus the role of the leader is the careful exposition of scripture and the application of it to all of life, even when that means warning people of the dangers and consequences of their conduct. This is a huge challenge for any pastor and elder (and a challenge to receive admonition), but it is one of the reasons why leaders have been given to us.
In v13, we are told how to respond to our leaders:
- We are to “esteem them very highly.” “Very highly” translates the same Greek word used in Ephesians 3:20 (“far more abundantly”). Thus we are to hold godly leaders in the highest regard.
- We are also to “love” them. This doesn’t mean flattery, but respect, obedience (Hebrews 13:17) and submission. It means responding to their leadership with obedience to God’s word. We can also show love by our support and encouragement.
Of course, leaders are sinners, and no leader meets perfectly the calling of verses 12-13. However, good church leaders are seeking to be these things, and a healthy congregation responds to its leaders with love and respect.
II) Being at peace (v13)
The final instruction of verse 13, “be at peace among yourselves” is placed immediately after the instruction on respecting church leaders because strife between leaders and congregation is one of the most common causes of division in the local church. Peace is maintained as godly leaders are allowed to lead, as leaders are respected, but also as members are loved and served and provoked to godliness by godly leaders immersed in scripture who work hard for the good of the flock.
Peace/unity in the local church should be natural as we wait for Christ’s return. It is odd, to say the least, if we are going to be together always with the Lord but we refuse to get along with each other while we wait!
Peace is also seen in our attitude when someone offends us. Paul has more to say about that in v15.
III) Speak and live for good (v14-15)
Paul now moves from talking about leadership to addressing how the congregation should support and encourage each other. We live in a very individualistic culture in the West. That can translate into our church life, as we go to the church, we come home, we get on with our lives. But these verses don’t give us that option. Yes, leaders are called to build up, but we need to build each other up. This is similar to Ephesians 4. In Eph 4:12, it is the leaders who are to “build up” the church. In Eph 4:16, it is all the members working together to build up the church.
So, as people who are part of a local church, we are called to:
- Admonish (same as v12, it is not just the leadership’s job) – to challenge lovingly with instruction. We need wisdom, we don’t jump on people and have a “go” at them, but we do need to be willing to speak the truth in love as we ourselves have received from the word of God.
But we are not called to go around admonishing everyone! Specifically, the “idle”. (NIV 2011 has “idle and disruptive”, which is better). The point is that we are called to live productive lives, not wasting our time doing fruitless things or stirring up trouble. Clearly some in the church at Thessalonica were, and we need to stir one another up to fruitful Christian living. This doesn’t mean not resting (we are not God) or relaxing (He has given us all things richly to enjoy), but we need to avoid laziness and so much leisure that we become unfruitful.
- Encourage – speaking to someone by coming alongside them. This is different from the warning just mentioned. This is primarily to do with comforting rather than challenging.
Specifically, “the fainthearted” or discouraged. Literally: “small-souled.” The weight of trouble can crush us to the extent that we feel our souls become shrivelled like an autumn leaf, and we feel like giving up. We need someone to come alongside us. We also need to keep our eyes and hearts open to others so that we can come alongside them, to support and encourage.
- Help (NKJV – uphold). Whereas “encourage” (above) has the sense of “putting an arm round”, “help” here has the sense of holding someone up so that they don’t fall.
We are to hold up “weak”, those without strength. The Bible uses the word “weak” to describe the sick or disadvantaged. So, we are called to help with practical needs. However, the Bible also uses the word for the morally weak, those who are going through times of being especially overcome by temptation.
So, we are to “encourage” (put our arm round) those who are battered by the pressures of life, and we are to “help” (hold up) those who are battered by temptation. We need each other. We also need to be…
- Patient. Fellowship is for the long term. This is so important – and it applies to everyone – “with them all” – the idle, the discouraged and the weak. This suggests that we shouldn’t always be expecting quick fixes. We need to persevere for the long term, as the Lord does with us.
Finally, as God’s people who are called to peace (v13), we need to be prepared to forgive when we are offended by each other or hurt by the world (v15):
- “See that no one…” – be on the lookout for, be vigilant because we are prone to desire to get our own back on those who hurt us.
- Instead, none of us are to “repay evil for evil” to “anyone.” So, we are called to forgive those within the church and outside the church. This was a huge challenge to the early church as they suffered persecution. Yet, this is part of being God’s people. This marks us as different from the world around.
So, instead of vengeance, we are to “always” – at all times – “seek to do good” – pursue that which is right (“strive for” NIV 2011). The word “seek” is translated elsewhere “to persecute”. It is as if Paul is saying, “pursue the good of others with the same kind of zeal your enemies persecute you.” As much as they have passion for evil, so you should have passion to do them good, to do for them that which is pleasing to God.
This is to be to “one another and everyone” – inside and outside the church. Yes even the persecutors. What a challenge! How we need the Lord’s help!
These may seem like a random selection of things to do but they are all part of being the church, of being a worshipping community, of living for God’s glory and of displaying a counter-culture to the world around.
John Stott’s commentary on Sermon on the Mount is called “Christian Counter-Culture.” When we look at western culture, there is little respect for authority, we are told not to “judge” or challenge people, even children (“don’t admonish,” says the world), we are more inclined to take care of ourselves than others, we hold grudges. By the common grace of God, we still see people doing good to others, but we also see a lot of evil.
But a worshipping community with the “Christian counter-culture” described in these verses will shine into the darkness.
As we’ve said already, we need the Lord! But we also need each other. The church is meant to be together. We walk along the road that leads to life together. We wait for Him to come together. Lockdown has led to isolation and, for some, it means that the focus is me and my family only. May the Lord keep us from that, and keep us together – to hold each other up, and to keep walking on the road to glory.