20170315

Travelling through 1 Thessalonians 06 The fat lady is already singing



Another part of the series from the Evangelical Magazine
Every chapter of 1 Thessalonians refers to the Second coming, especially the last two chapters. Today we are used to Christians dying but imagine a converted Thessalonian pagan. He loves the brotherhood but after a while, one dies, then others. This is unexpected. He thought Christ would come and take them all to be with him, sooner rather than later. Now he is unsettled and it is most understandable. We are unsurprised when Christians die but may be we are unclear on certain things about Christ's return.

Christians have hope
Paul says (4:13) he does not want them to be ignorant about believers who die or grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. His subject is Christians who die before Christ returns. He is concerned that those who remain should know what happens to such people. When unbelievers die, other unbelievers have no certainty about them. Some vaguely hope for a better afterlife. It is a forlorn hope. \Only Christians have a solid hope, Though it is sad when believers die, it is not the end of the story. It is a temporary parting that ends with Christ's return. We grieve when believers die but not like those with no hope. We genuinely hope to see them again. This we must not forget when faced with death.

The resurrection has begun
Paul then says (14) something about that hope. We believe first that Jesus died and rose again. That is fundamental. Jesus lived and died, more than that he rose again - not mere resuscitation but a real rising in a new spiritual body, in which he ascended to heaven and with which he will return. We believe the end of the world is already here and the final resurrection begun. So far, only Jesus is raised but because of that we believe that one day God will bring with him every Christian who has died, ready to receive new resurrection bodies.
There is a phrase “it ain't over 'til the fat lady sings”. It references stereotypically overweight sopranos of Grand Opera such as the buxom valkyrie Brünnhilde, who sings in the last part of Wagner's Ring Cycle. Her 20 minute aria leads directly to the opera's end. She sings of the world's end (or at least that of the Norse gods) so as it is all over “when the fat lady sings" so we can say that with Christ's coming the world is at an end, though, as in opera, there are still things to happen before the very end. \Christ is risen and will soon return. When he does, every true Christian who has died will come with him and be reunited to his newly raised body. This is the Christian hope. When we see our brother in his coffin we are sad but not despairing. Our hope is his resurrection when Jesus returns. We look forward to seeing not only Jesus but also all who have died in him. \\Leading features of the Second Coming So Paul can say (4:15) we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord certainly will not precede those who die. A generation of Christians will be alive at Christ's return. The Thessalonians hoped they would be that generation, a misplaced desire. There is no advantage in it. The generation left … will certainly not precede those who died before his coming. There is no real difference.
Remember:
1. The coming itself. First, Jesus himself will come down from heaven where he now is. We learn elsewhere that every eye will see it. Three phrases speak of the signal that will go out summoning the dead to rise - a loud command, a general leading his army speaks; the voice of the archangel the battle cry of Michael to angel bands: with the trumpet call of God as when a signal calls an army to battle. So Christ will come with loud command … archangel's voice and trumpet sound, calling people to leave their graves. Once on earth Christ cried Lazarus! Lazarus rose. A day is coming when he will call and all will respond.
2. The resurrection. So the dead in Christ will rise first. The first thing that will happen is that the bodies of the dead in Christ, Christians, will rise from their graves, the sea, wherever. There is, of course, a general resurrection; all bodies will rise. There is also the matter of what happens to those still alive when Christ returns but first there is the resurrection of the righteous that the Bible speaks of many times in both Testaments. The dead in Christ will rise.
3. The transformation of believers still alive when he comes. Paul goes on According to the Lord's own word, the words of Jesus himself we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. It is only After that, that believers still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. There is an order, as we might expect from the God of order. First, Christ comes from heaven, then the dead in Christ rise, then believers on earth are transformed. Their bodies become spiritual, without dying. What is the interval between the resurrection of the righteous and this transformation? Some try to introduce large amounts of time but there is no argument for that. The gap is the matter of a twinkling of an eye. Something similar could be said of the resurrection and transformation of unbelievers. Paul does not talk about that. He wants to assure the Thessalonians that those who had recently died would not miss out but share in the resurrection and transformation as much as those who remained.
4. Eternal bliss. Finally, do not miss his point that those alive at Christ's coming and those who die in the Lord will be with the Lord forever. We will all know his presence throughout eternity. What bliss! What joy! What a glorious day lies ahead for us and all who die in the Lord.

Words with which to encourage each other
Finally, Paul says Therefore encourage each other with these words. We have a duty to keep these teachings alive and speak to each other about them so that we all take courage from them. Obviously at Christian funerals this is an obvious text. It is a part of our New Testament that we ought always to remember. Informally, we ought encourage each other with these truths too – not just when people die but always.
Sports psychologists say things like “Develop a team mission. This could be your goal for the season. It could be a motto to encourage team unity.” Churches sometimes have mission statements and such things. Here is a great statement with which to encourage each other.
When will Christ return? The question comes up in Chapter 5. Meanwhile, be clear what will happen and encourage each other with these truths as much as you can.

20170314

Travelling through 1 Thessalonians 05 Pleasing and obeying God - Sanctification


1 Thessalonians 4 recalls Paul's efforts to teach people how to please God, something the Thessalonians were doing but that they must do more and more. They know God's will is that they be sanctified. 

Pleasing and obeying God; sanctification
Christians are sanctified (separated to God) the moment they believe. As Temple vessels were holy (set apart for special use) Christians are set apart to God's use. This positional sanctification, like a full stop, takes a moment. Progressive sanctification, like a drawn line, goes on throughout life, incomplete until death. Paul writes of the latter. God's will is that we be increasingly set apart to him, ever more holy to please him. 
  • We need God's instruction. Paul never assumed that conversion leads automatically to holiness but taught people how to please God with letters full of teaching. He wanted not only to evangelise but … make disciples ... teaching them to obey everything ....
  • Some holiness is almost spontaneous. Interestingly, Paul also says they lived that way already. As with brotherly love, God had taught them. Paul was aware of their love, their tendency to please God. It is difficult to trace where we do good because taught and where it flows from faith and love. Why am I reading this? Because taught not to neglect Christian instruction or because instinctively seeking God? Who knows? Some good is almost spontaneous.
  • Always room to improve. Avoid complacency. No resting on your laurels! As with love, Paul urges more and more holiness. However far you have gone, there is room for progress. You do few obviously sinful things but what about words? You say little that is evil but what about thoughts? You avoid doing bad but what good replaces it? Onward and upward is our motto. Schools love targets and strategies. How can I get from D to C? That is sound. Aim at nothing, you'll succeed! What is your aim, your strategy with regard to holiness?
  • Further
It is God's will that you should be sanctified. Do not oppose him. Paul reminds them that God punishes for all such sins. Why would we want to do things that bring God's wrath on the disobedient?
For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. God did not call you with the idea you would stay as you are. Do not lose sight of his purposes.
Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit. God's commands cannot be rejected. Paul subtly adds that God does not expect us to act alone. I say “lift this weight”, nothing happens. I say “lift this weight; I'll help”. That is different. This is what God does. “Be holy” he says. “Obey”. He also sends his Spirit. Paul pleads in the Lord Jesus. He gave instructions originally by Christ's authority. It is all about him – justification, sanctification; beginning, going on.
Avoid sexual immorality; learn self control
The call to sanctification has implications. Paul highlights avoiding sexual immorality. Our appetites vary in strength - person to person, time to time. A desire for intimacy, for sexual pleasure is not wrong but must not reign. This is often difficult. Today temptation is ubiquitous with the rise of the Internet.
Paul says each must learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honourable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, ignorant of God. Avoiding sexual immorality entails self-control. Passion cannot reign. Paul is probably in Corinth where hundreds of sacred prostitutes left the temples nightly to ply their trade.
A Christian must flee prostitutes and pornography, either remaining celibate or confining sex to the marriage bed - not always easy. We must learn to control all our appetites. Pagans, ignorant of God, unsurprisingly disregard God's rules against adultery, homosexuality, etc. We who know God must be self-controlled, treating our bodies in holy, honourable ways.
The (slightly cryptical) warning against wronging a brother or taking advantage in this reminds us that others are often involved. We must both control our bodies and avoid causing others difficulties.
How goes it? Is your body under control, avoiding passionate pagan lust? Are you taking care not to create problems for others?

Brotherly love
The mention of not wronging a brother leads to a note on brotherly love. Paul does not need to write on this as they almost spontaneously love each other. Yet he urges more and more. Perhaps your fellowship is similar. You evidently love each other. Nevertheless, do so more and more. Work at it. We can always do more.

Careers advice for holiness seekers 1
Verse 12 may seem unconnected. The Thessalonians must obey so their daily lives will win the respect of outsiders and so they avoid dependence on anyone. It is about relationships – insiders, then outsiders. In reverse

Be holy to win the respect of outsiders; avoid dependence. Progressive sanctification is necessary also because of its effect on outsiders. Holiness can repel unbelievers but if we live as described, Christianity is attractive. The Thessalonian letters reveal a growing problem in the church. Some poorer members felt that as Christ was coming soon, richer members should finance them and they need not work. It is a little like Christians today living on state handouts and evangelising on the streets. Paul strongly opposes such thinking. He wants them not to be dependent on anybody. As for brotherly love, there is a balance. Think of the contrast Carry each other's burdens … each one should carry his own load (Gal 6:2-5). We must help each other and ourselves. 

Careers advice for holiness seekers 2
Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life. Should Christians be ambitious? Yes and no. Their ambition should be to have none.
Live a quiet life. Do not seek adventure. As a rule of thumb, stay as you are. Married ? Stay married. Single? Do not seek marriage, though it is no sin. Dead end job? Fear not; move up if you can. Stay in the same place, the same job; keep the same friends, if possible.
Mind your own business. Similarly, do not delve into other people's business, volunteering here and there, offering help to all. May be God will expand your horizon of influence but do not seek it.
Work with your hands. Greeks despised manual work, a view Paul opposed by precept and example. If you can, do an honest job for an honest wage. Eldership is noble but be slow to assume God wants you. Holiness is not by way of a monastery but getting on with mundane sometimes drudge-inducing lives, working hard, unambitiously minding our own business, which includes sanctification.
God wants you to please and obey him. Be holy. Shun sexual immorality, learn self control, practice brotherly love, lead quiet lives, mind your own business, work hard. This is how to live.

20170310

Travelling through 1 Thessalonians 04 How to pray for each other


The fourth in the series form the Evangelical Magazine

In 1 Thessalonians 3:6-13 we see five helpful rules on how to pray for each other.

Keep informed
In verses 6-8, having spoken of his concern for them, Paul explains how Timothy had arrived with good news of their faith and love. Paul learned of the pleasant memories of him and his team they had and their longing to see him as much as he longed to see them. This was not a complete surprise. In all his distress and persecution Paul had been encouraged by the thought of their faith. However, now he lives. They really are standing firm in the Lord!
Paul prayed for them all the time they were apart but was anxious – afraid he says that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless. Timothy has now reassured him on that score. What a relief! Paul always found faith in others encouraging, especially in distress and persecution, so he was greatly cheered to know of their progress. We are all the same. One thing we can all do to help ourselves to pray better is to try and be better informed about one another. We must pray for fellow believers whether we hear of them or not but, generally speaking, it is easier if we keep informed, one of the things this magazine seeks to do.

Give thanks
Paul asks (9) How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? It is clear that he often gave thanks. Why was he so thankful? Because of the joy it gave him, in God's presence, to know others were saved and were demonstrating that in their daily lives. He finds it difficult to see how he can be as thankful as he ought to be, so much joy have they given.
At the start of the letter, he wrote how he always thanked God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. It is a note often struck in his letters. It is usually the place to start when praying for believers. How lonely without them! What joy to know that they also are saved. Are we giving thanks for them? Do our thanks equal the joy they give us by their Christian living? At the very least, we ought to be regularly thanking God for one another.

Request fellowship opportunities and growth
Paul constantly prayed for them. He says (10) Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith. He gives the prayer - Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. Besides giving thanks Paul makes a specific request – to see them again and preach to them. His prayer is that our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus will clear the way for him and his companions to come to them again. \We should make specific requests to God. More importantly, we should often pray for fellowship. That is what Paul longs for with the Thessalonians. His specific desire, as a preacher, is to supply what is lacking in their faith but we should all long for fellowship with each other. \Pray too for the supply of what is lacking in people's faith. Give thanks for faith but recognise that no-one has perfect faith so we ask for growth and increase. People don't do it so much now but there was a time when a woman would sit and darn the socks. Our faith often has holes and needs repair. Pray for faith to be “darned”.
Pray for each other – for opportunities of fellowship, the supply of what faith currently lacks.

Request increased and overflowing love
Paul prays May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you (12). He prays not only for an increase in faith but also love. The CEV has - May the Lord make your love for each other and for everyone else grow by leaps and bounds. It's like faith – every Christian believes and every Christian loves but there is room for growth. Let's pray for each other that our love will grow in leaps and bounds. In particular pray that we may have Love each other more and more. Brotherly love is a basic Christian trait but too often we are found wanting. Pray for a real increase in love to one another.
An increasing love for outsiders too. Love is to extend beyond us to all sorts of others. Pray it will. The pattern is the same as Galatians 6:10, Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

Request strengthened hearts and blamelessness when Christ comes
Having spoken of faith and love one expects a reference to hope. That is not what follows but there is an emphasis on the future hope. What Paul prays is (13) May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones. The prayer is interesting as it requests God to strengthen their hearts. The end of this is seen as increased holiness so that they will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones. So here's another thing to pray for each other – a strengthening of the heart so that, in light of Christ's return, we may become more and more holy. We tend not to think of holiness as a matter of being strong in heart but Paul saw that is often the issue. More strong heartedness would mean greater separation to God and more holy living. Pray that will increasingly be the case with all of us. Then those we pray for will be among the holy believers who return with Christ when he comes.
The very mention of Christ's return, a subject Paul keeps returning to in this letter, reminds us that if we would pray, we must set our minds on Christ's return. It is in the light of that event that we must always pray.

20170309

Travelling through 1 Thessalonians 03 Pastors and Persecutors

A third article on 1 Thessalonians


It all happened in just three weeks. Paul came to Thessalonica, preached, many were converted, persecution hit, Paul had to depart. Acts 17 and 1 Thessalonians 2:14-3:5 tell the story.
Maybe you know little of persecution personally but you do not go far in the Bible without reading about it.

Destiny
1 Thessalonians 2:14, 15 speaks of the Thessalonians becoming imitators of God's churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus. The Jews in Judea persecuted the earliest Christians. The same thing happened to the Thessalonians. Later (3:3b, 4) Paul says they know quite well that we were destined for this. He had warned them to expect it.
This is how it has always been. The Jews persecuted their prophets, the Judean churches, Jesus and the apostles. We believe the same things so we can expect persecution too. John 15:20, If they persecuted me, they will persecute you. Paul told the Thessalonians - if you become Christians, expect persecution. And it turned out that way! To this day believers experience it.
June 2013, Uzbekistan. A Christian is violently assaulted by a police chief. When he lodges a complaint, he is himself charged. He is stopped by the police chief, taken to a police station and a portable data drive containing Christian materials is confiscated. The officer beats him with a book, punches and kicks him. He is taken home and other Christian resources and his laptop are seized. Is my lack of persecution today due to failing to live as I should? Not to be persecuted, is abnormal. 

Persecutors
In 2:15, 16 Paul turns to the persecutors and says They displease God and are hostile to all men as they try to stop them hearing the gospel. They displease God who hates such persecution and as for men, they are hostile to all. Persecutors in one way or another oppose God and man, keeping people from hearing the message and being saved. Some are driven away by fear of persecution. Others see the truth and believe, regardless. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last. They will be judged for their sins and even now God's wrath is coming on them. Sin is like liquid filling a cup, drop by drop. Eventually it fills and God's wrath is unleashed. Paul is thinking of the Jews and the evidence already seen of God's wrath. We should be glad that one day all persecution will end.

Compassion
2:17, 18 Paul says when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you - certainly I, Paul, did, again and again - but Satan stopped us. Knowing the Thessalonians were being persecuted Paul's sympathies went out to them. He had to move to Berea but did all he could to see them again. He longed to come to them but was stopped by Satan – no detail is given but Satan always wants to separate Christians. A good question is whether our hearts go out to the persecuted. That should be our response.
July 2013, Turkmenistan. Police raid a children’s summer camp. With medical personnel they swoop on the event, organised by a church on its own premises. They question the children, make parents collect them and take extensive video footage of children and the meeting place. The Christians are fined for holding an unregistered religious meeting and not complying with sanitary norms, charges they strongly reject. Our hearts should go out to them.

Pastor and flock
How pastors should regard their flocks, flocks their pastors. 19, 20a what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy. The relationship between pastor and flock should be such that the pastor sees the people as his hope, joy and future glory and the people recognise it. The pastor hopes the best for them; for them to truly believe and live to God's praise is his joy. When Jesus returns the Thessalonians will be Paul's crown. He will glory in Christ's presence over them. As it was with Paul and the Thessalonians so it should be today. Perhaps pastors fail to make this clear or maybe people are slow to believe it.
Sometimes pastor and flock are parted. Paul describes how he went alone to Athens (3:1). Imagine him – separated from his hope and glory. That is never easy for a pastor but it happens. Joseph Alleine, imprisoned in 1663, greatly missed his flock and wrote many letters. He says “Very pleasant have you been unto me, and your love to me is wonderful; and as I have formerly taken great content in that my lot was cast among you, so I rejoice in my present lot, that I am called to prove my love to you by suffering for you; for you, I say; for you know I have not sought yours, but you; and that, for doing my duty to your souls, I am here in these bonds, which I cheerfully accept through the grace of GOD that strengtheneth me. O that your hands might be strengthened, and your hearts encouraged in the LORD your GOD by our sufferings!” For pastor and flock to be separated is bad. The shepherd is struck, the sheep scatter. Yet sometimes it happens. If it does not, be thankful.

A pastor's fears
3:2, 3a, 5 Paul confesses his fear that in some way the tempter might have tempted them and his efforts have proved useless. It was not sinful fear as he did something about it, sending Timothy to them, his brother and God's fellow worker in spreading the gospel. Paul wanted Timothy to strengthen and encourage their faith, so that their trials would not unsettle them. Good pastors do what they can to see strengthen and encourage the flock as best they can. Unable to stand it any longer Paul sent to find out about their faith. He wanted information; any true pastor would, anyone with genuine concern. \\\Progress Finally, Paul explains how Timothy returned with good news of their faith and love and their pleasant memories of and longings to see him (as Paul longed for them). How encouraging! Their progress and devotion meant a lot, as with any pastor. Growth in faith and love is vital despite persecution, which should drive pastor and people together. Even if there is none, they should be united.

Travelling through 1 Thessalonians 02 How to be a successful preacher

This is the second in a series of articles on 1 Thessalonians that appeared in The Evangelical Magazine
There is a sort of preacher likely to succeed with God's help. Preachers, all who pray for them and all who witness should know what they are like. Paul was very successful in Thessalonica. In 1 Thessalonians 2:1-13 we read how.
Preaching can make little impact. We may think it will never succeed. Let's try something else! But what happened in Thessalonica? Paul reminds them. His visit was not a failure. Previously, in Philippi, he and Silas were beaten and imprisoned. Every convert was hard won. No doubt it was tempting to be discouraged on coming to pagan Thessalonica. But with God's help (that is important) they boldly evangelised despite strong opposition. They kept preaching regardless and did not tone it down. We must be bold, not letting opposition deter. Look to God and evangelise. Let people know. It is their only hope. Only certain preachers will succeed, like Paul in Thessalonica.

1. Avoid error, impure motives, trickery Paul avoided deceit, impurity or tricking people. There are apparently successful preachers who are false, impure in motive, mere tricksters. On the contrary, we must be true, genuine, honest, preaching God's Word. It is one reason expository preaching is important - to be sure it stays true. Preaching must not be motivated by desire for applause, money or merely winning the argument. Gimmicks are a distraction. The best preaching, the sort God most often uses, is straightforward, unvarnished, plain. That is what pleases him. Successful preachers see they are stewards entrusted with God's Word. They want not to please men but God, who tests our hearts. They seek his approval. Like the best translator they aim not to show off or add anything but to give the true meaning. Pray for such preaching. The ASA expect adverts to be legal, decent and honest. Try to be true, genuine and honest when you witness. Pray preachers will do the same.
2. Avoid flattery, selfishness; humble people It is good to identify with an audience but flattery is inconsistent with faithful preaching. Somehow preachers must spell out the bad news – our utter sinfulness, our hopeless state without God. Born in sin, we are totally depraved and, religious or not, outside Christ, without hope. Preaching must not be a cover up for greed. Never think of what you will get out of it. Faithful preachers seek the good of their hearers. To adapt Kennedy's words - “ask not what you might get out of evangelism, ask what you can do for others through your evangelism”! We need preaching that exalts God and humbles people. Paul did not look for human praise, he was not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts. Inner sincerity is vital. The late Bob Sheehan, as a student out preaching, was once told “if an old man at the back leaves in the last hymn, don't worry Dr Lloyd-Jones always does that”. How unnerving! But Bob thought a bit and saw the real challenge is to preach before God. That is who we should be most conscious of. Pray for that sort of preaching. Preach Christ without flattery or selfishness; for God's glory, not to please men.
3. Have a lifestyle that backs up the message Paul goes on to speak of his lifestyle. He compares himself to a mother (literally a nurse, perhaps with her own children) and a father. He explains (6-8) how he and his team avoided being a burden and were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. He refers particularly to his decision not to expect financial support. Admittedly, it was only a short time but he acted from concern for the people. He showed motherly gentleness and care, not wanting to burden them. Preachers must preach and live like mothers, who have God-given authority over their children but are tender and gentle. Faithful preachers must not be harsh, frightening away those who are genuinely interested. They should be winsome. Children, especially when afraid, run to mothers not from them. Paul tells them further he loved them so much that he was delighted to share with them not only the gospel …. but his life as well, as were others, because they had become so dear to them. So it is in successful, God wrought preaching. A bond builds between preacher and people that cannot be easily broken.
4. Be holy, righteous, blameless At the same time, like all faithful preachers, Paul was a father. He reminds them (9-12) of his toil and hardship, how they worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached … For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children … His life was marked by holiness, righteousness and blamelessness. Part of this desire not to burden them made him careful to be pious, upright, faultless in his approach, fearing to do anything burdensome. Often unbelievers hearing the gospel are sceptical, ready to seize on anything to oppose the preacher and deny his message. Paul would not allow that but worked hard to avoid it. Then there is his fatherly encouraging, comforting and urging all to live God-worthy lives. In a fatherly way, he did all he could to encourage and comfort, to urge them to lives worthy of God, who calls such people into his kingdom and glory. Again he piles up words. He got alongside them, doing all he could to help them, promoting a life worthy of God, calls people out of Satan's kingdom of darkness into God's glorious kingdom of light. Again, it is the gold standard but we need such preachers. Pray God will raise them up. Pray to be like it yourself.
5. Pray it will be received as God's Word Finally, Paul says he thanks God continually (13) for how his message was received - not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe. Here is the piece de resistance. The Thessalonians had never heard anything like it. They knew it was not man's word but God's at work in them by his power and grace. That is the amazing thing about this sort of preaching. We hear so much bad preaching and preach so many bad sermons we doubt if it can be effective but how wonderful when the Word comes with power and people see by faith it really is God's Word.

20170228

Travelling through 1 Thessalonians 01 How do I know if God loves me and has chosen me?

This is the first of a series of articles on 1 Thessalonians
How can I be sure God loves me? How do know I am elect? Read 1 Thessalonians 1 and ask yourself 
1. Has the gospel come to me with words and with power, the Spirit and deep conviction? Obviously, it is the norm for the elect to hear the message. Paul knows the Thessalonians are loved by God and chosen by him (5a) because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. Some hear the gospel but it makes no difference. Mere hearing guarantees nothing. It is basic, though. All God's elect hear the gospel - may be through you or me. Have you heard?
A mother says “tidy your room”. The child does nothing. He hears but does not respond. Similarly, it is only the elect who know the word coming with power, the Spirit and deep conviction. It may not come like that at first but it will. The elect not only hear the call to repent and believe but are able to do so. Power is vital for conversion. This is why one person leaves church untouched while another is converted. The Spirit makes the difference. The one who breathed out God's Word, when it is preached, takes it and uses it to transform those God has chosen.
The deep conviction could be the preacher's. Preachers must be deeply convinced and convincing. What happens when someone is converted is that they also become deeply convinced of the gospel. Are you aware of the gospel's transforming power? Of the Spirit in your life? Are you deeply convinced? You have reason to believe God loves you and has chosen you.
2. Has it come to me so that I imitate believers and Christ, welcome the message with Holy Spirit joy and have a faith that is known?
aul not only preached to the Thessalonians, he says You know how we lived among you or your sake. It was only for a short time but it had an impact. Verses 6-8 say more of how Paul knew God loved them and had chosen them.
He says You became imitators of us and of the Lord. The people saw how Paul lived and began to imitate him. He himself was imitating Christ so they were really imitators of Paul and Christ. Another mark of one loved and chosen by God is that he begins to imitate Christ and his followers. He wants to live as a Christian and, to some extent, like Christ.
Paul also observes how in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. Acts 17 reveals the strong early opposition. Paul recalls how despite this, they welcomed the message with Spirit given joy. So, after a more general reference to the Spirit and his transforming power, Paul also speaks of how he gives joy to genuine converts, a happiness independent of circumstances, another mark of the elect. By way of example, recall Latimer's dying words, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England as I trust shall never be put out.”
Verses 7 and 8 are specific to the Thessalonians but it points to the tendency of conversion. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord's message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia - your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it …. Sometimes the faith a person shows is quite striking. What an impact the gospel has, say, when someone turns from paganism to the truth and quite suddenly. In some cases everyone knows, it seems. Whenever anyone is converted, someone will know. Real faith cannot be hidden long. Sometimes, many know of it. Do people know about your faith? It is another evidence pointing to God's love and election.
3. Has it come to me so that I have turned from idols to serve the living and true God and wait for his Son my Saviour to come from heaven and rescue me? 
The final set of criteria, negative and positive (verses 9 and 10) say For they themselves (the people who spoke of the Thessalonians' faith) report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols. Many of the converted were people who daily worshipped pagan idols. Others were Jews who unknowingly worshipped demons. In each case there was a turning away from idols, another characteristic of people God really loves and has chosen.
The positive side is that they began to serve the living and true God. This is what happened in Thessalonica so long ago and what has happened to us if we are truly loved by God and chosen by him. We turned from dead, false idols to serve the living and true God from then on. Have you turned from idols to serve God? Are you serving him today? You have reason to believe God loves you and has chosen you.
The very last verse adds and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead - Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath. There are several things there. Jesus is God's Son; he died and rose; he rescues from the coming wrath; he is now in heaven; he will return before the day of wrath. His servants, all those loved by the true and living God and chosen by him, wait for Christ's return. You hear of people waiting to be rescued. It is very hard, even when you know someone will come, to be patient and hold on until they arrive but that is what Christians do. Are you waiting for Christ's return? You have another reason to believe God loves you and has chosen you.
This article on 1 Thessalonians 1 first appeared in The Evangelical Magazine produced by the EMW.

20170225

The Barren Fig Tree Exegesis Mark 11:12-14


The one thing that all the commentators do agree about regarding Mark 11:12-14 is that it is difficult. ‘This narrative bristles with difficulties’, says Cranfield. (1) ‘One of the most perplexing in the Gospels’, wrote A M Hunter. (2)
For many exegetes problems arise from their approach to Scripture. For Hunter and others like him the story is ‘frankly incredible’. (3) They have two main problems with the incident. They find it both irrational and revolting’. (4) Revolting, because the story ‘does not ring true’ (5) with their ideas on Jesus’ character. William Barclay speaks of his ‘petulance’ and J B Phillips of Jesus ‘venting his feeling of frustration and despair upon the fig tree.‘(6) But there is need neither to accuse Jesus of sin nor to see the story as a legendary concretising’ of Luke 13:6-9 for aetiological purposes. (7)  As Bengel asserts ‘Whatever does not serve Jesus Christ is unworthy to serve any one of mortals.’ (8)
Then there is verse 13 which, for some, makes Jesus’ behaviour irrational. Certainly there is a problem. ‘The juxtaposition of the two seemingly contradicting assertions heightens the difficulties, for the explicit statement that it was not the season for figs appears to make Jesus’ action arbitrary and meaningless’. (9)  Of course, some are willing to cut the Gordian knot and remove verse 13, even though it is typical of Mark’s asides. (10)  Surely the better path is to take comfort in the belief the problem is one ‘which evidently the Evangelist did not feel as he deliberately makes it for us.‘ (11) But what is the solution to this apparent difficulty?
A number of evangelical commentators want to find the solution in the possibility of very late or very early figs. (12) However, the idea that Jesus would not have looked for figs without some hope of there being any ‘assumes too much’. Vincent Taylor is scathing about such a line of argument and says it has ‘nothing to commend it’. (13)  Bengel’s idea that Jesus may have been looking for inedible figs to miraculously transform is fanciful and bizarre. (14)
In order to do true justice to the passage one has to accept the following three propositions:

1. It was not possible for edible fruit to be on the tree regardless of how much foliage it had put forth
There are two crops for the fig tree, one early and one late. The first is in May or June and the second is in August or later still. (15) The incident occurs, of course, in April or even March, when, as Mark points out, ‘it was not the season for figs’. It was too soon for the early crop to be ready and too late for anything edible to he remaining from the previous year. ‘There was then no reason to expect fruit upon this tree beyond the promise of its leaves’. (16)

2. Jesus knew that this was the case
Wuest suggests that Jesus 'at least hoped to find figs on the tree' and stresses the 'self-imposed human limitations' of the incarnation, while warning against any denial of Christ's basic omniscience. (17) However, here common sense, a knowledge of his own land, would have been enough to convince Jesus that, regardless of appearances, there could be no fruit on the tree. Gould says ara is illiative here (ie denoting motion into) (18) and R Alan Cole states ‘The Greek particle ara suggests that the finding of figs was an unlikely possibility contemplated by the Lord; he was thus in no sense surprised the tree's unfruitfulness as he would have been had it been the time of the regular fruit crop.' (19)

3. Jesus’ hunger was nevertheless real
J A Alexander fulminates, ‘That this was a simulated hunger, is not only unworthy and irreverent but a perfectly gratuitous assumption as our Lord, by his incarnation, shared in all the innocent infirmities of human nature’. (20) This is where the Lord’s humanity appears, in his hunger not in his supposed ignorance.
An important Scripture for unravelling the remaining difficulties is one apparently ignored by everyone except Catvin. (21) That is John 4:31-34. On that occasion Jesus dealt with his hunger by doing the work of God. It is the same here.
After spending the night in Bethany Jesus and his disciples set off for Jerusalem early in the morning. Had he skipped breakfast as Henry suggests? (22) Being an area rich in figs, dates and olives it was reasonable for him to think of getting something on the way.
Jesus then looks up and sees a leafy fig tree in the distance, ‘a derelict perhaps of some old garden or vineyard’. (23) Perhaps it was in some sheltered hollow and so was more leafy, more precocious. (24) Jesus is aware, however, that it is not the season for figs. Immediately, his mind is turned from the natural to the spiritual. A number of Scriptures may have come to mind. Micah 7:1, 2 seems the most likely suggestion

What misery is mine!
I am like one who gathers summer fruit
at the gleaning of the vineyard; 
there is no cluster of grapes to eat,
none of the early figs that I crave.
The godly have been swept from the land;
not one upright man remains.
All men lie in wait to shed blood;
each hunts his brother with a net.

Christ weeping over Jerusalem is vividly brought to mind (Mt 23:37; Lk 13:13:34). Seeing the beautiful foliage and knowing it all means nothing reminds him of the judgement about to fall on his own people. Cranfield is one of many commentators who notice the careful way Mark has woven the clearing of the Temple into the narrative, 'The best commentary on vv 12-14 and 20f is found in the narrative these verses enframe.' (26)
Many other Old Testament references identify God's people with the fig tree. Hosea 9, and especially verses 10 and 16, echoes the sentiments found here. Israel was not short of 'foliage' - the Temple and it spiritual, outward and legalistic acts of virtue, a form of godliness. But what was lacking was actual fruit, the fruit of righteousness. Like the fig tree they were 'louder than all the rest in profession, yet behind in performance'. (27) This was the very thing that John the Baptist had warned about (Mt 3:7-10) and that Jesus too had spoken of (Mk 7:6). Israel's sin was not just the sin of barrenness but of barrenness with the appearance of fruitfulness.
The warning of this enacted parable, for such it was, is still needed today. Ryle, in his 'Expository Thoughts on the Gospels' applies it admirably.

There was a voice in the fig tree for all the branches of Christ's visible Church, in every age and every part of the world. There was a warning against an empty profession of Christianity, unaccompanied by sound doctrine and holy living, which some of those branches would have done well to lay to heart. But above all there was a voice in that withered fig tree for all carnal, hypocritical, and false-hearted Christians. Well would it be for all who are content with a name to live while in reality they are dead, if they would only see their own faces in the glass of this passage.
Let us take care that we each individually learn the lesson that this fig tree conveys. Let us always remember that baptism, and church-membership, and reception of the Lord's supper, and diligent use of the outward forms of Christianity, are not sufficient to save our souls. They are leaves, nothing but leaves, and without fruit will add to our condemnation. Like the fig leaves of which Adam and Eve made themselves garments, they will not hide the nakedness of our souls from the eye of an all-seeing God, or give us boldness when we stand before Him at the last day. No: we must bear fruit, or be lost for ever! There must be fruit in our lives, - the fruit of repentance toward our Lord Jesus Christ, - and true holiness in our conversation. Without such fruits as these, a profession of Christianity will only sink us lower into hell.

References
1 C E B Cranfield, Cambridge Greek New Testament Commentary, St Mark with supplementary notes, Cambridge 1972, p 354 2 A M Hunter, Torch Bible Commentary, St Mark, London 1949, p 110 3 Hunter, p 110 4 Bundy, quoted in D E Nineham, Pelican Commentary, St Mark, London 1963, p 225 5 William Barclay, Daily Study Bible, Mark's Gospel, Edinburgh 1975 6 J B Phillips, Peter's Portrait of Jesus, London 1976, p 104 11 7 See A W Blunt, Clarendon Bible, St Mark, 1939, p 226 and Hugh Anderson, New Century Bible Commentary, London 1976, p 263f
8 Bengel's 'Gnomon', Vol I p 553 9 William Lane, NICNT, GOSPEL OF MARK, Grand Rapids 1974, p 399 10 Cf eg 3:30, 5:42, 7:3,4 etc 11 Richard Glover, A Teacher's Commentary on the Gospel of St Mark, London 1957, p 208 12 These include Barnes, Bengel, Cole, Hendriksen, Ryle and Swift (NBC rev) 13 Vincent Taylor, The Gospel according to Mark, London 1952, p 458
14 Bengel, p 553 15 This is the consensus of the commentaries and dictionaries consulted. 16 H B Swete, Greek Testament with notes and indices, The Gospel according to Mark, Cambridge 1920 17 Kenneth S Wuest, Word Studies, Mark, Grand Rapids, 1950, p 219 18 Ezra Gould, ICC, St Mark's Gospel, Edinburgh 1896, p 211 19 R Alan Cole, Tyndale NTCs, Leicester & Grand Rapids 1971, p 177 20 J A Alexander, Mark, 1858, Edinburgh & Carlisle Pa 1960, p 303 21 John Calvin, Harmony of the Synoptics, Vol 3 P 18 Baker ed, (CTS trans)
22 Matthew Henry, Commentary, Vol 5 p 526 (MacDonald ed) 23 Swete, p 254 24 Alford's word in his 4 vol Greek Testament 25 See Lane pp 401,402. Following Bird he argues that the final clause of v 13 should translate, 'and the significant thing about this is that it was not the season for figs'. Such passages come where 'Jesus alludes to the Scriptures without explicitly quoting them'. 26 Cranfield, p 357 27 See the list in Lane, p 400 28 Glover, p 208 29 J C Ryle, Expository thoughts on the Gospels, Mark, 1856, Cambridge 1973, p 234
This was Exegesis 11 in Foundations. See here.