I Thessalonians 5:12-15
We had some friends at one time with whom we visited many times. One weekend around Christmas, we went to Simonhouse Bible Camp which was closed down for the winter. There was a wood stove in the main building and we lit the stove and shivered for several hours before things got warm enough to enjoy an evening of games and a good nights rest. On another occasion, they invited us to pick wild mushrooms and then enjoy a feast of fresh mushrooms. But our relationship with them was not always that good. They had been saved several years before we got to know them. Their background had been rough and sometimes it seemed difficult for them to have victory and grow. Habits from the former life were hard to shake. Relational practices seemed slow to change and they sometimes became angry with others who hurt them. It seemed like we had to help them along all the time. We prayed with them, encouraged them and confronted them in order to try to disciple them in their life of faith.
That experience, in some ways, epitomizes what relationships in the church can be like. All of us at different times may be discouraged, weak in faith, disobedient or on the other hand, leaders and examples or anything in between. How do we get along in such an environment? How can the kingdom of God be built when people are so different and have such different needs?
Following on the discussion of the return of Christ and the promises made in that context, Paul now once again returns to a theme he has already discussed previously. In 1:3, 3:6; 3:12; 4:9 he has talked about love for one another. He now returns to that theme by presenting some very practical situations and how we should respond in love in these situations.
Read I Thessalonians 5:12-15.
The section we are looking at today contains words of relationship in each verse:
Vs. 12 - “we ask you brothers”
Vs. 13 - “each other”
Vs. 14 - “we urge you, brothers”
Vs. 15 - “each other”
Although it never says that we are responsible for one another in the Christian community, this assumption is implied in everything that is said. The New Testament is full of teaching about the responsibility we have for one another. For example, 40 times in the NT we find the phrase, “one another” describing the responsibility we have to love, serve, submit to and care for one another. We live in such an extremely individualistic age that it is hard for us to realize just how integral the responsibility we have for one another is to the Christian life. Why is it so important?
We could answer that question simply by saying, God has commanded it as we read in II John 5 which says, “I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another.” But there is so much more to it.
Probably the most powerful reason is that love for others is the way we can respond to the amazing love of God for us. How do you love someone who does not need to be loved, does not need anything, but who deserves love because of all He has given you? God’s answer is, “show your love for me by loving each other.” I John 4:11 says, “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
Furthermore, it is important because we are family. This is illustrated in this text by the use of the word “brothers and sisters.” What has made us brothers and sisters to each other is the new reality that has been created in Christ. God is now our Father. Jesus introduced a new thing when he talked about God as Father in an intimate familial way by using the phrase “Abba.” When Jesus had been raised from the dead, he appeared to Mary. He told her to go to “my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” In identifying himself as our brother, he also identified God as His Father and our Father. That puts us in an intimate relationship with the Father, the Son and each other. We cannot be intimately related to God as Father without also being intimately related to each other as brothers and sisters. That relationship demands a concern and a care for each other.
Another reason why we need to love one another is that we desperately need one another. Hebrews 10:24,25 says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Although God has given us His Spirit, He has also left us in a community called the church, which has been given so that we can encourage, support and teach one another. We need each other.
The love and care for each other is further required because it is in seeing the love we have for each other that the world will know and understand what God has done. They will see the love of God in the love believers have for each other. We have already noted that when we studied I Thessalonians 4:9-12 where we saw the need for love “so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders.” John 13:35 is much more direct when it says, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” When people see believers who are so very different - rich and poor, well-educated and having little formal education, from every walk of life - loving each other and caring for each other, there is only one possible explanation for such a thing and that is that God has done this.
Therefore, we must love and honour one another.
But how do we exercise that love for each other? What does it mean in practical terms, in specific situations? As we read in our text, we discover 8 specific situations and how love is to be shown in them.
The first relationship described is that of the believers relationship to those who are leaders in the church. They are described with three words. They “work hard among you, are over you in the Lord and…admonish you.”
How do we relate to those who lead? The NIV says, “respect” them. What does that mean? The actual Greek word here is “know” which says that we need to acknowledge the role and responsibility of those whom God has placed in leadership. I have sometimes encountered a suspicion of people who are in authority. Sometimes people don’t trust doctors or lawyers or other experts. They refuse to listen to their advice. The same attitude is sometimes found in the church. We question, don’t trust and don’t follow those whom God has put in the position of leadership. To respect or know leaders is to recognize that they are in a position because God has put them there and so we need to honour them.
However, we also read that they are to be held “in highest regard in love because of their work.” They are not to be honoured because of the position they hold, but rather because of the work they do. Sometimes hierarchy has crept into the church and people are put into positions because of having money or coming from a particular family or because of popularity. Those leaders who are to be honoured are those who are worthy because of their work, not because of their position.
We have experienced support in love from you, but we are not the only leaders. Sometimes it is easy to honour the hired leader, but we forget that this passage says nothing about that. We must honour all whom we have elected into positions of leadership. If we believe that our choosing process is a part of God putting people into leadership, then we need to respect all those who are in those positions in the church. What does that mean? How can we show love and honour to leaders?
One of the most exciting things for a leader is to see people follow God and grow in faith. You can respect leaders by letting them know how God has worked in your life and if the leaders work has contributed to God’s work in your life, then letting them know how God has worked through them is a great blessing.
Some of the most difficult things for leaders to bear is unfair criticism or criticism that is gossiped around. You honour your leaders when you gently and lovingly go to them and raise concerns that you see instead of talking to everybody else first. I believe it is a matter of great disrespect and mistrust to talk to everyone else about a problem instead of going directly to the leader. If you are not able to confront them yourself, then go to the designated authorities and go with them to state your concerns.
It is also good to honour leaders by letting them lead. It is very discouraging to say that someone is responsible for a particular area and then not let them work in that area.
God has given us leaders and we honour one another when we honour our leaders.
It is inevitable that there will be disagreements in the church. We can never expect that we will all see things the same way. When Paul says in Galatians 6:2 that we should “bear with one another” he says this because there is something to bear. The variety of how God has created us alone should alert us to the fact that we won’t all see things in the same way. Of course, sin compounds those differences and sometimes we wrong each other. That is why a second word is, “Live in peace with each other.”
We have had several issues in the church which are still current. If we allowed them to, they could cause disruption in the body. They could become a reason for broken relationships. Yet Paul warns the Thessalonians that they should live at peace with all. I want to tell you that just because you disagree with someone, that is not a reason to have a broken relationship with them. Somehow when we disagree with someone, we immediately look at them in a negative way, we break fellowship with them. This ought not to be so. We need to learn to disagree with someone and still honour them and hold them in high regard. Being at peace with one another does not mean that we will see things in the same way. It does mean that we will love each other, respect each other and honour each other in spite of the differences.
I learned a lesson from my great-grandfather. Even though I don’t remember him, there is a story in our family about him that has helped me in this regard. When my grandfather was treasurer of the church, there had been a lot of growth in the congregation mostly because of immigration. The people were not wealthy, but because of the increased numbers, they needed a different place to meet. The congregation met to discuss this and decided upon the purchase of an existing church on William and Juno, in Winnipeg. My grandfather, as treasurer, had grave doubts about the wisdom of this. He did not think it was a good idea and voted against it. When the congregation voted, however, he apparently said, that when the congregation agreed, then he would not stand against it and would support the decision. I have never forgotten that and although I have often struggled to live in peace with those I don’t agree with, I want to learn from God how to do that.
The word “idle” in the next phrase is translated in different ways as “unruly, disorderly or idlers.” The Greek word is the word “atakteo” and was used originally of “soldiers marching out of order or quitting the ranks” Thus the meaning came to be those who are “neglectful of duty, lawless or who lead a disorderly life.”
The common theory is that there were some in Thessalonica who in their zealous hope of the soon return of Christ quit their jobs and began to wander the streets making a nuisance of themselves and also freeloading from those who were still working. They saw no problem with this, since all would be left behind soon anyway. Paul, while still holding to the imminent return of Christ, nevertheless warned these people that they should get jobs and mind their own business. Previously we looked at I Thessalonians 4:11,12 where we are told that people should mind their own business, lead a quiet life and work with their hands. It may be that these are the people in mind as Paul encourages that those who step outside the line should be warned.
One of the most difficult things in our relationships is when we see a brother or sister stepping outside the line and doing things that would harm them spiritually, but that is exactly why we need to warn them. When someone steps out of line in the Christian life, it has terrible consequences for them and all those around them. First of all, they put themselves in mortal danger. Hebrews 6 warns that for those who have once tasted the heavenly gift and then have rejected it, it is hard to bring them back. So, when someone close is making choices that lead away from God, they put themselves in danger of eternal punishment. These choices also have an influence on weak believers who may observe them. Jesus warned that if we have been the cause of someone else’s stumbling, we will be severely punished. The impact on those close to the person is also often devastating. A person who is stepping out of line, can also have a negative impact on the whole congregation, bringing disruption to the work of God and drawing others into the wrong behavior. When the world sees people identifying themselves with the church, but living a way that does not fit, it has a negative impact on the whole church and on the work of God. That is why we need to warn them and help them see the danger.
But not everyone who struggles is “unruly” or an “idler.” Some are timid or as some translations have it “fainthearted.” The Greek word is really interesting here, it can be translated directly as “small souled.” Some people are quickly overwhelmed by the struggles they are facing.
The Bible says “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Being poor in spirit may sound like being small souled, but there is a great difference. A person who is humble, sees his desperate need and knows that he needs to reach out to God and seek Him. A person who is fainthearted, sees the difficulty but sees no hope. Such a person needs to be encouraged.
Rod Cooper writes in a sermons titled, "The Kiss of Encouragement," .I'm strong on this quality [encouragement] because someone got excited about my progress. I almost flunked the first grade. I was a terrible reader. We had three reading groups in my school. The highest group happened to be the Owls. They were in the trees above everybody else. The next group happened to be the Giraffes--head and shoulders above the rest of us. I was in the third group, the Humpty Dumptys. We were on the wall, off the wall, in the wall, and out! We just couldn't get it together. We struggled. My mom saw me coming home discouraged and down every day.
She started reading with me every night. I came home one day with a C on one of my papers, and I gave it to her. She smiled and started to cry. She said, "Oh, Rodney, I'm so proud of you." She made my favorite dinner and let me stay up late. I'm thinking, Gee, if this is what a C will do! What do you think that did for me? It spurred me on to want to do the best. That's what encouragement does. It makes you want to move on when you feel like quitting.
Besides those who are easily discouraged, there are also those who are weak. They may be physically weak, which has an impact on their spirit. They may be morally weak and unable to gain victory over temptation. They may be those who are weighted down by scruples of conscience, like those mentioned in I Corinthians 8 and Romans 14.
It is very tempting to suggest to them that they ought to get their act together and just do the right thing or not let things bother them, but that is calloused and hard hearted. It is to fail to understand the power of temptation, illness and discouragement to bring us down spiritually. Those who are weak need to be helped. When we meet someone who is unable to pray because of depression, we need to pray for them. When we meet someone who struggles with temptations and is unable to overcome them, we need to forgive them and at the same time offer to hold them accountable. When we meet those who through physical illness are overcome with doubts and questions, we need to encourage them, pray with them and through our hope and confidence help them to keep going.
In the same sermon by Rod Cooper I mentioned earlier, he writes, "Painter Benjamin West tells how he loved to paint as a youngster. When his mother left, he would pull out the oils and try to paint. One day he pulled out all the paints and made quite a mess. He hoped to get it all cleaned up before his mother came back. But she came and discovered the mess. West said what she did next completely surprised him. She picked up his painting and said, "My, what a beautiful painting of your sister." She gave him a kiss on the cheek and walked away. With that kiss, West says, he became a painter.
Every day you and I are trying to paint the picture of Jesus in our lives through what we say and do. But we make messes. The last thing we need is for someone to come along and say, "What a mess!" What we need is a kiss of encouragement. It's vital for life and for relationships.
It is so easy to lose patience with those who are unruly or timid or weak. I have heard the term used about certain people who are EGR people, which means Extra Grace Required. In some ways, we are all EGR people. We all need people to be patient with us. What is most disconcerting is when we discover people who are quick to accuse and condemn when they themselves are far from perfect.
I have been reading the autobiography of Franklin Graham. At one point in his life when he was not a believer, he made some choices that got him in a lot of trouble. He was attending R.G. Letourneau College and because it was a Christian college, he was dismissed from the school. When he got home, he was afraid to face his parents for fear of what they would say. When he got home, his parents said nothing, knowing that he had already been humiliated enough and that the point had been made. For a number of years, he was not a believer and was in rebellion, but his parents were patient with him. He describes only one occasion when his father, Billy Graham, confronted him with his rebellion and even then it was done gently. Coming from the example of Billy Graham, that encouraged me.
Matthew Prior, who lived between 1664 and 1721, gave good advice for all of us in every age when he wrote, "Be to her virtues very kind; be to her faults a little blind."
How can we be patient with everyone? God promises us that the fruit of the Spirit is patience. May we learn to rely on the Spirit of God to teach us how to be patient.
Another part of honouring one another is to make sure that we do not take revenge. Oh how sweet it feels to take revenge on someone. When some person cuts us off, it is so tempting to pass them and do the same to them. When our brother speaks words to us that hurt us, it is so tempting to burn them with avoidance and make it obvious so that they know we have been hurt.
One writer said, “Christianity is a robust faith, empowered with a divine dynamic, and is to be lived out even under the most trying circumstances.” In this text and in many other places in the Bible (Romans 12:17; I Peter 3:9; Matthew 5:43ff.), we are taught not to take revenge.
In The Northwestern Lutheran, Joel C. Gerlach writes: "Eight times the Ministry of Education in East Germany said no to Uwe Holmer's children when they tried to enroll at the university in East Berlin. The Ministry of Education doesn't usually give reasons for its rejection of applications for enrollment. But in this case the reason wasn't hard to guess. Uwe Holmer, the father of the eight applicants, is a Lutheran pastor at Lobetal, a suburb of East Berlin.
"For 26 years the Ministry of Education was headed by Margot Honecker, wife of East Germany's premier, Erich Honecker. ... [Then] when the Berlin wall cracked ... Honecker and his wife were unceremoniously dismissed from office. He is now under indictment for criminal activities during his tenure as premier.
"At the end of January the Honeckers were evicted from their luxurious palace in Vandlitz, an exclusive suburb of palatial homes reserved for the VIPs in the party. The Honeckers suddenly found themselves friendless, without resources, and with no place to go. None of their former cronies showed them any of the humanitarianism Communists boast about. No one wanted to identify with the Honeckers.
"Enter Uwe Holmer. Remembering the words of Jesus, 'If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,' Holmer extended an invitation to the Honeckers to stay with his family in the parsonage of the parish church in Lobetal. ... Pastor Holmer has not reported that the Honeckers have renounced their atheism and professed faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord. But at least they fold their hands and bow their heads when the family prays together. Who knows what the Holmer's faith-in-action plan will lead to before this extraordinary episode ends?"
-- Gordon J. Peters, Bend, Oregon. Leadership, Vol. 12, no. 1.
Finally, we are encouraged to be kind to everyone. Kindness is being “actively friendly in the face of hostility.”
A German poet has described kindness as the language which the dumb can speak and which the deaf can hear.
As we examine this text, there is a decision that needs to be made. The decision is whether we will take up the responsibility we have to one another. When a child is born, that child is utterly dependent on its parents. As we raise a child, as parents, we try to move them towards independence. By the time they leave home, we hope that we have helped them thrive with the apron strings untied. In fact, we learn independence so well that often we think that independence is the high point of relating to other people. We cannot thrive in the world like that and we certainly cannot thrive as Christians like that. We need to move further to the point of interdependence. If we have come to understand, not as a theoretical principle, but as a deeply held quality of life that we need one another, then we will have made the decision that we are supported by one another and responsible to one another. Then, the rest is working out the details as they are described in the text we have looked at today.
May God help us to live in relationship to our brothers and sisters in such a way that they are built up, that the kingdom of God is built up and that God is glorified.