I Thessalonians 5:23-28
Today is Palm Sunday. It tells us the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and invites us to think about the identity of Jesus as the king of all. The story begins much earlier as a journey. We will observe the journey and the story as it is told in Matthew. In Matthew 16:21, Jesus told his disciples that they were going to Jerusalem and that their journey to Jerusalem would result in his death and resurrection. Jesus continued in Galilee and if we follow the travel notes in Matthew, we learn that in Matthew 17:22, he was still in Galilee. In 17:24, he was in Capernaum, which is in Galilee. Then in 19:1, we learn that he began his journey towards Jerusalem by heading down to Judea, but avoiding Jerusalem itself and spending some time on the other side of the Jordan river. In 20:29, we notice that on his way to Jerusalem he passed through Jericho. Then in Matthew 21:1, we learn that he finally made his way to Jerusalem. There it says, “As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives…”
At this point, Jesus sent two of his disciples to a village ahead of them in order to bring him a donkey and her colt. He instructed them that if anyone would object, they should simply say, “the Lord has need of them” and they would be released to them. This is exactly what happened and as they brought the donkeys to Jesus, they placed their cloaks on them and he sat on them and began the processional into Jerusalem. As there were crowds of people entering Jerusalem at the same time, some of the disciples and also the crowd began to make a path for Jesus. They spread garments on the road and cut branches from the surrounding bushes and put them on the ground as well. As the processional went on, they shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest!” It was a great celebration of Jesus as king.
The story is told, as it says in Matthew 21:5, in order to fulfill the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9. In this prophecy, we have the statement, “See, your king comes to you…” Jesus was accurately identified as the king. Today, aware not only of his triumphal entry, but also of his death, resurrection and ascension, we are able even more meaningfully to celebrate Jesus as king.
What about this king and his kingdom?
There is much kingdom language in the Bible. Matthew 11:12 and other passages talk about the kingdom of heaven. Luke 10:9 talks about the kingdom of God. Jesus spoke to his disciples about “my kingdom” in John 18:36 and as we have already seen, Jesus was presented as king at the triumphal entry. The kingdom is the place in which God reigns. But where is His kingdom? Has his kingdom come or is it still coming? What does it mean for us that Jesus is king?
When Jesus came to earth, he began to speak about the kingdom of God. As he preached, he preached about the coming of the kingdom of God. In Matthew 4:17 it says, “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’” When he sent out his disciples, he told them to tell people that the kingdom of God is near.
What did he mean by near?
In one sense, he meant that the kingdom of God was arriving with his coming. If we understand that the kingdom of God is the place where God reigns, then in those hearts in which God reigns, there the kingdom of God is already present. Jesus says as much when he says in Luke 17:21, “the kingdom of God is within you.” Furthermore, among those who accept the kingship of God in the person of Jesus Christ, the kingdom of God is present and growing in the world. Jesus indicated in a number of parables that the kingdom of God was slowly growing in the world. In Matthew 13:31, he talks about the kingdom of God being like a mustard seed which is very small, but becomes a large tree. A few verses later, he talks about the kingdom of God like yeast, which permeates the entire lump of dough. In the same way, as people are coming to know Christ, they are entering into the kingdom of God and the kingdom of God is growing in this world at this present time. Jesus warned, however, that this kingdom would be a mixed kingdom. In the parable of the tares and the wheat, he has let us know that the enemy has sown weeds among the wheat and this parable it to help us understand that in every Christian community, every church, there will be those who truly belong to the kingdom and those who look like they belong to the kingdom, but do not. Their presence awaits the harvest and the time when the kingdom will be fully established, which brings us to the other sense of the kingdom. It is in another sense in which we understand that the kingdom is not of this world and is yet coming. When Jesus was arrested, he indicated in John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” In this sense, the kingdom awaits the return of Christ at which time, he will establish his glorious kingdom. Both of these things are true. God’s kingdom is already present among those who follow Christ as King, but there is a day coming when that kingdom will be fully and finally established.
Today, we are being invited to be a part of that kingdom. Jesus invited Nicodemus and many people since that time, in John 3:3 “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” The new birth allows us to become members of the kingdom which God has established in Christ. We are also encouraged to seek the kingdom in Matthew 6:33, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
When Christ returns to establish his eternal kingdom, we are looking forward to a wonderful banquet or a wedding feast which will indicate the celebration of the establishment of the kingdom of God. It is a picture of the wonderful communion that will then take place between God and his people when they will be united in the kingdom of heaven and only those who are true kingdom members will be a part of that great celebration.
So on this Palm Sunday, we celebrate Jesus as the king in his kingdom. But what does it mean for us today that Jesus is king?
In establishing His kingdom, God is building a kingdom of people who will follow Him. Ephesians 5:26,27 indicates that it is the desire of Christ for the church “to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” The King desires people in his kingdom who will be a holy people and promises in Matthew 13:43 that this will happen, that “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”
But how do we get from here to there?
We have been studying Thessalonians and as we now come to the last message in this series, we come upon a wish prayer which Paul makes for the people of Thessalonica. This prayer teaches us that the king is at work in us today creating a holy people fit for the eternal kingdom. As we conclude our study of Thessalonians, let us see how we can be sanctified in order to be able to be a part of the kingdom of God and eventually be able to enter into His eternal kingdom.
Let us read these verses from I Thessalonians 5:23,24.
His prayer for them, a prayer we could well make for each other is that God will sanctify them through and through.
Recognizing that it is the will of God to create a holy kingdom, Paul prays for the Thessalonians. How does the sanctification necessary for entering the kingdom happen in our lives? There is no question that we share in the work of sanctification. The Bible calls us to be holy and also instructs us on how to be holy people. We have a responsibility! But that is not the whole story. We also find that being made holy is a work of God in our lives and hearts. In a passage which calls people to holiness, Leviticus also says, “I am the Lord who makes you holy.” This is even more true in the New Testament. For example, I Peter 1:2 speaks about our being chosen by God and being made fit for God “through the sanctifying work of the Spirit.”
This wish prayer of Paul is one which falls in line with that understanding. If God is the one who desires our sanctification and is involved in our sanctification, how appropriate to pray that he will make us holy. This is the work of the King creating a kingdom of subjects who are fit to be a part of the kingdom of God.
“Sanctification,” says the Westminster Shorter Catechism, is “the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.”
How does God do this work in us?
Have you ever had something that was precious taken away from you? That may be God sanctifying you, showing you that you were wanting something too much and helping you understand what it means to be content in Him. Jean Nicolas Grou wrote, “When in his mercy God leads a soul in the higher path of sanctification, he begins by stripping it of all self-confidence, and to this end he allows our own schemes to fail, our judgment to mislead us. We grope and totter and make countless mistakes until we learn wholly to mistrust ourselves and to put all our confidence in him.”
Have you ever sinned and found it totally unsatisfying? That is God sanctifying you by showing you that sin leads to destruction.
Have you ever experienced the beauty of a worship service? That is God sanctifying you, showing you the wonder of His presence and drawing you into it.
Have you ever been given a great gift that you know is a gift of God’s grace? That is God sanctifying you, showing you his goodness.
The wish prayer goes on to request of God, “May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Many have used this passage to suggest that we are divided into three parts - spirit, soul and body. Although it is true that we have different parts, our spiritual selves, our emotional selves, our physical selves, it is also true that these lines of difference are not that clear. The Bible also talks about our mind, heart, conscience and flesh. The intent of the prayer is not to define the different parts of our being, but rather to request that our sanctification be to our whole self. It is Greek thought that divides a person. Hebrew thought saw the wholeness of a person and the intention here is to emphasize the wholeness of a person.
For us to be holy in our body, but to have a mind that is filled with immoral thoughts, is not the complete sanctification that is required. For a person never to physically commit adultery, but to be filled with adulterous thoughts indicates that the holiness is not yet complete. For a person to destroy their body with alcohol abuse, but say that this is not a problem because he will never curse people or gossip about them is to miss the wholeness of sanctification. Paul prays that the Thessalonians will be completely made holy in every part of their being.
The mention of holiness at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ indicates that as long as we are on this earth, sanctification is a process that continues. The prayer is that when Christ returns, then there will be a complete holiness. Until that time, God continues to work in us.
John Stott tells the following story, “I don't think I have yet mentioned one of my great heroes, Charles Simeon. Charles Simeon was the senior pastor, or vicar, as we call it in the Episcopal church, at Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge for fifty-four years at the beginning of the last century. He had an enormous influence upon generations of students in Cambridge University, and he really changed the face of the Church of England.
When he began his ministry, he was a very angular gentleman by nature and disposition--hot tempered, proud, and impetuous. One of his biographers writes that on his first visit to Henry Ven, Ven's oldest daughter Nellie wrote, "It is impossible to conceive anything more ridiculous than Mr. Simeon's look and manner. His grimaces, the faces he pulls, were beyond anything you could imagine. So, as soon as he left, we all got together in the study and set up an amazing laugh."
But their father summoned his daughters into the garden. And although it was early summer, he asked them to pick one of the green peaches. When they showed surprise, he said, "Well my dears, it is green now, and we must wait. But a little more sun and a few more showers, and the peach will be ripe and sweet. And so it is with Mr. Simeon." As the Holy Spirit got to work within him, his character and conduct were beautifully refined and changed. "A Vision for Holiness," Preaching Today, Tape No. 94.
It is a process that is happening now and the more we allow the Spirit of God to work in us, the more we will grow in holiness. We are in process and need to cooperate with the process that God is doing in us to sanctify us completely.
Sometimes when we look at our clamouring desires and frequent failures we may wonder if sanctification will ever happen. We look at some people at their death and wonder if they have arrived at a level of holiness that is suitable to entry into the kingdom of heaven. Although we share in the process and need to live holy lives, there is also a level at which we have to trust that God is doing what is necessary. The prayer of Paul includes the hope and confidence that holiness will happen by the power and grace of God. What is our assurance that we will be made holy and blameless, fit for the eternal kingdom of Jesus?
The confidence we have is that God “is faithful and he will do it.”
This confidence is sure because God has called us into his kingdom. Already in I Thessalonians 2:12 Paul has said, “God…calls you into his kingdom and glory.” We also have the assurance that God appoints us for salvation. We read in I Thessalonians 5:9, “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Since God has called us to salvation and to be a part of his kingdom, we can be assured that He will also bring us safely to that place. God has called us to a holy life, as he says in II Timothy 1:9, “…who has saved us and called us to a holy life….”
Having thus called us, we can be sure that He will also help us arrive at the goal. I Corinthians 1:8,9 promises, “He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. He also promises in I Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” Furthermore, in II Thessalonians 3:3 we are promised, “But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one.”
So you see that the promises of God are repeated over and again to assure us that God will do it. But can we trust God? Will he keep the promises that He has made? The Bible presents so many Scriptures that assure us just as this passage does that God does what He says, that He can be trusted. From early in Scripture, Numbers 23:19 which says, “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” to the later part of Scripture, for example Matthew 24:35 which says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” we are assured that God is faithful. He keeps the promises that He makes. So we can be confident that he will also keep this desire of His. He will make us holy and fit for the eternal kingdom.
There is an interesting word construction in Greek in this passage. In our English Bibles it says, “he will do it.” In Greek, there is no “it.” It simply says, “He will do” which emphasizes the certainty that God’s promises will be kept.
In 1936, when Elizabeth was nine years old, her grandfather George V died and her father's older brother became King Edward VIII. But Edward didn't stay king for long. Determined to marry a woman who was considered "unsuitable," he abdicated his throne after a reign of just 327 days. Suddenly Elizabeth's shy, stammering father was King George VI.
Princess Elizabeth was now heir presumptive to the British throne. Her parents had always taken an easy-going approach to their daughters' education, but they made an effort to prepare Elizabeth for her future as queen. Her father gave her newspaper articles to familiarize her with politics, and her mother (or, by other accounts, her grandmother Queen Mary) arranged for her to receive twice-weekly lessons on the history of the British constitution.
We are also being made fit to inherit a kingdom. Our preparation is infinitely more difficult. We are being made fit to be subjects of the holy and eternal kingdom of God. When we remember on Paul Sunday that Jesus was declared king, let us rejoice that as King, he is working in us to prepare us to be members of that eternal kingdom. Let us rejoice that God is at work in us and let us cooperate with the work that the king is doing in our lives.