One of the truly great intellects of American history was a New England Puritan pastor by the name of Jonathan Edwards. He was born in 1703 and died in 1758. He is perhaps best known for preaching a sermon entitled "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Historians generally consider Edwards to be among the handful of superior intellectuals and writers in American history, whether in secular or ecclesiastical annals.
Edwards was also the leading evangelical theologian of his day and the most prominent pastor in the First Great Awakening. He was the faithful shepherd of the same church in Northampton, Massachusetts, for twenty-three years and had an unparalleled influence through preaching, writing, and evangelism that continues to this day. The underlying drive and motive to Edwards= powerful and lasting impact was not mere personal devotion to his profession but was his insatiable thirst for God and the things that concern God B purity, holiness, virtue, and truth. He referred to them as Areligious affections.@ God saved him at age seventeen and the change was thorough. In his memoirs, he reflected on the profound, divine transformation in his thoughts and actions subsequent to his conversion:
My mind was greatly fixed on divine things; almost perpetually in the contemplation of them. I spent most of my time in thinking of divine things, year after year, often walking alone in the woods, and solitary places, for meditation, soliloquy, and prayer, and converse with God; and it was always my manner, at such times, to sing forth my contemplations. I was almost constantly in prayer, wherever I was. Prayer seemed to be natural to me, as the breath by which the inward burnings of my heart had vent. The delights which I now felt in those things of religion, were of an exceedingly different kind from those before mentioned, that I had when a boy; and what then I had no more notion of, than one born blind has of pleasant and beautiful colours. They were of a more inward, pure, soul-animating and refreshing nature. Those former delights never reached the heart; and did not arise from any sight of the divine excellency of the things of God; or any taste of the soul-satisfying and life-giving good there is in them.
Edwards' sentiments highlight an important element of the apostle Paul's exhortation in these two verses. He urges them—and all believers—to excel in Christian living more and more.
There is always a danger of Christians thinking they have no further need to progress in sanctification. That truth is attested to by the slime attendance of Sunday evening worship and mid-week services. But this side of eternity, no believer has even come close to what God desires for him spiritually. As a faithful shepherd and overseer, the Apostle Paul sought to motivate to pursue spiritual excellence. That is my goal for your lives as well.
To become a disciple of Jesus is to enroll in the "Jesus of Nazareth School of Lifetime Growth." We never reach a point where the curriculum is exhausted and there is nothing left to learn. As disciples of Jesus we continue learning and growing.
Just as in the world of academia so to in the Body of Christ there are some who think of themselves as "alumni" only. These folks believe they have graduated. They experience only slight growth in their faith. They return for an occasional reunion and give sporadically. They have stopped learning. But more than that, they have stopped growing. However, as Christians, we should be committed to excelling more and more.
I. THE PRIORITY OF EXCELLING
"Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you ... that you do so more and more." (1 Th 4:1, ESV)
- Paul does not demand, he does not coerce, he does not browbeat the Thessalonian believers into growing in grace
- he gently, humbly, kindly requests that they consider that importance of growing in their faith
- he also volunteers to be their guide in the process
- in many modern translations verse 1 uses the word urge—"Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you ... "
- a better translation of the word is exhort
- it's a word that means to come along side and encourage
- Paul volunteers to come along side of them and help them in their spiritual growth
- ILLUS. There are few people of more intrinsic worth to the local church than those individuals who year-in-and-year-out teach the Bible to others. These are the saints who regularly exhort other saints in their Christian living, and exhort the lost to faith in Christ.
- the word translated excel mean to abound, or to be abundantly supplied to overflowing
- an overflowing spiritual life is part of the abundant life that Jesus promised to His disciples
- Paul's priority for these Thessalonian believers was spiritual progress motivated by a desire to know God more fully and more intimately
- "As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God." (Ps 42:1, ESV)
A. EXCELLING IS ABOUT DEVELOPING CHRISTIAN CHARACTER
- in the gospels, Jesus on several occasions told his disciples that they were to be like little children
- did you ever wonder why he told them that?
- one of the characteristics of children is that they are always growing
- ILLUS. Any parent who has ever tried keeping their children in shoes knows this!
- in one way or another children are almost always growing
- they are growing physically
- they are growing emotionally
- they are growing intellectually
- they are growing spiritually
- the apostle Paul speaks of this growth in Christ in his letter to the Ephesians
- our goal, he says, is to ...
- ". . .reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ." (Ephesians 4:13‑15, NIV)
A. THE CURRICULUM OF CHRISTIAN CHARACTER
"But just as you excel in everything B in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us see that you also excel in this grace of giving." (2 Corinthians 8:7, NIV)
- in the realm of secular education, if a student is going to excel in learning there is a core curriculum that them must take and master
- the same is true for the believer who would excel in the School of Christ
- 1st, there is the FAITH CURRICULUM
- our faith must be genuine, strong and operative
- we must have the kind of faith that looks the devil in the face and says, "Yea, I'm a Christian, what are you going to do about it?"
- the believers in an area called Macedonia had this kind of faith
- "And now, brothers we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity." (2 Corinthians 8:1‑2, NIV)
- even under severe trial their commitment was strong
- their joy was genuine
- their faith was operative
- this simply means they put feet to their faith
- how do we know their faith was operative?
- "Out of . . . their extreme poverty welled up ... rich generosity."
- this is not every‑day conversation the apostle is referring to
- it is speech which is permeated by conversation about God and His righteous decrees
- "I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ," (1 Co 1:4-7, ESV)
- God Himself gives us revelation of Himself so that we may know Him more fully
- "For God, who said, ALet light shine out of darkness, has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." (2 Co 4:6, ESV)
- "I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, /having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might." (Eph 1:16-19, ESV)
- "For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises." (Heb 6:10-12, ESV)
- there must be an earnestness in our lives in love for and service to fellow saints
- "We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace. But as you excel in everything in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you see that you excel in this act of grace also." (2 Co 8:1-7, ESV)
- Paul encourages the Corinthians believer to excel in this attribute of Christian conduct
- year after year they will measure their child's progress in growth by making a mark and writing the date
- our growth as Christians is measured by our faithfulness to Christ
- By our participation in witness
- By our willingness to serve
- By our growth in the grace of giving
II. THE PRINCIPLES OF EXCELLING
"Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus."(1 Th 4:1-2, ESV)
A. IT'S IN THE LORD JESUS
B. IT'S TO PLEASE GOD
- ILLUS. Orlo Thomas
Growth is not automatic; it is sometimes difficult. Exerting no effort to grow, we easily become selfish, unfaithful, and indifferent to the needs of others. The challenges of growth into Christ‑likenessCthe struggles, the choicesCare only possible as we become Jesus' disciples. It is a lifelong process. We need a passion for it like Jonathan Edwards.