We Are A Covenant Community
September 6, 2009
1 Thessalonians 3:11 - 4:2
Let’s begin again with words of wisdom from Henry Blackaby. This morning he speaks about, “A Highway of Holiness”, and quotes Isaiah 35:8, which says A road will be there and a way; it will be called the Holy Way. The unclean will not travel on it, but it will be for him who walks the path. Even the fool will not go astray
The nation of Israel was designed to have a place where other nations of the world could come to worship the true God. The temple in Jerusalem was to be the center from which the good news of God's salvation would spread to every corner of the world. But those who were supposed to be God's people forsook Him and practiced every kind of sin. Rather than being ambassadors for God, they disgraced His holy name. Rather than attracting the nations of the earth to God, they became stumbling blocks to those who were seeking the true God. The Israelites fell so far from God's original intent that God judged them and sent them into exile. Yet God promised that one day His people would be an avenue by which others could find salvation.
It is God's desire that anywhere there is a Christian, God has a way for people to learn of His salvation (Rom. 10:14–15). Whenever an unbeliever meets a Christian, the unbeliever ought to be face to face with everything he needs to know in order to follow Christ.
Sadly, however, Christians can be like the Israelites of Isaiah's day. We can be so involved in our sin that we are completely disoriented to God, ill-equipped to direct others to Him. If our lives are filled with hypocrisy, we may turn people away from God, rather than helping them come to Him. If our lives are filled with doubt or anger, we will impede others from coming to Christ. Our lives ought to be a highway of holiness, providing easy access to God for anyone around us who seeks Him. Ask God to remove any obstacle in your life that hinders others from coming to know Jesus. We are a covenant community. Today we’ll examine how to be a covenant community.
Now, please turn to 1 Thessalonians, chapter 3, and we’ll read from verse 1 through to verse 2 of chapter 4. Now may our God and Father himself and Jesus our Lord direct our way to you; and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all men, just as we also do for you; so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that, as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you may excel still more. For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.
It is in a simple passage like this that Paul's mind is best seen. For him everything was of God.
(i) He prays to God to open a way for him whereby he may come to Thessalonica. It was to God that he turned for guidance in his ordinary day to day problems. One of our great mistakes is to turn to God only in the overpowering emergencies and the shattering crises.
In daily life we disregard God, thinking that we can manage well enough by ourselves; in the emergency we clutch at Him, knowing that we cannot get through without him. It was not so with Paul. Even in an ordinary routine thing like a journey from Athens to Thessalonica it was to God that he looked for guidance. We mostly lead a a God-rescued life; Paul lived a God-directed life.
(ii) Paul prays to God that God will enable the Thessalonians to fulfill the law of love in their daily lives. We often wonder why the Christian life is so difficult, especially in our ordinary relationships. The answer may very well be that we are trying to live those relationships by ourselves. The man who goes out in the morning without prayer is, in effect, saying, "I can quite well tackle today on my own." The man who lays himself to rest without speaking to God, is, in effect, saying, "I can bear on my own whatever consequences today has brought." John Buchan once described an atheist as "a man who has no invisible means of support." It may well be that our failure to live the Christian life well is due to our trying to live it without support -without the support of God--which is an impossible assignment.
(iii) Paul prays to God for the ultimate safety of the Thesalonians. At this time his mind was full of thoughts of the Second Coming of Christ when men would stand before the judgment seat of God. It was his prayer that God would so preserve his people in righteousness that on that day they would not be ashamed. The only way to prepare to meet God is to live daily with him. The shock of that day will be not for those who have so lived that they have become God's friends, walking God-directed paths, but for those who meet him as a stranger.
Churches like ours come into being and get their meaning from a covenant that believers make with each other, and our covenant with each other is rooted in the new covenant that God made with his people through the death of Jesus. God says in this covenant: "I will be their God and they will be my people" (Hebrews 8:10). What this means is that the divine covenant creates a human community. The commitment God makes to us in the new covenant creates and shapes the commitment we make to each other in the church covenant.
But for just a moment I want to relate the church covenant to Canadian culture. I don't know if you feel this or if you are aware of it in any way, but when we call each other to serious, practical reaffirmation of a in covenant is very counter-cultural. But we are not unique in recognizing this.
In 1985 Robert Bellah, Professor of Sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, published with several others a very popular book called Habits of the Heart. It was a study in individualism and a warning that the loss of ideals like commitment, community, and covenant will be the undoing of our country.
He took his start from a Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville who came and described North America 160 years ago. Tocqueville described us like this:
Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.
Thus, not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries. Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.
That was 160 years ago!
Bellah argues that this is even more true today.
Bellah thinks the development of individualism in North America is tragic and dangerous. It's not surprising that his earlier book in 1975 was called The Broken Covenant, because he thinks that the concept of covenant and community and commitment to the wider common good is essential if we and our "institutions of liberty" are going to survive.
This applies equally, if not more, to Canada than to the United States because we don’t have the strong Biblical base that our American brothers and sisters have. Those of you who took the “Truth Project” can attest to this.
Our church covenant is justified by God in Jesus Christ and will be valid whether Canada stands or falls. Canada is not God's main commitment. The glory of God is God's main commitment. If Canada sinks into individualistic anarchy where everybody does what's right in his own eyes, God will still be Lord of the nations; his purposes will be on track; and his people, who live for his glory and not for any finite, narrow nationalistic cause, will endure to all generations.
My point in making the connections with Canadian individualism is to wake us up. The whole idea of covenant and mutual commitment is counter-cultural. We have all been influenced by our culture. To go against the culture might feel strange, but as Christians going against culture should be exhilarating and liberating and strengthening and stabilizing. Our world is turned upside down and falling apart. Our aim is to be in the world but not of the world. Secondly, my aim is to show that our need for covenant relationships and stable community commitments should be so deep in our hearts that we feel a rising tide of urgency and hope that we, the church, may be at the forefront in commitment, commitment to Jesus, commitment to each other, and commitment to our community. We should be motivated by love for Jesus, love for one another, love for our lost world.
The central requirement of love in the new covenant community is both a gift and a command. Notice in 3:12 Paul prays (in the form of a benediction), "May the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another and for all men." Our life together as a covenant community at Good Shepherd Community Church originates in the covenant love of God and so one essential mark of our covenant relationships in church is love. And this love is the work of God. "May the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love."
This is exactly the way we expect Paul to pray for new covenant blessings. The old covenant says, "I will write my law on their hearts . . . and I will circumcise their hearts to love me . . . and I will put my Spirit within them and cause them to walk in my statutes" (Jeremiah 31:33; Deuteronomy 30:6; Ezekiel 36:27). So here Paul says: you promised to do this in the old covenant; so I pray that you will now do it in the new covenant: "Cause them to increase and abound in love." So the covenant requirement of love is first and foremost a gift from God.
But it is also a command. Look at 4:1–2,
Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus [not merely pray for you], that, as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk [namely, to love each other]), that you may excel still more. For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus [not just what gifts God gave you by divine enabling].
So the requirements of the new covenant are both gift and command. And the command rests on the gift, as we know from the logic of Philippians 2:12–13, "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling [that's the command], for it is God who is at work in you to will and to do his good pleasure [that's the gift].
The pervasive adhesive of love that binds the church together in covenant is a sovereign work of God so that he will get the glory - 1 Peter 4:11 states, whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. And behind our speaking and ministering is “that ability that God supplies”: The Holy Spirit enabling us to love with God’s love.
This God-wrought love is the essence of holiness. God's covenant people are called to be a holy people—"You shall be holy for I am holy" (1 Peter 1:15–16). And our covenant says we will strive for the advancement of this church in holiness. But holiness is not something other than love.
Look at the connection between 3:12 and 3:13.
12) May the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all men, just as we also do for you; 13) so that he may establish your hearts unblamable in holiness . . .
If God causes us to abound in love, we will have the holiness we need to meet the Lord. I infer from this that love is the essence of holiness. And that means, then, that the covenant requirement of holiness is also a gift as well as a command, because the love that is the heart of holiness is a gift and a command. Paul wants the church to be holy and so he prays: Lord cause them to abound in love so that they will be holy. You have promised in the new covenant to write your holy law on our hearts. You have promised in the new covenant to give us the Spirit and cause us to walk in your holy statutes. So, Lord, do it now, and do it by making love increase and abound.
Which leads to the final point from this morning’s text, namely, that the new covenant community in this fallen world is not a perfect community, not a completed community, but a community growing and advancing toward perfection. Look again at 3:12, "May the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love." If our love were perfect or complete, there would be no room for increase. But Paul prays for increase.
This means that the new covenant community is a pilgrim’s progress community. We have been saved from condemnation and transferred from death to life and from darkness to light and from the dominion of darkness to the kingdom of God's Son, but in this new relation to God we are not yet perfected or completed, but are on the way to becoming what we ought to be. We are a work in progress.
All of this is the biblical foundation of our Covenant. The first commitment of the covenant is love. In a sense all else is an unfolding of that. And the commitment of love and holiness is not a static one, as though any of us had arrived, but a commitment to strive forward and advance and promote and sustain.
One of the foundation stones of this new covenant with God is that we engage, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, to walk together in Christian love, to strive for the advancement of this church in knowledge and holiness; to promote its prosperity and spirituality; to sustain its worship, ordinances, discipline and doctrines; to contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the Gospel through all nations. That’s our covenant. That’s our promise to God and to each other.
Will you pray with me the way Paul prayed in 1 Thessalonians 3:12—that God himself will cause us to love like that? Then not only will we be faithful in our covenant commitments to God and to each other. But also we will in a radically counter-cultural way bear witness to the kind of communal, committed, covenant life that Canada needs to see so badly.
Father, in Jesus' name, we thank You that the love of God has been poured forth into our hearts by the Holy Spirit Who has been given to us. We keep and treasure Your Word. The love of and for You, Father, has been perfected and completed in us, and perfect love casts out all fear.
Father, we are Your children, and we commit to walk in God’s kind of love. We commit to endure long, to be patient, and kind. We commit to not be envious and never boil over with jealousy. We commit to not be boastful or vainglorious, and not display ourselves haughtily. We commit to not be rude and unmannerly and not act unbecomingly. We commit to not insist on our own rights or our own way for we are not self-seeking, touchy, fretful or resentful. We commit to take no account of an evil done to us and pay no attention to a suffered wrong. We commit to not rejoice at injustice and unrighteousness, but to rejoice when right and truth prevail. We commit to bear up under anything and everything that comes. We commit to believe the best of others. We commit to endure everything without weakening because love never fails.
Father, we bless and pray for those who persecute us — those who are cruel in their attitude toward us. We bless them and do not curse them. Therefore, our love abounds yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment. We approve things that are excellent. We are sincere and without offense till the day of Christ. We are filled with the fruits of righteousness – your love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.
Everywhere we go we commit to plant seeds of love. We thank You, Father, for preparing hearts ahead of time to receive this love. We know that these seeds will produce Your love in the hearts to whom they are given.
Father, we thank You that as we flow in Your love and wisdom, people are being blessed by our lives and ministry. Father, You make us to find favor, compassion, and loving kindness with others.
We are rooted deep in love and founded securely on love knowing that You are on our side, and nothing is able to separate us from Your love, Father, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Thank you, Father, in Jesus' precious name. Amen.