Appendix 2: Reflection QuestionsRelated Media
Writing is one of the best ways to learn. In class, we take notes and write papers, and all these methods are used to help us learn and retain the material. The same is true with the Word of God. Obviously, all of the authors of Scripture were writers. This helped them better learn the Scriptures and also enabled them to more effectively teach it. In studying God’s Word with the Bible Teacher’s Guide, take time to write so you can similarly grow both in your learning and teaching.
- How would you summarize the main points of the text/chapter? Write a brief summary.
- What stood out to you most in the reading? Did any of the contents trigger any memories or experiences? If so, please share them.
- What follow–up questions did you have about the reading? What parts did you not fully agree with?
- What applications did you take from the reading, and how do you plan to implement them into your life?
- Write several commitment statements: As a result of my time studying God’s Word, I will . . .
- What are some practical ways to pray as a result of studying the text? Spend some time ministering to the Lord through prayer.
Appendix 1: Study Group TipsRelated Media
Leading a small group using the Bible Teacher’s Guide can be done in various ways. One format for leading a small group is the “study group” model, where each member prepares and shares in the teaching. This appendix will cover tips for facilitating a weekly study group.
- Each week the members of the study group will read through a select chapter of the guide, answer the reflection questions (see Appendix 2), and come prepared to share in the group.
- Prior to each meeting, a different member can be selected to lead the group and share Question 1 of the reflection questions, which is to give a short summary of the chapter read. This section of the gathering could last from five to fifteen minutes. This way, each member can develop their gift of teaching. It also will make them study harder during the week. Or, each week the same person could share the summary.
- After the summary has been given, the leader for that week will facilitate discussions through the rest of the reflection questions and also ask select review questions from the chapter.
- After discussion, the group will share prayer requests and pray for one another.
The strength of the study group is the fact that the members will be required to prepare their responses before the meeting, which will allow for easier discussion. In addition, each member will be given the opportunity to teach, which will further equip their ministry skills. The study group model has distinct advantages.
Nehemiah BibliographyRelated Media
Baxter, J. Sidlow (2010). Baxter’s Explore the Book . Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
Boice, J. M. (2005). Nehemiah: An expositional commentary (24). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
Constable, T. (n.d.). Notes on Nehemiah. Retrieved January 11, 2015,from http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/nehemiah.pdf
Foster, Richard J. (2009-03-17). Celebration of Discipline (Kindle Locations 2931-2932). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Geisler, Norman (2007). A Popular Survey of the Old Testament. Baker Books. Kindle Edition.
Getz, Gene (1995). Men of Character: Nehemiah. B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Guzik, D. (n.d.). Nehemiah Overview - David Guzik Commentary on the Bible. Retrieved January 11, 2015. http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/guz/<
Holmes, Leslie. “Up to 1500 Pastors a Month Need to Read this Column” retrieved 11/21/14 from http://www.preaching.com/resources/articles/11682911/
“Integrity” retrieved 11/14/2014, from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/integrity
Kidner, D. (1979). Vol. 12: Ezra and Nehemiah: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press.
Longman III, Tremper (2012). Introducing the Old Testament: A Short Guide to Its History and Message. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
MacArthur, J. (2003). The MacArthur Bible Handbook. Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
MacArthur, J. Jr. (1997). The MacArthur Study Bible. Nashville, TN: Word Publishing.
Roberts, M., & Ogilvie, L. J. (1993). Vol. 11: Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther. The Preacher’s Commentary Series (194). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc.
“Statistics in Ministry”. Retrieved 1/11/15 from, http://www.pastoralcareinc.com/statistics/
Swindoll, Charles (1998). Hand Me Another Brick. Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
Terpstra, Charles. “The Reformation: A Return to the Primacy of Preaching.” retrieved 1/9/15, from http://www.prca.org/resources/publications/pamphlets/item/639-the-reformation-a-return-to-the-primacy-of-preaching
The Moody Bible Commentary. Chicago: Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Turek, Frank. “Youth Exodus Problem”. Retrieved 1/11/15, from http://crossexamined.org/youth-exodus-problem/
Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). Be Determined. “Be” Commentary Series (25). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
14. Signs of Spiritual DecayRelated Media
But while all this was going on, I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had returned to the king. Some time later I asked his permission and came back to Jerusalem. Here I learned about the evil thing Eliashib had done in providing Tobiah a room in the courts of the house of God. I was greatly displeased and threw all Tobiah’s household goods out of the room. I gave orders to purify the rooms, and then I put back into them the equipment of the house of God, with the grain offerings and the incense…
What are signs of spiritual decay in our lives or others and how should we confront it?
After seeing the revival that happened in Israel, we also see how prone they were to fall back into sin and compromise. Some have compared the spiritual life to walking upstream; if you are not fighting to move forward, then you are, by default, going backwards.
At this point in the final chapter of Nehemiah, Nehemiah returned to Persia for some unspecified amount of time.1 Some commentators think his second term as governor began approximately nine years after he left.2 While Nehemiah was gone, it is possible that Ezra had died “(in 13:13, Zadok is called “the” scribe, perhaps indicating that Ezra no longer held that post).”3 When Nehemiah returned, Israel had reneged on the majority of its commitments to God, which they made in chapter 10.
This may seem like a surprise after all God had done for them and their seemingly genuine repentance; however, this not only happened with Israel, it commonly happens to us individually and corporately. If we are not fighting to move forward, then we are sliding backwards. It is for this reason that we must be tenacious in seeking to practice a holy life and also fighting for holiness in our churches. There is a continual inertia drawing us and others towards spiritual decay.
Certainly, we see this in our churches and Christian communities. Why are so many of our churches in disarray? Statistics say that around 75% of youth fall away from the faith in college and never return.4 Seventeen hundred pastors leave the ministry every month in America.5 We have churches making all kinds of moral compromises as they disregard Scripture. We are seeing a very rapid spiritual decay happening in the church.
As we consider Nehemiah 13, it can seem a little depressing after such a great revival. And, it also can be depressing as we consider the decline of Christianity happening in so many parts of the world; however, there is hope. We see hope in a man who was zealous for the Lord named Nehemiah.
Four times he prays for God to remember his works in this chapter. He is a man who wants to please God. Yes, there is hope for us individually and as a church as well. God still uses people like Nehemiah, people like John the Baptist, godly leaders who are zealous to turn communities and individuals back to God.
In this text, Nehemiah is a type of Christ. As Christ went into the temple, he pulled out a whip, turned over tables, and harshly rebuked the leaders of Israel. Scripture says of Christ that zeal for the house of God consumed him (John 2:17). Nehemiah was the same. He threw a man out of the temple who was defiling it, rebuked the leaders for their lack of faithfulness in giving, locked people out of the city who were abusing the Sabbath, and pulled out the hairs of those who married foreign women in order to turn them back to God. Nehemiah was a man consumed with seeing God’s glory in Israel.
In the same way, God is calling for people in this generation to be zealous for personal holiness and also holiness in the church. He is looking to raise people who are consumed with zeal for the house of God (cf. 2 Chronicles 16:9).
In this text, we will consider common signs of spiritual decay not only in the church but in our spiritual lives. Godly leaders must be able to spiritually diagnose their people, their society, and even their own lives. They must be able to diagnose so they can participate in the restoration process. In this text, we will not only see common signs of spiritual decay but also steps to restoration—to restore our churches and our lives.
Big Question: What signs of spiritual decay do we see happening to Israel in Nehemiah 13; how does Nehemiah confront them, and how should we apply these truths as leaders to our spiritual lives and our ministries?
Compromised Leadership Is a Sign of Spiritual Decay
Before this, Eliashib the priest had been put in charge of the storerooms of the house of our God. He was closely associated with Tobiah, and he had provided him with a large room formerly used to store the grain offerings and incense and temple articles, and also the tithes of grain, new wine and oil prescribed for the Levites, singers and gatekeepers, as well as the contributions for the priests.
In this text, Nehemiah introduces us to the compromise that was happening within Israel. They broke all the commitments they made in chapter 10. It is no surprise that when he started to list their sins, he started with the leadership of Israel. The High Priest was disrespecting God by allowing an Ammonite official into the temple (cf. Neh 2:10, 13:1). He had given Tobiah, who had previously persecuted the Jews, a room in God’s house.
This is how moral compromise often begins in the people of God—it begins with the leadership. The leadership starts to compromise by disobedience and disregard for the teachings of the Word of God, which eventually affects all the people. Have we not seen the effects of bad leadership throughout Scripture?
Interpretation Question: In what ways have we seen the negative effects of bad leadership throughout Scripture?
Solomon compromised by marrying pagan women in disobedience to the law, and consequently, all of Israel was led astray into worshiping idols. The book of Kings shows us a pattern of Israel’s stumbles. They would have a good king and, therefore, start following God. And then they would have a bad king and, consequently, stumble away from him. For every Josiah, Asa and Jehoshophat, there was a Jereboam, Jehu, and Ahab, the wicked kings of Israel who led the nation astray.
During this time period, not only were the kings corrupt but so were the priests. In fact, right before God judged Israel by Assyria, God rebuked the priests through the prophet Hosea.6 Listen to what he said:
The more the priests increased, the more they sinned against me; they exchanged their Glory for something disgraceful. They feed on the sins of my people and relish their wickedness. And it will be: Like people, like priests. I will punish both of them for their ways and repay them for their deeds.
The priests were sinning just like the people. In fact, they enjoyed the sins of the people and made a profit off of them. God promised he would punish the priests and the people together for their compromise.
Theological and moral compromises amongst the leadership of churches or ministries typically precede people going astray. In fact, when Christ appeared in the Gospels, Israel was being run by the Pharisees and Sadducees who were corrupting the teachings of Scripture and leading people astray as well. In the Gospels, Christ spent a significant amount of time correcting and rebuking the leadership of the people.
Application Question: Why is the leadership of the church so important?
Consider what Christ said: “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master” (Matthew 10:24-25). The people can go no farther than their leaders. The leaders create the ceiling for the church.
When we look at the state of our churches, it is often a reflection of its leaders. When we have leadership that does not preach the Word, leadership that is not on fire for God, leadership that does not run their household well, it is no surprise that the light in the church is so dim.
Paul described the church in the last days in a similar manner. He said that the church would not be able to stand sound doctrine and, therefore, would heap up many teachers to itch their ears and to say what they wanted to hear (2 Tim 4:3-4).
Interpretation Question: Why was the High Priest compromising? What could be some of the reasons?
We are not sure why the High Priest compromised; it could be many reasons:
1. Maybe, he had liberal doctrine.
Even though they had just read that Moabites and Ammonites could not enter the temple (cf. Neh 13:1), maybe he thought the Scripture was antiquated, full of errors, and not relevant. Maybe he thought God was not the author of “every” portion of Scripture, and therefore he could pick and choose what was of God. We see that happening in many churches today, and consequently, instead of submitting to the Word of God, they stand in judgment over it. They take liberty to decide what God said and did not say. They say, “God didn’t really create the earth as seen in Genesis; it was created through the evolutionary process.” “Jonah wasn’t really swallowed by a whale.” “Jesus didn’t really turn water into wine.” They choose what is of God and not of God, and therefore, they choose what not to submit to.
Eliashib might have rebelled because of his doctrine which, no doubt, would have also negatively affected the people.
2. Maybe, he was a people pleaser—meaning he wanted the applause of the people instead of God.
Potentially, it was the Israelites clamoring for more liberality and for him to stop being so narrow-minded. Later in this chapter, we see that many of the people married foreigners and their children couldn’t speak Hebrew (v. 23-24). Maybe he wouldn’t stand up for God.
As mentioned previously, Paul declared that this would happen in the last days. People would heap up many teachers that would itch their ears and make them feel good. Many ministers won’t preach strong doctrine or hold the church accountable for fear of losing their jobs, status, or numbers in the church. Today, we have many leaders in the church who are “men of men” instead of “men of God.”
3. Maybe, he was simply a hypocrite.
He might have been preaching the truth but not practicing it in the temple. In that case, he would have been a hypocritical leader.
Whatever the reason, we can be sure that his actions contributed to the sins of the people. As we look at the rest of the text, we see that the people are living in great compromise as well. Like priest, like people; we see this happening all around us, and therefore, decay has crept into many of our churches.
Leaders of the church must ask themselves, “Are we setting the example?” (1 Peter 5:3). It is the leaders who set the spiritual ceiling for the congregation. It is enough for a student to be like his teacher. If the pastor, elders, and teachers are no longer growing in zeal for Christ, how can they expect it from the congregation? If the leadership in the church is no longer growing in the knowledge of Scripture, how can they expect it from the congregation? The leadership sets both the ceiling and the direction of the congregation.
Let this challenge us as we serve in any form of leadership to never be lacking in zeal or obedience and to always be abounding in the work of the Lord (cf. 1 Cor 15:58). But also let this challenge us to pray daily for the leadership of our local church and churches around the world. It is enough for a disciple to be like his teacher.
Application Question: In what ways have you seen both the positive and negative effects of leadership in the church? How can the church better support our leaders in order to encourage their continual growth in the Lord?
Misuse of Finances Is a Sign of Spiritual Decay
I also learned that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and singers responsible for the service had gone back to their own fields.
Nehemiah 13:10 says the Israelites stopped supporting the Levites who maintained the temple and taught the people. Because they were not being supported they moved back to their fields to earn a living. Listen to what Nehemiah said: “I also learned that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and singers responsible for the service had gone back to their own fields.”
Most commentators say that Malachi was prophesying during this period of time.7 God said through the prophet in Malachi 3:8 that the people had robbed God through their tithes and offerings. They had stopped giving to God.
Similarly, this is a common sign of spiritual decay with us. Whatever we really love, we put our money into. If we really love books, movies, food, or anything else, one can tell by looking at our bank statements.
In the same way, when God is no longer our priority, we will find it harder to support his work with our finances. This is what was happening with Israel. God had ceased to be their priority, and therefore, they stopped giving to his work. Similarly, when they were on fire for God, their offerings were great. Remember the giving in the previous chapter:
And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away. At that time men were appointed to be in charge of the storerooms for the contributions, firstfruits and tithes. From the fields around the towns they were to bring into the storerooms the portions required by the Law for the priests and the Levites, for Judah was pleased with the ministering priests and Levites.
When they were on fire for God, they gave great sacrifices with joy. Similarly, when we are on fire for God, we also give joyfully, but when our relationship with God cools, we start to give less or the giving ceases all together.
I have seen this personally in my own life. I remember being in college on a full basketball scholarship, without any real financial needs. I was growing in God—knowing his voice more and enjoying his presence. With that came a growing desire to give to him, simply because I loved him. But the problem was I didn’t make any money. My scholarship provided all my needs, but it didn’t provide any spending money. So, I remember getting a part-time job just because I wanted to have something to give, not only to God but also to others who had needs. This is a natural occurrence. When you are growing in love with someone, you naturally want to give, not only financially, but you want to share in all good things with that person.
I experienced this with my daughter, especially when she was a baby. I remember going to the store to buy groceries, and without a real need, I went straight to the baby section. I was thinking, “What can I buy for my daughter?” There was great joy in buying things for her. I got new diapers and a special no-throw-up formula. I got some scented baby bath liquid that would help put her to sleep (which my wife swiftly threw away, saying something about “chemicals”). I bought a bunch of stuff that at that stage of life meant nothing to my daughter, and she couldn’t even thank me for them. However, giving to her helped fulfill my joy. It’s a natural thing to give when you really love someone and that includes giving to God.
Jesus said this about our treasures—our finances: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). He taught that wherever one puts his money, it will show where his heart really is.
In fact, what a person spends his money on is often an indicator of his spiritual health—including his salvation. Let’s look at John the Baptist when he called Israel to bear fruits worthy of repentance or to prove their salvation (cf. Lk 3:8). He said:
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” ”Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
To the wealthy who had two tunics (or jackets), he said, “Share.” To the tax collectors, he said, “Don’t collect more money than is required.” To the soldiers, he said, “Don’t extort money and be content with your pay.”
Isn’t that interesting? Every fruit that had to do with true repentance, which really means true salvation, was shown in their finances. How people handle their money shows whether they truly love God. It shows where their relationship with God is.
What does the way you use your finances say about your relationship with God? The decay in Israel’s spiritual life was shown in their lack of giving to the Lord.
Consider what Paul teaches about our giving in 2 Corinthians 8:7: “But just as you excel in everything—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.”
He says as believers, we should seek to grow in our giving to the Lord. It should be abounding. This makes perfect sense because giving is an indicator of our love for God. Since our love for God should always be growing, by necessity, so should our giving. Therefore, when our desire to give is less, it is a sign of spiritual decay. That’s what happened with Israel and that’s what happens with us.
What does your giving say about your heart? How is God calling you to excel in giving?
Application Question: What do you spend most of your money on? What does that say about your heart?
A Decrease in Time Given to Worship Is a Sign of Spiritual Decay
In Nehemiah 13:15-16, we also see that the people stopped practicing the Sabbath. Look at what it says:
In those days I saw men in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys, together with wine, grapes, figs and all other kinds of loads. And they were bringing all this into Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Men from Tyre who lived in Jerusalem were bringing in fish and all kinds of merchandise and selling them in Jerusalem on the Sabbath to the people of Judah.
The Sabbath originally was meant to be a time of rest, where the Israelites focused on God instead of work or other things. However, at this point, many people no longer practiced the Sabbath but instead compromised with the world, as they bought and sold on the Sabbath day. Instead of focusing on God and worshiping him, they focused on their work and making money instead.
No doubt, Israel had excuses. If everybody was working and they closed their businesses, they would lose money and customers. They could rationalize it.
It’s the same for us. It’s easy to rationalize missing church, small group, or our personal Bible study, but that doesn’t make it right. “I’ve got school.” “I’ve got work.” “If I don’t work, how am I going to pay my bills? I can’t commit to church or small group.” “I got home from work late; I can’t go to church tomorrow.” We have all types of excuses that keep us from worshiping, keep us from reading our Bible or serving the church. This was a sign of spiritual decay with Israel, and it’s the same for us.
I don’t believe we are under the Sabbath as a law because Christ is our Sabbath (cf. Col 2:16-17), but the principle is the same. Typically, when there is moral decline in our life, we will find that there has also been a decline in our time given to worshipping God.
The signals of this are hard to miss. Some people may stop going to church all together and others become sporadic. They stop going to small group and start missing their daily quiet times. Many never commit to any type of consistent worship. These are all signs of spiritual decay. You must be fighting to grow or your relationship with God and your holiness will decline. Paul said, “Exercise yourself to godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7). Without disciplining ourselves to worship, we cannot be godly people.
How is your daily and weekly commitment to worship? What does it say about your relationship with God?
It should also be noted that what we give our time to in lieu of worship shows our idolatry. The Israelites were making wealth an idol over God. They would shop, buy, and sell on the Sabbath instead of worshiping the Lord. Materialism had become their idol.
What is keeping you out of worship? Is it work? Is it friends? Is it rest? What is keeping you from finding your Sabbath in Christ? Whatever you do instead of worshiping the Lord or spending time with him shows the idols in your heart.
Application Question: What are common things that cause you to neglect the worship of God? How is God calling you to put him first?
Worldly Relationships Are a Sign of Spiritual Decay
In Nehemiah 13:23-24, we see that the Israelites also compromised by marrying pagan women. Nehemiah said this:
Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah.
This compromise was so bad that many of the children couldn’t even speak Hebrew, which meant they couldn’t read the Holy Scriptures or understand the teaching of the priests and Levites.
When we compromise with the world, not only does it affect us, but it affects those close to us, like our children. They will grow up speaking and thinking like the world, instead of speaking and thinking like God.
God gave strict rules against marrying foreigners in the Old Testament because of the tendency of being drawn to worship other gods. Solomon compromised in this area and, essentially, turned the nation of Israel away from God, eventually leading to their exile. This dangerous compromise had previously almost destroyed Israel. The marrying of a foreigner itself probably wasn’t sin, for Ruth and Rahab were both foreigners. However, they had committed to worshiping Yahweh and were, eventually, placed in the lineage of Christ.
In the New Testament, we similarly have clear admonitions and prohibitions against marrying an unbeliever. Look at what Paul says to the widows in 1 Corinthians 7:39: “A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord.”
A widow was free to marry anyone, but the person had to belong to the Lord. It had to be someone who was serving God. Similarly, Paul declared how he had the right to take a “believing wife,” which implies he didn’t have a right to take one who didn’t believe. Look at what he said in 1 Corinthians 9:5: “Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?”
However, this call to separation does not just apply to marriage but to all intimate relationships with the world. Second Corinthians 6:14 says this: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”
Paul used an analogy from the Old Testament law about not yoking two different animals together, such as an ox and a donkey in Deuteronomy 22:10. Many believe this work-related law had to do with their inability to plow a straight line. The ox and donkey have different natures and different temperaments. The ox is so strong it would pull the donkey in a different direction, and therefore, the work would be unproductive.
In the same way, Christians are not to be in any worldly relationships that keep them from walking a straight line with Christ—that pull them away from God and hinder them from being productive in serving him. Certainly, this applies to marriage, but it also applies to friendship, work, and everything else.
One seminary professor said where a person will be in ten years will mostly be affected by the books they read and the company they kept.8 What do your most intimate relationships say about your relationship with God and your future? Solomon said something similar. Proverbs 13:20 says, “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm.”
Now, certainly we are called to minister to the world and to love them, but we are not called to be “yoked with them.” Christ ate and drank with the world in hopes of winning them to God. He befriended them, prayed for them, and served them, but, when you look at his most intimate relationships, it shows that his most intimate relationships were with believers.
It has often been said that Christ had five rings of fellowship around him. He had the three apostles: Peter, James and John—his most intimate friends. He took them up on the Mount of Transfiguration when he didn’t take others. He took them to pray before his death. Then Christ had the nine other apostles who were always with him. He had the seventy-two (cf. Lk 10:1). And he had other followers outside of that, and then he had the world.
His most intimate relationships were not with those going a different direction. He was a friend of sinners, but his deepest friendships were with those who were following God. Christ said this: “Who are my mother, brother, and sister but those who obey God?” (Matt 12:50, paraphrase). You are affected by your most intimate relationships. Amos said this: “Can two walk together unless they are agreed?” (Amos 3:3).
Your most intimate relationships not only affect your ministry, but they also reflect who you are. They reflect what is inside you and what you agree with.
What do your most intimate relationships say about your relationship with God? Are your closest relationships with those who will pull you closer to the Lord or farther away from him? Friendship with the world is a sign of spiritual decay (cf. James 4:4).
Application Question: What is the balance of being salt and light in the world and also being separate from the world? Do you have any relationships that commonly pull you away from God? How is God calling you to remedy that?
How to Fix Spiritual Decay
We just looked at signs of spiritual decay in the life of a community or an individual believer. We can discern spiritual decay by looking at our leaders, our use of finances, our time given to worship, and our relationships.
What should we do if we see areas of decay in our life or in the church? How can we fix it? What can we learn from Nehemiah who is a type of Christ, as he zealously sought to turn the nation back to God?
Application Question: How can we fix spiritual decay, as demonstrated through Nehemiah?
1. We must become aware of areas of sin.
In this chapter, we commonly see how Nehemiah saw or was informed about the sins happening in Israel. Look at the passages below:
And came back to Jerusalem. Here I learned about the evil thing Eliashib had done in providing Tobiah a room in the courts of the house of God.
I also learned that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and singers responsible for the service had gone back to their own fields.
Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab.
Similarly, if we are going to fix areas of compromise in our lives or others, we must be aware of it. This is the first step. The problem with many individuals and communities is the fact that they don’t even know they have a problem. They are unaware of the idolatry in their hearts. They are unaware of their sin or don’t think the sin in their lives or their community is a big problem. Therefore, they don’t seek to remedy it.
Application Question: What are ways that we can better discern areas of sin or compromise in ourselves and others?
- We must be people of the Word of God.
This is implied in verses 1-3. The Israelites were reading the Scripture on the day they dedicated the wall (cf. Nehemiah 12), and they learned they were forbidden to allow Moabites and Ammonites to enter the temple, leading them to repent. Look at what it says:
On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God, because they had not met the Israelites with food and water but had hired Balaam to call a curse down on them. (Our God, however, turned the curse into a blessing.) When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.
In the same way, we must constantly be in the Word if we are going to recognize sin. It is like a mirror that reveals our sin and compromise (cf. James 1:22-25) and the sin of others.
- We must have accountability relationships where people have the right to speak into our lives.
This is what we see with Nehemiah. Nehemiah came back to Israel and pointed out all the wrong things being committed within her. David had Nathan. Nathan, as a prophet, would confront David when he was in sin, no matter how uncomfortable it must have felt. Similarly, we should have people that we allow and invite to be prophetic in our life.
These accountability relationships include sometimes asking questions like: “How is your spiritual life going?” “How is your marriage going?” “How is your time in the Word of God?” If we are going to be part of the solution, we must be aware of the problem.
Who is your Nehemiah? Who has the right to speak into your life?
- We should pray for God to point sin out in our lives and our communities.
Listen to how David prayed: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).
David sought for God to reveal things in his life that were not right. We must continually bring ourselves before God as well and ask him to show us areas of compromise so we can become more like him.
- We must spend time with the people we lead and get to know them in order to discern how we can help them.
The good shepherd knows his sheep by name (John 10:3, 14). We must spend time with them. We must be with them in times of celebration, in times of mourning, and in everyday activities. We must know them. As we know them, we will better discern areas of compromise in their lives and how to minister to those areas.
What else should we do to help fix spiritual decay in our lives and others’?
2. We must develop a righteous anger that leads us to confront sin.
Nehemiah 13:8 says, “I was greatly displeased and threw all Tobiah’s household goods out of the room.”
Nehemiah became very displeased when he heard about Tobiah being in the temple. However, not only was he displeased, he went into the apartment, threw everything outside, and then filled it with the offerings and the other things of God.
His anger also led him to confront many of the other people. Consider these texts:
So I rebuked the officials and asked them, “Why is the house of God neglected?” Then I called them together and stationed them at their posts.
I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this wicked thing you are doing—desecrating the Sabbath day?”
I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair.
One of the sons of Joiada son of Eliashib the high priest was son-in-law to Sanballat the Horonite. And I drove him away from me.
Not only did his anger lead to rebuking the people, but also to beating the men who had compromised by marrying the pagan women. He beat them and pulled out their hair (v. 25). When he said that he pulled out their hair, he was probably referring to the hair on their beards. By pulling out the hair on their beards, he was probably disrespecting their Jewishness. Jews were called to be holy, and one of the ways they represented that was by the males growing beards. Essentially, he was saying, “You are not following God! You are not a Jew!”
Another outlet of his righteous anger was running the High Priest’s son away from the temple for also marrying a pagan (v. 28). This man had defiled the priesthood. God gave specific commandments for a priest’s wife. She had to be a Jew and a virgin (Leviticus 21). Therefore, the High Priest’s son was disobeying God and consequently leading others to do the same.
Now many of us struggle with what Nehemiah did, and it may even seem unkind. However, this is exactly how Scripture calls us to handle sin, especially our own. Listen to what Jesus said:
If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Christ said you must be drastic in trying to get rid of sin in your life. If you struggle with lust, get rid of whatever is leading you into sin. Get rid of the TV; turn off your Internet connection. If it’s a friendship or a relationship leading you into sin, be willing to separate yourself from it. John Owen said, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” We must be drastic in seeking to get rid of sin in our lives.
But this is not just for individuals, it is also needed in the church when there is unrepentant sin. Look at what Paul said to the Corinthians:
hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?
1 Corinthians 5:5-6
In this context, a believer was having sex with his father’s wife. Paul told them to kick this person out of the church (hand over to Satan) because the yeast of this person’s sin would spread. It would spread like a deadly cancer. Paul commanded them to not even eat with a professing believer who was living in unrepentant sin (1 Cor 5:11).
In the same way that it is not cruel or unloving for a doctor to cut cancer out of a patient to save his life, it is not cruel or unloving for the church to do the same with sin. We must lovingly help our friends get rid of habitual sins. At times, we must even separate ourselves from those who will not repent. Although this may be hard, we must do this in order to become holy and to help others become holy.
Because the church does not often practice this, it has become more and more compromising and less effective for the kingdom of God.
Yes, we must be wise as serpents and gentle as doves (Matt 10:16). There is a place for tact, but I think the church has too much wisdom and too much tact, which often means that we do nothing. There is a place for this in the wise plan of God. It is those who are righteously angry who do something about abortion. It is those who are righteously angry who do something about trafficking. It is those who are righteously angry who say this is not right and who fight for justice. It is the righteously angry who mourn, weep, and pray for the God of heaven to move on our behalf. We need to be forceful men and women who advance the kingdom of God (Matthew 11:12).
3. We must be people who truly desire to please God.
Nehemiah 13:14 says, “Remember me for this, O my God, and do not blot out what I have so faithfully done for the house of my God and its services.”
Four times Nehemiah prays that God would remember him. This reflects the reason that Nehemiah was so zealous. It was because he truly wanted God’s approval and favor over his life. When one is living for the world’s approval instead of God’s, it will be easy to compromise and not respond to sin.
We must be people who truly desire to see God pleased with our lives. The fact that this is repeated four times demonstrates how great of a priority this was for Nehemiah, and it must be for us as well.
4. We must be people with perseverance.
Another thing clearly demonstrated in this text is Nehemiah’s great perseverance. He had already challenged Israel about all these things in the previous chapters. He had already helped them get rid of the compromise with foreigners. He had helped restore the Sabbath. In fact, in chapter 10, Israel made commitments to be faithful in all these areas, but now they had compromised again.
It is no different for us when battling with sin in our lives or others. For many Christians, Satan will get them so discouraged at their failures that they just give up and wallow in their sin. Similarly, others will give up on trying to help people all together. They say to themselves, “This is impossible.”
Again, statistically 1,700 pastors leave the ministry each month. No doubt, a major reason for this is discouragement. They feel like they are not making a change, that people are stuck in their ways, and the church is not growing. Therefore, they get discouraged and quit.
However, when God rewards his servants in the Parable of the Talents, he doesn’t reward them because they were successful; he rewards them because they were “faithful.” He says, “Well done good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:21). In the same way, we must be faithful in battling sin, faithful in battling compromise in our lives and the lives of others in order to honor God. We must be people of perseverance if we are going to get rid of sin.
Galatians 6:9 says, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
Application Question: Do you have any people who are allowed to speak prophetically in your life? In what ways is God calling you to be an agent of change like Nehemiah in the lives of others?
In this text, we see common signs of decay in the lives of the people of God. What are signs of compromise amongst the people of God?
- Compromised leadership
- Misuse of money
- A decrease in time given to worship—Sabbath
- Worldly relationships
In what ways is God calling you to fix areas of compromise in your life or others? How is God calling you to be like Nehemiah, a type of Christ, who zealously confronted sin?
Application Question: What are the primary leadership lessons you learned from the book of Nehemiah and how is God challenging you to implement them into your life to become more of a godly leader?
1 The Moody Bible Commentary (Kindle Locations 26193-26194). Chicago: Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.
2 MacArthur, John (2003-08-21). The MacArthur Bible Handbook (Kindle Location 3464). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
3 Cole, Steven. “Lesson 13: The Problem of Permissiveness (Nehemiah 13:1-31)”. Retrieved 1/15/15 from
4Turek, Frank. “Youth Exodus Problem”. retrieved 1/11/15, from
5“Statistics in Ministry”. retrieved 1/11/15, from
6 MacArthur, John (2003-08-21). The MacArthur Bible Handbook (Kindle Locations 5841-5842). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
7 MacArthur, John (2003-08-21). The MacArthur Bible Handbook (Kindle Locations 6969-6970). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
8 Cole, Steven. “Lesson 13: The Problem of Permissiveness (Nehemiah 13:1-31)”. Retrieved 1/15/15 from
Related Topics: Law
13. Living a Life of CelebrationRelated Media
…At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were sought out from where they lived and were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres. The singers also were brought together from the region around Jerusalem—from the villages of the Netophathites…
Nehemiah 12, 13:1-3
Application Question: Why is it important to practice the discipline of celebration?
How can we live a life of celebration? Celebration is an essential aspect of one’s spiritual life. Richard Foster in his classic book, Celebration of Discipline, said this:
Celebration is central to all the Spiritual Disciplines. Without a joyful spirit of festivity the Disciplines become dull, death-breathing tools in the hands of modern Pharisees.1
We see celebration not only here in Nehemiah 12, as Israel dedicated the wall, but we also see celebration throughout the Bible. The shepherds, wise men, and angels celebrated the birth of Jesus with gifts, songs, and prayer. God gave Israel many celebrations in the Old Covenant such as the Feast of Booths, year of Jubilee, etc. In the New Covenant, he has given us the Lord’s Supper and baptism. We also see future celebrations such as the wedding of the Lamb and the wedding feast with Abraham.
It is clear from Scripture that celebration is a spiritual discipline that God desires for us to practice. It was never his will for Christians to live dry, boring lives and that is why we see celebrations both commanded and practiced throughout the Bible. Scripture says that Christ came so that we may have life and life more abundantly (cf. John 10:10). This abundant life includes celebration. In Nehemiah 12, the Israelites have a great celebration when dedicating the wall, and from it, we can learn many principles about how we can live a life of celebration?
Big Question: What can we learn about practicing the discipline of celebration from Israel’s dedication of the wall?
Christians Practice the Discipline of Celebration by Planning
At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were sought out from where they lived and were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres
In this text, Israel had set up a special time of celebrating the Lord’s faithfulness by dedicating the wall to him. They sought out the Levites to celebrate in Jerusalem with songs and also later set up two choirs (v. 27, 31). It is clear that there was planning involved in this process. They decided who would come and how they would lead. The celebration was meticulously planned.
This celebration was not commanded by God; however, it was special for the people of Israel and something they needed to do in order to express their joy. Sometimes Christians have problems with celebrations that are not specifically given in the Bible or commanded for Christians to practice such as: Christmas, Thanksgiving, Lent, etc. Sure, we are not commanded to practice these, but the celebration of them can encourage renewed focus and joy in the Lord, if allowed.
It is good and proper to have routine times to celebrate the Lord, as we do on the Lord’s Day—Sunday. But, it is also good to have special times of devotion or celebration both on a personal level and a community level. It is easy to live a life of routine, which can eventually become dry and mundane. These devotions at special times often aid us in living a life of celebration and worship.
In the same way that it is good and healthy for a married couple to set special dates and special trips to revive and restore their relationship, sometimes we need to do this with God. We should consider establishing special times of celebration to enrich our relationship with him and our joy. It could be a retreat—a week of prayer and worship—to celebrate God’s goodness. Or it could be a celebration of some great success, like a graduation, the launch of a church or a business, where one gathers with others to give thanks to God.
God’s faithfulness can be celebrated in many ways; however, none of these will come to fruition without deliberate planning—both short-term and long-term planning.
Application Question: In what ways do you practice the discipline of celebration? Why is celebration important?
Christians Practice the Discipline of Celebration by Dedicating Everything to God
At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were sought out from where they lived and were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres.
The primary purpose of the celebration was to dedicate the wall to God. This dedication was done by bringing in worshipers, walking around the wall, and offering sacrifices to God.
Certainly, we have dedications today. We have baby dedications; we have weddings, which are formal dedications of a couple, both to one another and to God. We have dedications of buildings, companies, etc., which are all offered to the Lord. And these are great things to practice. However, dedications are just special ceremonies which should picture what we practice every day of our lives. Everything we do should be dedicated to the Lord and for his glory—our school work, our marriage, our friendships, our eating and drinking. Consider what Paul taught:
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
1 Corinthians 10:31
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men
As Israel dedicated the wall to God, we also should find ways to dedicate everything in our lives to him. A life without dedication is really a life without true celebration. We only celebrate what we are dedicated to. We celebrate good grades because we were dedicated to work for them. We celebrate someone’s life only when we have some type of dedication or commitment to the person.
In the same way, only a life that is dedicated to God can truly be a life of celebration and joy.
Application Question: In what ways can we practice dedicating everything to the Lord?
- We dedicate everything to God by offering our bodies, our time, our relationships, and our projects to God through prayer.
- We dedicate everything to God by thanking him for everything. This means that we recognize that everything is from him and for him.
- We dedicate everything to God by working at it with all of our hearts (Col 3:23). We cannot dedicate our scraps to God—only our best.
Application Question: How do you personally practice dedicating things to the Lord?
Christians Practice the Discipline of Celebration when Leaders Serve Joyfully
At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were sought out from where they lived and were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres…I had the leaders of Judah go up on top of the wall. I also assigned two large choirs to give thanks. One was to proceed on top of the wall to the right, toward the Dung Gate. Hoshaiah and half the leaders of Judah followed them… as well as the priests—Eliakim, Maaseiah, Miniamin, Micaiah, Elioenai, Zechariah and Hananiah with their trumpets—and also Maaseiah, Shemaiah, Eleazar, Uzzi, Jehohanan, Malkijah, Elam and Ezer. The choirs sang under the direction of Jezrahiah. And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.
Nehemiah 12:27, 31-32, 41- 43
In order to live a life of celebration, godly leaders must lead joyfully. One of the things that we must notice in this narrative is that the Levites, the singers, the priests, Nehemiah, and Ezra were all called to lead the celebration. Nehemiah 12:27 says that the Levites were “brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully.” Nehemiah also called the leaders of Judah to help lead in the celebration (v. 31). Nehemiah knew that it was important for the leaders to lead the celebration in order for it to affect everybody else. Nehemiah 12:43 notes the response of the people. It says: “And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.”
As the leaders led with joy, the women and children also rejoiced and the sound of rejoicing could be heard from far away. This means the Jews living in the suburbs and villages near Jerusalem could hear the sheer joy. It also probably reached their Gentile neighbors as well. The people of Israel were very responsive to the leaders’ joy, causing a great celebration. We see their joyful response in several ways:
Observation Question: How did the people respond to their leaders and the dedication in Nehemiah 12:47-13:4?
1. The people responded by contributing the daily portions for the singers and gatekeepers.
Nehemiah 12:47 says,
So in the days of Zerubbabel and of Nehemiah, all Israel contributed the daily portions for the singers and gatekeepers. They also set aside the portion for the other Levites, and the Levites set aside the portion for the descendants of Aaron.
2. The people responded by gathering to read the Word of God and by excluding the foreigners from Israel in order to properly approach God.
It seems that the beginning of chapter 13 is in response to the dedication. Nehemiah 13:1 says “On that day” meaning it was probably a continuation from the previous chapter. It reads:
On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God, because they had not met the Israelites with food and water but had hired Balaam to call a curse down on them. (Our God, however, turned the curse into a blessing.) When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.
Nehemiah shared all this after the dedication and the worship of the leaders to show how it affected Israel. Their joy affected others and the rest of Israel was prompted to give, read the Word, and separate from the foreigners. In order to live a life of celebration, we must have godly leaders who lead joyfully.
Application Question: How can we practically apply the effect of the leaders’ joy on others?
The rest of Scripture would similarly teach that our joy, and especially that of leaders, affects others. Proverbs 17:22 says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”
A cheerful heart is good medicine. Now certainly, this applies to us. Having joy in our life, no doubt, will help us heal and protect us from physical disease. Studies support the effect of joy on our lives. But our cheerful heart is also like good medicine to others.
See, the leaders in Israel got excited, and it affected everybody else’s commitment to God as seen in Israel’s response. In the same way, our joy, our life of celebration, especially as people in leadership, will encourage the faith of others. It will encourage them to be faithful to the Lord.
Our joy for the Lord, our joy in worship, our joy in evangelism, and our joy in a difficult situation is contagious. It brings healing to broken bones and hearts of those around us. Similarly, Solomon said this: “A happy heart makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit” (Proverbs 15:13).
A happy heart makes the face cheerful. It is contagious. It brings a smile to others, and this is especially important for leaders. I think that’s part of the reason why Satan is so aggressive in seeking to discourage the leadership of the church. When elders, small group leaders, deacons, etc., are discouraged, it negatively affects everybody else. Instead of bringing healing, it crushes the spirit of others.
I remember briefly serving at an Army medical hospital in San Antonio, Texas, as a Navy Reserve chaplain. A soldier was flown in from Germany who had previously been injured in Afghanistan. If I remember correctly, a bomb had gone off causing an electric wire to fall on him. This caused electricity to shoot through his body, out of his fingers, and out of his toes. He had third degree burns everywhere and was missing a few limbs.
I went in thinking, “How am I going to comfort this guy?” However, I was encouraged to learn that this nineteen year old soldier was a man of faith. He was joyful and focused on the prospects of his future. He could see how God was going to use this unfortunate situation for his good. And instead of comforting him, he comforted me.
I left there inspired because of the joy and mature perspective of this young man. I went there hoping to give some spiritual medicine, but, by God’s grace, I was on the receiving end. A happy heart makes the face cheerful.
I think we also see how a joyful leader affects others in the fact that David is mentioned six times throughout this narrative. It continually says, “as prescribed by David the man of God.” Consider a few of these verses:
And the leaders of the Levites were Hashabiah, Sherebiah, Jeshua son of Kadmiel, and their associates, who stood opposite them to give praise and thanksgiving, one section responding to the other, as prescribed by David the man of God.
and his associates—Shemaiah, Azarel, Milalai, Gilalai, Maai, Nethanel, Judah and Hanani—with musical instruments prescribed by David the man of God. Ezra the scribe led the procession.
His name is mentioned in verses 24, 36, 45 and 46. When it says Israel followed his prescription of worship, it probably refers to the Psalms he wrote, which included songs to sing and also instructions for instruments. He had also probably set up an order of worship that had been passed down throughout the generations in Israel.
I bring up the continual references to David because David was a godly leader, a man after God’s own heart, who loved to worship and celebrate God. One time he danced so vigorously before the Lord that he took off his princely robes and looked like a common man (2 Sam 6:14). He was a leader who led with joy and his worship affected all of Israel. Even today, his joy and worship are still contagious. We still use many of his Psalms in our contemporary worship music, and we commonly read them, as part of the Holy Scripture, to encourage our hearts when we are down.
Are you a joyful leader? The Levites and other leaders were called to lead with joy (v. 27), and God has called you to lead with joy as well. It’s like a medicine that cheers others up and draws them into a life of celebration. Likewise, a discouraged leader creates discouraged followers. We develop a discipline of celebration as a community by having leaders who lead with joy and by being leaders who lead with joy.
Application Question: In what ways have you seen joyful leaders lead others into joy or celebration? In what ways have you experienced discouraged leaders who lead others into discouragement? How is God calling you to lead with joy?
Christians Practice the Discipline of Celebration by Corporate Worship
At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were sought out from where they lived and were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres. The singers also were brought together from the region around Jerusalem—from the villages of the Netophathites, from Beth Gilgal, and from the area of Geba and Azmaveth, for the singers had built villages for themselves around Jerusalem…I had the leaders of Judah go up on top of the wall. I also assigned two large choirs to give thanks. One was to proceed on top of the wall to the right, toward the Dung Gate.
Nehemiah 12:27-29, 31
In this text, we see that not only were the Levites sought out to participate in the worship, but many others as well—the singers from the region around Jerusalem (v. 28-29), the leaders of Judah, two large choirs (v. 31), and many other neighboring Israelites, including women and children (v. 43). The women and children were mentioned in verse 43 to show that everybody was worshiping, even those who had the lowest status in Israel. They all came together to worship God and dedicate the wall to him.
Similarly, in order to live a life of worship, we must be part of a community of worship. We need to meet with the people of God to worship. That is why they all came together from all over Israel.
Can’t we worship by ourselves?
Certainly, and we should, but there are special things that God does when the people of God are gathered together. Jesus said that when two or more are gathered in his name he is in the midst of them (Matt 18:20). In fact, Scripture commands us to faithfully participate in the public gathering of the saints. 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.
The writer of Hebrews taught that gathering into a worshiping community is necessary for stirring up love, good works, and for finding encouragement. Yes, we need each other to practice a lifestyle of celebration. We cannot live a lifestyle of celebration alone. We need the gathering of the saints.
Application Question: How can we practice community worship in order to live a life of celebration?
- We practice community worship by being faithfully involved in weekly church worship and small groups.
- We practice community worship by involving the body of Christ in our personal celebrations. We can do this by strategically inviting church members to our celebrations in order to increase our worship and theirs.
- We practice community worship by participating in the celebrations of others. Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice.”
Application Question: Why is corporate worship so important to living a life of celebration? How is God challenging you to grow in corporate worship?
Christians Practice the Discipline of Celebration by Giving Thanks in Everything
At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were sought out from where they lived and were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres… I had the leaders of Judah go up on top of the wall. I also assigned two large choirs to give thanks. One was to proceed on top of the wall to the right, toward the Dung Gate.
Nehemiah 12:27, 31
The leaders of Israel led the people in “songs of thanksgiving” (v. 27), and the two choirs Nehemiah set up gave thanks (v. 31). The dedication of the wall was full of thanksgiving. In the same way, if we are going to live a life of celebration, we must continually give thanks to God.
It is good for us to remember that one of the ways that nonbelievers are characterized in Scripture is by not giving thanks to God. Listen to what Paul said when describing the pagan world: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:21).
They are described as a people who knew God through the witness of creation but neither glorified him nor gave thanks to him. The world is characterized by not being thankful. Sadly, many people in the church “know God” but yet refuse to glorify him and give thanks to him.
As Christians we are commanded to give thanks in everything. Paul said this in 1 Thessalonians 5:18-19: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not put out the Spirit’s fire.”
He commands us to give thanks in all circumstances and then says for us to not “put out the Spirit’s fire.” What does he mean by this?
It means that when we are unthankful, we lose the Spirit of God’s power in our lives. We lose the power to be joyful, the power to do the works he has called us to do, and, in fact, we often bring the discipline of God on our lives. Israel was disciplined in the wilderness for all their complaining (1 Cor 10:10). However, living a life of thanksgiving opens the door for the Spirit to work in our lives and to give us joy (cf. Gal 5:22). It allows us to truly celebrate God and his works.
Many Christians are walking around without power because they neglect the practice of thanksgiving. They are complainers and worriers, and, by their complaining and worrying, they place water on the Spirit’s fire, affecting both themselves and whatever community they are a part of.
It’s good to remember that we are commanded to “Do all things without complaining and arguing” (Phil 2:14) and to not be anxious about anything (Phil 4:6). When we choose to complain or be anxious, we put out the Spirit’s fire.
If you want to live a life of worship and celebration, you must put logs on the fire of God by living a life of thanksgiving.
Application Question: What are some ways we can practice the discipline of thanksgiving in order to increase our celebration of the Lord?
- Practicing the discipline of journaling will help increase our thanksgiving. By journaling, we remember God’s faithfulness, his answers to prayer, and his sovereignty over circumstances. As we remember his good works, we will continually be filled with joy and thanksgiving.
- Practicing the discipline of singing worship will help increase our thanksgiving. This is not just a corporate discipline; it should also be a personal discipline (cf. Eph 5:19).
- Practicing the discipline of giving thanks to God in all circumstances, both good and bad, will help us develop a natural habit of thanksgiving.
- Practicing the discipline of giving thanks to others will help us recognize their good works and/or how God has used them in our lives.
Application Question: Why do we so often forget to praise and glorify God throughout the day, even when he has blessed us? How often do you practice giving thanks to God and to others?
Christians Practice the Discipline of Celebration by Confessing Sins
When the priests and Levites had purified themselves ceremonially, they purified the people, the gates and the wall. I had the leaders of Judah go up on top of the wall. I also assigned two large choirs to give thanks. One was to proceed on top of the wall to the right, toward the Dung Gate.
It must be noted that before the dedication began, the Levites first purified themselves, the people, and the wall (v. 30). How did they do this? This probably included ceremonial washings and a sin offering, where they sought the Lord to forgive their sins.
Similarly, we cannot live a life of celebration without the continual cleansing of sin. Consider what David said about forgiveness in Psalm 32:2-5:
Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Selah Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”— and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah
He declared how “Blessed” the man was whose sins are forgiven. “Blessed” can be translated “Happy.” Happy is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him. However, he also described his own personal testimony of not confessing his sin. He shared that when he was silent, his bones wasted away, probably referring to physical sickness from his sin (cf. 1 Cor 11:30). He groaned, meaning he was depressed. His strength was sapped. He dealt with both physical and emotional weakness when he had unrepentant sin in his life. Sin takes away our ability to live a joyful life. It takes away our ability to celebrate. Confession and forgiveness of sin are necessary in order to truly celebrate God.
This reminds us that true joy and celebration comes from a right relationship with God (cf. Phil 4:4, Psalm 1:1). We cannot have a right relationship with God while we are in sin. Therefore, confession is necessary. The person who chooses to abide in sin and live in rebellion towards God can know nothing of true joy or true celebration. Our joy and peace are in the Lord and come from him (cf. Eph 2:14, Gal 5:22). We must continually seek forgiveness to live the life of celebration God desires for us.
First John 1:9 says this: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” We do not need to make a sin offering like Israel did to have our sins forgiven. All we need to do is confess our sins to God, turn away from them, and God will forgive and restore us to a right relationship with him, so we can have joy.
Application Question: In what ways have you experienced the loss of joy and strength because of sin, as David did (Psalm 32:2-5)? In what ways have you experienced joy, when you have experienced the forgiveness of God?
Christians Practice the Discipline of Celebration by Claiming God’s Promises
At the Fountain Gate they continued directly up the steps of the City of David on the ascent to the wall and passed above the house of David to the Water Gate on the east. The second choir proceeded in the opposite direction. I followed them on top of the wall, together with half the people—past the Tower of the Ovens to the Broad Wall, over the Gate of Ephraim, the Jeshanah Gate, the Fish Gate, the Tower of Hananel and the Tower of the Hundred, as far as the Sheep Gate. At the Gate of the Guard they stopped.
Interpretation Question: What does walking around the walls of Jerusalem symbolize in Nehemiah 12:37-39, as seen throughout Scripture?
The next thing we must notice is that Israel dedicated the wall in part by walking around it in both directions. By walking around the wall, they were claiming that God did the work and claiming God’s promise that he would give them the land (cf. Gen 12:7, 17:8).
We have seen this symbolic walking in several passages in the Bible. In Genesis 13:14-17, God called Abraham to lift his eyes to survey the land and to walk through it, for all of it had been given to him. In Joshua 1:3, Joshua was told that every place his foot touched was his. Furthermore, Joshua and Israel were called to walk around Jericho seven times, which symbolized God giving them that city, right before the walls of the city fell down and they conquered it (Josh 6).
Walking around the land of Jerusalem symbolically demonstrated their claiming of God’s covenant promise to eternally give the land to the nation of Israel. It was them saying, “Lord, we believe you! We recognize this victory of building the wall came from you, and we are claiming your promise of this land!”
Claiming God’s promises is necessary for us to live a life of celebration as well. Many Christians live without joy and celebration because they refuse to take hold of God’s promises.
Application Question: What types of promises has God given us which will help us to live a life of joy and celebration?
It has been said that there are over 3000 promises in the Scripture, and we must claim them by faith and be obedient to them in order to live a life of celebration. Here are a few to consider:
You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you.
Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
These are all promises of God we must take hold of by faith. By keeping our mind on God regardless of the circumstances, we can have the Lord’s peace. By separating from the sinful influence of the ungodly and delighting in God’s Word day and night, we will prosper in everything that we do. Instead of worrying, we must refuse to be anxious and instead choose to live a lifestyle of prayer with thanksgiving, and God’s peace will guard our hearts. Like Israel, we must take these steps by faith to receive God’s promises. The Christian life should be a continual unwrapping of God’s promises, as we walk by faith in them.
We can’t live a life of worship—a life of joy—unless we are taking the promises of God and claiming them. Yes, the nations around Israel were daunting. How could they keep the land and protect the land with such daunting adversaries? All they could do was obediently trust God’s Word, and God would do the rest. It is the same for us.
We each have enemies in our lives that threaten to steal our joy and life of celebration. But, we must claim God’s promises so that we can celebrate even in the presence of our enemies. David said this: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (Psalm 23:5). Amen, let it be so.
Application Question: What are your favorite promises in Scripture? Which promises do you feel God is calling you to stand on and claim right now so that you can celebrate, even in the midst of your enemies?
Christians Practice the Discipline of Celebration by Investing in the House of God
The two choirs that gave thanks then took their places in the house of God; so did I, together with half the officials, as well as the priests—Eliakim, Maaseiah, Miniamin, Micaiah, Elioenai, Zechariah and Hananiah with their trumpets— and also Maaseiah, Shemaiah, Eleazar, Uzzi, Jehohanan, Malkijah, Elam and Ezer. The choirs sang under the direction of Jezrahiah. And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.
What else can we learn about a life of celebration from Israel’s celebration?
We see that after they walked around the wall with two groups going in opposite directions (v. 38), they went into the house of God (v. 40). They gave “great sacrifices” and rejoiced with “great joy” (v. 43). This seems to be the pinnacle of their celebration. The sound of their corporate rejoicing was so loud it could be heard from far away.
Yes, in the same way, our joy is the greatest when we have invested in the house of God, which is his church—God’s people (cf. 1 Peter 2:5). Why do I call it an “investment”? It’s an investment because of how the Israelites gave. It says that they gave “great sacrifices” (v. 43). This means that they gave their best to the Lord at the temple.
Similarly, I believe many people struggle with living a life of celebration because they are not really invested in their church. They are not invested in the people of God.
They come to church on Sunday but never take time to get involved in people’s lives through small groups or other ministries. There is no “great sacrifice” in their corporate worship. Too many people in the church think that their appearance on Sunday is some great sacrifice to God. They say, “Lord, I got up and made it to church. Aren’t you happy?”
But we must remember that God wants our best. He wants us to invest in him and his people. Listen to what God said to Israel in Malachi 1 about their sacrifices:
“A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” says the LORD Almighty. “It is you, O priests, who show contempt for my name. “But you ask, ‘How have we shown contempt for your name?’ ”You place defiled food on my altar. “But you ask, ‘How have we defiled you?’ “By saying that the LORD’s table is contemptible. When you bring blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice crippled or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?” says the LORD Almighty. ”Now implore God to be gracious to us. With such offerings from your hands, will he accept you?”—says the LORD Almighty.
In this text, Israel was rejected by God because they gave him their leftovers. They gave the lamb with one eye and a broken leg, and God said that he wouldn’t accept it.
Similarly, many Christians don’t offer God their best; they don’t truly invest. They give him the scraps of their day, the scraps of their time. They aren’t committed to serving his people, the church. It is good to remember the correspondence between the sheep and Jesus in Matthew 25. The sheep said to Jesus, “When did we feed you; when did we clothe you?” Christ responded, “When you did it to the least of these, you did it to me” (v. 37 and 40, paraphrased). Whatever we do to God’s people, we do to him.
Israel’s celebration and joy were marked by the “great sacrifices” they gave God in the temple. Many of the Old Covenant sacrifices were not only offered to God but eaten by both the offerer and the priests. They were communal meals that not only blessed God but others. They gave God their best and so must we, as we invest in the church—his people.
Are you investing in the people of God? Israel had their greatest joy as they offered their best to the Lord in his house.
One of the ways you invest in something is by giving the best of your time, the best of your money, and the best of your energy. Are you doing that with the house of God, God’s people?
God promises that whatever you give, he will give back to you. Jesus said this: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:38). Proverbs 11:25 in the New Living Translation says, “Those who refresh others shall themselves be refreshed.” God will give you a life of tremendous joy, as you give your best to him and his people. He will enable you to live a life of celebration—a life of joy.
Application Question: What are some practical ways that we can invest in the house of God (the people of God) to live a life of celebration? In what ways have you experienced an enriched joy through this practice?
Christians Practice the Discipline of Celebration by Being Devoted to the Word of God
On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God, because they had not met the Israelites with food and water but had hired Balaam to call a curse down on them. (Our God, however, turned the curse into a blessing.) When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.
When Nehemiah 13:1 says “on that day,” it seems to be referring to the day they dedicated the wall. The dedication of the wall included reading Scripture and obeying it. As they were investing in the house of God, they found that the Scripture forbade having an Ammonite or Moabite in the temple. These nations were antagonistic towards Israel while they were traveling in the wilderness after leaving Egypt. Therefore, the Jews, in obedience, excluded anybody from foreign descent.
It must be noted that part of their celebration was being devoted to Scripture as they read and obeyed it. This must be true for us as well. If we are going to lead our lives and the people we serve in celebration, we must lead them to honor the Word of God and to submit to it.
Certainly, we see this throughout the Scripture. David, in writing the hymnal of Israel, began the Psalms encouraging the people to meditate on the law of the Lord day and night (Psalm 1:2). Similarly, in Psalm 19:7-8 he said this:
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
David championed many of the benefits of honoring the Word of God. He taught that the Word of God revives the soul, makes people wise, gives joy to the heart, and gives light to the eyes (gives us direction). The law of the Lord is truly perfect; its benefits are legion. If we are going to live lives of celebration, they must be lives devoted to Scripture. The law of the Lord revives the soul and brings joy to the heart.
Are you living a life devoted to Scripture? Are you exhorting those you lead to do the same? Consider what Paul told his disciple Timothy: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). Let us apply this exhortation to our own lives and also to those we lead. Certainly, not all are called to preach, but we are all called to teach as we make disciples of all nations. In order to live a life of celebration, we must be devoted to Scripture.
Application Question: In what ways have you experienced joy by being in the Word of God, obeying it, and sharing it with others? How can you more effectively use Scripture to live a life of celebration?
How do we live a life of celebration? Christians practice the discipline of celebration by:
- planning daily and special times of celebration
- dedicating everything to God
- leading with joy
- participating in corporate worship
- giving thanks in everything
- continually confessing our sins
- claiming the promises of God
- investing in the house of God
- and by being devoted to the Word of God
Application Question: In what ways has God challenged you to live a life of celebration in order to increase your joy and the joy of others?
1 Foster, Richard J. (2009-03-17). Celebration of Discipline (Kindle Locations 2931-2932). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Related Topics: Leadership
Lesson 5: Effective Discipleship (1 Thessalonians 2:1-8)Related Media
August 21, 2016
I want to begin by asking two questions: “Are you a disciple of Jesus Christ?” Hopefully, that one was easy. If you answered, “Yes,” the second, more intimidating, question is, “Are you discipling others?”
To define my terms: A disciple is a follower of Jesus Christ. No one follows Him perfectly, of course. But as a disciple, the direction and aim of your life is to be obedient to Jesus Christ and His teachings as revealed in the Bible. To disciple others is to help them follow Jesus. Mark Dever defines it (Discipling [Crossway], p. 13), “Discipling is deliberately doing spiritual good to someone so that he or she will be more like Christ.”
In the Great Commission, Jesus commanded His followers (Matt. 28:19-20), “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; …” The command to make disciples applies to all who follow Jesus, not just to pastors and missionaries. Every Christian has received a spiritual gift which he or she is to use in serving Jesus Christ (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:7-31; Eph. 4:7-12; 1 Pet. 4:10-11). Part of the command to love one another involves helping others be what God wants them to be. That’s discipleship. So if you’re a follower of Jesus Christ, God wants you to use your gifts to help others become more like Christ.
Discipleship should not be so much a program in the local church that some sign up for, but rather the culture of the church, where every member aims at helping others become more like Christ. It begins in our homes, with parents evangelizing and discipling their children. It should ripple out through the entire church, where we all are helping one another grow in godliness. In our text, Paul reveals three crucial ingredients for effective discipleship:
Effective discipleship is built on a godly message, a godly manner, and a godly motive.
The godly message is the gospel; the godly manner is evident love for others; and, the godly motive is to please God from the heart. If you’re clear on the gospel, evident in your love for others, and doing everything to please God who examines your heart, God will use you to help others grow to be more like Christ.
1. Effective discipleship is built on a godly message: the gospel of God.
I’ll say more about this, but for now I point out that in 1 Thessalonians 2 & 3, Paul is defending himself against vicious opponents, perhaps the Jews who drove him out of Thessalonica (1 Thess. 2:14-16). They were trying to discredit Paul so that his gospel would be discredited. Paul mentions the gospel in verses 2, 4, 8, and 9 (as well as in 1:5 & 3:2). In verses 2, 8, & 9 he refers to it as “the gospel of God.” Paul didn’t make up the gospel. Rather, it came directly from God, who revealed it to Paul. To reject the gospel is to reject the living and true God who gave it to us.
The gospel stands against every other system of religion in the world, including some religions that go under the banner of Christianity. All these false “gospels” teach that the way you go to heaven is by some program of good works. Sometimes, as in the Roman Catholic Church, faith in Christ and good works are combined, just as the Judaizers in Paul’s day combined faith in Christ with keeping the Jewish law. By doing penance for your sins, going to church, moral behavior, helping the poor, and giving to the church, you accumulate merits to qualify for heaven.
But the gospel is that we are saved from God’s judgment by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, resulting in good works. Ephesians 2:8-10 states it clearly:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
The gospel is good news for sinners because it promises freely to forgive all the sins of those who believe. As Paul states (Rom. 4:5), “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” Jesus illustrated the same truth in His parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). The proud Pharisee thought that he was right with God through his religious practices, whereas the tax collector could only cry out (Luke 18:13), “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” Jesus said that the tax collector went to his house justified, whereas the Pharisee did not. The best news in the world is that if you come to Jesus with all of your sin and cry out to Him for mercy through Jesus’ shed blood, He freely gives it!
So why does the gospel result in opposition? Why would anyone have a problem with such good news? The Bible is clear that self-righteous people hate the gospel because it confronts their pride. It takes away all grounds for boasting in our good deeds. The gospel requires that we acknowledge that we are sinners without any claim for heaven. The gospel reveals that my heart is as desperately wicked as that of the worst of sinners. So proud people oppose the humbling message of the gospel.
Also, unbelievers don’t like to hear about God’s wrath and judgment against all sinners. As a result they often oppose the messengers of the gospel. But even if they oppose us, we shouldn’t back off or apologize for the message. Paul was mistreated in Philippi for preaching the gospel, but when he came to Thessalonica, he preached the same message boldly in spite of the opposition (1 Thess. 2:2). We can’t compromise the message to win converts.
Effective discipleship rests on the foundation of the gospel revealed to us in God’s Word. False teachers don’t tell people about sin and the judgment to come. Rather, they build people’s self-esteem and tell them how Jesus can help them have their best life now. To build godly disciples we must build on the foundation of the gospel that comes from God.
2. Effective discipleship is built on a godly manner: evident love for people.
1 Thessalonians 2:7-8: “But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.”
When people feel the love of Christ through us, they will more likely listen to the gospel that we present. There is a difficult textual variant in verse 7. Some early manuscripts read “we became babes,” whereas a number of others read, “we became gentle.” The difference is either the presence or absence of a single Greek letter (nu, or “n”). “Babes” is the better attested and more difficult reading, in that it doesn’t seem to fit with the metaphor of the nursing mother in the last half of the verse. Paul usually uses “babes” in a negative way, to refer to those who are spiritually immature (1 Cor. 3:1). He uses “gentle” with reference to how the Lord’s bond-servants must relate to others (2 Tim. 2:24-25): “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind [“gentle”] to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth ….”
So it’s difficult to decide. If the original reading was “babes,” it probably has the sense of being gentle or defenseless, as a little baby is. But the image of a nursing mother tenderly holding her baby next to her, protecting the child from all harm, pictures the love that we are to have for others.
But may I point out the obvious (to any mother, at least): Babies are needy, often difficult, inconvenient, and time-consuming! They dirty their diapers, they scream when they’re hungry or don’t feel good, they throw up on you, they wake you up in the middle of the night, and they require a lot of attention. So do new believers! This means that you can’t love others unless you’re willing to sacrifice yourself and your time and be inconvenienced. But it’s through your love that they will grow.
Note, also, that these are emotional terms. The same emotional language permeates the rest of chapters 2 & 3. It’s obvious that Paul had deep feelings for these new converts and he let them know it verbally. Not only did he tell them of his affection for them, but also they had seen it when he was with them. He repeats “you know,” “you recall,” and “you are witnesses (2:1, 2, 5, 9, 10 & 11). Paul’s love for them was evident.
He says that they had not only imparted the gospel, “but also our own lives” [lit., “souls”]. Part of sharing your own soul is being vulnerable and open. You don’t try to present an image that isn’t who you really are. You live openly and truthfully before God and before others. When I became a pastor 39 years ago, I resolved never to project through my preaching or in my private dealings with anyone that I’ve got it together if that’s not true. If I’m preaching on prayer and I struggle with my prayer life (as I do), I’ll let you know that I’m struggling. You can’t effectively disciple others if you’re not truthful about your own failures and struggles.
So, effective discipleship is built on a godly message: the gospel of God; and, on a godly manner: evident love for people.
3. Effective discipleship is built on a godly motive: pleasing God from the heart.
We could also label this integrity before God. Paul reveals six ways he pleased God from the heart:
A. We please God when we seek His glory, not our own.
Paul says (1 Thess. 2:4), “but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts.” He adds (1 Thess. 2:6), “nor did we seek glory from men.” Paul lived with a Godward focus. He wanted to please and glorify God on the heart level. When he says that he didn’t please men, he doesn’t mean that he was insensitive toward people. He was careful not needlessly to offend others (see 1 Cor. 9:20-22; 10:33). He spoke graciously to people (Eph. 4:29). But behind his actions toward people was a primary focus to please and glorify God.
Pleasing and glorifying God must begin on the heart or thought level, since God examines our hearts. We can fool people by putting on a good front when we’re in public, but God looks on our hearts. When Paul says that he had been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, he’s referring to his heart before God. Paul’s heart was right with God and so God entrusted Paul with the treasure of the gospel. A man can be a powerful, captivating preacher, but in private he looks at pornography or checks out the sexy women. Or he may posture himself as a man of God at church, but at home he’s angry and abusive.
To begin at this, gain and maintain a clear conscience before God. As Paul told the Roman governor Felix (Acts 24:16), “I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men.” This means confessing all sins, including sinful thoughts. It means asking forgiveness of those against whom we have sinned. And then, positively, we aim to please God in all respects (Col. 1:10), not so that we look good to others, but so that God looks good through us. When you walk with that kind of reality and integrity before the Lord, He will use you to disciple others effectively.
B. We please God by enduring trials with steadfast joy.
Paul mentions how he and Silas had suffered and been mistreated in Philippi just before they came to Thessalonica. Acts 16 tells of how they were unjustly beaten without a trial and put in the stocks in jail. But at midnight, they were singing praises to God. He wrote Philippians from prison in Rome, where he didn’t deserve to be. Other preachers in Rome were unfairly attacking him. And yet Philippians overflows with joy in the Lord (Phil. 4:4): “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!”
And when Paul preached the gospel in Thessalonica, guess what? He encountered much opposition (1 Thess. 2:2)! But, rather than complaining to God about how unfair it was or threating to quit preaching unless he got better treatment in the future, Paul kept on joyfully preaching the gospel.
Over the years, I’ve watched many people who begin to serve the Lord in some ministry, but when they get criticized or their feelings get hurt, they quit. Often, they get angry with God or with the Christians who mistreated them. They drop out of church or at least keep their distance by just attending, but never serving again.
But serving the Lord is not a Sunday school picnic! It’s spiritual warfare! The enemy will attack, often from unexpected angles. When I first began as a pastor, I naively thought that the opposition would come from the world. But I’ve rarely gotten flak from the world. Unbelievers don’t care about what goes on in the church. The attacks come from within. So if you’re attempting to disciple others, expect to be criticized. Sometimes those you’ve spent a lot of time with will turn against you. Jesus was betrayed by Judas. Demas deserted Paul. It happens! But if we endure trials and hardship with steadfast joy, it pleases God and He will use it to help others grow in Christ.
C. We please God through pure doctrine.
Paul says (1 Thess. 2:3), “For our exhortation does not come from error ….” The truth of the gospel is foundational, but then it extends to all major biblical truth. God is the God of truth (Ps. 31:5; Isa. 65:16) whose Word is truth (John 17:17). In Paul’s pastoral letters to Timothy and Titus, he repeatedly emphasizes sound doctrine (1 Tim. 4:6; 6:3; 2 Tim. 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1, 7, 9, 10). The word “sound” comes from the Greek word from which we get our word “hygienic.” Sound doctrine leads to spiritual health. Bad doctrine, like junk food, leads to spiritual sickness or disease. To disciple others effectively, feed them sound doctrine and teach them as they grow to feed themselves.
It’s amazing how much Paul had taught these new believers, many of whom were from a pagan background, in the short time he had been with them. He assumes that they knew about the doctrine of election (1:4) and the trinity (1:1, 5, 6). He had taught them about suffering (1:6; 3:3-4); the second coming (1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:13-18; 5:1-11, 23); moral purity (4:1-8); and many other truths.
Of course, we need to distinguish between the essential truths of the faith, which every true believer must affirm, and other doctrines, which may be important, but where godly people may differ. The gospel and all truths necessary for the gospel are essential. Some other matters, such as prophecy, spiritual gifts, church government and ordinances, or methods for ministry, are important, but not essential for the gospel. But in our postmodern era, when the whole notion of truth is challenged, we need to hold graciously but firmly to the truth of God’s Word.
But when you teach the truth, expect to catch flak! After exhorting Timothy to preach the Word, which includes reproving, rebuking, and exhorting, Paul warned (2 Tim. 4:3-5):
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
The reason Paul added “endure hardship” was that when you preach the Word faithfully, you will be criticized and attacked.
D. We please God through moral integrity.
Paul says (1 Thess. 2:3) that his exhortation did not come from “impurity.” In that day, as in the present, there were many false teachers who were motivated by sexual impurity. They purported to preach the gospel and teach God’s Word, but they used their status as public figures to prey on unsuspecting women. Peter warned (2 Pet. 2:14) of false teachers who had “eyes full of adultery,” who enticed unstable souls. He added (2 Pet. 2:18-19), “For speaking out arrogant words of vanity they entice by fleshly desires, by sensuality, those who barely escape from the ones who live in error, promising them freedom while they themselves are slaves of corruption; …” To effectively disciple others, we must be morally pure. Again, this begins on the thought level.
E. We please God by financial integrity.
Paul states (1 Thess. 2:5) that he did not come “with a pretext for greed,” and then adds, “God is witness.” Greed and sexual lust are often linked in Scripture (Eph. 5:3; Col. 3:5). Jesus mentions both in a list of sins that He says come from the heart (Mark 7:21-23). We can sometimes observe outward behavior and conclude that a man is motivated by greed or lust. But if we want to overcome these sins in ourselves to please God and to disciple others, we have to deal with them on the heart level.
Financial integrity requires being honest in all our financial dealings, including not cheating when we pay our taxes. If you’re paid cash for a job, you need to report it. If a clerk gives you too much change or doesn’t charge what you owe, you need to make it right. Greed is also the motivation for gambling and get rich quick schemes, both of which Christians should avoid. Greed keeps us from giving generously to the Lord’s work. To please God and to disciple others effectively, kill your greed.
F. We please God by avoiding all deception and manipulation.
Paul says (1 Thess. 2:3) that his exhortation did not come “by way of deceit,” and then adds (1 Thess. 2:5-6), “For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness— nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority.” “Deceit” was used for the bait that a fisherman uses. He puts a juicy worm on his hook so that the fish thinks he’s getting a delicious meal, but the fish ends up becoming the meal. A deceitful person who is pleasing men tells people what they want to hear so that they will like him, even if he knows it isn’t the truth. He dodges the hard truths of Scripture because he doesn’t want to scare people away, but in so doing, he gets them to believe Satan’s lies about God.
Flattering speech means pleasing people to gain an advantage. It’s always manipulative. Paul could have wrongly used his apostolic authority to lord it over people, but he didn’t do that. When he used his authority, it was to build up others, not to lord it over them (2 Cor. 10:8; 13:10). To please God and disciple others, we need to be truthful and to avoid all manipulation.
Years ago, an agnostic was contemplating suicide, but he decided that if he could find a minister who lived his faith, he would listen to him. So he hired a private investigator to watch Will Houghton, a preacher who had become the president of Moody Bible Institute. When the report came back, it revealed that Houghton’s life was above reproach. He was for real. The agnostic went to Houghton’s church, trusted in Christ, and later sent his daughter to Moody Bible Institute. (“Our Daily Bread,” 11/83)
What would a private investigator dig up on you? Would you pass the test? God is the ultimate private investigator! He examines your heart! To disciple others effectively, you need a godly message—the gospel of God; a godly manner—evident love for others; and a godly motive—pleasing God from the heart. I pray that in our church we will develop a climate of discipleship—of deliberately helping one another become more like Christ.
- Discuss: Does the Great Commission (making disciples) apply to all Christians or only to those specially gifted for it?
- Why is it important to get the gospel right? How is Satan attacking the gospel in our day?
- How can a person who is inclined to be a people-pleaser become a God-pleaser? What steps should he or she take?
- What can you do to help this church move toward a culture of discipleship? What would you need to change to do this?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Related Topics: Discipleship
“Two Unbearable Words” -- The Nature of Christian HopeRelated Media
Two small words. When heard on the battlefield, in the hospital waiting room, or in our darkest thoughts, they bring despair. Two words that carry such anguish that no one can withstand their power. What, then, are these two unbearable words?
Proverbs 18:14 tells us, “The spirit of a man can endure his sickness, but a broken spirit who can bear?” A broken spirit is a spirit without hope. The loss of hope is a terrible thing. Without hope, life’s troubles bring discouragement, depre ssion, despair, and even death. We can bear the doctor’s frightful diagnosis with hope for a cure. We can endure the separation from a loved one with hope for a reunion. We can endure certain death with the hope of eternal life and infinite joy in the presence of God forever. But where no hope exists—we are undone.
The Nature of Hope
The word “hope” generally expresses two different ideas. The more common meaning, especially outside of the Christian context, entails wishful thinking, the desire for something we might not receive. For instance, we may hope for a new job, or pray and hope for good health, while not knowing if we will receive them. We may hope for a better day but not know what a day may bring.
Hope also refers to a desire for something we are certain to receive, an assurance concerning the future. This is Christian hope. However uncertain our circumstances, or however God may answer our prayers, we know for certain He will work all things together for our good (Romans 8:28). As believers, we often have uncertain and certain hope at the same time. For instance, we may pray and hope for deliverance from a present trouble and not know if, when, or how God will answer our prayer (uncertain hope), while knowing He will ultimately deliver us and that our eternal destiny remains secure in Christ (certain hope). “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever” (Deuteronomy 29:29). Uncertain hope involves the “secret things,” while our sure hope rests on the “things revealed.”
The Object of Hope
Like faith, hope depends on its object. Hope can be false when we look to something or someone that cannot fulfill it: “A horse is a false hope for victory; nor does it deliver anyone by its great strength” (Psalm 33:17). Hope can be uncertain when it stands on something or someone that may not be able or willing to fulfill it. And hope is sure when it rests in something or someone absolutely able and willing to fulfill it (Christian hope). Like faith, the object of our hope is Christ: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus according to the commandment of God our Savior, and of Christ Jesus, who is our hope” (1 Timothy 1:1).
Christian Hope Stands on the Excellence of God the Father
God the Father began our hope by creating the plan for our eternal happiness and by sending Christ to accomplish it. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son…” (John 3:16). “For He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you, who through Him are believers in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God” (1 Peter 1:20-21).
Christian Hope Stands on the Excellence of God the Son
From a heart of love for His future bride, God the Son freely volunteered to become a man and purchase our hope according to the will of the Father. In so doing, His character and work would display the infinite excellence of God, the ultimate foundation of our faith and hope. Christ purchased us and qualified us to be His bride and God’s children, fitting us for heaven by satisfying God’s justice by perfect obedience unto death on the cross. By saving unworthy sinners, Christ satisfied God’s ultimate purpose to display His infinite excellence. In Christ we see God’s perfect power and faithfulness to fulfill His promises, His righteousness in satisfying His justice on our behalf, and His infinite love in suffering and dying to save us. “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal comfort and good hope by grace, comfort and strengthen your hearts in every good work and word” (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17).
Christian Hope Stands on the Excellence of God the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit guarantees our hope. He unites us to Christ, gives us spiritual eyes to see God’s excellence and the truth of His promises, and dwells in us to produce hope, faith, and love toward God in our hearts. “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). “For as many as may be the promises of God, in Him they are yes; wherefore also by Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us. Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and anointed us is God, who also sealed us and gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge” (2 Corinthians 1:20-22).
Thus our hope stands on the infinite excellence of God, who will fulfill the hope He started, purchased, and produces in us. In the display of His glory in the person and work of Christ, He so exhibits His perfect character that He guarantees that He is able, willing, and certain to fulfill our hope in Him.
The Command to Hope
Like Faith, God tells us to have hope, while a lack of hope may stem from ignorance, a lack of attention to God and His promises, or unbelief. “O Israel, hope in the LORD, from this time forth and forever” (Psalm 131:3). “My soul, wait in silence for God only, for my hope is from Him” (Psalm 62:5). “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). “Therefore, gird your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13).
The Nurture of Hope
As believers, we can easily fall prey to discouragement in a world of bad news and blasphemy of the excellence of Christ and the Gospel. But, despite our difficulties and bouts of gloom, we can’t afford to neglect Scripture, prayer, worship, fellowship, and ministry to others, because hope grows by an active love and pursuit of God in these things. Like faith and assurance, hope must be cultivated: “And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end” (Hebrews 6:11). Perseverance and Bible study strengthen hope, “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).
“Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5: 1-5).
The more we know and love the infinite excellence of God in Christ, the more we long to be with Him where the beauty of His holiness shines the brightest. And the more we hope for heaven and His appearing, the more we will honor and obey Him, for a healthy hope not only produces comfort, joy, service, and prayer, it motivates faithfulness and purity. “The hope of the righteous is gladness” (Proverbs 10:28). “Give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer” (Romans 12:12). “We know that when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is. Everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (1 John 3:2b-3). And as our hope encourages these things, so our diligence in them increases our hope.
“For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints. And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. For when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, saying, "I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply you." And thus, having patiently waited, he obtained the promise. For men swear by one greater than themselves, and with them an oath given as confirmation is an end of every dispute. In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, in order that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we may have strong encouragement, we who have fled for refuge in laying hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us” (Hebrews 6:10-20).
Therefore, as the storm clouds gather we need not despair, for our hope will soon be realized by eternal joy in the presence of Christ. Until then, we serve Christ and His body and seek that others may know Him, even as we grow in the comfort of His promises, the joy of His soon appearing, and the infinite bliss of being with Him forever. Amen.
Related Topics: Christian Life
Lesson 6: Effective Discipleship, Part 2 (1 Thessalonians 2:9-12)Related Media
August 28, 2016
My college physics professor began every class in the same way: “Class, I’m going to tell you what I told you yesterday. Then I’ll tell you what I’m going to tell you today. Then I’ll tell you. Then I’ll tell you what I told you. Then I’ll review.” He knew that repetition is the key to learning. So he’d go over and over the same content until it was drilled into our heads.
The apostle Paul also repeated himself, which he does in our text. My message today is very similar to last week’s message because Paul makes the same points again. He wanted to equip these new believers to be solid disciples of the Lord so that they could disciple others. He holds up his example as a model for the Thessalonians and us to follow. Every Christian is a disciple, a follower of Christ. And every Christian is to be involved in the process of making other disciples, which means, deliberately helping others to be more like Christ.
Greg Beale (1-2 Thessalonians [IVP Academic], p. 76) gives a helpful overview of 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12:
Paul’s witness among the Thessalonians was effective (2:1) because it was based on his bold proclamation of the truth of the gospel (2:2). The two motives undergirding and inspiring this testimony were that Paul wanted to please God (2:3-4) and wanted others to please God in order to glorify him (2:5-12).
Keep in mind that in chapters 2 & 3, Paul is defending himself against critics who were attacking his motives. During his time in Thessalonica, these enemies of the gospel had stormed the house of Jason, a new believer, trying to find Paul. When they couldn’t find him, they dragged Jason before the city authorities, accusing him of harboring a man who was proclaiming another king than Caesar. Jason had to post a bond, but then the believers thought it best to send Paul and Silas away by night (Acts 17:5-10).
Now these critics were saying things like, “This religious huckster ran away suddenly and hasn’t been heard from since. He’s just like many others in the religion business, a charlatan who uses religion as a cover so that he can get your money, seduce your women, and exalt himself in power over you. He’s not sincere. When he thought he’d be exposed, he ran away, showing that he doesn’t care about you.” (Modified from John Stott, The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians [IVP Academic], p. 46.)
So Paul is defending his motives and objectives, not so that he would look good, but because he knew that if these critics succeeded in undermining his integrity, they would also undermine the gospel that he proclaimed. Last week we saw that effective discipleship is built on a godly message: the gospel of God; a godly manner: evident love for others; and, a godly motive: pleasing God from the heart. Those same themes are woven through our text for today. We can sum it up:
Effective discipleship is founded on the gospel proclaimed in love through people of godly integrity with the goal of disciples who walk worthily of God and His glory.
In verses 7-8 Paul pictured himself as a nursing mother, tenderly and affectionately caring for her own children. Now he shifts the metaphor to that of a loving father who trains his children.
1. Effective discipleship is founded on the faithful proclamation of the gospel of God.
Paul keeps emphasizing the gospel of God (1 Thess. 1:5; 2:2, 4, 8, 9; 3:2; 2 Thess. 1:8; 2:14) because the gospel is the foundation for everything in the Christian life. If a person’s life is built on a faulty gospel, like the house built on the sand, it will not stand up when the flood waters hit (Matt. 7:26-27).
Paul says that he “proclaimed” to them “the gospel of God.” “Proclaimed” means to proclaim or announce as a herald. The job of a herald in that day was to go from city to city with the king’s message and tell people exactly what the king wanted them to know. He wasn’t free to modify the message or to add to it. If it was an unpopular message, he might get attacked, even though he didn’t originate the message. But he couldn’t soften the king’s message. He had to proclaim it just as the king had given it to him.
As we’ve seen, by calling it “the gospel of God,” Paul is emphasizing that the gospel comes from God. It wasn’t a message that Paul thought up on his own. It doesn’t come to us from the collective wisdom of religious thinkers down through the centuries. It comes to us from God Himself. It is the good news that God has provided a way for us to be reconciled to Him, to know Him, and to spend eternity with Him after we die.
But that good news invariably stirs up opposition wherever it goes because to accept the good news, you’ve also got to accept the bad news. The bad news is that we all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). We all love the darkness rather than the light, because our deeds are evil (John 3:19-20). We all would like to think that our good deeds will qualify us for heaven (Luke 18:11-12). But God has to open our eyes to see that all our righteousness is worthless in His sight. We need perfect righteousness to live in God’s holy presence and that perfect righteousness can only come to us when we put our trust in Jesus Christ as the one who died and rose again in our place (Rom. 3:21-26; Phil. 3:4-9).
Satan has always attacked the gospel, because it is foundational for the entire Christian life. During my 39 years as a pastor, I’ve seen the gospel attacked by the health and wealth heresy, which teaches that believing in Christ will cure you of every disease and bring you financial prosperity. Robert Schuller’s Self-Esteem: the New Reformation [Word] redefined the gospel by saying that we should not fear pride, we should trust in ourselves, and we should stop thinking of ourselves as sinners. He said (p. 68), “To be born again means that we must be changed from a negative to a positive self-image—from inferiority to self-esteem, from fear to love, from doubt to trust.” Hint: That’s not what the new birth is!
On another front, the so-called “free grace” movement came out of the seminary where I studied. It redefines repentance to mean merely a change of mind with regard to Christ, not to a change of behavior where we turn from our sin. It teaches that saving faith is a decision to agree with the facts of the gospel, not a reliance on Christ that stems from God changing our hearts. John MacArthur has confronted this error in several of his books, such as The Gospel According to Jesus [Zondervan] and Faith Works [Word]. I have heard him say that when he began in the ministry, he never expected that he would spend a large part of his time defending the gospel; but in fact, that’s what he has done.
So make sure that your gospel is the gospel that comes from God as revealed in His Word of truth. Proclaim that gospel to others and make sure that they are clear on it. It’s the only solid foundation for effective discipleship.
2. Effective discipleship takes place through people of godly integrity.
We saw this last week, but Paul continues to emphasize his godly motives and behavior when he was in Thessalonica. We learn three things about godly integrity here:
A. Godly integrity is handed off through our example.
Note how Paul repeats, “For you recall, brethren” (2:9); “You are witnesses” (2:10); “just as you know” (2:11; cf. also, 2:1, 2, 5). He is appealing to his own example. We mainly influence both our physical children and our spiritual children through our example. As James Baldwin wrote (Reader’s Digest [1/86]), “Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”
There is a story (author unknown) about four pastors who were discussing the pros and cons of various Bible translations and paraphrases. The first minister said that he uses the King James Bible because the old English is beautiful and produces the most reverent picture of the Holy Scriptures. Another man said he prefers the New American Standard Bible because he feels it comes nearer to the original Greek and Hebrew texts. The third pastor said his favorite is the paraphrased Living Bible, because his congregation is young and it relates to them in a most practical way. The fourth pastor was silent for a time as he thought about it. Then he said, I guess when it comes to translations of the Bible, I like my Dad’s translation the best. He put the Word of God into practice every day. It was the most convincing translation that I’ve seen.”
Paul already referred to his example of not being deceitful or impure. His motive was not to please men, but rather God, who examines our hearts. He said that he never came with flattering speech to manipulate people for his advantage. He was not motivated by greed or personal glory. Rather, as a gentle, loving spiritual mother, he showed his tender affection for these spiritual children. Now he compares himself to a loving father who trains his children by example and by verbal instruction. So godly integrity is passed on both at home and in the church by our example.
B. Godly integrity means not taking advantage of people in any way, including financially.
Paul says (1 Thess. 1:9), “For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.” He is referring to the fact that he worked hard making tents so that he didn’t have to take any support from the Thessalonians while he was planting the church there. He didn’t even eat anyone’s food without paying for it (2 Thess. 3:8). He didn’t want to give his enemies any occasion to accuse him of preaching the gospel so that he could make money off of his converts.
Elsewhere Paul taught that it is legitimate for the person who labors in the gospel to be supported by the gospel (1 Cor. 9:1-15; Gal. 6:6). In the local church, he instructed (1 Tim. 5:17-18), “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,’ and ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages.’” “Double honor” refers both to the respect that is due to faithful pastors who teach the Word, and also to financial support, as the Scripture citations show.
As an apostle, Paul had a right to be supported by the gospel, but he chose to give up that right so as not to cause a hindrance to the gospel (1 Cor. 9:1-15). While he was ministering in Thessalonica, more than once Timothy brought financial support to Paul from the Philippian believers (Phil. 4:16). So he would take support from other churches, but to avoid the appearance of taking advantage of new believers, Paul wouldn’t take support from the church where he was currently serving.
If you’re a Christian businessman and you’re discipling a younger man, be very careful about any business dealings with him that might make you a profit. In the church I served in California, one of our members got involved in Amway, where you work your way up the pyramid by getting others under you to sell Amway. He told me that he had a goal of meeting five new people at church each week. But the reason for his goal was not so that he could help these people grow in Christ, but rather to recruit them for Amway. When I confronted him about this, he insisted that he was helping these people spiritually because he was helping them become financially independent. He refused to admit that he was being friendly to them so that he could make a profit through their joining his organization. But getting people signed up to sell Amway is not discipling them!
C. Godly integrity means moral integrity, beginning on the heart level.
Paul is repeating what he has already said (2:3-4) when he adds (1 Thess. 2:10), “You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers.” He calls the Thessalonians as witnesses because they had observed his outward behavior. But he calls God as witness because God examines our hearts (2:4). In other words, we need to walk with reality toward God beginning on the heart or thought level if we want to disciple others effectively. We can’t live one way in secret and then put on our godly mask in front of others.
Paul may pile up these three adverbs (“devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly”) to show the necessity of right conduct for believers (Leon Morris (The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians [Eerdmans], p. 82). These words are somewhat synonymous, but “devout” may refer to being pleasing to God; “righteous” to dealing rightly with others; and “blameless” to our reputation in the world (Stott, p. 53).
Almost 30 years ago, Leadership [Winter, 1988, p. 24], a journal for pastors, reported that 20 percent of pastors admitted to viewing pornography in some form at least once a month! And that was before the internet and smart phones made that filth easily available! How can such men disciple others when they themselves are not “devout, righteous, and blameless”? Jesus wasn’t subtle in His warning about this. He said (Matt. 5:27-30):
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.”
Integrity before God has to begin on the heart or thought level. If you don’t kill your lust on that level, Jesus says that you are headed for hell! I wouldn’t have said it so strongly, but Jesus did! You can’t effectively disciple others unless you have moral integrity before God on the heart level. Effective discipleship is founded on the gospel and takes place through people of godly integrity.
3. Effective discipleship requires loving, personal exhortation and encouragement.
1 Thess. 2:11: “just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children ….” Paul taught the entire church publicly, but he also met individually or in small groups for further instruction with the men he was discipling. “Exhorting, encouraging, and imploring” are somewhat overlapping, but there are nuances of difference. There is not a “one size fits all” approach. Rather, a wise spiritual father discerns where each spiritual child is at and tailors his approach accordingly.
Some need exhortation, which refers to challenging or appealing to others to live as they should as Christians. Encouraging has the nuance of comfort and consolation. Paul uses this word in 1 Thess. 5:14 when he encourages the church leaders, “We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” The fainthearted don’t need to be admonished; they need encouragement. Perhaps they were discouraged because of the persecution that they had come under as Christians. To them, Paul spoke tender words to comfort them, while urging them to be faithful. The third word, imploring, means “testifying.” It’s the strongest of the three words, implying a loving warning that a course correction is needed.
Paul uses the analogy of a loving father to convey how he used these different approaches. Every sensitive father knows that his children are different. Some need a stern word or they won’t even hear you. But if you give that same stern word to a more sensitive child, she will dissolve in tears. But every father should be loving and tender (Ps. 103:13), seeking to help each child become all that God wants that child to be. Effective discipleship requires loving, personal exhortation and encouragement.
So effective discipleship is founded on the gospel proclaimed in love through people of godly integrity. But note the goal:
4. Effective discipleship aims at disciples who walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls us into His kingdom and glory.
1 Thess. 2:12: “so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.” Note four things:
First, a worthy walk requires walking. (Duh!) Paul often uses “walk” to refer to our way of life (it’s in the Greek text of 1 Thess. 4:1, 12; 2 Thess. 3:6, 11). It’s an apt metaphor for the Christian life. A walk is a step by step process of making steady progress toward a goal or destination. Day by day a believer is to walk with God, even as Enoch of old did (Gen. 5:22, 24). Our goal is to make progress in godliness (1 Tim. 4:7). If you’re not spending frequent time alone with God, you’re not walking with Him.
Second, a worthy walk is the highest conceivable standard. There can’t be any higher goal than to walk worthy of God, who is absolutely perfect and holy! Elsewhere Paul exhorts us to walk worthy of our calling (Eph. 4:1), worthy of the gospel (Phil. 1:27), and worthy of the Lord (Col. 1:10). We represent God to others!
Third, a worthy walk is a response to God’s effectual call. God’s call refers to His effectual call to salvation. It happened in the past (Gal. 1:6; 2 Tim. 1:9), but Paul here describes God as the one who calls us in a timeless sense (1 Thess. 5:24; F. F. Bruce, Word Biblical Commentary, 1 & 2 Thessalonians [Thomas Nelson], p. 37). This verse shows us that God takes the initiative in saving us, but we are responsible to walk with Him. We don’t earn salvation by a worthy walk, but a worthy walk is evidence that we are truly saved.
Fourth, a worthy walk takes place in the sphere of God’s kingdom and glory. God’s kingdom is His rule, which begins now and is culminated when Jesus returns. We walk in submission to our King now. When He returns, we will see His glory and share it with Him. As Paul writes (2 Thess. 2:14), “It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” John explains and applies this (1 John 3:2-3), “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.”
So in this repeated lesson, Paul shows that effective discipleship is founded on the gospel proclaimed in love through people of godly integrity with the goal of disciples who walk worthily of God and His glory. I conclude with the two questions that I began with last week: Are you a disciple (follower) of Jesus Christ? If not, that is your main need! Trust in Him as your Savior and Lord before you face His wrath! He offers you mercy, forgiveness of all your sins, and eternal life as a free gift. Take it now! Are you discipling others (deliberately helping them to become followers of Christ)? If not, make that your aim! Ask the Lord where you should begin. That is the culture or climate that we want to cultivate in this church.
- Can you state the gospel clearly in sixty seconds or less? If not, write it out succinctly with the necessary Scriptures.
- Where is your major battle with godly integrity on the heart level? Devise a biblical plan to win the war.
- How can we discern whether a person needs exhortation, encouragement, or imploring (v. 11)? What guidelines apply?
- How would you help a new Christian begin a daily walk with God? What are the essentials?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Related Topics: Discipleship
Lesson 7: Perseverance Through Persecution (1 Thessalonians 2:13-16)Related Media
September 4, 2016
It will be interesting to see what happens to the American church when persecution intensifies. I did not say, “if persecution intensifies,” but, “when.” Persecution for our faith has already begun in minor ways (compared to how those in other countries suffer), but unless there is widespread revival in America, persecution of Christians will grow stronger in the next few years. My aim in this message is to help you prepare for it.
We have already seen businesses fined and forced out of business because of alleged discrimination against the LGBT agenda. There is pressure both from the government and from politically correct corporations to force everyone to allow men who identify themselves as women to use women’s restrooms and shower facilities. A graduate student working on a counseling degree was forced out of her degree program because she said that she would refer homosexual clients to other counselors because of her religious beliefs. At least two states have passed laws that prohibit licensed counselors from trying to help homosexual clients become heterosexual. And, campus ministries have been forced off campus because they refuse to accept homosexuals as leaders of their groups.
I’m not a prophet, but in the future, churches and other ministries that hold to the biblical view on homosexuality will lose their tax exempt status. Military chaplains may be forced to perform homosexual weddings or lose their commissions. Public school teachers may be fired for refusing to teach “diversity” tolerance to their students. Christian colleges and seminaries may lose their accreditation if they do not endorse LGBT “rights.” Those employed by secular universities may lose their jobs if they refuse to embrace the LGBT agenda. Employees of secular companies may be fired for believing what the Bible says about homosexual sin.
At their recent convention in Philadelphia, the Democratic Party and their presidential candidate endorsed abortion rights, which Obamacare is trying to force on businesses and religious institutions. Concerning homosexuality, they said, “[We] applaud last year’s decision by the Supreme Court that recognized that LGBT people—like other Americans—have the right to marry the person they love.” Already, pastors in Sweden, England, and Canada have been arrested for preaching what the Bible says about homosexuality. It is likely that America will soon do the same.
So, we are headed for increasing persecution if we faithfully hold to what the Bible teaches about these moral issues. The question is, “Will you persevere and hold to the Bible’s teachings under persecution, or will you capitulate to our godless culture to avoid persecution?”
In our text, we see the new believers in Thessalonica holding up through persecution that probably was much stronger than anything we will experience in the next decade or two. Their perseverance was another evidence that God had chosen them for salvation (1 Thess. 1:4). In 1 Thessalonians 2:1-6, Paul proclaimed the gospel with boldness. In verses 7-12, he lived the gospel with gentleness. As a result (in verses 13-16), the Thessalonians received the gospel as God’s word with perseverance in spite of much persecution.
To persevere under persecution, believe God’s Word, imitate other persevering believers, and trust that God will judge those who persecute His people.
1. To persevere under persecution, believe God’s word.
1 Thess. 1:13: “For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.”
Note two things:
A. Believing God’s word means receiving the gospel as God’s word.
Scholars are divided over whether “for this reason” applies to what Paul has just said or to what he is about to say. It may mean, “Because God has saved you through the gospel and called you into His kingdom and glory, we constantly give thanks.” Or, it could mean, “Because you received the word we preached to you not as our word, but as God’s word, we constantly give thanks.” But either way, Paul was constantly thankful to God because the Thessalonians had responded favorably toward the gospel, which he here calls, “the word of God.” Paul has repeatedly referred to his message as “the gospel of God” (1 Thess. 2:3, 8, 9), emphasizing that it is good news that comes to us from God, not from any human source. But he also has referred to it as “the word” or “the word of the Lord” (1 Thess. 1:6, 8). The gospel is a verbal message that comes to us from God.
As a verbal message, the gospel has content. It centers on the person of Jesus, who is “the Word.” As John (1:1, 14, 18) writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth…. No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” Or, as Hebrews 1:1-2 begins, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.” All of God’s word, from Genesis to Revelation, centers on Jesus Christ, the Word of God in human flesh (Luke 24:27, 44; John 5:39, 46).
In Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve sinned, God made them clothing from an animal skin to cover their nakedness. It was a picture of God providing a blood sacrifice to cover our sins. The Bible says that we all sinned in Adam and that we all have added sins of our own (Rom. 3:10-23; 5:12-21). Thus we all stand guilty before God, unable to pay the debt for our sins. In mercy, He sent His own eternal Son to take on human flesh and die in our place. He offers a full pardon and eternal life as a gift to all who put their trust in Jesus Christ as their sin-bearer. As Paul wrote (Rom. 6:23), “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Acts 17:2-3 tells us that when Paul was in Thessalonica, he went to the synagogue and “reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.’” The Jews already accepted the Scriptures as God’s word, so Paul used it to reason with them. When he went to Athens and preached to the philosophers on Mars Hill, he used a different approach, citing some of their poets and philosophers, but he argued towards the same point about Jesus (Acts 17:30-31), “God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”
When you’re sharing the gospel with those who do not believe that the Bible is God’s word, my advice is not to try to prove that point. Rather, challenge the person to read the Gospel of John with the sincere prayer, “God, if this is Your word of truth, open my eyes to see and I will believe in Jesus.” God’s word is powerful in itself and doesn’t need our defense. God spoke the universe into existence by His word (Genesis 1). Isaiah 55:11 promises that God’s word will not return to Him empty, without accomplishing His purpose. So don’t get into debates with unbelievers about whether or not the Bible is God’s inspired word. Just challenge them to read it, asking God to show them the truth. So the starting place for persevering through persecution is to believe that the gospel is not the word of men, but rather the word of God.
B. Believing God’s word requires letting the word do its powerful work in you.
Paul adds that the word of God “also performs its work in you who believe.” “Believe” is in the present tense, indicating the ongoing process of belief (Leon Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians [Eerdmans], pp. 88-89). For God to give us the strength to endure persecution, we must continue to believe in the gospel and in all of God’s revealed word of truth.
If you truly believe that God’s word is not the word of men, but rather, the word of God, you will study it diligently to learn what it means and how it applies to every area of your life. If you’re going through trials, the word gives real life stories of men and women of faith who endured trials and persecution, so that we can imitate their faith (Heb. 11:1-40; 12:1-3; 13:7). A major theme in 1 Peter is how to endure persecution for your faith. Many other Scriptures give specific teaching about enduring difficult trials.
But these examples and the explicit teaching of God’s word can only perform their work in you if you are in the word. Don’t just pick out a few favorite verses or, worse, open your Bible and point to a verse at random. Rather, read it consecutively, with a good study Bible for help, praying for understanding. God’s word is powerful because it exposes not only your behavior, but also your motives. As Hebrews 4:12-13 declares, “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.”
If that sounds threatening, keep in mind that God uses His word to heal us, not to harm us. If a doctor gives a superficial diagnosis and does not probe to find the source of your illness, you won’t be healed and he’s not worth trusting. God wants us to be in His word so that it will expose the causes of our spiritual illness so that we can be healed. Persevering under persecution, which tests the reality of our faith, comes from believing God’s word.
2. To persevere under persecution, imitate other persevering believers.
1 Thess. 2:14: “For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you also endured the same sufferings at the hands of your own countrymen, even as they did from the Jews ….” Sometimes when we suffer, whether it is a health problem, an emotional problem, a family conflict, or persecution, we tend to think that we’re the only one in the world with this problem. Even the godly prophet Elijah when he was under persecution complained to God that he was the only one left who followed the Lord (1 Kings 19:10).
Because of this tendency, Peter wrote to persecuted Christians (1 Pet. 4:12), “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you.” A few verses later, he added (1 Pet. 5:8-11),
Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you. To Him be dominion forever and ever. Amen.
It’s important in a time of suffering or persecution to know that you’re not alone. The same experiences of suffering are happening to your brethren who are in the world. And, as Peter reminds us, God is in charge. He is sovereign over our suffering.
As I said, the Bible has many stories of persecuted believers. The Psalms often describe a situation where the psalmist is being slandered or his life is in danger. But he rehearses God’s attributes and how God has been faithful to His saints in the past. By the end of the psalm, his perspective has changed to praise. Also, the prophets such as Jeremiah suffered because they told people what God wanted them to hear, not what the people wanted to hear. Jesus frequently told His disciples that they would face persecution for His name’s sake.
In addition to the Bible, read missions magazines like “Voice of the Martyrs,” which tell stories of persecuted believers. Read biographies of missionaries who suffered as they took the gospel to difficult places: Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, John and Betty Stam, John Paton, and others. To read of how Judson and his wife suffered in Burma puts my puny trials in perspective! As Hebrews 13:7 exhorts, “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith.” To persevere under persecution, believe God’s Word and imitate other persevering believers.
3. To persevere under persecution, trust that God will judge those who persecute His people.
1 Thess. 2:14c-16: “The Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out. They are not pleasing to God, but hostile to all men, hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved; with the result that they always fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them to the utmost.”
Paul’s strong words here against the Jews have led some to think that he didn’t write this, but it was inserted by a later scribe. But there is no manuscript evidence to support such a conclusion. Others accuse Paul of being anti-Semitic, but that’s ridiculous. If he was anti-Semitic, then so was Jesus (Matt. 21:43; 23:31-38), who pronounced judgment on the Jewish leaders and on the Jewish nation for their unbelief and sin. Paul even said that if he could, he would forfeit his own salvation so that his fellow Jews could have eternal life (Rom. 9:3-5)! And, wherever he preached the gospel, Paul always began with the Jews (Acts 13:5, 14, 46; 14:1; 17:1-2; Rom. 1:16). So Paul was not anti-Semitic.
But how then should we understand Paul’s vehement outburst here against the Jews? To understand, we have to realize that from the earliest days after his conversion, Paul had faced almost continual opposition from the Jews. They would have killed him while he was still in Damascus immediately after his conversion, but he narrowly escaped (Acts 9:23-25). When he first went to Jerusalem, they again tried to kill him, so that he had to flee to Tarsus (Acts 9:30-31). While he served the church in Antioch and then wherever he went, the Judaizers dogged his steps, trying to undermine his gospel (Acts 15:1-5; Galatians).
When Paul preached the gospel in Pisidian Antioch, the Jews opposed him and drove him and Barnabas out of that region (Acts 13:45-46, 50). At Iconium, the disbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles against those who had believed, attempting to stone Paul (Acts 14:1-2, 5). At Lystra, the Jews who had followed him from Antioch and Iconium, persuaded the Gentiles to stone Paul, whom God miraculously raised up (Acts 14:19-20). The same fierce opposition happened in Thessalonica, Berea, and Corinth (Acts 17:5, 13; 18:4-6, 12-13).
Later, after Paul had expended much effort to raise and deliver a generous gift to help the suffering Jews in Israel, the Jews falsely accused him and would have killed him in the temple if the Roman soldiers had not rescued him. They then formed a plot to ambush Paul. When that failed, they tried to convict him before the Romans as a traitor (Acts 22-23). So Paul had quite a few reasons to indict the Jews, as he does here!
Obviously, Paul is making a generalization. There were many exceptions to Jewish unbelief, Paul himself being Exhibit A. He loved the Jews, but still he warns them of judgment. In our politically correct day, you can’t make a generalization about any group or you get labeled as homophobic, racist, or religiously bigoted (if you say something against Islam). But there are helpful generalizations and we should not shy away from making them because it’s not politically correct. Someone needs to point out that it is abnormal and a serious sin for a man to want to be a woman, or vice versa. It is sin against God’s created order for men to have sexual relationships with men and women with women (Rom. 1:26-27).
It is a fact of history that Islam has always conquered by the sword and then taken away freedom from other religions. This does not mean that all Muslim people are that way; but the Quran does teach jihad against all infidels. It teaches that men must keep their wives in subjection and even gives instructions on how to beat your wife properly if she is rebellious (Quran 4:34; 38:44; see www.thereligionofpeace.com). I don’t say any of this to stir up hatred or any violence toward anyone. We should treat all individuals with love and respect and should offer the gospel to all. But we should lovingly warn those who are not in submission to Jesus Christ that they are under God’s wrath and will come under eternal judgment if they do not repent and believe in Christ.
Not only the Jews, but also all of us are guilty of killing the Lord Jesus because of our sins. If someone goes farther and tries to hinder the gospel from going to the lost, they add to their guilt before God. Paul says (1 Thess. 2:16) that they “fill up the measure of their sins.” God used similar language when He told Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign land for four hundred years (cf. also Matt. 23:32; Rom. 2:5). Then He added (Gen. 15:16), “Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” God tolerated the horrible sins of the Canaanites (Amorites) for 400 years, but then when their sin was filled up, He ordered the Jews under Joshua to slaughter them all. If someone raises the slaughter of the Canaanites as a reason not to believe in such a God, you could point out to them that He has justly ordained the physical and eternal death of all unrepentant sinners, not just the Canaanites. As Jesus warned (Luke 13:3, 5), “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
But what does Paul mean when he states (1 Thess. 2:16), “But wrath has come upon them to the utmost”? He uses an aorist verb, which here may look at God’s wrath in its entirety as a certain event, even though the ultimate fulfillment of it was yet future. It would include the awful destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, as predicted by Jesus. It would extend to the almost 2,000-year hardening of the Jews (Rom. 11:25). It would include Hitler’s awful slaughter of six million Jews. And yet to be fulfilled is Zechariah 13:8, which predicts a time when two-thirds of the Jews will be cut off and perish, but one third will survive and believe in Jesus as their Messiah.
The lesson for persecuted believers is: Keep believing in the gospel. In spite of your suffering, know that nothing can separate you from God’s love (Rom. 8:31-39). Look at others who have faithfully suffered and died for the gospel and imitate their faith. Trust that God has a sovereign purpose for your persecution and that in His wise time, He will right every wrong and bring every wrongdoer to just punishment. None will escape (Rev. 20:11-15).
The lesson for those who do not believe the gospel is, “Repent and flee the wrath to come while you still have time!” In His mercy, God delays judgment. But He warns every sinner that His wrath is coming, when His enemies will cry out to the mountains and to the rocks (Rev. 6:16-17), “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” Don’t be so foolish as to shrug off His warning!
- Some claim that if you have enough faith, God will deliver you from all suffering. What verses would you use to refute this?
- Why does God allow the righteous to suffer and the ungodly to prosper? What are the key Scriptures on this subject?
- How can generalizations be helpful? What are their dangers? Why does Paul make this generalization (1 Thess. 2:15-16)?
- Is America currently under God’s judgment? If so, is there anything we can do about it?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Related Topics: Suffering, Trials, Persecution
4. Proverbs and Politics
Here is a message on politics in the Book of Proverbs which I (Bob) unearthed recently from the study "The Way of the Wise." It was written over thirty years ago. You won't find either Republican or Democratic propaganda, and you won't find the name Trump or Clinton. This message focuses our attention on the things which should be paramount in our thinking as we approach the coming elections in our nation. These eternal truths and principles are just as relevant today as they were 30 years ago, or nearly 3,000 years ago, when Proverbs was written.
Related Topics: Cultural Issues