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Lesson 19: Ministering with Sensitivity and Love (1 Thessalonians 5:14-15)

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December 4, 2016

All right, class, what’s the answer? Huh? What’s the question? Obviously, we can’t give an answer unless we know what the question is. And we can’t minister sensitively to people unless we first learn where they’re at with the Lord.

The apostle Paul encourages this kind of sensitivity when he urges the church (1 Thess. 5:14), “Admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” One size doesn’t fit all. We would be wrong to encourage the unruly, who need a stronger word of warning to turn from their sin. We would be insensitive to admonish the fainthearted, who need a kind word of encouragement. And we would be hardhearted to scold the weak, who need help to get back on their feet. In every case, Paul says, patience is needed. And then, knowing our fallen human tendency to get even when we’re wronged, he adds (1 Thess. 5:15), “See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people.” To sum up,

The Lord wants us to minister sensitively to one another and live lovingly in the church and in the world.

There is a basic assumption behind Paul’s exhortation here: Every Christian is a gifted believer-priest with a ministry to fulfill. Every passage that discusses spiritual gifts emphasizes that each believer has a gift that he or she is to use in serving the Lord. As Peter states (1 Pet. 4:10), “As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” (See, also, Rom. 12:3; 1 Cor. 12:7; Eph. 4:12-16.)

So if you know Christ, the Holy Spirit has given you a gift to use in serving the Lord. And while some are gifted more in practical service, every Christian should be focused on the Great Commission, to help others become disciples. If the Lord has saved you, then you have something to impart to others, whether it is the gospel to the lost or helping a newer believer learn to walk with the Lord. Our text focuses on how we can minister sensitively to one another and live lovingly both in the church and in the world.

1. The Lord wants us to minister sensitively to one another.

Paul mentions four aspects of sensitive ministry:

A. Admonish the unruly.

We looked at this last time. Admonishing a disobedient brother or sister is the ministry we all like to avoid. But if we love one another, we must prayerfully, gently try to warn and correct those who are straying from the Lord so that they and those they sin against do not reap the consequences of unrepentant sin. If you missed that message, I encourage you to read or listen to it.

B. Encourage the fainthearted.

“Fainthearted” is literally, “little-souled.” It refers to a person who is easily discouraged or overwhelmed by stress. Paul may be referring to those who were overly concerned about their loved ones who had died before the Lord’s return (1 Thess. 4:13-18). In the LXX, this word was used to refer to those who were discouraged due to trials (G. K. Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians [IVP Academic], p. 165). In Exodus 6:9, it refers to the Hebrew slaves in Egypt who did not listen to Moses on account of “their despondency and cruel bondage” (NASB). Numbers 21:4 refers to the impatience (NASB) or discouragement of the people due to their wilderness wanderings. Isaiah 35:3-4 exhorts, “Encourage the exhausted, and strengthen the feeble. Say to those with anxious heart, ‘Take courage, fear not, behold, your God will come with vengeance; the recompense of God will come, but He will save you.’” Those with “anxious hearts” are the “little-souled” who need encouragement.

The Greek verb translated “encourage” is used only in 1 Thessalonians 2:11, in John 11:19 & 31, referring to those who had come to console Mary and Martha in the death of their brother Lazarus, and here. (The noun is also used in 1 Cor. 14:3 & Phil. 2:1.) It has the nuance of comforting, consoling, being sympathetic, or feeling with a person in his trials. We should not encourage self-pity, but we should communicate genuine sympathy. Sometimes the way to encourage a person who is discouraged due to a difficult trial is not to say anything, but just to be with him or her.

Joseph Bayly, who at different times lost three sons in death, wrote (The Last Thing We Talk About [David C. Cook], pp. 55-56):

I was sitting, torn by grief. Someone came and talked to me of God’s dealings, of why it happened, of hope beyond the grave. He talked constantly, he said things I knew were true.

I was unmoved, except to wish he’d go away. He finally did.

Another came and sat beside me. He didn’t talk. He didn’t ask leading questions. He just sat beside me for an hour and more, listened when I said something, answered briefly, prayed simply, left.

I was moved. I was comforted. I hated to see him go.

From Paul’s use of the word in 1 Thessalonians 2:11-12, we can learn several things about this ministry: “… just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.”

First, this ministry must be personal. Paul encouraged each one. This requires knowing the person and his particular needs. Paul uses the picture of a father with his children. Every sensitive father knows that each child is different. Some kids won’t listen unless they get a stern warning, but others melt with a disapproving glance. A wise father knows what motivates each child. To impact others for Christ, you have to know them and relate to them personally.

Second, this ministry should be done with deep concern and love. Paul exhorted and encouraged as a father would his own children. Every godly father cares deeply about his children. When they’re hurt, he is hurt. When they feel down, he feels sad. When they’re happy, he’s happy. He wants God’s best for each one.

Third, this ministry should be done with the goal of maturity in Christ. Your goal is not just to help the discouraged person feel better, but through their trials to grow in Christ. Paul wanted these new Christians to “walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.”

Fourth, when appropriate, direct the discouraged person to the hope and promises of God’s word. After mentioning how he exhorted, encouraged, and implored each one as a father would his own children, Paul added (1 Thess. 2:13), “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.” The word of God is powerful; use it when it is appropriate to do so.

I say, when appropriate, because as Joseph Bayly reminds us, when a person is grieving, silence or just a few words are better than bombarding him with Bible verses. But if we’re talking to a believer who is discouraged because of trials, he may need to understand from Scripture how God uses trials to build godly character in us. He may need some key verses that he can memorize and meditate on. You want to convey to him hope that God is sovereign over their trials and that He will never leave nor forsake them. Admonish the unruly, but encourage the fainthearted.

C. Help the weak.

This could refer to those who are weak due to some disease, physical impairment, or financial hardship (Beale, p. 166). But most likely it refers to the spiritually weak. It may refer to those who were struggling to follow the Lord because of persecution or trials (1 Thess. 3:3-4). Or, it could include some who were tempted by the immorality from which God had saved them (1 Thess. 4:3-8). A weak person is one who is new in the faith, who does okay when he’s around other believers, but who is easily carried along with the crowd when he’s with his old pagan friends. He hasn’t yet learned how to trust God and stand firm in the Lord against the crowd.

The word translated “help” is literally, “hold firmly to” or “cleave to” (Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:13; Titus 1:9). Older, stronger Christians should not abandon a new believer who is weak. Just as a good older brother will rescue his younger brother from a bully, so older Christians need to come to the aid of younger believers who are under spiritual attack. Don’t shake your head and say, “It’s too bad to see him fall away from the faith!” Rather, stay near to him and hang on to him. If you’re swimming with one of your children who is a weak swimmer, stay close to him. If you let him out of sight for just a few minutes, he might go under. Hold on to or help the spiritually weak!

I should also note that if a person has been a Christian for a few years, but excuses habitual sinning by saying, “I’m just weak,” he’s probably not weak, but unruly or irresponsible. He needs to be admonished, not helped. A weak Christian is one who is young in the faith and hasn’t yet grown strong.

Also, note how Paul didn’t condemn, but accepted and cared for those who were weak in faith. He wrote (Rom. 15:1-3),

Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves. Each of us is to please his neighbor for his good, to his edification. For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.”

Jesus, the good shepherd, tenderly cares for His little lambs and protects them from predators. Isaiah 40:11 pictures Jesus:

Like a shepherd He will tend His flock,
In His arm He will gather the lambs
And carry them in His bosom;
He will gently lead the nursing ewes.

Isaiah 42:3 (Matt. 12:20) says of Jesus,

A bruised reed He will not break
And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish.

Jesus helped or held on to the weak; so should His church.

D. Be patient with everyone.

Paul wraps up the whole package with patience. When he described biblical love, Paul began (1 Cor. 13:4), “Love is patient, love is kind.” If we aren’t patient and kind, we aren’t loving. If we’re frustrated and angry, we aren’t loving. The Greek word for patience comes from two words meaning, “long-tempered.” If you’re patient, you don’t have a short fuse. You understand that “the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). To use the family analogy, the older ones in the family understand that a baby dirties his diapers and spits up on your shoulder. You don’t chew him out when he does such things. You patiently clean up the mess, knowing that eventually, he’ll grow up.

And, even when a more mature Christian does something to offend or wrong you, you realize, “I’m a sinner, too, and God has forgiven me far more than how much I need to forgive this brother.” And so you’re patient with him. You probably still need to talk to him about the way he wronged you and try to get it cleared up. But you do it with patience and kindness, not with bitterness and anger. As Colossians 3:12-13 exhorts, “So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.” Because God is patient with us, we should be patient with one another.

We should minister sensitively to one another. Then Paul adds …

2. The Lord wants us to live lovingly in the church and in the world.

1 Thess. 5:15: “See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people.” Since biblical love seeks the highest good for others, Paul is saying that we should live lovingly, both in the church and in the world. There are negative and positive sides to this:

A. Negatively, love never retaliates for wrongs suffered.

“See that” is directed to the entire church. If you see another Christian repaying someone with evil for evil, you need to help him understand and follow the Lord’s way of not seeking vengeance, but rather doing good toward that person. This is totally contrary to the way of the world, which says, “Don’t just get mad; get even!” God says, “Be patient with everyone and don’t get even, but rather do good to those who wrong you.”

I need to point out that the most painful wrongs do not come from the world, but from other believers. You kind of expect that those in the world will wrong you from time to time. But when it comes from a person claiming to be a Christian, especially from someone you thought you knew and trusted, it really hurts. But at such times, don’t trade insult for insult (1 Pet. 3:9). Don’t tell others in the church how much that person hurt you. Don’t sabotage his reputation in the community. Love does not repay evil for evil.

But this raises some questions: What about the biblical principle of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Exod. 21:23-25; Lev. 24:19; Deut. 19:21)? Doesn’t that principle say that we should do to the other person what he did to us? The short answer is, no. Originally, that principle was given as a judicial restraint in Israel, so that angry, wounded people would not take vengeance in their own hands. The court could apply a proportionate, just penalty. But over time, the Jewish scribes had distorted that principle into license for personal revenge. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke out against their misapplication (Matt. 5:38-42):

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.

He goes on to say (Matt. 5:44), “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That’s radical stuff! But it raises other questions: Does that mean that we’re supposed to be doormats? Don’t we have a right to defend ourselves when we’re attacked? Can’t we defend ourselves in court against a wrongful lawsuit?

By telling us to turn the other cheek, Jesus was not advocating pacifism or not defending yourself or a loved one if someone attacks you or them physically. The Bible upholds civil laws for the protection of law-abiding citizens. It would not be loving to watch your loved ones being attacked and do nothing. There is nothing wrong with protecting or defending yourself if someone physically attacks you. And, as providers for our families, there are times when we may need to use the courts to protect our assets from thieves who are after what we have worked for and saved.

Rather, Jesus was telling us that we shouldn’t be quick to fight for our rights or stand up for our honor when someone insults or offends us. A slap on the right cheek from a right-handed person was not a punch in the jaw, but a backhanded slap. It was an insult or a loss of honor. Jesus said, “Don’t retaliate when that happens to you.” John Stott says it well (Christian Counter-Culture [IVP], p. 108), “He teaches not the irresponsibility which encourages evil but the forbearance which renounces revenge.” Stott sums up (p. 113), “Jesus was not prohibiting the administration of justice, but rather forbidding us to take the law into our own hands.” Leon Morris (The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians [Eerdmans], p. 170) suggests that the practice of non-retaliation by the early church may have been “responsible in some measure for the impact the early Christians made on the men of their day.”

B. Positively, love seeks the highest good of others, namely, that God would be glorified in their lives.

After commanding us not to repay evil for evil, Paul adds (v. 15b), “but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people.” The NIV translation, “try to be kind,” is weak. The Greek word translated “seek” is also used to mean “persecute.” It means to go after something with strong intent and effort. We could paraphrase, “Rather than seek vengeance, go after the other person’s highest good with a vengeance.” As 1 Peter 3:9 states, “not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing.” Since the highest good for anyone is that he would come to saving faith in Jesus Christ and glorify God by living a Christlike life, our response to wrongs against us should promote the other person’s salvation or spiritual growth.

Conclusion

I conclude with two stories that show how believers have put our text into action. Watchman Nee (Sit, Walk, Stand [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 26) tells of a Christian Chinese farmer who had a rice field on a terraced hill. He used a water wheel, worked by a treadmill, to pump water from a stream below to irrigate his field. One night his neighbor, who had two fields below, made a breach in the Christian farmer’s dike and drained off all his water. The Christian repaired the dike and pumped more water, but the same thing kept happening over and over again.

Finally, after consulting and praying with some brothers at his church, the farmer first pumped water for the two fields below and then pumped water for his own field. After this, the water always stayed in his field. The neighbor was so amazed at the Christian’s action that he began to ask why he did this. After a while, he came to faith in Christ.

Another story took place during a time of horrible war and brutality in the Middle East more than a century ago. An Muslim enemy soldier chased a Christian woman and her brother until he cornered them. He mercilessly shot the brother and let the sister go free, but not until she had witnessed the brutal murder.

Later, she was working in a military hospital as a nurse when the soldier who had killed her brother was brought into her ward. He was critically wounded and the slightest inattention to his needs would have meant certain death. When the nurse realized this, a powerful temptation for vengeance raged in her mind. But as a Christian, a still, small voice within whispered, “Kindness.” She yielded to the Spirit’s prompting and patiently nursed this enemy back to health.

The soldier, who recognized her, asked her one day, “Why didn’t you let me die?” She replied simply, “I am a follower of Jesus and He said, ‘Love your enemies.’”

The Muslim soldier was silent for a long time. Finally, he said, “I never knew that anyone could have such a faith. If that’s what it does, tell me more about it. I want it.” (Edited from, “Our Daily Bread,” 11/81)

Our sensitive, loving ministry to one another in the church and our loving behavior towards those in the church and outside who wrong us should tell the world about our Savior (Rom. 5:6-8):

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Application Questions

  1. Share with others a time when you were discouraged or overwhelmed by stress and how another believer encouraged you.
  2. How can we determine if it may be right to fight for our rights and when we should just accept being wronged?
  3. Discuss: Is it always wrong to defend yourself in court against someone who is trying wrongfully to take advantage of you?
  4. Does Scripture require us to try to carry on a relationship with a professing Christian who is difficult to be around? What principles apply?

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: Christian Life, Comfort, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry