The Net Pastor’s Journal, Eng Ed, Issue 36, Summer 2020
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I. Strengthening Biblical Interpretation
“How To Read And Understand The Bible” (Pt. 3)
This is Part 3 of our continuing study of “Strengthening Biblical Interpretation: How to Read and Understand the Bible.” In the last edition of the NET Pastor’s Journal, we concluded with a discussion on “The Impact of Culture on our Understanding” – both ancient culture and contemporary culture. In this edition, we are going to look at more aspects of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) that impact our understanding of the text as we study the Bible in preparation for preaching.
In addition to the differences between the ancient culture and our contemporary culture, which greatly affect how we read and understand the Bible, there is also the issue of what practices in the Bible are limited to the ancient culture (i.e. “cultural”) and what are applicable for all cultures at all times (i.e. “transcultural”). First, let’s consider…
The two extremes which impact our understanding of Scripture are: (1) Every practice in the Bible is transcultural and prescriptive. In this view, every biblical practice is timeless and binding on all people for all times. (2) Every practice in the Bible is cultural and non-prescriptive. In this view, every biblical practice is limited to its culture and time and, therefore, only prescriptive for those to whom it was written - i.e. it is culture and time bound.
My conviction is that somewhere in between those two extremes is the correct position – namely, that some practices in the Bible are permanent and unchangeable while other practices in the Bible are temporary or changeable. Our task is, first, to distinguish between “cultural” and “transcultural” practices, customs, and traditions; second, to discover the timeless principles that the ancient cultural practices reflect; and third, to determine how those principles can be expressed in ways that are meaningful in our culture today.
Be aware, this task is not easy. That’s why there have been many books written and why there continues to be much debate over this issue. One of the big problems with this issue in biblical interpretation is that, as cultures and worldviews change over time, pressure arises within the Christian community to change our interpretation of the text to conform with those changing cultural views. Examples of this would be modes of dress (1 Pet. 3:3-5), forms of worship (instruments, songs etc.), and the role of women in public ministry in the church.
While there may be an argument, from time to time, to change certain practices (if they are cultural and non-prescriptive) in order to better communicate those abiding principles, we are never authorized to change our interpretation of the text simply to suit our culture. Therein lies the problem. To help you understand this cultural vs. transcultural issue further, let me give you…
Example #1: Foot Washing (Jn. 13:14). This is practised by some Christians but not by others. There are three possible interpretive options on this matter. Option #1: No principle and limited cultural practice. This interpretive option argues that this instruction and practice was limited to 1st century Palestine because of their dusty roads and the practice of washing people’s feet when they entered your home. Option #2: Transcultural principle and universal practice. In this view, foot washing is both the expression of an abiding principle and the prescribed method of practising that principle – i.e. foot washing is prescribed as an abiding practice regardless of culture, one that should be practised by all cultures throughout all times. Option #3: Transcultural principle and varying cultural practices. According to this interpretive option, foot washing is merely the cultural expression of an abiding principle, which may be expressed in different ways from culture to culture and from time to time, ways that are relevant to the contemporary culture and time.
In seeking to resolve this issue, we need to ask two questions: Question #1: What is the timeless, abiding principle? Answer: The principle is that we should express humility and servant-hood to one another. Question #2: How is the principle expressed in practice? Answer: In first century Palestine it was expressed practically by washing one another’s feet because (a) this was one of the household’s lowliest jobs (and, thus, expressed humility) and (b) because they wore sandals and walked on dusty roads (and, thus, expressed servant-hood). But in other cultures the principle may be expressed in other more relevant, meaningful, understandable terms – i.e. it is a practice that, in other cultures, would be better reflected in customs that are relevant to that culture. Thus, in this instance I would lean towards interpretive option #3 above.
Example #2: Head coverings for women (1 Cor. 11). Here there are also three possible interpretive options (see R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, 107). Option #1: No principle and limited cultural practice. This interpretive position argues that this instruction is limited to the 1st century Palestinian culture in which Christian women were to be subordinate to men and they showed their subordination by the 1st century Palestinian custom of veiling their heads, which practice showed (a) their modesty, and (b) their submission to the men. However, in our contemporary culture, women are not required to veil their heads, nor are they considered subordinate to men.
Option #2: Transcultural principle and universal practices. This interpretive position argues that this instruction represents a transcultural principle, which requires that Christian women anywhere and everywhere at all times demonstrate their submission to men by veiling their heads. But is it true that in all cultures at all times, women veiling their heads indicates their submission to men? I think not. In fact, in western cultures not only would that practice be considered strange, but it might communicate the exact opposite of what is intended, by women drawing attention to themselves.
Option #3: Transcultural principle and varying cultural practice. According to this interpretive option, the submission of Christian women to men is a transcultural principle (based on creation order), but how that is expressed in practice may vary from culture to culture – i.e. it may be a head covering but not necessarily a veil, or may not necessarily be a head covering at all. I would lean towards this interpretive option.
The subject of women’s head coverings has been and, in some Christian spheres continues to be, a divisive issue. The exegesis of the passage is hotly debated, largely because it contains some difficult language. At one point Paul seems to say that a woman’s hair is her head covering, so why does she also need a veil (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:15)? And the application is hotly debated. In some cultures today, women (whether Christian or not) still wear head coverings of various sorts (e.g. full veiling for Muslim women; babushka head scarves for eastern European women).
While many of these cultural vs. transcultural issues do not impact fundamental doctrinal beliefs, they nonetheless can be and are, in some circles, divisive. So what do we do to unravel this dilemma of understanding and interpreting cultural vs. transcultural practices in the Bible?
Obviously, a good starting point is to know something about ancient practices, history, worldview, and communication (or, at least, have resources that we can consult to find out about them). In addition, we need some guidelines to help us correctly and consistently understand and interpret these culturally influenced texts.
Four Interpretive Guidelines
These four interpretive guidelines will help you in understanding and interpreting cultural issues in the text (adapted from R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, 108ff.).
Guideline #1: Examine the Bible itself for changing customs. This guideline is particularly helpful in identifying changes from the O.T. to the N.T. Though many of the O.T. practices and requirements (e.g. dietary laws, sacrificial system, modes of dress, language, money) changed in the N.T., the principles were still valid. These changes were not necessarily due to cultural changes (e.g. the change from the O.T. Jewish culture to the N.T. Gentile culture), but, sometimes, to the progress of revelation in God’s redemptive plan.
We need to make a distinction between God’s laws (e.g. sacrificial), which he himself changed, for they were not intended to be permanent (cf. 2 Cor. 3:7, 11, 13; Heb. 8:7ff.), and cultural institutions (e.g. marriage, slavery). Some have argued that since the attitude to slavery was already changing in the N.T. (e.g. Onesimus was not to be put to death but treated as a brother), is it not legitimate to conclude that the marriage relationship is also subject to change (e.g. the wife is not under the authority of the husband) and that the role of women in the church is also changeable (e.g. women can be pastors of the church)? But as R. C. Sproul points out, “we must be careful to distinguish between institutions the Bible merely recognizes as existing, such as ‘the powers that be’ (Rom. 13:1, KJV), and those which the Bible positively institutes, endorses and ordains” such as marriage. He goes on to say that, “the principle of submission to existing authority structures (such as Roman government) does not carry with it a necessary implication of God’s endorsement of those structures but merely a call to humility and civil obedience. God in his ultimate secret providence may ordain that there be a Caesar Augustus without endorsing Caesar as a model of Christian virtue. Yet, the institution of the structures and authority patterns of marriage are given in the context of positive institution and endorsement in both Testaments. To put the biblical structures of the home on a par with the slavery question is to obscure the many differences between the two. Thus, the Scriptures provide a basis for Christian behavior in the midst of oppressive or evil situations as well as ordaining structures that are to mirror the good designs of creation.” (Sproul, Knowing Scripture, 109).
So then, be alert to “changing” customs in the Bible - those which God himself changed (e.g. abandoning slavery, since the N.T. indicates that it was not an abiding principal but a cultural practice) and those which sinful human beings changed.
And, be alert to “unchanging” customs in the Bible such as (1) being submissive to governmental authority, even though it may not reflect Christian values (provided, of course, that such submission does not bring us into conflict with the principle of “obeying God rather than man”); (2) maintaining marriage as God's abiding practice for the union of one man and one woman, and not subject to changing cultural practices.
Guideline #2: Don’t try to read into the biblical text 1st century cultural practices that the author may not have had in mind.
For example, you will sometimes hear preachers say that Paul’s instructions on women’s hair and head coverings were motivated by his desire that Christian women be distinctive from the temple prostitutes of that day in that culture. But, as R.C. Sproul points out (see Knowing Scripture, 110) that is to read back into the text what is mere speculation by some scholars as to what may have been the reason behind the instruction. In fact, in this case, such a reading back into the text is erroneous as Paul states that his instruction concerning the submission of women to men (1 Cor. 11:8-11) stems from the precedent of creation, which was expressed in the 1st century by head coverings. It had nothing to do with the temple prostitutes, even though, undoubtedly, they did show their brazen behaviour by not only uncovering their heads but shaving them bald (cf. 1 Cor. 11:5b-6).
We need to recognize that some of the 1st century Christian practices must have been very counter cultural (i.e. not culturally conforming) since they were so persecuted for their practices and beliefs. Thus, we need to respect the fact that the 1st century Christians had their own practical distinctives, which were unique to their situation and not prescriptive for other cultures.
Guideline #3: Whenever the author refers to creation as the basis of his instruction, he is stating a timeless, transcultural, universal principle.
Practices that are rooted in creation can never be rationalized as cultural. To do so is to make irrelevant the very foundation of our existence. “The laws of creation are not given to man as Hebrew or man as Christian or man as Corinthian, but are rooted in basic human responsibility to God” (Sproul, 110-111).
Paul appeals to creation in his argument for head coverings to denote the submission of the women to the men in the church (as noted above, 1 Cor. 11:2-16) and again in his argument for female silence and submission in the church (1 Tim. 2:11-15).
Jesus also appeals to creation when answering the Pharisees’ question on divorce (Matt. 19:4-6) by taking them back to what God intended for marriage when he created us. Even though Moses had granted divorce because of the hardness of the human heart, nonetheless, Jesus maintains God’s intended standard for marriage relationships from the beginning.
Therefore, we can draw two conclusions: (1) Teaching that is rooted in creation is transcultural unless, in the course of progressive revelation, it is later modified in Scripture (Sproul, 111); (2) Though these appeals to creation are transcultural as to their principle, the manner in which that principle is put into practice may be cultural.
Guideline #4: When in doubt about whether a biblical instruction is cultural or transcultural, err on the side of transcultural.
When in doubt, it would be better to interpret a custom as a principle rather than a principle as a custom. I am not recommending legalism, which manifests itself in: (1) A rigid attitude and practice of a non-biblical system of rules and regulations that demands the interpretation and application of cultural practices (whether in Scripture or not) as transcultural principles; (2) The elevation of certain practices (such as dress, diet) to the level of biblical doctrine (i.e. raising practices to precepts; making forms into functions), particularly in reference to gaining favour with God for salvation or spiritual growth (i.e. by the law and not by grace) by doing certain things and abstaining from other things.
On the contrary, rather than writing them off as irrelevant and redundant legalism, I am recommending submission to those biblical practices about which we are not certain as to their interpretation and application (cultural and situational; or transcultural and universal). This is not ideal, but is a recommendation for those texts that we find too difficult to categorize as to their practice in today’s culture.
II. Strengthening Biblical Leadership
“Spiritual Growth And The Impact Of Pastoral Ministry: An Exegetical Study Of 1 Thess. 1:1-10”
As you read this exegetical study of 1 Thess. 1:1-10, I hope that you will see how your pastoral leadership can have a tremendous impact on the spiritual growth of your church. I came across this cute poem about the perfect church:
“If you should find the perfect church without one spot or sore, for goodness sake, don’t join that church! It won’t be perfect anymore.
If you should find the perfect church where all anxieties cease, then pass it by, lest you join it, and mar the masterpiece.
But since no perfect church exists with perfect men and women, let’s stop looking for that church and start loving the one we’re in.”
While none of us belongs to a perfect church we certainly want to be the church God intends us to be and we certainly want to try to emulate a model church. That’s the subject of the text we are studying: the picture of a model church. What kind of people are the model church? What do they look like? What do they do? Simply put a model church is comprised of godly people who demonstrate the gospel in their walk and talk.
The church at Thessalonica was a fairly new church. They had recently been converted from pagan, idol worship, as a result of which they were being persecuted for their faith. So, Paul reminds them of their spiritual roots. He reminds them that their spiritual roots were “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1a). They shared a common life in God, a life rooted in the Father and the Son. The church lives “in” God; He is both the spiritual sphere and the divine source of our existence and apart from God the church has no life and no reason for existing. To know that we are “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” should give us a great sense of security and protection from opposition to the truth, persecution, and ridicule. No matter what opposition we face, we are safe and secure in God whose life we share.
Paul also reminds them of their spiritual blessings: “Grace to you and peace” (1:1b). God’s sovereign favor rested upon them because they had found “grace” in Christ, and His “peace” rested upon them because they had been reconciled to God through Christ. This is what a true church of God is! People whose spiritual life is rooted in God and whose spiritual blessings flow from the God of grace and peace.
Paul can’t stop thanking God for them (1:2) as he remembers their demonstration of true spirituality because they were gospel-centered people. Like Paul, we should give thanks for such people. So, how do we recognize them?
1. Gospel-Centered People Are Known By What They Do (1:3).
The fruit of the Spirit is evident in them. Faith, love, and hope do not lie dormant in godly Christians. These characteristics are the external evidence of the internal residence of the Holy Spirit. They are the practical outworking and expressions of the gospel. This is the product of our new life in God. They are not invisible traits like some sort of religious DNA, but they are active expressions of who we are as God’s people.
The gospel in its essence is “faith” in Christ, which is expressed in “love” for God and our neighbor, and which assures us of “hope” for eternity.
Notice that gospel-centred people demonstrate our faith through our works. “Remembering before our God and Father your work of faith”(1:3a). Christian faith produces good works for God. As James says: “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:20). If you say you have faith but your works don’t show it, it’s questionable whether you are truly born of God. We must demonstrate our faith by good works done for God. Christian faith radically changes the way you live so that you live to serve God with works that bring praise to him. Gospel-centered people demonstrate our faith through our works and…
Gospel-centered people demonstrate our love through our service. “Remembering… your labor of love” (1:3b). Love motivates us in untiring service to others. It’s easy to say you love someone but unless that is translated into active service for them, it is hollow and means nothing.
Our love for God energizes us in serving others, even when the work is hard, laborious, toilsome, because we serve out of sacrificial love that seeks the good of others and because we toil as “before our God and Father” and on his behalf. Gospel-centered people demonstrate our faith through our works, our love through serving, and...
Gospel-centered people demonstrate our hope through our perseverance. “Remembering… your steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ”(1:3c). Perseverance is born out of a steadfast hope.
One Chinese Christian had all her belongings confiscated six times because she hosts a church in her home. She is reported as saying: “Nothing will stop us. Not persecution, not when they take everything we have!” Why? Why don’t they just give it up? Because they have a steadfast hope rooted in an unshakeable faith, so that when conflicts and opposition arise they respond out of unrelenting perseverance despite the obstacles.
The Christian life is sustained by an enduring hope. Our hope is not an “in-your-dreams” kind of hope, not a “Christmas wish-book” kind of hope, not a hope that is crushed by overbearing circumstances. Someone has said that “Christian hope is the certainty of a reality not yet experienced” (Alistair Begg). Ours is the hope of the gospel, the security of our salvation, the expectation of the sure and imminent return of our Saviour. Ours is the hope of those who once had no hope but now have a hope that supersedes discouragement and opposition.
It’s the future orientation of hope that motivates us. When we are focused on a sure and certain future we can more easily deal with the problems of the present. If you have no hope of future improvement or relief or fulfillment, then how can you persevere, how can you carry on?
Faith, love, hope. Those are the hallmarks of gospel-centered, spiritual people, people who by their lifestyle are the presence of Christ on earth. How are these characteristics expressed in your life? That’s the emphasis here - not on passive concepts but on active expressions of who we are, on the daily outworking of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. What do these spiritual virtues look like in your life? Do your works adequately and accurately express your faith? Does your service for others express your love for them? Does your perseverance express your hope in God? Is your life the practical expression of the presence of Christ on earth? Is your church gospel-centered, people who are known by what you do? “Godly people demonstrate the gospel in their walk and talk.” Are you people who demonstrate your faith in your works, your love in your service, and your hope in your perseverance?
We give thanks for gospel-centered people who demonstrate true spirituality. Gospel-centered people are known by what they do. And, second...
2. Gospel-centred people are known by who they are (1:4-6).
Paul’s intimate relationship with these believers is expressed in his continually making mention of them in prayer (1:2), in his remembrance of what they did and how they lived (1:3), and in his knowledge of who they were in Christ (1:4). They were authentic Christians, living out their faith in practice and known far and wide by the testimony of who they were. No wonder he continuously gave thanks for them. And we too should give thanks for gospel-centered people who are true portraits of spirituality. We give thanks that they are known by what they do and for who they are.
First, we are living testimonies to the saving power of the gospel.
The saving power of the gospel is evidenced in (1) the exercise of God’s sovereignty in election: “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you” (1:4). You cannot be gospel-centered people if you are not ”chosen” by God – God’s beloved, elect people. Election is a biblical doctrine, whether you understand it or not, whether you like it or not. Election is the term used to describe God's sovereign choice of certain persons for salvation (cf. Eph. 1:4; Rom. 9:11; 11:5, 7, 28; 2 Pet. 1:10).
Why is election necessary, you ask? Because if God did not choose us and draw us to himself no one would ever be saved. No one would be saved because we are all, by nature and practice, incorrigible sinners, who would never turn to God in saving faith unless we are drawn by his Spirit. That’s why election is necessary.
Why, then, did he choose us, you ask? Not because we are more righteous than other people for “none is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10), but the Lord chose us because he sovereignly set his love upon us. We are his beloved, elect people and that is the basis of our persevering hope. God chose us because he loved us and will never let us go! We are saved for eternity because of his great love in saving us.
Gospel-centered people are those who are chosen by God and who, by virtue of what they do and who they are, present a true portrait of spirituality, living testimonies to the saving power of the gospel. The saving power of the gospel is evidenced in (1) the exercise of God’s sovereignty in election and…
The saving power of the gospel is evidenced in (2) the activity of God's Spirit through his Word. The God-ordained means of communicating the gospel is by preaching and that entails the use of words. But preaching is much more than words, for words alone do not transform a life. Through words we express the truth of God and through the Spirit we experience the power of God. Paul says: “Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit” (1:5a).
The saving power of the gospel is when the word of God is applied by the Spirit of God, for the Word of God and the Spirit of God go together. John Stott writes: “Words spoken in human weakness need to be confirmed with divine power… We must never divorce what God has married, namely his Word and his Spirit. The Word of God is the Spirit’s sword. The Spirit without the Word is weaponless; the Word without the Spirit is powerless.” (John Stott, The Gospel and the End of Time, The Message of 1 Thessalonians, 34).
Only the Holy Spirit can change lives by his divine power. Only the Holy Spirit can convince a hardened heart of the truth of the gospel so that you are transformed through faith in Christ. Only he can illumine a blinded mind so that you can understand the message of the gospel and trust the Saviour.
Paul knew that the Thessalonians were God's elect people because the gospel message had been effective in them; it had powerfully changed their lives. Had they not been God's chosen people, the gospel would have fallen on deaf ears. But in their case, the message was Spirit-empowered, life-transforming. That’s the birthmark of God’s elect, beloved people. Our lives are radically changed by the life-transforming power of the gospel.
So, the saving power of the gospel is evidenced in (1) the exercise of God’s sovereignty in election, (2) the power of God's Spirit through the Word, and in (3) the credibility of God's servants through their preaching. The message the Thessalonians heard had a powerful effect in changing their lives because the word of God was applied by the Spirit of God, and because the messengers, who preached the gospel to them, were convincingly credible. The gospel derives its power from the Holy Spirit and its credibility from Christians who believe it and live it!
The apostles who preached to the Thessalonians were convincingly credible messengers because they were completely confident in their message: “Our gospel came to you…with full conviction” (1:5b). They were completely convinced of the truth of their message, totally controlled by the Spirit’s anointing on their ministry. They were absolutely assured that the word they preached was God's word and that it would achieve God’s purpose.
They were completely confident in their message, and they were completely consistent with their message. “You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake” (1:5c). “Our lives were no secret,” Paul says. “How we lived was perfectly consistent with the message we preached. You knew that what we said was true just by the way we conducted ourselves.” The apostles were incarnational preachers. The word of God was manifested in their lives. They walked and talked the gospel in their character and conduct. There was perfect consistency between what they said and how they lived. That’s powerfully credible! Their message was powerfully life-changing because they were Spirit-filled, gospel-centered preachers whose message was delivered with Spirit-induced conviction and received with Spirit-transforming power. And that’s powerfully and convincingly credible.
Only when the Holy Spirit is operative in you is the message powerfully transforming in others. You cannot be effective in communicating the gospel if your life is not consistent with your message. What you say and believe must conform to how you live. You cannot be effective in communicating the gospel if you are not fully assured of its truth and power. Only the Holy Spirit can take your words and deliver them to the hearts and minds and consciences of others with life-transforming power such that they say: “What must I do to be saved?” Powerful preachers speak the truth of God from the word of God with conviction as to its truth, all of which stem from the filling and activity of the Holy Spirit.
“Godly people demonstrate the gospel in their walk and talk.” We are known by what we do and we are known by who we are. Who are we? First, genuine Christians are living testimonies to the saving power of the gospel and...
Second, we are living testimonies to the transforming power of the gospel (1:6-10).
Notice that (1) the gospel transforms us into living examples of Christ: “You became imitators of us and of the Lord” (1:6a). The apostles were living examples of Christ to the Thessalonians and, as a result, they became imitators of the apostles. It’s natural that when you receive the gospel you would imitate those who brought the message to you, isn’t it? When your life is so radically changed, you want to be like them. Like them you want complete confidence in the message and, like them, you want complete consistency in your life. That’s the kind of people we want to be like - consistent, credible Christians whose lives prove that our words are true! So, the Thessalonian Christians began to imitate Paul and the other apostles. They began to live out the gospel as they did. They didn’t just receive the apostles’ message, they also imitated the apostles’ example.
Christianity is not merely a profession of faith but a changed life. When we become Christians we become examples of Christianity. It’s not just an internal change but an external change as well. And the obvious example that we begin to imitate is that of other Christians whose lives are credible, influential. It’s not enough for us to merely tell someone the way of salvation. We have to live it out so that they imitate us. That’s what it is to be the presence of Christ on earth.
Notice that the Thessalonian Christians didn’t only imitate the apostles but more importantly they became imitators “of the Lord.” As they imitated Paul, so their lives imitated “the Lord” because Paul’s life pointed them to the life of Christ. Just as Paul was the presence of Christ to them so they became the presence of Christ themselves: they became examples of the Lord.
That’s what spiritual leadership and mentoring is all about, isn’t it? That’s how spiritual growth is generated in those we minister to. Christian leadership and mentoring is about teaching others, from our knowledge and life experience, what the Christian life is all about, so that what they see in us draws them to Christ and they become followers of the Lord, imitators and examples of him to others.
So, as pastors and church leaders, we must all live our lives before others in such a credible, Christ-like way that what they see in us they put into practice. This can take place in a Sunday School class, or a small group Bible study, or in your home with your children, as well as in church gatherings as a whole.
Similarly, we must make sure that those we follow model the message of the gospel in speech and conduct so that by imitating them, we imitate Christ and thus become the presence of Christ on earth. But be warned: To be an imitator and example of Christ involves suffering for the gospel as Christ did. When you are closely identified with the Christ of the gospel you will suffer for the gospel, you’ll run into opposition to your beliefs and lifestyle. That’s what happened to the Thessalonians - they “received the word in much affliction” (1:6b). They were persecuted for their faith.
We may not suffer persecution like the Christians in China, Sudan, Vietnam, Cambodia and many other places. But we will face the ridicule of atheists and evolutionists, the outright wrath of gays and radical religious groups, the antagonism of those who oppose the notion of absolute truth and the exclusive claims of the gospel.
You may have experienced that already in your life. Perhaps at school or college, other students have ridiculed you for abstaining from sex outside of marriage because of your faith in Christ. Perhaps at work your colleagues have shunned you for not watching pornographic movies or going out drinking after work because of your faith in Christ. Perhaps in your retirement community or neighborhood others despise your faithful attendance at church because of your faith in Christ. There are all kinds of ways in which we experience suffering for the gospel.
But Christian suffering is paradoxically accompanied by joy. God’s people are able to sustain ridicule and opposition “with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1:6c). This is the paradoxical result of receiving the gospel. On the one hand, we experience suffering and yet, on the other hand, “joy” that surpasses the suffering, joy that comes from the sustaining power of the indwelling Spirit.
That’s who gospel-centered people are. People who are known by what we do and by who we are. We are living testimonies to the saving power of the gospel and we are living testimonies to the transforming power of the gospel. (1) The gospel transforms us into examples of Christ, and...
(2) The gospel transforms us into examples to others (1:7-10). “…so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia” (1:7). By imitating the example of the apostles, the Thessalonians also became examples to others.
We become examples to others by our contagious faith (1:8-9a). “8For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. 9For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you” (1:8-9a).
Everybody hears about the faith of a gospel-centered church. The word of the Lord (the gospel) rings out from it so that everyone hears it near and far, because they walk and talk the gospel. Everybody knew what happened in Thessalonica. Instead of persecution hampering their testimony it actually prospered it! Others heard about their conversion and they began to say: “Do you know what happened over there in Thessalonica? Do you know that when they received the gospel, they began to suffer persecution and that they actually rejoice in it?”
This is where the grapevine becomes a lifeline for the gospel. We hear that all the time in personal testimonies, don’t we? Someone gets saved and first thing you know others are saying: “Did you hear what happened to so and so. He’s become religious. She’s found God!” Everyone talks about gospel-centered people who are living testimonies to the transforming power of the gospel. No one has to promote a genuine work of the Spirit of God. It’s self-evident and compelling. It’s a contagious faith.
When God began to work in the Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York, the news spread around the world. Is that true of you in your community? Is your church a bold example for God of contagious faith? Are you living testimonies to the transforming power of the gospel?
We become examples to others by our contagious faith, and we become examples to others by our radical conversion (1:9b-10). Radical conversion means (1) a complete change in direction: “…you turned to God from idols…” (1:9b). The very people who had once worshipped idols now turned completely away from paganism and turned their lives over to God. That’s a total turnaround in direction. Radical conversion means turning “to God” in faith and turning away “from idols.” True believers cannot worship God and idols. So, radical conversion means a complete change in direction.
And radical conversion means (2) a complete change in action. They began “… to serve the living and true God” (1:9b). That’s the evidence of genuine repentance - turning away from Satan and sin and turning to God and holiness. A complete change in action means you begin to “serve” God. You are set free from slavery to sin, from the superstitious paralysis of idol worship, from the power of sin, and released into the glorious liberty of serving God. That’s what gospel-centred people do – they “serve the living and true God.” What a bold life-transforming change!
You serve the “living” God. Not dead statues of wood and stone, but the living God, the One who is life in himself, in whom we live and move and have our being, the one who gives to all people life and breath. And you serve the “true” God. Not false gods who deceive you, but the true God who cannot lie. Not counterfeit gods of materialism, pluralism, relativism, hedonism, narcissism, but the only true God.
Radical conversion means a complete change in direction, a complete change in action, and radical conversion means (3) a complete change in expectation. Our expectation changes because (a) our future is certain: “...to wait for (God’s) Son from heaven” (1:10a). That’s what gospel-centred people do – they wait in certain hope for the return of Christ from heaven, when death will be swallowed up by life.
Our expectation changes because our future is certain and our expectation changes because (b) our future is secure. “God has raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1:10b). The Jesus who walked this earth in history is the Son of God himself, whom God raised from the dead. Christ is alive at God’s right hand, waiting to take his beloved, elect people to heaven. That’s why our future is secure, because Christ’s resurrection guarantees our resurrection. Just as God raised Christ from the dead so He will raise us up.
When we experience radical conversion, our expectation changes because our future is certain, our future is secure, and our expectation changes because (c) our future is settled: “Jesus… delivers us from the wrath to come” (1:10c). Those who are Christ’s don’t fear God's wrath because Christ, our Deliverer and Savior, has rescued us from the judgement of God by paying the price of our sins with his own blood on the cross. The wrath of God in judgement is coming and it’s certain. All who trust Christ are delivered from his wrath but all who reject Christ will be condemned under his wrath. The crying need of the world is deliverance from coming wrath through the Christ of the gospel. What a comfort to know that when we turn to God in faith our future is settled, our eternal destiny in heaven is secure.
People don’t like to hear about the wrath of God. They just want to hear about the love of God because, they argue, a loving God would never condemn them. You see, subconsciously they are trying to escape the judgement of God but the truth is that “God will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained” (Acts 17:31), the Lord Jesus Christ. God's wrath is not an impersonal concept for philosophers to debate but a tangible reality for sinners to face. Praise God, then, that as the redeemed people of God we have been saved from coming wrath.
Now we wait with eager expectation for Christ’s imminent return from heaven (cf. Phil. 3:20-21). Now we wait with eager expectation for him to complete our redemption by the transformation of our bodies and our transfer to heaven. We can’t hasten the coming of Christ, we can’t change the date or the manner of his coming, but we eagerly look for him as we wait and work. The imminent, bodily return of Christ is the continuing hope of gospel-centred people. It’s an essential part of living the gospel. We don’t hear much about that anymore. Much of the contemporary church has lost sight of “the blessed hope and the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ” (Tit. 2:13). Churches today seem to be more focused on the bountiful present than the blessed future. Christians seem to want to hear about our lives, our families, our needs, our well-being instead of Christ’s glorious coming in majesty and power when he will restore all things to God the Father in their resplendent beauty.
Is this what you preach? Is it your expectation? Is it your hope? Is your future certain, secure, and settled? Are you trusting yourself, your good works, your money, your dreams in this world? Or, are you eagerly expecting the return of Christ?
This, then, is a portrait of true spirituality, authentic Christianity: “Godly people who demonstrate the gospel in their walk and talk.” Gospel-centred people are known by what we do - people who demonstrate our faith through works, our love through serving, and our hope through persevering. And gospel-centered people are known by who they are - people who are transformed by the gospel into examples of Christ and examples to others.
This is what we, as church leaders, must preach and this is how must live, so that our people grow spiritually through our leadership. We must live the gospel in such a way that others see Christ in us. Does that describe you? Do others see Jesus in you? Do they imitate you because you are a godly person who walks and talks the gospel?
III. Sermon Outlines
Title: Letters to the Seven Churches: Thyatira – Progressing but Corrupt
Theme: The subtle deception of sin in the church
Point 1: Christ commends the church for its progress (2:19)
Point 2: Christ condemns the church for its corruption (2:20)
Point 3: Christ cautions the church if it is unrepentant (2:21-23)
Point 4: Christ confirms to the church his grace (2:24-29)
Related Topics: Pastors