SERMON: What Would Paul Write to Us Today? (1 Thessalonians)
1. Writing Letters
Over the years people have discovered different ways to communicate with one another. Obviously, speech has always been the simplest method, but as literacy rates have increased, the cost of writing materials reduced, and methods of transport become easier, letter writing has become a dominant means of communication too. And letters have been typically used to request certain action, to communicate information, to confirm (in writing) action taken, or to simply catch up or keep in contact with one another.
Now, of course, these days with the advent of the mobile telephone, and with emails, texting, and social media—and with the push to preserve trees—letter writing as we’ve known it is now on the decline. And we have far more alternatives by which we can communicate with one another. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we communicate well. Because, side-by-side with the useful communication is all the junk that we get in our mail boxes today.
2. Biblical Letters
However, whilst communicating over distances, for us, today, is quite simple, in biblical times it was not so easy. Writing materials were not cheap, and as a consequence written communication was not as common as today. So, if a letter was written it was usually about something important. And when a letter was written, the cost of materials meant that there was a need to use every inch of the paper. Consequently letters were often written without spaces between the words and without punctuation.
And, for someone like the Apostle Paul, letters were used to communicate the Christian gospel over long distances, and often when he was confined to prison. They were usually written to churches or individuals after there had been some other communication—or visit by a fellow worker had taken place—which had told him of problems within a church, to which Paul felt that he needed to respond.
Having said that, however, Paul’s letters were much revered. So much so, that it wasn’t long before his letters were collected, stitched together and circulated around the churches.
And as I thought about that, and as I read his first letter to the church at Thessalonica, I couldn’t help thinking: If our church had been around in Paul’s day—or rather, if Paul was around today—what would he have written to us?
B. 1 THESSALONIANS
So, using Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians as a kind of template—as a typical kind a letter that he wrote—I have come up with the sort of letter that he would have written.
And, first of all, Paul would have introduced himself. He would have said who he was, who he was writing to, and he would have provided some sort of greeting.
Because in the letter to the Thessalonians he stated that the letter was not just from Paul, but from Paul, Timothy and Silvanus. He spelt out that the letter was to the church at Thessalonica. And he provided a greeting “Grace and peace to you.”
The second thing he would have done, would be to provide some words encouragement. Because no matter what negative things he would have heard about the church, and no matter what he knew needed to be done, there were always things he could find to give thanks about.
And for the church at Thessalonica, he talked about how proud and thankful he was for the church. About how they had turned from the worship of idols, and had become imitators of Paul, and other leaders. He talked about their faith being reported in the regions around, and that they were constantly praying for them.
Paul knew that his time with them had been ever so brief. In fact he’d been run out of town by Jews from the local synagogue. He knew that he hadn’t had the opportunity to be with them long enough to give them a solid basis for their faith. But despite that there were certain things they had and continued to do right. As a consequence he used the opportunity to encourage them—despite their faults—in the things they were doing right.
3. Facing Up to Problems
The third thing Paul would have done would have been to bring to light the things that needed fixing. He wouldn’t beat around the bush. Rather, he would openly raise the matters that need attention. And he would use the opportunity to teach the members of the church in the hope that they would deal with the problems and go on with their faith.
And in Thessalonica they had a lot of problems that needed fixing. Paul was being slandered; people were saying that he’d left them in the lurch. As a consequence Paul’s ministry and motives had been questioned. Recent converts from paganism were being persecuted (2:14). Consequently there was pressure to revert to easy-going pagan standards (4:13-18). Some seemed to have become content on living off their fellows, instead of earning their own living (4:11-12). There were tensions between some of the leaders and the rest of the congregation (5:12-13). And some were having problems with understanding the gospel—in particular the work of the Holy Spirit (5:19-20), and the Second Coming (4:13-18 & 5:1-11)—and consequently were living with mistaken beliefs.
4. Plan of Attack
And then fourthly, before concluding his message with a blessing, Paul would offer a plan of attack.
And in the case of the Thessalonians, he charged the people to correct their wrongful actions, and to make sure everyone knew the content of his letter. Then and only then did he conclude with the grace.
Now the purpose behind Paul’s letters is clear. He wanted to teach. And in particular he wanted to teach about the Christian Gospel and what it meant to live the Christian life. Paul’s intention was never to rub the people’s noses in their mistakes and say what dreadful people they were. But he was not afraid to deal with the issues that needed addressing either.
Paul had a concern that the people needed to understand what the gospel was about. And that meant that they needed to address the misunderstandings, the false teaching, the laziness, or whatever it was that was stopping them from being true followers of Christ. And, he knew, that that wasn’t going to be fixed, if he pussyfooted around their faults and failings. Indeed, it would only begin to be fixed if he brought all the negative things that he’d heard about out into the open.
And that of course brings us back to the original question: If this church had been around in Paul’s day—or better still, if Paul was around today—what would Paul have written to us?
Well, the beginning of the letter would have been innocuous enough—a simple introduction from Paul, addressed to this church, with some sort of greeting.
The second section would also be easy to accept. There would be words of encouragement. Words of thanks, perhaps indicating the faithfulness of people over time, stretching back to when this church was first established, to date. Thankfulness for those who continue to meet together, despite the fact that the church, today, has largely lost its flavour. And a gratefulness for the continuing Christian presence in one of the far-flung reaches of the world.
3. Facing Up to Problems
But then we come to the third section: Paul dealing with the negatives that plague our local churches. Well, what would he say?
Well, there is no point in us denying that there are any problems. Because that just isn’t so. All churches have problems. All churches have much they can do to improve. And Paul would know that.
Indeed it is interesting to note that there are only two of Paul’s letters in which he did not address any local problems. And they were the letter to the Romans, which is a letter introducing himself to a church he did not know, prior to a visit to Rome. And the letter to the Ephesians, which is not a letter specifically addressed to the church at Ephesus, but rather a circular of basic Christian doctrine, copies of which were addressed to other churches too.
So a church without problems… Well, you’d be hard pressed to find one that exists.
So, what would Paul write to us? Well, I think he would challenge us with the problem of apathy—a lack of feeling and passion—for the promotion and spread of the gospel. The problem of being too comfortable with the church as it is today.
There’s a casualness today about the church which is very unhealthy. And whereas we can look back on the problems of the New Testament churches and look at amazement at the things they got up to. At least, for the most part, people were passionate about what they believed, even when they got it wrong. And that’s a passion, an excitement, and an urgency that is largely missing today.
People find other things to do. They explain away the things they don’t like about the Christian faith. They adhere themselves solidly to their traditions and practices, which are not always biblically based. They find reasons not to do the things that God asks. And that includes joining in the regular worship of the one true God and taking a full part in the life of the church.
Now that, I think, is primarily what Paul would have written about.
4. Plan of Attack
Which brings us to the fourth part of Paul’s letter: the plan of attack. Because identifying any problem is one thing. Doing something about it is another issue altogether.
But how do you combat the problem of apathy?
Well we need to remember that Paul’s letters are to “churches.” In other words “the people who meet together.” The church isn’t the people who at some time in the past came to church, or even people who have some sort of connection with a particular denomination. The Greek word that we translate as “church” means the people who actually come together. And the Latin term we translate as “congregation” means the people who actually “congregate” together.
As a consequence, the apathy that Paul would be writing about in his letter, would be the lack of excitement within the current congregation itself. Consequently, he would be suggesting a plan of attack which exhorts every member to have a biblical base for their beliefs and practices, to be active in their faith, and for all to use their gifts to participate in the life of God’s church.
And having said that, Paul would then close his letter, ordering that his letter be read to every member of the church. And only then would he finish with a blessing.
And if the Apostle Paul were to have written a letter to this church, this is something like what, I believe, he would have written.
Now, as I said at the beginning, over the years people have found different ways to communicate with one another. And letter writing, historically, has been one of the most effective ways of communicating, particularly over long distances. And the Apostle Paul is an example of someone who used that method to great advantage.
But we need to remember that even though most of his letters are dealing with problems in the church—and every church has problems—the purpose of confronting the people was not to rub their noses in it, but rather to bring to the open the issues that need to be addressed. He wanted people to get back on track, and to grow in the Christian faith.
And, without doubt, apathy, or lack of passion for the faith is probably the number one issue which faces the church—not just here, but in the western church as a whole. But it’s no good just recognising the problem, we also have to do something to try to address it.
Because the point of Paul’s letters was to grow healthy vibrant churches. And he was criticised at the time for his bluntness in his letter writing. But then he knew what was at stake if he just left things drift. And what was at stake was: the corruption of the Christian faith, irregular patterns of worship, declining congregations, and few if any believers.
And that is a situation that we know only too well in this country. Which is why it is an issue we would do well to try to address.
Posted 9th May 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Surprises (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11)
Of course, there are good surprises and there are bad surprises, and it’s good every now and again to have a good surprise. But what I like is for life to run as smoothly as possible—without any hitches and without any sudden unexpected events.
Now, in a sense, what I like is an ideal, and we all know that life’s not like that. Because whether we like it or not unexpected things do happen from time to time, and they are sometimes totally out of our control. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t do something to avoid certain situations. Indeed, we can do much to keep life running as smooth as possible.
For instance, we can try to keep on top of things. We can keep an eye out for what’s going on. That way, as events come and go, we can fit in, as best as we can, those events that are outside our control.
In regard to social events, it’s no good telling people at a surprise party that we don’t like surprises. We need to let them know beforehand.
And regarding our business affairs … If we don’t want them to blow up in our faces because of something that we have missed, we need to keep our affairs in order. We need to keep up to date, keep records, and be as efficient as possible.
Now, of course, no amount of effort will remove all surprises—some will still come. But doing the necessary preparation—doing our homework—will certainly keep some under control, and far more manageable. And, if we applied those principles to all the normal things of life, our lives would be so much easier than it would otherwise be.
Having said that, however, there is at least one area of life that I haven’t mentioned—one area of life that is still likely to deal us with a major surprise. And it’s the one that Paul mentions in his letter to the Thessalonians. It is the surprise that comes at the end of the world. But, then, if the solution to eliminating surprises—or making them more manageable—is a matter of doing our homework, then shouldn’t we use that principle for this surprise too?
So what is the Day of the Lord about? Well according to the bible it’s the day when the world as we know it ends, when Jesus comes back to take his faithful away, and the whole world—every person—is judged by God on the basis of whether they have true faith or not. Not on the basis of whether they say they believe, but on the basis of whether they truly believe.
Now if you ask me, the Day of the Lord has the potential to be the biggest surprise of all. Indeed, none of the surprises we face, today, compare with the surprise we will get then. And the biggest surprise, of course, is that it will happen when people least expect it, and at a time when people feel safe and at peace.
So how can we possibly prepare for that? Well, I have a couple of suggestions:
And the first thing we can do is to pursue a personal relationship with God. And we can do that by accepting Jesus as our Lord and Saviour. We need to accept that we can’t face life, let alone judgement day, without the help of the one who loves and cares for us most. We need to acknowledge God as a loving God, who has gone to extraordinary lengths, so that come judgement day he can declare us not guilty of the things we’ve done wrong, and, as a result, let us pass through to enjoy life in heaven with him. That’s the first step in our preparation.
And the second step—which depends on us following the first—is that we need to live in God’s light today. In other words, God has given us a way of life which is different to the way the majority of people live. And, if we are truly followers of him, we need to follow in his son’s footsteps. And that means living a life worshipping God, encouraging our fellow believers, and living a standard of life that is fitting for people of God.
As I said at the beginning, I hate surprises. Whether they are good surprises or bad, I still prefer to live a relatively even life. As a consequence, I try to avoid many of the surprises that we face. But to do that I have to be prepared. And the one thing I have to be prepared for the most is the day when I come face to face with God. Indeed, the last thing I want to face on the Day of the Lord—on Judgement Day—is being totally surprised and unprepared.
Posted 12th January 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: The Quiet Life (1 Thessalonians 4:9-12)
Does that sound like good advice? Because many people, throughout the ages, have used it as their motto: keep your head down, live a quiet life, don’t say boo to anyone, and don’t rock the boat.
And the basis for that belief … are the words from the Apostle Paul: “Seek to lead a quiet life, pursue your own affairs and do the work of your hands, just as we instructed you…” Words that he wrote down for the benefit of the church at Thessalonica. And as a consequence, words on which many have modelled their lives.
Now does all that sound perfectly sensible and logical? Well, in one sense, yes. We would, probably, all like to live a quiet life. But, unfortunately, that’s not what Paul was saying at all.
Because taking that sentence (or part sentence) on its own and ignoring the context in which it was written, is to totally misunderstand what Paul was saying.
Because, firstly, in his letter, Paul had just commended the Thessalonians, not for their inactivity, but for their activity. He’d commended them for caring for each other within the church. He’d also commended them for extending their care to people outside of their local church—to include people in the rest of Macedonia. Furthermore, Paul encouraged the members not to rest on their laurels, but to strive more eagerly in their brotherly love for one another.
And only then, secondly, did he address a problem in the church to which these words were directed. Now Paul was aware of a situation in the church which was very unhealthy. There were people within the church who were living a very disorderly way of life, and who, if left unchecked, would have destroyed everything the church stood for. Consequently, it was to these people that his words were directed. “Seek to lead a quiet life, pursue your own affairs and do the work of your hands, just as we instructed you…”
Paul was not trying to teach believers that being quiet and inactive was an acceptable way of living. On the contrary, the exact opposite is true. But there was a need to bring order to the church, so that the church could focus its attention on what was important—the need to be active and to care for one another.
Now of course, knowing this, has implications for us today. Because it might help us understand those who think Christianity is all about living a quiet life and minding their own business. And it gives us a base from which to teach that we should be active, not passive; we should be outspoken, not silent; and we should be caring, not detached.
The words of Paul, again: “Seek to lead a quiet life, pursue your own affairs and do the work of your hands, just as we instructed you…” These words were directed to combat a disruptive element within the Thessalonian church. They were not designed to reflect a philosophy of life. And that means that, even today, we need to take seriously the context in which they were written, and to encourage one another to be active in the Christian faith.
Posted: 8th December 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis