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: 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
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
SERMON: Living versus Dying (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11)
1. Two Poles
Attitudes in life are often poles apart.
There are those who are full of the joys of life, who get on with living and who refuse to allow anything to get them down. They want to be part of every minute of their existence; they don’t want to miss out on any single moment.
And there are those who are mournful, who seem to get little joy out of life. They seem to have this sour disposition about them and seem to be in a constant state of “dying” (and I mean that in more than just a physical way).
And, then of course there are plenty of people in between, with all the people who swing from one extreme to the other.
And the members of the church are no different. Which is odd really. Because as Christians, we’re not supposed to be mournful, and we’re not supposed be even those people in between. We’re supposed to be people full of life and full of joy. But is that what we really experience?
2. The Thessalonian Experience
Now to give an example of exactly what I mean, I want to refer to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Because, on the one hand, we should have a picture of a church that was full of life and full of joy. But the reality is that we have a picture of a group of people who were the exact opposite.
And the reason for that, was that Paul and others had taught the people about the Second Coming of Christ. And specifically about how they needed to be ready for his coming again. The trouble was the people had given his teaching a twist and had got it all wrong.
Because when the teaching about the Second Coming had sunk in, they became convinced the event was imminent. Many gave up work, many gave up meeting together, and consequently many gave up caring for one another. Indeed, many believed that if the Second Coming was imminent then to continue to do all those things was pointless. If Jesus was going to appear any day then there was no point in putting in more crops, or even meeting together. As a consequence, many just sat around their homes waiting for Jesus to appear. And so a group within the Thessalonians church had become lazy and uncaring. They had given up “living” and had taken on “dying”.
And, of course, when the Second Coming didn’t come as quickly as they’d hoped, many also became sad and down. They became concerned about the fate of those who had died, and would die, before the Second Coming arrived. And they were concerned that the dead would miss out on eternal life.
Talk about people giving up on “life”. For a church that should have been very much alive, there was a group within it who were the exact opposite. They’d twisted the whole teaching about the Second Coming around. And the really sad thing was, that this group probably thought they were doing the right thing. However, the result of their actions was that the situation was far from ideal, and they were dragging the rest of the church down with them.
B. PAUL’S TEACHING
Now obviously this was not a healthy situation for the church. But, fortunately, Paul in Corinth heard what was going on. And as a consequence, he wrote to the Thessalonians and tried to help them with their negative attitudes.
And in regard to the subject of Jesus coming again, Paul didn’t have anything new to say on the subject. So instead he repeated the teaching he had given them when he had been present with them.
1. Aspects of the Second Coming (2-3)
And bearing in mind the circumstances, he did not water the message down; he did not trivialise the importance of the Second Coming. Rather he confirmed everything they had previously been taught: That Jesus would come again; that Jesus would be coming to judge the world; that Jesus would be coming to gather his people to himself; and that when he came, he would bring with him those who had already died (4:14).
Furthermore, Paul continued, people would still be taken by surprise. Because there were some who didn’t believe it would happen. While the others would be surprised at its unpredictable timing.
Nevertheless, Paul said, Jesus’s coming again was inevitable and they needed to be prepared for it.
2. The Importance of Living (4-11)
And having briefly restated the very thing that the Thessalonians were concerned about, Paul then moved on to challenge the attitudes of the members of the church—contrasting a “living” attitude to a “dying” one. And he challenged them to live the faith.
a). A Thief in the Night (2-3)
In other words, they could live like a thief, like someone who went around at night and took things that belonged to others—thieving at times they thought no one was watching and living in false hopes that they would not be caught. Or they could live lives which were more transparent and open—giving and not taking; being concerned for others rather than maintaining a selfish attitude; and where peace and security were genuine options, and not false hopes.
b). Sons of the Light (4-5)
They could continue to behave as people who didn’t care for anyone else. They could continue to do as they pleased separated from the concerns of others—an attitude that was far from loving and terribly destructive. Or they could behave as though pleasing God was the most important thing in life—upholding God’s laws and standards; living as people who have been adopted by God as his own children.
c). Being Alert and Self-Controlled (6-7)
They could continue to live life having lost the plot, not really having any control in their own lives—even at times losing self-control. Or they could be awake and alert, mindful of what was happening around them, and being aware of the need to practice God’s standards at all times.
d). Belonging to the Day (8)
They could live their lives as though tomorrow didn’t matter, as though living life had little meaning. And if it did have meaning, it was only what they could get out of it for themselves. Or they could live knowing that being a Christian was the most important thing in life; that the Second Coming was an event to look forward to; and that faith, love, and salvation were not just ideas on a piece of paper but were things that were to be lived and experienced too.
e). Living with Jesus (9-10)
And they could live as though “faith” didn’t matter; that religion was an optional extra; or that there were limits that need to be placed on religion and beliefs. After which there was no need to go any further. Or they could live the Christian faith as more than just an intellectual acknowledgement of the Resurrection event. And that included a commitment to live with Jesus, and to follow his example in everything that they said and did.
f). Encouraging One Another (11)
And having contrasted those “dying” kinds of attitude to the more Christian concepts of “living”, Paul then concluded that the appropriate action for the church members, was to stop doing their own thing; to stop the practice of not meeting together; to stop being so mournful and negative, pulling the rest of the church down with them; and to re-engage the idea of meeting together, with the purpose of encouraging and building up one another, as a few had continued to do.
The church at Thessalonica, then, was a great example of the way churches were not supposed to be. It included a group of people who should have been full of “life” but, in reality, lived a very “death-like” existence.
And Paul’s response, was not to deny the Second Coming but to repeat its inevitability. And he followed that up by encouraging its members to “live” the Christian life. And if they did that, yes, they might still be surprised at the timing of the Second Coming, but they wouldn’t be caught short or caught unawares when it happened.
Now for me the teaching of Paul on this particular issue is an extremely valuable part of the Bible. In less than a chapter he summed up what the attitude of all Christians—and what the attitude of all churches—was meant to be. Because it’s not just the Thessalonian church that needed to be ready and willing to “live” the Christian life, we need to be ready and “live” the Christian life too.
Because no matter how long it is before the Second Coming—and indeed we may all be dead before that happens—the challenge is that we should all be “living” life as Paul described. And we should be putting behind us any “dying” attitude that we may have.
More specifically that means:
a). A Thief in the Night
Instead of having an attitude of taking and keeping, holding on to things for ourselves, and keeping hold of the things that we love, we need to pursue an attitude of giving and helping. And that may mean giving up some of the things that we treasure in order to make God more accessible to people.
In addition, things shouldn’t be done in secret or behind closed doors, or in small groups or little enclaves. But everything should be done in the open for everyone to see.
b). Sons of the Light
Instead of having a don’t care attitude, where we have no idea what others are facing and where prejudice abounds, we need to pursue a life style very much in the model that Jesus gave us. We need to model our lives on the kind of person that Jesus was, and we need to copy him in everything that we say and do.
Yes, that may make some of us very uncomfortable. But I’m not sure how else you can really care for people unless you’re prepared to stand alongside them and in their shoes.
c). Being Alert and Self-Controlled
Instead of being unaware or only mildly interested in what goes on around us, we need to go out of our way to be aware—and be involved in the solutions that may arise.
We need to mindful, not only of the things that affect us, but the things that affect other people too. And we need to be part of the solution too.
d). Belonging Belong to the Day
Instead of being people who only think about today and what we have to do, we need to be people whose minds are constantly focussed on the Second Coming of Christ, and how, faith, hope, and love not only affect us as we travel on our journey of faith but how that Day will affect others too.
We need to be willing and able to share it with others. And not keep our faith and hopes to ourselves.
e). Living with Jesus
Instead of people following different role models or even people doing our own thing, we need to be people who have one role model only—Jesus.
We need to examine his life, his concerns, his motivations, and his relationship with God, and we need to walk side by side with him every minute of every day.
f). Encouraging One Another
And instead of people who come to church only when they like it—and sometimes tell ourselves that have more important things to do—we need to be people who meet together regularly, and who see meeting together, caring for each other, and building each other up as more important than any of the excuses that we hear used regularly why people don’t come.
It’s not just the Thessalonian church, then, that needed to learn the lesson about “living” life, we need to learn it too. And Paul has given us a number of basic pointers on how to begin.
Paul’s teaching concentrates on being positive, not negative. It emphasises the need to “live” life.
Because no one knows whether the world will last another thousand years, one hundred years, or ten years. No one knows when Jesus will come again. And no one knows whether they will even be alive at the end of the day.
But what we can know is whether we are ready to meet our maker, whether the Second Coming should come first or whether we will die before it comes. And how we can know that we are ready, is whether we have accepted Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, and whether we are actually “living” life too.
In one sense the Thessalonian experience may seem to have been very extreme, but the reality is that many people—even in our churches—live more of a “dying” type of existence rather than “living” life.
Now it’s probably not how they intended it to be, and they may have good motives and began by believing they were doing the right thing. But the end result for the Thessalonians was that they were a group of people who lived a far from positive existence. And as a result they were dragging the whole church down with them. And the same is true in many of our churches today.
So, today, we are faced with a challenge: What will we do with Paul’s teaching on the Second Coming? Will we embrace it and “live” life? Or will we twist it and adopt a more “dying” kind of approach?
When the Second Coming comes, we may all be surprised at its timing. But let us not be unprepared. Let us make “living” the Christian life our number one priority.
Posted: 21st February 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis