The Church: Imperfect, but Beautiful

Last week my wife returned to teaching as her summer break came to an end. The day before school started a friend from church called to let us know that she had dropped off a cooler with pre-made breakfast meals for the whole week. The next day there was another meal from another church member waiting for me at my office. These acts of kindness are simply two recent instances in which I’ve seen God’s grace through the thoughtfulness and sacrifice of others. 

I could go on and on about ways I’ve been immeasurably blessed by people in the church. From the day I first walked into a church at the age of 16, I’ve been around the most generous, gracious, and loving people I’ve ever met. None of this is to imply that the church is perfect, but it is to say that she is beautiful (by “church” I mean all those who have united to Christ by faith who then gather into local congregations all over the world).

The Church is Imperfect

The church has its flaws. God’s Word even anticipates and makes provision for the imperfections of the church. Commands like “bear with one another” and “forgive one another” clue us in to the fact that we will both be sinned against and sin against others in the church (Eph. 4:32). Further, Jesus instituted a process by which unrepentant church members should be removed from the congregation (Matt. 18:15-20). The New Testament contains a realism about the church. It doesn’t deny that the church will be filled with imperfect people, even at times wicked people. 

Thus, my intention in writing is not to deny anyone’s pain or suffering at the hands of church people. It is undeniable that some churches, whole denominations, or even eras of church history have been responsible for terrible sins. I’m not writing to defend any abuse or hypocrisy or hurt. Instead, my goal is to balance out the narrative a bit. As it is too easy to point out all the flaws in another person and deny their good qualities, in the same way, it is too easy to criticize the church without praising her virtues.

The Church is Beautiful

In the New Testament, the church is described as the bride of Christ (Rev. 21:9), the family of God (2 Cor. 6:18), the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16-17), and a people purchased by Christ’s sacrifice (Acts 20:28). What is absent from the Scriptures is the sort of attitude that is prevalent today, that the church is a burden, full of hypocrites, or inconsequential in the life of the Christian. Despite this common narrative, the church has been an undeniable force for good in history as well as the present day.

Nicholas Kristof, a writer for the New York Times and an avowed agnostic, has become an unlikely defender of the evangelical church. He writes, “Today, among urban Americans and Europeans, ‘evangelical Christian’ is sometimes a synonym for ‘rube.’ In liberal circles, evangelicals constitute one of the few groups that it’s safe to mock openly…Yet the liberal caricature of evangelicals is incomplete and unfair. I have little in common, politically or theologically, with evangelicals or, while I’m at it, conservative Roman Catholics. But I’ve been truly awed by those I’ve seen in so many remote places, combating illiteracy and warlords, famine and disease, humbly struggling to do the Lord’s work as they see it, and it is offensive to see good people derided.”

Kristof’s defense of Christians stems from something he has noticed in them, a self-sacrificial service to others as well as a generosity of time and resources. He goes on, “I must say that a disproportionate share of the aid workers I’ve met in the wildest places over the years, long after anyone sensible had evacuated, have been evangelicals, nuns or priests… Likewise, religious Americans donate more of their incomes to charity, and volunteer more hours than the nonreligious, according to polls. In the United States and abroad, the safety net of soup kitchens, food pantries and women’s shelters depends heavily on religious donations and volunteers.”

I appreciate Kristof’s observation and kind words about the church. His opinion matters. However, there is one whose judgment means infinitely more. Let’s not forget God’s verdict of the church. Christ purchased her with his blood, he loves her, and will one day return to gather her up as his bride. Let’s make sure that our words about the church are consistent with God’s. If the church is the bride of Christ, we should tread carefully in attacking her. As Ed Stetzer has said , “You can’t love Jesus and hate his wife.”

Credits

Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

Nicholas Kristof, “A Little Respect for Dr. Foster,” New York Times, March 28, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/29/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-a-little-respect-for-dr-foster.html

Stetzer, Ed, “You can’t love Jesus and hate his wife,” Twitter, 10 Aug 2019, https://twitter.com/edstetzer/status/1160378867955187713

Jesus Our Shepherd

“On some high moor, across which at night hyenas howl, when you meet him, sleepless, far-sighted, weather-beaten, armed, leaning on his staff, and looking out over his scattered sheep, every one on his heart, you understand why the shepherd of Judea sprang to the front in his people’s history; why they gave his name to their king, and made him the symbol of providence; why Christ took him as the type of self-sacrifice.”

G. A. Smith

Shepherding imagery abounds in both the Old and New Testaments. Many of Israel’s greatest leaders were shepherds (Moses and David). Israel’s spiritual leaders were criticized as poor shepherds for serving themselves instead of providing for the sheep (Ezekiel 34:1-10). In light of this failure, God himself promises to take up the shepherd staff and rescue the scattered flock (Ezekiel 34:11-24). In the New Testament, those who lead the church are called to “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:4). 

Most importantly, the shepherd of ancient Israel provides the perfect metaphor for God’s involvement in the lives of his people. Like a shepherd leading his flock, God demonstrates care, provision, concern, protection, and guidance for his sheep (Psalm 23). As God in the flesh, Jesus willingly adopted and applied the title of “shepherd” to himself. We see this teased out several ways in the New Testament.

Jesus is the compassionate shepherd who longs to rescue his sheep

As Jesus traveled from city to city preaching and healing the afflicted, he drew quite a crowd. Matthew records Jesus’ response to the mass of people, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). The problem with a crowd being characterized as “sheep without a shepherd” is that sheep do not fare well without their shepherd. They are defenseless animals, vulnerable to attack unless the shepherd provides protection. Even in the absence of predators, sheep are still in danger as they need to be shown where to eat and drink. They are completely dependent on a shepherd for their care and safety. 

As Jesus peered at the crowd, he saw beyond the physical bodies that made up the assembly. He looked into the heart and saw a people that were in great spiritual danger. They were scattered, lost, and in need of rescue. To compound the matter, they lacked any resources in and of themselves to provide such a rescue. As a result, Jesus had compassion for them. This compassion moved him to act in ways that would characterize an ancient shepherd. He would act; he would act at great cost to himself; he would act on behalf of the sheep. 

Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep

In John 10 Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd. He is contrasting himself with a “hired hand” who has no real attachment to the sheep. The primary difference? “… the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep” (John 10:11) while the hired hand flees at the first sign of danger (see v. 12).

Shepherding can be a dangerous form of employment. Before David was king of Israel, he had to slay a bear in defense of his flock (1 Samuel 17:34-36). However, this type of danger was probably quite rare and a shepherd would never intentionally die. Jesus goes beyond the metaphor and points to himself as the one who doesn’t simply put his life at risk, but intentionally lays it down. D.A. Carson summarizes this point well, “Far from being accidental, Jesus’ death is precisely what qualifies him to be the good shepherd.” 

In Jesus, we see that the good shepherd is also the lamb slain in our place. Jesus bore the wrath of God so that we might be credited with his perfect obedience. We, who were once lost sheep, are rescued at the cost of the shepherd’s life. Jesus is indeed the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:11, “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”

Jesus is the great shepherd who cares for his sheep

The fundamental issue in the book of Hebrews is whether readers will remain faithful to Christ or return to the Law in a futile attempt to earn their salvation. In other words, believers are called to persevere in their faith. However, this is not something that a person can do in his or her power. That is why the author of Hebrews prays and asks God to produce good works in the reader through Jesus Christ. The author prays, “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever. Amen” (Hebrews 13:20).

Jesus is not only able to save us from our sins, but he will keep us. He provides for us by bringing about in us something we could not achieve on our own. God the Father, through the great shepherd Son, gives us everything we need to do his will by working in us a desire and ability to glorify him. 

Jesus is the chief shepherd who is coming again in glory

1 Peter 5:1-4 is a reminder to local church pastors that they are not their own authority. They are not their own standard. Instead, pastors are to be servants of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ. One of the motivations for pastors to shepherd well is the future reception of the “unfading crown of glory” when “the chief Shepherd appears” (1 Peter 5:4). Peter pushes pastors towards faithfulness by pointing them forward to the coming of Christ. Soon, Jesus will appear in glory and faithful shepherds will receive their full reward from him. 

This hope is not limited to pastors. Peter gave a similar encouragement at the beginning of his epistle, telling all believers, “… set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13). The same shepherd that had compassion on the crowds, that laid his life down for the sheep, is returning to rule and reign in full authority. 

We can have real hope today as we anticipate the coming of Christ where he will complete the good work he began in us. We long for that day, knowing that “when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).

Credits

G. A. Smith Quoted by Timothy Laniak in Shepherds After My Own Heart, 57.

Photo by joseph d’mello on Unsplash

D A Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) 386.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (John 10:11 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Praying for Government Officials

Coverage for the 2020 presidential election is beginning to heat up. Candidates have declared their intention of running for president, debates are being hosted by national media, and Trump is tweeting. All of this coverage should serve as a reminder that God’s people are called to pray for their leaders. Paul wrote to Timothy, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). 

Whether we like our leaders or not, whether we voted for them or not, God’s command is that we pray for them. This begs the question, “what sorts of prayers ought we to be praying for our elected officials?” The following is not an exhaustive list. It is four suggestions to help structure some of your prayers for the leaders God has placed over us. 

Pray that our elected officials would have their eyes opened to see the beauty of the gospel.

Ultimately, we desire political leaders who genuinely fear God and reflect that in their personal and political lives. The first prayer for those in positions of leadership ought to be that they would see their need for Christ and turn to Him in repentance and faith. Our prayer is that God might move in such a way that He would grant to those officials “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

Pray that our elected officials act in ways that accord with the justice of God.

God has given government as a common grace. One of the purposes of government is to protect righteousness and to punish wickedness. When done well, the government acts as an extension of God’s justice. Paul wrote, “For he [government] is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4). All governments do this very imperfectly, but we ought to pray that our officials would lead in such a way that righteousness is protected and wickedness is punished. 

Pray that our elected officials would be humble, wise, and courageous.

Proverbs 3:7 warns, “Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.” The fear of the Lord is a holy reverence for God flowing from a right understanding of God resulting in submission to God. Therefore, humility, wisdom, and courage are the fruit of a proper fear of God. Our elected officials are humble when they realize that God is creator and they are creation. Our elected officials are wise when they “lean not on their own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). Our elected officials are courageous when they realize that there is more at stake than the praise of man. As God’s people, we should be praying to this end.

Pray that our elected officials would protect peace and religious liberty.

Paul’s intention in praying for “kings and all who are in high positions” is “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Paul’s hope was that Christians would be free to live peaceful, quiet, God-glorifying lives. Notice, Paul isn’t lamenting the latest tax hike; he isn’t calling down fire on those who have differing economic ideals. His agenda is fairly simple: let me live at peace, preach, and serve Christ. 

In Closing

Election coverage can get our blood boiling. It can make our nerves a wreck. It can dominate our Facebook feed. However, this year, make it a goal to pray more than criticize, to plead with God more than complain, and to intercede more than condemn.

Credits

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Timothy 2:1-2 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Photo by Andy Feliciotti on Unsplash

The Temptation of Christ: Better News Than You Think

If you were alive in the 90s you probably remember WWJD bracelets. They exploded onto the scene quickly becoming a nationwide phenomenon. The goal was to be reminded to live like Jesus by asking in every moment, “What Would Jesus Do?” What this fad revealed was man’s tendency to simplify Jesus to nothing more than a helpful example.

WWJD bracelets may have disappeared, but this inclination towards self-focused theology remains. For instance, most sermons on the temptation of Christ focus solely on Jesus’ response to temptation. The emphasis often falls on how we can resist temptation by following Jesus’ pattern. Though Jesus is certainly our example (1 Peter 2:21), a closer look at the temptation of Christ, specifically Luke’s account, demonstrates that this narrative is less about us than we like to admit. It is primarily answering the question, “what kind of Savior has come into the world?” There is great news concerning Christ in Luke 4, but we have to look past ourselves to see it.

Jesus is perfect where we are not

Just before the temptation of Christ, Luke includes a genealogy that begins with Jesus and stretches all the way back to Adam, the first man. The long list of names ends with, “the son of Adam, the son of God.” We often assume that genealogies are not important and skip over them. However, we can’t fully understand the temptation of Jesus without the genealogy of Luke 3. Luke is setting up a deliberate parallel between Adam and Christ by tracing Jesus’ line all the way to Adam and calling Adam the son of God. We are meant to read Luke 4 in light of Genesis 1-3 (there are also many parallels between Christ and Israel).

Adam was tempted in the garden and failed. As a result sin, death, and judgment was thrust upon all creation (Genesis 3). Conversely, Jesus was tempted in the wilderness and resisted every temptation (Luke 4:1-13). In his perfect obedience, Jesus demonstrates that he is indeed the Savior who has come to rescue those under the curse of Adam’s sin. The Apostle Paul made the same point in Romans 5:18-19 writing, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (ESV).

The good news of Luke 4 is that Christ perfectly obeyed the will of the Father, thus, demonstrating himself to be the true Savior who alone can be our substitute. If you are in Christ, then you have received more than a clean slate. Your justification is more than God simply wiping away your past failures. You are credited with the perfection of Jesus himself. He became sin for you so that you might be found righteous before God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Jesus sympathizes in our weakness

Many have scoffed at the temptation of Christ, wondering if Jesus really experienced temptation since he is God in the flesh and unable to sin. Hebrews 4:15 is instructive, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” So, how do we reconcile Jesus’ inability to sin with his very real temptation to sin? Bruce Ware points out in his excellent book The Man Christ Jesus that the reason Jesus could not sin is entirely separate from the reason Jesus did not sin. Jesus could not sin because he is God and therefore unable to sin. Jesus did not sin because he fully resisted every temptation through reliance on the Holy Spirit, the Word of God, and prayer. This is a necessary distinction if indeed Jesus was tempted in every way as we are. Luke also demonstrates this truth in highlighting Jesus’ reliance on the Spirit and his three-fold citation of the Scriptures (Luke 4:1, 4, 8, 12).

This is also good news. Unlike Christ, we can’t be described as without sin. We do, however, have the same resources at our disposal when it comes to resisting temptation today. Bruce Ware writes, “The resources God gives–particularly his Word, prayer, and the power of the Spirit–are there for us as they were for Jesus.” We have been given everything we need in Christ to resist every temptation. Though we will fight imperfectly, it is encouraging to know that we are not helpless victims of sin.

In closing, the point of Luke 4 is to magnify Christ. Only when we see him as the sinless Savior and sympathetic high priest are we in a position to follow his example and resist temptation.

Credits

Bruce Ware, The Man Christ Jesus: Theological Reflections on the Humanity of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013) 73ff.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Luke 4:1-13 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Photo by Jared Verdi on Unsplash

Guarding Your Heart from Anxious Worry

What makes your heart anxious? What do you tend to fret about? Sometimes we worry about major issues like a loved one with cancer. Other times, our worries are smaller than a life-threatening illness. Worry can be replaying a conversation over and over again in your head to make sure you didn’t embarrass yourself. It can be the sinking feeling in your stomach as you consider an upcoming meeting. It might look like obsessing over what the boss is going to think when you are late to yet another appointment.

Opportunities abound for our hearts and minds to be consumed with anxious worry. However, God’s agenda for us is to experience the peace associated with prayer, not the turmoil that accompanies worry. In Philippians 4, Paul makes the connection between fervent prayer and a peaceful heart. He wrote, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).

The Philippian Christians were confronted with many opportunities to worry. They faced threats and persecutions from their “opponents” (Philippians 1:29-30), and they were concerned about the welfare of Paul and Epaphroditus (Philippians 1:12; 2:26). Paul was imprisoned in Rome and Epaphroditus had fallen deathly ill. Instead of being pleased with their over-concern for his safety, Paul gives them the sweeping prohibition, “be anxious for nothing…”

The same verb translated “be anxious” in Philippians 4 is used positively earlier in the letter where Timothy is said to “show genuine concern” for the church in Philippi (Philippians 2:20). Apparently, the Philippian church had moved from genuine concern to a posture of worry or stress. Paul’s command for them is to cease what they have been continually doing. For Paul, there are areas in which we should express real concern for ourselves and others. However, there is no proper object of obsessive worry. Instead, we ought to bring all things before God in prayer.

How does prayer lead to a peaceful heart?

Hannah was worried. She wanted a child (1 Samuel 1:7-8). She was so overcome by her emotional state, she had stopped eating. Those around her only compounded her suffering. Her husband had taken another wife, presumably because Hannah couldn’t bear him children. On top of this was the relentless bullying and mockery coming from her husband’s other wife.

Hannah had much to worry about. However, she models Philippians 4:6-7 by running to the Lord in prayer. She speaks to the Lord out of her “great anxiety and vexation” (1 Samuel 1:16). She is convinced that God hears, God cares, and God acts. You can read here for a more detailed explanation of Hannah’s theological commitments that led her to pray. This article deals more with the peace Hannah experiences following her prayer.

After pouring out her soul to the Lord, Hannah experiences a peaceful heart. The Scriptures record that following her prayer she “went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad” (1 Samuel‬ ‭1:18‬). Hannah’s swift change is perplexing to us because nothing about her circumstances had changed (yet). When Hannah said “amen” she was still childless, still sharing her husband, still going to be mocked. Yet she had peace.

After bearing her heart to the God who knows all things, who cares for his people, and is powerful enough to act, she can rest. When we begin to believe God’s grace toward us, we can begin trusting him with the outcome of our circumstances or suffering. Peace is not the result of God giving us what we want in prayer, it is a gift he gives his people when they rely on his good plan. One commentator put it succinctly, “The condition for experiencing God’s peace is not that God grants all of our requests but that we have made known all our requests to God with thanksgiving. God’s peace is not the result of the power of our prayers or the effectiveness of our prayers… When we trust God in prayer, God gives to us his peace to guard our hearts and minds against anxious thoughts.”

In Closing

Bobby McFerrin released the hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” in the fall of 1988. Often wrongly credited to Bob Marley, who died in 1981, the song is catchy, fun, but overly simplistic in terms of its message. If only it were that easy. Just stop worrying, just be happy. Philippians 4 and Hannah’s example instruct us that peace is a gift from God that he gives his people when they run to the creator of the universe and pour out their hearts before him. This is not a simplistic, one-time occurrence, but a habit we form by continually taking everything to the Lord in prayer. Prayer is not some kind of a magic bullet, but it is one of the means God uses to move us from a posture of worry to one of peace.

G. Walter Hansen, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Letter to the Philippians (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2009) 293.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Philippians 4:6-7 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Sickness and Suffering: How to Pray

Prayer request time in any church can devolve into a long list of distant relatives (or relatives of relatives) with relatively (pun intended) minor ailments. Though it can make us laugh when we are asked to pray for Aunt Loraine’s cousin’s friend’s colonoscopy, we are often faced with far more serious, and close to home, requests.

My wife recently spent the better part of a week in the hospital with a severe infection. As I sought to pray for her, it got me thinking about how exactly I should pray for those who are sick. The following is not the only four things we can pray for a sick person but can serve as a guide to get us moving in the right direction.

How should we pray for those with some kind of physical illness or weakness?

Appeal to the Lord for healing

Most Bible scholars agree that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12 was some kind of physical ailment. Paul prayed to God multiple times, asking him to take away this thorn in the flesh. Likewise, the Apostle John prays for the health of the recipients of his 3rd letter, “Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul” (3 John 2).

As part of our prayer for those who are sick, we ought to ask God to grant them healing.

Ask the Lord for sustaining grace so that the sick might suffer well

God, for his own purposes and will, chose not to take away Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Three times Paul asked for it to be removed. Jesus’ answer finally came, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” Paul concluded thenTherefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9). Jesus promised sufficient grace for Paul to endure his physical suffering for the glory of God.

God is faithful and will always grant his children one of the two things: 1) healing or 2) sufficient grace to walk through physical sickness to the glory of God.

Admit that God’s will is superior to ours

On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus pleaded with the Father to spare him from the impending suffering of the cross, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me–nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). It was the will of the Father for Christ to suffer and it brought about immeasurable good. Similarly, If God chooses not to heal, we must trust God’s good and sovereign will. God is so good, wise, and loving that even when we don’t understand, we trust that his plan is the better than ours. Tim Keller says it this way, “God will either give us what we ask or give us what we would have asked if we knew everything he knows.”

Anticipate the suffering-free glories of heaven

As we pray for others we can anticipate a day where we won’t hear words like “cancer” or “death.” Sickness and suffering are both temporary aspects of our broken world. Revelation 21:3-4 remind us, “… ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore…” We long for that day. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Credits

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (2 Corinthians 12:7ff and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Tim Keller. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (Penguin: New York, 2014) 228.

You Can’t Help Others Until You Understand Them

On February 20, 1995, Willie King, a 52-year-old diabetic, was scheduled to have his right leg amputated below the knee. As if losing a leg wasn’t enough, when Willie regained consciousness from the operation the surgeon informed him that he had accidentally amputated the wrong leg. In this case, a lack of accurate information cost Willie King his leg, cost the hospital $900,000, and the surgeon was ordered to pay out $250,000. This misdiagnosis led to far more damage than if nothing had been done at all.

Similarly, we can do more harm than good when we try to speak truth to someone without fully understanding them or their circumstances. 1 Thessalonians 5:14 gives us a few categories to have in our brains as we are seeking to help others. Paul wrote, “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”

This passage is a command for all believers to be engaged in what is called interpersonal ministry, or discipleship. As Christians speak God’s truth to one another the church matures into Christlikeness (Ephesians 4:1-16). This act of engaging in interpersonal ministry can be quite intimidating. 1 Thessalonians 5:14 provides hope for fearful disciple-makers by helping us understand the person we are trying to help and how we should respond to them.

3 Dispositions & 3 Responses

First, there are those that are unruly. The unruly, or idle, are those that deliberately disobey the teaching of God’s Word. An example would be the professing believer who is abandoning his family to pursue an adulterous relationship. Or, the lady who is stealing from work by clocking in when she is not actually at the office. The proper way to respond to the unruly is to warn them of the dangers of sin (Proverbs 13:15) and to admonish them to turn from sin and return to Christ (2 Samuel 12:7). They often need help to see the holiness, righteousness, and justice of God.

A second disposition is the faint-hearted. These are the ones that are discouraged and tempted to give up in their pursuit of Christ. This might be a teenager whose parents are in the middle of a messy divorce. It could be the widow who is wondering if she will ever get used to going to bed alone. This person doesn’t need a warning the way the unruly does. Instead, we should seek to encourage by leading the faint-hearted to the gentle Savior. Often, the faint-hearted are very aware that God is ruler and judge, they often need reminding that God is also Father. We can come alongside and help by pointing them to God’s faithfulness, love, sovereign care, and unending grace.

Lastly, Paul mentions the weak. The weak could refer to those that have a weak conscience (Romans 14:1), those who are particularly susceptible to sin and temptation (Romans 5:6), or those that society has abandoned like the poor, the addict, or the refugee (1 Corinthians 1:27). The weak do not need a rebuke and encouragement will not go far enough. They need to be upheld. They need the kind of attention and care that the world would say is over the top. To hold someone up is to say, “hitch your life and faith to mine and we will get through this together.” As God’s people, we don’t run away from the weak. Instead, we take an interest in, pay attention to, and remain loyal to those who need to be upheld.

The Need for Balance

1 Thessalonians 5:14 is a call to action, but it is also a call for balance in the way we deal with people. David Powlison says, “Probably each of us who does ministry tends towards one of the characteristic forms of helping. It’s your gift. But left to itself, it remains unbalanced. That is part of why God has given us [1 Thessalonians] 5:14, to keep us from being blinded by our best gifts. We are called to broaden our vision, to work out of our comfort zone. A hammer thinks everything is a nail; a blanket, treats everyone as shivering; a wheelchair thinks everyone needs a lift. But wisdom sees people for what they are and gives what is needed.”

We need wisdom to discern the need of the moment. We don’t comfort the unrepentant adulterer, we don’t rebuke the sexual assault victim, and we don’t admonish the one who just found out she has cancer. We take time to consider whether the person sitting across the table is unruly, faint-hearted, or weak and we respond appropriately.

We also need the courage to do what does not come naturally to us. Personally, I lean towards encouragement above admonishing and upholding. I don’t enjoy the awkwardness of admonishing others. So, if I’m not careful I will seek to encourage when correction would be more appropriate. Consider which of these 3 responses–admonish, encourage, uphold–you are more prone to and ask God to give you the courage to respond in a way that doesn’t suit your strengths.

Lastly, we need patience. 1 Thessalonians 5:14 ends with a call to be patient with everyone, regardless of their current disposition. We exercise great patience as those who are cognizant of the fact that God has been patient with us. Peter reminds us, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). We seek to be patient with others in an effort to imitate our patient Savior.

May the Lord grant us the wisdom, courage, and patience we all need to engage others in discipleship.

Credits

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Thessalonians 5:14 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

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David Powlison in “Familial Counseling: The Paradigm for Counselor-Counselee Relationships in 1 Thessalonians 5,” Journal of Biblical Counseling, Winter 2007, PP2-16